Saturday, June 19, 2010

Serendipity and creativity

Serendipity is defined as good luck in finding unexpected and fortunate discoveries. In writing, for me, this means stumbling across things unexpectedly that help push a story forward. I recently finished my first historical novel, COLOR OF SHADOWS AND SMOKE and have begun research on a second historical, this one called A PLACE OF SILENCE, set in the early 30s, still during Prohibition. While researching the Depression in my local library I came across a book titled THE ORPHAN TRAINS: PLACING OUT IN AMERICA. Since it was in the section dealing with the Depression I was intrigued and pulled it out, along with a massive pile of other books to look at. Between 1850 and 1930 200,000 children and several thousand adults where set out west, purportedly to find homes for the urban poor. The west was in desperate need of more bodies to help on the farms and industries and agencies like The Children's Aid society saw this as a way to find places for these children.

The moment I read that, I knew the main character in A PLACE OF SILENCE would be just such a child. He would be a boy from a desperately poor family barely able to survive in some eastern city, perhaps Philadelphia or New York. So he was ripped out of his home and shipped west with a trainful of other children, some true orphans, other like him, from families simply too poor to manage. I immediately had to wonder what such a life would be like. Would you imagine your parents had abandoned you? Might you see it as a great adventure? At that time there were no laws controlling the use of children in labor. They were often working in mines or factories, toiling away for 12-14 hours a day for pitiful salaries and no assistance if they were injured, something like the trafficking in children that occurs today. But back then there were few people interested in the plight of children such as that.

But I would never have known about this if I hadn't started browsing the racks, just checking out intriguing titles and taking a closer look when I found one that interested me. I do much the same thing online. I will do Google searches on one subject then find links within the pages I'm researching that take me off in a whole other direction. Often fascinating ones, and sometimes they too can trigger that feeling of Eureka when I stumble onto some fascinating facet that can turn a whole plot on its ear.

I highly recommend it during your next trip to the library. Just find a section, perhaps in a section devoted to your city's history, or a period linked to whatever novel you are working on. Just scan the titles, see what jumps out at you and take a look.

You never know, you just find the magic key to making your novel one degree better.


  1. Wonderful idea! And just the thing I need for developing a new story right now. It was 'serendipity' to read your blog!!

  2. A train orphan could be such a marvelously heart-wrenching character. I think you are smart to hop on that one.

    I can see how that book cover caught your eye. I love old steam engines and the thought of a bunch of orphans riding one to a place unknown (to them) is intriguing. Sadly, it seems like they more or less shipped those kids off as slave labor, although they'd not be much better off slaving away in a big city factory, which kids did in those days, too.

  3. Interesting post. Isn't it funny where authors get their ideas? I love hearing about it!

  4. Kids were thought of differently in those days. Childhood really wasn't a concept to anyone. Children grew up working. Farm kids worked from the minute they could do something as simple as collect eggs or feed animals. Once factories opened up it seemed natural to them to use child labor and I believe places like mines were natural for kids -- smaller, they could get into tighter spaces. If they died or were crippled, oh, well, that was a shame, there's always another one can fill the role. But with infant mortality rates much higher than today with childhood diseases, dying was a fact of their lives.

  5. I've long been fascinated by the orphan trains. Good topic, Pat!

  6. I will look forward to this book! I'll look forward to this!