Thursday, February 11, 2021

First Lines from the Lefty Historical shortlist. By Catriona

Catriona writes: this job is never thankless – we get rounds of applause, actual stars beside reviews, bouquets of flowers, sweet emails, free books and royalties. And then there are days like today when Jim’s and my “job” is to welcome the other Historical Lefty nominees -  Susanna Calkins, Dianne Freeman, Laurie R King, and Ann Parker - to the Thursday blog. And the questions we decided to answer* are about first lines.

 (*“decided to answer” or “Catriona mixed up the weeks” – you tell me.)

To kick off: what's the first line in your nominated book? And did it come easy?

The Fate of a Flapper, by Susanna Calkins


“The black delivery truck pulled up to Mr. Rosenstein’s drugstore, its movements stealthy and smooth as it parked, not a squeaking brake or rattling screw to be heard.”

Suzie writes: My intention was to open the novel with a key image of 1929 Chicago—the illicit deliveries of alcohol to a speakeasy in the guise of dropping off routine supplies to a local pharmacy. The premise of my book revolves around the commonness of alcohol poisoning and I was hoping to set the tone early. Generally, I do find it challenging to write an evocative opening sentence, and now that I’m publicly self-analyzing my work (ha!), I’m going to try even harder to get it ‘right.’


Riviera Gold, by Laurie R. King

Laurie writes: Well, that depends on what you mean by “first line.”  Of the preface, or the flashback first chapter, or the story itself?

Take your pick:

Why had I never considered the possibility that an arms dealer might wield actual arms?


The warm air smelled of honey.


Venice had been…unexpected.

That the book ended up with a preface, then two chapters in different timelines and points of view, may indicate that a certain amount of shuffling about took place. Leap into the action….or begin with the oldest part…or pick up the story as it actually begins? I think the only time I haven’t struggled with the opening line is with the first Russell & Holmes story (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice)—and even that has a preface and a forward to it!


Turn to Stone, by James W. Ziskin

"MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 1963. The young lady in the blue pillbox hat tore the outbound coupon from my ticket, handed the booklet back to me, and wished me a pleasant flight."

Jim writesthis is the original first line I’d written months before.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 11, 1963 Mosquitoes. No one had warned me of this misery, the scourge of sultry Florentine nights that frustrated all attempts to sleep. 

 A couple of items of note here.

First, I changed the date, pushed my story ahead about six weeks in time. Why? August simply didn’t work for an academic symposium—the backdrop for the story—in Florence, Italy. Universities are not in session and the Florentines have abandoned the city to the tourists.

Second, I realized I didn’t want to start my book with mosquitoes, even if they are “the scourge of sultry Florentine nights.”

Third, I liked the idea of opening with an airline agent tearing the flight coupon from a ticket booklet. (Remember those?) I think it creates a splash of nostalgia and conjures the early 1960s for the reader. Furthermore, the blue pillbox hat calls to mind vintage Pan Am livery, as well as the romance and excitement of international air travel in a bygone era. Alas, in the scene that follows, that romance and excitement are spoiled. My heroine, Ellie Stone, ends up trapped in a seat next to a middle-aged blowhard in a tight seersucker suit. A reprieve from his unwanted attentions comes only once he passes out from too many Old Fashioneds.


Mortal Music, by Ann Parker

“There had been occasions in the past when Inez Stannert had looked a man—and even, once, a woman—straight in the eye and felt justified in pulling the trigger.” 

Ann writes: There you have it, the opening line of MORTAL MUSIC. In general, the first line of a book tends to come easy for me. Usually, after mulling over the idea/premise of a book at length—pop!—there it is. Once I write it down, I may tinker a little, but it usually stays close to the original wording. (The rest of the book? Not so easy.)

 A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder, by Dianne Freeman

Why does it always happen that just when I begin to feel life simply couldn’t get any better, fate drops a disaster into my path to prove me right?

Dianne writes: I hope it made you smile, or nod in agreement, and most importantly, want to read further.

I used to struggle to get my first lines to pull their weight. Now, I employ the lost keys trick—once I stop searching, they show up. It’s not quite that easy, but once I’ve finished the story, or more commonly, the second or third draft, that first line becomes much more obvious.

The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson

“I don’t know, Alec,” I said. “It’s hardly the Riviera.”

Catriona writes: I just checked drafts 1-4 to see how much the first line of the book had changed in the many edits. Here’s what I discovered: at some point someone made me start spelling “Riviera” with a capital R.  I checked a few other books and found the same thing. So. It turns out I find first lines easy. Huh. Who knew?

The other possibility is that I write terrible first lines but no one calls me on it. I don’t think so. I quite like this one, anyway. It’s pure Dandy Gilver: she’s having a low-level bicker with her side-kick and they’ve evidently fetched up in some godforsaken bit of Scotland. Again. I think it sets the tone okay.

So that’s our own first lines and how much they tax us as writers. What about when we’re readers? We all pitched in our favourites and guess what?  There’s a reason bestsellers are bestsellers and classics are classics.

LAURIE: I love the rhythm of Rebecca’s first line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

ANN: As for favorite first lines from other authors, I have so many . . . or so I thought! When I started looking them up, I realized that what I loved were the opening scenes, not necessarily the opening lines. However, I found two, very different in tone and much separated in time, but connected through their Western settings and sentiments. From Willa Cathers’ O PIONEERS!: “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.” And from Steve Hockensmith’s HOLMES ON THE RANGE: “There are two things you can’t escape out here in the West: dust and death.”

                                                                Photo credit: Bill Ziskin

JIM: One of my favorite openings comes from Alan Bradley’s first Flavia de Luce novel, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE. “It was as black in the closet as old blood.” When you consider that the narrator of this wickedly funny series is an eleven-year-old girl, and it’s her older sisters who have locked her in the closet, this is a bold beginning. I love these books and the delightfully precocious Flavia de Luce.

CATRIONA: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” is the opening line of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. It’s so precious to her devoted fans that, when the novel was adapted for the big screen, there was an audible sigh of relief as – after a nerve-wracking few minutes of establishing shots – Cassie says the words in voice-over.

SUZIE: One of my favorite opening lines, of any genre, comes from the storytelling master, Stephen King. I still remember, as a teenager, I was blown away by this line: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I find this sentence from The Gunslinger (the first in his Dark Tower series) to be brilliant for several reasons. First, it hooks the reader. Second, it raises key questions—who is this man in black? Why is the gunslinger following him? And third, it sets up the central tension between the protagonist and antagonist, and you don’t know which is which at this point.

DIANNE: My favorite first lines provide an inkling of the story, some insight to the narrator, and set the tone. If they also hold some wit or irony, even better. The reader is hooked the moment he smiles or nods in agreement. For me, Jane Austen’s first line from Pride and Prejudice; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” does it all.

Catriona again. Ah, this was lovely! The Lefty we’re all up for - the Bruce Alexander Memorial Award - is usually given at Left Coast Crime. This year it’s being given without food, drink, airplanes, hotels, or hugs. But there is a panel! We are all getting together later this month to scratch each other’s eyes out in a battle for votes. Check here for details about when and how to join us.


Guest Bios:

Laurie R. King is the New York Times bestselling author of 27 novels and other works, including the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes stories (from The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, named one of the 20th century’s best crime novels by the IMBA, to 2018’s Island of the Mad).  She has won an alphabet of prizes from Agatha to Wolfe, been chosen as guest of honor at several crime conventions, and is probably the only writer to have both an Edgar and an honorary doctorate in theology. She was inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars in 2010, as “The Red Circle.”

Susanna Calkins, a historian and educator, writes the award-winning Lucy Campion historical mysteries set in 17th century London and the Speakeasy Murders set in 1920s Chicago. Her fiction has been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, as well as the Agatha, Anthony, and the Lefty awards, and she received the Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award (Macavity). Born and raised in Philadelphia, she lives in the Chicago area now, with her husband and two sons.  Check out her website at

 Ann Parker writes the award-winning Silver Rush mystery series, set in the 1880s “Victorian West,” primarily in the silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, and in San Francisco, California. Mortal Music is the seventh in the series.


Dianne Freeman is the acclaimed author of the Agatha and Lefty award winning Countess of Harleigh Mystery series. After thirty years of working in corporate accounting and finance, she now writes full-time. She and her husband split their time between Michigan and Arizona. Visit her at





Susan C Shea said...

What a great idea for a post - thanks, Catriona and Jim.

Brenda Chapman said...

Terrific post - you are all winners in my book! Congratulations to each of you for your shortlist nomination.