Can You Write a Mary Stewart-Worthy First Paragraph?

Last October, when author Sophie Masson paid tribute to Mary Stewart on Writer Unboxed, it was no hardship for me to jump on board with a gushing comment. I’ve read every word Ms. Stewart wrote – often more than once. I love her determined heroines, her enigmatic heroes, the exotic settings, and the tension she infused into every perfectly crafted scene. In fact, when I attempted my first real novel in eighth grade, it was Mary Stewart I hoped to emulate.

Imagine my delight, then, when Ms. Stewart’s publisher, Hodder & Stoughton,  tracked me down with an offer: They are reissuing her romantic suspenses, complete with the charming, retro covers seen below.

Further, they’re providing me with a set of these novels to give to a worthy recipient. (Click here for more about her books.)

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I did some thinking, and because this is such a fab prize, and because so many of you are writers, I want to turn this into a contest which pays tribute to Ms. Stewart. First-place winner will walk off with the books, and two runners-up earn bragging rights.

To enter the contest, you will:

  1. Write and enter the first paragraph of a romantic suspense novel by midnight MST May 30, 2011. ETA: Yes, you can certainly enter a paragraph from your work-in-progress, but I would ask that you don’t enter already-published material. (Because I didn’t specify before, I will grandfather pre-published entries that arrive before 12:45 PM MT, May 28, 2011.)
  2. Enter by pasting your paragraph into the comment section below — a separate comment for each entry, please.
  3. You may enter up to four times.
  4. Live within Europe, Canada, or the continental United States, excluding Alaska.
  5. ETA: If you have questions about the genre or Mary Stewart’s work, please see this post for more information.

Because she’s the one who began this lovely karmic loop, I’ve asked Sophie Masson to act as the contest’s judge.

For those of you who might not be familiar with Sophie, she’s an award-winning children’s writer with more than 50 books to her name. Last week she added to her hardware by winning the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature for My Australian Story: The Hunt for Ned Kelly.  Among the reasons given for her win: her ability to write tension into a story with a known ending.

In other words, you are in capable judging hands. 🙂

Enjoy, guys. And please note, while I haven’t required you to publicize this contest in any way to qualify, I’d be grateful for Ms. Stewart’s sake if you would. She’s in her 90s, you know? Maybe she’ll hear of your generosity.

69 thoughts on “Can You Write a Mary Stewart-Worthy First Paragraph?

  1. If I’d blinked, I would have missed it. But I didn’t, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-size doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide-eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.

    1. I read this paragraph without looking at the name and said, “Hey! That’s ‘Learning to Swim.'” Sara, your opening scene is one of the most compelling I’ve ever read.

  2. Jan – Mary Stewart is my all-time favourite author. I own all of her books, except for one – Madam, Will You Talk? I only have one hardcover, the rest are paperback. Some of them are falling apart. While we are on vacation, my husband and I like to read to each other, and last summer’s book was Touch Not The Cat.
    I must find a good paragraph to enter . . .

  3. what a brilliant idea for a contest.
    I love Mary Stewart’s understated style. Great story teller, too.

    My brain is hurting … I’ll have to have a crack at this. In the meantime, I’ll spread the word.

  4. I haven’t read Mary Stewart in years. This is very exciting. And of course she didn’t just write romance, she is famous in fantasy circles for her iconic series on Merlin. I first read her as a child The Little Broomstick came long before Harry Potter, a story about a witches school. I’ll have to think hard and try this!

  5. Okay, this is the last thing I should be doing right now, but how can I resist? I’ll need some time, but I’m definitely entering!!!! I’ve also read everything Mary Stewart wrote, and I know a few of her books almost by heart. THE IVY TREE is my favorite, hands down. I love them all – her romantic suspense books and the Arthurian books (THE CRYSTAL CAVE is by far my favorite of those). This is so exciting!!!! And now I’m going to have to buy all of her books in the new editions, too.

  6. It started with the cat. Molly Warner settled into a wicker chair on the porch of the Victorian B&B, breathing the fragrant spring air, when she was jolted upright by a screeching meow. The ginger colored cat landed at her feet and arched its back like a caricature of Tom being outsmarted by Jerry, hissing and snarling. Its creepy cat’s eyes stared into hers for a moment, then it took off into the back yard and disappeared around a large maple tree. A boy, about eight, maybe nine, dangled from a small balcony above her. “Sorry, lady,” he said. “Hi. I’m Ben.”

  7. I started reading Mary Stewart in the 60’s. She’s the one who got me into writing, and I’m so glad to see a re-interest in her work. Sally Shires, Strongsville, Ohio

  8. Is there a word count limit? This is a long paragraph!

    Ellen checked the scrawled return address on the envelope of her sister’s Christmas card for the hundredth time. It still said 71 Via degli Alfani, but where Phillipa’s charming flat should be there was only a shabby antique shop, and while her sister had described in great detail her view of Florence’s famed Duomo, it wasn’t visible from here. The sun went behind a cloud, turning the quaint gold-washed buildings into stark gray faces, their windows watching her like vacant eyes. Shivering, Ellen pulled her light cardigan closer. She’d foolishly dressed in a cheerful sundress even though the concierge had warned her a storm was coming. The whole visit had been foolish and impulsive, a desperate attempt to forestall the end of her marriage. David had grown so cold and distant since their daughter’s death, and she’d hoped Phillipa—so bubbly and gregarious—would provide some much needed warmth. Rain began to fall, a few tentative drops and then a deluge. Ellen dove into the musty warmth of the antique shop, shaking the rain from herself like a wet dog. She looked around the crowded shop, faltering when she noticed a sleek, whippet-thin man standing in the shadows, vibrating with repressed rage. Laughing at her flight of imagination, Ellen gave him a tentative smile.

  9. So pleased there are other rabid Mary Stewart fans out there. Thanks for all the help in spreading the word.

    To address the question of length: No, no word-count limit. But if I were judging this, one factor I’d consider is whether the writer ends their paragraph in the best place.

  10. Such a great contest, Jan, but argh! I’m trying to come up with something, but I’m totally, totally blocked lately. Hopefully I can manage something by the 30th. Spreading the word in the meantime!

  11. Here goes:

    The Thayers keep their secrets in the attic, a low, hot space crammed with the remnants of another time. Concealed behind the trunks and boxes, the bags and crates, in the furthest left-hand corner, carefully tied together with string, are the diaries. Along with the recipes for lemon cake, descriptions of the best time to plant peonies, suggestions on what to do with the apple harvest each year, they also document a list of the disappearances, a record of what has been wished away. It’s a history going back over 200 years, and every Thayer woman has contributed. Every woman except for Ellie. Now, in the attic, she can feel them calling to her, but she ignores them. She’s not here for the diaries. She’s here for the swan.

  12. Based on this fantastic contest, I’m beginning to read my first Mary Stewart book TODAY (Nine Coaches Waiting). So I don’t know how qualified I am, but I’m sure I’ll have read at least one paragraph by the end of the day and maybe I’ll even be able to write one by the end of the weekend…

  13. Right, in for a penny, in for a pound.

    The taxi bounced along the long sweep of drive. Windscreen wipers scraped at the fitful spots of rain and the driver swore when the car hit a rut. I nodded in sympathy and stared through the window. Clouds, shredded by the wind, raced across the sky – a restless backcloth of grey promising a storm. It wouldn’t be Tregowan without a storm to welcome me home. It wouldn’t be Tregowan without the square tower rising above the park, the blank windows that soaked up what little light was left in the day.
    “I haven’t been here for ages.” The driver dropped a gear and slowed. “You visiting?”
    I glanced up at the solid, silent facade and stamped on a memory. “Yes.”
    “Creepy old place.”
    “It’s not that bad.” I retrieved my handbag.
    “Well, it looks like someone’s expecting you.”
    A figure, pale against the backdrop of grey stone, waited at the top of the stairs. The wind caught at his dark hair. Fifteen years failed to mask the boy he once was. He didn’t smile when I climbed out of the taxi.
    But, then again. Michael never did.

    1. Sue, I think this is great, but I’m betting it will be DQ’d because it’s more than one paragraph – maybe you’ll want to re-enter using just the first graf, before the first speaker?

  14. Inspiring entries! Let me join the fun:

    Like the rest of the tourists, Celia paused on the castle’s parapet walk to study the sprawling countryside. But where others exclaimed over the passenger boats gliding through the estuary’s molten silver waters, the tumble of toy villages lining the far shore, the patchwork green hills curving along the horizon, Celia reined in her gaze. She scanned the trees directly below for an unnatural darkness—the shadowy figure that had followed her into the heart of Scotland.

  15. I have never read Mary Stewart, but I can tell you this:

    Liz, if I picked somethign with a decent cover up at a bookstore and read that paragraph, I would totally buy that book.

    You had me at recipes for lemon cake. You had me at swan.

  16. OH LOL!!!!!!!!!! I am so dumb.

    LIZ I did not realize you were THAT Liz. HA! The pics did not load and then I went back to reread it, and saw your photo on the second load.

    I HOPE YOU ARE WRITING THAT BOOK NOW!

  17. Joshilyn, you have no idea how happy you’ve made me. My husband keeps asking why I’m grinning like a maniac. (Jan, FYI – they make chocolate peeps now! I think those might work!)

  18. Well… here’s a go. I’ve never read any Mary Stewart, so I’m not sure how well this matches up…

    Never had a necktie felt so suffocating. Ben Lisbon stood on a Greenwich Village street corner, beneath a tree wrapped in fairy-lights and stared inside the bar. The girl at the bar gazed into a deep goblet of claret, occasionally picking at the sumptuous plate of ripe figs and cheese in front of her. The man he’d lost her to had showed up in his office that morning, waving a checque for thirty million dollars. Set up a foundation. Hire her to manage it. Whatever she wants to do with the money is fine, but if you ever mention it came from me, I’ve got friends at the SEC who’ll make you regret it. Ben curled a finger into his tie, tugged at the knot, and walked straight through the door. As he approached, the haunted look in her eyes disappeared, replaced with the warmth of recognition. Did he dare embrace her, or would a handshake suffice? In the end, he simply smiled. “Never look a second chance in the face,” he said. “Always hoped I’d see you again.”

  19. With a historical twist…

    In all her life, Beatrice Parker had never stolen so much as a kiss, never mind a priceless four-hundred-year-old painting. She’d never been near anything that old. Apart from Miss Gooch, headmistress at the Academy for Modern Graces, of course. All in all, there was really no discernible reason for a young lady–who’d never done anything more thrilling than fake a sick headache to escape a tedious penmanship lesson–to be crouched in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at midnight.

  20. Janette backed away from the partly open door. The church hall looked black as ink after staring into the lighted meeting room. She tiptoed down the hall and into the lobby, arms outstretched. The voice of her best friend’s fiancé followed her, still giving the pastor orders. She had to fix this—Ellie couldn’t take another shock. The minute Janette reached the vestibule, she ran out of that nuthouse into a safe, normal night.

  21. I’ve never read any Mary Stewart, so here goes nothing. These paragraphs were fun to read….

    Once upon a time, Doug Francone’s good looks had made me weak in the knees. Now they made me want to kick him in the knees. In typical Doug style, he wore a lime green turtleneck with a pair of black pants—a garish color combination, but one he could pull off. That was one of the things that had most attracted me to Doug initially. He was always so collected, so stylish, so capable of dealing with anything. Or at least he had been until that fateful afternoon two years ago when I’d vowed I’d never speak to him again. So the fact that he was standing outside my London hotel room door, four thousand miles from where either of us should be, did not bode well for my state of mind. Never mind the state of my vacation.

  22. Here’s mine:

    She’d stayed in bed that morning, knowing she should wake up, but the cozy soft warmth of the blankets kept her nestled and drowsy, and she pushed away the thought of going outside to see what her sister was doing. She could see the car coming down the street, past St. Jude’s Church, traveling too fast. And then, in slow motion, watching from the distance of her mind, she felt her sister leave this world, like a tiny birthday candle snuffed in a quick breath and gone before a wish was hardly considered.

  23. What a great idea! I grew up reading Mary Stewart’s romantic thrillers, and this has made me want to revisit them. Here’s my unworthy effort:

    I stopped on the bridge to get my breath back, listened to my heart pounding, and asked myself for the first time where I was going. The road had crossed the railway line a hundred yards back, and now there were only a few cottages here and there. I would reach the edge of town in minutes. I looked over the wall. A round expanse of green-grey water with a canal lock at the far side. A man – perhaps the lock-keeper – stood on the walkway above the lock, arms folded, waiting. A boat swayed gently at its mooring as the gates lock gates started to open. Beyond the lock, I saw a cool green tunnel of silver birches and willows, where the Canal du Midi headed off into the distance. I closed my eyes against the relentless glare of the sun, and wished for sanctuary: a moment later my feet took me down the steps to the stone wall that ran round the lock, and I found myself staring into the cockpit of the boat. The man who was steering had his back to me, so my first impressions consisted only of a dark head, a faded denim shirt with damp sweat marks at intervals down the back, and long bronzed hands working on the wheel to keep the boat steady as water churned around the bows. His cat, on the other hand, stared straight back at me. It was a short-haired tabby with a white bib, unremarkable except for its knowing yellow-green eyes. I imagined I heard running footsteps and raised voices from the road above us. I only had seconds to make up my mind.

  24. We could feel the reverberation of the ice-cutting machine through the frozen lake beneath our feet. Matt Boudoin was telling me this would be the best ice palace ever, and I was nodding, because of course every year the palace seems better than the one the year before. At the same moment he stopped talking and I stopped nodding, because the machine had halted, and the crew of men was staring down at the ice. Then, in unison, like marionettes with their strings being pulled, they turned their heads to look at Matt. Their faces were blank, but we knew something was very wrong.

  25. Claire Preston smiled at the site of her husband’s curly black head tucked into the crook between the wing and the chair back. She laid the table, setting out rush mats and colourful napkins before calling him. He did not move. She fetched the warmed dinner plates from the oven and called him again but there was still no response. As she went towards him she saw his hand hanging limply beside the chair and knew in an instant there was no life in it.

  26. Sharon had thought at least the landscape would be the same, but the coast was unrecognizable. The rocky jetties that had once stretched like black fingers into the sea had been reduced to a few outcroppings capped in white foam, straightening the crescent beach into a dingy strip of gray shingle. Iris hadn’t been surprised that the town itself had changed. When she had lived there twenty years ago, showy new houses had begun to replace the beach cottages like the one she shared with Mama. Now the narrow roads were wall-to-wall with great blocky apartment flats, new enough but already fading, forlorn in a way that the vanished pink and yellow shacks never were. Sharon watched the moving water, remembering how the bright paint of their little cottage had peeled off in lavish curls like chocolate shavings. They were even sweet – once she nibbled a long curvy flake before Mama screamed and swept it out of her mouth with one roughened finger. Then Sharon saw the prow of an old shipwreck rising out of the water – all that remained of a famous pleasure boat that Mama told her had burned at sea years ago. Of course that hadn’t change – it had already been ruined.

  27. I read my first Mary Stewart (The Gabriel Hounds) when I was seven or eight. I’ve been hooked ever since.

    Here’s my shot at it:

    Josip stepped out of the farthest corner of the restaurant, where the cigarette smoke was as thick as a dust storm. For a moment, Marsha wondered if she was dreaming. She’d had this dream so many times in the weeks after he left her. It had always included this same feeling: frozen like a rabbit waiting for her neck to snap under the raptor’s claws.

  28. I cut my teeth on Mary Stewart, have probably read Crystal Cave 350 times. First picked it up back in about 5th grade and have been reading and rereading all Mary Stewart’s book since.

    Entry #1:

    At that particular moment, on that specific morning, only two things mattered to Alex Dantes: getting rid of the woman in his bed and the thoughts in his head, in that order. Naked, he slid out from under sex-scented sheets, tossed an envelope containing two thousand Euros on the dresser, and walked into the bathroom without a backward glance. The woman would be gone by the time he was done with his shower and it was just as well. She wasn’t who he needed her to be.

  29. Entry #2:

    A three-story duplex made of pink stucco, on Southern California’s Gold Coast; not exactly where she pictured him living. Only a wide residential boardwalk and a series of sun-soaked dunes separated his home from the Pacific Ocean shoreline. Scenic, eclectic. Also very public. How did he stand the constant stream of tourists and locals, strolling or jogging past at all hours? It was akin to living in a fish bowl, albeit one made of the finest cut crystal. Had be snapped? Succumbed to damnation a mite early?

  30. Joyous awakens in her basement chamber after having spent another weekend with the Undertaker. Her sister Dara is thumping up above, getting ready for work. Joyous forces herself out of bed and kicks through mounds of garbage. She finds a shirt and a pair of balled-up dungarees. After she dresses she heaves herself up onto the stairs. A jump, a pull with the arms and back, and she’s holding on to the stairwell whose bottom steps are gone, having already been destroyed by pests and time when Daddy first bought this house for Dara decades ago.

  31. The cruise ship was waiting in Miami, not too difficult to find if you knew the shortcuts to the docking place for these sailing hulks. A couple of turns to the right and left after you exited 95, and there they were: huge, huger and too big to imagine what kind of garbage is dumped daily (most likely nightly) into the ocean by these casualties of fabricated social monotony.

  32. That scenario with Burr at the computer, and SHE bristling about, pushing the young ‘uns into the act. “Burr,” she yells as she bulldozes the hallway. “BURR!!!! I need you NOW. Take care of your kids! NOW!” Burr politely excuses himself and hurries along. Stomp, chomp. It’s not my fault that her legs are thick like mushroom tumors or that she married the first guy who’d have her.

  33. Just saw this at WU today, and just in time it would seem. Not sure this opening paragraph is quite a match for Mary Stewart’s style, but what the heck. Why not throw the proverbial hat into the proverbial ring? Besides, I got to read the other submissions, and what a delight! There are some mad talented writers circulating about. You folks rock!

    Opening paragraph of Radius –

    It was the eyes. It was always the eyes. I would have known them anywhere. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen them in sixteen years. Joseph had been an infant when he was taken from a shopping cart, on an ordinary October day, during a quick trip to market for an onion, two tomatoes and a red pepper. I’d come home empty handed that day. No onion, no tomatoes, no pepper, no Joseph. The years passed without him, and despite its gaping wound, my heart continued to beat, but never faster than that moment, sixteen years later, when Joseph’s eyes met mine during a quick stop to market for an onion, two tomatoes and a red pepper.

  34. Oh, why not…

    The living room was full of mismatched furniture, mostly overstuffed chairs upholstered in faded chintz and small side tables with delicately turned legs, everything looking like it was bought at church sales and auctions after people died. The room smelled like lemon polish and carpet shampoo, though dust danced along a stray shaft of gray light that slanted from the window to the floor. Lanny Matthews blinked as she stood in the doorway. This is mine now, she thought. Then, Oh crap, this is mine.

  35. Hi,
    Mary Steward is one of my most favourite authors ever. I read all of her books when I was a teenager. Here is my try at a Mary Stewart paragraph:

    I knew the moment when Emily could see the white stag – that she was the one – the missing trust fund baby. The stag was magnificent, mystical. We were close to the spirit world. The stag turned its head in our direction as if to say ‘follow me.’ He disappeared into the woods, blending into the snow that still covered the ground. I sent Emily away. Once I was gone, she wouldn’t have any reason to come out to the ranch again. Then I followed the deer’s tracks in the soft snow past the old homestead and down to the creek. Along the edge of the creek, the melting water was running. The clear blue sky rose above the Alberta foothills. In the bush, the larks were singing. Spring had finally arrived. But for me, winter was just beginning. I caught sight of the stag as he glided past the kid’s old toboggan on the bank of the creek. Beyond, the kids were sliding on the ice. I followed the stag to the centre of creek and the frozen ice crackled beneath my feet.

  36. I found this too late to enter the contest, but I’m a huge Mary Stewart fan from way back — and now as a writer of romantic suspense, I consider her a role model. If I can get a little of that kind of magic in my books, I’ll consider them successes. Great to know these have been reissued!

    Kris Bock
    Rattled: romantic suspense in the dramatic and deadly New Mexico desert

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