Thursday, April 17, 2014

First Line Grabber Winners #2

TITLE: The Duel
GENRE: Historical Suspense with Romantic Elements

Cambridge, England. 7 March 1733.

What did a man wear when he might die before sunrise?

Thomas Calderwood, Baron of Montwine, thrust his head into a crisp linen shirt. It smelled of bran starch and the hedgerow where it had dried, sun-bleached after laundering. He pulled on his indigo waistcoat with silk-embroidered buttons, sewn in Spitalfields. Not his finest but well-fitted. Dark enough to blend into the early morning shadows, loose enough to raise his pistol-arm swiftly. Handsome enough to meet his Maker–but No!

Blood wouldn’t mar this dashing swoop of cravat today, nor any another, God willing.

Knife, slipped in his boot. Dagger, sheathed in his belt. Hands–clenched and unclenched, awakening reluctantly, readying themselves. Tom shrugged into his favorite wool coat, thick-napped, dark brown like his hair. His fingers combed through stubborn curls and tied them back in an efficient queue. Candlelight flickered in the mirror. He cut a fine figure.

Fine, fine. Two French pistols in their case. Alexander’s.

He slung his brother’s satchel on his shoulder and cantered down the dark stairs. A desultory lantern lit the mews. The horses shied but Robin steadied them. Tom mounted and nodded for the young servant to follow.

They rode hard, past the Cock-and-Bull Tavern, past the Colleges. The morning star gleamed above a church spire. A sign? Tom prayed it so.

Eight hoofs on cobblestones beat a tattoo in his head. Their horses careened between carts headed to market on the bridge arching over the Cam. Farmers, too, up before the sun in market-day rituals. This Saturday of nearly-spring was dawning fair.

They dismounted at the fields outside town, their footfalls quiet from sinking in soft mud. Withered grass stretched across the meadow and rustled in the March wind.

A good day for a duel. It had been too cold to practice in the snow and ice. Tom’s nose twinged, sorely chapped from the illness that had plagued him all winter.

He coughed. No good, that. He feared it would distract him.

Fear would distract him.

Must concentrate.

The sharp chill of dawn heightened all his senses. He could almost hear the earl’s stallions whinnying in the distance and charging across the fens. He was fortunate this wasn’t a joust, for he’d never match the earl’s horsemanship.

But he had finesse with flintlock and cartridge. Robin held the case open. Tom claimed his weapon and hefted the long, slim gilded gun in his hand. He molded his grip to the carved burlwood stock and ran a bare finger along the metal barrel, bracingly cold. His leather gloves were warm and supple, so no matter.

The matter was this: Turn, pace, count. Turn. Fire.

His arm rose steady, his mind clear of all but the fulsome need for vengeance. His heart would take satisfaction in the shot, whate’er the outcome.

When his finger jerked, his ears rang with the report.


The sun rose at last, blinding him.

Why was he facing east? That was a mistake. He’d know better next time.

"Good aim, Sir!"


  1. Setting up a duel hooks me in right away. Because duels are awesome.

    I wish there was a little less time spent on tom's appearance in the beginning. Yes, there needs to be some, because you open with wondering what he should wear, but by the time we get to the second paragraph, with his coat and hair, i'm not as hooked anymore and my interest starts to wane.

  2. Ammi-Joan PaquetteApril 17, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    Oh my god - this is AWESOME! The kind of opener that makes me wish I repped adult, for I'd request it in a heartbeat. So compelling, and pulls you right into the story. Love this character and his wry, depracating voice.

    My only question came near the end - I wasn't clear if he was actually in the duel or just practicing for it? I think the latter--I hope, because it does seem a bit rushed otherwise, and we didn't actually see the early arrive. But he goes about the timing and firing with such gravitas that it almost seems like this is the real thing, hence the slight confusion. (And would you actually fire the gun while practicing?)

  3. This might just be me, but I felt like this started in the wrong place. If there's going to be a duel, I'd rather start in the place where it will be held than on the way there. The trip is less interesting to me.

    The opening lines created the feeling of a man going to something he can't avoid and being acutely aware of each movement and moment as he does so. But by the time we've read the details of his wardrobe choices and his grooming, he seems kind of vain, more of a dandy, which undermines the melancholy mood you'd established.

  4. To me, this opens a little too close to the action. I would prefer to read about the insult and challenge, that brought the character to this duel. I do love this time period and read it. But I do wonder, if there is an overload of details in this scene. I'd rather get to know more about the character first.

  5. Lots to like here - intrigue, action, a little bump of the heartbeat. I do think there is too much description of his physical aspects from himself. I wonder if there is a way to have someone else compliment his attire without the over and over self satisfaction. Would make him more likeable and masculine.

    I was confused at the end whether he was practicing and why he was so inept at counting and turning. he seems so able at the start.

    A couple other oddities - he likes the figure he cuts and seems handsome, but his nose is chapped from his sickness. Wouldn't that take away from his looks?

    I can't tell if this is supposed to be tongue in cheek or these are author mistakes. If they are to be cute maybe make it more clear to the reader somehow.

  6. I'm wondering if this is the Alexander Hamilton/Aaron Burr duel. Since you mention Alexander, and then refer to him as his brother, I'm also wondering if he will be his brother's second, rather than an actual dueler.

    I agree with Abbe, in that I'd like to see this start at the location where the duel is being held. I did like the detail and meticulousness of it all, but it just went on too long for me, and you could get all that across just as easily a few well-worked sentences. I kept thinking, "Just get there, already." The first time through I skimmed most of it.

  7. I have to say, I love duels and these sorts of stories, but I'm struggling a bit with the language here. I think it's really hard to strike the right balance in historical between sounding authentic and sounding a tad clunky. I'd probably go through and smooth things out a bit by being a little less descriptive and a little more minimalist in word choice.

    I'd also say that I'd like to see this cut to the chase a bit faster. I'm immediately intrigued at the thought of a duel, but I want answers right away. Who is involved? Why is it happening? What's at stake? Let me feel emotionally invested in this man right off the bat rather than distantly observing as he prepares and assesses the weather conditions.

  8. This is good but the first line clashes with "Handsome enough to meet his Maker–but No! Blood wouldn't mar this dashing swoop"

    This line confuse me "Eight hoofs on cobblestones beat a tattoo in his head."

    And the reference to jousting doesn't make sense to me either.

    But I'm still interested enough to continue.

  9. This opening completely drew me in. I agree that the self-description in the first few paragraphs may go on too long (may--if he's a dandy and this is part of his character, then the self-description works), but on the whole, I was thoroughly engaged. All the little details helped me sink into the world, and they also convinced me that you know what you're talking about. There were a few words I wasn't familiar with (like "thick-napped"), but every time I looked one up, I found that you'd used it correctly. *tips hat*

    Several commenters complained about the pacing, but I thought it was good. You don't have to get to the action on the very first page. You just have to give us the PROMISE of action and an interesting character, and you've done both admirably.

    I did wonder a bit about the title. If the whole book is named after something that happens in the first chapter, what is the rest of the book about? But that's a small thing (and not one that would keep me from reading on).

    Good luck with this! I'd love to see it on the shelves someday.

    (Also, I assumed he was practicing toward the end of the excerpt, but since that tripped some readers up, you might want to make it clearer.)

  10. A handsome devil...a duel...what's not to like? Although I would like a little more hint as to the reason for the duel, and Tom's emotions about it.

    This line confused me: "Handsome enough to meet his Maker–but No!" If you attached the next line to that paragraph, it would make more sense, except that it refers to "this cravat," which you didn't mention when describing his clothes. Maybe HIS cravat.

    4th paragraph: I'd use dashes after "knife" and "dagger" just like you did after "hands." Then say "he" instead of "Tom" (we already know it's Tom). Omit the last two lines (he's already admired himself). You could add the flickering candlelight to the combing, to keep the period detail.

    I was confused by: "Fine, fine. Two French pistols in their case. Alexander’s." What is fine? Who is Alexander? (His brother?)

    Mention of a person cantering and horses in the same paragraph could be confusing.

    I too wondered if the duel actually happens. He shoots, but you haven't said anyone else is there yet.

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  12. I loved this right up to the end, when I got confused about what was going on – I thought he was still preparing for the duel, but then it seemed he was actually there? And if he was there, what happened, and where is the other person? I wasn’t sure, but imagine that it all becomes clear shortly after this portion continues I did lose a bit of interest when we return to more description of the clothing, with the coat (paragraph 4). I think you can cut parts of this paragraph and build even more momentum. But this is very strong, and I love this character!

  13. I like this, even though it's not something I normally read. My only complaint is the time it takes to get through town. The time he takes to get reader set the time period well, but the travel to get to the duel felt unnecessarily drawn out.

  14. Tricia Lawrence, EMLAApril 21, 2014 at 10:26 PM

    Nicely done. This is BEAUTIFULLY written. I'd like to read this right here, right now. Alas, I don't represent adult. I think the attention to detail is just right and his interior narrative drags me along, which is what I love! Congrats on being in the top five! I so loved reading this.