Over the past few days we’ve developed our story idea, decided on format and voice, did some initial research, and plotted it out from beginning to end. Now comes the hard part: turning all of that into salable prose. Immediately we have a few decisions to make. As this is an historical tale (for the most part), firmly anchored to the date of Concini’s assassination — 24 April 1617 — then our language needs to reflect this. We must be careful to eschew obvious modernisms while still making it accessible to modern readers. Our dialogue should be somewhat formal (notice we have no characters from the lower social strata) and we should consider phrasing our sentences in the same manner a foreign-language speaker phrases their sentences in English, perhaps peppered with a few terms in French or Italian — but we must keep it coherent and easy to follow.
With all this in mind, we sit, open a new Word document, and begin. I like to start with an epigraph — an atmospheric quote that can add another level of depth to a story. In this case I found a quote, supposedly concerning the assassination of Concini, from the famed seer Nostradamus:
By night the King passing near an Alley,
He of Cyprus and the principal guard:
The King mistaken, the hand flees the length of the Rhône,
The conspirators will set out to put him to death.
–Michel de Nostradame
A good epigraph. Not too long, not too obvious. Let’s keep our synopsis in mind and continue . . . two men in a darkened room, meeting to discuss the murder of another:
Strike no light.”
The man, whose hand was poised above the sooty chimney of an oil lamp, paused. He cocked an eyebrow. A crack in the door frame allowed a faint candle-glow to seep into the filthy room, at the back of the least infamous of Paris’ many brothels. By that palest of gleams, he saw a seated figure in a broad-brimmed hat staring at him, the waxed tip of a beard barely visible. A manicured hand gestured at the chair across from him.
“Such deeds as ours require the anonymity of the shadows.”
“As you wish,” the man said. He sat; between them rested a rickety wooden table, its surface pocked and scarred. There was no wine, nor any offer of refreshment. The two silhouettes watched one another, each sizing the other up based on rumor and supposition. Two gentlemen: one in brocade and silver, the other in silk and leather; both were nonchalant, their hands calloused from sword and pistol.
First paragraphs, first sentences, even, are of the utmost importance. Our first words on the page will set the tone for what’s to come. And while this is a good start, it lacks something — though it takes place in an out of the way location, it’s not the middle of nowhere. It’s Paris of the 17th century, but the above paragraphs don’t leave us with a strong sense of place. Now, I tend to edit as I go and do the real granular research on the fly. I need to know some things about Paris . . . specifically, I need to know a little something about the ladies of the evening. I jump online and post a question on my Facebook page. I have an astounding array of erudite friends, and approximately 10 minutes later, author and raconteur Paul McNamee provides me with a link to an essay on the matter.
After some reading and some tinkering, this is what we have:
Strike no light.”
The man paused, his hand poised above the sooty chimney of an oil lamp. He cocked an eyebrow. A crack in the door frame allowed a faint candle-glow to seep into the filthy room, at the back of the least infamous brothel in the labyrinthine Rue du Grand-Huleur. By that palest of gleams, he saw a seated figure in a broad-brimmed hat staring at him, the waxed tip of a beard barely visible. A manicured hand gestured at the room’s only empty chair.
“Such deeds as ours require the anonymity of the shadows.”
“As you wish,” the man said. He sat; between them rested a rickety wooden table, its surface pocked and scarred. There was no wine, nor any offer of refreshment. The two silhouettes watched one another, each sizing the other up based on rumor and supposition. Two gentlemen: one in brocade and silver, the other in silk and leather; both were nonchalant, their hands calloused from sword-hilt and pistol-butt.
A few notes on logic and detail choices: why is it the “least infamous” brothel? The less famous the house of ill repute, the less likely it will be for two slumming gentlemen to be noticed by their also-slumming peers. It’s an out of the way place. What does “Rue du Grand-Huleur” add to the story? It’s a specific place; enterprising readers can jump on Google and find out about the street from outside sources. It adds verisimilitude.
Satisfied, we forge on:
Around them, the hôtel of Mlle Paquet creaked like the bones of the old woman who owned it – a dowager caught between faith and financial need, who sought penance weekly for giving succor to the daughters of Jezebel. Faint moans and rhythmic thuds reached even into this shuttered closet as the femmes folles who were the source of Mlle Paquet’s sins went about their business in the rooms above. Laughter and jeers echoed in off the street, along with the dissonant trilling of a flute. But, to all this, both silhouettes paid no heed.
I like this paragraph. It presents an interesting backdrop to their sinister meeting: a decaying villa owned by a devout woman who, through financial need, has turned her home into an illicit brothel. Most of the detail for this came from the document Paul McNamee found; the name Mlle Paquet came from an online French name generator.
We’re on a roll, now:
The man in the hat leaned forward. “That you have come yourself must mean our master has made his decision, no?”
“He has,” the newcomer replied, his accent betraying his Provençal heritage. “Our master is resolved to recover his honor. He had hoped to use political means to remove the Italians and their creatures from Court, but to no avail. Thus, when words falter good men needs must rely on steel.”
“It will not be easy. The revolt of the Princes has put our master’s enemies on guard.”
“Strike quietly, then, if you fear reprisal.”
The man in the hat stiffened. “It is not for myself I fear, sirrah! It is for our master. He will suffer far more than a simple death if we fail.”
“Then see we do not.” The newcomer stood; he brushed at his doublet as though the ineffectual gesture might remove the stench of the Rue du Grand-Huleur from the costly fabric. “Our master bid me tell you this one last thing: if you succeed, there is no reward he would refuse you.”
The man in the hat touched a finger to the brim in salute. “Tell our master his gratitude is reward enough.
I like how this flows, though a couple of areas leave me concerned: “He had hoped to use political means to remove the Italians and their creatures from Court, but to no avail.” I wonder if the phrase above reveals too much? Ambiguity is itself a thin line, and this bit tap-dances along it. I also worry that using “the revolt of the Princes” without any qualification as to what that event was might confuse readers. But, I’ll let both of them be for now.
Interestingly enough, I don’t think a lack of character names is confusing at all; they have distinct personalities, and the broad-brimmed hat set one apart from the other, physically.
Now, we need something to tie the little chapter up:
The newcomer nodded; he opened the door and in a flash of candle-glow he was gone. Gone from the hôtel of Mlle Paquet, whose mistress clung to her prie-dieu and whispered the Rosary; gone from the Rue du Grand-Huleur, where every night the song of Sodom reached its shuddering climax . . .
And that’s our first chapter. It might need a little rewriting, a little tightening, but for the most part I’m pleased with what’s come off our fingertips. It has a flow, a sense of place, and an air of mystery. A good beginning, I think.
Monday, we’re going to begin the second chapter: the introduction of the good Bishop of Luçon, Armand de Richelieu. Until then . . .