Critique Group – Let the Ghosts Speak

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Once again I have no critique submissions, so today I am posting the beginning of another story, one that has been stewing in my mind for about twenty years. The idea came from a dream, but I won’t describe it – too much of a spoiler. I don’t know when I will be able to finish it, but if readers pound on my door demanding that I write more, maybe I will. 🙂

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If you want to submit a manuscript for critique, please read the guidelines as well as this list of common mistakes to avoid before submitting.

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Let the Ghosts Speak – by Bryan Davis

I have forgotten love. My chains have driven it from me. Loneliness has leeched it from my bones and left behind only regret.

It is daylight once again. Is it not strange how the dawning hours seem to shatter every illusion of the night? I am sane today. This time I am certain of it, though the hauntings of the night again tested my confidence. Therefore, while my mind is clear, I must take pen and ink, so kindly provided by my only friendly visitor, and begin this story. I cannot say how long this season of sanity will remain with me, so I will write quickly and continue during every day of clarity until I finish this memoir.

Although you might well be dead by now, dear Mother, I dedicate these recollections to you, for your lullabies echo from these bare walls. Perhaps you alone knew what love really is. The ghosts tell me that few remember.

I see a world of children who walk in darkness, their bony hands stained with blood not their own, the blood of the innocent. I have been led by such hands, the frail hands of schoolboys in this realm of shadows. Will the rest of the world learn from their schoolmasters?

Alas! Forgive me. I am getting far ahead of myself. A sane man begins his tale at the beginning, so I shall relate where this story of heartbreak has its origins, in Paris where I, Justin Trotter, sat in the one-room dormitory I shared with Marc Noel.

You would have approved, Mother. The room was austere and clean, only a bed and a desk for each of us, situated above a constabulary and within walking distance of university and the theatre.

As students with thespian hearts, we spent most of our time attending classes, studying, and rehearsing for our respective roles in whatever play the community theatre offered. Most days never veered from this routine, but plans for the upcoming evening had Marc chattering like a little boy. The masquerade ball in the old schoolhouse was upon us, and my countenance matched Marc’s as closely as black matches white.

All Hallow’s Eve they call it, a despicable holiday in my view, especially on that fateful day. With cold rain falling the past two nights, the streets had turned to mud, the slimy sort that brings horses to an untimely end. I stared out our second-story window at a two-horse carriage splashing through turbid water and imagined my own tumble in the mire and a painful journey to the physician, something I could ill afford. Yet, even that would be a pleasure compared to dressing up in whatever ghastly costume Marc had in mind for me. With his imagination, I doubted that I would survive the shame.

As I sat on my tattered seat pad, my knees under my desk and my quill poised over my study notes, Marc laughed. “You can’t back out now, Justin. My mother purchased your disguise, and refunds are not allowed. Besides, the music will be grand. The evening is guaranteed to be a real foot clapper.”

A foot sleeper was more like it, but I held my tongue. I jotted down something unimportant about the Renaissance era from the tedious history book on my desktop. I wanted to appear busy—disconnected from Marc’s make-believe world of romance, a world in which people lived happily ever after. I knew better.

“Give me a moment.” I dipped my quill again and set the point above the page. Maybe getting out held the antidote to my doldrums. The rain had kept us inside and sometimes at each other’s throats. The afternoon’s rehearsal had been canceled due to our director’s sudden illness, the wretched fever that had stricken so many who had reached her advanced age.

With dusk signaling evening’s closing curtain on our view of the town, nothing else held my interest, certainly not watching wet horses while writing uninspired notes. Maybe I needed a break from the monotony. Yet, before I agreed to go, I could use my pretended hesitance as leverage.

I kept my focus on the page and began writing. “Give me one good reason why I should go to this party.”

Marc lit a lantern and turned up the wick. “Francine will be there.” His voice was low and sultry, as if he were playing a scripted role.

My pen paused over a misshapen letter R. “What difference does that make? I am far from deserving a spot on her list of suitable suitors.”

“So little you know.” Marc plucked away my quill. “I keep telling her about my brilliant roommate.”

“Brilliant enough to stay home on a night like this.” I nodded at the droplets pecking at the window panes. “You don’t need my dismal face spoiling the night’s fun.”

“You’re an actor. You can put on any face you choose.” Marc patted me on the back. “Now, come and get dressed. I won’t take no for an answer.”

I rose, stuffed my hands into my empty pockets, and pulled the insides out. “Your mother would never approve of me courting Francine.”

“Now, don’t go speaking ill of my mother again. Ever since Papa died she’s trusted my judgment in these matters. Potential trumps poverty, and she knows I wouldn’t guide my own sister toward a scoundrel.”

Marc was right. I was hopelessly virtuous, but only because women scared me to death. “Is Francine going in costume?”

“Of course. She’s been looking forward to this for weeks.”

“Let me guess. Joan of Arc.”

Marc nodded. “In full military battledress, a copy she made of the museum piece.”

“Seamstress extraordinaire and war general. Definitely Francine. A study in contrasts.”

“It will take a strong man to tame her.” Marc thrust at me with a pretend sword. “Just stay at the safe end of her blade, if you know what I mean.”

“All too well.” I let my gaze drift back to the window, though the curtain of darkness had fallen. Marc knew of a past spat between Francine and me, a minor dispute about politics that ended in laughter. He did not know, however, about a more recent skirmish that left me fearful of reentering her presence.

That topic, dear Mother, I will address at the proper time when I hope to dispel any thought that Francine was nothing more than a hot-headed shrew. It was my own foolish tongue that invited the lashing I received.

“I’ll go on one condition,” I said. “If Francine spurns me, you’ll help me with an excuse to leave on socially acceptable terms.”

“Of course, of course. I’ll just say that you took a stroll in the library on the second floor. Everyone knows how bookish you are.”

“True, but I hope you will invent a better word. Bookish is not what I would call a masculine trait.”

“Adventurous, then.” Marc withdrew a dark blue cloak from a trunk next to his bed. “Have you seen the library? It is fabulous, filled with ancient books and maps, perfect for your escape.” He held the cloak up to my chest. “You’ll be a navy captain. I have a hat to go with it and a mask.”

I touched one of the cloak’s brass buttons. “So if Francine turns her heel, I can go on a voyage to the land of books.”

“Exactly.” Marc laid the cloak in my arms. “Get dressed. We have to be at the schoolhouse in half an hour.”

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38 replies

  1. Wow I really enjoyed this! From the start, I was hooked. I love the different style, as if it is being told in retrospect, so to speak, and I loved the almost poeticness of how it is written. It really stood out, especially in the beginning. It made me sad.
    One my first read through, all I noticed was “within walking distance of university and the theatre.”
    Shouldn’t it be “distance of THE university and the theatre” or was that intentional in some way?

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  2. Wow! I was surprised how it differed from your normal (well, at least from that I’ve read) writing style. But you did an amazing job with that! As mentioned in the comment above, it does almost have a poetic feel to it, which I like. 🙂

    From the very beginning I was hooked. And when you said that he had seasons of sanity, that piqued my interest a decent bit.

    I hope that you write more! I’d definitely read it!! 🙂

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  3. Sounds awesome so far, you should continue 🙂

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  4. I love this! As others have said, it’s quite different from your usual style (which I also love), and it has a moody, mysterious ambience to it. You deftly painted brief strokes of the storyworld and time period. I can’t wait to meet Francine, and I’m especially interested in Justin’s seasons of sanity. All in all, I can’t find anything to critique. 🙂

    Consider this the first pounding on your door, begging for more!

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  5. You definitely should write this! I believe another dream you hand turned into a great book, Wonder which one that was? 😉
    The descriptions definitely seem Victorian-era and sort of uptight. “Constabulary”, “doldrums”, and “physician”. Don’t hear those words very often in modern day English.

    Definitely a different style, with a sort of injecting thoughts while writing a book. Different, but it would be an interesting read!

    I think it’s neat that you included Joan of Arc.

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  6. Oh really? That’s very interesting.

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  7. I thought it was beautifully written. The setting was clear and striking. I liked the short but precise description too; I liked how I could fill in the blanks with my own imagination. Dialogue is easy for me to follow and engaging! I felt immediately at home with the characters.

    One thing though. It doesn’t really scream France to me. If the location wasn’t mentioned I doubt I would’ve guessed it. Justin Trotter sounds rather British, while Marc’s last name ‘Noel’ is getting closer to French if it were in a later time period. Maybe names like Jean or Jague would be better. A few easy French phrases or street names would help too. And, depending on time period, slightly older dialogue would enhance the effect. Not ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, just a bit more nineteenth century flair ;).

    On whole it’s flawless. I want to read more!

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    • Thank you for the comments and advice. They are helpful

      Justin is more popular as a name in France than in England. I imagine Justin as a man whose parents moved from England to France before he was born, bringing their surname and giving Justin a French first name.

      When I actually write this, I plan to do more research on names, and I hope to add some French labels. I just jotted this down to set the mood and feel.

      I’m glad you like it. 🙂

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  8. Oh gosh. This sounds really interesting. I’ll be glad to pound on your door to make you write more.

    I actually had a hard time pinpointing the exact era. I could tell it was supposed to be before technology, but beyond that, I couldn’t tell. On the whole, though, it sounds exciting, and it sounds like it has the potential to be really heartbreaking (which is good, in a way, although my reader instincts scream the opposite…it’s those stories which make the biggest impact).

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    • I don’t want readers to pinpoint the exact era. It would tempt them to wonder if the details are accurate. I just hope for a vague guess, as you have done–before electricity but after Joan’s time and the Renaissance period.

      I also have the advantage that these are the memoirs of a sanity-challenged narrator, so his memory might be handicapped.

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      • Ahh. You accomplished what you were aiming for perfectly, then.

        Also a bit of author cheating so you don’t have to do as much research? 🙂 Don’t worry, I’d probably do the same thing. And it’s a really great character excuse, too.

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        • Since I just have a short beginning, I had no need for research. I imagine that I will do much more when I write it. 🙂

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          • Yeah, most probably. While writing, I’ve done very strange internet searches…You really don’t seem to need research until you’re in the middle of writing and need to know how long it takes to fly from Maryland to London. And again, it’s great to have nerds as beta readers. They catch things no one else would ever think of (like how deadly a stagnant well would be)

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  9. I love it. I’m a sucker for 19th/early 20th century novels. Good natural dialogue and compelling writing– though is almost like more “insane” thoughts at the beginning, even if he us writing in a lucid moment.

    I really thought it was set in England but in the comments mentioned France?

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  10. This is a intriguing beginning! I especially like the antique feel. You do a nice job of giving us enough exposition to want to know Justin better, but not enough to let us walk away. 🙂 Please write more!

    One note: There are quite a few French “slang” words/sounds that can be easily integrated into English text. It would be interesting if Justin used these while speaking to Marc. For example “bof” is a word/sound commonly used as “whatever” or “meh” or “hmpf” — but with an upturned nose.

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  11. Out of curiosity, are there any Steampunk elements in the story? Some of the comments about era made me think about Steampunk for some reason. I think it could work really well in the story, though, if you did decide to go that way. 🙂

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  12. I thought it was really good and I would definitely be interested in what happens next.

    One thing jumped out at me was their names sounded very modern, especially Marc with a “c.” Perhaps more traditional names or even “Mark” would be a better fit for the time period.

    http://www.babycenter.com/0_most-popular-baby-names-through-history_1508595.bc

    Looking forward to reading more when it comes out.

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    • I traced Marc back to the early 17th century and Noel to the 16th century. Justin is far older, back to before the 2nd century, and I found Trotter in the 16th century. It is true that Marc is more popular now than in the past, so it might be best to search for a name that is more clearly old to the modern ear. Thank you for the advice. 🙂

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  13. The mysterious premise is intriguing. The transition between the still-mostly-rare 1st person present narration to 1st person past is well done. The atmosphere lends itself to a period(I think) around the time of Sir Isaac Newton, especially in the sense of the arts, though it could be all the way up to the early Victorian.
    The only complaints I would have of this initial draft have been mentioned before. They mostly include a desire to see more French in the dialogue and setting as well as names.
    The name Justin is not as common a French name as might be supposed, as when I lived there growing up I knew very few(though in an earlier time period it could have been quite common). The names Quentin or Florian, even Vincent have a much more French ring to them. Actually, if you pay attention to the end credits of Despicable Me, you’ll find dozens of French names already formed. Noel is actually a common first name and a very uncommon last name. Also the French would refer to Joan of Arc as Jeanne d’Arc. The earlier comment about using “bof” is spot on I think.

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    • Thank you for the name tips. I will work on those, though Justin is ranked at #191 for name usage in France, which isn’t all that low. 🙂

      Maybe you can expand on the usage of French words issue. If I wanted true authenticity, I would have to write every word in French, because the characters speak French. I don’t see why I would write almost everything in English except a few French words.

      Yes, people in France would say Jeanne d’Arc, but I am writing an English version of what they would say, so translating to Joan of Arc makes more sense to me.

      Let me know what you think.

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      • I never went that far down the name list 😃
        I understand what you mean, it’s not an easy thing to write a story in a language that is not the language of the characters. I’ve almost never seen it done well with the French language.
        I’ve noticed that some authors will use popular French phrases like “Bien sûre!” or “Absolument.” One speech pattern I found interesting, though it may be a modern phenomenon, is that there are several French people that would end nearly every phrase with “quoi”(meaning “what”). Or using the French version of popular names, like Joan of Arc becoming Jeanne d’Arc or the Reims Cathedral as “Cathédrale de Reims” just to remind people that the characters are actually French (should you choose to finally set the story there) and not British. I think it helps to ground the characters in their cultural and linguistic background just a bit more.
        Putting full sentences and having mini conversations in French(or any other language) in an English novel Doesn’t do well. However, short phrases or exclamations are usually fine and hard to do wrong.

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        • I understand that some authors insert some French words to remind people that the characters are French, but that makes no sense to me. That would make it appear that the characters are actually speaking English but occasionally slipping into French, which they are not.

          If what they are saying has been translated into English, then it seems to me that it should all be in English. An occasional French word would be odd. Why this French word and not that one?

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  14. This style reminds me of classics which I love. The characters are intriguing and the mysterious opening is brilliant.

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  15. I know I haven’t been on for quite awhile, but WOW!

    I hope you decide to keep writing, I really like the way this piece feels; intriguing, mysterious and, maybe, a little bit scary :).

    In addition, there weren’t any real problems I could find, other than I was a little confused with one part.

    Marc and Justin are near a University, and a theatre, but it wasn’t clear to me what they were there for; they did acting in the afternoons, ok, but what did they do the rest of the time if they are full university studants?

    Maybe I missed something that was already there, but that part was a little unclear.

    Good luck with your piece!

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