Monday, November 3, 2014

First 5 pages November Workshop - Towle

Sarah Towle
Young Adult Creative Non-fiction, History

Chapter One: Introduction

On 5 October 1789, I was dispatched without delay or deliberation to the village of Versailles, seat of the royal family that had ruled France for more than 800 years. I was sent to warn my colleagues at the King’s Garden of the coming storm, for this was no ordinary squall from the heavens. This was a gale of humanity. And its intensity was increasing with each enraged footfall.

The women of Paris were starving. Their children and their aged, as well, were starving. A hailstorm had wiped out France’s wheat crop that year. Now all but the richest lacked daily bread, their main—and sometimes only—source of food.

They were angry. Their hunger—and the quiet urgings of those wishing to fan the flames of revolution—had transformed their anger to fury. Their fury, in turn, was driving them to madness.

That morning at Paris’ central marketplace, Les Halles, an outcry over the price of bread erupted into a spontaneous demonstration. A group of women marched to City Hall, the Hotel de Ville, demanding food. They beat drums and brandished kitchen knives, encouraged by revolutionary agitators.

Their cries for justice attracted more and more women until their numbers swelled to as many as 10,000. They surged through the gates of the Hotel, ransacking its stores and weapons. But they wanted not just one meal. They sought assurance that bread would once again be plentiful and affordable to the masses. But rather than answer the women’s anguished appeals, the city’s governors merely fled.

All at once a rallying cry was heard: “À Versailles ! To Versailles!” someone shouted. And just like that the women were away, on foot, ready to march the 23 kilometers to the king’s Chateau.

They set out to petition their Queen, Marie-Antoinette, for an audience. They hoped to persuade her to flee her gilded cage, to come to Paris to witness their suffering. Surely a woman and a mother—even a queen—would understand their torment.

Sprinkled among them, the furtive revolutionaries had another motive: They wished to take advantage of the women’s misery to force the king, his court and governors—The Assembly—to leave Versailles and return to Paris for good.

On learning of the chaos, my chef at the King’s Garden in Paris, Chief-Botanist-to-the-King Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, compelled me to outrun the women if I possibly could. Upon arrival at the Chateau, I was to go immediately to the aid of the palace botanists and gardeners and under-gardeners. They had no knowledge of the tempest that approached to threaten their masterpiece: the lush tapestry woven from nature, 150 years before, at the hands of history’s greatest landscape artist, André Le Notre.

The gardens at Versailles were Le Notre’s magnum opus, fashioned from the contributions of generations of plant hunters, the brave buccaneers of the botanical world who had already been forgotten by time. We could not allow the mob to lay waste to their legacy. It had to be safeguarded.

But the King’s Garden in Paris was also under threat that day. And my older, more established colleagues wished to defend its riches, as was their right. Thus, it fell to me to warn our counterparts at Versailles of the gathering danger en route from Paris.

I was the newest member of staff at the King’s Garden then, fresh from my study of botany at the University of Marseilles. Born into a bourgeois household, I knew only an existence of privilege. I had no knowledge of riots and starvation. I had never been in company with such people as these. I jumped at their cries for justice or blood. I flinched each time one of them brandished a makeshift weapon.

All along the route, I watched as more women dropped their washing and their brooms and left their children to join the fray. I grew more consumed with apprehension with each fretful step. Sweat dripped in rivulets from my brow. I wondered what I could possibly do to help calm a cyclone of humanity gone out of control.

Just stop now, my subconscious argued. No one will ever know if you never reach Versailles. And yet I kept advancing toward the torrent that surely lay ahead.

I knew not what would happen to the gardens, or to me, in the hours that ticked down to minutes faster than the ever-increasing beating of my heart. But I did understand this: Everything royal was under threat that day if the king and queen failed to do the crowd’s bidding. Even the soil that had been cultivated these 150 years to raise the crops intended for the king’s table.

Indeed, the yields of its furrows could well prove the salvation of the starving throng.

That was the answer!

I steeled my nerves and picked up my pace. I had to move quickly. The future of the King’s Garden depended on it.

Meet me at the Chateau de Versailles. Join me in the garden, at the location where I faced the angry mob. En route, enjoy this homage to France’s forgotten plant hunters: the courageous and dedicated heroes whom time overlooked in favor or tales of kings and war. These are the true fathers of natural science. They risked life and limb to traverse the earth at the service of country and king. They braved dangers far more life threatening than my own. At Versailles their life’s work was writ large by the master-gardeners of France’s last absolute monarchs: Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. In the gardens, you are transported to their life and times. Join me there to find out what happened the fateful day, 1789 October 6, when the 800-year-old French Monarchy fell forever.

CHAPTER TWO: The Perils of Plant Hunting

The roots of the King’s Garden burrow deep within French history, starting with the adventures of Pierre Belon. Belon was France’s first plant hunter and the idol of all of us who came after him. His story dates back a few hundred years to the King’s expedition of 1546. A different King, Francois I, reigned then. That year, he sent a mission to Constantinople to secure his alliance with Suleman the Magnificent, Grand Sultan of the Turkish Empire. Included in the voyage was young Belon, a restless doctor and naturalist only 29 years of age. His role: to gather healing treasures from the East and learn how to harness their curative powers.

In February 1547, Belon left the mission temporarily to explore the plant life of the Greek Islands. He obtained there the first of many discoveries: a sticky, brown resin used to make the perfumes coveted by kings.

The Greeks collected the resin by driving goats into the forests overgrown with labdanum bushes. They then scraped the resin from the beasts’ coats, using a special wooden comb with long, straight teeth. It was difficult work, done only in summer, under the murderous heat of the Mediterranean sun. This made the resin rare and, unbeknownst to Belon, quite valuable.

Pirates from the southern, or Barbary, coast of the Mediterranean considered the resin more precious than gold. They laid siege to Belon’s ship, carrying off both his resin and his companions.
Belon was lucky. Barbary pirates usually killed their victims or forced them into slavery. Belon was left alone in an empty boat, forced to navigate the sea on his own…


  1. Hi Sarah,

    Welcome to the workshop! Here are some comments for you:

    “The women of Paris were starving.”
    Love this sentence! Could you open with this paragraph and relocate the other? It begins with such a sense of urgency that it immediately grabs you.

    The transition to first person at the end of Chapter One kind of threw me at first. I wasn’t expecting it.

    You have some lovely language and imagery throughout. I’ll admit that creative nonfiction isn’t a genre that I’m very familiar with, but I loved your language.

    Hope this helps,

  2. Sarah, welcome to the workshop!

    You have a lovely way with words. Strong word choices make this piece the kind that you don't want to miss a word, because missing a word is a big deal. No fluff here.

    I'm not familiar with creative non-fiction, and how it should read. I think it's supposed to read like a story, right? If so, the opening seems to work well. There are some areas where I glazed over a bit and had to re-read, not because it wasn't well written, but because it had sort of a history book feel to it. I'm not sure if that's what's expected with creative nonfiction, so I'd hate to suggest something like rewriting those sections, when that might not be good advice.

    I once read a book called, "Fire Lover," which was nonfiction about an arsonist. It read just like fiction. As a reader, I felt like I was in the main character's shoes, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel. I wonder if there's a way to make this whole opening like that? Make the reader invest more into the characters of this time in history.

    You have a wonderful way with words, and the voice is appropriate and fitting within the time and setting. Nicely done!

  3. Sarah, you have a wonderful way with words, and you are clearly talented. It seems that this is a subject close to your heart, and one that has undergone a great deal of research. You are definitely a writer.

    I’m not sure, exactly, what type of story this is. I thought it was historical fiction, but the heading reads Creative Non-Fiction. These are two different things.

    I am not the best to critique non-fiction. If it is intended to be historical fiction, we need to learn much more abut your central character, and see this rich world through her eyes, with all the sensory and auditory detail that comes with creating a story. Right now it feels a little moment by moment.

    That said, you are a wonderful writer. I’m just not sure where this fits genre-wise. I’m curious to hear what others think.

    Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, created the category of the non-fiction novel. The story was true, but it was written in a way where we saw through the character’s eyes, and it read like fiction. Is that what you are going for?

  4. Hi Sarah - Thanks for sharing! As a Francophile and history geek I love your choice of setting. I do agree with the comment above about In Cold Blood, as the mom of a 16-yo I'm compelled to mention all the distractions you must compete with for YA attention. So, it's critical to pull them tout de suite - oui? I wonder how this would read if you open with this person (and I'm not clear on who it is, exactly) at the gates of Versailles. It's so important to get that teen-to-teen connection going, the longer the time span between them the more important it is. Try taking out everything that's not happening right that second and give us at least two full pages of immediate action. Then, if you have to have some backstory, see if there's a way to twist it and make it more immediate (through dialogue with other characters, hidden letters, etc.).

  5. Hi Sarah - I am not familiar with historical fiction, but found your story to be a good read. I'm not sure this would keep the attention of teens with all its details. I am under the impression the narrative voice is older, not in her teens. Young adults need someone in the story they can relate to and it's usually the protagonist. With that said you have a lovely way of telling a story, but perhaps think of a way for it to be more suitable for a young audience.

  6. Hi Sarah - Like other people have posted here, I'm not extremely familiar with the norms of creative non-fiction, but as I understand it, the goal of creative non-fiction is to make factual stories read like I'm going to address the issues with this piece relating to that aspect.

    You're prose is really beautiful and flows well, but it does have a text-book feel to it. I'm five pages in here and I don't have a clear idea of who this story is about. Is it Belon that we met in chapter two? Who is the pov character in chapter 1? Does he have a name?

    The section from "I was the newest member -- through -- The future of the King's Garden depended on it." are your strongest part and it is also the part that closest resembles fiction. I would focus on what your story is about and then hone in on that area, meaning will you be telling many stories from multiple points of view? If so, go from one to the next in a fiction format with clear divisions in between and let the points of view tell us about what is going on at the time. If it's from one point of view then stick with him and don't leave to tell us all these details about what the book should be doing, that reads as regular non-fiction.

    I hope this helps and I believe reading some creative non-fiction pieces like "Angela's Ashes" or "In Cold Blood" would be a great guideline to help you focus your writing.

    You are a skilled writer, I just think you need more focus on what your goal with this piece is. You seem to be bouncing back and forth between creative and regular non-fiction and I think you have to pick one area and move toward that end.

    My last question is, why is this YA? What is it about this that made you label it that way and what made you choose that as your audience for this subject matter? Being able to answer those questions may help you decide which direction you want your non-fiction to go.

    Good luck! See you next week! :)

  7. I don't read non-fiction and history genres but the way you began is well-organized and neat. I think you laid out the story in a way that reader's will understand. I really love the way you write. You just a way with words and that will pull reader's interest. But I think there is a big info dump. I feel like there's too much of it. I also question whether it will attract YA readers. I feel like this will target an adult audience. But other than that, I think your story is off to a very good start.

  8. Thanks everyone for your comments! You've given me much to think about and a lot to work with.

    It's interesting that you've all zeroed in on the question of genre -- about whether this is creative non-fiction or historical fiction -- because that's the question I've been struggling with myself.

    My first book in this series, Beware Mme la Guillotine, was creative non-fiction because the protagonist was a researchable historical figure. In this story, however, the narrator is invented. He is a composite of several people, all members of the same family, spanning three generations. That's why I've been hesitant to name him. That's why this story moves closer toward historical fiction.

    Everyone wants to know him better, to feel less distanced from him. So that will be my starting place for the next revision round. And I think you're right. He needs a name.

    Can someone please confirm that we are meant to keep working these first five pages? I assume so!

    PS To answer someone's question: this narrative is intended to be part of a story-based walking tour of the Versailles gardens, so it is atypical. Its target markets are education and educational tourism.

  9. Sarah, yes, these five pages should be revised for the next go 'round. Can't want to see your changes! Good luck.