What with plotting, researching, and tweaking what’s already been written, I’m still in the opening stages of Charles & Mélanie Book #4, so openings of books are much on my mind. I blogged a few weeks ago about opening lines. But I was thinking yesterday that opening scenes are in there own way as important as the initial line. Where to start? In the midst of action, which plunges one into the excitement but can be confusing without plot and character details to anchor one and give one someone to root for. With the characters, which sets up the world and can engage sympathies but risks being too slow. And at what point in the story do you open a book? Where does back story leave off and “present day story” begin?
Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, begins with the exiled Francis Crawford of Lymond slipping back into Scotland. Action sequence follows action sequence, including a confrontation with Lymond’s family. We see Lymond in action, we see him from the pov of other characters, we learn about him and we want to know more. It’s an opening that had me totally hooked, though I should say that a lot of readers (even readers who end up loving the series) have a difficult time with the first hundred pages or so of The Game of Kings. Some find it confusing. Some find Lymond unsympathetic (my mom was in that category, while to me it was clear from the first that Lymond had more complicated motivations than appeared on the surface; wanting to learn about those motivations was part of what kept me reading.
Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first book in her Mary Russell series, opens in a very different way. There’s a bit of action–Russell nearly stepping on Sherlock Holmes–but then the opening chapter becomes essentially a long dialogue between Russell and Holmes, during which they learn a great deal about each other and the reader witnesses the delicate but amazingly strong bond that begins to form between them. After that scene, I would have followed those two characters anywhere.
Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy begins with Sophy’s father, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey, calling on his sister, Lady Ombersley, and asking her to take charge of Sophy while he goes to Brazil. The first chapter is a long conversation between Sir Horace and Lady Ombersley, which sets up the family, the problems they face, and the conflicts that will drive the book. When I read The Grand Sophy, my first Heyer novel, at the age of ten, I was completely pulled into the world depicted. The characters seemed vivid even before they appeared on the page, and I wanted to learn more. But I’d probably be afraid to start a book with a similar scene–I’d worry it was too “talky.” Which is perhaps too bad, because it’s certainly an opening that worked for me as a reader.
I knew from the first that Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game would open on the night Colin was kidnapped. I started out in Colin’s pov, then decided I needed to set the stage of the broader world in which the book takes place more. So I added the opening in the kidnapper’s pov. The reader in introduced to Charles and Mélanie’s world through the kidnapper’s eyes, which seemed to me a good way to set up both the glittering world in which the Fraser family lives and the darkness lying beneath it. The book underwent a lot of revisions, but the opening essentially remained unchanged.
Beneath a Silent Moon on the other hand originally began in Scotland on the night of the murder. In fact, what was the original opening of the book is now the end of Chapter 13. At another point (still in the early stages of writing), the book opened with Charles and Mel arriving at Dunmykel. The plot changed and evolved and I realized I needed to start in London. Once I knew that, it made sense to start with the Glenister House ball. But I still wanted a darker opening. As soon as I thought that through, I wrote the scene with with the unnamed many sneaking into London. It took me a while to get there, but it now seems inevitable to me that the book begins there.
It seems obvious to me where Charles & Mélanie Book #4 should start. We’ll see if it stays that way by the time I finish a first draft of the book. The scene is below (it already needs some rewriting based on plot changes I’ve made). It doesn’t really contain any spoilers beyond what’s on the book’s detail page, but you an always skip ahead to the comments section. Do post your thought about opening scenes. What are some of your favorites? What do you think makes them work? Writers, what are some of the challenges you’ve found in deciding where and how to open a book?
This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie to Simon with a rather delicate question relating to Charles.
Rifle fire peppered the air. Charles Fraser came awake with a jerk and tightened his grip on his wife. Mélanie froze in his arms, then sat bolt upright in bed. Another hale of bullets. One rifle. No, not a rifle. Rapping. On the oak door panels.
“I’m sorry, sir. Madam.” It was Michael, their footman, outside the door. “But Inspector Roth is below.”
Charles pushed back the coverlet, letting in a blast of chill air. “Dressing gown,” Mélanie said, which was sensible as he wasn’t wearing a nightshirt. He grabbed his dressing gown from the bench at the foot of the bed and struggled into it. By the time he got to the door, Mélanie was beside him, similarly garbed.
Michael’s young, fine-boned face was white above the flame of his candle. “Mr. Roth didn’t say what the trouble was. But he insisted I wake you. I thought—”
“Yes.” Charles touched him on the shoulder. “Quite right. Thank you, Michael.”
He met Mélanie’s gaze for a moment. A dozen possibilities, each more unpleasant than the last, hovered between them. “Best to know at once,” Mélanie said.
But before they went to the stairs they turned down the passage to the nursery rooms. The tin-shaded night lights showed Colin, six-and-a-half, tangled in the coverlet, and Jessica, three, sharing her pillow with the family cat. Charles heard Mélanie give a sigh he thought only he could have detected. He took her hand, only in part because of the house was shrouded in darkness.
The light of his candle jumped and leapt over the stair wall and the curving balustrade. In the ground floor hall, cloud-filtered moonlight spilled through the fanlight over the front door. The marble tiles were cold underfoot. The long-case clock said that it was twenty-five minutes past four. Jeremy Roth, Bow Street Runner, had become a friend, but even their closest friends weren’t in the habit of making calls at this hour.
Roth was in the library, pacing before the banked coals in the fireplace. He turned at the opening of the double doors and came quickly forward. The sharp-featured face which had been alight with compassion when he investigated the abduction of their son in November and intent with the chase when they investigated a murder together in January was set, the eyes oddly hooded. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But this couldn’t wait.”
“It’s hardly the first time we’ve been awakened in the middle of the night. And I doubt it will be the last.” Mélanie gestured him to a chair, as though she wore a morning dress with every hook done up instead of being wrapped in seafoam silk and ivory lace with her feet bare and her dark hair spilling over her shoulders.
“I thought you’d finally got round to calling me Mélanie.”
Roth took a step forward. “Do you know where Miss Dudley is?”
Of all the names they might have heard, their children’s governess was the last Charles had expected. “Asleep upstairs,” he said.
“When did you last see her?”
“In the drawing room after dinner. We played lottery tickets with the chidlren.”
“What time did she go up?”
“About half-past ten, I think,” Mélanie said. “I wasn’t looking closely at the clock.” She exchanged a look with Charles.
“You’re sure she went to her room?”
“I thought I was,” Mélanie said. “Colin and Jessica are asleep. But we didn’t look in Laura’s room. I’ll be right back.”
Charles watched the doors close behind her and turned back to Roth. “What in God’s name—”
“Was Miss Dudley acquainted with the Duke of Trenchard?” Roth asked.
Charles rubbed his eyes. “Trenchard? Good God, no. At least not to my knowledge.”
“She hadn’t met him at your house?”
“Trenchard doesn’t exactly move in our set.”
“He’s a duke. You’re a duke’s grandson.”
“Trenchard’s a Tory, a crony of the Prime Minister. I’m a Whig. Yes, I know, our friends cross political lines. Trenchard’s been here once or twice. I can’t remember Laura ever meeting him, but it’s possible they shook hands at one of our larger parties. Why is this important?”
“How long has Miss Dudley been in your employ?”
“Three years. No, three and a half now. Mélanie engaged her when we were in Paris after Waterloo.”
“Miss Dudley was living in Paris?”
“She’d gone their with her former employer and found herself without a position when her charge eloped with a junior officer.”
“You saw her references?”
“Mélanie did. I was still an attaché and being given intelligence work. I was gone much of the time.”
“Miss Dudley wasn’t one of your agents?”
“My agents? I don’t have agents.”
Roth stared at him.
“Yes, all right, when I was more actively involved in intelligence there were people who reported to me. But why on earth would I engage an agent to look after my children?”
“For cover. Or to protect her. You take looking after your own seriously.”
“Laura Dudley never worked for me except as governess to Colin and Jessica. Roth—”
The doors swung open and Mélanie hurried back into the room. “Laura’s bed is neatly made up and one of her cloaks is missing. Jeremy, in God’s name where is she?”
“Do you recall Miss Dudley ever meeting the Duke of Trenchard?”
“Once, at a reception for the Esterhazys’. She brought the children in. Why?”
“Because Trenchard was found stabbed to death in his study an hour ago. And Miss Dudley was in the room, holding the knife.”
Charles stared into Roth’s hard eyes and bit back an exclamation of disbelief, closely followed by a curse.
“I knew things had been quiet for too long,” Mélanie said. “You’d think by now we’d be used to hearing shocking revelations
“What’s Laura said?” Charles asked.
“That she called on the duke to discuss some private business she won’t reveal, and that he was dead when she walked into the room.”
“Where is she now?”
“At the Brown Bear with one of my constables.”
“The room when Trenchard died—”
“I’ve kept people out of it. There’s no sign of forced entry. Miss Dudley says that when it was clear she could do nothing for the duke, she summoned one of Trenchard’s footman. She gave him a note to send to Bow Street and addressed it to me.”
“That doesn’t sound like the action of a murderer,” Mélanie said.
“It might be the action of a very cool-headed murderer. Miss Dudley, from what I’ve seen of her, is exceedingly cool-headed. When I arrived she gave me a very brief statement and suggested I remove her to Bow Street before I woke the duchess. She refused to explain further.”
“Who else knows?” Charles asked.
“I woke the duchess after I arrived and informed her. The eldest son returned home in the midst of it. Neither of them had the least idea of why Miss Dudley might have had business with the duke.”
“The Home Secretary—”
“I haven’t informed him yet. Or the Prime Minister or anyone else. I came to you first.”
“We want to see Laura,” Mélanie said.
“I assumed you would. Though I should warn you she says she won’t talk.”