Writing A Great First Chapter For A Historical Novel, by Ben Kane
Painting a vivid picture in the mind of a reader within the first few pages of a historical novel is a vital skill. Certain people will pick up and buy a book just from the title or because they are familiar with the author’s previous work. Yet writers also rely on those who have never read any of their work to buy their books. Often this happens by word of mouth or the recommendation of another reader on a forum such as Goodreads or Amazon. Historically, it happened when, attracted by the cover, people picked up the book in a bricks and mortar store. This is not the case so often now, sadly. Nonetheless, the same principles still apply. The reader has to be interested moments after they decide to take a look. This has been facilitated online by the way that retailers allow potential buyers to read the first few pages or chapter of a novel.
So, whether it happens in a bookshop or online, the reader’s eyes start to move along the page. What happens next is crucial. As a reader, I have to be captivated within the first page, maybe two, of a novel. If I’m not, I simply put the book back on the shelf or close the e-sample and continue looking for another. How is it done, then? For me, it’s about painting an exciting scene that catapults the reader back to the time in which the book is set, making them forget that we live in the twenty-first century. Often that means beginning with a fight, but that’s not always the case. As long as the reader is drawn in, it doesn’t matter what I describe.
To better explain my thoughts, I went to the bookshelf above my desk. My eyes were drawn to books by Christian Cameron, a favourite writer of mine. He opens Tyrant, his first novel, with the lines:
The sky above the dust was blue. In the distance, far out over the plain, mountains rose in lavender and purple, the most distant capped red by the setting sun. Up there in the aether, all was peace. An eagle, best of omens, turned a lazy circle to his right. Closer, less auspicious birds circled.
Magnificent! I can remember when I first started reading this book. In fifty-five words, Cameron had me. I could see a large plain, with mountains on the horizon, the tops of which are coated crimson, the colour of blood. A clear sky above ― peaceful-looking, but with birds that signified both good luck and bad. An as-yet-unnamed protagonist bore witness to this scene and I wanted to read more. This paragraph may look simple but I think one can find within its lines all that is necessary in the opening of a novel.
Know your period well. Read novels set in that time period by authors that you admire but also by those whose work you do not like. Pick your scene – make it one that would interest almost anyone. Write out the scene blow by blow. Choose your opening line with great care. Write the first page and then the chapter without losing your momentum through too much editing. Return to the first page and edit it. Then edit it again and again and again. And again. Go back to the rest of the novel, and work on that but return to your opening scene at regular intervals to see how it reads. Be prepared to continue editing it or even rewriting it for some time. Remember, it is this scene that will sell your novel to an agent, a publishing house or a reader.
Ben Kane’s author website: www.benkane.net
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