Making the Case for a Loosely-Planned Novel

At a talk I gave at our hometown St. Albans Writes series recently, I was reminded of a writing fact that turned out to be a gold mine in terms of benefits to my second novel, The Lost Lantern, changing it into a two-generational saga rather than what it was originally: a plea for racial harmony.

The Scenario: John Gates, running from his recent past, returns to rejoin his three friends just south of Myrtle Beach, as the trio had begun their post-graduate careers there after all four had worked Murrells Inlet through the summers of their college years. William McMillian, Gates’ black friend and colleague from those days, dreamed of opening his own restaurant and had a plan ready to set into action. Little does he know his boss and two brothers have plotted against him to steal his life savings and thwart his plan.

In my original plan, William was to have grown up in an unexplained, fatherless home. Raised by his mother, William had begun working at an early age and had an incredible work ethic. But then I began to expand on the father, Rafe McMillian. I hadn’t even considered a disappearance or murder taking place in the mid-1960s, twenty years before the novel’s time period.

But Rafe’s story grew as the unplanned ideas came. He could repair anything. He made part of his living driving through neighborhoods looking for discarded items he could fix and sell. That’s how he gets on the radar of Jimbo Rivers, father of the above three brothers. Rafe, who does well fishing and harvesting oysters, buys an old jon boat off Jimbo Rivers, in part by doing a limb-clearing job for him. On a later trash day, Rafe comes upon a yard sale a widow is having. She’s selling her husband’s tools, which Jimbo Rivers knew about, had his eyes on, and was waiting to pounce upon. On that day he was tied up at his wife’s restaurant repairing damages from a small fire. Rafe purchasing the tools becomes a large fire for Jimbo. Adding gin made it rage out of control.

Rafe and his wife, Martha, have two young boys at home, the youngest, William, is infatuated with his father’s lucky silver dollar, Lady Liberty, which Rafe always carries. On the day Rafe brings the tools home, William holds the coin as the three pray because of their family’s good fortune. As the boys run off to play, William slips the coin in his pocket and forgets it. Rafe later leaves to do his night fishing, which he does by lantern light.

Rafe never returns. William believes his father’s fate, whatever it was, came because he held the coin. Twenty-odd years later, William plans his restaurant to honor his father… The Lost Lantern.

Logically and chronologically, Rafe and Jimbo’s story becomes a 12-page prologue. The tool story reoccurs throughout the novel. Once, in a flashback, because Jimbo makes contact with Martha to try to buy the tools, and he terrorizes her over them, nearly beating her to death on the day she lies to him and tells him they’d been sold.

The family’s preacher knew the story as well as he helped her hide them in the church. The preacher theorized that Rafe may have been killed over the tools, though he did nothing, fearing for his own safety in 1960s South Carolina.

There are numerous subplots in 506-page novel. Some I had in mind, others that came to me like this one. If I had my chapters rigidly planned, I don’t think I would have come up with this one chamber of the heart of this novel… The Lost Lantern.   

The End of a Tough Ride

Over the weekend, I attended gatherings that brought home the importance of the Great Cycle Challenge, which this fall has so far raised over $10.7 million for kids’ cancer research.

The friends and classmates of our youth go out into the world, meet new people, make new friends and acquaintances, hear new stories, and are touched by new realities. You realize even more that cancer touches us all, and the statistics that are shared, the stats that break your heart when you hear them, such as 38 children a week die of cancer, is real. It’s a big ol’ world, but there is no immunity from cancer if your number is called.

Simple questions and subsequent conversations from some of those who supported me hit home. The cause is real, the need is great. When I’m getting my miles, I often think of those on my list I ride for: my sister Kelly Spradling Simmons, my colleagues and close friends Jody Jividen and Mike Cherry. More recent, my guitar mentor and friend Loren Claypool, my classmate and friend Kelli Hill Kukura, and finally, fellow author and friend, fellow Sheriff’s Camp counselor (along with Kelly and Loren) Judy Koontz Belcher. Afflicted children, no. But all taken too early.

I have to thank those who supported me, some new but most repeating their gracious giving and all greatly appreciated: two anonymous donors; Jane Weiford Sneed; Tammy Lacy; Sue and Walt Hall; Beth Hinckley-Robles; Barry and Beth Thaxton; Cindy Shope-Strock; Alan Kees; Carla Slack VanWyck; Karen Fulmer Cebular; Kim and Jason Rogers; Kerri and David Call; Emma and Matt Hindman; Tom Neal; Tom Sauvageot; Robin and David Young; Art Postlethwait; Barbara and Rodney Holley; Bud Newbrough; Barbara Farry; Hollis Claypool; Ann King; Becky and Jim Goodwin; April and Jay Kemplin; Heather McCoy; Janie Kerrigan; Brad Parish; Steve Vorholt; John Carroll; Carrie McCormick; Kristen Bowles; Pam Billups; Aaron Johnson; Lisa Parsons Lawson; Cheryl McLane; Dana Hitz; Danielle Sterzenback; Danny Allen; and the folks, Ruth and Alan Spradling.
This year my old friend and basketball buddy Scott Vincent reached out to me to start a multi-state team as he lives in Tarpon Springs, Fla. His sister and neighbor, Sharlene Muscati also joined, and the three of us together raised $5,406.29, which was second in the USA in the category of schools, and 138th overall in teams. Thanks to our contributing community, on “match day” our team, Dragons Slaying Cancer, had $1,007.94 matched. We also surpassed our riding goal, logging 1,032.3 miles.
I certainly felt mortal at the start of my ride. My 500-mile goal was the lowest in four years of riding the GCC because I’m now a proud employee of the Coal River Group, so I knew there were days I wouldn’t ride. Thanks to Larry Ellis for again pushing me into some outings. Add in a Labor Day weekend Covid derailment, followed by a crash thanks to muddy roads, I was limping out of the gate with cracked ribs and a shoulder issue that is ongoing.  I am thankful to say I made my goal after a few borrowed October days, and the giving was beyond gracious $3,104.64, taking me to the  No. 1 fundraiser in West Virginia for now – the books stay open another month. I’m so humbled and appreciative that so many support this cause! Thank you sincerely and God Bless You!