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.   


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