By Matt de Simone
There is a new voice among the local writing community.
Giollachríst: Lighting the Candle is a historical fiction novel recently published in May by SDC Publishing, LLC that mixes historical fact with paranormal mystery while portraying elements such as autism, prejudice, acceptance, and culture.
The content seems like a solid mix for a novel written by an experienced author. One could also consider the subject matter beyond that of a high school student—it’s not.
First-time novelist Rachel Nicole Edwards develops characters that provide readers with a tangible connection to their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses—all of which were created by a 17-year-old student at James River High School. Edwards is a native of the Fincastle/Catawba area, which plays a role in her novel.
Since Edwards was a child, she enjoyed writing stories. According to her mother, Garylyn, the stories began as mere cartoons/comic strips involving a fly, and now her recent tale appears on people’s Amazon wish lists.
“I love shaping words into images that a reader can experience through describing different settings, especially having to do with nature,” Edwards explained during a recent interview. “I love the challenge of trying to appeal to all the reader’s senses.”
Edwards taps into those senses in Giollachrist (pronounced gil-uh-kreesht). The story focuses on Emma Roberts, a shy teenager who moves into a recently renovated house in 2018. Diagnosed with high functioning autism, Emma faces many struggles even though surrounded by a loving and supportive family. Emma wants more than anything to have friends and to be accepted for who she is.
Edwards’s protagonist lacks the confidence to step out of her comfort zone and risk further rejection until she realizes her new home is haunted by the spirit of 1800s Irish immigrant Peter O’Sullivan. From there, Emma’s journey begins.
Frequently, writers search for inspiration for their next big story. Amid her search, Edwards had a dream one night that shaped the backbone of her novel.
“I had a strange dream where I met a ghost in my great-grandparents’ home,” Edwards explained. “I made friends with the ghost in my dream. I thought it was a cool idea for a story. So, I started with that.”
Edwards explained that her family’s history was on her mind a lot at the time she developed her story. Her grandparents are from the Troutville area. She discovered a rich iron history in the area. Her grandfather once took her to visit the iron mines behind the family home. Edwards always found the mines interesting.
“I did some research on the Cloverdale iron mines, and then I found places all over Botetourt that have a lot of iron history that no one knows about. I just thought it was really interesting,” Edwards continued.
Another source of information came in the form of the Catawba Iron Furnace close to Edwards’ home. The image of the furnace (found in the novel’s preface) and its historical contributions helped Edwards build her story.
Fantasy novels inspire Edwards’s writing; in particular, Peter S. Beagle’s book titled The Last Unicorn.
“I think (Beagle’s novel) shaped my love of writing more than any other novel because I really enjoy/look up to Peter S. Beagle’s writing style,” Edwards noted. “His writing is very descriptive and beautiful without being too boring. This is something I strive to accomplish as an author, although I think my style is very different from his.”
As for the decision to make the character of Peter an Irish immigrant, Edwards explained that although she has a little Irish in her blood, she’s always had an interest and love for Irish culture.
“The Irish people are so fun and generous, and their culture has a closeness to nature similar to the Native Americans, whom I really admire,” Edwards added.
Garylyn is exceptionally proud of her daughter. During the writing process, Garylyn stood as “chief editor” while other members of Edwards’ family helped out with the editing.
“I’m without words a lot of times,” Garylyn said about her daughter’s writing. “It’s just been incredible as a mother to sit back and watch this happen.”
Garylyn explained that by the time she read the 10th chapter, she told her husband there was no way this story could end up in a drawer.
Edwards received help from a local publisher in Buchanan to publish the first draft when Edwards was only 15. Edwards gives credit to her parents for believing in her work and making it possible for her to share with the world.
James River English teacher Lori Wingo provided help and a sense of direction for Edwards while writing her novel.
“I’ve had Rachel all four years (at James River), even last year when we were virtual,” Wingo stated. “She was every bit of dedicated to owning things during virtual learning. I planted the seed for the story during her freshman year by way of an assignment in Creative Writing about writing historical fiction.”
Wingo explained that when Edwards first entered her class during her freshman year, Edwards focused on screenwriting. Soon, Edwards grabbed onto writing historical fiction. While her first story was a short one, it shaped the character of Peter and began the development of Giollachrist.
Edwards’s support system played a massive role in producing the novel that Wingo described as a “village.”
She explained how much fun she had over the draft process in working with her family and publishers. Amazingly enough, the story from inception to publication didn’t change much from a structural standpoint—something that best-selling novelists can’t relate to at times.
Next up for Edwards: tackling the history of Peter O’Sullivan. She is currently working on a prequel novel that focuses on the life of Peter and how he came over to America. That, and also graduating high school.
The community has an opportunity to grab a copy of Edwards’ novel for the author directly from the source at this year’s Fincastle Festival, taking place on September 18.