Writing authorities advise us to begin, not at the beginning, but in medias res—in the midst of things. Thus I–who read Victorian novels for pleasure and wallowed happily in stories whose first chapters were titled “In which I am born”—began Isabella, my first published novel, like this:
“Disappeared?” the earl repeated in a dangerously quiet voice. “What the devil do you mean, ‘disappeared’? Seven-year-old girls don’t just vanish.”
Several books later, I began, not in medias res, but with a very long prologue in which the hero is conceived, born, and grows to manhood. That book, Lord of Scoundrels, continues to be popular in spite of all that prologue.
I don’t break rules intentionally. In fact, given my own reading preferences, I oughtn’t to start a book with a prologue. But each book seems to have its own beginning, and the writing gods (I imagine them as Egyptian, since that’s one of the places where writing started) tell me what the beginning is going to be. It’s a matter of staring into space until the first scene starts to play in my brain. Like a movie.
With rare exceptions (Lord of Scoundrels), this is all these deities offer me. For all succeeding scenes and chapters they tend to hang around offering no help whatsoever & sometimes heckling. They say things like, “You dork!” and “Delete! Delete!” and–as her brain said to Laurie Anderson– “Why don’t you get a real job?”
Thanks to the cavalier attitude of my writing gods, there’s no making rules these days about how to begin or where to begin—beyond the obvious Start With Something Interesting. Isabella started with a missing child. Lord of Scoundrels started with a nobleman losing his entire family—wife & children—to one of the ghastly diseases that often killed whole families.
But one of my favorites of my story beginnings is a very quiet one. It’s just a man looking out of a window.
He leant against the window frame, offering those within the exhibition hall a fine rear view of a long, well- proportioned frame, expensively garbed. He seemed to have his arms folded and his attention upon the window, though the thick glass could show him no more than a blurred image of Piccadilly.
It was clear in any case that the exhibition within–of the marvels Giovanni Belzoni had discovered in Egypt–had failed to hold his interest.
The woman surreptitiously studying him decided he would make the perfect model of the bored aristocrat.
Supremely assured. Perfectly poised. Immaculately dressed. Tall. Dark.
He turned his head, presenting the expected patrician profile.
It wasn’t what she expected.
She couldn’t breathe.
(For more excerpts from Chapter 1, visit here. The bearded fellow standing here is Giovanni Belzoni, the explorer who unearthed the marvels shown in the exhibition my hero seems so bored with. If you'd like to see & learn more, here's a good quality colored image of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly–and here's the tomb Belzoni recreated in London.)
Sometimes people disappear, sometimes they die, sometimes they’re doing reckless and dangerous things (Mr Impossible, Your Scandalous Ways), and sometimes they just stand there. There's no one way to begin. There simply has to be something in the scene that makes me want to go on with the story. Then I figure I’m on the right track, and that same “wanting to go on” will keep the reader turning pages.
What about you? What’s your favorite kind of beginning? Or your least favorite?
Your comment might win you a Loretta Chase book of your choice.