FOR BOOKLOVERS ONLY
I am sorry it has taken me so long to do a new blog, but it is never a good thing to anger a deadline dragon; they make awful roommates. I am trying very hard to get back on track for The Land Beyond the Sea, not easy since I often have to deal with computer sabotage from the aptly-named Diablo; just last week, he suddenly made all the tool bars vanish in Word, right in the middle of a chapter. To add insult to injury, he ignored all my efforts to restore them, and I finally had to contact the Geek Squad. Never doubt that computers have a malicious sense of humor.
I was trying to think of a good blog topic, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to discuss opening lines in novels that we like. I’m sure many of you have your favorites, too, and I’d love to hear about them. I think my all-time favorite is the beginning of The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Probably the most quoted first line is from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Below, in no particular order, are opening lines that caught my fancy—at least the ones that first popped into my head when I began this blog.
I am a huge fan of P.F. Chisholm’s marvelous Elizabethan mysteries which revolve around Sir Robert Carey, a cousin of the queen. If you are not familiar with this series, you are in for a treat. This is from Plague of Angels: “You could always tell when you were nearing a town from the bodies hanging on the gibbets by the main road, thought Sergeant Dodd.”
Another writer I love is Khaled Hosseini. This is from The Kite Runner: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”
Full disclosure: I am a friend of Stephanie Churchill. But I cannot imagine anyone reading the opening line of her novel The Scribe’s Daughter without wanting to continue reading. “I never imagined my life would end this way.”
Here is the opening line of the first book of Diana Gabaldon’s celebrated Outlander series: “People disappear all the time.”
This next entry is also by a friend, Priscilla Royal, whose atmospheric mystery series set in thirteenth century England is also highly recommended. This is the first line from the first book in her series, Wine of Violence: “During the dark morning hours of a winter day in the year 1270, the aged prioress realized she was dying.” How can you not want to know more?
I’ve always been partial to the opening of John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath: “To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” The rest of the paragraph conjures up an unforgettable image of a dying land in the midst of a devastating drought. Just in passing, I think his East of Eden is one of the best book titles ever. That might make a good topic for a future blog, no?
One of my all-time favorite books is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I remember browbeating my mom into reading it, and for the first hundred pages or so, she kept complaining, “Are they ever going to get off that porch?” When they finally did, it was “Fasten your seatbelts” time, with readers happily going along for the wild ride. This is the opening sentence: “When Augustus came out on the porch, the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—a small one.” This foreshadows so much—the humor, the sense of time and place, and even the violence; after all, that didn’t end well for the rattlesnake.
Another of my favorite novels is Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeeper, which I think is her finest novel, and considering the quality of her books, that is really saying something. Here is the first sentence: “We came like doves across the desert.”
Probably one of the most famous opening lines comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” I have to confess, though, that Moby Dick is not a favorite of mine. I know it is a classic, but Master Melville told me more about whaling than I wanted to know. I recently saw a spoof of great books, and had to laugh at the summary of the plot of Moby Dick: “Man vs Fish. The fish wins.”
David Blixt is another writer friend of mine; I was completely captivated last year by his Star-Cross’d series set in 14th century Italy. The line I am about to quote must be taken in context, for by itself, it does not seem all that startling. But for readers of the first book, The Master of Verona, the opening sentence in the second book, Voice of the Falconer, was quite shocking: “The greyhound is dead!” The greyhound referred to one of the most intriguing and outrageous and compelling characters I’ve encountered in historical fiction, Francesco della Scalla, aka Cangrande. I told David that Cangrande had quite a few traits in common with Richard the Lionheart, the same swagger, sardonic humor, utter fearlessness, and arrogance tempered by great ability. I once used a wonderful line from a Johnny Cash song to describe Richard: “He was a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” That phrase applies as well to Cangrande, a real-life medieval lord brought to unforgettable life in David’s series. These books are filled with fascinating characters—the great poet, Dante, among others—yet Cangrande managed to overshadow them all. So that opening line of the second novel caused me to gasp in surprise, followed by disappointment. I’d not expected to lose Cangrande so soon. But since David was writing of a man who actually lived, I understood that he was following a road map that was not of his making. Historical novelists are fortunate in that we do get to start our books with these road maps; unfortunately, they often take us places we’d rather not go. So I assumed this was the case with Cangrande. I do not want to give away too much of the plot, so I can only say that things are not always as they seem, either in the real world or the realm of fiction. A very unexpected twist lay ahead for the readers, all the more devilishly delightful because it was absolutely true.
I am going to quote the first two lines from Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight, for the second sentence deserves the highest praise one writer can give to another, a stab of envy and a wistful, “I wish I’d written that.” The first sentence nicely sets the scene, too. “In the dark hours before dawn, all the shutters in the great hall were closed against the evil vapors of the night. Under the heavy curfew, the fire was a quenched dragon’s eye.” See what I mean?
Some of you may not have heard yet of the recent death of Roberta Gellis, whose medieval-themed novels won her fans beyond counting over the years, including me. She is perhaps best known for the Roselynde Chronicles, but I also enjoyed the series she wrote later, about an enigmatic, strong-willed woman who ran a high-class brothel in 12th century London. This sentence begins the second book in that series, A Personal Demon. “The woman was screaming again.”
I love the writing of Dana Stabenow. She is amazingly prolific; in addition to her brilliant Kate Shugak mysteries, she has written stand-alones, another series set in Alaska, and a historical trilogy set in the 14th century which focuses upon the granddaughter of Marco Polo. Here is the opening line from one of the Kate Shugak mysteries, Though not Dead: “The black death did not get to Alaska till November.”
This turned out to be more fun than I anticipated. But since even I don’t want to write a blog that rivals a novel in length, I think I’d best end the fun here. If I may, I’ll do that by revealing my favorite opening lines of my own books. Writers spend a lot of time crafting the beginnings of our books, for they may determine whether a reader puts the book back on the shelf or buys it, so I am reasonably satisfied with all of the opening sentences of my novels. I do have a special fondness for the beginning of Sunne, that being my first book: “Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods.” I also like the opening of Time and Chance: “It began with a shipwreck on a bitter-cold November eve in God’s Year 1120.” And the opening paragraph of When Christ and His Saints Slept: “Stephen was never to forget his fifth birthday, for that was the day he lost his father. In actual fact, that wasn’t precisely so. But childhood memories are not woven from facts alone, and that was how he would remember it.”
I think openings are even more important for mysteries than for historical novels. Here are the opening sentences of my four medieval mysteries. The Queen’s Man: “Do you think the king is dead?” Cruel as the Grave: “They were intimate enemies, bound by blood.” Dragon’s Lair: “The English king was dying. Despite the bone-biting chill of the dungeon, he was drenched in sweat and so gaunt and wasted that his brother barely recognized him.” Lastly, at least until I can write another one, Prince of Darkness: “They came together on a damp December evening in a pirate’s den.” I think I’d choose that one as most likely to hook a new reader. Do you agree? Anyone who posts an opinion about one of my mysteries will be entered in a drawing, the winner to get a personalized copy of Prince of Darkness.
Now comes the best part. Please let me know your own favorite first lines. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever resonates with you, including any of my books, she hints.
May 16, 2016