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Historical Fiction Early Chapter - Introducing Characters & Setting (Roman)

Hello writers! I've been encouraged to post something for critique, so I'm taking the plunge. I'm new around here, and I fully intend to respond to others' work once I have the hang of how to write a good critique.

Context for this extract: This is the opening of my novel's Chapter Two. Prior to this there's been a brief prologue, and Chapter One introduces the other main thread of the story, starring a 16 year old girl in the city of Rome. This Chapter therefore introduces my other main character - her Uncle, Marcus - although we see him first through the eyes of his friend Quintus. We get Marcus's POV in Scene Two, but that's beyond the 3000 word limit so I haven't included it for now.

I'd like general feedback, please, but also a comment about how well (or not) this scene introduces the characters.

(I should note that Quintus does get more POVs throughout the novel, although he takes 3rd place to my two main characters.)

Thanks in advance 🙂 

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Replies (15)
  • Hi Lucy,

    I've just read your piece and I can see you have the ability to write well, but you need to tweak and sharpen your writing. I think you try too hard and end up over writing & over explaining. I suggest you try to write a simple, snappy dialogue between the roman soldiers, illustrating the way they speak, and who they are, but without explanations or tags, conveying all the information of who they are and where, in just what they say.

    In my opinion, you also need an attention grabbing element or topic right at the start. I suggest showing Quintus looking for Marcus, frustrated by not finding him, and getting distracted by the men around the fire and their jokes, ending up drinking with them and getting himself in trouble with his superior, or something similar. As it is, the start scene does not grab our attention, does not have a focus, we don't understand what the big deal is. It needs tightening, both the idea and the writing.

    You need to make the reader ask questions and be curious, like:

    Who is this man? Why is he looking for X? Why is he so frustrated? Who are the men around the fire? What are they talking about? What's the big deal of their conversation? etc.

    Don't answer any of these questions yourself in the writing, just show gradually, in the context of the story and plot what's happening and why.

    I must say I've only read the first two pages, and I've attached a simple review of them, just to ilustrate my thoughts. Apologies for this rushed feedback, but I've got more than a dozen others waiting... Hope this is helpful and looking forward to reading more of your writing soon. Please don't feel daunted. You can write well and you'll soon get to grips with it.

    Note: Click on the line bubbles to read my comments.

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    • Thank you Donna, your comments have really helped me to see how I can tighten up the writing. Thanks for all the suggestions, I'll play around with some ideas which will hopefully sharpen it up! I appreciate you spending your time on this. 

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    • Hi Lucy, I enjoyed this. I've read a few books about this period but am certainly no expert. I think you captured the atmosphere among soldiers very well though, what they were talking about and the way they were talking sounded very authentic.

      As for Marcus, yes, he comes across as enigmatic, clearly respected, and I do want to get to know him, so well done!

      I agree with Lucy about the length, I think for what you are saying in this scene 3,400 words is a lot, and I think there are areas you can edit it without losing any of the mood. A few small points from the first page, battlefields wouldn't be in the past. Only the battles themselves, and a fatal wound can't strike, maybe 'be inflicted', or 'where would the fatal blow strike'? These are just minor points though. 

      Overall I really enjoyed it (is it true the Romans were attacked as soon as they landed?)

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      • Thanks very much, I'm so glad you like the characterisation. Thanks also for pointing out those little errors!

        They were indeed attacked immediately... at least, if you believe what Caesar says in his commentaries (which have to be taken with a healthy pinch of salt!). Caesar tells the story about the 10th's standard-bearer leaping in first, which is what made me decide to make him one of Marcus's friends.

        I will now give the manuscript a good pruning 😁 Thanks again for your time!

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      • Hi I don’t read this type of thing but I can see you have the bones of a good book. The descriptions are good but In my limited  experience and from a readers perspective I would have liked more dialogue up front and more Show than tell. Hope this helps.

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        • Thanks Debbie, I appreciate you taking the time to read it, especially as it's not your type of fiction. I'll take your feedback on board, always good to know a reader's perspective! I personally am not a big fan of dialogue, I usually flick through books in the shops to see if there a big swathes of it and if so, I won't buy - but I'm probably strange in that aspect. I certainly agree with you and Donna that it's far too slow at the start of the Chapter, so some up front dialogue should fix that 😊 

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        • I, likewise, didn't read the whole thing; only a couple of pages.

          There are aspects to it that work well, and some issues I think need tightening.

          On the positive side, your prose, generally, flows well. There are few errors of language that pulled me out of the story.

          However, there were other elements that made me feel it could have been better. The first, of course, was the date itself. Seeing it, my first response was to ask "January? Really? 49BCE?" So, off to Google, and then Wikipedia, we trundle to look up the Roman Calendar. I'll not bother repeating what I found there; I'll only say that to make a story immersive, an element such as the dating of the events should be rendered in-setting. Is it the 6th of Jan, or the 6th day of Winter? (There are tools that would allow you to figure out when the lunar cycles of the preceding year began, and thus align.) If you want it to actually be 6 Jan, per the Gregorian calendar, and convery this, then start with the in-setting date, then translate it in parentheses.

          The second question that came to mind was one of discipline. Yes, this army is returning home (but has been stuck in this one camp for a while, which doesn't make sense), but the Roman army was renownded for its discipline. Would the men really be so lax? Would Quintus abandon the task he had been set and go talk randomly with fellow soldiers without reporting back? This detail bugged me, demanding an explanation, which wasn't forthcoming…

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          • Thanks for reading, much appreciated!

            I hadn't thought about referring to dates in the Roman style, as all the secondary sources & primary translations uses the modern style - so that's certainly something I'll bear in mind. Actually referring to things as e.g. "x days after the kalends/nones/ides" etc would be a nice touch, I'm keen on using that instead..! I put dates in as this is a two-strand story with action taking place in different parts of Italy, and I think it helps the reader to have an idea of the time frame involved? But maybe it's not necessary at all?

            There is of course some mess around this time period as the pre-Julian calendar system relied upon inserting extra months now and then, and that hadn't happened recently so everything was off-kilter. The "January" of this chapter is in fact around two months early - it's more like November, seasonally... but let's not go into that 😂 

            I'm afraid it's true, this Legion was stuck for a year with nothing to do but 'administration'. I'll double check the actual time-frames as it's possible there was some travelling during that time. I could probably make reference to the fact that these particular men are off-duty, and as Donna has commented, there does need to be more jeopardy about the fact Quintus hasn't succeeded in his task.

            Thanks for the feedback, great to have more stuff to think about 👍

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            • Ah… One thing that didn't come across - at least to me - is the administrative duties bit. I understood that they were looking forward to it, rather than that's what they'd been doing for the past year.

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            • Hi Lucy, I am a big fan of this period, reading authors such as Douglas Jackson and Conn Iggulden. I would also recommend visiting the Kings & Generals youtube channel as they cover all of Caesar's campaigns in the upcoming civil war your books are based in (they also cover several battles you mention in your chapter, Alesia, Gergovia, the Britain landings).

              I immediately liked the style of you're writing, it rang the same chord as the aforementioned authors, particularly the atmosphere of the soldiers as Quintus introduces Marcus through his story. However, I think you could make some to tweaks to push it even further.

              - Soldiers too polite: Legionaries were hard bastards who only respected strength. They pillaged, burned, and killed everything else. Make us feel like these are intimidating men.

              - Too many battles:  Nervian Ambush (slightly vague), Alesia, Gergoiva & the Britain landings. While I know these different battles as I have an interest in the period, someone who is not may feel overwhelmed by these names. A suggestion could be to mention fewer battles and focus on those few, such as replacing the ambush that Quintus & Camillus talk of at the start with Gergovia, as it was here that your Main protagonist's problems start (the death of the Aquilifer, Lucius?)  This, I feel, would be a nice way to foreshadow the problem facing Quintus- Marcus' apathy. 

              -Speech tags: You're allowed to say said! Something I noticed was that in between your dialogue you have a lot of actions & you use many attributives (proclaiming, piping up, interrupted, continued, commented-  are a few I noted). Cutting some of the action & replacing these tags can go a long way to creating shorter, sharper engagements. 

              Overall though I enjoyed reading it! You captured my attention with the end hook, and i would eagerly read on to find out more about Marcus. Good luck, I hope you do well with this, you certainly have the material! 

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              • Thank you so much for reading it and providing feedback. I will certainly check out that YouTube channel!
                I'm thrilled to hear your comparisons to Douglas Jackson and Conn Iggulden, that's great to know. I really appreciate you pointing out the tweaks I can make - looks like I need to find the right balance between thuggishness and an authentic Roman voice for my soldier lads. Shouldn't be impossible.
                I like your point about too many names of battles being thrown in - replacing Alesia with Gergovia would certainly work well.

                I hadn't noticed the speech tag thing, so that's great too. I do like using action to replace words like 'there was a pause', for example, as writing the action naturally creates the pause - but constant tags avoiding 'said' are annoying and I hadn't noticed how much I was doing that 😂
                Thanks again!

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              • Hi Lucy,

                I really liked this, and historical fiction isn't something that I read much of, so well done for keeping me immersed and interested!

                I haven't got anything to add really to the excellent feedback that others have given you above, and I'd concur with pretty much everything that's been said already.

                You're a terrific writer, and your prose is a pleasure to read. I think, though, that you might suffer a bit from the same affliction I do - a visual imagination, which creates a tendency to try and get every single tiny little detail down onto the page so that the reader sees exactly what you see in your imagination! 😂 Which inevitably leads to a degree of over-writing! 

                It's hard to step back and allow the reader space to create their own version of what you're writing... with just enough detail for them to get the essence of the scene but with enough left out to allow them to populate it from their own imagination and experience.

                I deal with my own purple prose by doing a quick 'pre-edit' immediately after I've come to the end of a passage or a chapter (or even a paragraph). Just to glance through it and strip away the repetitions, unecessary adverbs, redundant dialogue tags, and split up some of the longer sentences with multiple clauses! I don't always succeed, as the feedback I've had from others here will testify! But it's a useful exercise nonetheless, I find.

                Tightened up and simplified just a tiny bit (without diluting or changing your overall tone, which is wonderful) this will be a terrific read. The historical aspects seemed to me utterly believable, the characters are vivid and compelling, there's a real sense of place and time, and I though Marcus was a terrific protagonist and I wanted to know more about him, and his situation.

                A thoroughly enjoyable read!

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                • Thank you Jon, I'm amazed to receive such positive feedback and I'm thrilled you like Marcus.

                  You're spot on - I do visualise what's happening and then write it down. I've just come from Rebecca Horsfall's 'Show Don't Tell' webinar where she said visualising was great - but maybe not to this extent! I will certainly try to let the reader fill in more of the scene themselves.

                  I have lots of homework now from all these helpful comments, and will try to tread the right balance when making my edits. I'm excited to see how it turns out though, I've been staring at this same draft for longer than I'll care to admit.

                  Thanks again for taking the time to read and critique, it's much appreciated! 

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                • Hi Lucy, like you I'm completely new to this so I haven't yet shared any of my writing, but I feel compelled to add my thoughts to what you have submitted. 

                  I'm a great fan of historical fiction, however I don't read much about the Roman era and it's not normally something I would even consider, but personally I loved it. I read it twice and also read all the comments and feedback you've received. You know what they say, 'you can't please all the people all the time!'

                  At the risk of being slated, I don't agree with a lot of what has been said, but then I'm not an expert. I don't think you have over imagined things, I found it easy to read and enjoyed the dialogue immensely. 

                  As regards feedback, it's very interesting to see how people have such different perspectives, but then we are all learning, and as they say, 'every day's a schoolday.'

                  I would very much like to see how this story progresses

                  Well done...and good luck with the rest of it.

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                  • Hi Jonathan, I only just saw your reply, I haven't got on top of Townhouse notifications yet, sorry! Thank you so much for your feedback and kind words. As my manuscript was on the long side, I've applied some of the feedback from other people to help me cut it down into a slightly more agent-friendly length - but hopefully striking the right balance between pleasing other people, and myself!
                    Thanks again for your comment 😊 

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