Sunday, June 7, 2009

Opening Salvos - 3: The Queen of Bedlam

Fiction writers know well the need to open their stories with some sort of hook, but the forms of those hooks vary. They are sometimes deceptively quiet, or brash and outlandish, frank with outright statements of apparent fact, or some combination of bold and calm, of fact and surprise, et cetera.

The perfect hook can often be the most difficult part of the book to write, and some authors wait to the final draft before finding exactly the right way to open the story. I've gone back after several drafts of a story, and totally changed the beginning. Perhaps it isn't relevant anymore. Perhaps it hints at directions the story never takes. Perhaps I've discovered the story doesn't begin there, but earlier, later, or somewhere else altogether, in a place I didn't expect.

Sequel to Speaks the Nightbird, The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon opens quietly with interesting facts about the setting. Don't be fooled by the quiet, though; what follows is a dramatic and twisty tale.

'Twas said better to light a candle than to curse the dark, but in the town of New York in the summer of 1702 one might do both, for the candles were small and the dark was large. True, there were the town-appointed constables and watchmen. Yet often between Dock Street and the Broad Way these heroes of the nocturne lost their courage to a flask of John Barleycorn and the other temptations that beckoned so flagrantly on the midsummer breeze, be it the sound of merriment from the harbor taverns or the intoxicating scent of perfume from the rose-colored house of Polly Blossom.

The nightlife was, in a word, lively. Though the town awakened before sunrise to the industrious bells of mercantile and farming labors, there were still many who preferred to apply their sleeping hours to the avocations of drinking, gambling, and what mischief might follow those troublesome twins. The sun would certainly rise on the morrow, but tonight was always a temptation. Why else would this brash and eager, Dutch-groomed and now English-dressed town boast more than a dozen taverns, if not for the joy of intemperate companionship?

But the young man who sat alone at a table in the back room of the Old Admiral was not there to seek companions, be they of humankind or brewer's yeast. He did have before him a tankard of strong dark ale, which he sipped at every so often, but this was a prop to blend into the scene.
In the previous Opening Salvos posts (read Opening Salvos - 2: Old Man's War, and Opening Salvos - 1: In a Dark Wood), I have discussed changes that in my humble editorial experience could have improved the first few paragraphs of published works, but I wouldn't change a thing about this one. It works, and the reader needs every detail to better understand what happens next -- which I shall not reveal, so that you may experience this bizarre, intriguing, disturbing, and even funny, yarn for yourself.


On his website, McCammon has an excellent article about writing frightening fiction: "Innocence and Terror -- The Heart of Horror". One paragraph applies to all fiction, regardless of the level of horror included in its pages:
I like to read a good, go-for-the-gory-gusto horror novel every now and then, but they don't stay on my shelves. I read them and toss them out. The novels that stay do more than terrify. They resonate with human emotion, though, and---yes, a kind of innocence---long after the pages are closed. (emphasis mine)
Though I want it to entertain, I hope that my own work does more than provide a literary hors deouvres, but is a feast that sustains the mind and the soul. And, dagnabbit, I wish I could write like McCammon!

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