I've been an author of non-fiction, a sorta technical marketing author specialist type for IT and telecomms, for decades. That's my comfort zone. So when I set off to write this novel, for a long time I simply avoided the Dialogue part. It was easy during NaNoWriMo: I just blasted out 50,000 words and some of it was blah blah blah. I'd fill in the blanks later.
Then I finally had to Do it. Write Dialogue. The very idea filled me with a bunch of other "D" words: despair, doubt, distress and despondency will do for starters.
Add to that the fact that I was writing historical fiction set in mid-19th century England and the Crimean Peninsula of what is now the Ukraine. Oh, woe...I had cast a Russian colonel, a Polish captain in the Russian army, an American doctor from Tennessee, a Turkish couple, the Russian Sisters of Charity nuns, the odd French Zoave, a few French women cantinières and maybe a Sardinian or two for good measure. And who knew when the bloody Cossacks would come riding in and cause a ruckus?
Those colourful folks are on top of the variations that might show up from the different regions of Britain; after all, many thousands of soldiers went to The Crimea from all over England, Scotland, Wales--and Ireland, too.
How would they all speak? What would they say? What could possibly sound real? I still don't know; I just keep trying to get out of the way and let them find their voices. Slowly, slowly, each claims a voice. I hope they'll get it right!
The other problem I have with Dialogue goes deeper still--I have been Dreading actually sharing any of my writing with anyone. It's Difficult to imagining actually publishing a book, by whatever means, without actually Delivering a written word on the page, isn't it? Decidedly so. I joke about having the unpublished manuscript tossed on my funeral pyre but I'd really rather have someone read it (I think).
So...herewith...my first attempt at throwing a relatively small, inconsequential section of my novel out there for anyone who happens to come along and have the time and interest read it. It might work and it might not. I have about 20,000 words to cut, I'm guessing, and it could well be some or all of these.
This is about 2,000 words from the middle an early chapter. I picked it because it had a lot of Dialogue. Two young Coldstream Guards officers are riding off to meet a ship to sail to the Crimea (and war) the next morning. It's got children and adults, broken hearts, some past hurts, a broken almost-engagement, a lot of unresolved stuff and some good information about the longest river in Britain, and swans, in case you've been wondering about swans.
Am I feeling Despair that I ever had this idea? Yes. At the moment I am. But I'm going to DoItAnyway. Isn't that what the #AtoZChallenge is all about?
All that Dread aside, let me say that (1) I'm doing this just to do this and get over it; and (2) I welcome feedback from anyone who wants to send some. Hate it? That's OK. Please tell me why. Like it? What about it do you like? Feel free to email me at CynthiaReedWrites@gmail.com if you really want to rant. Or coo.
Click on Read More (below) to jump to the story excerpt.
COLDSTREAM: A Day At The River
(excerpt from Chapter 5)
Charles, armed with his own rug, came along with Gabriel and Lucas in tow to sit nearby--but up the riverbank just a little bit beyond Anna. She sensed their presence but looked straight ahead, across the water toward Arley Kings.
She’d prefer to be closer to her nieces and nephews but distance from Charles was a better idea.
Yesterday, when he’d surprised her in the garden, was quite enough. There was no point in being uncomfortable; far better to just ignore it and get through this one last day. She had enough on her mind; she was worried about Alex and would have to settle their mother's affairs without him.
“All the swans in England belong to the Queen and are protected by law,” she heard Charles say to Gabriel and Lucas. One of the twins had asked a question but Anna had heard neither the question nor which little voice it came from.
“Would someone get in trouble if he touched a swan?” asked Gabriel, clearly excited but wary of getting in trouble.
“Indeed, he could,” replied Charles seriously. “I believe the Queen is very proud of her swans and it would be a very serious offense indeed to cause trouble for one or try to capture it.”
“Could he eat it if he catched it?” Lucas enquired, the more moderate of the two.
“Oh, no, you wouldn’t consider doing that!” admonished Charles. ”And, I have it on great authority that they taste very very bad.”
“What is ‘great authority’?” Gabriel asked.
“Well,” said Charles patiently. “It’s rather like our queen, Victoria. She is a person of great authority.”
“Did the Queen tell you that the swans would taste very bad then? Did she eat one of her own swans?” piped Gabriel, sounding concerned.
“Ahh, I see your point,” said Charles. “No, I am sure Her Majesty has not. I expect that she has someone who knows a great deal about swans who has told her—with great authority—that they taste quite dreadful.”
“But how she knows? Did the man eat the Queen’s swan?”
Charles groaned and threw his head back. He doesn’t know how to answer the question, Anna thought smugly. He’s not used to children at all. It pleased her to hear Charles, always so cocksure, flustered by a small boy of three.
The children, having exhausted the information available on swans and secure in the knowledge that the wonders of the Crystal Palace awaited them one day soon, leapt up when they heard Grace call them to come see her completed work of art.
“Uncle Alex says I have talent,” she shrilled at her siblings from a few yards upriver. There was pride in her voice, both her artistic accomplishment and the recognition of her uncle clear to anyone listening.
“You must come see, oh, please do!”
They all hastened away, intrigued to know if they, too, might somehow be so recognised for something important or clever under the tutelage of their uncle-hero.
Charles cleared his throat. Anna sat unmoving, resolved to do so for as long as it took for him to move away and leave her alone.
“Isn’t it fascinating,” he began, “how the Severn has had such an influence on the history of England, has meant so much to this land and its people from the time of the Romans?”
Anna stared at the river, unmoved.
“You know, the Romans called her Sabrina after an old story of a nymph, called Sabrina, who was said to have drowned in the Severn. The Welsh call her Hafren after a legendary princess who they believe was likewise drowned. Do you suppose it’s true what they say?”
Anna continued to sit, following a water-logged branch as it worked its way downriver with the fast-running current. The swans and their signets were nowhere in sight. It had gone quiet and even the buzzing of insects had ceased.
“Anna, please,” Charles said at last, “may I come nearer and have a word?”
Out of the corner of one eye, Anna could see him rubbing the nape of his neck with his left-hand. She had forgot that he was left-handed. Time had passed and she was glad she had forgotten. She peevishly enjoyed his distress and wouldn’t mind if it continued a bit longer.
Anna heard the linen scrape against itself, heard his leather belt creak as Charles uncrossed and re-crossed his arms across his chest, adjusted his position on the slippery bank. Had she ever seen a Guardsman so flummoxed?
Charles drew a deep slow breath and exhaled long and evenly, controlled.
“Please, Anna, if only in the interest of your brother, my best friend and comrade-in-arms, may we please speak before it is tomorrow and Alex and I ride to Portsmouth for disembarkation. There is no more time. I will be gone and of no account to you then. So be it. But for your brother, I would have my say, I beg you.”
Anna pulled her legs closer to her chin and clasped her arms around her knees, smoothing the long cotton skirt and saying a little prayer that she wouldn’t slide down the slippery riverbank and embarrass herself yet again in front of this graceful officer. She already knew that she would be muddy when she stood and wasn’t ready to suffer further remarks on her state of dishabille or clumsiness.
She relented—but only because of her brother and her sudden realisation that this couldtruly be the last day she spent with either of them. There were enough regrets to go around. She didn’t need more on her conscience.
“Very well then,” she said, softening her shoulders and stretching her fingers toward the water as if unconcerned, “pray do have your say. And then let us leave it.”
Charles moved closer, slipping on the soft wet slope as he moved too quickly on the grass, as Anna had. She wanted to laugh but didn’t. In a moment, he was settled, coordinated and confident in his movement in a way she never felt in his presence.
He could see her profile, turned just slightly away from so that their eyes could not meet. Tendrils of dark blond hair clung to her forehead and temples, dishevelled by the sun and wind and damp from the sweat on her brow. She had removed her straw hat earlier whilst playing with the children and wished she had it now to further shield her face from his view.
He remembered what those soft curls felt like but pushed the memory of that evening out of his mind.
“Anna, many things have happened...”
“And not happened,” Anna spat, almost against her will and just loud enough so that he could hear and no one else. She inclined her head toward him but did not turn to allow her eyes to meet his.
“And not happened,” he said gently, “Yes. You are correct. And most of all for what has happened—to you, your family and more than anything for what happened to Nicholas…”
She stiffened at her little brother’s name and he stopped, noting the rigidity in her arms and how she gripped her knees more tightly. He knew it was wise to wait.
“Go on,” she said more levelly. “Say what you will say.”
“Thank you, Anna. And now there is the passing of your dear mother—I am deeply sad. You have my heartfelt condolences. Would that I could change any small…”
“There can be no changes. What’s done is done; the lost are gone. I only pray there will be no more,” she concluded, the breath whooshing from her as she worked to get the words out, to not cry. She hoped that he realised she meant Alex, specifically, and not him. She didn’t care what happened to him.
“I understand that, Anna. Please hear me. I only want to reassure you that, as Alexander’s friend and fellow officer, I will do anything and everything in my power to keep him safe from harm. It seems the only thing I can do, can say, to prove my devotion to him—and to you and your family—by way of some small recompense for all that has happened.”
Anna sat silently, unmoving, and thought about what Charles was saying. She acknowledged to herself the bond between her brother and his lifelong friend. There was no question of its strength, though she no longer wanted it to have anything to do with her.
Could they not be un-twined, she and Charles, the baronet-in-waiting she would have wed, or would they always somehow be strung together, two stones on the same chain, by virtue of their relationship to Alexander?
“Very well,” she said flatly, the words a staccato more harsh than necessary. “I acknowledge what you have said and thank you for your devotion to my brother.”
“And as to what happened between us,” he began...
“There is nothing that happened between us. Nothing,” she hissed, balling her fists even as she turned, against her own will, and met his eyes with her own steel. She ignored the plea she saw there.
“I was a fool and you played me for one. My father was a fool and your father and your conniving cousin—I won’t even say his name--similarly played him for one. Had we never come under the spell of the Barings—and for that I hold myself entirely responsible—Nicholas might be here, on the riverbank with the other children, longing for a trip to the Crystal Palace and wondering what a swan might be like served up for tea.”
Charles could not deny any of the things Anna had said. His face was ashen; he looked stung, someone not used to pain and uncertain what to do or say next. Anna felt alternately righteous and glad.
She hated herself for it, in that moment, but, at the same time, it sustained her and made her stronger. And she needed that right now, at whatever cost.
He swallowed and looked at her, took another deep breath. “Anna, you are a lovely young woman, full of life and you should be full of hope. If I could turn back the clock and alter the outcomes you believe I and my family have wrought, I would do so. In a single heartbeat. If I could right any wrongs, I would. You will not allow me. There are things I cannot even say—and I only hope that you will believe me when I tell you there are things you do not know. I pray that someday you will listen and know otherwise.”
Anna looked over her shoulder at him coldly; when she replied there was ice in her voice. Her words were precise, cadenced.
“Things I do not know?” she said? “Whatever on earth is there for me to know? My family is ruined, my parents are dead, my little brother lost and I find myself looking at a life and future quite alone, tainted by the brush of your family’s long reach as surely as the paper on Alex’s easel is tainted by the dirty brown paint with which he washes it. And, beyond that, my reputation sullied by your failure to follow through on a promise made to me.”
She paused, shaking. Her nostrils flared and she crossed her arms across her chest. Charles sat, expressionless, a blade of grass in his right hand consuming his attention.
He looked up at Anna slowly and dropped the grass. The smallest whiffle of a breeze caught it and moved it just out of reach.
“Is there more?” he asked softly, knowing there was but determined to remain calm.
Anna gathered her fury around her and turned slightly away again, tucking her skirts still more closely under her legs. She took a breath and her chest heaved, her shoulders squared.
“How could I not choose to care for my dying mother in favour of your family’s demands? How could your father dictate what I would or would not be as a wife to his precious son? How could the Barings dare to cheat the Athertons of their livelihood? Is this a basis for uniting two families?”
She paused, then thought better of it and plunged on.
“No, it is folly, Mr Baring, folly! You have done me wrong; make no mistake. And you say there are things I do not know? I know everything I need to know. Everything. It has all brought me to this sad and sorry place on this dreadful last day with my beloved brother, who I may never see again. This bloody war! Who knows what is to come of it? Who knows?”
With that, Anna put her head on her knees and began to cry. Without a sound, the aches and horrors of the past few years’ losses seeped, one by one, from her soul. She was certain she would rather join her mother in her grave than go forward but, from within, at some deeper level, she also recognised that she would go forward. She must simply continue to be resolute, to be distant, to be within herself until it all passed into something softer, something bearable, something she could live with.
Charles inched closer. Anna could feel the wet trampled long grass move behind her and heard the scuff of his boot against a stone. She tightened her arms around her knees and dug deep within some pool of resolve she imagined she had. A part of her would have fallen into his arms and sought what solace she might find there; but she was no longer a schoolgirl with a girlish fantasy. All of that was left behind. And she had learned her lesson.
“Do not come closer, Charles. Leave me be.”
Charles stopped and waited but did not retreat.
“I will accept your promise about Alexander. And I will thank you for that. But no more. I can give no quarter beyond that. What we held is lost. Gone. Go now, and leave me. I do not wish my family to see this upset today, of all days. I wish you safe passage and success in the path you have chosen. But this is the end. I have no more heart for you to break. I am weary of it.”
“Very well,” Charles said softly, his voice little more than a whisper. Anna thought it might break and hoped that it would. He would then have a match for her broken heart. Of course he could not take back the past. And she would not change the present.
Thank you. CynthiaReedWrites@gmail.com