Thursday, December 18, 2008

Openings in Fiction - Fire Your Best Shot By Robert W. Walker

With fiction and your best nonfiction, opening salvos are extremely important as many readers buy a book by its opening lines and paragraphs. What an author has occur on those first immediate pages are also what often gets an editor at a publishing house or an agent to sit up and take notice. On the following pages from the opening of a novel I am currently working on – not for the first but let us say the 27th time…I lose count…you can be the judge. Embedded in these pages, however is a jarring CLUE for anyone who has come here to ACME seeking an autographed copy of Shadows in the White City. Said winner must scavenge for the name of one of my favorite authors of all time. For those who are just as interested in “romance in the time of cholera…ahhh, I mean in the time of the Salem Witch Trials…enjoy this romance trying to flourish in a bad time. Enjoy the opening salvos of Bloodroot, which I am in the throes of trying to sell to a publisher as we speak after over ten years’ research and writing.




Boston, March 5, 1692

“Look here, Jeremiah, my friend, you’ll have no problem ingratiating yourself with this Reverend Samuel Parris.”
“How so, sir?”
“Parris has asked for another pair of hands at his troubled meetinghouse, so the man’s expecting us to send someone,” Reverend Cotton Mather assured Jeremiah Wakely as he walked him deeper into the bowels of the First Church of Boston. “And you with your gift of appearing anything but who you are…and with your knowledge of law and theology—who better to pull off this subterfuge?”
“My going into Salem Village Parish disguised as a man of the cloth doesn’t offend you or your father?” Jeremiah asked.
“Not so long as it provides us with what we need, Brother Wakely.”
“I’m just not anxious to go back to the place of my birth as…as an agent for the Boston Church.”
“Please, Jeremy. Who better? You know the terrain and the people—you were once one of them.”
“I was never one of them, sir.”
“You know what I mean. You’re our best hope in this affair.” Mather’s whisper bounced off the wall and echoed down the corridor. He may as well be shouting.
Jeremiah wondered how effective he could be on this—hopefully—his last assignment on behalf of Increase Mather—Cotton Mather’s father and head of the church in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
This wasn’t the first time he’d been summoned to the back rooms of the largest church in all of Boston to do a job for the Mather family. The pay was generous, and the favors and promises real gifts. To have Increase Mather’s respect and gratitude, not to mention the top minister and legal mind in the country indebted to him? These rewards were too good a prize for a young and ambitious man to turn from. Jeremiah had searched for years to find his place in the world, here in the Bay Colony, and to see his way to his fortune and his comfort. He’d long before stopped dreaming of all that he wanted in life, but here was a chance at a gold ring or two.
“Get inside that disturbed parish, Mr. Wakley,” Cotton Mather instructed.
“To be honest, sir—” Jeremiah felt odd calling a man no older than himself sir, but Cotton Mather was the heir apparent here—“I’d rather tangle with pagan Indians than face Salem villagers.”
Mather laughed at this remark and showed his guest through an inner door, a magnificent library, something to challenge the library at Harvard College. Jeremiah scanned the room, wishing he could read every book here when his eye fell on an infamous title: General Rules for Excommunication and Witch Craft Proceedings. One tomb he cared not to read.
“You’ve done well keeping us appraised of Indian movements, Jeremy.” Mather indicated a leather chair, but Jeremiah continued scanning book titles instead, mesmerized. “But this matter of that troubled village parish has become a disease, and we must know the facts.”
“So many differing sides from what I’ve seen so far,” Jeremy muttered.
“Exactly! It’s become a hydra of tongues in our courts.”
Mather’s unusual metaphor for the troubles among the parishioners at Salem Village and some in Salem Seaport threw Jeremiah into a reverie. From all the papers that he had read of the cases that had continually plagued the courts, it appeared that since the day Reverend Samuel Parris signed his contract at Salem, discord ruled. The minister himself had become an angry, bitter, and displeased fellow; displeased with a large contingent of his congregation.
“Perhaps the man is angry by nature,” Mather continued, shrugging, “but now he’s angry over this infernal contract.”
“Questions every word and point, it seems,” Jeremy agreed, turning from the books to face Mather. “And he wishes to sue individuals and whole families.”
“Repeatedly!” Mather’s hefty mid-section bounced with his laughter. “And the man’s repeatedly choking the court system, obsessed! Imagine a man using the courts to combat those who’ve employed him.”
The opposition had tired of Parris’ three-year reign over the village parish, and according to these parishioners, it’d been a tyrannical rule at best. A Puritan meetinghouse held certain democratic principles, at least among the elder male and female adults, but even these freedoms of the ‘freemen’ and ‘freewomen’ in Salem Village, some felt, were under threat of complete loss so long as Parris presided there.
Mather broke into Jeremiah’s thoughts with, “My father and the minister at Salem Town Church—”
“Reverend Nehemiah Higginson, is it? Is he still at the pulpit?”
“Yes, aha! You do know people in Salem.”
“Only in passing as a boy.”
“At any rate, at Reverend Higginson’s behest, we want evidence gathered against Parris.”
“How much evidence?” Jeremiah pressed Cotton Mather.
“Enough to topple him from the parish altogether.”
“I see. Then it is decided?” Jeremy sat now.
“My father and Mr. Higginson are old friends and colleagues.” He offered Jeremiah a dram of ale poured from a pewter pitcher. Jeremiah took the offering.
“I understand they go back to Seminary School together at Harvard College.”
Cotton nodded appreciatively. “You’ve done your homework.”
“Harvard, where eventually and for many years after, your father presided as president before taking over as spiritual leader of the First Church here. Little wonder your father is suspicious of this Samuel Parris.”
“Father finds it curious that Mr. Parris claims to’ve been ordained at Harvard when there is no record of his finishing there.”
“It’s not unusual for a minister to complete his ordination elsewhere.”
“Old Nehemmiah Higginson has tried to pin Parris down to exactly that—to no avail. Said and I quote—”
“Never mind, quoting me, Cotton!” came a booming voice and a man with a noisy cane entered through a door where he’d been listening at the keyhole, or so Jeremiah surmised. “Mr. Wakely, I am Higginson.”
They shook hands, and Higginson added, “Young Mr. Mather here is not emphasizing our need hardly enough—and that time is our enemy.”
“But, sir,” countered Mather, “I thought we agreed—”
“Never mind what we agreed. Look here, Wakely, I recall you…recall your father, your birth mother, and your stepmother, all dead now. And I recall you as a boy in Salem.”
“I am flattered, sir, that you recall me. I have memory of you, too.”
“It was not my church who destroyed your father, son. It wasn’t we in Salem Town but those dark souls residing in Salem Village at the time; those who refused your stepmother and later your father a burial plot.”
“Yes, sir. I know that well.” Jeremy’s eyes bore into Higginson. No one in authority had intervened on behalf of a poor dish-turner, he thought but held his tongue.
“You have scars from that place, a good thing. You must do all you can for this cause, young man. Else…else I’m off to my grave afore seeing the village parish and lands returned to our control. Wrested free of this misguided Barbados businessman’s control. He must relinquish any fanciful belief in his ownership in perpetuity of our property!”
“But then why did the Select Committee make such a deal in the first place?” Jeremiah lamented the question even as it escaped him. He set aside his empty cup.
“The pact was with half his congregation.”
“So I am hearing.”
“The half that signed away the parish property and parsonage,” the aged, white-haired minister fired back. “In essence, he and the others’ve stolen property of the First Church—me, man, me! And the entire congregation!”
“Sounds outrageous.”
“The parsonage, meetinghouse, and everything on the grounds Parris is claiming as deeded over to him by his congregation.”
“And being enforced by his elders,” added Mather. “Down to the parish orchard!”
Higginson seconded this with a pounding cane to the floor. “Yet those lands and buildings rightfully belong to Salem Town, created as an offshoot of the main parish.”
Jeremiah nodded vigorously. “And any such dealings rightfully go through the council and the church there in the seaport, I agree.”
“Jeremiah, before you were born, that parish village home and meetinghouse was built to create a convenient place of worship for those living in the village.”
It never gave me or mine any comfort, he thought.
“Especially during particularly rough winters,” added Higginson.
Cotton Mather erupted with, “And now they’ve given it—lock, stock, and barrel—to this man Parris!”
What few teeth Higginson still had, Jeremiah feared he’d crack, so hard was he gnashing them now. “And then there’s this claim that he is a Harvard educated minister, ordained—ha!”
“Then you think him a fraud?”
“Parris has no more right to the property than any of the eight or nine ministers who came before him.”
Mather brandished paperwork over his head. “The original grants—same as those offered the minister before Parris, all broken! Every commandment, every contract! Thanks to the party that recruited Parris.”
“Led by Porter and Putnam—relatives of Parris!” Higginson found a seat, looking faint.
“Outrage . . . untenable,” Jeremiah knew the words to this game. If Increase Mather and such dignitaries as Higginson wanted this man Paris out, they’d find a way to uproot him with or without any dirt that Jeremiah might dig up.
“Porter is his cousin,” sneered Higginson, a bit of uncontrolled spittle escaping his mouth. “He and that fool Thomas Putnam, brother-in-law, went clear to Barbados to entice the devil to come to Salem!”
“These men you name,” began Jeremiah, “they led the delegation to Barbados?”
“Trust me . . . they’re all abed together in all these nefarious affairs.”
Jeremiah asked at this point. “Will you, sirs, and your father, Reverend Mather, will all three of you back me if I am exposed?”
Higginson didn’t hesitate. “If you can prove this hiring of Samuel Parris three years ago was an ill-conceived contract, that there are holes, young man, you have my undying gratitude—which means that of Increase Mather as well.”
“Demonstrate your ability with the law,” added Cotton Mather, “demonstrate that it is an illegal contract. And yes, absolutely, we’ll back you, Wakely. And the more evidence we can bring to bear . . .well…. ”
“We need your experienced eye and ear in that parish, man,” added Higginson. “Meet me at midnight tomorrow night before going into the village.”
“Midnight? Where?”
“At Watch Hill—” he coughed roughly—“before you enter the village for the parish house. When we meet in public, no one can know that we’ve had any contact.”
“Understood but Watch Hill at the witching hour?”
“This fiend, Parris, believes himself the owner of the entire parish and its buildings.” More coughing interrupted the old man. “I will have additional papers, affidavits you should see and read before you go much further.”
“I hope your confidence in me is not misplaced, Reverend Higginson.”
Mather laughed and poured more ale for them all. “Come, come. This is a challenge for a man of your talents, and if you rise to it, Wakely, your star will rise as well. You will’ve finalized your indenture to our family and take up your final education in the law. My father will see to it that you are well rewarded.”
Jeremiah kept his eyes pinned on the elder statesman of the church. Higginson did not flinch or blink. “Increase spoke of a magistrate’s seat opening up…an appointment in a district along the Connecticut, I believe. Once this is over.”
Jeremiah turned to Mather. “I’d like that in writing, sir.”
Again Mather laughed. “That’s why my father likes you, Jeremy! Preparation and reparation. You’re wise enough to cover your backside.”
The powerful Mathers had obviously discussed this matter at length with the patriarch Higginson some time before Reverend Increase Mather had sailed for England in a bid to negotiate a new Charter for the colonies with the new King of England. The Mathers and Higginson believed that an insider was needed, one the powerful ministers, in the end, could control.
Mather now lifted his ale cup and toasted: “Get word back to us, Jeremy, the Prodigal Son of Salem, apprentice in the clergy yet to be ordained.”
Jeremiah’s ale cup was the last to go up, but the one in Higginson’s hand shook like a sheaf of paper in the wind. The old man’s other hand, planted firmly on his cane, shook as well, so hard that it sent the cane from side to side.
Jeremiah thought but dared not say, this old man has one foot in the grave, and Cotton Mather is a purely instinctive politician. Have I struck a bargain with the devil?
All three men emptied their drinks, but this caused even more ghastly coughing from Higginson.
The three men shook hands on the plan, and Jeremiah Wakely put aside his cup and said, “I’d best be off…prepare for my trip back to Salem.”

Chapter One

Swampscott, Essex County, Massachusetts, March 6, 1692. The midnight hour.

At age two-score-ten and four, the woman in tattered clothes chewed tobacco, lit a candle, stood shakily alone in the abandoned ( John) Steinbeck cabin, and then she waddled straight for her hidden magic text, needles, and the doll.
The doll she’d paid dearly for, fashioned by Sam Wardwell, both blacksmith and cunning man, some openly called the Wizard of Andover. Sarah had made several trips to make payments, and each time Wardwell would display the doll in it’s progress from wood to realism. Sarah Goode believed the man a cunning magician. Furthermore, Wardwell asked no questions beyond her specifications. He kept mum, too, and never knew that his creation was in the image of Betty Parris; that it was a doll that’d do harm to Reverend Samuel Parris’ eleven-year-old girl, little Elizabeth Junior, named for her mother.

Thanks for reading and playing, and My Best Wishes for your holidays,
Rob Walker


Anonymous said...

I think the author is John Steinbeck.

Anonymous said...

Helen K, I think you're right, but just in case, I'll say Stephen King (reference to the King of England).

Anonymous said...

Thanks guys for your comments. Helen, you won!! You and one other who sent me direct word and didn't post here, so two winners!

Thanks for playing and hope you enjoyed the opening chapter of Bloodroot.