This afterthought on prologues was originally posted at So Little Time… as part of my blog tour. I’m sharing it here as well for fans of Mistaken to enjoy.
Mistaken has had a chequered history with prologues, and has boasted more than one over the course of its life, none of which survived the final edit. The story began life as a WIP (a work in progress, being posted online as it was written) on the JAFF site, A Happy Assembly. When I began posting, way back in May 2013, the story had yet to go through the many edits and iterations to which my growing experience as a writer would later subject it. I found the beginning of the story was excessively slow. In an attempt to capture interest from the outset, I wrote a rather enigmatic prologue that hinted at future action. It was comprised of two distinct scenes and was fairly well received online, but I soon realised this wasn’t the wisest move.
The problem was that readers were rather too intrigued by its ambiguity. Though it was enormous fun to have a comment thread buzzing with conjecture, before I knew it, speculation as to the meaning of the opening scenes had begun to overshadow the unfolding story, distracting readers from more important, if subtler, nuances in the narrative. Rather than an intriguing hook, the events described in the prologue became the sole focus of the tale. That would have been great, if I’d pinned it on a more significant plot point, but I’d chosen an event that, whilst suspenseful, was by no means at the heart of the tale.
In an attempt to overcome this problem, I wrote another prologue, set further into the story. Alas, rather than redirecting interest, it gave too much away, and readers soon began guessing large chunks of my plot. Needless to say, this one was swiftly relegated to the cutting room floor, never to be resurrected.
In hindsight, the most salient lesson I’ve learned about prologues—be they intended to set the stage or stage a mystery—is that they ought to be written last. Only when you know your story inside out, from beginning to end, can you write an introduction that does justice to the whole of it. My various attempts fell a bit short, which is why none of them made the final cut. That said, the first prologue is no less relevant to that part of the story to which it did allude, and can still be enjoyed as a teaser to the story. I’m delighted, therefore, to share with you one of the original prologues to Mistaken.
Saturday, 23 May 1812: Hertfordshire
Despite the hour, shadows bloomed to fill every space as black clouds rumbled across the sky, obscuring the sun. Leaden air gusted through the open and forgotten door, whipping his coat tails about the backs of his knees, the fluttering movement accentuating his stillness. His head was bowed. With one hand, he gripped the back of a chair, the palm of the other he pressed to his dust-caked thigh, preventing the threatening tremor. He was too late.
A door opened, releasing a burst of anguished wailing, then it closed and muted quiet descended once more. Gentle footsteps brushed across the floor, and a pair of delicately embroidered slippers stopped a short distance before his mud-spattered hessians. He frowned slightly.
“You have changed your shoes,” he mumbled, without looking up.
“Forgive me.” He shook his head to dispel the niggling vexation. He looked up into her implausibly serene countenance. Struggling to bring his own expression under regulation, he enquired after her mother.
“She does not do well with worry,” she replied, wincing slightly. “As you hear. Her nerves—”
“It is to be expected. Once your sister is recovered, it will all seem less horrible.”
She looked at him with widened eyes. “If she—”
“Please!” he interrupted, holding up his hand. “Speak not of other outcomes.”
“You are trembling,” she said in the softest of voices.
“Yes.” He snapped his hand back to his leg. With tragic irony, the heavens chose that precise moment to open. He let out an incredulous huff of laughter and added bitterly, “It has been a trying afternoon.”
He stood in silence, none of his thoughts in the room with him. After he knew not how long, she interrupted his mounting dread, her tone strangely reluctant.
“I must thank you for—”
“Pray, do not thank me! I cannot express the depth of my regret that I did not reach her in time.”
“Neither did my uncle, or any of Colonel Forster’s men. You must not blame yourself.”
“But when I think I could have prevented it.” He slammed his palm on the back of the chair. “I, who knew how she disliked him!”
“I admit,” she said stonily, “I had not understood you to be in her confidence.”
“I am hardly that, but I knew she did not wish for his attentions.” He threw his hands up. “What was his interest in her? Why her?”
“I often ask myself the same.”
“And now this!” He turned and began traipsing back and forth before her, his boots mixing the invading rivulets of rain with the mud yet to be cleared from the flagstones, besmirching the floor with muddy prints. “What transpired that could possibly have persuaded him to such recourse?”
He heard her quiet sigh.
“My sister is oft times impetuous. It grieves me to say it but … it is possible she brought this upon herself.”
He halted his steps and regarded her in astonishment. “Surely you do not believe that?”
She coloured and looked away, wringing her hands together before her. “I do not know,” she whispered, her voice quivering. “I do not know what I believe. It is all so horrible.”
She burst into tears as she said this, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. In wretched suspense, he could only say something indistinctly of his accord and observe her in bewildered silence. At length she quieted and wiped her eyes, begging his forgiveness, the necessity of which he politely refuted and made the requisite enquiry as to her wellbeing.
In response and amidst all the horror and alarm of the day’s proceedings, she actually smiled, then thanked him and gave him to understand she was much better for knowing she had his sympathy. He answered with only a slight inclination of the head and was grateful when they were interrupted and the conversation was ended.
Tuesday, 2 June 1812: London
“You are a difficult woman to find.”
A woman in drab, scruffy clothing started and spun around, pinning herself to the wall. Only the dim glow of flickering candles spilling from parlour windows gave any light, and the thick, malodorous smog swirling about them obscured even that. Nonetheless he knew he had found his quarry; they were well acquainted. He stepped closer and her eyes widened, her gaze darting frantically up and down the alley and back to him.
“Nasty part of town,” he said, looking about and sniffing. “Far cry from your previous establishment. Shame you had to leave there, was it not?”
She made no response, only pressed further against the damp wall.
“Still, you really could not have stayed, could you?”
The woman shook her head. Jameson took a moment to admire the buttons on his greatcoat, twisting one of them between his fingers and polishing it with his thumb. Then he looked up, his head cocked to one side. “You even care how the girl fares?”
“They had you kick me out the same day with barely coin enough to get to Bromley. Why should I care how she fares?”
He stepped closer, his bulk looming over her scrawny frame. “Perhaps you ought to have considered that eventuality before engaging in skulduggery with your friend.”
Again she did not reply, though she cowered and paled. A man stumbled drunk from a tavern farther down the alley, light spilling with him onto the cobbles, and the woman made to run. Jameson’s palm slammed into the wall to the side of her head bringing her up short. He leant to whisper in her ear. “Where is he?”
Her trembling belied the cockiness of her retort. He leaned back and glared at her. “Where?” he said, more insistently.
“What’s it to him?” she blurted. “Why has he sent you?”
“I believe your friend was explicitly cautioned to behave himself in my employer’s last communication. This latest little misdemeanour has rather vexed him.”
“It was an accident!” she cried, all outrage.
“Well that is terribly comforting to know. Perhaps, if she dies, that will go in his favour in court.”
The woman blanched.
“Let us hope she does not,” Jameson continued, “lest you be nabbed for harbouring a murderer.”
She swallowed noisily. He leaned close enough to smell the wine on her breath. “Where is he, Younge? Where is Wickham?”
With one last helpless glance along the blind alley, she closed her eyes and blew out a breathy sigh. She pushed away from the wall with a grunt and wrapped her shawl more tightly about her shoulders. “This way.”