How not to do foreshadowing: Karin Huxman's Sea Change

I was reading Karin Huxman's romance novel, Sea Change (New Concepts Publishing, 2005), and I have found much to mock.

The book is set in the era of Melville, of whaling and whale ships. We have our hero, Jonah, a merchant marine captain famous among captains for his sea knowledge and his never having lost a crewman. We have our heroine, Marianne, a recently widowed sea captain's wife who can't quite bring herself to mourn the end of her functional but loveless marriage.

Huxman starts off with a pair of interesting foreshadowings. The first is when Jonah touches shore on Cape Cod:

Then he began to move and a path opened before him. He heard snatches of whispered conversations eddy in his wake. He'd always heard them.

"Jonah, bad luck name for a sailor, mate...." "Never lost a ship or cargo to storm, heard tell...."

"Swims like a fish...."

Jonah grimaced at that one. The truest of the lot, yet no man had ever seen him swim. If he had, Jonah would have lost his foothold in this world.

My first reaction when reading that, and probably not what the author intended, is, "Oh, interesting. A ship's captain who can't swim."

Of Marianne, we learn of her childhood:

Her home had been in the hills of Jamaica, the ocean visible but distant. It had called to her as a child. She'd begged to be allowed to visit it. Her papa, who shared her sea-green eyes, finally allowed a visit. Her nanny had strict orders to keep Marianne dry, but the child had been too fascinated to heed the woman's calls. She'd plunged into the waves wide eyed. She swam as if made for the water, and when they finally were able to pull her out, she remembered crying for hours.

That had been her one and only trip to the beach as a child.

So now the set-up seems obvious, if a bit of role-reversed. Jonah is a hard-charging sea captain who can't swim, and Marianne is a lonely woman who's been denied her love of the sea by social mores. This is a pretty formulaic setup and every romance writer knows what to do next: Let's put these two in a small space together and see what happens.

What happens is fail.

First, an aside: show, don't tell. Even worse, don't show, then tell. Don't do this:

Marianne had never been one to sit around idle. Her books did not intrigue her as they generally did. Her knitting and crocheting were nothing more than games to keep her hands busy. In short, she was lonely and bored, and didn't much like herself for either feeling.

"In short, reader, I think you're too much of an idiot, and I'm too lazy a writer, to type out a few paragraphs showing Marianne's frustration with her idleness and isolation, so I'll just tatter off a sentence or two and then tell you the rest."

Back to the fail. It's pretty simple to illustrate. After a paragraph or two in which Jonah contemplates the dolphins riding in the ship's wake, Huxman drops this anvil on us:

He stared out the portholes and considered. His time in the world of men was almost over. He must return home before the moon was full again, or never return at all. His father, the king, was anxious for Jonah to marry and fulfill his duties to the throne. Though the Mer people were long-lived as compared to human lifetimes, they did have finite lives. Dynasties depended upon princes like Jonah to propagate and secure the throne.

Oh, good grief: Jonah's the Prince of the Merpeople!

Note: I don't think that's a bad schtick. Forbidden romances with supernatural creatures is a perfectly fine set-up for formula romance.

What's wrong with this paragraph is how Huxman info-dumps this overwhelmingly major factoid right in the middle. She blows the mystery, the suspense, and just about everything interesting about Jonah in that weak mid-paragraph sentence starting, "The Mer people...", as if she were tentative about introducing this idea that Jonah was from Beneath The Sea to the reader.

There were so many other ways to go about this. She could have done it in chapter two, Jonah's first chapter, and made the tension about how Jonah goes about reconciling his more-than-human conflicts; she could have done it in chapter five, when the ship is wrecked and the now much fishier Jonah has to rescue her, and the tension becomes how Marianne deals with this revelation just when she was starting to feel feminine again, especially toward him.

Huxman gives us only one major tension in the first half of the book: will they or won't they? Well of course they will: it's a goddamned romance novel. It's the rest of the revelations about character that make a romance novel interesting, and Huxman just drives past one opportunity after another, missing each one and moving on, hoping you won't notice before she gets to the boink.

Earlier: Dear Muse....

Later: <i>Petri Dish</i>, Fixed