This was first written for Tiffani Angus’ blog. Tiff teaches creative writing and publishing. Story interspersed with my comments in bold italic.
This first scene pretty much sprang into my mind fully formed. When I started to write I didn’t know the details and I didn’t know where it was going, but I had a solid impression of a young woman standing in the shadows of her dying mother’s bedroom, filled with resentment for something that happened in the past. I wasn’t even sure of the time period. It could have been anything from medieval to Victorian. After a lot of thought I settled on 1800, towards the end of the Enlightenment period, and in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. George III is on the throne (and suffering occasional bouts of madness), America has gained its independence, at some cost, and Napoleon is raging across the continent.
The setting is Plymouth, which is somewhere I haven’t been for a long time, but as a child/teen I went to Devon for family holidays. I remember Sutton Pool and the walls of the Citadel quite vividly. It’s become so much busier, now, of course. Sutton Pool is a crowded marina (you can see it all on Google Earth) but it still maps beautifully on to old plans of Plymouth streets. This is where the Mayflower sailed from.
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Or simply, read on…
The stuffy bedroom stank of sickness with an underlying taint of old lady, stale urine and unwashed clothes, poorly disguised with attar of roses. I’d never thought to return to Plymouth, to the house I’d once called home; a house with memories so bitter that I’d tried to scour them from my mind with salt water and blood.
Had something in my own magic drawn me back? I didn’t know why it should, though it still had the capacity to surprise me. I could control it at sea, but on land it gnawed at my insides. Even here, less than a mile from the harbour, power pulsed through my veins, heating my blood. I needed to take ship soon before I lost control.
I added the second paragraph later during the editing process because I realised I needed to put magic on the table right at the beginning of the book.
Little wonder that I’d felt no need to return home since eloping with Will.
Just dropping in a little teaser about the past. The important reveal comes later.
My ears adjusted to the muffled street sounds, my eyes to the curtained gloom. I began to pick out familiar shapes in the shadows, each one bringing back a memory and all of them painful.
She has such vivid recollections of an unhappy childhood. She was suddenly been replaced in her parents’ affections by a brother. The longed-for BOY. The heavy dark wood furniture is brooding and oppressive. I wanted the reader to taste that room, the bitterness, the old-lady staleness, the wooden furniture.
The dressing table with its monstrously carved lion mask and paw feet was where I had once sat and experimented with my mother’s face powder and patches, earning a beating with the back of a hairbrush for the mess.
The tall bed–a mountain to a small child–upon which I had first seen the tiny, shawl-wrapped form of my brother, Philip, the new son and heir, pride and joy, in my mother’s arms.
And there was the ornate screen I’d once hidden behind, trapped accidentally in some small mischief, to witness a larger mischief when my mother took Larien, our rowankind bondsman, to her lonely bed. I hadn’t known, then, what was happening beneath the covers, but I’d instinctively known that I shouldn’t be a witness, so I’d swallowed my puzzlement and kept silent.
No explanation yet, but the rowankind bondservants are wrapped tightly into the main plot line. I needed to drop them in here and expand on them later. We will meet Larien again, later in the book.
Now, the heaped covers on that same bed stirred and shifted.
“Philip?” Her voice trembled and her hand fluttered to her breast. “Am I dreaming?”
Even after all this time, her mother still thinks of the brother first.
My stomach churned and my magic flared. I swallowed hard, pushed it down and did my best to keep my voice low and level. “No, Mother, it’s me.”
“Rossalinde? Good God! Dressed like a man! You never had a sense of decorum.”
So now we get the name and the information that Rossalinde is in man’s clothing, and that she’s comfortable dressing that way. I hope I slipped that in without hitting it with a brick. NOTE I avoided the trap of Ross seeing herself in the mirror on the dressing table and describing herself.
It wasn’t a question of decorum. It was my armour. I wore the persona as well as the clothes.
“Don’t just stand there, come closer.” My mother beckoned me into the gloom. “Help me up.”
She had no expectation that I would disobey, so I didn’t. I put my right arm under hers and my left arm round her frail shoulders and eased her into a sitting position, hearing her sharp indrawn gasp as I moved her. I plumped up pillows, stepped back and turned away, needing the distance.
Ross immediately slips back into being the obedient daughter and then realises that she doesn’t have to any more, so she grabs a little personal space. I wanted to show that Ross’ relationship with her mother is multi-dimensional. She still wishes that things were different.
I twitched the curtain back from the sash window an inch or two to check that the street outside was still empty, listening hard for any sound of disturbance in the normality of Twiling Avenue–a disturbance that might indicate a hue and cry heading in my direction. I’d crept into the house via a back entrance through the next door neighbour’s shrubbery. The hedge surrounding the house across the street rippled as if a bird had fled its shelter. I waited to see if there was any further movement, but there wasn’t. So far there was nothing beyond the faint cries of the vendors in the market two streets over and the raucous clamour of the wheeling gulls.
‘Hue and cry’ I was going for slightly more archaic language and this would have been current at the time. Twiling Avenue is invented, but it’s on the very edge of the town in a place where there could have been a fine Georgian house. I’ve used maps of Plymouth at the time to chart Ross’ later progress through the town.
Satisfied that I was safe for now, I turned back to find my mother had closed her eyes for a moment. She snatched a series of shallow breaths before she gave one long sigh. And now we know that Ross is in danger, a fugitive, and half suspects this is a trap. She’s taken a big risk coming back to her family home. Opening her eyes again she regarded me long and steady. “Life as a pirate’s whore certainly seems to suit you.”
Her mother is full of bitterness too. If she wants reconciliation, she’s certainly not going to admit it.
“Yes, Mother.” Pirate’s whore! I pressed my lips together. It wasn’t worth arguing. She was wrong on both counts, pirate and whore. As privateers we cruised under Letters of Marque from Mad King George for prizes of French merchantmen, Bonaparte’s supply vessels. As to the whore part, Will and I had married almost seven years ago.
Another mention of Will. This also sets the timescale. Ross and her mother have not seen each other for seven years.
“So you finally risked your neck to come and say good-bye. I wondered how long it would take. You’re almost too late.”
I didn’t answer.
“Oh, come on, girl, don’t beat about the bush. My belly’s swollen tight as a football. This damn growth is sucking the life out of me. Does it make you happy to see me like this? Do you think I deserve it?”
I shook my head, only half sure I meant it. Damn her! She still had me where it hurt. I’d come to dance on her grave and found it empty.
I really liked this phrase. ‘I’d come to dance on her grave and found it empty.’ Sorry for being smug.
“What’s the matter?”
I waited for Cat got your tongue? but it didn’t come.
An echo of previous arguments.
“Give me some light, girl.”
I went to open the curtains.
“No, keep the day away. Lamp light’s kinder.”
I could have brightened the room with magic, but magic–specifically my use of it–had driven a wedge between us. She had wanted a world of safety and comfort with the only serious concerns being those of fashion and taste, acceptable manners and suitable suitors. Instead she’d been faced with my unacceptable talents.
I begin to peel back the layers of their mother/daughter relationship. Magic is one of the causes of their estrangement (in addition to the elopement with Will.)
I struck a phosphor match from the inlaid silver box on the table, lifted the lamp glass and lit the wick. It guttered and smoked like cheap penny whale oil. My mother’s standards were slipping.
This foreshadows her mother’s later revelation that the money has run out.
I took a deep breath… then, to show that she didn’t have complete control of the proceedings, I flopped down into the chair beside the bed, trying to look more casual than I felt.
Her iron grey hair was not many shades lighter than when I’d last seen her, seven years ago. Her skin was pale and translucent, but still unblemished. She’d always had good skin, my mother; still tight at fifty, as mine would probably be if the wind and the salt didn’t ruin it, or if the Mysterium didn’t hang me for a witch first.
She’s still trying to maintain both an emotional and a physical distance, but she can’t resist studying her mother’s features. And we get a little teaser about why she’s in danger. The Mysterium hangs witches. (Or at least, unregistered ones.)
She caught me studying her. “You really didn’t expect to see me alive, did you?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t known what to expect.
“But you came all the same.”
“I had to.” I still wasn’t sure why.
There is a solid magical reason, but we don’t find out until much later in the book. Ross’ mother knows, but she’s not going to let on. This is just a tiny bit of foreshadowing.
“Yes, you did.” She smirked. “Did you think to pick over my bones and see what I’d left you in my will?”
No, old woman, to confront you one last time and see if you still have the same effect on me. I cleared my throat. “I don’t want your money.”
“Good, because I have none.” She pushed herself forward off her pillows with one elbow. “Every last penny from your father’s investments has gone to pay the bills. I’ve had to sell the plate and my jewellery, such as it was. All that’s left is show. This disease has saved me from the workhouse.” She sank back. “Don’t say you’re sorry.”
“I won’t… because I’m not.”
Leaving had been the best thing I’d ever done. Life with Will had been infinitely more tender than it had ever been at home. I didn’t regret a minute of it. I wished there had been more.
So where is Will now? I’m laying groundwork for the reveal.
The harridan regarded me through half-closed eyes. “Have I got any by-blow grandchildren I should know about?”
“No.” There had been one, born early, but the little mite had not lasted beyond his second day. She didn’t need to know that.
“Not up to it, is he, this Redbeard of yours? Or have you unmanned him with your witchcraft?”
I ignored her taunts. “What do you want, forgiveness? Reconciliation?”
“What do I want?” She screwed her face up in the semblance of a laugh, but it turned to a grimace.
“You nearly got us killed, Mother, or have you conveniently forgotten?”
“That murdering thief took what was mine.”
That would be the ship she was talking about, not me.
Her mother was more annoyed that Ross and Will took the vessel that was supposed to have been Ross’ dowry, than she was about Ross running off.
“That murdering thief, as you put it, saved my life.”
And my soul and my sanity, but I didn’t tell her that. He’d taught me to be a man by day and a woman by night, to use a sword and pistol and to captain a ship. He’d been my love, my strength and my mentor. Since his death I’d been Captain Redbeard Tremayne in his stead–three years a privateer captain in my own right.
“Is he with you now?”
“He’s always with me.”
That wasn’t a lie. Will’s ghost showed up at the most unlikely times, sometimes as nothing more than a whisper on the wind.
So Ross’ happy-ever-after was short lived, but here I introduce Will’s ghost who is a major character in what becomes a love triangle later in the book. We don’t actually meet Will’s ghost until the next chapter, but he’s a jealous ghost and also slightly ambivalent. Ghosts don’t always have the same goal in death as they did in life.
“So you only came to gloat and to see what was left.”
“I don’t want anything of yours. I never did.”
“Oh, don’t worry, what’s coming to you is not mine. I’m only passing it on… one final obligation to the past.” Her voice, still sharp, caught in her throat and she coughed.
“Do you want a drink?” I asked, suddenly seeing her as a lonely and sick old woman.
“I want nothing from you.” She screwed up her eyes. Her hand went to her belly. I could only stand by while she struggled against whatever pain wracked her body.
Ross might be ready for reconciliation if her mother gave the slightest opportunity, but her mother isn’t going to relent.
Finally she spoke again. “In the chest at the foot of the bed, below the sheet.”
I knelt and ran my fingers across it. It had been my father’s first sea-chest, oak with a tarnished brass binding. I let my fingers linger over his initials burnt into the top. He’d been an absentee father, always away on one long voyage after another, but I’d loved his homecomings: the feel of his scratchy beard on my cheek as he hugged me, the smell of sea salt and pipe tobacco.
I pulled open the catch and lifted the lid.
“Don’t disturb things. Feel beneath the left hand edge.”
I slid my hand under the folded linen. My fingers touched something smooth and cool. I felt the snap and fizz of magic and jerked back, but it was too late, the thing, whatever it was, had already tasted me. Damn my mother. What had she done?
I drew the object out to look and found it to be a small, polished, wooden box, not much deeper than my thumb. I’d never seen its like before, but I knew winterwood when I saw it, and knew full well what it was. The grain held a rainbow from the gold of oak, to the rich red of mahogany, shot through with ebony hues. It sat comfortably in the palm of my hand, so finely crafted it was almost seamless.
My magic rose up to meet it.
I tried the lid. “It’s locked. Is this some kind of riddle?”
She had an odd expression on her face. “Your inheritance.”
“How does it open? What’s inside it?”
“That’s for you to find out. I never wanted any of it.”
My head was full of questions. My mother hated magic, even the sleight of hand tricks of street illusionists. How could this be any inheritance of mine? Yet, I felt that it was.
Mother deliberately tricked Ross into touching the object. It shows she knows more about magic than she’s ever let on, but Ross doesn’t realise this at the time. Ross getting the box is the inciting incident that kicks off the whole story.
I turned the box around in my hands. There was something trapped inside that wanted its freedom. No point in asking if anyone had tried to saw it open. You don’t work ensorcelled winterwood with human tools.
Wrapping both hands around the box, I could feel it was alive with promise. It didn’t seem to have a taint of the black about it, but it didn’t have to be dark magic to be dangerous.
I shuddered. “I don’t want it.”
Instant rejection of the ‘call to adventure’ if you subscribe to ‘The Hero’s Journey.’
“It’s yours now. You’ve touched it. I’ve never handled it without gloves.”
“Where did it come from?”
She shook her head. “Family.”
“Neither you nor Father ever mentioned family, not even my grandparents.”
“Long gone, all of them. Gone and forgotten.”
“I don’t even know their names.”
“And better that way. We left all that behind us. We started afresh, your father and I, making our own place in society. It wasn’t easy even in this tarry-trousers town. Your ancestors companied with royalty, you know, though much good it did them in the end. You’re a lady, Rossalinde, not a hoyden.” She winced, but whether from the memories or the pain I couldn’t tell. “That blasted thing is all that’s left of the past. It followed me, but it’s too much to… ” Her voice tailed off, then she rallied. “I wasn’t having any of it. It’s your responsibility now. I meant to give it to you when you came of age.” She narrowed her eyes and glared at me. “How old are you, anyway?”
‘hoyden’ I tried to use words in keeping with the century without losing the immediate appeal of contemporary dialogue. You tread a fine line when writing about the past, so I tried to keep the dialogue free from contemporary words with a light sprinkling of words that feel period-appropriate.
I was lean and hard from life at sea. You didn’t go soft in my line of work. “I’m not yet five and twenty, Mother.” I held up the box and stared at it. “What if I can’t open it?”
“I suppose you’ll have to pass it on to the next generation.”
“There won’t be a next generation.”
She shrugged and waved me away with one hand.
“Give it to Philip.” I held it out to her, but she shrank back from it and her eyes moistened at my brother’s name. What had he been up to now? Likely he was the one who’d spent all her money. I hadn’t seen Philip for seven years, but I doubted he’d reformed in that time. He’d been a sweet babe, but had grown into a spoilt brat, manipulative and selfish, and last I saw he was carrying his boyhood traits into adolescence, turning into an opportunist with a slippery tongue.
“Always to the firstborn. But you’re behind the times, girl. Philip’s dead. Dead these last seven months.” Her voice broke on the last words.
“Dead?” I must have sounded stupid, but an early death was the last thing I’d envisioned for Philip.
The grievances I’d held against him for years melted away in an instant. All I could think of was the child who’d followed me round begging that I give him a horsey ride, or told him a story.
“A duel. In London. A matter of honour was the way it was written to me.”
“Oh.” It was such an ineffectual thing to say, but right at that moment I didn’t really know how I felt. Had Philip actually developed a sense of honour as he grew? Was there a better side to my brother that I’d never seen? I hoped so.
Ross would like to think the best of Philip. This foreshadows something that happens later in the book when Philip reappears, not dead after all, and she gives him the benefit of the doubt, which is a bad move.
“Is that all you can say? You didn’t deserve a brother. You never had any love for him.”
I let that go. It wasn’t true.
“I thought you might have changed.”
My mother’s words startled me and I realised my mind had wandered into the past. Stay sharp. This might yet be a trap, some petty revenge for the wrongs she perceived that I heaped on her: loss of wealth, loss of station; loss of son. Next she’d be blaming me for the loss of my father, though only the sea was to blame for that.
“That’s all I’ve got for you.” She turned away from me. “It’s done. Now, get out.”
“I’m ready for my medicine.”
Probably laudanum. She’s about to take an overdose. She’s done what she needed to do – pass on the box – and now she welcomes a quick death rather than a slow and painful one from cancer.
I knew it would be the last time I’d see her. I wanted to say how sorry I was. Sorry for ruining her life; sorry for Philip’s death. I wanted to take her frail body in my arms and hold her like I could never remember her holding me, but there was nothing between us except bitterness. Even dying, there was no forgiveness.
Even as she thinks this, she knows it will never happen.
I turned and walked out, not looking back.
I wrote this scene to find out what was happening, who my protagonist was and what major factors were going to shape the action. It’s largely survived intact through all the edits. What do we know about Rossalinde at the end of this scene?
She’s not yet 25. She eloped 7 years ago with Will Tremayne. They were together for 4 years before he died, and since then she’s dressed in men’s clothes and taken his place as captain of their privateer ship. As privateers they have letters or marque from the crown. She’s pretty obviously a strong woman, but in this scene she’s vulnerable. She has magic and the Mysterium will hang her if they catch her. (We don’t yet know what the Mysterium is.) She’s worried that this visit to her mother’s deathbed is a trap and that she’s been followed.
There was a child, but he did not live.
Ross had a brother called Philip. She resented him as a child, when he replaced her in her parents’ affections. She might have cared for him, but he turned into a spoiled brat. And now he’s dead, which jolts her as she never expected him to die young.
Ross would accept reconciliation if her mother was open to it, but the old woman is going to hold on to her grievances until the bitter end. She has one last duty to discharge, to pass on the box made of ensorcelled wood.
Both the Mysterium and a rowankind bondsman have been mentioned but not explained. The rowankind was named as Larien. All are vital to the future plot.
By the time I finished writing this the whole story had coalesced in my mind – maybe not the detail, but I knew what the main plot was, and how it would end.
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