That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Defining Character: The Opening Scene of The Clockwork Dagger

“Octavia Leander’s journey to her new source of employment was to be guided by three essential rules: that she hide her occupation, lest others take advantage; that she be frugal with her coin and avoid any indulgences that come with newfound independence; and that she shun the company of men, as nothing useful or proper is bound to happen.

Not ten feet from being let out of her carriage, Octavia was prepared to shatter Miss Percival’s most strongly advised first rule.”

There’s an impressive and savvy opening scene in Beth Cato’s forthcoming debut novel The Clockwork Dagger that does at least three important things for a fantasy novel first chapter: present an immediate challenge, reveal character, and explain the magic system.

Octavia, the main character, who is a member of a rare order of healers that can tap into the power of a divine tree, comes across a puppy that’s been fatally wounded. Despite the fact that healing it might reveal her and put her in danger, despite the fact that it’s ‘only’ a puppy and not a human, and despite the fact that she has a very limited amount of supplies for her magical healing, she does it anyway.

Right away, we know what kind of person Octavia is: she’s someone for whom healing isn’t just a profession, it’s a calling, a necessity. She’s pragmatic, knowing that healing the puppy here may leave her without resources to heal someone else later, but even more compassionate, choosing to risk exposing herself as a valuable and rare healer mere steps from a main thoroughfare.

Octavia saves the puppy, and in that moment, the material cost, the potential danger of exposure, is all worth it for her. And as a reader? I was sold on Octavia—and when a protagonist has me hook, line, and sinker before the bottom of page five, I know I’m in for a good read.

Spoiler alert—the rest of the book was marvelous, as well.


The Clockwork Dagger publishes September 16th from Harper Voyager.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on

Michael R. Underwood is the author of the Geekomancy series. He also has two new novels, Shield and Crocus and The Younger Gods, publishing in 2014. If he survives to the end of this year, he will have earned a party. He lives in Baltimore with his fiancé, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines and stuffed animals. You can find him on Twitter @MikeRUnderwood.


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