The first few pages of any novel is so critical, whole books have been devoted to how to write them. I’ve read a few and honestly can’t say I learned anything useful I didn’t already know. One does read first pages that have obviously followed the creating writing class formula to the tee. It’s obvious and makes me wince. I’ve done twelve novels now so I know when I’ve got it right. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s a bloody struggle. Just occasionally it’s so right it makes me smile and feel guilty for feeling so satisfied. I wish I could pass on the formula. I really wish I could because then I could get right every time myself.
The most difficult starts I have is on one of my series novels. I am mindful of wanting each to stand alone and be enjoyable without having to read any others in the series. That presents a great challenge. How much back story can I put in without annoying those who’ve read the pervious novels in the series? How much character introduction do I need to achieve the same thing? How to intrigue and draw the reader in without being too obvious?
I have two examples here which I believe do the job well enough to give me that grin. The first is from number 2 in the Daniel Series: Challenge. The task here was to set the plot historically; the opening of the Falklands War in 1982 and describe the role of the principal characters. I also needed to introduce the two main protagonists: Lauren and Bonny and ease the reader into an understanding of their unusual relationship. I think it worked.
What do you think?
Chapter 1. April 1982. Bad News.
To: Mrs B.A. Dawes. From:CINCFLEET Operational Headquarters, Northwood, Middlesex. It is my sad duty to inform you that your husband, Lieutenant Commander Daniel Dawes DSC/Bar FAA 826NAS R.N. has been reported missing (presumed dead) while on active service in the South Atlantic on or about the 29th April 1982. I regret I have no further information at this time but will be in touch immediately if any further information becomes available. Captain F.L.W. Jones RN.
“That’s it word for word, Lauren,” said Bonny. She set down the note and held the phone with both hands to try to stop the quiver.
“I’m coming now, darling. Hang on. I’ll make a few calls first and see what I can find out, but please don’t worry. I don’t believe this and neither should you. Hold on, Bonny, I’m coming.”
Bonny went to the front door, opened it and stood gripping the frame to steady herself. The wind was chill and strong. Twenty yards away across the lawn, the waters of the Dart estuary were being whipped to a muddy brown soup. The great weeping willow at the water’s edge danced and flailed as its thin branches whistled and wind-wailed. This can’t be true. Lauren is right, this is crap. My DD isn’t dead. I’d feel it. I would know. Daniel won’t die so easy. Oh bloody hell, am I kidding myself. This is a proper war. A big gun and bomb and missile war, not like… no, no, Daniel’s not dead. Bonny shivered and stepped back inside. She slammed the door hard, threw her head back and howled and cursed as loud as she could. When she felt herself grow faint with the exertion and breathlessness, she sank to her knees, laid her head down on the old-oak floor boards and cried. The warm musky smell from the boards suddenly intruded on her anguish as she had a vivid recall. She was laid on the floor near the roaring fire. The big rug had not masked the warmed wood scent rising beneath her. Bonny’s senses were on fire as Daniel lay beside her, playing her body from toes to bliss-closed eyes. The smell of burning logs mingled with wine and the male musk of Daniel and her own arousal and lingering perfume, all there, but that old oak wood scent had stuck uppermost in her sense-memory and now it brought all those associated memories flooding back. Bonny sat up and touched her finger to her lips, remembering the touch of Daniel’s lips there. No, my Daniel is alive and he will be back to kiss me again.
Bonny had only been Mrs Dawes since just before Daniel had sailed for the Falkland Islands and a possible war. He had insisted on marriage for very pragmatic reasons to do with pensions and life insurance and had pulled some strings to get the whole thing pushed through quickly. Bonny and Daniel had been living together for a little over three years. Their first six months had been spent in a lovely apartment at Cultra on the shores of Belfast Lough. When Daniel had come for flight training to Cornwall, they’d found their idyllic cottage overlooking the Dart estuary. The cottage had been advertised for sale on a postcard in a local shop and they’d bought it the same day. The owner was also navy and the cash price agreed was very reasonable. Bonny had used an inheritance from her father and Daniel had put in his savings.
Bonny-Ann Dawes was twenty-three years old but could pass for sixteen at a casual glance. She was a little less than five foot tall and had long thick black hair framing a round girlish face with prominent cheekbones and huge bright hypnotic eyes. They were palest grey blue with rings of yellow and emerald flecks. She had thick dark eyebrows and plump ripe lips and her skin was that flawless white that only Irish girls seem to have. Her small stature only became apparent when you stood close, because her figure was so well proportioned it made her look taller from a distance. She had curves, abundant curves to hips, thighs, waist and bum and, most noticeable of all, breasts. These, her most prominent feature, were near melon-sized and -shaped and sat high and firm on her chest. All these female curves were not soft and girly but taut and well muscled. Bonny had spent the past three years exercising twice a day and it showed in her hard-defined low-fat athletic physique. Much to her delight but less so Daniel’s, she had also dropped three bra cup sizes. This athletic quality to her body had been encouraged by her relationship with the woman she had phoned. Lieutenant Lauren J. Greer. She was a Physical Training Instructor at the Britannia Naval College in Dartmouth. Daniel and Lauren had worked together in their native Belfast for a highly secret military intelligence unit known as detachment 16. They had used a driving school as cover for their operations and it was as a pupil there that Bonny had first met Daniel and later Lauren. Bonny’s father had been one of the people det16 were targeting.
Bonny was in a daze and time passed unnoticed. Again, Bonny thought about the meaning of this note and over and over she thought about why she didn’t believe. Daniel had survived four attempts on his life during his time in Belfast and had come through unscathed. Other people died, two of his team had died and Bonny’s cousin Ray and her own father and many others but not Daniel. He didn’t do dying. Daniel was the rock. She and Lauren and his det16 intelligence team all depended on his unflappable calm and razor sharp awareness of danger to keep them safe. He couldn’t possibly be dead.
The war had not even started on the 29th. How is this possible? It’s a mistake and Lauren will fix it. Wonderful organised sorted Lauren will get the truth and make this inconceivable message go away. She will bring our beloved Daniel back to us.
Bonny heard a car on the gravel as Lauren’s little blue Renault 5 Gordini screamed up the long drive and skidded to a dusty stop. Lauren erupted out of the car and sprinted to the door. She was wearing a dark blue sweat top with navy badges, very brief running shorts and short white socks and trainers and was carrying an incongruously ornate and girly handbag. Her blond hair was tied back in a ponytail. She wore a long fringe cut straight across her eyebrow line. Her skin was tanned bronze and shining. Her remarkable sprinter’s muscles popped and bulged as she flew up the garden path, a picture of athletic perfection. Bonny ran to the door and, as she opened it, Lauren scooped her into her arms and hugging her, held her face and kissed her. Bonny’s eyes filled with fear as she fought back tears: “Tell me it’s not true, Lauren. Please tell me it’s a mistake. It can’t be true, I’d feel it if he was gone, but I feel him in me strong. He’s not dead.”
Lauren, at five ten, was much taller than Bonny and so strong that she had lifted her off her feet so Bonny now hung with her arms around Lauren’s neck, looking into her eyes, searching for clues of what she might know. Lauren lowered her to her feet, took her hand, led her to the couch and sat close beside her: “Bonny darling, I have phoned some people who are looking into it as we speak. They have this number and will phone us here soon. I phoned Rear Admiral Ranson. He was our boss at det16, remember. I also phoned my father. He still has many friends high up at the Admiralty and a few others I know at Northwood. I think you’re right, sweetheart – Daniel is not dead. This letter is bollocks.”
Lauren made them tea as Bonny talked in the spontaneous nervous way people in shock do. “If he hadn’t wanted to fly he would be all right. He’s a submarine hunter. Surely that’s not very high risk even down there and the news has made no mention of any accidents apart from that one Sea King that went down on a transfer flight. That crew was named. There’s something screwy here. Someone knows and isn’t telling. It’s spy stuff for sure. I’ll bet they’ve dragged him back into sneaky stuff again. Do you think that could be it, Lauren. Spy stuff again? Could he be in Argentina?”
The next is from number 5 Judgement. I really like this one. The task here was complicated by the need to introduce four children and three adults. Plus set the back story.
Chapter 1. Mimosa Again.
Dee Josephine Dawes stood at the foot of the bed and looked at her father as he lay snoring. She was well used to the sound and found it comforting if she awoke at night. If she didn’t hear his distinctive night call she would feel ill at ease and have difficulty getting back to sleep as she worried where he was. Sometimes, like tonight, she would get up and come to her parents’ bedroom to listen at the door or peek in to reassure herself that all was well. Tonight she hadn’t heard the sound and had come for her reassurance. As she opened the door and peered in, she heard Mammy Bonny making her usual puffing sound. Bonny lay on her back one arm over her head with the huge white globes of her breasts silver in the moonlight. Beside her in the same bed was Dee’s mother, Lauren, silent and still with the sheet cast off as usual. Her long golden hair looked like pure silver in the moonlight streaming in through the huge windows that made up one wall of the bedroom.
Papa was not in the same bed and Dee was alarmed for a second until she stepped into the room and saw him in the small double bed by the wall. He was curled up on his side and when she came to the foot of his bed he rolled onto his back, grunted and began to snore. She could see the big plaster just below his neck that covered the wound. Dee shivered when she saw that and had a vivid flashback to the moment when Papa had been shot and she had thought he was gone. She made herself stop thinking about it and instead remembered the night she had spent in the hospital bed with him when she had woken frightened from her dreams. He had talked to her about her fears of death. That had been so nice and she wished she could get into his bed now and cuddle to make herself feel better and to hold him so he wouldn’t go away or die.
Suddenly there was silence and Dee saw his eyes shining bright and open. He lifted the side of his sheet in invitation and she came and snuggled up by his side. She laid her head on his chest and felt the soothing beat of his heart and the heat of his body. His arm came down her back and he patted her bum gently as he whispered: “Bad dreams, sweetheart?”
“No, Papa. I just woke up and couldn’t hear you and wanted to make sure you were alright.”
He lifted her long strawberry blond hair from her face and kissed her softly on the forehead, and that was all she needed to relax and drift away to the familiar lullaby of his heartbeat.
Across the room Lauren had opened her eyes and saw her daughter standing at the foot of Daniel’s bed, looking at him. Her first instinct was to call her but she waited and saw Daniel beckon Dee to the comfort of his cuddle. Tears came to Lauren then and she had to suppress the sigh she felt rise in her. Daniel had been right when he had warned that Dee would take the trauma of the past weeks harder than the others. Little Dee was so serious and such a thinker, even at just six. “No, six and a half, Mama.” She could be startlingly perceptive and would say and do things that made her seem much older. Ever since her father’s latest brush with death, she had been ill at ease when he was away from her. During the time when he had remained in hospital and the family had returned to the sanctuary of Bonny-Mimosa,Dee had been unhappy and fretful and insisted on speaking to him every day on the phone. Everyone, including the other children, tried to reassure her without success. They had been in the pool this afternoon when Daniel and Dave arrived. Daniel had shouted from the road above in the valley. Lauren had watched Dee’s reaction as she leapt from the pool with the others. Kathy, Christine and David had stood by Bonny’s side and bounced and yelled. Dee had come to Lauren, taken her hand and said very softly over and over, “It’s OK now. Papa’s here now, it’s OK.”
When they emerged from the car five minutes later, Daniel had been nearly bowled over in the stampede to hug him, a charge led by Bonny. He had staggered in with Kathy, David and even the usually reserved Christine clinging to him, and Bonny bouncing by his side. Lauren had put on her swimsuit but Bonny was as usual, completely unaware of her nakedness, and the presence of Dave made no difference. Dave tried hard to avert his eyes but Bonny’s so female abundance was impossible for any heterosexual male to ignore. He busied himself getting their stuff from the hire car as the naked squealing scrum came into the house. Daniel collapsed on the sofa buried in children and Bonny. Dee stood holding Lauren’s hand, grinning and waiting. Daniel managed to shuck the excited huggers off and opened his arms to Dee, who let go her restraint and threw herself into his embrace, crying tears of relief and happiness.
Lauren heard the bedroom door again and Kathy’s round pale face appeared like a little moon. There was a whisper, then Christine appeared and they came to the side of Daniel’s bed. They stood holding hands obviously unsure about disturbing their father and sister. Kathy was only a week younger than Dee, and Christine fifteen months, but Dee was the big sister and thought she was the boss. Kathy challenged that assumption frequently, but still they were reluctant to risk annoying her now because they were well aware how upset Dee had been. Without opening his eyes, Daniel lifted his sheet and they got in beside him. Kathy couldn’t contain her excitement and let out a little squeak that woke Dee. As they all settled, enveloped in their father’s arms, Dee looked at Kathy across his chest and whispered: “Bugger.”
Kathy stuck out her tongue but didn’t rise to the challenge as she usually would. A few moments later the door opened again and David appeared. He looked at his sisters cuddled up beside Daniel and he too let go what was becoming the family’s familiar curse: “Bugger.”
Lauren waved him to her, and when he was close she lifted him and set him between Bonny and herself. Bonny whispered: “Never mind, darling, it’s much nicer for you here between the soft Mammies.” She hugged him and got a muffled. “Ummph, Mammy I can’t breathe in here.”
She released him from the pillows of her breasts and he curled up on his mother’s shoulder and was soon asleep. Lauren turned towards Bonny and in the silver rays could see her big round luminous eyes open and moist with emotion. Lauren reached across and put her hand on Bonny’s cheek and felt the damp of her tears, as she too was moved, shedding happy sad tears of relief and loving empathy.
Like I said, I know when it works but I can’t say how it works.