Saturday, November 4, 2017

1st 5 Pages November Workshop- Weems

Name: Sue L. Weems
Genre: Middle grade: historical mystery
Title: Ghost Town Diaries: Stanton’s Shadow

Everybody in the Arizona territory except Rebekah “Reb” Harden wanted one thing in 1890: gold. Reb was after two things knowing neither was likely to pan out, even on her twelfth birthday. Her first wish was the same thing she’d prayed for day and night for over a year: her father’s return. Her second wish was more and less complicated: to eat alone where she didn’t have to hear and smell the miners eating breakfast in their large boardinghouse’s dining room. 

Her mother had laughed at the second wish as she plaited Reb’s hair for bed. “But if we don’t serve breakfast and lunch, how will I keep you in boots? I’m not taking in boarders,” she said.

“Except Corky.” Reb smiled thinking of the animated gray-haired, peg-legged man who lived downstairs and filled the lunch pails every day.

“Corky isn’t a boarder. He’s practically family.” Her mother finished off the braid with a torn piece of muslin.

“Nobody wants to smell the six day stink on a miner on their birthday or any other day,” Reb grumbled. She turned to face her momma. “Don’t you think we ought to try to head back to Kansas? What if Daddy’s…”

“Shhh.” Momma hushed her.

Reb was tired of being hushed and tired of running around serving miners meals and tired of waiting for her daddy to return from sorting out the property dispute. She was tired of everyone telling her what to do and how to do it. If it weren’t for Corky, her Momma might have already listened to reason and left Stanton and the mining town for good. If J.R. Martin Sr. hadn’t died and left her daddy the boardinghouse and property, he wouldn’t have left for Prescott and they might have been back in Kansas by now. 

“Night, lighting bug. Keep shining.” Her momma hugged her and pulled the thin sheet over her.

“Still no lighting bugs in the Arizona territory,” Reb said with a sigh. Her mother gave a tired smile, and Reb felt a pang of regret. Her momma’s life wasn’t easy either. “Night, Momma.”

The next morning, Reb rubbed her eyes in the dim room. Her foot hit a box at the edge of the bed and she sat up remembering her birthday. Light was just dawning over the edge of the canyon through her window and Reb snagged the box,  surprised to see a second one. She already knew the first box was boots— the one thing her momma splurged on each year, having them sent from back east. Reb opened the box and inhaled the new leather. Tucked down the side of the box though were two books. 

She gasped. The first book was Little Women, a book her mother had tried to order several times. The second was a book of blank pages. On the inside was an inscription:

“Things start to change at twelve, but I know you’re ready. Write down your days to share with Daddy when he returns. We love you so much. Keep shining, Momma and Daddy” 

In the bottom of the box was a quill pen and little glass bottle of ink. 

Looking around her sparse room, Reb imagined her room back in Leavenworth. It had a pretty little white desk where a book and pen like this would fit neatly. She frowned, wondering if after five years she would fit at the desk, even if they hadn’t sold it to head to the Arizona territory. Here, her room had a bed, two shabby yellow curtains, and a set of hooks to hang her clothes on. Reb put the books back in the box and replaced the lid, sliding it under the bed. 

She opened the second box and frowned, suddenly glad she wasn’t opening it in front of her mother. Clothes. Not just any clothes. Reb held up the cream colored shirt, a single simple ruffle along the button line. Underneath, there was a calico skirt and underthings. Reb scowled. She supposed this was her momma’s way of letting her know she was going to be a grown up soon, but Reb wasn’t trading in her pants. Not now and maybe not ever. 

She pulled on a her favorite trousers with a plaid short sleeve button down shirt, and she tugged on her new boots. 

In the stairwell, the gruff voices beneath her rumbled like harmless storm clouds. “But what’s she running’ around with an injun for, Corky? Ain’t right. Somebody’ll…”

Corky’s voice was crisp. “Shut it, Varner. Sammy’s momma might be Apache, but she’s been in Stanton since the day Lu opened that laundry. None of your business.”

Reb froze. It wasn’t the first time she’d overheard people talk about her best friend Sammy. Reb didn’t understand, except she thought maybe people were mad because Sammy said his daddy was Geronimo. No accounting for adults.

Reb tiptoed back up the stairs and made a point to stomp down loud enough to wake the dead. Corky shouted at the men.

“It’s Reb’s birthday, ya filthy animals. Try to be respectable for once!” 

Reb stifled a giggle and jumped down the last two steps, landing with a bang like she had each year they’d been in Arizona.

“Here she is!” Corky yelled. All six tables full of men hollered “happy birthday” along with a chorus of whistles and hoots. Reb grinned down to her boots. 

“Thanks, everyone,” Reb said. Corky whistled pointing to her boots, his dark gray hair unusually well combed this morning. Even his beard didn’t have any crumbs. 

“Morning, Corky.” She hugged him round the waist, noting that he must have bathed. 

He grinned. “Now listen here. I’ve got the breakfast shift. We set up a table for you out back. Sammy’s gonna come by in a bit so you can go quail hunting. How’s that sound for a birthday treat?”

“Corky!” her mother was smiling, but firm. “We said if she wanted to, remember?”

Corky’s eyes glimmered, and he stomped his peg leg and cane at once. “Kay Harden, nobody said she had to, nobody said it! Why’d she want to go outside when she could stay in here slopping around?”

Kay gave him a warning look and waved him back to work. She nodded her head to the back door, leading Reb outside. 

On the covered back porch, her momma had set up a milking stool with a handkerchief over it. On top, she had arranged some scrub daisies in a square. It reminded Reb of their placemats from Kansas. 

“Oh, Momma, thank you.” 

“You got your wish, Reb. Happy birthday.” Her mother hugged her tight. 

“One of ‘em.” Reb plopped down on the wood planks and dug into her breakfast, thankful for the breeze and the outside air, free of body odor.

The second benefit of eating out back was she could wolf down her cakes in any fashion she saw fit instead of listening to her mother’s instruction on propriety at the breakfast table. As if manners could fend off the frontier. Reb’s fingers were sticky with her third cake when Doc Robbins startled her.

“Well, how’s the birthday girl this morning?” He had a finger stuck in the pocket of his vest like he was about to fish out a coin that never materialized. 

“Fine.” She’d learned a long time ago that one word answers cut conversation short, something that came in handy in a mining town.


  1. Hi Sue! Thank you so much for participating in the workshop, I enjoyed reading your pages. Reb is likeable and seems like she'd be a plucky/spunky female character. Someone you want to root for in the story. I like her relationships with the adults we see in her life - mom and Corky. Overall, there’s a lot crammed into these first five pages, the opening paragraph seems a bit of an "info-dump" I wanted more of Reb, I didn’t feel as though I was as emotionally connected to her as I would have liked by the end of the first five pages - there's a lot of set up -- is there a better way you can weave these details in as the story goes along?(her father leaving, the gold, etc) I think you would be better off slowing things down a bit, and really bringing the reader into the scene – when her mom is braiding her hair, and she talks of her birthday, maybe she could be more excited on her birthday as well. I love when she says "Nobody wants to smell the six day stink on a miner..." Perhaps that would be a more engaging way to open the story, (it's funny and shows her personality) then you can weave in the other details. I really like the last line of this section too - it says a lot, in a concise manner. Nice start! Robin

    1. I so appreciate this feedback! Will definitely shift the opening and see if I can create a stronger opportunity for readers to connect with her. Thanks!

  2. You had me at "historical mystery!" I really like your voice here. Reb sounds like such an interesting girl and both the opening and the last line posted makes me want to learn more about her: Why doesn't she want gold like everyone else and why does she like short conversations?
    I also love Corky--he seems like a fun guy that I'd love to see more of as your story continues.
    I think I feel a little as Robin does. I'm looking for even more connection to Reb and maybe a little background on the family's position there. I got a little confused as to why they have a boardinghouse but the mom doesn't want boarders. Are they in Arizona because they were left the house? Or did they go there in search of gold and that unfolded later? Great start!

    1. Thank you for letting me know what worked and what didn't. Will keep this in mind for the second draft.

  3. Hey Sue! I really enjoyed reading the first five pages and getting to know Reb, she's my kind of girl! You have a great voice and from the first five pages, I can already relate to your main character.

    I also would like to see a little more background on their family, and also maybe a little foreshadowing as to the mystery which will eventually unfold (although maybe that comes a little later). What is Reb's connection to Kansas? Was it her first home? A place that holds great memories and good friends? Or does she just think her daddy is there?
    I'm sad it had to stop at 5 pages, I was already looking forward to meeting Sammy, who sounds like an interesting character as well, and maybe warrants a short description when he is first mentioned. I'm excited to read more!

    1. Sammy's on the next page (in the same chapter), so it's good to know you were wanting to meet him. I'll work on getting the right amount of background trickled in here somehow. Thanks!

  4. Hi Sue!

    You’ve done a very impressive job here of anchoring us in the time period! All the details add up to make it feel very real, from the torn piece of muslin used as a ribbon to the six-day-stink of the miners (loved that!). Reb had a distinctive voice and I liked knowing what she wanted right from the start. However, I agree with the other comments that the opening paragraph in particular is a little info-dumpy. Would be better to weave in those details throughout the opening pages.

    I am curious about her father’s absence—would it really take over a year to sort out a property dispute? Does this have anything to do with the central mystery? It would be great to have some hint of where the story is headed by the end of the first five pages. I thought that the birthday presents were really sweet, and her reactions to them illustrated her character well, but they kind of slowed down the pace (for me, anyway), so maybe that could come later, or be shortened a bit? It feels like her conversation with Doc Robbins is going to be important… any way for that to come sooner?

    I enjoyed meeting all the supporting characters, too. Corky feels especially vivid--you’ve managed to accomplish a lot of characterization in this short space. Looking forward to reading the revision!

  5. Hey Sue-

    This is a fun beginning. The setting is interesting and Reb's voice is quite evocative. You really like her right off the bat.

    On rereading, the first few paragraphs seem kind of like they're just there to get some info across to the reader. I'd prefer the story to begin with Reb waking up on her birthday. The necessary details from the prior paragraphs could be sprinkled throughout the rest.

    Why is a boardinghouse not taking boarders?

    Reb reacts to Varner and Corky talking about Sammy, but she doesn't express any feelings about the fact that they're talking about her, too. I'd think a kid would find this at least interesting.

    Definitely interested to find out what happens next!

  6. Hi Sue,

    Thanks for submitting your pages. I’ve written two historical novels and I really like the category. You’ve got a good premise here. I can already see and hear Reb, and you’ve painted her well.

    I do, however, want to know what she’s up to. I feel that right now there is a lot going on, with a lot of names and places. One paragraph in particular has a lot of info:

    If it weren’t for Corky, her Momma might have already listened to reason and left Stanton and the mining town for good. If J.R. Martin Sr. hadn’t died and left her daddy the boardinghouse and property, he wouldn’t have left for Prescott and they might have been back in Kansas by now.

    Can you just say “left the mining town,” and “if Daddy hadn’t inherited the boardinghouse and property,” and is JR Martin Sr. Reb’s grandfather? Is he important to the story? I just thought this paragraph had a few too many place names, etc.

    The next morning, Reb rubbed her eyes in the dim room. Her foot hit a box…

    Is she standing up, or perhaps swinging her feet over the bed? Make this more active.

    Snagged the box? Perhaps grabbed?

    Maybe identify Leavenworth, Kansas in the first mention. First we hear Kansas, and then later Leavenworth.

    Rumbled like harmless storm clouds. Perhaps just Rumbled like storm clouds.

    Be careful with your depictions of the native Americans in the book. I know you want to be true to the place and time, but make sure it’s done well, with lots of research. You don’t want to get that stuff wrong.

    I think you have a good grasp of the time and place which is very important for a novel like this. That’s what will make it really ring true. The reference to the Little House books lets readers know what kind of world they’re going to explore. Nice job on this. Just try to make it as clear as possible for your middle grade readers. Less is more.

    Looking forward to seeing how it develops.

  7. I'm a bit late coming in so I'll make it quick. I'm eager to see what you did with the others' input.

    I love the flow of the story. It's relaxed and I can almost envision myself right there among the miners. Description is pretty good, but I'd love to focus in on more than just the miners' smell. Give me a hint of what they look like. Also, I'd guess that propriety at the table with such a rough group would not be much of a concern. If your point is that she is to act proper among the laborers, then it's better shown than told. Mama chastising her table manner while the men are dirty and eating like with dirty hands and not using utensils is a great visual of the expectations on this young lady.

    Editorial for echos. "Fit" is used several times in a short space. "Tired" is also overused. Even those this is middle grade, I'd like to see you age this up a bit. Kids this age are awkwardly articulate. They have more words to describe "tired."

    Opening paragraph doesn't grab me. In one sentence, it should feel like a "hook". Suggestion would be to start with "Gold! That's what everyone in Arizona desired. Everyone except Reb Hawkins."

    Speaking of "hook"...why should I be invested in Reb? I need more. She's a 12 year old who wants to get to Kansas. Why? And does it really matter?

    This is a bit of a harsh and quick, to the point critique. Your story has a great premise so far. I'm going to jump over to your first revision to see what you've done.