HH Com Rd 2 #40 (588)

hook here

Potatoes don’t like the light when they’re growing. They hide under the mulch like nests of little eggs, clean and white, unless the sun gets in and turns them green. I’d seen one peeping out so it was time to heap more mulch over them.

Hard physical work is good for numbing. Every now and then I have a day where the memories explode inside my head like long-delayed depth charges, so loud that they deafen me to the whole world. When Connor tapped me on the shoulder I nearly knocked him out, flinging my fist straight back, hitting him in the upper chest.

‘Shit, Judi! No wonder the kids steer clear of you.’ He held my fist and only let it go when I jerked it away.

‘Creep up on me like that and you’re lucky you’re still alive.’

‘I called your name three times. Didn’t you hear me?’

‘No.’ I’d made a grubby mark on his neatly ironed, pristine police shirt. ‘What do you want?’

‘A cuppa would be good. Some of that coffee you keep for special.’ He tried to make a joke of it but the smile wouldn’t stay on his face.

The sweat soaking my Tshirt went cold. ‘What’s up?’ I said. ‘Come on, spit it out.’

‘Can I have that coffee first?’

‘Fuck.’ I dropped the spade and headed for the back door, slipping off my gardening shoes before I stepped into the kitchen. Connor followed suit. He knew better than to wear shoes in my house. I boiled the kettle and dug out the very expensive coffee I kept for special occasions, focusing on the simple tasks, measuring the coffee precisely and filling the pot exactly to the number two line I’d drawn with a black marker.

Connor sat at the table, fiddling with a pen, flicking it open and shut until I glared at him and he put it down.

I poured the coffee, splashing a long streak of grainy brown liquid on the table, and pushed the milk towards him. ‘It’s Andy, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘What – he’s been arrested again? I don’t know why they bother.’

My brother had been a drug addict for more than ten years. I only found out about five years ago when he needed money so desperately that even I was a possibility for a loan. As if he’d ever pay it back. I didn’t give him the chance. I said no. Later, I discovered that his girlfriend was a junkie too. They didn’t have a hope, not together.

Connor cleared his throat. ‘Judi – Andy’s dead. I’m sorry.’

‘OD, was it?’ My voice came out sounding cold and distant.

‘Um, no. He – ’

‘Don’t tell me. The ultimate irony. Car accident.’

‘He – they said he was murdered.’ Connor looked like he was expecting to have to take me in his arms and comfort me. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

‘Murdered. Who did it? Or is Andy going to be on next week’s Crime Stoppers?’ I wanted to stop this cold, dry voice coming out of my mouth but I couldn’t. It was like listening to my father all over again, and I shuddered. Connor’s hand crept across the table and grabbed mine, holding tightly, feeling warm and human. I gripped him back, hard. It kept me from leaping up, shouting and screaming and smashing everything in the kitchen.

‘They’re pretty sure it was a small-time drug dealer, a Vietnamese guy that Andy was seen at the pub with. The knife, well, it had the guy’s prints on it.’

‘Drugs, again. It had to be that, didn’t it? Jesus fucking Christ, why couldn’t he kick it once and for all? Why couldn’t he – ’ Finally the cold voice failed, stopping midstream, dying. Hot tears rolled down my face and dripped onto the table.

Connor tried to stand and come around the table but I held my free hand up, stopping him. He sat again, his face full of pain. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said again.

‘Yeah, me too.’ I wiped my face on my Tshirt, then blew my nose on the nearest dishtowel. ‘So they sent you to do the dirty work, did they?’

‘This is my area, but yes, the boss thought it would be best if I came.’ Connor was part of a small force policing a huge geographic area in central Victoria.

'Well thanks.’ I sniffed and blew my nose again.

Connor looked away. ‘There’s something else. I said you wouldn’t want to, but the guy in Melbourne. He wants you to go down and identify Andy’s body.’

Well, this is all set up and backstory.
It's not bad writing (in fact, it establishes character very nicely) but I'd really like to start when it gets interesting-her arrival in Melbourne to discover things weren't what she thought.


Bernita said...

I like this.
A question - maybe things are different in AU - but would a policeman on official business ( even if he is a friend) ever take his shoes off entering a house?

susan said...

While I love writers who play with words, "I boiled the kettle" is a bit too far, even for me.

But the writing style was just wonderful, especially the opening paragraphs. I lost interest in the dialogue, only because it was so common after following such a great opening act.

You might consider going more literary in your work, you certainly have the flair for it.

Bernita said...

Um..."boiled the kettle" is a legitimate idiom.

susan said...

Oh! Then I apologize. I'd never heard it put this way before. I like it.

Anonymous said...

The lack of punctuation is presumably a style choice rather than a formatting accident during emailing. It is also presumably why 'i said' suggested literary flair.
I'm not disagreeing with that, but for the sake of you hearing a range of comments, I couldn't read a book of this. I'm too damn lazy to make up the punctuation for myself.

PS 'boiled the kettle' is normal to me.

Anonymous said...

The writer used curly quotes. Your browser can't display them correctly, so it is ignoring them.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was Cornish, and always used the phrase, "boiling the kettle." I use it, even though I'm in California and second generation American. Last time I was at my daughter's she boiled the kettle for tea,using the phrase..

I'm retired from Law Enforcement, and I can tell you in my experience, a Cop would never take his shoes off entering a house. NEVER! Even if they knew the person. The only time the boots came off was in the locker room getting off duty...

I've been told and understand its true with editors, that the story should always start with action. The back story can be woven in as the story progresses.

writtenwyrdd said...

I asked myself the same question about the shoes. My response? No way in hell. On duty is on duty, and you don't take your shoes off when on duty as a cop. But I live in America, so it might be different there in Oz.

I found the punctuation troubling, but really loved the rest of it. The characterization was superb.

Anonymous said...

When I'm looking for a book to read, I always read 10 lines on a random page in the middle to make sure I don't hate the writer's style.

If I read this in the middle of your book, I'd definitely buy it. I love your writing style! It's a great chapter 3.

But I physically cringed when you started with potatoes.

I don't like to read the back of the book because often it gives too much of the story away. So first pages are very important for me. The first 3 lines have to hook me. Potatoes don't give me a reason to keep reading unless I'm feeling REALLY generous. (you shouldn't count on that.) I'd be wary of pacing problems, too.

It'd shift from definitely to maybe. Then I'd only get your book if I couldn't find anything else I liked.

Anonymous said...

In Japan, cops take their shoes off all of the time when they enter a building. It's part of the culture.

OTOH, this is yet another case of snarklings obsessing over tiny details that are easily removed.

Anonymous said...

Can you cringe any other way that physically?

Can you cringe emotionally?

Nah. Don't overwrite, even in comments.

Anonymous said...

Maybe a cop would stand on the rug inside the door and sip coffee using the corner of the counter, but I can't picture him taking his shoes off. I'd keep reading. Does anyone else here realize that potatoes exposed to sunlight (they turn green) are poisonous? They are. Good character set up and, even though I have a strong suspicion the protagonist has good reason for being so bitchy, it's difficult to like her at this early stage. Although the 'F' word means nothing to me I have a hard time with the JFC stuff. 'Boiled the kettle' is fine; heard it before. Like I said, I'd keep reading.

ORION said...

bernita - everybody takes their shoes off entering houses here in Hawaii- it's cultural

Anonymous said...

"Does anyone else here realize that potatoes exposed to sunlight (they turn green) are poisonous? They are."

They won't kill you. From TheHealthyPotato.com:

Q. What is the green coloring on the potato skin?
A. The green on the skin of a potato is the build-up of a chemical called Solanine. It is a natural reaction to the potato being exposed to too much light. Solanine produces a bitter taste and if eaten in large quantity can cause illness, this is unlikely, however, because of the bitter taste. If there is slight greening, cut away the green portions of the potato skin before cooking and eating.

Bella Stander said...

While I was reading this submission, I was thinking, Finally, we have some real writing!

I don't think there's too much backstory here. I like that it started with the potatoes. Immediately there's a mystery as to why the narrator is so jumpy; obviously there's been some terrible trauma in her life. Good character set-up.

I think others are obsessing too much over the little stuff--boiling kettle, shoes, punctuation--all of which can be easily fixed. The big stuff--craft, tone, characterization--is what's important and, as far as I can tell from this brief sample, is A-OK.

Maybe cops in Oz, as in the US, always keep their shoes on when working. However, the writer took care of that by emphasizing that everyone takes off their shoes in the narrator's house.

I would absolutely keep reading this. Good work; carry on!

Virginia Miss said...

I liked the writing. Even though this didn't start with action, I think the author has given us a deft portrait of the narrator. And getting news of her brother's death in the first few pages certainly constitutes a pivotal moment.

As to the piddly details: the shoes and the boiling kettle didn't bother me, but I was surprised by the narrator blowing her nose on the kitchen towel. It was an "eeew" moment for me, and seemed out of character for someone clean enough to insist guests remove their shoes--someone who draws lines on their coffee maker seems like someone who'd use a hanky or a tissue.

A Paperback Writer said...

I wasn't too keen on the potatoes, but I really liked this. I'd want to read more.
Good work, author.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bella Stander. Like you, I loved this. It's one of the few entries I'd read for pleasure. It promises to be a psychologically rich literary cozy. Not every novel has to be a faux video game. Why not allow a few books for the grown-ups?

Anonymous said...

To follow up on virginia miss's out-of-character "blowing her nose on the kitchen towel" comment: I was thrown by "I poured the coffee, splashing a long streak of grainy brown liquid on the table." After being so meticulous about measuring and making the coffee, doesn't seem in character that your MC would spill. Or, if she did, she would probably note it the same way she noted the "grubby mark" on the cop's shirt. One or two missed details can be handled by a copy editor, but a lot of out-of-character details may be a problem.

And somehow, I pictured a bitter, dowdy woman in this opening scene. *After* I read the opening, I read the hook and stumbled on the last line, "The one person who can help is Hotshot, if she can keep him out of her bed long enough to focus on the case." She's a romance heroine?! I'm sorry, I just didn't get that she's romance material from this opening characterization.

But I also didn't necessarily see this as backstory. Something is happening here. Someone is being told that their brother has been murdered. Maybe just turn that "My brother had been a drug addict" paragraph into dialog, or simply nix it altogether.

A little tightening and a little more consistency and it'll be pretty promising!

Anonymous said...


I liked it so well I blew my nose all over my T-shirt.

And several other garments as well.

Naturally I took my shoes off first.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking Miss Snark's assessment is biased by the fact that she looked at the hook immediately before looking at this first page.

I didn't look at the hook first and had no preconceptions on what this was supposed to be about. I thought this was a very good grabby opener. The author managed to keep things moving along without bogging down anywhere, jumping from plot point to plot point at just the right pace.

First paragraph: established that we're at a potato farm. Second paragraph: introduced the potato farmer as a strong character with an interesting personality. Established the guy behind her as a policeman. It slowed down a bit far through the coffeemaking, which I think was intended to heighten tension - could use a bit more polish to get just the right effect there. Infodump on the brother at exactly the right point where I actually wanted to know all that. Then we find out he's dead. And it's a murder.

And it keeps going forward from there. And soon she'll be going to Melbourne.

It's very good.

(incidentally, yes, I'm the same MWT that has been doing all the other hook comments with the same name; the blogger upgrade killed my ability to access my account.)

McKoala said...

I like the fact that not everything is explained - like how she knows Connor, why the kids steer clear. The only bit where back-story kind of smacks me in the face is where you sketch her brother's background. Do you need to be so precise about her brother at this stage, or could you let that come out of their discussion, or later? Also the bit about precisely where Connor patrols - could you reveal that more discreetly?

I think that there is some over-description at times e.g. 'neatly ironed, pristine' - just one of those would get the message across. Also 'very expensive', then 'precisely' and 'exactly' very close to one another. Yes it was also weird to me that she spilt the coffee when she had been so precise just before.

I think that it fits her character that he takes his shoes off - he wouldn't dare not to, even if he is on duty.

These are quibbles. Overall I like it. Nice start.

Twill said...

The only thing I found really objectionable was the line "Connor was part of a small force policing a huge geographic area in central Victoria." I felt that information was intrusive or out of character.

But that's small potatoes, so to speak.

LadyBronco said...

Interesting start.
I am actually curious as to what happens next.

Sharon Maas said...

Taking off one's shoes when entering a house is perfectly normal - for everyone - within certain religions - Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and others. I've never thought about it before but I guess Western police wouldn't do it; but even thinking about it - police stomping into such a home in their dirty old boots - makes me cringe.

I liked this writing - apart feom the punctiation - and begins at the right place for me.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear Bella Stander and McKoala. This author writes really well and I liked the potato opening. For me, the apparent contradictions in Judi's behaviour - meticulousness and then blowing nose on tea towel - served only to make me more curious about her character, as well has her relationship with the policeman. Must people always act 'in character'? And I thought that most of the background information was introduced subtly.

But of course, I'm not an agent.

Good luck author!

susan said...

My bets are placed on the writer of this story as being published some day soon.

It's again, the voice, the style, as well as the skill I see here.

Anonymous said...

I Missed the whole "bioiling the kettle " coffe thing. I'll have to go back.

Too much backstory. Try again. Andy does not seem like a real chacter that would be killed due to drugs. I'd try again there.

Andy is a winner's name! Pick up a loser name like Jim or sissy.

Instaed of Fu*k. I'd use Mother fu*cker or SH*T!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't get past that first sentence. Why does she have a bunch of potatoes covered with mulch? They clearly aren't planted and so they can't be actually growing. That's not how you grow potatoes.

If you are going to start with a gardening detail, why not make it right instead of demonstrating that you really aren't a gardener? The millions of gardeners who know it's wrong will be very annoyed and they will not want to read on to find that you are actually intending to write about a clueless gardener wannabe.

Same thing with the police officer's shoes. Details that clash with most people's reality are fine as long as they make sense within the story's world. But without that kind of context and support they just create cognitive dissonance---not what you want in a hook.

Lorra said...

I love the way this starts, gently drawing us into the story. I believe we Americans have become too impatient thanks to the quick fix television provides. We demand that everything open with a bang and dozens of loose ends be neatly tied up, usually within an hour.

In my opinion, we need to take a deep breath and allow the waves to tickle our toes before becoming tsunamis that sweep us off our feet.

But hey, that's just me. In the arts, we all have different taste.

Anonymous said...

Great opening paragraph, and then the story suddenly gets... I don't know... commonplace? You have some great lines later on too, but ditch the "hot tears rolling down" etc.

Miss Snark is right - have her arriving to identify the body first.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

The writing is good, the pacing is good, the backstory is introduced nicely (at the right times and in the right amounts) and I thought that the combination of meticulousness and carelessness in the main character rung true to her situation.

It made me feel as if her life is spinning out of control, and she is trying to control it through being neat and clean, but it just isn't working. Besides, she's obviously nervous, and people spill things when they are nervous.

There are problems with this piece, but they are subtle, not concrete. The real problem is whether this piece is really interesting enough to grab a reader in a bookstore. That's why Miss Snark suggested starting later in the story. That's one way of making a narrative more interesting, of grabbing a reader right away.

The rest of the stuff mentioned here is either easily fixed with copyediting (policeman not taking off his shoes) or is minor nitpicking that probably doesn't matter.

The writer who produced this is good. There is good characterization and a proper use of structure, backstory and all the other tools of writing. The problem is that being good isn't always enough by itself.

Anonymous said...

bella stander said,

"However, the writer took care of that by emphasizing that everyone takes off their shoes in the narrator's house."

I thought the same thing, but after reading the comments had to go back and re-read. Gald I was right the first time, and glad someone mentioned it.

Inkwolf said...

It reads pretty well. :)

Maybe it's just me, the inveterate fantasy reader, who wishes your first paragraph was the lead-in to a story about mischievous garden gnomes or evil potato people.

"Potatoes don’t like the light when they’re growing. They hide under the mulch like nests of little eggs, clean and white, unless the sun gets in and turns them green. I’d seen one peeping out so it was time to heap more mulch over them"....before they mutated and escaped.

The Killer Tomayoes ain't seen nothin' yet.

Anonymous said...

33 comments! Thanks, everyone. Every single comment either way makes me stop and think again about character, consistency, and what will come later.
My apologies for the weird punctuation. Although I sent the 750 words as rtf, in Explorer the quotes and apostrophes came out as squares, in Netscape as question marks and in Mozilla they disappeared. I do know how to punctuate properly!
I'm in two minds about starting with the potatoes - they're meant to also be a metaphor for all the secrets and clues that get "dug up" during the story. I might just be being too clever!
Thanks for this opportunity to get such great feedback, Miss Snark. I'm continually reworking, and this has given me a huge amount of encouragement.
(By the way, here in Australia, where water is in short supply, people grow potatoes on newspaper and inside old tires, and covering with mulch is ultra important!)

Anonymous said...

I really liked this—sepecially the characterisation. I definitely want to read more. (Except about the snot on the tea towel. I could do with less than that.)

Instaed of Fu*k. I'd use Mother fu*cker or SH*T!

But isn't the story is set in Australia? MF is a largely US term. It certainly isn't one used by Australian women. Had the author employed something as culturally inappropriate as that, I'd have assumed that Martha Grimes had switched her settings from the UK to Oz and would have thrown the computer across the room. (Much as I wanted to do when Paul Hogan crapped on about shrimps.)

'Shit' is something you say when someone has put an empty milk carton back in the fridge. 'Fuck' is just right.

Why does she have a bunch of potatoes covered with mulch? ... That's not how you grow potatoes.

Of course you can grow potatoes like that. No dig gardens are popular in Oz. You can also store spuds under straw in potato clamps.

Inkwolf said...

Don't take my comment as criticism, I enjoyed the potato description. :D