Where did it all start?

It all started with Aunt Alesia and the Balas rubies, and that dance at the Austrian embassy in Paris.

Purists would go farther back, maybe as far back as the day a couple of years ago when I was concentrating really hard on the Axiom of Choice and accidentally selected several objects out of my kid brother’s miscellaneous collections of plastic junk. Without touching them. You could make a case that it all started there.

Starting a new book – especially when it’s the sixth in a series – is a bit like starting a car with a stick shift on a steep hill. You have to give it enough gas (here’s why you should read the story) while engaging the clutch (this is what it’s based on) without clashing gears, flooding the engine, or rolling back down the hill into the Slough of Despond.

And it’s hard to think about anything else while doing this balancing act. For instance, I didn’t think about the fact that I owed Mad Genius Club a post until about half an hour before it was due. Which is why you’re getting, with apologies, some thoughts about openings that work, recycled from an old blog post.

I don’t particularly care how you get the reader’s interest, nor do I claim to be the world’s expert in doing it; God knows there are enough published books of mine floating around out there where I later realized the story really started in Chapter 3. Or in Chapter -1, which I didn’t even write. Or… well tallying up the ways it can all go wrong is left as an exercise for the reader.

But consider these three very different openings, from books of three different genres:

Russ Van Alstyne had just gotten a tug on his line when he saw the old lady get up from between the headstones she had been trimming, lay down her gardening tools, and walk into the reservoir. She had been tidying up a tiny plot, four moldering grave markers tucked under the towering black pines, so close to the edge of Stewart’s Pond Reservoir that a good motorboat wake could have kicked spray over the stones. She had appeared at some point after he and Shaun had launched their rowboat, and he had noted her, now and then, while they had drifted in the sunshine.

That’s the start of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Out of the Deep I Cry. Granted, mystery writers have a built-in advantage with openings; all they have to do is move some violence to the front. To play fair, I eliminated books that begin with somebody getting shot or waking up tied hand and foot in a scary location. You couldn’t exactly call walking into a reservoir violence, could you? But it sure captures my attention. Yes, I want to know who she is and why she did it. But what makes me turn the page is Does anybody fish her out of the reservoir?

The author of this next one has a somewhat more challenging problem, as she’s opening a book in a series that already has tons of backstory:

“All right, add your luggage to the pile, including all comms, computers, or recording equipment, and check in so we know who is or isn’t here . . .” The man at the desk finally glanced up and trailed off with his mouth open.

“Paer. Medic.” Paer smiled hopefully. She’d deliberately dressed in field khakis, trying to look serious, and hopefully wouldn’t be too underdressed for the occasion.

An organizational meeting for a camp across. Across, as through a trans-dimensional gate to a world on the other side. The young man got his mouth shut and looked down at his list. “Right.” A bit breathless. Swallow. “I didn’t realize they meant the Paer.”

Paer winced. “Don’t worry, I’m just a medic, now. Nothing special.” Please just pretend I’m not the daughter of the President of the Empire of the One.

This is Pam Uphoff’s Surveillance. Look how much she’s telling us here:

Paer is going on a trip.

She’s probably a new hire, young, and a bit insecure, considering how she’s worried about being appropriately dressed.

Whee – the “trip” may involve trans-dimensional travel, whatever that is. To a “world on the other side.”

And this Paer is a VIP who really wants to blend in with her colleagues and not to be treated like a celebrity.

That’s a lot of information to get into 140 words. The line about “trans-dimensional travel” both gives us a cue that this is science fiction, and promises exotic worlds coming up. The fact that the other three bits of information are about Paer suggests that this is going to be a character-centered story, and her youth and insecurity suggest it may be a YA novel.

What makes me turn the page? I want to know how this first job works out for Paer.

 Finally, a more leisurely opening, but one that sucked me straight into what has become one of my favorite books:

We mutinied when we reached the ocean.

We’d been riding for fifty-one days, three companies of us with half a legion and two troops of Roman auxiliaries to guard us….

Then one afternoon, just before the middle of September, we were starting down from the hills when we saw it: the ocean. It had rained all that morning, but the rain had stopped about midday, and now the sky was clear. The clouds parted and let down a watery light westward beyond us, and we looked up and saw a huge gray plain turn suddenly and impossibly blue.

We had never seen the sea. We reined in our horses and stopped in the road, staring at it. The sun shimmered on the waves as far out as our eyes could see: no shadow of land darkened even the farthest limit of the horizon.

“It’s the end of the world!” whispered Arshak.

That’s from Gillian Bradshaw’s Island of Ghosts, a historical novel about some Sarmatians who were sent to Britain as auxiliaries to the Roman army. This little bit of military history is not exactly common knowledge. When I started reading I had never even heard of Sarmatians. But by the bottom of the page I knew enough to be going on with. I knew that they were being commanded by Romans who didn’t trust them, and I surmised they were steppe nomads since they’d never seen the sea, and I knew for sure that it was going to be a job and a half getting them onto boats to cross the Channel.

I wasn’t about to stop reading until I found out how this impasse was resolved.

Now I must be off to get that car on the hill started. Again.


  1. I read about the Sarmatians some years ago when I was fascinated with the Iranian steppe nomads, but I never did learn what became of them in Roman Britain. I may check that book out.

    1. Pam, your Wine of the Gods series is an inspiration every time I feel tempted to whine about the problems of feeding necessary background into what is merely the sixth book of the current series.

      1. It’s a balancing act between giving the new readers enough info, and boring the readers who read all the rest. Most of the complaints I get, though, are from regular readers telling me that any new readers are going to be lost! 😀

  2. I knew that Gillian Bradshaw did an Arthurian trilogy, but I’ve never heard of a Sarmatian novel by her.

    1. Oh! oh! She wrote a lot of books besides that Arthurian trilogy, and some of them are (in my opinion) much, much better. Island of Ghosts is one of my favorites, as are The Sand Reckoner (Archimedes) and Cleopatra’s Heir (What if rumors of his death were grossly exaggerated?).

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