Looking for a haunted read for Halloween? Look no further!
Many thanks to Diane Donovan of Midwest Book Review for this awesome write-up! (Check out the review on their website here. You'll have to scroll a bit!)
Original Thirteen Publications
Review by Diane Donovan for Midwest Book Review.
Jenny Goodnight tells of a tired missionary woman who becomes drawn into a town conflict between fiery newspaper reporter Uncle Matthew and the powerful founding family of the town of Legacy.
It doesn't help her case, when murder results, that she's an assertive woman known for packing a pistol and confronting violence, herself. When she becomes a suspect in the murder, Jenny is drawn into the investigation to save herself from hanging. Like her investigative uncle, she discovers even more layers to the town's politics and underlying connections, the more she pulls at the strings of possibilities and strange associations.
Killarney Traynor creates an involving, clever, assertive protagonist in the character of Jenny Goodnight. The plot follows her special form of frontier justice and confrontation beyond the confines of the usual Western female protagonist.
Jenny's uncle wants to reject her inclination to rescue him even as she uncovers truths about his relationship with Underwood and the secret that is being held over his head. More importantly, Jenny herself finds that her own future and capacity to survive and live in this town depends on her ability to unravel a very strange and deadly truth indeed.
From a missing letter to another act of violence that hits too close to home, Jenny perseveres against all odds, drawing readers into a Western scenario in which her strengths spill over into other lives to create new possibilities not just for Jenny, but those around her.
Another big plus to the story is the atmospheric descriptions that create strong images of countryside and purposes: "I followed him down the narrow path. The sun was descending, shafts of light gilding the rugged dark pines and bringing out the burnt orange of the landscape. We rode maybe half a mile under the arbor, then the trees gave way and the valley opened up before us. A low, squat building, weather-beaten and in need of work, was situated on the open plain, a barn just behind it. Beyond these, a creek wended its way through a corridor of earth-clutching trees. There were more trees staked out in an irregular pattern on the far side of the house. Cattle lowed from somewhere, and Danaher's nag whinnied in the paddock. It was a sweet piece of land, capable of supporting a small family, and I wondered if that would have suited the lovely Helen, had she not caught the eye of an Evans."
Readers who like blends of Western and mystery themes, powered by an exceptionally astute female protagonist, will relish the intrigue, atmosphere, and confrontational changes in Jenny Goodnight, which is highly recommended reading for Western novel fans looking for more than the usual male-centric focus.
In this sneak peek from Jenny Goodnight, Jenny, a burnt-out missionary, has just arrived in the small town of Legacy, where her Uncle Matthew has started a small but controversial newspaper. As Jenny waits in her uncle's print shop to greet her uncle for the first time in a long while, something happens to disturb the peaceable reunion:
How long I waited, I can’t say. Time stretched out until I lost track of it. My head grew lighter until it seemed ready to float away. My legs were heavy, like blocks of wood, and there was a general fogginess about my ears that blurred what few sounds there were. I was slipping away again – dreams beckoned with dark arms.
Then, just I was on the verge of falling asleep properly, an explosion occurred.
I exaggerate, of course. It was merely the front door bursting open under someone’s impatient shove – but it might as well have been an explosion from the way it made my heart skip a beat and shook me out of my reverie.
The door slammed back against the wall, making the windows rattle. A big, bulky man stormed past me. His boots hit the floorboards like weights, and when he slammed his large fist down on the counter, everything on it shook and danced the jig.
“Goodnight!” the man roared. “Goodnight, where are you?”
I caught my breath.
The man’s voice was as big as his presence. He was dressed in the usual cowboy gear – blue jeans, a faded button down, boots curiously spur-less, and a hat which he pulled off to reveal a head full of dark hair. He was coated in dust and grime and might have been just any no-account worker, except for his good quality leather vest and the hand-tooled leather belt carrying his six-gun – both too expensive for the ordinary ranch hand.
I jumped when his fist struck the counter again.
“Dammit, Goodnight, don’t make me come in there after you!”
He tossed his hat on to the counter, freeing his gun hand. It was then that I saw the newspaper, clutched tight in his fist. The white knuckle grasp on the newspaper, the rigid clench of his jaw, and the tension of his big shoulders radiated not only outrage, but the ability to act on it. This was a very dangerous man.
Slowly, lest he catch sight of me, I bent down towards my carpet bag.
The call came, not from my uncle’s office, but from the open doorway behind me. A slim man stood there, also dusty and breathing heavily.
The big man at the counter whirled around and pointed at the new figure.
“Stay out of this, Olsen,” he threatened. He saw me then and I froze, bent at the waist over my carpetbag. His eyes raked over me, a brief but penetrating evaluation. Then he looked back at Olsen. “I’m just going to have a friendly chat with Mister Newspaperman here.” He turned and pounded the counter once more. “Goodnight!”
“This ain’t no way to do it,” Olsen said. He pushed the hat back from his sun-weathered face and stepped cautiously into the room. “Let Schuyler handle it – that’s what you pay him for.”
That only seemed to enrage the big man more. He slammed his palm into the counter (I was surprised that the board withstood such punishment) and roared, “This is a family matter and I’m not paying any lawyer to do what I can do myself. Goodnight, are you coming out here or am I coming in there?”
I fumbled with the catch on the carpetbag.
Then the office door opened and Matthew Goodnight emerged.
A decade had passed since I had seen my uncle, but I would have known him anywhere. The fearless smile, the sharp blue eyes, the almost military carriage were all so reminiscent of my father that, under other circumstances, I might have had a misty moment.
But Uncle Matthew was not my father and he had changed with the passage of time. Though his good looks remained, his features had softened and his face showed shades of cream and pink beneath the ever-present tan. There was something disheveled about his person, as though he no longer cared so much for appearances. He and my father shared the same feckless courage in the face of danger and he displayed it now, stepping out of his office as casually as if this were a social call.
“Ah,” he said, carefully shutting the office door behind him. “Mr. Evans – to what do I owe the pleasure?”
I did a double take. So the big man beating the counter was John Henry Evans, a member of the Evans clan I’d heard so much about. It explained the swagger, Olsen’s deferential manner, and Evans’s air of outraged dignity. It was his brother, Ben, who was running for office and it was their mother who was running the campaign. His family had founded this town and they weren’t accustomed to be being argued with or challenged. They were, in short, precisely the kind of people most likely to provoke my uncle’s ire.
“You know what a firebrand crusader your uncle can be…”
Aunt Alice always said that Uncle Matthew had the looks of a politician and the manner of an Irish pugilist with a sense of justice that would have impressed Solomon himself. It looked as though that moral courage was about to be reckoned with.
Matthew Goodnight didn’t act like a man afraid. His voice was the same as I remembered from childhood – a blend of formality and superiority – and he smiled up at the big man as though he wasn’t concerned in the least. It was not calculated to be conciliatory and it had the expected effect.
The big man slapped the newspaper down on the counter with such force that even Uncle Matthew jumped and Olsen took a half step forward.
Evans pointed at the open page.
“What do you mean by this, Goodnight?” he demanded, through gritted teeth.
Uncle Matthew leaned over to look.
“That,” he said, “is an editorial, an opinion piece. It is common in all papers, and it is usually meant to stir thought and to comment on recent events.” He flicked some dust from his jacket.
“It’s a pack of lies, is what it is,” Evans said. “You came just short of calling my father a murderer!”
Olsen took another cautious step forward.
Uncle Matthew grinned.
“I stopped short enough so that you won’t have a case if you try to sue this paper for libel. Not that you would or could, anyhow. Neither you nor your mother or your brother or his pretty little wife want to risk any of this going to court, do you?”
He had barely finished when Evans grasped him by the shirtfront and drew him half-way across the counter until they were nose to nose. Olsen squawked, but didn’t try to interfere. I gasped and rose before I remembered what I was doing.
“Now, you listen here.” Evans’ voice was low and dangerous. “You leave my mother and brother alone. If you’ve got a problem with the Evans family, you go through the court system, when and if you ever get the evidence. Do you understand me, Goodnight?”
Matthew was as helpless as a rag doll in his grasp, but he eyed the big man with a steely gaze.
“You couldn’t be more clear, Evans,” he said.
Evans dropped him. Uncle Matthew recovered quickly, straightening his shirt front. Olsen relaxed, until Evans asked, “You’ll print a retraction, then?”
Uncle Matthew laughed.
“Retraction? You listen here, Evans, this paper doesn’t apologize for its opinions. We apologize for errors in facts, but never for our interpretation of them. No one asked your brother to make this foolish attempt at public office and someone should have warned him that all candidates are subject to scrutiny. If the precious Evans name doesn’t hold up under it, that’s not my fault. Tell your mother, the grand lady herself, to keep a tighter leash on Ben – better yet, make him drop this whole run.”
“Not on your life,” Evans said. “The Evans family has nothing to be ashamed of, Benjamin the least of all.”
“Oh, he’s too young to have done too much harm,” Uncle Matthew agreed. “But you might want to warn your mother that all good investigative reporters dig into the backgrounds of candidates and their families. I’m famous for my excavations, you know. The skeletons in your family closet had better be buried pretty deep if you don’t want me to find them.”
“You’re a damned fool, Goodnight,” Evans said. His hands were balled into fists, his knuckles white under the pressure.
“I’m just repeating what everyone else is already thinking. Twenty-two years ago, your father, Jacob Evans, and Ezra Jones, his partner, rode into this valley to look for gold. Five months into the search, up in the hills, Jones was bitten by a snake and your father was just a little too slow getting him to the doc – something about his horse stumbling and dying on the way. A month later, he finds ore in those same hills and is suddenly the biggest man this side of the Mississippi. And he doesn’t have to share it with anybody. All I’m suggesting here,” he laid his hand on the offending paper, “is that it was awful lucky for your old man: that snake bite and that accident with the horse.”
Olsen whistled and half turned.
My hand found what it was looking for. Buried under layer of calico, the smooth heft of the pistol grip filled me with reassurance and a trickle of fear. I always kept my revolver loaded with one empty chamber so it wouldn’t go off by accident. Wrapping my hand around it, I pulled myself back into an upright position, careful to keep my hands hidden in my skirts.
Evans put both hands on the counter and leaned in.
“You’ve got an accusation to make, newspaperman?” he asked. His voice was low, slow, and dangerous, and my pulse jumped. “Why don’t you just make it to my face and quit hiding behind that paper of yours?”
“I’m just asking questions, John Henry…”
“You call me Evans, Goodnight. Mister Evans.”
“…and I’m not the only one who’s asking these questions.”
Uncle Matthew leaned forward and even from that distance, I could see the dangerous glitter in his eyes. My hands began to sweat, slicking up the grip.
My uncle said, “Now, folks around here have been asking a very logical question: Was it just luck that caused that snake bite and that horse to stumble? Maybe it was. But if you, the great John Henry Evans of the Evans Empire, are so sure this is the truth, why would a little thing like this opinion piece bother you, eh? If your father was the man you claim he is, if there isn’t a shadow of a doubt that he did all he could to get his partner to the doctor, that he had no idea of the ore up in those hills, if this was just one huge lucky break, why would you take time out of your busy day to come down here and threaten me?”
“Goodnight, I’m a patient man…” Evans said warningly, but Uncle Matthew didn’t let him finish – he just leaned in further.
“The only reason I can think of, John Henry, is that you yourself aren’t all that sure. You have doubts too. Did the horse really die of an accident? Was Jones even bitten in the first place? Or did your father decide that he didn’t want to share the ore up in those hills, so he killed his partner to keep it all for himself? Does your mother know-?”
He never finished the sentence.
Evans’ fist flashed and Uncle Matthew’s head snapped back with a sickening crack. Olsen cried out and jumped forward as the newspaperman dropped behind the counter. Evans was half-way across the counter when I found my feet and made my voice ring out across the room.
“Now, you just hold it right there, Mr. Evans.”
I doubt he would have stopped had I not accompanied my words with the ominous sound of the hammer of a Remington New Model Army .44 being drawn back...
Bridie Vail agreed to allow me to use her in this short introduction. I've always loved reading about the Revolutionary War and since Miss Vail is the person I know who most closely reminds me of Maureen O'Hara, it seemed natural to set her story here. My apologies for any historical inaccuracies! Enjoy and happy Fourth of the July!
The occupation of Boston and the closing of the port had been done in a gentlemanly and efficient manner. The locals, clearly resentful, were for the moment keeping their distance. The other officers in Townhend's circle were hopeful that this would be an easy assignment, with nothing much more to do than drill the troops, collect their pay, and enjoy themselves.
But though initially events seemed to confirm their optimistic outlook, Captain Townshend couldn’t shake the feeling that things were not as secure and calm as they appeared. Perhaps it was the weather, which was foggy and cold. Perhaps it was the miserable city of Boston itself, with its filthy crooked streets, dreadful little houses, and lack of anything even remotely resembling culture, cultivated minds, or art. Perhaps it was in the very silence of the inhabitants, who appeared watchful and calculating, even for disgruntled, ungrateful colonials.
It might have been any one of those factors. But the truth of the matter was, it was something else entirely that kept him worrying.
The Quartering Act was, of all the acts, perhaps the one most keenly resented by the colonists and no one could be more resentful than the Vails of Blank Street, where Captain Townshend had taken up his residence.
Townshend prided himself of his good manners and clean living, on making himself the least possible bother to his reluctant landlords, but this made not one whit of difference to the Vails. They were Irish, of course. (It seemed that the entire nation consisted entirely of either disgruntled Irishmen or self-important Puritans, neither of which were particularly endearing.) The husband had worked on the sea, the wife was seamstress, and there were two sons who’d left before the occupation.
The husband and the wife were quiet and Townshend could have left them well enough alone. But it was their daughter, a young, slender woman with stick straight hair and a proud carriage that would have cowed the Duchess of Marlborough, that really got under his skin.
From a brief glance, Bridie Vail would not have seemed a rebel. She was generally demur, lady-like, even gentle. But prick her and she bled the colonist’s cause. Townshend had been in the house all of ten minutes before he realized this.
He’d been gently but firmly introducing himself to the family, explaining the law and their duties to it and the crown. Mr. and Mrs. Vail had subsided into the resentful silence that he’d come to expect from these unreasonable Bostonians.
“We expect that every subject will do his duty, as due his sovereign lord,” he said, finishing the little speech he crafted for all such occasions.
It was Bridie who answered. “And I suppose you’ll be wanting meals, too.”
He was a little surprised. She’d been silent until now and her voice was as gentle and soft as her appearance. He should have known it was misleading.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s generally expected.” “
I see,” she nodded, her arms crossed in front of her pale green dress. “I suppose it does make sense to force the people you’re starving into submission to provide not only a roof over your head, but their own food to fill your stomachs. Gets the job done quicker, you might say.”
In case you hadn't already heard, I have 2 exciting announcements! One is that my latest book, Jenny Goodnight is available no for pre-order in paperback and on Amazon Kindle!
And the second is the Live On-Air Book Fair, produced through the Early Late Night Live Show, that Peggy and I will be a part of on July 16th, 7pm, on YouTube and on the ELNL Facebook page! Over 12 authors, dozens of books, and tons of fun, so don't miss it! Check out the official video below!
Frantiesco Patrick Dias Evaristo has one of the best names ever. When I learned that he speaks fluent Portuguese and was volunteering to be a subject of my writing exercises, I immediately thought of Rafael Sabbatini's novels of swashbuckling adventure. In real life, Frantiesco is a talent actor and family man, and therefore unlikely to be prowling the seven seas in search of treasure and glory... but then again, you never know. :)
Of all the dives in Tortuga, the Silver Ladle had to be the lowest. Its low, heavily timbered ceilings resonated with the sound of raucous laughter and the jibbing of gambling men. And yet it was here that they found the man they were looking for.
Frantiesco Dias Evaristo would have happily challenged anyone who called him a pirate. He was, as he avowed, a privateer, a buccaneer, if that made things clearer to his audience, and proudly boasted that he had the fastest ship and the most loyal crew, a claim that held up under scrutiny. He was a big man, with a dangerous charming smile, and a deceptively quiet manner. He spoke Portuguese and English like a native and listened quietly as Jonathan explained the situation to him. Only when the story was finished, did the buccaneer speak.
“So, Captain Levasseur kidnapped your sister and you would hire me and my crew to rescue her,” Dias said, slowly, deliberately. He had a tall tankard of rum and a small ornate dagger, which he played with as he spoke. “Why wouldn’t you pay the ransom demand to Levasseur?”
“I don’t reward pirates or kidnappers,” Jonathan said, nervously rubbing his hands together. “And I was told that you had a history with this Levasseur.”
Dias smiled, a dangerous smile.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I have some unfinished business with Levasseur. I even learned a few choice words in French for the day I should meet him again.”
He stood, took the dagger by the point and threw it, scoring a bullseye in the dart board across the room. Then he turned, smiling broadly at Jonathan and his companion.
“Very well, sir, I accept your commission. We sail at dawn. And I promise you, senhor: we will get your sister back.”
Monica Bushor is a mother, a singer, and a talented photographer with a flare for dramatic storytelling. When she volunteered to be a subject for this exercise, I thought about her work with the camera and this scene just sprang into mind. Enjoy and let me know what you think!
Travis stumbled up to the edge of the ridge, gritting his teeth against the screaming pain in his leg. The earth dropped away before him and the moon lit up the scenery. The once lush forest had been ruthlessly cut away to make room for the modern installation. Typical of all Nazi manufacturing plants, it was ugly and ominous, surrounded by barbed wire, guns, and soldiers.
‘Damn,’ he thought. If only his camera hadn’t been broken in the crash, he might have been able to accomplish his reconnaissance mission after all…
He heard the snapping twig just as he realized that he was no longer alone. He turned, scrambling for his pistol, but it was too late. The newcomer’s Luger was already out and at the ready.
A woman stood there, cloaked in darkness and hand steady on the pistol. Travis could make out only that she was tall and blond, her hair piled up neatly in a bun.
He was struggling for the German phrase for “Don’t shoot,” when she spoke.
“You’re a long way from home, fly-boy,” she said.
It took a moment before he could acknowledge that she spoke in English, a curious mixture of a New England clipped accent with a Nebraskan twang.
“You’re American!” he said.
She stepped forward and the moonlight fell on her. She was dressed in boots and pants and a small, sleek camera dangled from a cord around her chest. She was grinning, as if this were all a big joke.
“Maybe,” she said. She kept the Luger pointed at his chest. “What are you doing out here?”
“My plane was downed last night,” he said and gestured towards the west. “I’m trying not to get caught. Are you going to shoot me?”
“Maybe,” she said again and gestured with the Luger. “To the left, please.”
He stepped as directed, keeping his hands up. The Luger followed him, held in her right hand. The left brought the camera up and before he could quite realize what she was doing, she’d snapped several pictures of the installation.
“You’re a spy!” he exclaimed.
She just winked at him and tucked the Luger into her belt.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said. “Come on, fly-boy, let’s get you out of here before our kraut friends decide to join us.”
Lauren Brouillette runs Pure In Heart Lowell in addition to her day job and just recently played a nurse in our upcoming short film, the Fair Fight. It seemed natural, then, that as a lover of classic novels and classic movies, she would be in some grand epic with sweeping scenery and devastating stakes. Enjoy and let me know what you think!
Union Army Medical Camp
Captain Evans finally located Tent 14 and stepped inside. He was at once assaulted by the close heat, the odor, and the sudden lack of light. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust and when they did, he took in the scene before him. Row upon row of beds lined the tent, treated men in all of them. Bandages wrapped heads, eyes, torsos, limbs or the stumps of limbs. Some men were awake and groaning. One man was deliriously fighting the grey-clad nun who gently held him down. It was a nightmarish scene, made the more garish by the obvious attempts at orderly treatment.
Evans took off his hat and began to walk down the line, scanning faces and bodies. The uniforms were from a variety of units and ranks. Shrapnel didn’t care what unit you were from or how old you were.
He was half way down the miserable line when he came across a body smaller than most – a boy, twelve if he was a day, almost unrecognizable beneath the wrapping. His ruined blue uniform bore the insignia of a drummer. He was moving and moaning and when Evans bent down to listen, he heard one word: “Water…”
Evans looked around. The nearest nurse had her back towards him, tenderly applying a fresh bandage to a lanky soldier’s shoulder wound. The man was wincing, his face twisted in tremendous pain, but he was still. Obviously a brave man and Evans might have looked elsewhere when he caught sight of the uniform that clung to the man’s unhurt shoulder.
His temper snapped. Evans stalked over. “Nurse,” he barked.
The nurse looked up at him without stopping her ministrations. She was a young woman, maybe early twenties, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Her dress was neatly fitted and clean, but worn, her demeanor calmly proficient. Evans’ first impression was that this woman was absolutely capable and completely imperturbable.
“Can I help you, Captain?” she asked, politely, neatly finishing her work. Then, to the Confederate, “This will be changed daily, Corporal. I’ll be back later to see how you’re doing.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” the man said, his deep voice weakened into a whisper.
The drummer boy moaned and Evans’ temper boiled. “You’re aware that you’re treating the enemy here?” he demanded, pointing to the man in the bed. “Don’t you think you ought to treat our boys first?”
The nurse straightened and turned to face him. He saw, then, the exhaustion that lined her face and the tendrils of hair that had escaped the neat bun. Yet tired though she was, she met his eyes fiercely, without a hint of intimidation.
“We don’t see uniforms around here, Captain,” she said, stiffly. “We only see wounded.”
“Nurse Brouillette!” The nun struggling with the patient called from the far end of the room.
“I’m coming,” the nurse answered and looked to Evans again. “Excuse me,” she said coldly, before brushing past him.
(Dammit) Dan Graham is the wizard behind the scenes at the Early Late Night Live show, as well as being a good actor, cameraman, editing pro, and all around good guy. Plus, we both love Star Wars, so writing this intro was not only easy, it was a blast! (See what I did there?)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Set in Timothy Zahn’s universe)
Zarah was trapped. The clone stormtroopers were closing in on her, stalking down the narrow ravine, heavy boots pounding against the forest flooring. To her back was a solid wall of earth, too slippery to climb. Her lightsaber was gone, lost several yards away when the stray blast had knocked it from her hand and what was worse, she could no longer feel the Force. It was as though someone had dropped and iron curtain between her and it and the loss was as keen as parting with a limb. Only one thing could cause that sensation and a specimen of it was inching along a branch a yard out of her reach – Ysalami.
The troops came into view.
“There she is!”
Four blasters raised, their barrels glinting dully in the light. Zarah stopped and turned. If she died today, so be it – but she would not die a coward, trying to run away from –
“Hey, you guys!”
The shout came from above. Heads turned, Zarah’s included. She just had time to make out a stocky man, dressed in a green leather jacket and wearing a heavy pack on his back. He waved to them and suddenly Zarah realized that he was holding her lightsaber.
But she never got a chance to finish. The man jumped off the cliff. His pack ignited at the same time as the lightsaber. The troop commander shouted a warning, but he wasn’t fast enough. The man was nimble and quick and the lightsaber flashed. In a second, the troopers were on the ground and the man was landing in front of her, grinning like he’d just won first place in a speeder race.
“I think this is yours,” he said, handing the lightsaber over with a flourish.
She took it, stunned, and looked up into a pair of laughing brown eyes. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Graham,” he said, as though she should already know the name. “Dan Graham. And it looks like someone needs a lift out of here.”
My friend, Kyra, not only has an awesome last name, but is also an artist with a romantic soul, so this seemed the perfect setting for her. It's another story that leaves me really hoping for a happy ending! (Note: the accompanying image doesn't perfectly capture the mood of this piece, but it got pretty close.)
She was sitting on the rocky promontory over looking the harbor and the forest of masts that moved in and out of the busy port. Her dark, curly hair was loose and danced in the wind. She was dressed in white and sat in deep thought, chin in hand, her sketch book forgotten at her side.
I knew her at once: Kyra Morales, only daughter and heiress of the powerful Morales clan, the one who'd had the misfortune to fall in love with a penniless sailor. Her father had driven him off, of course, but rumor had it that the sailor wasn't dissuaded, that he'd gone into the spice trade and vowed to return to her side.
Perhaps it was true, though I though it very unlikely. Still, here she sat, watching the ships and fingering the crucifix that she wore around her neck. She did not look like a disappointed woman - she looked like someone who daily expected her ship to come in.
She spotted me then and stood, brushing the twigs from her skirt.
"Lovely day," I said.
Her laughing brown eyes met mine.
"Its beautiful," she agreed. "It's the sort of day that makes you believe in happily ever after, isn't it?"
To quote Magnum, PI: "Now, I know what you're thinking. And you'd be right! Only..."
One of the most common pieces of writing advice I've heard is this: You need a Killer First Line, one that will hook the reader, be he/she an editor, an agent, your best friend, a stranger in Barnes and Noble, or even your mom. A Killer First Line grabs the reader's attention and pulls them, helplessly into your story, ensuring that they will read the second line. A Killer First Line sets up the rest of your book. And there's always the hope that if you nail that Killer First Line, it's going to be gracing blog posts and articles about writing from here until the end of time.
Needless to say, there is a TON riding on your first line. So much so, that you can spend hours, days, sometimes even weeks tinkering with the line, loving the line, hating the line, re-writing the line again and again, getting caught like a fish on a... line (see what I did there? :) ). It's daunting, that Killer First Line. It can even be debilitating. Which is why I recommend that you completely ignore the Killer First Line.
"WHAT?!" You exclaim. "Ignore the first line and lose out on fame and fortune and retweets? Are you insane?"
No, I'm not (or at least this isn't proof of it). I'm not saying never address the Killer First Line. I'm saying ignore it for your first draft. Maybe even your second or your third draft. Leave it alone - write a place-holder line and then ignore the stupid thing. Write the book first. Then write the first line.
I know this sounds backwards, but I actually have some good reasons to suggest this: the first being, if you choke up on the first line, you'll never finish the book. Trust me, I've been there before. I concentrated so hard on one stupid sentence, a sentence I couldn't conquer, that I lost interest in the book and faith in myself and the story died on the vine. Tragic, I know, but I recovered.
But the more important reason is the second one: Until you've written the book, you don't really know what it's about.
Stories are funny things. You set up a scenario, you find your characters and your settings, you outline, and you begin. You think you have it all worked out until suddenly, magic happens, the story twists, and you find yourself in a place you never expected. Or, the story turns out somewhat like you'd originally imagined, but halfway through the story, you realized a deeper meaning to the story or the characters. This is the good stuff, these unexpected treasures. Second drafts were made to expound on them, take advantage of them, and pare away the dross of unneeded prose so that the shining gold of your discovery can be made visible. And once you find the gold, bam! There's your Killer First Line.
That's not to say that your Killer First Line is going to be any easier to write in draft three. Most likely, it'll be just a tricky. But at least then you'll know what story your actually setting up, the true story, the story that lay buried deep within your initial outline (or in your imagination, if your pantser).
The moral of this story? Killer First Lines are amazing, but they aren't actually the first thing. Your story is. Without the story, without the book itself, the Killer First Line is really just a line, a throw-away that means little without the bigger story to back it. So write your story first and the Killer First Line will follow. It's practically a guarantee.
Agree? Disagree? Have a better idea? Comment below and let me know what you think!
I first met Derek Foley when Terry brought him on the Early Late Night Live Show as co-host and it quickly became apparent that we had a lot in common, including a love of Star Trek. (Though he's prefers Picard and I'll always choose Kirk.) A pool player and organizer of Super Megafest, Derek's intro was an easy and fun one to write. Enjoy and let me know what you think!
Star Trek – TOS:
Captain’s Log, supplemental:
On a mission from Star Fleet to bring back a piece of stolen technology, Mr. Spock and I find ourselves trapped behind the Neutral Zone in a small Romulan frontier town called Sargon’s Waste. We have the technology, but our ship has been destroyed. Thanks to Spock’s quick thinking and Vulcan resemblance to Romulans, we’ve not been discovered yet. Time is running out and we find ourselves in need of a ship and a pilot. We’ve been directed to Garak’s Tavern and told to ask for a man named Foley, who won’t ask too many questions…
Garak’s was like any other tavern on the outskirts of any other civilization: run-down and tense, with representatives from every corner of the galaxy. The people who congregated at these places only had two things in common: a love for alcohol and the desire to be anywhere but home.
The Vulcan was adapt at many forms of communication, but the tavern was clearly out of his depth. He hesitated in the doorway and Kirk, breathing easier in an atmosphere he understood, nudged him gently.
“In the corner,” he murmured.
They weren’t the only anomaly in the bar that night. A human stood bent over a game table, a game that reminded Kirk strongly of pool, though this one was played with holographic tribbles that were hit into the mouths of crocodile-like creatures. As they approached, the human sunk a shot and, looking pleased, stepped around to set up his next move.
“Are you Foley?” Spock asked.
The human glanced up at him. He was sturdily built, with short cropped hair, and, unlike most of Garak’s patrons, clean shaven.
“Depends on who’s asking,” Foley said, and turned back to the table. His cue stick struck with practiced efficiency and the hologram tribble squealed as it disappeared into the crocodile’s maw. Foley grunted with satisfaction and straightened up. “If you’re looking for a pilot, I might be available.”
“Nice shot,” Kirk said.
Foley glanced at him and grinned a lopsided grin.
“I hate tribbles,” he said with simple sincerity.
In that instant, Kirk knew that they’d found their man.
In this writing exercise, I'm using my friend, Jen Robidoux, as my avatar. She's a soft-spoken, gentle woman who never-the-less is a fierce protector of the defenseless and the under-dog. This is just a snippet of a story but seriously? I want to know what happens next!
"Are you... Richard McCallum?"
Rick lowered the whisky glass and squinted in the bright desert sun. His vision, which was decent, had necessarily shortened as he drank his way through the dry heat of the afternoon.
A woman stood in front of him, dressed in a stylish flowered blue dress and a straw hat. Her brown hair was cut in a bob and she carried a battered leather suitcase in one hand and a handwritten note in the other. He couldn't help but notice that she had the kindest eyes he'd ever seen.
Those eyes were studying him, trying to size him up. His five o'clock shadow had lengthened to the beginnings of a true beard and his khaki colored clothes were wrinkled for having been slept in. He looked awful, truth be told, and being broke, he thought it was an accurate representation and a safer one in a town this tough. The only thing he owned worth stealing was his plane, his father's old watch, and, maybe, his leather jacket. Not that he'd let that happen.
He brought his glass to his mouth to take another swig, thought the better of it, and asked instead, "Who's asking?"
"My name is Jennifer Robidoux. I sent you a telegram, inquiring about your services."
"Wait..." he staggered to his feet. "You're the woman who needs a pilot to fly you across the desert on some crazy treasure hunt? With the whole world about ready to go to war? Are you nuts, lady? Go home, stay home, where it's safe."
That was the wrong thing to say. Her eyes narrowed and her shoulders squared.
"I'm not going after some foolish treasure, Mr. McCallum, and I'm well aware of the state of the world. My father's gone missing. And I need your help to find him."
Early in her book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, Maria von Trapp (as she was known then - they dropped the "von" when they became American citizens) recounted her early married life. It was one of wealthy, ease, and loving cosiness until one day, because Georg's generous effort to help a friend, they were financially ruined. It was a humiliating experience. The once proud aristocratic Captain was forced to let go servants, curb his lifestyle, and even rent out rooms in his magnificent house to keep the roof over his family's head.
Lucky for him, he'd had the good sense to marry Maria. Maria marshaled the efforts, took on poverty, and with her wily cunning and fearless faith, turned a family hobby into a world-wide success. But before all of that, when they were still merely the Von Trapps, who had fallen into hard times, she kept her husband's spirits up with her pragmatism and clear-eyed vision. The children followed her example, making the best out of their new circumstances and astonishing everyone with their flexibility and lack of arrogance. "Imagine," Maria marveled her husband, "if we hadn't had this disaster, we never would have known what fine fellows the children are!"
I read that book way back when I was 16 and that comment stuck with me ever since. Without the crisis, they wouldn't have known their own mettle.
Right now, across the nation, we are closing ranks and doors, hoping to keep the Coronavirus (or COVID-19) at bay. We are doing so without marshal law, without fighting, and really, with very little panic. On social media, people are starting groups designed to connect people during this time of isolation, whether for financial help, physical help, or just for community. People are losing jobs and income and yet you hear very little complaining. The Dropkick Murphys did a free online concert that broke records. Stores are adjusting their hours in consideration of the elderly, food delivery services are dropping their commissions, and those in quarantine are serenading their neighbors.
We don't know how long this social distancing will last here in the US. We don't know how this pandemic is going to end. But we never knew what fine fellows we could be until disaster struck. And that is something really worth knowing.
Hang in there, friends! The best days are yet to come!
Every once in a while, I put out a call on Facebook, asking for volunteers for a writing exercise, in which I introduce my friends in novel form. Chris Dubey runs an ambulance company in Berlin, NH, in addition to being a talented actor who wrote and produced his own movie. Though he often plays a villain (he plays my evil boss in the movie Chance), his life work is quite the opposite, hence, this scene. Enjoy and let me know what you think!
John hit the wall and scrambled up, but he was too late. They were on him diseased hands grabbing at his legs, guttural sounds of animal-like triumph ringing through the air. John screamed, kicked, and tried to pull himself up, hands desperately grasping at the rough wall, but he was failing, falling, when...
Suddenly, hands grabbed his own, pulling him up and over the wall, out of their grasp. The diseased fell away and a wail of dismay rose up from the crowd. John was on his back, gasping. The wall arced up over him, casting a shadow. As he watched, he saw movement along the edge. A hand, withered and stricken with the disease, grasped the edge and began to pull.
They were coming.
Someone was hauling him up to his feet. “Come on!”
He and his rescuer ran through empty streets, where the corpses of old cars, long out of fuel and stripped of anything that could be a use, lay haphazardly on the sidewalk. Buildings, boarded up and laced with barbed wire, loomed up over them. The air echoed with the sounds of their shoes clattering on the pavement. It was eerily silent, broken only by the occasional shout from behind them.
They were coming.
The man in front was tall and ran with long, easy strides, his AR-15 slung across his back, long hair swinging with the movement. He looked back only once to see if John was following. “Keep it up!”
John did, though his lungs were burning and his legs were so weak that it felt as though he were running through wet sand. They turned a corner and John saw a clearing, where several buildings had been leveled to clear a block around a single building, tall and armored. It was to this that his unknown rescuer ran.
They ran and the man shouted. Someone from within answered and a rope ladder dropped from several stories up. They climbed and when they were halfway, they heard another shout and shots rang out. The enemies, the diseased, were coming, lurching as they made their way across the open spaces. The bullets only slowed them, ripping at their decaying flesh, but it did not stop them.
John finally reached the top of the ladder, falling to the ground as the alarm grew and more men and women rushed to ward off the invaders. As he lay, gasping, on the ground, the man with the long hair crouched in front of him and grinned.
“You can breath now, soldier,” he said. “My name's Chris. Welcome to the Sanctuary.”