It’s time for a new story development series. Let the Ghosts Speak is a story that I introduced in a critique group post, and I am now making it into a novel for adults and older teens.
As you read, look for the elements of a story opening that I mentioned in this post. You should be able to find at least one use of each item in the list.
- Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
- Raise questions that the reader wants answered
- Provide a goal for the protagonist
- Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
- Set the physical scene with only essential details
- Begin building a bridge to the back story
- Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
- Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure
This initial excerpt is quite long. Future ones will be shorter. If you read the initial post in the critique group, you will be familiar with the opening, though I have altered a few items.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please comment. If you wish, comment by providing one or more list items and where you find them in the excerpt.
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 flat 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 police office and within walking distance of the theatre and our university. Although Marc’s family could have afforded more opulent lodging, he chose a simple life, often to his mother’s vexation.
As students with thespian hearts, we spent most of our time attending classes, studying, and rehearsing for our respective roles in whichever 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.
Le Jour des Morts they call it, All Souls’ Day, a morbid holiday in my view, especially on that fateful evening. 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 tapper.”
A foot sleeper was more like it, but I held my tongue. I jotted 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 of this dismal flat 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. At least this malady wasn’t as deadly as the cholera that broke out soon after I arrived in Paris as a boy.
With dusk signaling evening’s closing curtain on our view of the town, nothing else held my interest, certainly not writing uninspired notes while glancing at wet horses. Maybe I needed a break from the monotony. Yet, before I agreed to go, I could use my pretended hesitance as leverage to gain more information.
I kept my focus on the page and began writing an inconsequential phrase. “Why a masquerade party on a night that we’re supposed to pray for the souls of the dead?”
“My mother’s idea. People dress up in your homeland for All Hallows’ Eve, do they not?”
“True, but your mother has no Celtic roots, does she?”
“Indeed she does, on her paternal grandmother’s side, but costumes are not uncommon here on any holiday, including prayerful ones. No worries, though. We’ll have the traditional chrysanthemums, candles, and prayers for the dead.”
“Why the old schoolhouse?”
“Our dear Monsieur Haussmann plans to destroy it during the next renovation phase. Mother wishes to preserve it as a museum and a venue for social gatherings, so she has decorated it and invited all her aristocratic friends, hoping Monsieur Haussman will join us and see the building’s potential.”
“That’s all well and good, but give me one good reason why I should go.”
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 gloomy face spoiling the night’s fun.”
“You’re an actor. You can put on any face you choose.” Marc patted me on the back. “Put away the books and get ready. 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 mostly 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. We are descendants from the family line. She is quite enamored with her heroine.”
“So Francine is a seamstress extraordinaire and war general. 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, harsher 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 invent 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 and explain how bookish you are.”
“A fair plan, but I hope you’ll invent a better word. Bookish is not what I would call a masculine trait.”
“Adventurous, then.” Marc withdrew a dark blue tailcoat 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 should you need one.” He held the coat 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 coat’s brass buttons. “So if Francine turns on her heel, I can embark on a voyage to the island of books.”
“Exactly.” Marc laid the coat and a pair of white breeches in my arms. “Get dressed. We have to be at the carriage house in half an hour.”
The getting dressed part proved to be easy. The coat and breeches fit perfectly. In fact, if our mirror reflected truth, I looked rather dashing … relatively speaking, of course. I knew better than to swallow the forbidden fruit of self-admiration.
Marc, now wearing a priest’s cassock, set a simple black mask around my eyes and began tying it behind my head. “I know this mask won’t hide your identity. The idea is be recognizable while playing along with the masquerade.”
“You want Francine to know who I am.”
“Of course, but my mother wants us all to be easy to identify while still playing the game.” He tightened the knot, set a cocked Napoleon hat on my head, and stood in front of me, scanning me as if I were a painting. “Perfect. Cuffed, creased, and pressed. Not to mention handsome. You’re sure to catch her eye.”
“And not her tongue, I hope.”
“That will be up to you.” He tied on a mask of his own. “Let’s go.”
After donning our boots and hooded cloaks, we sloshed through rainwater trenches and muddy streets while infrequent gas lamps illuminated our meandering path that led us past squalid habitations. Perhaps someday Monsieur Haussmann’s renovations would reach our section of the arrondissement, but until then, we had to endure the winding narrow roads, missing cobblestones, and dilapidated buildings.
We arrived at the carriage house and caught a coach that took us to the outskirts of the city. Along the way Marc chattered about his mother’s obsession with his decision to live in humble circumstances and pursue something other than medicine or law. Her latest diatribe included a threat to remove him from her estate, but he brushed it off with a laugh. She had many years left to live, plenty of time for him to prove that he had made the right decision.
A rattle interrupted Marc’s monologue. Horse hooves and carriage wheels clattered across a wooden bridge that spanned a brook, now swollen by the unceasing rain. If the storm failed to break soon, the brook might transform into a raging river.
As the carriage drew within a stone’s throw of the Seine, the schoolhouse came into view. Long abandoned, the school could easily pass for a museum—stone construction without; arched entries leading to a covered breezeway on the ground floor; tall windows lining the walls on the second; and tiny peek-through windows on the third.
Candlelight shone through one of the first-floor windows, providing a view of minglers inside, evaluating each other’s upper-crust costumes while sipping blood-red wine from Bordeaux glasses. I had pretended to be rich in a recent play, so being in costume felt appropriate. I could do this.
After deboarding, we entered the main door and stood in a parlor-like anteroom and took off our wet raingear. Potted chrysanthemums of yellow, white, and purple lined the floor along a path toward an assembly room to the right, a friendly gesture, though it felt like the path of a death march. My social ineptitude saw to that.
From somewhere inside, a violin played Mozart in the midst of ambiguous conversation. Warm air flowed, carrying the aroma of perfume, tea, and wine. “I know everyone here,” Marc said as he passed our cloaks to an attendant, “so stay close to me for introductions. Then you’ll be on your own.”
The moment we entered the assembly room, dozens of eyes turned toward us. Francine broke away from a clutch of ladies and approached wearing boot-leather trousers, an armor-plated vest, and a mysterious smile. A thin mask surrounded her hazel eyes, though it failed to hide her telltale freckles. Although she had cropped her ginger hair pageboy style, no one could mistake her for anyone but Francine Noel.
She nodded toward Marc. “Bishop, so good of you to come in peace, especially considering your animosity toward me at other venues.”
Marc bowed. “Joan, it is a time for song and dance. Far be it from me to spoil this occasion by burning you at the stake.”
“That would be unpleasant.” Francine shifted her gaze to me and tilted her head in a comely fashion. “And who is this young captain of the seas?”
“Joan, Maid of Orleans,” Marc said with a formal air, “allow me to introduce to you Captain William Ashford … Captain, Joan.”
I kissed her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Ah. An Englishman. And polite as well.” Francine touched an insignia on my coat. “How did such a young man become a captain?”
I smiled. “How did such a young woman become a general?”
Her own smile brightened. “Well struck, Captain. Well struck.” She turned to Marc. “Bishop, if it is all the same to you, I would like to take this officer around to meet the other guests. We want to make sure he feels at home among our countrymen.”
Marc gave her another bow. “Of course. He’s all yours.”
“Come along, then.” She curled her arm around mine and led me deeper into the room. Although the violin continued playing, no one danced. Perhaps they would change their minds later in the evening when the wine had taken effect and numbed the participants into thinking dancing was actually fun. “Tell me, Captain, how long have you been in France?”
“I immigrated here with my foster parents fifteen years ago.”
She halted and turned to me, whispering in a firm tone, “Justin, my mother requested that we stay in character the first hour. It’s a parlor game, of sorts, that she wishes to play to the hilt. I assume Marc failed to inform you.”
Warmth oozed into my ears. “He alluded to it, but I didn’t catch on.”
“I see.” She cast a glance Marc’s way. He was chatting with two young ladies dressed as cats, apparently twin sisters vying for his attention.
I had a brief desire to learn how they would stay in character, but I brushed it aside. “If we play this game, aren’t introductions rather counterproductive?”
“You are the only stranger here. After I introduce you to someone, I will whisper that person’s real name to you. The last thing I want to do is get a tongue lashing from my mother.”
I nodded. “I want to avoid sharp tongues as well.”
“Then stay on my good side tonight.” Again guiding me by the arm, she took me to a female court jester dressed in full motley, including a multi-colored hat with dangling bells. “Captain William Ashford, this is the court’s designated fool, Astaude du Puy.” She then whispered, “Jacqueline Noel, my mother.”
I gave Madame Noel a head bow. “Pleased to meet you.”
She laughed. “An English captain has come to dock his ship in a foreign harbor.”
“Well, not exactly. I have been—”
“How many harbors have you visited, Captain?” She scanned me from head to toe. “A man with your decorations has certainly been around the world.”
She set her fingertips on my cheek. “Dark curly hair, stunning brown eyes, and firm jaw. Surely you have dropped your anchor in many a port.”
Francine hissed, “Mother, you’re going a little too far.”
“Nonsense.” Drawing back, Madame Noel shook her head, making the bells jingle. “It is impossible for a fool to go too far.” She looked me over and winked. “Then again, maybe I would like to try.”
“Mother!” Francine balled a fist. “How much wine have you had?”
“Not a drop, Joan. And why are you calling me Mother?” She waved a hand. “Be off with you now. Show the captain a good time. That is, if a woman wearing trousers and armor is able to do so.”
Francine’s cheeks turned crimson. Perhaps this was my chance to take a place on her good side. I offered Madame Noel another bow. “A woman wearing trousers is much to be preferred over a fool who flaunts her loose skirts.”
Madame Noel slapped my face. “Get out.”
The bluntness of her words overwhelmed the sting of her slap. “Get out?”
“You heard me.” Her lips tight, she pointed toward the door. “Leave. Now.”
“Very well.” I tugged at my coat to straighten it. “It seems that the game playing is quite one sided.”
Francine grabbed my arm and ushered me toward the door, her voice a whispered shout. “Justin Trotter, you said you wanted to avoid sharp tongues, so I will keep mine sheathed.” When we arrived, she took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. “Did you really think insulting my mother was the best way to endear yourself?”
Blood rushed to my cheeks, inflaming them, but I managed to keep my voice low. “She was playing the fool, so I played along. You said she wanted to play the game to the hilt.”
“I know. I know.” She blew out a sigh. “Like you said, it’s one sided.”
I spread out my hands. “So what do I do now? She wants me to leave. It’s her party.”
Francine looked out the window. Windswept rain fell in sheets. Lightning flashed, followed by a thunderclap that shook the building and rattled glass. “It would be inhumane to send you out in this weather.”
“May I offer assistance?” Marc asked as he approached, hands pressed together in a priestly fashion. “No need to tell me what happened. The story is already spreading like a fire on a tinder prairie, and it’s growing into a capital crime.”
I nodded. “Yes. Help. What can I do to salvage this disaster?”
Marc patted me on the back. “Go upstairs to the library while I smooth things over with my mother. Take a candelabrum. Read a book. One of us will come to see about you when the time is right.”
“Yes, yes,” Francine said. “That will do just fine.”
Although Marc and I had envisioned just such an escape, now it felt like a coward’s retreat. Still, it couldn’t be helped. “Very well. I will go.”
After Francine fetched a candelabrum with five tapers—four surrounding a higher one at the center—she escorted me to a spiral staircase while Marc distracted their mother. When I set a foot on the first step, I turned back and gave Francine a thankful nod. “I hope to see you soon.”
“You will.” She shooed me away. “Now, go.”
With one hand on the central pole and the other clutching the candelabrum, I climbed the stone steps. As I ascended into darkness, the flickering flames created an undulating aura around me, prompting a dark memory.
Mother, you remember the fateful night we walked together up our own spiral staircase, the night we heard the crash and Father’s shout. The sense of dread was the same, though this time not because of the darkness above but because of the darkness below. I had once again disappointed Francine.
Categories: Story Development