The website Writers Write gives us 155 words to describe a writer’s tone. There are probably many more than this, as each writer’s tone also conveys what we call ‘voice’.
Tone conveys your attitude towards your subject, your audience, and your personal perspective on life. It is expressed through the structure and length of your sentences, the particular point of view, and the level of formality. An opening page must give the readers the tone of what they will be reading, and this includes its pace, level of tension, amount of historical detail, and authorial involvement.
In historical fiction, the mood, feel and atmosphere of your writing is important, because you are building a world that no longer exists. The mood either reinforces the political, religious and social concerns of the era, or it can undercut them with a more modern interpretation (as in The Judge Hunter).
Below I have copied extracts from three first chapters, to give an idea of how much a reader can glean about the book just from the first pages. Beneath each extract are a few words to condense the impression I got from each of these books. Please feel free to add your own impressions in the comments, and do check out the authors’ books via the title links.
The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley
– CHAPTER 1 –
London, February 1664
Balthasar de St. Michel was contemplating his excellent good fortune at having such an influential brother-in-law as Samuel Pepys when he looked up and saw the head of Oliver Cromwell, mummifying on a pike. Revolting, he thought.
It had been there for—what—three years now? When the late king’s son, Charles II, was restored to the throne, he ordered the moldering corpses of his father’s executioners dug up, hanged, and decapitated. “Symbolic revenge.” Ten of the fifty-nine men who signed the King’s death warrant were rather less fortunate than Cromwell. They got hanged and butchered while alive.
Balthasar shuddered and moved briskly along to his destination, the Navy Office in Seething Lane, a busy warren near the Tower of London.
“Brother Sam!” he said with a heartiness suggesting it was a social call.
Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy, looked up from his desk. His face did not convey delight. He knew from experience that this was not a social call.
“Brother Balty. I fear you find me much occupied.”
“I was passing by. Thought to stick my head in. Say hello.”
“Good of you,” Pepys said heavily.
“What’s the commotion?” Balty said, looking out the window at the bustle in the courtyard below.
“Meetings. So as you see, I am somewhat—”
“Say, how long are they going to leave Cromwell’s head on that pike?”
Pepys sighed. “I wouldn’t know. For as long as it pleases his majesty, I expect.”
“Yes, I imagine that’s rather the point.”
“Weren’t you present when they”—Balty made a chopping motion—” lopped off the king’s head?”
“Yes. I was sixteen. Played truant from school. And was well whipped for it. Now if you’ll—”
“Didn’t you also see the execution of the first of the regicides? What’s his name . . . Harrison?”
“Yes. Well, good of you to—”
“Must have been ghastly. Hanging, disemboweling, cutting off the privy parts. Then—”
“Yes, Balty. It was horrid. So much so that I endeavor not to dwell upon it.”
“People will suspect you’ve a penchant for gruesome entertainments.” He pronounced the word in the French way, himself being half French. Balty and his sister, Pepys’s wife, had the tendency to lapse into their father’s native tongue.
“My penchant, Balty, is to be witness at great events. I do not attend only executions. I remind you that I was aboard the ship that brought his majesty back to England from Holland four years ago.”
Pepys did not mention—to Balty or anyone, for that matter—the diary he’d been keeping since 1660. He wrote it in a shorthand decipherable only to himself, so that he could tell it all.
informal, funny, smart, swift, pacey, 3rd person – notice how the historical desciption is at a minimum, but the witty dialogue makes this skip along the page. The reader is kept as an amused witness.
Plague Land by S D Sykes
Somershill Manor, November 1350
If I preserve but one memory at my own death, it shall be the burning of the dog-headed beast. The fire blazed in the field beside the church – its white smoke rising skyward in a twisted billow. Its odor acrid and choking.
‘Let me through.’ I shouted to their backs. At first they didn’t respond, only turning to look at me when I grabbed at their tunics. Perhaps they had forgotten who I was? A young girl asked me to lift her so she might see the sinner die. A ragged boy tried to sell me a faggot of fat for half a penny.
And then a wail cut through the air. It was thin and piteous and came from within the pyre itself – but pushing my way through to the flames, I found no curling and blackened body tied to a stake. No sooty chains or iron hoops. Only the carcass of a bull, with the fire now licking at the brown and white hair of its coat.
The beast had not been skinned and its mouth was jammed open with a thick metal skewer. I recognized the animal immediately. It was my best Simmental bull, Goliath. But why were they burning such a valuable beast? I couldn’t understand. Goliath had sired most of our dairy herd. We could not afford such waste. And then a strange thing caught my eye. Beneath the creature’s distended belly something seemed to move about like a rat inside a sack of barley. I tried to look closer, but the heat repelled me. Then the plaintive call came again. A groan, followed by the high-pitched scream of a vixen. I grasped the man standing next to me. It was my reeve, Featherby.
‘How can the beast be calling?’ I said. ‘Is it still alive?’
He regarded me curiously. ‘No, sire. I slaughtered him myself.’
‘Then what’s making such a noise?’
‘The dog-headed beast. It calls through the neck of the bull.’
‘We’ve sewn it inside, sire.’
I felt nauseated. ‘Whilst still living?’
He nodded. ‘We hoped to hear it beg for forgiveness as it burns. But it only screams and screeches like a devil.’
I grabbed the fool. ‘Put the fire out. Now!’
‘But sire? The sacrifice of our best bull will cleanse the demon of sin.’
‘Who told you this?’
‘The priest.’ These words might once have paralyzed me, but no longer.
Small descriptive details, short sentences, horror, fast-paced, action, suspense, 1st person and close to the unfolding events, dialogue spare and terse.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
St Vitella’s Convent, Loro Ciufenna, August 1528
The Testament of Sister Lucrezia
Looking back now, I see it more as an act of pride than kindness that my father brought the young painter back with him from the North that spring. The chapel in our palazzo had recently been completed, and for some months he had been searching for the right pair of hands to execute the altar frescoes. It wasn’t as if Florence didn’t have artists enough of her own. The city was filled with the smell of paint and the scratch of ink on the contracts. There were times when you couldn’t walk the streets for fear of falling into some pit or mire left by constant building. Anyone and everyone who had the money was eager to celebrate God and the Republic by creating opportunities for art. What I hear described even now as a golden age was then simply the fashion of the day. But I was young then and, like so many others, dazzled by the feast.
The churches were the best. God was in the very plaster smeared across the walls in readiness for the frescoes: stories of the Gospels made flesh for anyone with eyes to see. And those who looked saw something else as well. Our Lord may have lived and died in Galilee, but his life was re-created in the city of Florence. The Angel Gabriel brought God’s message to Mary under the arches of a Brunelleschian loggia, the Three Kings led processions through the Tuscan countryside, and Christ’s miracles unfolded within our city walls, the sinners and the sick in Florentine dress and the crowds of witnesses dotted with public faces: a host of thick-chinned, big-nosed dignitaries staring down from the frescoes onto their real-life counterparts in the front pews.
Descriptive, religious, contemplative, political, artistic – notice the authorial distance, both in the sense of looking back at something long ago, and the summary of Florence’s history in that last long sentence. The book starts with a leisurely, descriptive prologue of the Nun’s death, which is a tour-de-force and worth seeking out by clicking the book title.
The promise of mood and tone
Much of tone is natural to the writer, but after you have a draft, it’s worth analysing your first pages to see whether they promise the sort of book you have produced, and to use pace, language and syntax to pinpoint its tone. Aim for consistency; a reader will be disappointed if you don’t fulfil their expectations. Your book’s tone will also inspire the mood or tone of its front cover, its blurb, and the way it is sold to readers, so once you have identified the tone, it is worth seeking out books with a similar feel to compare choice of language and point of view.
(Colour chart borrowed from this website)