Eight Maids A-Milking… that’s to say, eight young women doing something typical of their daily lives. When you’re writing fiction and about to introduce your hero or heroine, it’s important to show them in action. There are two reasons for this: firstly, it will make the picture you paint of them more vital and alive. You should avoid at all costs the cliche of having a character contemplating their reflection in a mirror, or a shop window, or wherever – it’s been done to death and will reveal little of them other than their basic appearance. Far better to show them in dynamic mode, having a blazing row, or an achingly solitary drink, or walking away from someone that they love. Immediately you have parachuted your reader into the middle of a situation which, if you are skilful enough in developing it, will fire up their curiosity to know more.
As well as showing your main character in an engagingly vibrant fashion, it is also helpful if they are doing something which is typical of them: you want to encapsulate the ordinary world they inhabit in a way that contrasts with, yet at the same time anticipates (nobody said it was easy) the drama of the story which is about to unfold. In terms of maids a-milking, think Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy’s novel opens with the local parson telling Tess’s hopeless old father that he has discovered the family is descended from a noble line, information which sets in train a series of events leading to Tess’s encounter with Alec D’Urberville, who turns out to be her nemesis. Tess herself is first seen at the Mayday dance, dressed all in white to symbolise her purity, though she is the only girl wearing a red ribbon, anticipating the bloodshed that comes later in the story. In the opening scenes, Hardy provides us with a lens through which to view the story as a whole.