1.14.2007

HH Com Rd 2 #48 (359)

Hook here


It was late September. The nights were drawing in, the sun was sinking below the crest of the mountains, and for the first time a slight chill filled the village of San Gregorio. Lorenzo Compagno sat on the low wall outside the village's only restaurant - his restaurant - and gazed across the valley. In the distance, the town of San Demetrio was lit up by the last rays of
the evening sun. Beyond the town, a chain of mountains separated the broad valley of the Aterno River from the Adriatic coast. Lorenzo looked up at the mountainside, trying to pick out the lights that marked out the Stations of the Cross. Every Easter he would make the trip from San Demetrio up to the hermitage at the top of the ridge; at each station he would stop and rest. From the top there was a clear view down to the sea, but Lorenzo would always look back into the valley. He would look down towards his own village with its clutch of red roofs, and to its castello, where long ago the villagers would seek refuge.

Behind San Gregorio, another line of mountains, lower, but no less wild, formed the other side of the valley. Beyond them lay famous places like Napes, Pisa, Rome. In the distance above and below the village the two chains appeared to meet, walling in the tiny kingdom with its green fields and rolling hills. Far off to the left, the spire of the cathedral at L' Aquila was just visible over the top of the castello.

Behind him Lorenzo could hear the clattering of knives and the conversation as the restaurant prepared for another evening's service. For as long has he could remember, Lorenzo had lived above the restaurant. His first memory was of his father taking him into the kitchen and teaching him how to chop parsley. He had spent most of his youth working with the old man in the restaurant, serving at tables, learning the trade. All too soon it had been his turn to take over. And now, he himself was an old man, and most of the work was done by his sons. But it was still his restaurant; it was his world, everything he knew, and the one place where he could be sure things would always be done just right.

Lorenzo spent a few more minutes gazing across the valley, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of the country. He watched a car winding up the road that lead to neighbouring San Benedetto. He heard the whistle in the distance of a train approaching the village station with its level crossing. Then he turned and headed into the kitchen.

The kitchen was a scene of frantic but controlled activity. Giuseppe, Lorenzo's oldest son, was in charge; Sophia, Lorenzo's daughter, was chopping vegetables; and the boy Gino was stirring a pan of sauce. They all fell silent as the old man entered the room, and carried on with their work even more conscientiously than before.

"So, what's for dinner?" Lorenzo asked.

Giuseppe looked up at his father. "Antipasti, with some of that smoked boar sausage your cousin Domenico makes; Ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms; and Saltimboca alla romana."

"Alla romana?" Lorenzo said. "Al' San Gregorio, I hope you mean."

Sophia stopped chopping and looked up, a smile on her face. Lorenzo turned to face her.

"I don't mind you serving foreign food, but that was your grandfather's recipe and he invented it here in San Gregorio."

"Honestly, father," Sophia said, "anyone would think you thought Rome was another country."

Lorenzo glared at her. "They don't talk like us; they don't look like us. They definitely don't cook like us. And that makes us like them ... how?"

Sophia shook her head, still smiling, and returned to her chopping.

"You know what I heard they eat in Rome?" Lorenzo continued. "Pizza with ham and pineapple. Can you believe it? Pineapple! Antipasti, main course, and dessert, all in one. What's that all about? If that's not foreign, then what on earth is?

Giuseppe smiled; Dino grinned nervously. Lorenzo looked at Sophia for a reaction, but she said nothing. At length he abandoned the subject and walked around the kitchen, inspecting the work that was going on, looking into the pans.

"You need to cut the onion a bit more finely," he chided Sophia. "Has that brother of yours taught you nothing? I told him I should show you how to do things, but no, he says, I need to rest."

You have a great idea in your hook. This buries it under too much backstory and set up. When you come to a good restaurant for a meal, you start with the appetizer NOT chef's grocery list. Get past the prep work. Sautee some onions, pour some wine and let's see some ACTION.

19 comments:

rudynostalgia said...

I for one was totally taken with this opening. Does there have to be a murder in the first sentence of every book? Let's slow down and smell the Parmesan. It was wonderful to enjoy the well written description of the setting of this Italian town, the totally calssic comments on what other Italians think of as the bizarre eating habits of Romans and the whole atmosphere of a good restuarant gearing up for an evenings' service. This constant demand for action for action's sake is forcing writers to change the way they develop their plots, creating a cookie-cutter format of openings that propel us into what should be the middle of the story rather than the start.

Bella Stander said...

Too much exposition in the dialogue. Southern Italians DO think Romans (and Venetians, Milanese, etc.) are from a different country. Sophia would know that from every other old-timer, not just her father. It's difficult to get voices right, especially when writing in translation as it were, but Sophia comes off as American, not Italian.

Bella Stander said...

One other thing: "Sophia" is anglicized; "Sofia" is Italian.

whitemouse said...

I have to agree with Miss Snark that I found this dull. It's well-written, but I wouldn't read on.

Greta LaGarbeaux said...

Rudynostalgia, I'm with you in enjoying a nicely constructed slow build, but I think this opening has problems.

Even quiet openings need energy, and here I think it just leaks away with so much exposition going on.

If the emphasis were on dialogue that revealed more about the characters and their relationships, the effect would be more magnetic. Dad's little rant about the Romans, for instance, showed personality. But I have no sense of the mother or Sophia as living people.

Explosions are optional; the only thing that really has to catch fire is the imagination.

Greta LaGarbeaux said...

Oops. Delete "mother or" from second to last graph in that previous post.

Anonymous said...

Snark is right.

A lot of wasted real estate.

And it didn't even make me hungry.

Anonymous said...

these characters aren't fully formed. they're types. stock. pulled off the hanger. i can still see the starch marks.

Mark said...

The opening reminded me of, "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and plain to the mountains."

Hemingway next describes the substrate of this river before getting on to troops passing by.

I get the idea his manuscript A Farewell to Arms wouldn't have been read by miss snark in those days were she the one working for Scribner's. The need for speed is a bit excessive.

This one spent too much time in the restaurant as EH did in "Across the River and Into the Trees." That one didn't go over well either.

Anonymous said...

When I lived in Rome, which I admit was more than fifteen years ago, no one in the entire city would EVER have eaten pineapple on pizza. Ever. Ever. You could have had your passport revoked for suggesting such an abomination. When I saw it for the first time, in Ireland, I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

This may have changed since I lived there, but I doubt it's changed enough that ham-and-pineapple pizza would actually be associated with Rome. I know it sounds like a tiny thing, but if you want to write about a different country, you need to be very sure of details like that. It instantly made me think, 'This writer went to Italy once for two weeks.'

Also, it's 'saltimbocca' with two c's.

tomdg said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. Yes, it does start rather slowly, doesn't it? Ok, this is never going to start with a murder or an explosion, but I'm sure there is room to make it a bit more compelling. Extra thanks to greta legarbeaux, whose suggestions I will try to follow.

"... dull. It's well-written, but ..." - I'm flattered!

"didn't even make me hungry" - great point - I should try.

"these characters [are] types" - yes. Is that a problem? For me the interest lies in understanding the types, and seeing how they relate to one another, rather than in coming up with atypical characters who are interesting in themselves. Am I on totally the wrong track here?

Rome / Pizza - absolutely right, pineapple on pizza is American. Lorenzo doesn't know what he's talking about - I don't know if he's ever been to Rome, his world begins and ends with his valley. I don't get that across.

Queue re-write ...

Janet Black said...

I enjoyed the gentle beginning, but will agree with MS that something needs to happen fairly soon. I've mentioned this before but will mention it again: a strict college professor told us to not use the terms, 'could hear, could see, could feel, could smell - except in diaglogue.) 'Behind him Lorenzo could hear the clattering of knives ,,," What's wrong with "Lorenzo heard"? It's stronger writing.

Anonymous said...

:Tired editor sighs:

The weather report over the mountains glazed my eyes over. The static descriptives were generic enough that I thought it was set in California, but then I've always had trouble telling Spanish and Italian place names apart.

Such openings are known as establishing shots, and in a film they work since they last about 2-3 seconds. In a book I'm already putting it back on the rack. Landscape and weather prose is best *after* we have met the characters and can emotionally connect it to them. Then when they see a sunset it means something to them and the reader.

Recall the double sunset shot in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker looks wistfully into the distance. The scene has emotional impact because we know he's a restless kid wanting out of his backwater home. We can relate. Had the movie opened with the shot the audience reaction might have been: "Double star system. Cool. So what?"

Instead it opens with action and we meet characters and conflicts head on.

You start two paragraphs with the word "behind" and have the dreaded "There/he/she/it-was" for sentence starts syndrome.

Hemingway was then. This is now. I never liked his stuff, anyway.

Mark said...

Well anonymous maybe you should just stick to film clips and save the tedium of reading for those who like it? Hemingway seems to have held up without you.

If you think these snippets are tough, you should have a look at the gather.com contest. No hook, synopsis, just 10,000 words dumped in you lap. It's going to be a tough slog over there if this is any indication.

Anonymous said...

Too much exposition at the beginning. I don't mind a gentle openeing that sets the scene, but weather makes my eyes glaze over.

Then we got to the family and diialogue and my interest picked up. Set the scene with fewer words.

McKoala said...

There's too much description and back story here for my taste. Why is he outside? Just so you can show the country? Then why does he go inside? So you can show the kitchen? I think he needs a reason - a cigarette, a cool down, but even then it would be too slow a start for me.

On the 'could hear' 'heard' discussion - how about avoiding both and going with just 'clattering knives'?

Anonymous said...

I like this. It needs some polishing, but that's ok - its good writing and I'd read on. Its bigger problems are with what sounds like unbelievable dialogue, it sounded written and not fluid as you'd expect from relatives chatting in that setting.

It DOES NOT have to have action. BUT, it should make us wonder what WILL happen. Slow, interesting, well-written starts as this are still appreciated . Keep working - its got potential, I loved the hook idea, and I'd want more.

Anonymous said...

yeah, and spell your Italian correctly. Saltimbocca has two 'c's and if you knew any Italian, you'd know why. This is pastiche and very slow boring pastiche at that.

wonderer said...

I'm clearly in the minority, as I liked this a lot. Yes, this section needs to work harder - more sense of character and of conflict. But I liked the pacing, and I liked that the description of the village is right up front (since it's going to be almost a character in itself).

My suggestions: Tighten up that description a bit, add more about the actual village and less about the location, and filter it through Lorenzo's eyes. As for the dialogue, how about jumping straight into the plot, with news that the inspector is coming, or perhaps frantic preparations for his imminent arrival? That gives you more of a chance to show character as well.