TREASON - Historical Mystery

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airball
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TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by airball » October 31st, 2010, 1:02 am

Dear Agent,

It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband, William, and sentenced to be burnt alive for petty treason. Esther proclaims her innocence and Bridget agrees to try to clear her name. Bridget is joined in her search for the killer by a new assistant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York in hope of starting a new life. Martha proves useful in the delivery room, but when the two women attacked in a darkened alley, she shows herself far more skillful with a knife than a respectable woman ought to be.

To save Esther from the stake, Bridget and Martha must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes them from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways and brothels of the city’s poorest districts, and as they delve into William Cooper’s life, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a multitude of sins, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.

TREASON is a 90,000-word historical mystery sent in Revolutionary England. My interest in historical fiction is a natural outgrowth of my own past. I have a doctorate in history with a focus on early modern Britain, and have published articles on the history of midwifery in top historical journals. Bridget Hodgson and Martha Hawkins are fictionalized versions of real midwives who practiced together in York during and after England’s civil wars.

Yours,

Airball
Sam Thomas
Author of The Midwife's Story: A Mystery due out from St. Martin's Press in 2013
Website: http://www.samthomasbooks.com
Team Blog= http://bloodygoodread.blogspot.com

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by sgf » October 31st, 2010, 1:28 am

Hi Airball,

I think this is a pretty good query. It's nicely written.

The main issue I had with this query is that although you did an excellent job of establishing the setting, none of the characters are really established. It first reads as if the story is about Bridget. But then we find out it's about Esther, and later Martha. So, consider focusing a bit more on the characters. Why for example, is Esther so willing to help out Bridget? OK, they're friends and that's what good friends do, but can you provide a more specific motivation? Something that will reveal Esther's character?

Just a couple of line comments:


It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband, William, and sentenced to be burnt alive for petty treason. Esther proclaims her innocence and Bridget agrees to try to clear her name. Bridget is joined in her search for the killer by a new assistant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York in hope of starting a new life.Martha proves useful in the delivery room, but should this be "and"? when the two women word missing: are attacked in a darkened alley, she shows herself far more skillful with a knife than a respectable woman ought to be.I felt more explanation about Martha was needed here. Consider either explaining why she so skillful with a knife, or omit this part. As is, it feels incomplete somehow.

I thought the rest was fine. Hope you find my comments helpful.

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by Down the well » October 31st, 2010, 10:36 am

airball wrote:It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion.
This is good. I've got setting, character and a hint of conflict. Would it make sense to personalize the conflict more, though? Instead of "embroiled in a different sort of rebellion" would "embroiled in her own rebellion" work?

airball wrote:One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband, William, and sentenced to be burnt alive for petty treason.Esther proclaims her innocence and Bridget agrees to try to clear her name. Bridget is joined in her search for the killer by a new assistant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York in hope of starting a new life. Martha proves useful in the delivery room, but when the two women attacked in a darkened alley, she shows herself far more skillful with a knife than a respectable woman ought to be.
Okay, part of this doesn't make sense. Esther is convicted of murder but is sentenced for petty treason?

And it might work better to join this sentence with the next one and really show us what the choice is that Bridget is making. Also, I think you've got too many characters floating around in this query, so eliminating William's name from the mix might make sense. Just a suggestion:


When friend Esther Cooper is sentenced to be burnt alive for the murder of her husband, Bridget agrees to help clear her name by finding the real killer. Bridget is joined in her search by a new assistant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York in the hope of starting a new life. Martha proves useful in the delivery room, but when the two women are attacked in a darkened alley, she shows herself far more skillful with a knife than a respectable woman ought to be.<< clever line. :)

airball wrote:To save Esther from the stake, Bridget and Martha must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes them from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways and brothels of the city’s poorest districts, and as they delve into William Cooper’s life the life of Esther's murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a multitude of sins, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.
It's just my opinion, but I still don't think we need the husband's name for the query. That's your choice, of course, and the last paragraph reads great either way. This story sounds fascinating. Sort of has the feel of a Caleb Carr novel.

Also, have you seen the movie To Kill A King? It's about the 1645 rebellion and it's got Dougray Scott in it, so what's not to love? Anyway, best of luck. Looks good!

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by airball » October 31st, 2010, 10:53 am

SGF and DTW,

Thanks for getting back to me.

You've actually highlighted one of problems I have to wrestle with - not turning the novel into a history book.

To start with DTW's point about petty treason - if a wife killed her husband, or a servant killed his master or mistress, the charge was not murder, but small (petty) treason because an attack on any authority figure was seen as an attack on the monarch. But this is not the place for a paragraph on the ins and outs of the English legal system, so I have to find another way to make this point.

Midwives were essentially early modern medical examiners for crimes involving women - think Kay Scarpetta in the Renaissance - so her involvement in the case makes perfect sense - but how to say that without writing a lecture? I also need to add a sentence to the effect that the wife was railroaded because, with rebels surrounding the city, officials were eager to execute rebels inside the city.

Polishing ahead!

Airball
Sam Thomas
Author of The Midwife's Story: A Mystery due out from St. Martin's Press in 2013
Website: http://www.samthomasbooks.com
Team Blog= http://bloodygoodread.blogspot.com

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by Michael Roland » October 31st, 2010, 11:53 am

WOW! All in all, excellent. there were a few bits that mad me stumble.

1) The petty treason thing: I don't know if it would make an editor of (British) historical fiction pause, but it did me. It would have been easier for me, not know anything about the early modern English legal system, to hear "...carrying a sentence of Petty Treason," or in some way gently informing me of what I need to know.

2) Proclaiming innocence does not equal innocence. Something like "...in her search for the REAL killer," would have helped me get to the conclusion quicker.

3) The opening. Am I reading a history book or a mystery novel about midwifery? With the current opening, I would expect to read about the Marquis of Newcastle not Esther Cooper.

Hope this helps a bit.

The query already makes me interested in reading the book. I wouldn't think you are far off from the finished product.

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by Down the well » October 31st, 2010, 12:06 pm

airball wrote:To start with DTW's point about petty treason - if a wife killed her husband, or a servant killed his master or mistress, the charge was not murder, but small (petty) treason because an attack on any authority figure was seen as an attack on the monarch. But this is not the place for a paragraph on the ins and outs of the English legal system, so I have to find another way to make this point.
I thought that was probably the case, but I think it only muddies the water to bring it up in the query. It's just my opinion, but I don't think you need to make the distinction at this stage. It wouldn't be misleading to simply present Esther as a woman convicted of murdering her husband. Your novel, and probably the synopsis, is where the explanation of the law matters most. I don't think we need it here to understand the conflict.

However, if you think it is important to include, it would probably be enough to say: Esther is convicted of murder, a crime that rises to the level of petty treason...or something like that. But I would keep it brief. Like you said, you can't really add a paragraph of explanation or you'll throw the whole flow off.
airball wrote:Midwives were essentially early modern medical examiners for crimes involving women -
I think this is probably more important to explain in your query. It provides motive for Bridget's involvement in the investigation.

airball wrote:I also need to add a sentence to the effect that the wife was railroaded because, with rebels surrounding the city, officials were eager to execute rebels inside the city.
Again, JMO, but for purposes of a query, I think you can address this by merely saying Esther is falsely convicted of murdering her husband. That's really all it would take to let us know she's been railroaded. The reasons why are what the novel is for. :)

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by oldhousejunkie » October 31st, 2010, 3:49 pm

Hello fellow historical fiction writer!

This query is very well written. But I think it may be a little lengthy. I feel like it belongs inside the flap of the book once it hits the shelf. A lot of the stuff in the last two paragraphs could be cut without losing the query's effectiveness. In fact the whole last part of the last paragraph should probably be removed unless the agent indicated that they would like to know that sort of thing.

250 words is what you need to shoot for... You may be closer to that than I think, but I can't tell since I'm viewing on my Blackberry.

As for not dissolving into a history lesson... I feel you pain. It seems harder than other genres to get the point across without additional back story. I sense that this is a lot like Ariana Franklin's "Mistress of the Art of Death" series but in a different time period, so I don't think you should have to explain why your protag is involved in solving mysteries. At least from a historical perspective. However, giving the reader some insight to why Beatrice decided to get involving with solving this particular murder would help. I think you did a good job of conveying Martha's interesting attributes. :-)

As for the petty treason thing, I would just take it out and say that Esther has been sentenced to burning because she murdered her husband.

Good luck to you--i look forward to hearing about your progress!

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REVISED: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by airball » October 31st, 2010, 4:36 pm

Thanks everyone! I've put a bit of polish on here, taken out some of the confusing bits, and hopefully clarified Bridget's place in all of this. I look forward to further criticism.

Is the reference to "any rebel they can find" too obscure? Hmmm.

Old House - as it stands it's 294 words, and Nathan says 250-350, so I think I'm okay.


It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of poisoning her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Esther proclaims her innocence and begs Bridget to help clear her name. Bridget is reluctant to assist so notorious a criminal, but she soon realizes that her friend has been wrongly convicted by a jury eager to execute any rebel they can find. Using the skills she has gained through her involvement in rape and witchcraft investigations, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.

Bridget is joined in her search by a new assistant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York in hope of starting a new life. Martha proves a quick study in the delivery room, and Bridget has high hopes for her apprentice. But when the two women are attacked in a darkened alley, Martha’s dark past comes to the surface, as she shows herself far more skillful with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be.

To save Esther from the stake, Bridget and Martha must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways and brothels of the city’s poorest districts. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a multitude of sins, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.
Sam Thomas
Author of The Midwife's Story: A Mystery due out from St. Martin's Press in 2013
Website: http://www.samthomasbooks.com
Team Blog= http://bloodygoodread.blogspot.com

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Re: REVISED: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by Quill » October 31st, 2010, 5:32 pm

airball wrote: It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York.
How about "It is 1664 in England, and..." or some such?

I think we need to know where we are straight-off.
Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion.
This is good.
One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of poisoning her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Esther proclaims her innocence and begs Bridget to help clear her name.
Okay, but I think it would be stronger to tie this info in with the previous sentence, to immediately answer the question what sort of rebellion?

How about " Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion -- against the courts, to clear her friend's name." Or some such.

And then explain the situation, the charges, etc.
Bridget is reluctant to assist so notorious a criminal,
Odd. Awkward, switching her from a friend to "so notorious a criminal". Like suddenly she doesn't know her. So much so that she labels her "a criminal" first. Which says she's convinced her friend did it. Is she close enough to the case to know?
but she soon realizes that her friend has been wrongly convicted by a jury eager to execute any rebel they can find.
How does she "soon realize" what the jury has, apparently with extreme prejudice, overlooked.
Using the skills she has gained through her involvement in rape and witchcraft investigations, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
Without pointing out that in those days midwives assisted in forensics investigations, this may come off as unbelievable. And the plot seems to hinge on it, so please clarify.

Omit "the" and "she has" from "Using the skills she has gained"

Bridget is joined in her search by a new assistant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York in hope of starting a new life. Martha proves a quick study in the delivery room, and Bridget has high hopes for her apprentice. But when the two women are attacked in a darkened alley, Martha’s dark past comes to the surface, as she shows herself far more skillful with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be.
Okay, this is good, but a little awkward. You tell us Martha "has fled to York in hope of starting a new life" which sounds like something Bridget doesn't know, which slightly undermines the surprise of the skill with a knife at the end, and shifts the point of view to Martha's. Maybe put it in more of B's perspective, like "Martha, who has just arrived from..."

Awkward: "darkened alley, Martha's dark past"

1. Wouldn't it be "dark alley"? Darkened sounds like someone put out the lights before attacking them.

2. Two uses of dark in one sentence doesn't quite work for me.

In fact you use "skill" twice as well, though farther apart. Any synonym you could switch for one of those, as well?
To save Esther from the stake, Bridget and Martha must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways and brothels of the city’s poorest districts.
Here you go from a carefully wrought worm's-eye-view (which I like, and is providing detail and tension, two good things) to a synopsis-like overview with a book-flap feel. I'd stick with a few more details rather than plow this path. Not sure how you would do this, but I think the result will be more successful than trying to hit all points in such a general fashion. Even if it takes a few extra words.
As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a multitude of sins, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.
Hmm. You end by putting the focus on Ester's hubby? Also, "tyranny and treason go hand in hand" don't give us much of a handle on the crux of the matter, so it's less than an edge-of-the-seat finish, for what I'm feeling is a cracking mystery you've got there, with some interesting characters and milieu.

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by Down the well » October 31st, 2010, 6:13 pm

airball wrote:It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of poisoning her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Esther proclaims her innocence and begs Bridget to help clear her name. Bridget is reluctant to assist so notorious a criminal, but she soon realizes that her friend has been wrongly convicted by a jury eager to execute any rebel they can find. Using the skills she has gained through her involvement in rape and witchcraft investigations, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
I agree that first positioning Esther as a friend and then showing Bridget's resistance to helping her because she now thinks of her as a "notorious criminal" is confusing.

Also, I do think the wording of "skills gained through her involvement in rape and witchcraft" kind of throws us off. Those things aren't associated with midwifery in the minds of most people. I think if you could just somehow state that her medical experience (or experience with the mysteries of the dead maybe?) would work. I don't know. It needs to be re-worded, though.

airball wrote:Bridget is joined in her search by a new assistant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York in hope of starting a new life. Martha proves a quick study in the delivery room, and Bridget has high hopes for her apprentice. But when the two women are attacked in a darkened alley, Martha’s dark past comes to the surface, as she shows herself far more skillful with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be.
Quill is right to point out the redundancy. Easy to fix, though. :)

airball wrote:To save Esther from the stake, Bridget and Martha must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways and brothels of the city’s poorest districts. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a multitude of sins, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.

Sorry, Quill, but I really like this last paragraph precisely because it sounds like jacket copy. It's intriguing to me, and the sort of thing that makes me want to pick up a book and read it.

Don't you love writing query letters? Kind of like watching sausage being made.

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by Quill » October 31st, 2010, 6:57 pm

That's okay, Down the well, I still think you're the best. :)

But do you really think "far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand" says enough?

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by Down the well » October 31st, 2010, 7:35 pm

Quill wrote:That's okay, Down the well, I still think you're the best. :)

But do you really think "far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand" says enough?
Ha! Back at ya.

And I know what you mean about that last line. I do think it comes out of the blue just a bit, but I think Airball is trying to tie in the title and give us a hint as to why Esther has been wrongly convicted of murder in a time of rebellion against the king. There's conspiracy afoot, me thinks.

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by saraflower » November 1st, 2010, 11:59 am

I'm no expert at query letters right now, but this sounds like a very intriguing story!

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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by androidblues » November 1st, 2010, 3:22 pm

Quill - I read on PubRants that a query should sound like the inside of a book jacket. If you look at the queries that Kristen has greenlighted, then you look at the product description on Amazon they are pretty much identical. I really think the main part of a query is to get someone interested, not to necessarily explain all the plot. For instance if there was just one sentence -

John Milligan has just fallen in love with his grandmother - or something outrageous like that I'd be interested. But I'm weird like that. But the query is reading a bit long to me. But I'm not the intended audience for this sort of novel to begin with - on 16. And I don't read Historical Fiction. Just my two bits.

Query writing is fun though. Great way to play around with an idea before you write the book to see if it's interesting or not.
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Re: TREASON - Historical Mystery

Post by Quill » November 1st, 2010, 4:10 pm

androidblues wrote:Quill - I read on PubRants that a query should sound like the inside of a book jacket. If you look at the queries that Kristen has greenlighted, then you look at the product description on Amazon they are pretty much identical.

Yup, I saw where she wrote that. And if one is querying Kristin, then a book flap blurb would work best. Not sure all agents feel this way, though. I guess we could debate the different schools of thought and differences between possible query styles.

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