Three hundred literary agents rejected his book -- even though he spent two years holed up in his mother's house in East Dundee to write it. Running out of options, Geoffrey Edwards entered a first chapters writing contest with 2,600 other authors trying to get published.
All it would take to win was a little old-fashioned, Chicago-style ballot stuffing.
Edwards called every family member and friend he knew to recruit voters. In true Machine style, they voted early and often. Still, Edwards finished runner-up.
Then he got the good news: Sponsors Simon & Schuster and gather.com liked his work so much, they decided to publish both the winner and Edwards' historical novel.
Since his book came out, Edwards is so giddy he poses for pictures at every bookshelf that carries the title: "Fire Bell in the Night."
The fictional tale is set during the now-forgotten but very real Crisis of 1850, when the United States came dangerously close to civil war, 11 years before the fact.
Having grown up as a history buff in Jacksonville, Fla., Edwards was fascinated by antebellum slavery.
"The morality of the time period has always been interesting to me," he said. "Were there any good people living in such a sick system?"
After learning that many slave owner's children befriended slaves, he got the idea for a short story. He began writing, not knowing who his main characters would be, but came up with what he thought was a compelling beginning: a slave uprising. The story grew into a novel.
With a history degree from the University of Illinois, the 31-year-old Edwards writes school textbooks by day.
For his novel, his research skills were crucial in describing a time and place he'd never seen -- Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1850.
"It's an unbelievably steamy and interesting period in our history," he said. "Something happened in Charleston that almost precipitated a civil war. I came up with a possible explanation."
The book is filled with interesting historical details, such as that some plantations prohibited slaves from running.
Positive reviews have flowed in, including from Publishers Weekly, which called the book "provocative," though adding it could use some "healthy pruning."
While writing it in his mother's home in East Dundee, Edwards vacillated between thinking his writing was "garbage" and "absolute Pulitzer material."
Rewriting, he said, was the key to making it successful.
The author will finally see Charleston at an upcoming book signing. He will also sign copies at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Book Cellar in Chicago.
Since getting published, Edwards uses his 300 prior rejections as motivation to write his next book -- a historical novel set at the time of the American Revolution.