I love beginning a new book. Just like that first day of school, the first page is full of opportunity and promise. On page one, every book’s a potential NYT best-seller. What’s not to love about that?
But then the decision-making begins. Choosing exactly when to begin a story can be more challenging than actually choosing the story itself. The book I’m using as my example is Royal Harlot, my fictionalized biography of Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine.
When I write a romance, I know that the first chapter will most likely include the first meeting of the hero and the heroine. Of course they’ll have had experiences and adventures before then, all the things that make them real to me and, I hope to readers, but the focus of the book must be the love they find for one another.
But writing about historical figures is different, and has its own special pitfalls. The story’s already there; I can’t go changing this war or that king to suit my plot. Instead I have to pick and choose the key events of the person’s life and times, and construct my conflicts and pacing based as much as I can on fact. I especially have to avoid the thousand-page “cradle to grave” scenario: you know, “In Which I Am Born”, which worked very well for Victorian novelists, but would make today’s New York editors shriek with horror.
So while Barbara had a fascinating back-story before her birth (her mother was a merchant heiress who, at fifteen, went against her father’s wishes to marry a young lord who’d fought a duel to impress her), followed by a tumultuous childhood (her royalist father was killed in the Civil War and her mother’s fortune was confiscated by Cromwell, while the infant Barbara was put out to live in the country after her mother married her dead husband’s cousin), I decided the most interesting part of Barbara’s story began after she came to London as a teenager.
But a starry-eyed young heroine arriving in the big city is hardly an original way to begin a book, and besides, Barbara had a bit too much historical baggage to make her first appearance as an innocent ingénue. In just about every other book, both fiction and nonfiction, Barbara is portrayed as a pretty unsavory woman, often an out-and-out villain: beautiful, seductive, and clever, but also greedy, grasping, immoral, and manipulative. I couldn’t reform her, but I could tell her story in a way to explain why she was the way she was.
I decided to begin with a nineteen-year-old Barbara, at the most important crossroad of her life. (The starry-eyed ingenue now appears elsewhere in the book.) She’s already realized she let herself be pushed into a loveless marriage. Now, at her husband Roger’s insistence, she is about to risk her life to serve the exiled King Charles. I wanted to show how her husband is more concerned about using her to gain favor with the king than for her own welfare. I also hoped to earn some empathy for Barbara and her situation.
However, Barbara is no ordinary neglected wife. She’s even more ambitious than Roger. I wanted to make it clear that she, too, is thinking of her own future outside of her marriage. Through her thoughts as she leaves her husband, I wanted to set up what would follow next: that she would meet the king and become his lover, and set the course for the rest of her notorious life.
In addition to establishing the story, I had to establish Barbara’s voice. Royal Harlot is written in first-person, as if Barbara is telling her own story. I couldn’t be the omniscient narrator explaining life in seventeenth-century England. Everything had to be explained through Barbara’s point of view. From her first words, I wanted how she spoke to be as indicative of her character as what she was saying. That’s why that first paragraph took me so long to get right, and why I kept coming back to it as I wrote the rest of the book. Now you can decide if I succeeded.
I’ll be giving away a copy of Royal Harlot to a reader chosen from those who leave a comment or question. Happy new year!
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From Royal Harlot
Copyright 2007 by Susan Holloway Scott
I was, I think, a gambler born.
I don’t mean a few pennies at whist or ombre, a piddling hand of pasteboard cards. I speak of grander games, where the stakes are power, titles, great fortunes, even the heart of the King of England. Mark you, I’m no coward. I wouldn’t have survived so long if I were. I know how to take my risks, and my vengeance, too, on those who dared to cross me. But how I did parlay my beauty and wit to rise so high: that was the game I chose, the game that became my life.
A gambler, yes. Yet as I sat in the hired carriage not far from the beach and the sea, I was not half so sure of my courage. I was only nineteen then, and I’d never yet strayed from England. The moonless sky was black and wet as pitch, the sea below it clipped with whitecaps. The little sloop that was to take me across to Holland bobbed and tugged at her moorings, her crew scrambling about her narrow deck with their heads bent against the wind and spray as they made their last preparations to sail. It seemed a woeful vessel to trust with my life, as well with as the hopes of so many others.
“There’s the signal, Barbara.” Beside me in the carriage, my husband Roger pointed at the lantern held aloft by a sailor. “You must go to them now.”
“I know.” I retied the ribbons of my hood beneath my chin, not because they’d come loose, but to give my anxious fingers some occupation. “Though I wish the sailors could wait until dawn.”
“Oh, yes, so all the Commonwealth’s navy can be sure to come and bid you a happy farewell.” He sighed with exasperation. “You knew this wouldn’t be a pleasure-boat when you agreed to go, Barbara. It’s too late now for you to change your mind.”
“I’ve not changed my mind, Roger,” I said, wishing he’d show a bit of concern for my welfare. “I only hoped the weather were less fierce, that is all.”
“It’s better this way.” His pale face was serious in the carriage’s half-light. “I’ve told you before that if you’re caught, no one will come to your rescue, especially if you’ve no time to destroy the letters. You’re far safer on a night such as this.”
I nodded, smoothing my hand along the front of my bodice with a flutter of excitement. I was courting danger, no mistake. Hidden between my whalebone stays and my smock were letters of great importance to the Royalist cause, letters of support and promises of money for King Charles in exile. Sewn into my quilted petticoats were gold coins, too, destined for the royal pockets. Not once in my short life had there been a king upon the empty English throne. Cromwell and his sour-faced followers had seen to that with a long and hateful civil war, and hidden away all the country’s natural merriment beneath a grey pall of restrictive laws and false piety.
But now Cromwell was dead, and the government he’d created was falling in crumbling disarray. There were more and more of us around the country working for the restoration of the monarchy. Roger was thick in the middle of the plotting and planning, and well trusted by the Royalist leaders, which was why, as his wife, I’d been chosen as a courier. Yet the old laws were still in place, and if I were captured and the papers I carried discovered, I’d be damned as a spy, and sent to the Tower until I was tried for treason. If convicted, I’d be executed, for there was little mercy to be found among the Parliamentary judges for Royalists.
“You’re the only one of us who could go, Barbara,” Roger continued. “There’s no one else who could be spared from our work in London.”
“You mean there was no one else who was willing to sail to Flanders and risk the smallpox.” I’d had the disease the year before, one of the rare folk to survive, and with my face left clear and unpocked, too. I could travel with impunity into any outbreak, such as the one now ravaging the city of Brussels.
“Your immunity is a consideration, of course,” Roger admitted. “But that’s only part of the reason you are being sent, Barbara. I shouldn’t have to remind you of how important His Majesty’s return is to my family’s fortunes. I’ve personally given over a thousand pounds I could ill afford to support the king.”
I’d grown vastly tired of hearing of this famous contribution, trotted out whenever Roger wished to puff his own importance. “You wish such praise for your precious thousand pounds, while you think nothing that I’m to risk my life for the same cause. A pretty balance, that.”
His voice turned sharp, the way it often was when he criticized me. “You’ve been quite willing to enjoy the benefits of being Mistress Palmer. It’s high time you returned the favor to my father and me, and prove for once you can be an obedient wife.”
I looked away at the spray-dappled glass, refusing to let him open this old quarrel again. We’d so many of them between us for less than a year of marriage, most centered on what he perceived to be my excessive frivolity. Yet I was no better nor worse than the others among our Royalist friends. With so much unhappiness in our war-ravaged pasts and only uncertainty to our futures, we all took our pleasure wherever we found it, and gave no more thought when it was done. Roger had known when we wed that he hadn’t been my first lover, any more than I had been his, and if he continued this harshness with me, I vowed he wouldn’t be my last, either. Was it any wonder that I now lamented the grievous mistake I’d made, letting my mother push me from her house into such a marriage?
As if to prove it, Roger’s lecture was continuing still. “I expect you to present my family’s case to His Majesty, how much we’ve sacrificed by supporting him, and how we hope to be rewarded for our loyalty. Be agreeable to the king, Barbara, and make good use of every minute you have in his company.”
“But I will, Roger,” I said, and I meant it far more than my husband, so full of smug conceit, would realize. Even in impoverished exile, Charles Stuart was reputed to be everything a monarch should: tall, virile, intelligent, and charming. How could I not wish to break free of my husband’s overbearing shadow to meet such a man?
“Obey me in this, Barbara,” Roger warned, his misguided idea of a farewell between husband and wife. “I’ll hear of it if you don’t.”
“Perhaps you’ll hear of it sooner if I do.” I opened the carriage door, my cloak whipping around me, driven as if from my own anticipation as by the wind. “Good-bye, Roger. . . .”
Click here for the entire prologue.