Writing for a Brighter Day

by James Scott Bell

Paul Revere statue in Boston, MA, by sculptor Cyrus Edwin Dallin (1861–1944)

My dad loved poetry. Not the flowery kind; he preferred the kind that tells a story. Among his favorites were “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” and “The Betrothed.”

Another, which he would often recite, is “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I remember sitting in front of our fireplace as Dad began…

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Did you catch the date? It’s today, April 18.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light, —
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

And on we go. Now here’s some trivia for you. On April 18, exactly eight years after Paul Revere’s ride, George Washington issued his Proclamation for the Cessation of Hostilities, which effectively ended the war!

Although the proclamation before alluded to, extends only to the prohibition of Hostilities, and not of the annunciation, of a general peace; yet it must afford the most rational, and sincere satisfaction, to every benevolent mind. As it puts a period, to a long and doubtful test, stops the effusion of human blood, opens the prospect to a more splendid scene; and like another morning Star; promises the approach of a brighter day, than hath hitherto illuminated the Western Hemisphere—On such a happy day, a day which is the harbinger of peace, a day which completes the eighth year of the War, it would be ingratitude not to rejoice! it would be insensibility not to participate in the general felicity.

Well, it is April 18 once again, and we all know we’re living in a whirlwind right now. How should that affect how we write? I think the vast majority of the reading public desires fiction that “opens the prospect to a more splendid scene.” No matter the genre, is there hope at the end of your book? Hope that maybe we can stop an “effusion of human blood” and at least discern the “approach of a brighter day”?

Even apocalyptic fiction operates as a warning of what can come about if we don’t right the ship. And that’s a form of hopefulness.

I recall reading somewhere that Flannery O’Connor’s brutal fiction was really about “grace being offered.” When such grace is rejected, it is tragic. But the true tragic in literature is always the flip side of hope, and that’s the point. Or should be. Tragedy without the offer of grace is the pits.

So I ask this question today: do you have hope in your fiction? Does the concept occur to you as your write? Do you think it is a valid concern in our increasingly nihilistic age? Is it worth pursuing? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

And now here is JSB’s alternative version of the Longfellow poem, called “The Midnight Write of Paul Revere.”

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight write of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Twenty-one;
To follow his dream and get it done
He determined to write, and write without fear.

He said to his friend, “If the publishers fail
To take my book and give me some dough,
I’ll go and do indie and thus prevail
With ebooks, and print, and audio.
A stand-alone here, and a series there
And I at my keyboard pounding with flair
Ready to write and money collect
Through wide distribution or Kindle Select
And take all that jack by deposit direct!”

Comments are open!

44 thoughts on “Writing for a Brighter Day

  1. This is indeed a special day, Jim. I had no idea. Thanks for pointing it out.

    I am Danny Downer in my fiction. When I read, however, I like a book that ends on a high note. Go figure.

    Happy April 18th!

  2. Ah, the memories. In junior high, if you got Miss Barrett for 7th grade English, you had to memorize (and recite) the entire poem. In Miss Cook’s class, you memorized a smaller portion, but had a bunch of other poems to memorize. I had Miss Cook.
    As for writing, I want uplifting. I couldn’t have a lot of Bad Stuff happen to my characters. When I’m reading, it’s even more. I don’t like references to the pandemic (especially since the ones I’m seeing are things like .. “they bumped elbows, a remnant of the pandemic”–well, it’s still with us. I don’t like blatant political references, either, whether I agree with them or not.

    • Poetry memorization is great for kids. My dad once had all three boys memorize a poem and recite it before dinner. Mine was “Abou Be Adham.” But you should hear me rock “Casey at the Bat.”

  3. One of the first poems my mom taught me. I loved horses and you can hear the hoof beats.

    I always write hope. Part of the fun of fiction is having things turn out the way they should be.

    • That’s indeed fun, Cynthia, and also satisfaction for the reader. But the Lead doesn’t get there without getting wounded. That’s another hopeful part: we can heal from our wounds.

  4. What good question, Jim. I think hope is as necessary to the human psyche as air, water, and food are to the physical body.

    I just finished a Holocaust memoir called Two Who Survived about two children from vastly different backgrounds who meet by chance in a camp. Hope for a better life keeps them hanging on despite starvation, disease, and loss of family.

    Disappointed hopes form the basis for a great deal of literature: Gone With the Wind, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, even Batman, to name a few.

    Yes, I definitely keep hope in my books, esp. the latest that deals with the unintended consequences of pandemic restrictions that lead to tragedy. It was the hardest book I’ve ever written but also the one I was most compelled to write. The end is not HEA but hopeful.

    • Right, Debbie. Hope in fiction doesn’t require a HEA, but a gleam of hope can form a resonant ending. I recall early in my learning to write phase reading Koontz’s thriller Midnight. And how it ends with a personal scene between an estranged son and his father, they embrace…they’ve got a long way to go, but the father realizes the “wonderful” thing…that the journey at least “had begun.”

      That was a great lesson for me at the time. How a thriller can end with a strong personal scene reflecting some inner character growth. I later came to call this “proving the transformation.”

  5. Great post, Jim. Thanks for reminding us of the significance of today.

    I definitely have hope in my fiction, and I plan it that way. Since I write fantasy, I can use parody to point out that to which we have become accustomed, or create an alternate world where the nihilism is part of the agenda of the antagonist. But in the end, the protagonist and his fellow warriors always win, bringing healing to the land. And I write that way to leave a legacy for my descendants.

    There are some glaring situations out there that could lead to books as significant as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or “The Diary of Young Girl,” (Anne Frank). The question remains whether the writer could ever get the book published, or ever publish again.

    I loved your Midnight Write of Paul Revere. The North Church now has two towers. There is one lantern in one, two in the other. (And probably a third for “by air” with three lanterns) “He determined to write, and write without fear.”

    Carpe Animo!

    • But in the end, the protagonist and his fellow warriors always win, bringing healing to the land. And I write that way to leave a legacy for my descendants.

      I love both those sentiments, Steve. The first is classic myth, not just bringing healing but, as Chris Vogler puts it, returning with the elixir, the lesson the community can carry forward toward a better future.

      And leaving a legacy is such a good thing. My son, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, once asked me to write an epic novel and NOT publish it, so he can “discover” it after my demise and bring it out with great fanfare as my final masterpiece. Ha!

  6. I grew up in Marblehead, MA, so we heard this poem A LOT growing up, and field trips often included a tour of Paul Revere’s route. Teachers hammered this story into our young minds.

    Loved your remake, Jim! Very clever.

    • You grew up in Revolutionary War Central there, Sue. Growing up in L.A., my favorite field trip memory was going to the Helms Bakery, maker of fresh-baked loaves of bread and doughnuts. All the kids in L.A. knew the distinctive toot of the trucks that came to neighborhoods with shelves filled with baked goodies.

  7. LOL! Love your alternate version poem. Great way to start the day. And a great discussion question. I couldn’t write if I didn’t have hope in mind the whole time. For me the whole reason to write is to explore this walk on earth that we each have. Each one of us is faced with different challenges and situations so the question is, what do we do with those challenges and situations? Does our response produce small hope, great hope or no hope? Put the characters through the grinder, yes, but always with hope. It wouldn’t be worth reading otherwise. Who wants to read to become depressed? Not me. I want to read to be inspired to keep fighting.

  8. Happy Sunday, Jim. This post is near and dear to my heart. Hope is at the core of my fiction these days. While I writing mysteries, which certainly have murder and mayhem in them, there’s also hope, and it’s ally, humor. I read to see characters triumph over the odds, both external and internal, I always have. Only now, during these strange pandemic days, I feel that need in me to express hope all the more keenly. Yes, I think it’s very much worth pursuing.

    You’ve probably heard of “hopepunk,” the science fiction/ fantasy subgenre that arose in part in answer to the “grimdark” movement in fantasy (think Game of Thrones). Hopepunk is about the value of optimism and hope in the face of adversity and the essential goodness within people. Romance and cozy mysteries can both embody this sensibility about the importance of hope and how it can triumph over the darkness in human nature.

    Whew–your post brought out my passion this morning, and I’m only one cup of strong black tea into the day so far 🙂

    BTW, I loved your ode to Longfellow and Paul Revere. Despite everything, I think there’s great reason for hope for writers, too these days in all the opportunities we have before us. Have a wonderful Sunday.

    • Haha, Dale. I love it when passions arise before that second cup! Thanks for the info. Hadn’t heard of “hopepunk” but I like the sound of it. Our young people need all the optimism that can be mustered.

  9. The trick is to write a book where the protagonist fails and the book still ends in hope.

    I’m a historian so I have to comment on the accuracy of Longfellow’s poem. Revere wasn’t the only rider sent. William Dawes rode south over Boston neck while Revere was rowed across the bay to ride west. They both arrived at Lexington within a few minutes of each other and they rode together toward Concord. They met Samuel Prescott coming home from Concord and he joined them. They then encountered several British officers scouting the road. Dawes escaped and turned back to Lexington. Revered was caught and unhorsed. But Prescott kept riding and delivered the warning to Concord. So, Revere never made it Concord. Why then did Longfellow focus on him? Maybe its because his name was easier to rhyme. Who knows.

    • Perhaps, James, the answer is found in the old adage: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

      And yes, what the heck rhymes with Prescott? (I guess it depends on the pronunciation…Despot….Respite…or would it be Ask Not?)

    • Thank you for sharing this backstory. It reminds me that, whether or not we gain recognition–literary or otherwise–what we do matters. Many thanks.

  10. Jim, loved this so much. I must read stories that end in hope. I’m terribly disappointed when the ending is devoid of hope, redemption, and reconciliation. Movies, too.

    And hope is always a part of what I write. I might be an introvert, but I’ve always been an optimist. When things are the worst we can possibly imagine, think how beautiful that one small light will be…you know, the one that destroys the darkness around us. Dark is incapable of destroying light, but switch even a tiny penlight on and darkness flees.

    And, FYI, I love Paul Revere’s Ride (and your remake!). I share a birthday with his ride, and Longfellow’s words have always inspired me to press on, to have courage, and do what needs done. Good word in these times.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Silly person, that’s why I wrote romance. Hope, love, and happiness offered on every page with a side order of courage and change so the characters can earn that happiness.

    In my bigger books with more scope, I gave all my characters, even the dark ones, that one moment to choose whether they’d continue on to their plot damnation or change. The dark ones driven by arrogance and greed never did, but the ones teetering between total darkness and light often did. If a character deserved a happy ending, I tried to give it to them.

    • That’s downright biblical, Marilynn–being offered an eternal choice…and receiving the consequences thereof. That’s what the best horror fiction does. If you decide to deal with the devil, be prepared to lose your soul. That “warning” is the analogue of catharsis in tragedy. Both assume a moral universe.

  12. Thank you for reminding us of this important day in our history, Jim. I love the poem and your adaptation of it!

    You hit the sweet spot with the topic of hope. That wonderful author and my friend Debbie Burke wrote an endorsement for my second novel, “Dead Man’s Watch,” in which she described it as “A book of hope in troubled times.” A beautiful and touching affirmation.

    “Casey at the Bat”? Let’s sponsor a contest where we all rewrite it from the author’s POV. Let’s see:

    The outlook wasn’t brilliant for my manuscript that day …

  13. Our esteemed Mr. Bell;
    It seems you’re channeling my dad through yours (again? Are you sure we’re NOT related? [for your sake I hope not…]…
    Pop loved the same type of poetry – the aforementioned “Casey at the Bat,” and I’ve touched on “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in a previous post… and as to Robert W. Service – even before the “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” I was introduced first to “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (which follows “Dan McGrew” in my copy of the book I inherited from Pop’s library…) and is an excellent example of how to take a sorrowful and somewhat hopeless story and turn it on its head…

    So yes, give me a positive spin at the end… chuckle or no… even – or especially – in an ongoing story with the same characters – more than just a cliffhanger, but an encouraging reason to keep caring for the protagonist in whom I’ve invested time and “concern” across the arc of a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Bosch or Ty Buchanan (?) series…

    • George, so glad to hear of another dad who loved narrative poetry. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is definitely another fave.

      And thanks for kindly putting Ty Buchanan next to Harry Bosch!

  14. I’m of the mind (and it reflects in my own writing) that the darker the story, the more need for a ray of light at the end. Two of my favorite apocalypse books, “The Road” and “Station Eleven” are as black as the lamp-less nights of their settings. Yet both manage hope at the end.

    Love the poem…yours and his.

    • Well said, Kris, though I have to admit I had to put The Road down. Glad to hear there’s hope at the end, but the journey was too dark for me. Maybe book should have a “darkness meter” attached!

  15. My novels throw every crapshow of life at my characters… but they always come out on top. If they don’t, I still include hope for other characters and the readers. I feel a story needs hope to be satisfying – as much as it needs a proper resolution and answers to story questions.

    I grew up reading Robert Service’s poetry. The man is a master of rhythm and rhyme. His poems are why I disagree with and just can’t understand the literary oppositions to such things. If you ask me, it takes far more skill to write that kind of poetry than it does to write the rhymeless stream of consciousness you find so much of today.

  16. Thank you for inspiring hope. I signed with a traditional house, selling a mysteries series built, in part, with your Super Structure wisdom. Is the indie life in my future? Not sure. For now, I’m grateful for your belief that well-built stories matter. Authors’ lives, too. My humble thanks for all you do to help us.

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