My new novel, Rip Van Winkle and the Pumpkin Lantern, opens with what I can only describe as a dark, gloomy, and near-hopeless situation. It begins with a newborn baby boy being abandoned in a cemetery—left to die on a cold, October night.
But he doesn’t die, and I’ll tell you why.
When I started writing this book, in July of 2014, my original intent was for the main character (Rip) to be an orphan living on the streets of 18th century Boston. In that first draft, thirteen-year-old Rip was pulled into a swashbuckling adventure that took him to the Carolinas. In the beginning, I felt very confident about that story. But the more I wrote, the more I began to feel uneasy. I finished the first draft (50,000+ words) in just under three months… and I felt absolutely sick about it—but I didn’t know why! Here was a perfectly good, 50,000 word draft and for some unknowable reason, I felt like it was the wrong story.
I tried to convince myself that it was the right story, that it would somehow work—but I couldn’t. It was wrong; it was missing something—a COLOSSAL something. But I didn’t know what it was!
I agonized over the book for months, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong. Then, one night, after my illustrator showed me a sketch of a gravestone, I had a dream. I saw a woman in Colonial American clothing. She was carrying a lantern and walking purposefully toward a graveyard at midnight. There, she met a living, pumpkin-headed scarecrow with kind eyes. He pointed her to an open grave and she peered down. I followed her gaze and saw, to my great surprise, a baby boy—he was as pale and as still as death. The woman lifted him from the grave and held him in her arms. At length, the boy began to stir and eventually woke up. He was alive!
Ripped from the grave.
I woke up and realized what was wrong with my book: Rip wasn’t an orphan. Yes, he was abandoned by his real parents, but he was found and given a second chance at life. He had an adoptive family, he had a belonging place—he had hope—and that changed everything.
I immediately began rewriting the book, adding new characters and new events. My writing reached what I can only describe as a “fever pitch.” I felt driven—compelled to write by some outside force—and part of me couldn’t understand it. It was as though there was something in this book that needed to be said. I wrote five to six hours a day. I stopped blogging and nearly every other outside activity. Some days, I woke up at three or four in the morning just to ensure my writing time would be uninterrupted. Finishing the novel became my paramount goal. I could hardly think about or do anything else. In time, I had managed to change the entire story—growing it from 50,000 words to 85,000+ words.
You see, hope truly does change everything.
And in the end, that’s what my novel is about: hope. Everything in the book can be seen as a metaphor or a symbol for the power of hope—or the power of light over darkness. At a critical point in the story, when Rip is struggling to believe that there is hope, he is met by Feathertop, the same pumpkin-headed scarecrow from my dream. Feathertop (who represents far more than a simple scarecrow) tells Rip:
“Have faith, Rip. Believe in yourself, and believe in me—for in me there is always hope. No matter how dark things may seem, know that the sun will always rise. Light will always triumph over darkness.”
It is a strange thing, but I’m very grateful that I struggled to write this book. The struggle has deepened my belief in the power of hope—in the power of light over darkness. In the month since publishing my book, I have wrestled with feelings of hopelessness. But then I picture the opening scene of my book—a scene I dreamed, a scene I felt compelled to write, a scene of a little boy being brought back from the dead—and I think: yes, there is always hope—and that changes everything.
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