A story has to start somewhere. I wrote this scene for my blog before I began working on the manuscript. It, in effect, became the starting point for the novel. I had no idea where the tale might go, who all the characters were, or where Hattie’s quest might lead. I just started writing. I aimed to define Hattie and connect her with Arthur from the get-go. The “hit in the head” scenario came to me as an offbeat way to bring the two together while allowing Hattie’s personality to shine through.
Hattie Howell is spitting mad; the boys in her class are making fun of her chalk drawings again. When Arthur Phelps reaches for her slate, she yanks it back with all her might, accidentally hitting him with her elbow above the right eye, making a loud thunk heard throughout the room. Embarrassed more than pained, Arthur dashes out the classroom door, holding the growing lump on his head, his hysterical pals trailing close behind. Miss Clark, busy at her desk, pretends not to notice. As the boys leave the room, her eyes meet Hattie’s, a slight grin on both their faces.
The youngest of five children, 13-year-old Harriet “Hattie” Howell, loves school and adores her teacher, Miss Clark. Precocious with an artistic bent Hattie has a mind of her own and is not afraid to express it. In the tiny farming town of Hector, New York, everyone knows Hattie and thinks her demeanor and behavior are far from proper for a girl her age, everyone that is but her mother, Charlotte, and teacher Miss Clark.
Since the death of her sister Jennie from measles, Hattie has been preoccupied; some would say obsessed, with another death, the death of her father. All anyone knows is that Hannibal Howell, age 37, was last seen alive at the edge of a cornfield along McPherson’s Ridge in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the morning of July 1, 1863. Hannibal was a soldier in the Union Army of the Potomac, New York 76th Regiment Company C. Outflanked and outnumbered by Confederate troops; the 76th was the first to see action that day in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Within the first twenty minutes of fighting, regiment commander, Major Andrew Glover was shot and killed along with nearly half of the New York 76th. Regrouping in the shelter of an unfinished railroad bed, the 76th fought back, aided by the New York 147th and the Pennsylvania 56th regiments. By nightfall, Union troops had retreated to Cemetery Hill. The dead and wounded lay behind Confederate lines for the remainder of the three-day battle, Hannibal among them.
His body was never recovered. His final resting place unknown. Why did he leave her, the daughter he never knew?
These thoughts haunt Hattie. Strong-willed Hattie Howell wants answers… needs answers.
A good start, but …
The reader gets lots of info, that’s for sure. It’s written in the third person by an omniscient narrator. The narrator is telling the story. Nothing is wrong with that, but it is easy to get carried away and describe too much, covering too much territory. However, in all fairness (to me!), it was written for a different purpose, not for the opening pages of a novel.
Most of what you read above is TELLING the reader. All good and necessary information. However, it’s delivered in a way that doesn’t engage the reader. It’s better to SHOW by using dialog and character interaction. Below, you’ll find much of the same content, but it is told differently, with Hattie as the narrator. Note how different you, as a reader, feel about what you’ve read.
Chapter One: Saved by a Cookie
It started by accident. Or maybe a better way of putting it—it began with an accident.
I was in the kitchen baking molasses cookies when the front door closed with a bang that shook the house. The kitchen window rattled, scaring the dickens out of our cat dozing on the windowsill. She jumped, and so did I.
“Harriett Alanson Howell!” “Oh, no,” I gasped.
Everybody called me Hattie. My God-given name crossed my mother’s lips only on my birthday, or if I was in trouble.
It wasn’t my birthday.
She was mad, and I knew why—Arthur Phelps. He must’ve told his mother what happened at school yesterday, and she bent Momma’s ear trying to blame it on me.
“I’m in the kitchen, Momma!” Thinking fast, I figured under the circumstances it was best to meet her halfway. I damped down the wood cookstove, took a deep breath, and scooped up a cookie. “Coming, Momma!”
Bolting out of the kitchen, I startled our poor cat for a second time. She darted in front of me, kicking up the parlor rug. I tripped and tumbled headfirst into my mother. Fortunately, she caught me before I hit the floor. But as I tried to right myself, my shoe got caught on the ragged hem of my old work dress and I couldn’t stand up. Kicking my foot free, I mumbled, “Sorry, Momma. I was just coming to see what you wanted.”
“I’ll give you sorry. Didn’t I tell you hitting boys was not proper behavior for a young lady?” she scolded, wagging her finger. “You’re almost fourteen years old, and it’s about time you started acting your age.”
“Honest, I didn’t hit him. It was an accident. He snatched my slate, and when I pulled it back, it smacked him upside the head. Miss Clark saw the whole thing and didn’t get mad. That’s the God’s-honest truth.”
I glanced down at the broken cookie still in my hand. “Cookie, Momma?”
“Now, don’t you start. I’m serious. It’s not proper. I can’t have mothers coming to the house complaining about my daughter’s unladylike behavior. It’s embarrassing. And wipe that flour off your nose.”
I dabbed at my nose with my dress sleeve. “I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble. I’ll apologize tomorrow at school. Honest, it wasn’t my fault.”
She took a bite of the cookie. “I believe you, dear. Now, see that it doesn’t happen again. You hear?”
“I promise. Cross my heart.”
It was all I could do to keep from giggling out loud. Biting my lip hard, I turned and scooted into the kitchen. Saved by a cookie
Before Miss Clark rang the bell the following day, I walked up to Arthur. “Sorry you got hit on the head,” I said, trying my best not to stare at the welt over his eye. It was hard to miss.
“I’m sure sorry, Hattie. I hope you didn’t get in trouble because my momma came to your house. I begged her not to go, but she was pretty upset.”
“Apology accepted. Here, I made these for you,” I said, handing him a plate of cookies. As he reached for it, I pulled it back. “Arthur, don’t ever mess with my drawings again. Promise?”
“Sure thing. Don’t worry about that,” he said, taking a handful of cookies from the plate. “Good. I hope you like them.”
I was relieved that my apology and the cookies had fixed things up between us. I was about to ask him how his head was doing when the bell rang.
“Thanks for the cookies,” he mumbled as he ran to his seat.
Well, it seemed that my eyes suddenly got a mind of their own, because they followed him as he crossed the room. Then my eyes must have told my heart to join in, because it fluttered something fierce against my dress. Arthur and I had known each other for a long time. He wasn’t much to look at, to be honest. Hair cut crooked, sticking straight up in the back. Gangly legs and arms that moved every which way when he walked. Something changed in me as I stood there with the empty cookie plate in my hands.
Little did I know, something had changed in him too.