Behind the Scenes

I wanted to give a little behind-the-scenes look at my current work in progress. I enjoy it when writers are brave enough to show me a rough cut. It’s like a little peak behind the curtain in Oz, although it’s not a charlatan you find but rather someone frantically trying out all their tricks to grab your attention and make you stay. Please stay.

I also wanted to demystify creative writing courses a little by sharing the feedback I received. It’s rare that we’re shown the process of writing in such gritty detail, flaws blowing in the wind like a pair of lacy knickers on a nun’s washing line. By hey, I’m going to learn from them and they won’t be in the finished piece. I’m lucky enough to have access to great courses such as this one (Writing Historical Fiction, if you’re interested) but a lot of people aren’t. Maybe they (you) can learn from my mistakes.

Chapter 1
‘Why not just tell me? Give me the name and address?’ I ask for the hundredth time. My voice is so shrill it must hurt Freddie’s head. He’s nursing a hangover, judging by the green tinge of his skin, his slouch, and the smell emanating from him. It wafts around this rickety carriage that he’s somehow got hold of. ‘Answer me. Freddie.’ ‘Do you ever shut up?’ He pinches the bridge of his nose. ‘And it’s Frederico.’ The trim hanging off the ceiling swings as we jolt down the bumpy road. A particularly nasty dip sends me sliding and banging into the wall, a wall of worn, sticky velvet. My crinoline squashes on one side and lifts on the other, exposing my ankle to the draught coming up through a hole in the floor. At least it’s letting some air in because the driver has not properly brushed out and replaced the straw on the floor, adding a mustiness to the smell of Freddie’s sweaty body and making me nauseous. All the shades are down, which isn’t helping either. I go to open one and he slaps my hand. ‘How many times do I have to say no? By God, I’d forgotten how annoying you are. They can put little Ade in a fancy dress and house and still—‘ ‘You’re one to talk Freddie McPhinney from St Giles.’ ‘It’s Federico Russo,’ he shouts. I tuck into my bonnet the lock of my hair that had escaped and was swinging across my face and ticking the tip of my nose with each rock of the carriage. ‘Why can’t we at least have the window open?’ My best day dress must be picking up the stench of this carriage. How will I explain that to my sister, Marianne, and her husband, Mr Longbourne? Freddie sighs dramatically. ‘I already know we’ve left London. There are no street merchants yelling for sales, no clops from other horses. There are no clangs of building works. It smells different too. That draught. There’s no tang of London in it.’ He says nothing. 'I don’t understand why secrecy matters so much to this man.’ I kick his foot with mine. He glares at me. ‘Who knows why aristocrats act as they do?’ ‘He is expecting us, isn’t he?’ ‘Of course.’ The twitch of his lips has me doubting him. I squeeze the tips of my gloves, whitened especially for this meeting. ‘Why the all mystery?’ ‘You’ll have to ask him when we get there.’ ‘And where is there?’ He checks his battered pocket watch. The initials on the back aren’t his. ‘Three hours of this. Three hours, I’ve had.’ He appeals to the ceiling, a faded and tatty black. ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ ‘Sold my painting.’ ‘Not sold. Lost. If you stopped talking for five minutes—’ ‘You don’t misplace a portrait of that size.’ ‘Lost.’ ‘Well, it’s mine. I paid for it and I need it, so you better get it back for me.’ He sits up. ‘What are you going to do, Miss Adelaide Hastings, if I don’t? Get your father to write about me in that rag he works for?’ ‘My brother-in-law is a barrister.’ I cross my arms over my chest. ‘Sue me then.’ His hands fly up into the air, unbuttoned sleeves flailing. ‘Sue me. Think I have anything.’ He laughs. I bite back a curse word as the carriage lurches. His head bangs on the ceiling. ‘This better be worth it,’ he groans. ‘Worth it? What are you going to get out of it?’ ‘What any painter wants—fame, recognition, commissions. You think any artist wants to create a portrait that never gets seen?’ ‘Then why didn’t you get it back yourself?’ ‘Gentleman’s honour.’ I huff and let out an ugly laugh. ‘You a gentleman, Freddie?’ ‘It’s Fredrico Russo.’ ‘If you say so.’ He unscrews the lid on his battered hipflask and tips it to his lips. It must be empty, judging by the despair on his face. He returns the flask to the pocket of his frock coat, a pocket that is two stitches away from becoming a flap. ‘You wouldn’t understand. Gentleman’s honour is something you women will never understand.’ He lurches forward, squashing the hat on his lap. ‘It’s between men, it’s about being and doing what we say, upholding certain silent rules and behaviour towards each other.’ If I was a man, I’d slap his face with one of my gloves and call him out for behaving so dishonestly towards me by selling my portrait. ‘Careful, you’ll break those lovely gloves of yours.’ I let go of the button at my wrist and rest my hands on my lap like Mr Longbourne is always telling me to do. ‘I have no …’ Freddie taps his head, ‘…no inspiration. No ideas. Everything has been done before, everything is a hackneyed copy of everything else. Nothing is new. That portrait. Your portrait took it out of me. Succubus, that’s what you are. So … so … way I figure it – you owe me.’ ‘I’ve paid you well enough.’ ‘Not for taking my talent, my ability, my, my … inspiration. Look at me.’ He spreads out his arms. ‘Look at me, nothing now.’ ‘You were nothing then, too.’ I tug on the cuff of my gloves and fan out my fingers. Why did I trust him to paint me? Had it been in the passion in his blue eyes, the galloping speed of his speech when he’d rhapsodized about Romanticism in art? He was strikingly handsome when we’d first met, wild and out of place like a character from a Bronte novel, and he was starry-eyed for Gabriel Dante Rossetti who he swore he’d met in some gin palace and had sold a drawing too. I’d been selling watercress to keep me and Papa alive after Mother died and the subsequent grief had floored Papa. The Freddie sitting across from me is haggard and hollow as if talent kept him full, not food. ‘Don’t you pity me,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t.’ ‘You had a look of it. I might be low but you wait. This is temporary. When the world sees that portrait, when the world…’ He pulls the end of the blind away from the window, peeps behind it and frowns. ‘Why’d you want it so much, anyway?’ ‘That’s none of your concern.’ ‘What’s wrong? Don’t like questions?’ His grin shows burgundy-tipped teeth. ‘No.’ I bash at the lock of my hair that has escaped my bonnet again and is ticking my nose with every rock of the carriage. ‘Sure looks like it.’ I try to relax my jaw, impossible. I try to move my lips up into a pleasing half-smile but I’m picturing Mr Chelton with his face purple as he rants about morals, manners, and moral decline of London. We drop into another rut. I go to hold on to the roof but my dress restricts my arm and I bang into the wall. ‘Ridiculous.’ This whole escapade is more than ridiculous. It’s dangerous, foolhardy. Worse: Marianne would say it is scandalous, me going to visit a man without first receiving a proper introduction, let alone me being here with Freddie. But what else can I do when everyone refuses to help me? Maybe if Mr Chelton knew I was alone in a carriage with a man it would be enough for him to stop his unwanted courtship and threats of marriage. Maybe I don’t need the painting. ‘Thought that would shut her up,’ Freddie mumbles. But this not talking, this thinking about Mr Chelton, adds force to the rocking nauseous in my belly and the pounding tension in my forehead. ‘I’ll be quiet when you tell me where we’re going and who we’re going to meet.’ ‘He’s a very private man. A recluse.’ ‘I know that already. You told me that days ago when I tracked you down to that hovel.’ ‘Not all of us have rich relations.’ ‘I want a name. Can you tell me that at least?’ The sound of the wheels changes to a low staccato purr. The jolts are more frequent but less intense. ‘Hallelujah,’ Freddie says when the carriage stops. He lifts his clasped hands to his lips, kisses them, and then shakes them at the ceiling. ‘Finally.’ ‘You’re always so dramatic.’ 



This is outstanding work which grounds the reader in the chosen historical period: 1860. A pair of characters, Ade and Freddie, are on their way to a mysterious assignation. Or rather, it’s mysterious to Ade. Freddie is clearly keeping something from her though she has her own secrets too. The piece very effectively conveys the world view of the characters and pays close attention to what’s happening around them. Mention of Brontë novels and Rossetti gives the cultural context for this moment, while the close attention to clothes is very revealing of both social standing and the emotional state of the characters. Working particularly well is how Freddie’s clothes are shown to be in a state of disarray which makes clear his stress. There is also very rewarding attention to sensory detail – the movement and smell of the carriage is extremely vivid. An intriguing and richly conceived extract of historical fiction which convinces as the start of a novel.


There’s some good mystery generated by this opening, with lots of unanswered questions which will keep the reader guessing and wanting to know more. That said, it’s a fine line between curiosity and uncertainty, and the latter can make readers turn away from a story, no matter how well the period is conveyed. There are several mysteries here: where they’re going today and why, and the painting – what’s happened to it and why Ade needs it so much. This perhaps risks overburdening the start of a story and the reader might conflate the different mysteries which might not be the intention, e.g. does Ade think the man she’s going to meet will have the painting?

Enjoy this rough cut? Why not check out my polished work? You buy the ebooks & paperbacks at Amazon. The paperbacks are also available from all good bookstores. You can also download the first chapter of my books from my website (A.M. Vivian), sign up for updates and receive exclusive content.

Copyright 2023 A Head

Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash


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