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Hooking Readers With Your Historical Fiction, by Gary Worthington

Think of the last time or two when you were deciding whether or not to invest your limited hours in reading a particular historical novel by an unfamiliar author. You may have initially been attracted by an enticing cover but you likely soon read at least part of the dust jacket summary and the endorsements from other writers.

Quite soon you probably sampled the actual writing, perhaps on the first pages of the story. If you’re like me, you decided quickly whether or not the novel was one you wanted to read. You may have made your judgement based on only the first page or two, or even the first paragraph, especially if you had a short time to decide.

In your own writing, how should you do all you can to quickly hook the reader?

An intriguing first sentence can help. Not long ago I actually added a different first line to my short novel Elephant Driver when I extracted it from the much longer India Treasures/Mangarh Chronicles and made some minor changes before marketing it as a separate novel aimed at young adults.

The original first line was: “Jimuta shivered in the cool morning air despite his shawl and turban.”

That wording was okay, but barely. It did introduce the young hero and it began setting the scene. I doubt it would grab anyone, though. I justified the wording when I wrote it over a decade earlier by thinking that the story was, after all, quite a long tale. It seemed reasonable to spend the first few paragraphs putting the reader into the setting of a drought-stricken farm in 3rd century BCE India.

However, when I recently revised the story, I felt the first lines lacked impact. So I inserted a sentence before the one quoted above, and I also altered the next sentence slightly: “The day of the battle between the two kingdoms began as another morning of tormenting hunger. Jimuta wrapped his shawl tighter against the cool morning air.”

The new wording is more captivating. We find out that there’s going to be a battle, which we didn’t know from the original first sentence. We also find out that the hero has the problem of not enough food to eat. In the second sentence, instead of the hero just “shivering” in the cool air, he takes positive action to wrap his shawl tighter against the cold, subtly establishing him as someone who does things, rather than just being impacted by circumstances.

Another way to grab the reader, not necessarily mutually exclusive with an intriguing first sentence, is to quickly establish the novel’s main character as (1) a person facing a difficult challenge and (2) someone the reader can identify with and want to spend time with.

An example is Vijay, the protagonist in ‘The Mangarh Treasure’, the tale set in 1970s India that ties together my novellas of earlier historical periods in India Treasures and India Fortunes. The first line reads: “As Vijay Singh drew nearer to Mangarh, the dread of being exposed as an imposter threatened to overwhelm him.”

I think that’s intriguing, raising some obvious questions: Why is Vijay acting as an imposter? Why, or how, could going to Mangarh expose him?

But there’s still the matter of why the reader should care about him, so that those questions aren’t just some abstract puzzle to be solved. A couple of paragraphs later:

“At a well sheltered by a neem tree, a young man brushed his teeth with a twig, while another, clad only in a white dhoti, splashed water over his bare chest and legs from a bucket. Vijay had bathed in a similar manner before leaving his village years ago, except that his caste did not have a well of its own, so water had to be carried a most inconvenient distance. At least that had changed, now that a new well had been dug with the funds he had sent.”

This paragraph tells the reader a bit more about Vijay’s background – that he comes from a village and is apparently from a caste that is poor. Then the reader finds out that Vijay has sent money to his village to dig a well. Although his motivation for that act isn’t spelled out, it indicates he may be generous in wanting to help out folks back home. So it’s beginning to seem that he’s someone the reader might admire for his charitable leanings.

There are many other ways to entice the reader to identify with and to care about the protagonists. In my novella ‘Saffron Robes’ in India Treasures, a prince and many of his family and clan are trapped in a fortress besieged by the immense army of the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1567 CE. The first line reads: “Raja Hanuman of Mangarh doubted that he and most of the thousand others he had brought would leave alive.”

This immediately establishes that the hero is in serious peril, and hopefully the reader will want to know more details. In the next few paragraphs I also depict how the protagonist is a capable and conscientious leader. I then show him as seen by the bard who accompanies him: “Here was what a Rajput king should be: confident-appearing, intelligent, dedicated to the welfare of his clan and his soldiers, a capable horseman and swordsman, admired by his warriors, even a patron of architecture.”

This description could be a little heavy-handed, maybe even clumsy in some circumstances. However, I go on in the next few lines to quote a short poem that comes to the bard’s mind, inspired by those qualities he has just observed. (I won’t set out the poem here, as it needs to be read in context.)

In my lengthy novella ‘The Costs of Freedom’ in India Fortunes, I depict the travails of several categories of people at the time of independence from the British in 1947 when the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan. The tale begins:

“The big Buick convertible leaped into the air and returned to the sands with a spine-jarring landing. Not slowing, it sped across the desert. A terrified herd of antelope scattered before it. Still it raced on. In the front passenger seat, Stanley Powis, British Political Agent at Mangarh, thrust his solar topee back onto his head with one hand while he gripped the hand-hold with the other. What he didn’t do in the name of duty!”

The next few paragraphs establish the friendly and trusting but sometimes awkward relationship between the Englishman Powis and the Maharaja of Mangarh who is driving the car. The groundwork is also laid for the upcoming challenges as the British withdraw and the Maharaja has to decide whether or not to merge his state into the new nation of India. By then, I think the reader should be well involved in the story and eager to continue.

To stimulate thinking and inspire some beginnings in future writings, here are a few intriguing first lines from historical novels by other writers:

“I was five years old when I saw my father hanged for a thief in front of Canterbury Cathedral with the priest reading Scripture and a crowd watching.” (Stephanie Cowell, Nicholas Cooke: Actor, Soldier, Physician, Priest)

“It was a wolf-ridden night. Early spring in the wastes of Germania was not kind to creatures of warm blood.” (Donna Gillespie, The Light Bearer)

“When the parish priest Andreas Koppmeyer pressed the last stone into place and sealed the opening with lime and mortar, he had just four hours to live.” (Oliver Potzsch, The Dark Monk)

“There was a white man coming up her road, as if God had ordained it and as if he owned the road.” (Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sally Hemings)

“The outer door was thrown open with a crash that resounded along the passage, and the floorboards shook with the purposeful marching of several pairs of feet.” (S.J. Parris, Heresy)

“When I die, just put me in a box and stick it in the ground.” (Morton Leonard Yanow, The Nolan: Prisoner of the Inquisition)


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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    Well written argument to the importance of the first line of a story to a reader.

    May 1, 2013

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