Historical Fiction Query and First Page Critique


Earlier this week, I posted on my personal blog about giving a few critiques away in exchange for donations to charity. All three slots for this round have been taken, but you can follow me or Sounding Sea on Twitter to be the first to find out when I do another round! You can also sign up to get email alerts here (don’t worry, they’re infrequent!).

Below, I have feedback for Carly Heath‘s query and first page. My thoughts are in bold and brackets, and I have overall thoughts below.

Dear (insert agent’s name here),

[My personal preference is to see a short logline and the genre/word count information in the beginning, but different people have different opinions on whether you should just jump in to the query. I think providing some quick set up could really help your query in particular. I was confused when I read so much about Erlend when Gunnar was mentioned first. It would be good to know who the POV characters are up front.]

It’s 1904 and seventeen-year-old Asta and her recently disabled [How is he disabled? That’s pretty vague.] best friend Gunnar are misfits in their rural Scandinavian village.  [I would consider skipping the clause about “misfits” and skip to this sentence, where there’s more specificity about what’s at stake. Something like: “Scandinavian teen Asta dreads her arranged marriage. DESCRIPTIVE WORDS Erlend just wants to be with his secret boyfriend, Gunnar, who is Asta’s best friend (or even better, let us know if there’s a more direct connection between Asta and Erlend).] She dreads a future where her only option is marriage and motherhood, and he just wants to be with his secret boyfriend, Erlend. [I had a hard time keeping track of she and he here—you’re fighting an uphill battle with unfamiliar names.]

Erlend doesn’t wish [to] follow tradition either, but in this town there are consequences for deviance, and [you could cut everything up to “but,” or try to get a little more concise and specific here—maybe “prejudice about his desire”?] his desire to be with Gunnar costs him his promising theater career, his inheritance [Is he rich?], and his home. [Great stakes here!]

Resolving to help the boys and free herself, Asta flees her dreaded betrothal—and the conservative society’s expectations [Not sure you need the part after the dash—it almost repeats the “dreaded betrothal” part in less specific terms. It sounds like she has an arranged marriage, but we don’t know anything about who she would have to marry, so you may want to specify that]. To assist the outcast couple earn a living, [You could probably cut the sentence up to here, or maybe give a little more detail about why being a blacksmith’s apprentice would help her flee the marriage—did she go to another town?] she takes up an unlikely profession for a teenage girl: blacksmith’s apprentice.

Despite Gunnar’s increasing doubts [Doubts about what?], Erlend and Asta intend to prove this unconventional arrangement [Is the arrangement that a girl blacksmith is supporting two gay men? It’s a little unclear.] will succeed. Together, they set out to win the village’s annual horse race to preserve the legacy started by Gunnar’s mother. [THIS feels like the hook/action. Can you get to this earlier? Tell us more about the filly?] With this year’s competition threatening to be the most dangerous one yet [oooh, tell me more here!], Erlend and Asta soon find the greatest peril they face is not the wild filly they need to train, but Gunnar’s insurmountable depression and the prospect of losing him forever. [Interesting twist! How does this connect to his disability/what happened with that?]

Told in Asta and Erlend’s alternating POV’s, THE HEATHENS OF MUSKOX HOLLOW [Love the title!] is an Upmarket Historical [Is this YA or Adult? The teenage characters would lead me to think YA.] complete at 98,000 words. It would appeal to readers who enjoy the Scandinavian settings in Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, and Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders. [This is the paragraph I think you could put first. You could also likely choose two out of the three comps.]

My previous work has been published in Meridian, F(r)iction, The Humanist, shortlisted for an Aeon Award, and named first runner-up for New Letters Alexander Cappon Fiction Prize. [Short and sweet!]

Please find the first page pasted below.

Sincerely,

Carly Heath writing as Carlson Heath

Overall thoughts:

This sounds like a fascinating trio in a fascinating time period. We have a feminist in the 1900’s taking on a man’s world, and a gay couple fighting prejudice—hell yeah! My main critique is that the biggest action of the plot seems like it is the horse race, but we don’t find out much about it or exactly how it’s going to save Asta from an unwanted marriage, and keep Gunnar and Erlend together.

CHAPTER 1:  ASTA HEDSTROM
Muskox Hollow, Hestarland, 1904

Gunnar Fuglestad’s arm was gone—everything below the elbow. Although it [What is “it”? The elbow?] was bundled in calico bandages, I couldn’t help but picture what it looked like unwrapped [You can be more concise here—simply “Although the stub was bundled in calico bandages, I imagined it unwrapped: a lamb shank…]: something like a lamb shank, a bone protruding from meat, perhaps [I’d add “with” or the “layer” ends up referring to the pronoun “it,” which doesn’t make any sense.] a layer of skin sewn over the blunt end. I tried to imagine how it would heal. If it [Again, what’s “it”? The bone? The wound?] were jagged, he’d forever have to tuck it close at his side to keep from injuring people with his sharp, exposed appendage. [This seems a little naïve/farfetched—maybe if she were younger I would buy this, but we know from the query that she is 17. I’m not sure we know her well enough yet to follow her imagination to something implausible like this.]

A perfect nightmare. I had to sit down. [Consider giving us a hint of where we are—right now we don’t get that until the bottom of the page and for all we know he’s bleeding out and she’s sitting down!]

Above Gunnar’s bandaged stump, the short sleeve of his undershirt stretched thin and tight around his bicep. [So Gunnar’s a hotty? (: Great detail!] He was asleep [Simply “he slept” would work.] beneath a blanket of silk jacquard, his head tilted to the side, [You might cut “his head tilted,” as “ginger lashes” is much more evocative.] his ginger lashes heavy and still. A scab shaped like a falcon in flight stretched across his forehead. A yellowing bruise adorned [Do bruises adorn? There may be a stronger verb here.] one cheekbone. Perspiration sheened upon his pale brow and corded his blood-red hair, and yet, somehow, he still smelled like cinnamon and rain. [Love the detail! This page makes me wonder if there’s unrequited love between Asta and Gunnar.]

In the quiet of Erlend’s bedroom, I found things I hadn’t noticed about Gunnar before: the precocious orange stubble on his jaw—oddly coarse for a boy who’d only just turned seventeen—and the hardness that remained on his face even in slumber. [We’re still getting a lot of description of Gunnar. I’m ready for some action!]

Breeze from the Norwegian Sea usually subdued the summer heat, but the air had stopped moving. [The previous sentence is a little passive and awkward. “Had stopped moving” could be “the air was still” or something even more evocative!] My skirt held the swelter close to my legs, and though I wanted to rise again, I couldn’t summon the will. With a twinge of guilt, I thought about the play and how Gunnar’s Benedick would now have only one arm. It might still work. Much Ado begins with the men coming back from war, so Benedick could have lost his arm in battle. Gunnar would likely have a number of clever ideas on how to play the part one-handed. He’d make it brilliant.

Overall thoughts:

We get some gorgeous description here, and a hint of possible romantic tension, or simply a picture of a loving friendship. However, your first page may be stronger if you can start in a moment where your character is taking action to get something she wants. Right now, we have very little forward momentum. Perhaps the play can provide this momentum?

 

Feel free to comment if you have additional ideas. Thank you, Carly, for your donation and willingness to let me post your critique!

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