The First Chapter

What makes a great first chapter in ‘my’ sort of historical fiction – I say ‘my’ because to be honest with you reader, I don’t read much that I’m not hoping will meet my expectations of an enjoyable read? Put simply, there are three things I need in the start of a book – any work of fiction – to make me want to stay the course and find out if this author and I can do business in the future.

The first of them is immediate impact. I want something that grabs me by the throat and either growls menacingly in my ear that I’d better keep reading, because there’s more of whatever it is that the jacket image and burb promised me would be found within. In Joe Abercrombie’s quite exceptional ‘The Blade Itself’ (yes, it’s fantasy, but very, very superior fantasy to which no historical fiction fan should be turning up a nose) it was Logen Nine-Fingers fighting for his life against the Shanka. In my own debut I chose to pit sixteen legionaries, a retired centurion and a callow youth against a far stronger barbarian warband on the road from Lincoln to York, taking an early opportunity for sword play and bloodshed under the most desperate of circumstances.

The next thing that brings a knowing smile to my face – for I find simple surrender to a book far harder now that I exercise the writer’s craft for reward rather than simple enjoyment – is something counter-intuitive, something the reader finds unexpectedly intriguing. And it’s even better if they are drawn against their will to admire something that, taken in isolation, they might have looked down on. In ‘The Blade Itself’ the next main character we meet is the counter-intuitively sympathetic cripple, Inquisitor Glotka, as he tortures a confession out of a tax evader while in turn bound to the ruthless will of his master Arch Lector Sult. Should we sympathise with Glotka? Understand his history and I assure you that you’ll have taken him to your heart within a dozen pages.

In ‘Wounds of Honour’ I end that first battle with the crucial intervention of the Tungrian auxiliaries, men whose second rate status by comparison to the legionaries usually condemns them to the background in both history and fiction. And yet with the battle won they make it all too clear that they despise the legion men, and consider themselves the true embodiment of the soldier’s ethos. It’s a hard conceit to resist, that the real hard men were the unsung heroes who always got sent into the fight first to soak up the casualties and make life easier for the legionaries (which was pretty much the truth).The reader’s preconceptions are upset within a few minutes reading, and his or her mind is now open to a new reality.

And lastly, the first chapter has to introduce this alternative world (vividly so in Abercrombie’s case, simply two thousand years in our collective rear view mirror in my own) in a way that releases that throat grip I was talking about earlier and replaces it with a hook that pulls the reader deep into the story, making it impossible for them to consider putting it aside. And there’s a secret to doing this that separates the literary sheep from the goats, best embodied by that rather gnomic phrase ‘show, don’t tell’. I heard that said a hundred times before I really, truly understood what it meant, and how to follow the instruction, so in the interests of decreasing your frustration at hearing it for the umptieth time, allow me to elucidate.

If you tell your reader what’s happening in the background of your story you will in pretty short order risk inciting boredom in them, and that’s never good. Your story will start to feel very much like a long winded history lesson on the subject of a period or character they may actually understand better than the author (or worse, merely think that this is the case, which is much the same thing). Let’s be frank, all that research didn’t make you Harry Sidebottom (unless you are Harry Sidebottom, in which case mine’s a beer, big man), and even Harry keeps his history light. So, given that you are absolutely forbidden to embark on a long monologue on the subject of whatever it is you’re writing about, what are you to do? Two things:

  1. Only use a percentage of your research on the page. Get the key points that explain your backcloth down, and leave the rest to the reader’s own interest or (probably preferable) put it into a ‘historical note’to go into the book for the reader to peruse if they want to. Many will, more of them won’t, or will skip it. Patrick O’Brien used to write learned explanations of Napoleonic naval warfare in his books, and I blithely ignored them because for me the genius of the Aubrey & Maturin series lay in the two main protagonists’ character and interaction, not in knowing exactly how sailing ships worked (philistine that I am).
  2. Have your characters tell either the reader or (my preference) each other what’s going on. Inquisitor Glotka was crippled by his captors’ tortures during a recent war, but that information is passed on to the reader by his master, Arch Lector Sult, and not by the masterful Abercrombie. And here’s the other joy of having your characters fill in the backstory – if you’re any good at the joyful task of imagining that is the real secret of great writing (once you can actually write coherently) – they will have opinions, a world view that will leak out onto the page and tell you about both the background and where they fit into it.

In Wounds of Honour my hero Marcus is educated as to just why the auxiliaries look down on their legion colleagues by his companion Rufius, ex-legion centurion, in a passage that tells us just as much about the former officer as it does about the Tungrians (and during which he also manages to start the process of informing the reader as to just who Marcus is). Once you’re good at it this becomes automatic, but in the meantime here’s a rule for you to follow: if none of your characters has spoken for more than ten lines of script, start asking yourself why. There may be a good reason, but it’s more likely to be a bad one.

So, to summarise, if you want me to start getting excited about your book when I pick it up the three golden rules are:

  • Get my heart racing on page one – give me some action!
  • Give me a conundrum to tease at by page ten – get me thinking.
  • Paint your backdrop by page thirty, and make it real – make me want to inhabit this version of reality that’s in your head for the next 300 pages.

If you can achieve that much then you’ll have me dangling from that finely crafted hook gasping for more.