Welcome to Saint Cheryl's

etaylor

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This is the opening chapter of a Noir/Macabre story I'm working on just for fun. If it evolves into something worth finishing that would be great, but for the moment I'm really just putting it together for the value of the critique.

Please enjoy.


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Credit Cards Not Accepted

"Credit Cards Not Accepted." They may as well just plaster that gem across the town welcome sign. It was scrawled on aged, hand written notices taped haphazardly to half a dozen cash registers in this backwater town. Who knows, maybe they're on the other half dozen too. But he hadn't visited those establishments yet.

Lawrence Ives had spent the last several days trudging about the town of Saint Cheryl's trying to get a straight answer on what exactly happened last week at the Brownswaker Lumber Yard. The whole experience, thus far, had turned up nothing. Every interview revealed only more questions and few answers. But he was beginning to feel like he may be on to something. Some tiny thread of truth that he could tug on and see this whole mess unravel.

Saint Cheryl's was a four hour drive from his home near Philadelphia, deep in the Susquehannock State Forest and close to absolutely nothing. But when the lumber yard burned to the ground and an insurance claim came in for millions of dollars in reconstruction costs, it was Lawrence's job to investigate. His company didn't pay for fraudulent claims, after all, and something about the account of this fire didn't add up. But, a fire was a fire, and the truth would out itself in the investigation, like it always did. Or so he assumed. Now, deep in the middle of nowhere trying to make sense of a murky soup of mismatched stories and questionable "facts", he wasn't so sure what to believe. Even his own eyes, he felt, had been playing tricks on him in this eerie and isolated place.

Lawrence reached into his pocket, procured a ten dollar bill from his wallet, and stuffed it in the torn plastic flap of the diner's receipt folder. He handed the folder to the cashier. She was an older, curly-blonde haired woman with blue eyes and a couple missing teeth. Like the rest of the diner, her style appeared accidentally retro, as if she were locked in time somewhere around the 1970's.

Her voice creaked like a door hinge in need of oil. "Thank you...and be sher ta come back. Yer too skinny." She croaked with a crooked smile. "We're slow da last week wit da mill burnt up too so we'll get ya fed quick."

Lawrence was not too skinny. If anything, he could stand to lose a couple pounds. But flattery and guilt tripping in the same sentence? It was a crude, indelicate tactic, and he hated how much it might have worked if he wasn't keen to the oddities around town.

"I was hoping you might be able to tell me a little bit about that actually." He replied dryly. "I work for Mr. Brownswaker's insurance company and I was wondering if you could tell me where I might be able to find him."

"You didn't hear?" A forced sadness crossed her face. "Mr. Brownswaker is dead. Died in da fiyer."

"So I've been told." Lawrence replied. "The problem with that story is that he called me last night..."

The woman's face turned to disgust. "Ya shouldn't speak such nonsense bout da dead, stranger." Her tone betrayed an uncomfortable anger.

"I wouldn't think of it. I must be mistaken. Or someone's playing me for a fool." Lawrence forced a smile.

"Maybe that's it." The woman's once warm tone was now icy and matter-of-fact.

"Right..." He studied the woman's face for a few seconds amidst an awkward pause. There was something uncanny about her. Her backwoodsy demeanour was almost practiced. Stereotypical it seemed. But also unnervingly effortless. Was she faking it or not? He couldn't tell. Whatever she was, it was convincing.

"Well, sorry to bother you. Have a good day." Lawrence nodded and turned to exit the diner.

The diner door let out a metallic squeel, it's hinges turning on years of rust and neglect. The bell hanging over the door let out only a single, tinny ding. The wind took the door from his grasp as he passed through it and pushed it forcibly shut behind him, slamming with that kind of heavy clang that bounces back open and jars the soul.

The cashier stared through the window after him. A toothless scowl glaring through dirty glass, illuminated in a sickly red glow by the neon lights skirting the run down building. The sign's original lettering read "Welcome to Saint Cheryl's Diner." Now, it's lighting dulled with age and many letters burnt out completely, its message was much more ominous... "We come to Sin here."
 
Last edited:

Victoria Silverwolf

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Let me start with a few technical issues. Although these are minor, anything that distracts the reader from the story is a problem.

Should the town be just "Saint Cheryl"? The apostrophe in "Saint Cheryl's" implies something belonging to Saint Cheryl! ("Saint Cheryl's Church" or whatever.)

The first paragraph made me think this was going to be narrated in first person. Maybe it's just me, but the phrases "They may as well" and "Who knows" gave me that feeling, which doesn't appear elsewhere in this excerpt.

There's also a bit of tense confusion in the first paragraph. This is a little hard to explain, but "They might just as well have plastered . . ." and "Who knew, maybe they were . . ." might sound better here. (I think this consistent past tense also fixes the problem noted above about first/third narration confusion.)

In standard grammar narration, as seen here, I would say "couple of" instead of just "couple."

The cashier's dialect is distracting. I would use dialect, if at all, very, very sparingly. Vocabulary and grammar generally work better to convey a character's voice.

Watch out for "its" (belonging to it) and "it's" (it is.)

Enough of that. Overall, this is an intriguing beginning to a mystery, with vivid descriptions. The exposition of the back story is handled gracefully. I like the ending of this excerpt quite a bit. Definitely worth going on with this.
 

etaylor

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@Victoria Silverwolf

Valuable input, particularly regarding the mixed signals in the first paragraph. I'll have to find a way to rephrase that. It's a shame really, I liked the old timey snark of the second sentence, but I do see how it's misleading.

Regarding Saint Cheryl vs Saint Cheryl's, I discussed that with my wife and she remarked about the apostrophe as well...my problem with it is I intend for there to be a deliberate reason for the apostrophe that's explained later and is integral to the town's background, and thus important for the story. But I also see how it may be annoying.... But also, the s somehow sounds more correct to me. Could be because I'm writing with local dialect of the area I grew up in in mind.

Re - Dialect. Never was sure how that sort of stuff came across. I've seen professional authors do it many times and always felt it was -#&@ing annoying. But then I think, if it's really that bad surely the pros wouldn't do it. Hah
 

Brian G Turner

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I think this is fairly decent, with a couple of caveats. The first is that the first two paragraphs seem to be trying to find a way to begin the story, and I don't think they succeed. I think the opening sentence to the third paragraph makes for a good opening - it sets the scene - but lose the rest of the paragraph as you're falling into the trap of trying to explain everything to the reader. At the opening let the reader wonder why he's there, especially when he's going to explain who he is and why he's there shortly in the dialogue. Actually, that third paragraph might be a good place to make the mention about credit cards not accepted, as it would then put us in the moment ready for the dialogue exchange.

So - using only your own words - I'd suggest the following edit gives you a stronger opening:

Saint Cheryl's was a four hour drive from his home near Philadelphia, deep in the Susquehannock State Forest and close to absolutely nothing.

"Credit Cards Not Accepted." They may as well just plaster that gem across the town welcome sign. It was scrawled on aged, hand written notices taped haphazardly to half a dozen cash registers in this backwater town. Who knows, maybe they're on the other half dozen too. But he hadn't visited those establishments yet.

Lawrence reached into his pocket, procured a ten dollar bill from his wallet, and stuffed it in the torn plastic flap of the diner's receipt folder. He handed the folder to the cashier. She was an older, curly-blonde haired woman with blue eyes and a couple missing teeth. Like the rest of the diner, her style appeared accidentally retro, as if she were locked in time somewhere around the 1970's.

I agree with Victoria - lose the chewed up spellings for dialect as they are hugely distracting. My reading of that gives the waitress a New York accent and makes Lawrence sound like he's speaking Queen's English, which I don't think is your intention. :)

Overall, a pretty decent opening, I'd just advise trying to get straight into the moment rather than have wandering thoughts right at the start - you'll have plenty of time through the rest of the novel. :)
 

etaylor

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@Brian G Turner

I'll take a look at reworking the opening and definitely get rid of the chewed up spelling.

I feel like getting into the action vs setting at least a modicum of tone from the get go is a bit of a delicate balancing act. Too much either way either feels cheesy or boring. Should be interesting trying to get that right.
 

Jesse Harris

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Jan 12, 2020
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I quite enjoyed the story. I was not sure what to expect given the title. I agree with the others the first bit was a slow start, but I do not have a problem with that. The dialect part was a bit disruptive to my reading but overall it flowed smooth for me.

The part enjoyed the most was the end, "The sign's original lettering read "Welcome to Saint Cheryl's Diner." Now, it's lighting dulled with age and many letters burnt out completely, its message was much more ominous... "We come to Sin here."
I feel as if you are making me, the reader, a strong promise here. I appreciate it and am curious how you will fulfill that promise.
 

OHB

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First, I want to say that I like the noir, Twin Peaks-ish feel of the story and would read on. What I can't tell is if this is the start of a novel or a short story. If it's a short story, then you can get away with being a little tell-y (like the second two paragraphs). But if it's a novel, you have plenty of time to dispense all that info instead of dropping it on us in one chunk at the very beginning. I also agree with the others about nixing the accent. It's not only distracting; it can be offensive to readers from Northern Pennsylvania (or any backwoods region) because you make them sound stupid when you misspell words to mimic the way they sound. Think how horrible your own speech would look if someone from another region wrote your accent the way they hear it.

In addition to those issues, there were a few things that threw me out of the story:
Saint Cheryl's was a four hour drive from his home near Philadelphia, deep in the Susquehannock State Forest
I live far from woodlands, so I have to ask: Are there towns in the middle of state forests? And ones with lumber yards? Those are protected lands, aren't they?

Lawrence reached into his pocket, procured a ten dollar bill from his wallet, and stuffed it in the torn plastic flap of the diner's receipt folder. He handed the folder to the cashier.
Until this point, I didn't know he was in a diner. It's the fourth paragraph and I'm only just learning where the main character is.

"I was hoping you might be able to tell me a little bit about that actually." He replied dryly. "I work for Mr. Brownswaker's insurance company and I was wondering if you could tell me where I might be able to find him."

"You didn't hear?" A forced sadness crossed her face. "Mr. Brownswaker is dead. Died in da fiyer."

"So I've been told." Lawrence replied. "The problem with that story is that he called me last night..."

The woman's face turned to disgust. "Ya shouldn't speak such nonsense bout da dead, stranger." Her tone betrayed an uncomfortable anger.

"I wouldn't think of it. I must be mistaken. Or someone's playing me for a fool." Lawrence forced a smile.

"Maybe that's it." The woman's once warm tone was now icy and matter-of-fact.
This part makes it sound like he's been in town for only a day or less, but the third paragraph states that he's been there for several days. If he really has been there for days and everyone he's met has told him that the client is dead, I'm wondering why he still bothers to ask. Wouldn't he have checked with law enforcement by now to verify the man's death? And if he thinks someone is impersonating a dead man to file an insurance claim, he can report it to the police or ignore it. I'm no insurance expert, so someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but I would think that if the client has legally been declared dead (even if he is actually alive), he can't file claims, and that's not the insurance company's problem. The onus would be on the client to prove to law enforcement and the government that he is still alive and get his "legally dead" status reversed before the insurance company would be obligated to even acknowledge his claim. Because of this, there doesn't seem to be much for Lawrence to do right now other than go home. I don't know where your story is going, so I may be completely wrong here. But I wonder if you wouldn't be better off giving your main character a job more involved in the investigation of the fire/death (e.g. expert consultant in arson investigations, detective, etc.). I think claims adjusters are just too far removed from (1) caring whether their clients are actually alive and (2) doing any investigative work beyond damage to property.

As I said before, I think the story is interesting, and I hope my feedback helps!
 

etaylor

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@OHB

Now why'd you have to go poking holes in my plot here?

Actually, I quite appreciate that. That's really valuable. I've been agonizing over reorganizing the opening sequence but it seems pretty clear to me at this point that, while there may be a good foundation here, the whole thing needs to be re-examined.

As for the length, I had no intentions going into this. But the more I putz around with it, it's looking like a novellette.
 

.matthew.

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Actually meant to get to this days ago but kept getting distracted. Pretty much means I've got no fresh opinions but here goes anyway.

For me, the apostrophe in the title felt off for much the same reason as others have mentioned, but Saint Cheryl sounds wrong too. Over here (UK), there are a lot of Saint Whatevers and like that example sometimes they keep the s but lose the apostrophe. Even so, the name still feels it's talking about a specific location and not the whole town. When I think of whole towns named after a saint I can only think of one off the top of my head "St Ives". It loses the ' but also reduces the Saint. St Cheryls, but that still looks wrong to me. Maybe it's the Cheryl. Doesn't sound like a real saint and even though it doesn't matter, having two syllables seems to drag it out. St Marks, St Johns, St Bobs, St Kates. Guess that makes it feel more natural to me.

When I read "Credit Cards Not Accepted" I immediately wondered why it didn't say "Cash Only". Again that may be an across the pond thing but as far as I can recall, when card machines are down or a stall doesn't have a reader, the signs just say "Cash Only" and this flows more easily for me.

Wouldn't he introduce himself with his company name rather than giving the name of the client? That seems unprofessional.

I agree the dialect is aggravating, but mostly just because of the spelling. If you had the spelling more or less right, and just shuffled the word order a bit or even shorten'd (like that) words that aren't normally shortened, it would go a long way to making it easier to read while maintaining a noticeable dialect.

Other than the nitpicking I quite enjoyed it. I like this sort of story and I would have happily continued to read more.
 

etaylor

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@.matthew.

Thank you. The dogpiling over the dialogue spelling is well earned. Haha. I don't mind.

I am open to shortening the name to St. Cheryls. It does worry me that a common abbreviation here for "street" is also St, but that usually comes after, as in Main St. I don't mind dropping the apostrophe. I agree it looks wonky. But the s remains somewhat story entwined at the moment and its importance would be revealed later.

I have some exposure to the insurance industry, and I can say the moment you lead with the company name, people think you're trying to sell them insurance and they immediately shut off. To get any kind of answer, you have to pretty much lead with "I'm not here for you, relax." :ROFLMAO:
 

etaylor

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May I also ask, has anyone read Stephen King's "The Outsider"?

....you lot would rake that sorry sap over the coals for that book. Takes entire pages, never mind a couple short paragraphs, to get to the point of what the book is about. :p
 

john11

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For me, the opening hook was not very good, and the rest felt like statement making.

The name seems odd, why saint? Is there a religious connection in there somewhere.

The descriptions do not seem very rich and deep, more superficial.

Just me two cents
 

etaylor

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For me, the opening hook was not very good, and the rest felt like statement making.

The name seems odd, why saint? Is there a religious connection in there somewhere.

The descriptions do not seem very rich and deep, more superficial.

Just me two cents

- the opening is already being worked on.
- there is a purpose, but this is clearly not a finished story. It is a snippet. Every question can't be resolved in a single critique. And there's literally nothing confusing about a town being named Saint anything. This is common practice the world over.
- the descriptions are sufficient for the length of the critique. I believe every other person here will agree with me when I say that there isn't one person here who wants to read 4 paragraphs about what the waitress looks like, or for me to detail the aesthetics of every room in the diner and take up 3 pages on an info dump.

Now that I'm done being blunt.

A critique should offer constructive feedback, with an explanation of WHY you feel something could be done better, and also reinforce what you did like. It's very easy to just say "I didn't like this. That's my two cents". And you're entitled to that two cents.

But bear in mind. Two cents is an extremely low amount of value. ;)
 

reggiesaun

Science fiction fantasy
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May 26, 2020
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So I could get technical, but nope. This is good. Slower pace in the beginning matches the setting. But you drop enough drama nuggets at the right points to keep it moving. The mystery is there. I'm even getting a sense of the character and otivations.

This is good. Write it.
 

Metaluna

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Jun 1, 2020
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I liked this very much. I feel it has the updated noir/Raymond Chandler quality which is very stylish and what you wanted to achieve. Lawrence seems likeable, but not in focus yet. His interaction with the cashier is deliciously sinister (the accent didn't worry me but then I'm on the other side of the world). I like the pace, too. So I think you have started something very entertaining.
 

Night_Eternal

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Only complaint I have echoes the others above on the dialect issue, but other than that, I'm impressed! In fact, you made me raise my eyebrows when we learn of the supposed dead man making a phone call. I don't react easily and tend to get bored with most peoples writing these days, but you sound like you got a voice and talent. Nothing sounds terribly forced, so it's not too "try hardy".

Maaaaaaaybe add a little bit more back and forth dialogue between Lawrence and the waitress, but it honestly works pretty well without it as well, so I suppose that's optional (like a lot of criticism imo).

Honestly, it'd be a crime if you didn't carry on with it. If I read writing of this quality in a book at Barnes and Noble, I'd probably be interested in buying a copy. :cool:
 

Richard-Allen

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winnipeg Manitoba Canada
hi,
The opening brought me to the times when I was on the east coast living there. My father was in the air force, So, we move about a lot. But the dialogue and what you were saying sounds like it would come from there. You established us with an interesting opening, The fire that you are investigating may be fraudulent,
The information that they have a fire filed by the owner. Who the waitress is suggesting he's dead. Yet the investigator was called after the owner had died. So, how could that be. A mystery is a foot. The story has a prevalent interest. Keep on the work you are doing here. It would not be good if you do not complete it.
 

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