First of all, I would like to thank Terra and the Yankee Romance Reviewers blog for inviting me to talk about my upcoming historical romance release, Fire at Midnight, and about writing in general, a topic near and dear to my heart.
Lisa Marie Wilkinson on “The Hook.”
A good friend of mine once told me she reads the first two pages of a book, and if she isn’t immediately drawn into the story, she doesn’t read any further. The challenge of capturing a reader’s attention in an age where we can sneeze and Twitter will instantly communicate the news that we’ve caught a cold to everyone following our activities is a daunting one.
The need to hit the ground running in terms of engaging the reader is one a wise writer should never ignore. While we writers sometimes get side-tracked by the sheer beauty of our prose, most readers –on the other hand—are expecting to be entertained. Readers are looking for “the hook,” which is a connection to the story achieved by the writer through character development, sensory detail, and/or an immediate crisis facing a sympathetic character in the opening pages of the story.
Writers agonize over “the hook.” Writing classes include the concept of “the hook” as a basic building block of story structure, and writing organizations like Romance Writers of America even hold contests such as the Silicon Valley RWA chapter’s “Gotcha!” contest in order to help budding writers evaluate the effectiveness of their “hook.”
So, what is a good hook? What makes your heart pound, elevates your blood pressure, and engages your emotions within the first few pages of a novel? What keeps you reading? Even more important, what keeps you reading well into the wee hours of the morning? I know I’m in the thrall of a competent story teller when I sacrifice sleep because I simply cannot put the book down!
The reason I have the privilege of guest-blogging today is because I’m promoting the release of my debut novel, Fire at Midnight. Since I’ve chosen to talk about the importance of “the hook,” I’m going to include my opening pages for your scrutiny and hope I’ve been able to achieve that indefinable bit of magic that will hold your interest and keep you reading.
Read the opening to Fire at Midnight and ask yourself if you’d keep reading if the story continued beyond the excerpt posted here. If you would, I’ve done my job.
Fire at Midnight, Chapter One
St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital (“Bedlam”), London, England 1703
“I am sane.”
The sound of her own voice anchored her. It kept her from going mad. “I am eight and ten. I am called Rachael Penrose. I have been here nine days. My brother was called James—” She stifled a sob. “My brother is called James.” Even the tinctures they fed her did not dull the pain of not knowing the fate of her baby brother, James.
She froze when she heard the scratch of claws on stone. A rat, attracted by crumbs of moldy bread, began a stealthy approach. She shared her meager rations with the rats because they displayed less interest in her when their bellies were full.
There had been no hearing, and no formal declaration of insanity. An exchange of gold from one greedy hand to another sealed her in this place. With no blanket, she shivered in the bitter cold. Beneath the thin shift she wore, faint and fresh bruises mottled her skin. The sound of the rumbling of her stomach was loud in the quiet of the small chamber.
Rachael tensed as metal creaked. The door to her cell swung open. Freezing air rushed in, and she trembled as the strong scent of citrus cologne, a harbinger of her uncle, mingled with the foul, musty odor of the cell.
Victor Brightmore handed a gold coin to the guard accompanying him. “Her doctor and I require privacy.” Victor lifted the hem of his cloak to prevent it from sweeping the floor of the filthy cell as he entered.
The attendant checked the chain securing her right leg to the straw-filled pallet upon which she lay. He tested the iron ring riveted around her neck and the circular iron waist bar holding her arms pinioned to her sides. Rachael suppressed a shudder when his hands lingered over her breasts and followed the double link to its point of origin at the wall. Powerless against the intimacy, she gritted her teeth and stared at the gray stone ceiling above her. Apparently satisfied with the security of her restraints, the attendant withdrew, leaving Victor and the doctor with her.
Rachael remained silent while Victor angled the shaft of the candle he held until the flickering yellow light illuminated her face. Victor leaned toward her, his blue-gray eyes glittering with malice. She looked into the face of pure evil. Tall, with burnished gold hair and even features, his pleasing exterior concealed his twisted nature. As he watched her, shadows played over the upward cast of his lips.
“You cling to life with such tenacity, Rachael.”
He moved the flame along the length of her jaw inch by agonizing inch, stopping near her eye. The light from the candle was painfully bright, and her breath quickened as she struggled to hide her terror.
Oh, God, is he going to blind me? Gasping, she shrank from him, but the linkage of chain held fast. She was at the mercy of a man who had none. How she despised him!
“Victor!” The candle wobbled on its perch as his companion jerked it away from her face. “How would I account for burns on her body?”
“Her eyes mock me, Elliot.” He peered down at her, scowling.
“She is feverish,” Elliot said. “She is in the grip of the drug. We can speak freely.”
“It appears I have need of your help once again, good doctor. Keeping my niece isolated is not the permanent solution I seek.”
It did not bode well that he spoke so openly in front of her. With both her parents dead, once Victor succeeded in his plan to dispose of her, there would be no one left to protect James. Victor was desperate to inherit, but he was also crafty and cautious. He would not risk the hangman.
Elliot peered down at her. “Perhaps her food might be—”
“The attendant told me she tests
her food on the rats. Besides, we dare not risk poison now.”
“I can keep her indefinitely,” Elliot said. “Her whereabouts are unknown. No one here will believe anything she says.”
“Tarry Morgan knows the truth.” Victor searched within the folds of his cloak. His hand shook as he withdrew a letter. The edges of the parchment gaped where the wax seal had been broken.
Her heart sank at the sight and she felt lightheaded with despair.
“This letter details her discovery of my plan to poison James. She sent it to Morgan, one of the few allies she has left. She must have dashed it off before we brought her here.” Victor glowered in Rachael’s direction. “The fact that James must die before I will inherit is clear motive to anyone who would investigate.”
“So, is Morgan dead?”
Rachael stopped breathing as she waited for Victor’s response.
“No. His servants were rousing; I barely escaped with the letter. I was only able to wound him.”
“Can you buy his silence?”
“Morgan cannot be bought.” Victor crumpled the letter in his hand and began to pace the floor. “He is her loyal little lap dog. He remains silent because I have taken the proof and threatened Rachael’s life. He has delusions he will rescue her, but he won’t remain silent for long. We must dispose of them both.”
The weight of her terror squeezed the air from her lungs. She would never forgive herself if she brought harm to her childhood friend.
“And what about her brother?”
“My nephew is sickly,” Victor said. “His nanny has often commented on his frailty. With your help, I’ll be rich. When I am rich, I will be generous.”
“Monster!” Rachael sobbed. She screamed in outrage and struggled against the restraints. The tortured souls in the adjacent cells heard her and added their voices to hers. Hearing them, she fell silent. Screams of torment are routine in this place. I’m just another Bess O’ Bedlam. No help will come.
Victor spun to face Elliot. “‘Senseless,’ you promised. ‘Incoherent.’ ‘Her mind will be incapable of coping with her surroundings.’”
“Having her wits about her in this place is an added torment, not an advantage,” Elliot said. “We will dose her with laudanum to keep her quiet, and she will be released into your custody.”
“Released? You seem a likely candidate for a strait-waistcoat yourself.”
“Victor,” Elliot said patiently, “we must remove Rachael from Bedlam. Morgan is searching for her, and he has the resources to find her. I will have her transferred to Bethnal Green.”
“She will be no less dangerous to me in a private asylum.”
“She will never reach Bethnal Green,” Elliot said. “You, of course, must appear distraught over your loss.”
Rachael locked gazes with Victor. He nodded vigorously. His smile told her time was running out.
“Doctor, I believe you have arrangements to make on my behalf.” He leaned down to Rachael and added, “While I joyously prepare to grieve.”
Now that you’ve finished reading the excerpt from Fire at Midnight, please think about your own experience when you’ve read a book and the author’s story hooked you immediately. Can you share the reason why? How did the author manage to hold your interest? What was happening in the story to make it so compelling you just had to keep reading?
Lisa Marie is giving away an autographed copy of Fire at Midnight. For a chance to win, leave a comment for Lisa Marie, along with your e-mail addy.