Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.
Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.
HEART OF THE HUDSON
MG Historical Fiction
“When I see the likes o’ ‘im,” Mrs. Macgregor bellowed, lumbering into the kitchen and across the freshly scrubbed floor, “I’ll give ‘im a slap on the ear!”
Cara ducked her head and curled into a ball as she knelt by the wash bucket on the floor.
“When ‘e fancies showin’ up, send ‘im in ‘ere,” Mrs. Macgregor said and huffed out of the kitchen through the drawing room door.
Cara pushed herself to her feet and surveyed the trail of footprints. “Ugh,” she groaned, knowing she’d have to start over. If the floors weren’t spotless, she’d pay for it later.
The back door opened a crack and Will peeked through the opening.
“Well, speak of the devil,” Cara said, glaring at him.
Will lifted a finger to his lips, shushing her. “Where’s Igor?” he whispered, using the nickname they called Mrs. Macgregor.
“Follow the footprints,” Cara said, angrily gesturing with a sweep of her hand.
Will eased the door open, but stood awkwardly in the entrance.
“You were supposed to be here hours ago.” Cara dropped the brush into the bucket and droplets of water littered the floor.
“I lost track of time.” Will raised his arm, hoisting a line of fish in front of him. “This should make her happy!”
“Your fish don’t fool me. What have you been up to?”
Cara planted her hands on her hips and rose to her full height. She still only reached the top of his shoulder, so she narrowed her eyes disapprovingly.
“You sound more like Igor every day.” Will frowned as he stepped through the doorway.
Cara ignored his biting remark. “I can tell you’re up to no good. There’s something different about you.” She wrinkled her nose. “I could smell you before I could see you, so it’s not a girl you’re trying to impress.”
She took in her older brother’s ruffled appearance – his knee-worn pants and ill-fitting shirt that exposed two inches of forearm. Will squirmed as Cara looked him over from head to toe, like he was a prized hog at the market. Will’s curly, black hair was matted and he sported the ever present dirt smudges on his face.
“Honestly,” she said. “How can a person who practically lives on the water get so dirty?”
Fear prickled along her skin. Will’s blue eyes sparkled – almost feverishly. “You’ve been out to the ship!” she gasped.
Gita: Thank you for sharing the beginning of THE HEART OF THE HUDSON with us. I love (and write) historical fiction and by the time I got to the disparity between Cara’s fear and Will’s feverish excitement over the mysterious ship, I was eager to read on. Because beginnings are so important, I’d love to see you get the reader to that point more directly. I’m curious about your choice to start with Mrs Macgregor—in particular, with her dialogue. Not only is it in dialect, but your story’s first lines are uttered by a character who soon exits the scene. My preference—both in writing and reading—is to use word choice and word order to convey dialect. For me, changing the spelling would be a last resort if I felt the character’s voice wasn’t clear enough. I’m also wondering: do you need to start the scene with Mrs Macgregor? Another option would be to see how it feels starting with your protagonist Cara, bent over the wash bucket, just before Will comes in, at which point Cara’s angry statement, “You were supposed to be here hours ago,” introduces the real action and gets us closer to the conflict. Good luck with this! Happy writing!
Laurel: I really enjoyed the strong moment at the end. I felt Cara putting the pieces together to come to a conclusion. The excitement about the ship jumps right off the page. As a reader, I’m in the moment. I want to know what’s going to happen with that ship. This line really gives us Will’s personality: “‘Where’s Igor?’ he whispered, using the nickname they called Mrs. Macgregor.” Personally, I find it challenging to begin a story with a line of dialogue. It took me years to realize that SHOW DON’T TELL doesn’t always apply to the first line of a story. A quick sketch of setting or situation is a much more efficient start. So, I say, be brave, go ahead and TELL at the beginning. And then don’t TELL anywhere else. For example: “Will lifted a finger to his lips, shushing her.” is a SHOW AND TELL. For example, “lifted a finger to his lips” SHOWS what “shushing her” TELLS. I always cut the TELL when I find these in my own writing. Two little details: who is Will trying to impress? What kind of living on the water keeps you clean? A tiny bit more of Cara’s thought process could set the reader up nicely for the realization at the end. Looks like a lively story!
Gabrielle: Thanks so much for sharing your story! I think You’ve got some great character development right at the start, and I’m especially fond of the way Cara draws herself up to look at Will. We get a sense of both her character, and her appearance in relation to him, which is great. I agree with Laurel that it would be better not to start with a line of dialog. You can give us some more setting and sensory experience that will draw us closer to Cara before you dive into the stakes. Even a sentence or two will do a lot to pull us further into the scene. I think Igor’s (their nickname is too funny) dialect is a little too much. You can achieve the same effect, and tone it back. It’s a little distracting. I really like the twist of the last sentence, where she figures out what he’s been up to, but you defuse it by naming the emotion. You can give us a little more of her experience in the moment here, to go with her physical reaction, and then trust your reader. If an idea of where he’s been comes to her, wafting on a thick scent of mudflats and seawater–and if then her skin prickles and her stomach drops, we’re going to know she’s figured out something that scares her. I’d love to learn more about that intriguing ship!
Halli: Thank you so much for sharing your work! I love when people go for it. It’s a scary, but necessary part of our industry. First let me say I really like Cara and Will! I can see myself following them on many adventures and I don’t even know what they’re up to yet 🙂 I do like the way you really put Cara’s personality out there – by having her rise to her full height even though she’s shorter than Will – as just one example. She is definitely the more level-headed one of the two. As some of the others mentioned, I was thrown a bit by the first sentence. I read it a few times before I really got it. Is introducing this character necessary at the very beginning? The way you described Cara with the bucket and her dismay at the footprints clearly shows her position and situation. I enjoyed the last half of the submission even more and found myself trying to figure out where Will had been right along with Cara.