The Making of a Novel: What Serendipity Has to Do With It

At the start of a novel, there are thousands of "logistical" decisions that have to be made about your characters. You are, after all, constructing a life -- usually many lives.
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At the start of a novel, there are thousands of "logistical" decisions that have to be made about your characters. You are, after all, constructing a life -- usually many lives. It's hard to move forward unless you know, for example, what year your character was born and how old they are in the present day of the story. That leads you to have to ask where this person was born, and what year they started high school, and if they went to college, and what they studied. None of these "logistics" have to do with what they want, or what's keeping them from getting it, or what they're going to risk to make it happen -- the big questions -- but they can be daunting all the same. What keeps me from getting completely overwhelmed is trust in the concept of serendipity.

2010-07-20-Survey_Stake.jpg I have found that if I made just one decision -- I always think of this as putting a stake in the ground -- many other decisions will automatically follow, and then, almost without fail, something serendipitous will happen to propel the story forward or cement something in stone. It's one of the most delightful parts of being a writer.

Here's how it works:

  • I was very nervous about having to decide where my family lives in New York City, and where the high school senior is in school. I know the way New York works, and it makes a big difference if you live on one side of the street or the other. Ten blocks uptown or downtown can definitely change a whole life. And what kind of rent could my characters afford, given their occupations? I haven't lived in New York for more than twenty years, and wasn't sure I could get the real estate details right.
I asked a friend who's in a position to know to give me a quick run-down of the possible schools my character might go to -- because that might help me nail down the neighborhood -- and she reeled off about six choices. I freaked out, and decided to decide later.
  • Meanwhile, I have been plowing ahead with my research, which means going back to the year 2007 and looking at the headlines. The reality of my story make certain demands -- a real newspaper article I am referencing was published on an actual date in April, and I can't change that, so this date in April is fixed. In order to understand where college admissions fall in relation to that date, I looked up what day in 2007 most college acceptances went out, and wrote down some interesting facts and anecdotes I found on College Confidential, a crazy website with enough material for 100 novels. I had the thought to go to the website of Joshua Bell and look up where he performed in New York in 2007 -- and lo and behold, he played at one of the schools on the list my friend had given me!! That kind of serendipity is what I'm always looking for. I now have a reason to "enroll" my character in that school, and for her to be at that performance. This gives my story resonance and meaning and veracity. I love it! (And if, later, it turns out that this school is a bad choice for my character because of gender or class or because she has purple skin, then so be it. The serendipity forced me to put a stake in the ground, and a "no" decision is as useful as a "yes" decision. They each mean the elimination of possibilities.

Serendipity works in other ways, too. I had to rush out to Borders to pick up a book for my daughter (she's 14, plowing through big romances, can't be without one) and as I sped down an aisle, I spotted Marilyn Robinson's Gilead on sale. 2010-07-20-gilead.jpg I'm a sucker for a sale, and I have wanted to read this book forever. (I took a class from Robinson when she was a visiting writer at Amherst and I was a visiting student. It's one of two writing classes I've ever taken. She scared the pants off me, she was so smart.) So, I bought it. And when I got home, I noticed that on my bedside table there was a book on God (which I bought because I liked the title), a book on heaven (which I bought because I liked the cover), my mother's old copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany (which I pilfered last time I was in Santa Barbara with nothing to read) and Gilead, a book written in the voice of a priest. Four books about religion??? That's not an accident. So I'm starting to think about this in relation to my story, whose working title is, after all, Faith in God and Joshua Bell -- though I don't know why god was ever there in the first place.

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