Friday 29 March 2024

Extracts From The Writing Of Linda Acaster

Base image by dsdkcgl via Pixabay

The Story Must Begin

As readers, we all know of books we picked up idly to pass a few moments, but then found ourselves so engrossed in the unfolding fictional world that we had no choice but to read on. It’s as though a pair of invisible hands reached out by chance and drew us effortlessly into the story. But like so many things, that smooth transition is the product of a carefully crafted opening that took considerable work to construct.

Novelist Linda Acaster, talking about the opening to a story, advises writers, “Don’t faff!” She goes on to say “A book is not a movie script. There are no credits rolling over the opening scene. The story must begin immediately.”

The extracts below are from two very different stories whose opening scenes are constructed differently, but convey the same intent.

The Paintings

Magnolia House, Tavistock Square, was not what I’d expected. The formal gardens out front were there: the usual expanse of muddy grass and bare-limbed trees, all tidied a little too neatly behind an endless run of chipped railings. But where the multi-chimneyed, multi-windowed, Regency terrace should have stood was a 1960s monstrosity of glass and steel.

How its construction had been passed by the planners was beyond comprehension. What the owners of the Regency terraces on either wing thought of it didn’t bear considering. This was, as I’d suspected, going to be a complete waste of my time. No artist worth the name would want to be associated with such a property.

Despite the condensation clinging to the floor-to-ceiling glass of the foyer, I could see a darkened figure prowling inside. Definitely male; doubtless my contact. At least I wouldn’t be kept waiting.

He was turning towards me even as I pushed open the door and walked into warmed damp.

‘Ms Jeffries? How good of you to come out in this dreadful weather. I do appreciate it.’

Thin-faced, thin-shouldered, forty-something Mr Compton sounded as effusively servile as I’d been told he had on the phone, and his smile was no mitigation. We shook hands but I didn’t match him in removing my glove. I trust he got the message.

‘Shall we go up?’ I said.

‘Yes, of course.’

I watched as he did a little side-step to push the button to call the single lift. I hoped it wasn’t tiny. I didn’t want to discover that he had bad breath or personal hygiene problems hiding beneath that overcoat.

‘Em, I apologise for asking,’ he said, his shoulders drooping a little more, ‘but did your company make you fully aware of the unfortunate circumstances of, em... Mr Needsham’s...’

The doors to the lift opened and he seemed relieved to turn away.

‘Mr Needsham’s disappearance?’

‘Em, yes...’ He ushered me inside.

‘The apartment is to be cleared and the paintings are to be valued prior to auction.’

I turned in the small space to find him gazing at me, the doors still open behind him. His eyes seemed to be drooping at their corners, mirroring his stance. I’d been too brusque.

Inclining my head, I said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Compton. I was led to believe you were a... business associate?’

He prodded the console and the closing doors shut us into the small space.

‘That’s how I met him, many years ago.’ He forced a smile. ‘I was his agent for a number of years, and then a friend.’ He looked at me and smiled again but there was no joy in it. ‘Unfortunately I was not as good a friend as I’d believed.’

I wondered what that meant, exactly, but wasn’t going to pry. I wanted a fast in, out, and goodbye.


Linda explains, "The first-person viewpoint is a deliberate choice that holds the reader close, showing the story unfold through the main character’s eyes, giving us access to her thoughts and feelings. We emerge with a surprising level of knowledge about the setting, character, and the backstory." 

She also points out that if we are cynical about that ‘fast in, out, and goodbye’ then we have been left a small step ahead of the main character.

Click HERE if you want to read more.


BeneathThe Shining Mountains

“…but other women my age have a lover.”

“No man of standing will bring horses to the lodge of a woman who’s had lovers. You know this. So do they.”

Moon Hawk stopped scraping the clinging fat from the pegged buffalo hide and sat back on the heels of her moccasins. She eyed her mother irritably. “At least they are happy. At least they aren’t ridiculed for still being a maiden.”

Little Face did not falter in the rhythm of her work, nor did she raise her gaze from the skin. “Who’s teasing you? Other young women? They’re jealous. They know what they’ve let slip through their hands. Is it the young men who tease you? They’re showing interest. They see in you the makings of a wife, a woman for whom they would bring horses to the lodge of your father.”

Moon Hawk slapped down her elk-horn scraper, losing grip of her rising annoyance. “Tease me? I would need a love-charm for them even to notice me!”

Sighing, her mother raised her eyes from her work. “You exaggerate beyond belief. If you stopped scowling your true beauty would be seen by all. Your nose is straight, your eyes bright. Your skin is soft, and unmarked by the spotting sickness which killed many during your childhood.”

“I’m small.”

Little Face straightened her bent shoulders and raised her chin. “My lack of height did not deter your father.”

Moon Hawk was about to point out the dissimilarity of their situations but drew back. Bear On The Flat had never taken horses to her mother’s lodge. She was not an Apsaroke, but born of their enemies, the Piegan. He’d captured her on a raid and carried her back in triumph as his personal property.

Because her mother rarely spoke of her life before being brought to the Apsaroke village, Moon Hawk didn’t mention it, either. On the few occasions that she had, Little Face had merely smiled and said, “I was happy there. I am happy here.” At times, it was difficult to know what she truly meant.


This opening is different from the first. Linda points out, "This scene does not take us inside the head of either of the characters and so is less staccato. Instead, we eavesdrop on mother and daughter, listening and watching as they work. As we listen in, we again absorb a surprising amount of detail about both the story's setting and the events that have led to this point. Backstory can be carried via narrative due to the further distance third-person viewpoint offers."

If you want to read more, click HERE


Talking about the reasons for constructing the opening scenes this way, Linda says, "My priority is for the reader to emerge from both openings with a sharp image of where the story is set, tangible knowledge about the backstory and, due to the chosen tone as much as what is being conveyed, becoming alert to problems likely to be encountered by the characters." 

She goes on to note that despite the different techniques used in each opening sequence, "...both setting and backstory only appear as incidental touches - anything more would smother the growing drama - but as that drama becomes more intriguing, those touches build in transparent layers to give depth."


Learn more about Linda and her writing HERE