Monday, June 10, 2013

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Santelli Rev 1

Name: Rebecca C K Santelli
Genre: YA Historical Mystery
Title: A Serpent in the Garden

A Serpent in the Garden, Chapter 1

Germany, June 1148

The sound of the abbey bells danced in the young woman's ears. Soon her troubles would be over. When she reached the abbey, she would find an advocate, a protector, someone who could force him to acknowledge his son. Her arms tightened around the baby nestled in her cloak.

Why didn't he love his child? Why didn't he love her? She loved him still. In her dreams, she saw his burning eyes, savored the saltiness of his lips, felt the weight of his body as they lay on his feather-soft cloak, the night curled around them like a raven's wing.

The baby cried out, piercing and plaintive. She sat down and offered him her breast. He nuzzled against her chest. His tiny fingers brushed her face. Her lips parted. Her breathing slowed. The baby drank himself back to sleep, his warm neck resting in the crook of her arm.

A whistle sounded in the distance. The young woman's head jerked up. She knew that tune, his favorite hunting tune. It coursed through her veins like ice water. How had he found her?

She struggled to her feet and ran, but only for a few seconds. She could not escape him that way. He would strike her down from behind; the baby would be thrown to the ground, his delicate skull broken.

She would reason with him. She would promise to run away. To go where nobody knew them. She would not endanger his prospects. She would not tell the child his name. But he would never believe her. Not now.

Tears streamed down her face. They would hide in the woods. A ridiculous notion. He was an expert hunter. He would find them. She could picture his knife slicing her baby's throat, feel the blood on her hands, taste the screams in her mouth.

She saw only one choice.

She hid her sleeping son near the side of the road. Tucking him into the sheltering ferns, she rehearsed what she would say. She would tell him the baby died. Her tears would convince him. And she would die quietly, so her son would not wake and cry out. She ran her trembling hands down his cheeks. Was she doing the right thing? Yes. She was on abbey lands. God would reward her sacrifice by keeping the child safe. She looked at him for the last time, burning his face into her memory.

The whistling drew closer. She walked back to meet it.

A Serpent in the Garden, Chapter 2

2 weeks earlier.

I sat bolt upright, clutching the bedclothes, the fur coverlet damp in my sweating palms. Had I dreamt of my mother again—of chasing her ghost through darkened labyrinths and ruined crypts? She died fifteen years ago, when I was only a babe. When would I outgrow these nightmares? Perhaps if someone told me what really happened to her, but that will never be. My uncle Baldric forbids it.

Unable to settle myself, I decided to go to the castle's chapel and pray for her soul. Being careful not to wake my cousin, Gisela, I drew aside the curtains and climbed out of bed. A cold wind whistled through the window, scraping against my bare body like a pumice stone. I pulled my gown down from its pole on the stone wall and dressed quickly.

Exiting the great hall, I saw the crenelated battlements of the south wall snapping at the sapphire blue sky. I shuddered, feeling like a mouse trapped in the jaws of a lion. My tutor, Father Gregory, would have reproached me for such ingratitude. Most ladies would count themselves lucky to have a guardian as wise and temperate as Baron Baldric, but I knew he kept me out of duty rather than love. And most ladies do not have to contend with an uncle as reckless and cruel as his brother, Baron Arnulf.

I crossed the courtyard and passed beneath the stone archway into the chapel garden. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood at the center. Normally I found her beautiful, but in the shadow of my nightmare, the gleaming white figure suggested a shrouded corpse. I forced myself to walk on, but I gave the statue a wide berth, keeping close to the curving wall of the bergfried, a defensive tower of the Hirschburg. I reminded myself that departed souls entered into heavenly bliss, eternal punishment, or the cleansing fires of purgatory. They did not linger on earth to torment the living. Then, as if in direct challenge to my thoughts, a ghostly voice cried out. “Judge thou, O Lord, them that wrong me. Overthrow them that fight against me. Take hold of arms and shield, and rise up to help me.”

I looked at the bergfried. Was the soul of a long-dead warrior crying out for vengeance? I crossed myself quickly. The ghostly voice coughed. “Ghosts cannot catch chill,” I whispered. I scolded myself for being so childish. Clearly a flesh and blood human being was crying out to God for help, but who could be trapped in the bergfried?

A massive apple tree stood in the garden; its uppermost branches brushing the arrow slits on the second story of the bergfried. As a child, I clambered through those branches like a squirrel, but I had not braved them in three years.

The voice cried out again. “Say to my soul: I am thy salvation.” He sounded so desperate, I had to know who he was.

I seized the lowest branch of the apple tree. Three years of extra weight stretched the muscles in my arms. I took a deep breath and kicked my feet upwards. The rough bark gnawed at my fingers. My fashionable trumpet sleeves and voluminous skirts fought against me. But slowly and surely I ascended. At last I reached the two highest branches. Suspended between them, I peered into the nearest arrow slit.

A reassuringly mortal form huddled in the corner. He wore a dark robe, and on the top of his head a bare patch of skin shone slightly in the darkness. Why, it was a tonsure—and the robe that of a monk.

“Good Brother,” I called, “good Brother—”

“Good heavens!” The monk sprang up and rushed to arrow slit. “Are you an angel come to rescue me from me captors?”

So he was a captive. Surely this was the work of Baron Arnulf. He constantly accuses the monks at the nearby abbey of plotting to overthrow the Barons von Hirschburg, but the truth is Arnulf lusts after the abbey lands.

“No. Only a lady hanging in an apple tree, but I will help you if I can. How came you to this place?”

“I hardly know myself. It happened so quickly. Brother Rudolfus and I were in the forest collecting firewood, and we became separated. I heard a noise and, thinking it was Rudolfus, I called out. Then four men burst through the trees with swords drawn. They bound me and gagged me and dragged me away!”

“Was there a man among them with a great gray beard, bald as a vulture, with half his teeth black as cherry pits?”

“Indeed. A huge, hulking bear of a man with his stomach hanging halfway to his knees.”

“Arnulf! I knew it.”

“If I did wrong, I will gladly make amends.”


  1. I think you've made some nice changes to the language to make it more accessible and to clear up points of confusion. The prologue was definitely clearer, and the mother felt more authentic, though I still didn't connect with her quite like I'd hoped. I also just realized that you mention the baby is a son in the prologue, yet the MC is a girl. That coupled with chapter one starting with "two weeks earlier," and I'm intrigued, but I definitely want to know the prologue is essential.

    In chapter one, the language still hung me up a little. When you say the statue "suggested a shrouded corpse," I feel like I'm being told that's how the MC feels, but I'm not seeing her react that way. The line "My fashionable trumpet sleeves and voluminous skirts fought against me," could be stronger (for me) if you just start at "Trumpet skirts..." If you loosen up on the language or show more of her thoughts in straightforward terms to balance the language, I think it could be easier to connect to what's happening. Also, your sentences are consistently on the long side, so maybe consider having some shorter sentences for impact.

    This revision made a lot of improvements, and I think continuing to look at the language will only keep making it stronger!

  2. I especially love the improvements you've made to the first chapter. The snatch of his hunting tune was a perfect detail to convey the fear of what she's about to face. That was a great way to introduce him! I'm also really glad that you made clear who her enemy is--in the first draft, I'd wondered if he might be her baby's father but had been left wondering. I really like that I'm not left wondering here.

    I also like the greater clarity in chapter 2. In the previous draft, to me it read like the MC was the child of the woman in chapter one, a teenager now. The lines about her dreaming of her mother, who died when she was a babe, seemed to convey that she was. Now that I know she isn't, and that this is taking place two weeks before, I'm curious to know how your MC is going to be connected to that other babe who lost his mother. I'm suspecting the brother she sets free will be the one to find him and take him in, but that's just a guess. I do miss the part where she sets him free.

  3. Great improvements. I feel like I have a better understanding of what is going on in chapter one, especially since we now know it's the baby's father that is hunting them. I could relate to the mother more, feel her panic and emotion as she made her decision. I don't know how the story ends, but I admit I felt relief when I saw the actual story started two weeks earlier, so I'm hoping the mother and baby will somehow be saved!

    In chapter 2, her placement within the castle when she hears the monk makes more sense now. But for me, I still wonder about him being in a tower. Maybe just a short sentence explaining that prisoners were kept in the bergfried, unless he's there because he's a monk. just a thought.

  4. Hi Rebecca,

    This version cleared up questions that I didn't realize I had. There were a few things, e.g. the baby growing up to become the main character, as others have mentioned, that I just assumed the first time. Now I think Jennifer is completely right -- I want to know what's going on with the baby, if he's still out there, if this monk is in trouble for helping him, since he was left on abbey grounds, etc. Nice job.

    I get what you're saying in the first paragraph about her troubles being over, in that she won't be chased by the father anymore and her baby will be safe. However, it feels overstated a bit, since in the next paragraph she's discussing how the father has no interest in the baby. I'd think a woman at this time would have major troubles as an unwed mother, not to mention the unrequited love. Maybe you could reword that line so that she could breathe, or she would be safe -- something along those lines.

    I think Lora is completely right about the hunting tune. That's a really nice touch, and it makes sense. I also like the way you show the mother's reasoning for hiding the baby, that's it's not because it's a good idea per se, but it's the best option available to her. I *really* like her comment about dying quietly. That's just the epitome of a mother's sacrifice.

    You made some really nice changes in chapter two, especially the apple tree. I agree with Katy that the clothing descriptions could be shorter, although I know you're responding to Nancy's comments about helping to set the scene and place in time. I read a writing essay yesterday that suggested deleting all of the adjectives in a chapter, and then adding only the ones that were absolutely necessary back in as an exercise. I'm going to try it, because I can be adjective-heavy, and maybe it would help you, too.

    Overall, I think this version is much stronger than the first one. I like it, and I'm looking forward to reading revision two!

  5. I enjoy your descriptions, but yes, they can get a little clunky on occasion, so only using when necessary is important. I do connect with the mother in the first part, BUT I am having trouble with leading with it. It feels like a prologue, not everyone reads those chapter titles, and it's a YA so we don't usually go with adult POVs. IDK, I'm not saying it ISN'T necessary, but I worry about it. I also think waking with a recurring dream - waking up at all - is not the best start even if chapter two. Think on that.

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I've debated a lot about the prologue (I know it's often listed as a fiction don't). It's a fairly recent addition based on feedback from my writer's group. It's actually very common for mysteries to begin with a brief prologue focused on the victim, both so that the reader is invested in the main character's search for the killer, and so that the reader knows they are in store for a murder mystery even though the main character may not cross paths with the victim till chapter 2 or 3. I do notice this is less common in YA. I'd be really interested to hear other readers comments on whether those benefits of the prologue outweigh the risks of not starting in the midst of the main character's actions. I'll think about alternatives for the start of chapter 2 (2 'don'ts in a row - oh no!).

  6. Hi Rebecca,

    Wow! You've done a lot of great cleanup on this, and it is starting to come together with a lot of promise. I appreciate the added clarity that you've brought into play.

    I do agree that, if you decide to go with, what is essentially a prologue by any name, I would take Lisa's suggestion and make it clear how young the mother is. But really, I think at this point, now that i understand the story better, and I like your young MC SO much more in chapter two, I am wondering why you made the choice to remove us from all the action? Why not start with someone witnessing what happens to the mother and taking the baby? Just a thought to put us into the action. Obviously, I don't know where you are going with this, but it seems to me that if it happens near the abbey walls and we have this incredible young apple-tree climbing girl, she could be in a tree and witness the drama and we could FEEL it through her. IDK.

    The whistle is a good touch, but lords don't walk anywhere. They ride, and there are hoofbeats. Again, I wonder how she expects the baby to stay quiet? (And that could be an excellent opportunity for the girl to actually have to intervene to keep him quiet and make us love her even more if she is risking herself for a baby she doesn't even know!?!)

    Bottom line, the more you can show us a character we love, in action we understand, in a scene that shows us the world and what is happening in it without telling us what's happening, or what has happened, the more you can show us the emotions without telling us what characters are feeling, the more we will be eager to go along with you for the ride!

    Big leaps here, so I'm really looking forward to seeing this in the next round!

    1. Hi Martina,

      Thanks so much for your comments. This workshop is a great experience. I understand your suggestion to have the MC involved in that first scene, but the main focus of the novel is the MCs attempt to find out who the killer is, so I can't really have her witnessing the murder. My goals for the prologue are to make the reader care about the victim so later on they are invested in the main character's search for the killer, and so that the reader knows they are in store for a murder mystery. Maybe those goals are less important than immediately connecting with the MC. Would love to hear other people's thoughts.

      Also - quick question. What made you think the man in the prologue is a lord? I want to avoid that if possible. The other really difficult thing about the prologue is it has to be compatible with 3 different scenarios as to who the murderer actually is. I avoided hoofbeats because 2 of the suspects would have horses and 1 wouldn't. But if people assume the absence of a horse that's no good either.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  7. I assumed the pursuer in the prologue was a lord or other high-born man because of: "She would not tell the child his name." To have a true name back then implies (to me, at least), a family of some note. Could it be changed to: "she would never tell the child of his father."

    Your problem about not excluding any of three possible suspects is a difficult one! And I'm sure you've received many suggestions -- here's another. What if the prologue starts with the final stage of the pursuit? Drop us right in the worst, final moments of the mother's life? She's left the road, knowing he's spotted her, and is pushing through the underbrush, trying to stay hidden, trying to find the abbey walls. She knows he's tracking her like the expert hunter he is (you don't sneak up on prey on horseback). She's so near to safety, she can hear the abbey bells -- but knows she'll never make it because she also hears his whistling. She makes her final sacrifice by hiding the baby in the ferns by a stream and turning back to meet him.

    This approach means cutting out the tender passage about feeding the baby, but sacrificing her life for her child is testament enough to her maternal instincts. And the baby hidden by the stream -- monks often had fishing spots, or a pathway might follow the stream on the other side -- lots of ways someone could discover the babe even though he's not by the roadside.

    As always, my humble opinion.

  8. Okay - I'm popping in one last time here. I didn't even get that this was a mystery. I see it as historical fantasy first because that's what you call it. In my own manuscripts, I often have a mystery as a large part of the story without making the book a "mystery" if that makes any sense. The nice thing about YA is that you don't HAVE to keep to genre restrictions or norms. Mix it up! I as a reader (and writer) would rather connect with the MC first anyway. Just my two cents!