Monday, April 16, 2012

Coincidence?

RHYS BOWEN: Do you read online reviews? I know I shouldn't, but I do. And then I'm miffed if someone says something snippy about my books, especially when I feel it's unjustified.  This happened to me the other day when I read a review of Murphy's Law, which is now an eleven year old book, which said the plot relied on coincidence. Apart from the fact that this book won four awards, the only coincidence in the story is that the false name my character is using becomes a prime suspect in a murder on Ellis Island. 

We're often told that coincidences are a no-no in writing, and I agree that we can't use coincidence to solve major plot points. However I'm always amazed how often coincidences happen in real life. Amazing coincidences.  Here are a couple from my own experience:
My daughter goes to Europe. She happens to be in Germany, looking at the Brandenburg Gate when she hears a voice behind her that she recognizes. She turns around and there is my good friend's mother. Neither knew the other would be in Europe.
Or how about this. We go to Ashland to the Shakespeare festival. We're waiting in line to get to our seats when we are tapped on the shoulder and our next door neighbors are standing there. What's more they have seats next to ours.
Or this. I'm in e-mail correspondence with a person who runs a book review site. We are getting along well and become chatty. Where do you live? She asks. In California. So do I. Where abouts? Just outside San Francisco. So do I. Where. San Rafael. So do I. We're neighbors.


And at Left Coast Crime two weeks ago I had to interview Guest of Honor Jacqueline Winspear. I started by quoting all we had in common: grew up in Kent, worked in London, moved to California, married someone called John, write about feisty young women in 1930s England, live five miles apart. Talk about about coincidence!

So my real life seems to abound with coincidences, but I'm not allowed to put them into books. Is that fair?

How about you? Can you remember any amazing coincidences in your life? Do you feel you are allowed to bring coincidence into your stories? And readers, does it annoy you when we do?


HALLIE : Rhys, you do live a charmed life! And yes, I allow myself ONE coincidence in a book, and it's got to be in the first act.

I do remember once we were camping in Shenandoah National Park and one of my husband's college students came walking out of the woods. Very unexpected. We ran into Another one of his students on the beach in Tangiers. Those Curry College students -- they do get around.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: We go to the grocery store. There is ..oh, gosh, I can't remember, but someone Jonathan went to law school with. Random, random. They just happened to be there. Couple days later, we're there again, and the person is there AGAIN. I literally said to Jonathan: If I put this in a book, no one would buy it.

At a convention in Florida a few weeks ago, Sleuthfest, a person came up to me and said: are you from Indianapolis? I said--yes, that's where I grew up. Long back and forth ensues, which I will spare you but it was hilarious and adorable. The upshot: she is the cousin of my first husband's first wife. Now I ask you--in a book--would you believe that?

LUCY BURDETTE: No I would not! And Hallie certainly wouldn't...Writing about three different amateur sleuths over the years, I am always struggling with coincidences. Why in the world would one food critic find two bodies in succession? I would freak out if I found even one...but figuring out another way to introduce the main conflict and draw the character into the mystery is not that easy. Sigh...I'm going to be working on this today so if anyone comes up with a good idea, please send it on!

Of course not--you'd say-aw, that could never happen. And yet...

JAN BROGAN- My husband and I went to a wedding in San Franscisco a few years back, and who was playing the piano for the band? My high school flame. From New Jersey. I had been absolutely crazy about him, but he was lukewarm.  The band did this really cool thing where they came around at cocktail hour and you got to sing a cappella  with them.  I wound up having a great time singing with his bandmates.  They started heckling him, the way guys do, refusing to believe I'd ever "waste my time"  going out with him.  It was perfect.  Later he even apologized for the way he had treated me (leading me on, mostly) It was a female fantasy come true!

I kept thinking it was like an opening to a movie it was so bizarrely coincidental. Which I think goes to Hallie's point. You can have a co-ocidence in the first act - in fact, most first acts probably DO have some coincidence  to get the story rolling. You just can't resolve the story with a co-incidence.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: The most bizarre thing I can think of in real life?  A couple of years ago we were invited to a 4th of July party by friends, held in an airplane hanger in a Dallas suburb that has one of the biggest fireworks shows in the country.  We sat out on the runway to watch the show and it was a great party, but afterwards the traffic was so terrible that a group of us stood around in the parking lot, visiting, until we thought it might actually be possible to drive.  A guy asked me if I wanted to share a seat on his beer cooler.  I said, "Sure," and sat down. And in that instant we really looked at each other and simultaneously said, "Oh, my God."

It was my first really serious boyfriend.  I was madly in love with him when I was fifteen and sixteen, and he dumped me for my best friend.  I hadn't seen him in more than thirty years.

It turns out it was not that bizarre.  He was a mutual friend of the friends who invited us to the party, but I didn't know that. (Did I still hold a grudge, you may ask? Not really.  Still like him?  He aged well:-))

In fiction, I'm always trying to write around coincidences.  You can't make them as obvious as the ones that happen in real life, so I think the key is misdirection.  Or at least I hope so, as I have more than Hallie's one in the WIP...

So dear friends who are readers--does it annoy you when you come across a coincidence in our books?

20 comments:

Ramona said...

A long time ago, this subject came up at a writers event at a public library. I was sitting next to a man I didn't know. It was winter, and I'm not sure if he was a writer or a homeless person, because he was dressed in 10 layers of clothes but carried a briefcase. (That's how long ago it was--who still carries a briefcase?!?) In the middle of the discussion, he turned to me and said, "There ARE no coincidences," in this low, ominous voice. I couldn't tell if he was being creepy, or sincere, or kidding around, but I get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. So I avoid writing coincidences, but in reality, they happen all the time.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

That's funny, Ramona..why don't people carry briefcases Because they have iPhones?

And you know--what IS a coincidence? HOw often does the phone rings just at the right dramatic moment? I always wonder about that..

Shizuka said...

In New York, I've run into people I knew years ago in Japan: one at Barney's and another on the street. And the first time I went to an MWA event, my college fiction writing professor from Pittsburgh was there with his wife, a mystery writer. That coincidence felt like a sort of blessing.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Rhys, coincidences happen all the time in real life. I used to design and knit lace shawls with handspun luxury fibers on commission while the doctors were getting me diagnosed and stabilized. A dear friend in KC commissioned one for her friend in OK who was being dumped by a husband of many years for a young trophy. After she received it, this woman moved up to KC, and my friend brought her to one of my readings. We also became friends, and 2 years into the friendship came to realize that we had gone to high school (in another state) together. Who could put that in a book?

Leslie Budewitz said...

We like to say that in Montana, we don't need 6 degrees of separation to find a connection between people -- two will do. But no, not in fiction -- not even fiction set here!

My husband once ran into a former housemate from college days in Missoula -- while waiting for a bus in a village in northern India!

Jungle Red Writers said...

There are no coincidences! That is so wise, Ramona.
In many ways that is so true--in my latest book Molly Murphy is able to trace her brother through a chance meeting at a convent far away... but it turns out that a nun there is devoted to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, for whom her brother is fighting.

Susan Elizabeth said...

I grew up in Virginia, but moved to New York in High School. During college I discovered that one of my best friends from elementary school was dating one of my close friends from high school. I came across a picture on Facebook and was like how did that happen?

Hallie - I agree that any coincidences should happen in the first act. Though we can't plan the timing these moments in real-life, an ending that comes together with a coincidence feels forced.

Deb Romano said...

Rhys,

Some on line reviewers are just plain mean-spirited, in my opinion. When I read a particularly scathing review, I make it a point to look for that book. I rarely agree with the really super critical reviewers.

As a reader, I have NO problem with coincidence. I've seen too many real life coincidences!

For many years, I worked as a real estate title searcher. I did much of my research in towns in southwestern CT. One day I was recording deeds in one of those towns. The attorney who sent me to that town had underestimated the filing fee, so I paid the difference with a personal check.I knew that I had the same last name as the town employee who was handling the transaction but it's a very common name around here and neither of us ever had any reason to believe that we were related. She saw the address on my check and commented that that was the same town where her husband grew up, and she asked me which Romano family I was related to. I mentioned the neighborhood where my father grew up. Turned out she was my great-aunt! For "soap-opera-y" reasons (and nobody would believe many of the details!)I have never met most of my grandfather's younger siblings, many of whom were younger than my father, and I never did meet her husband, who has since passed away.

Lisa Alber said...

I don't mind a coincidence. Sometimes they even add resonance to a story. For example, a detective shows up a crime scene and the dead woman was his first true love, the one that got away, the one that broke his heart and ever since he's been closed to relationships. Well! Now we've got a detective with a murder to solve and some emotional baggage to solve too. So I don't mind that. As Hallie said, in the first act so all's good.

Sometimes a little coincidence is all you need for an inciting incident to get the chaos started.

Let's face it, many mystery series rely on coincidences. For example, cozies set in small towns rely on the coincidence that the small town happens to have the highest per capita murder rate in the country. Same goes for series starring amateur sleuths who bump into murders everywhere they go. Readers don't seem to mind--they know what they're getting into and they suspend judgment.

Jan Brogan said...

Ramona,
I think that story has the makings of a creepy short story.

Deb,
I once found out the health teacher I was torturing in high school was actually a cousin of my father's. After that, I was forced to behave.

Karen in Ohio said...

Loving these stories, but sad that such happenings are considered too unbelievable for fiction. What?

How often have you been thinking of a word that also popped up on TV or the radio at the same instant? Or that you happened to see on a billboard at the same time? That happens to me all the time, and I would totally buy it in fiction.

A friend from Michigan and I marvel at a major coincidence that happened in the late 90's. My three daughters and my mother and I were all in Manhattan for a spring break trip. We were walking around after dinner and saw my friend and her husband and two daughters also walking, also enjoying a fun spring break. But the coincidence was two days later, when we were all also at the same airport terminal cafe, despite flying to two different states, and from two different airlines. And in NYC.

Hallie Ephron said...

Anyone else remember the Agatha Christie short story where a man walks out of (a drugstore?) as his twin (that he didn't know he had) walks in?

Beyond that I remember nothing. Help!

Jody said...

Yes, those coincidences are hard to believe in fiction, but they happen all the time in real life.
Years ago when my brother was in the Navy, they stopped at Dijibouti. He was in a gift shop & discovered the clerk had been his college roommate's penpal.
In the early days of bypass surgery, my best friend traveled to Texas for her father's surgery. As she sat in the waiting room, she struck up a conversation with another woman. Turned out the woman was from my friend's old New Jersey neighborhood. They'd grown up within blocks of each other.
I get excited about the kind of coincidences where I'm reading about one subject & the same subject comes up in a tv show, movie, or conversation. Just yesterday I watched an old 1950's movie that had doodlebugs. This morning I was reading a recently published novel in which one of the characters talks about the doodlebugs of WWII.

Karen in Ohio said...

There are so many coincidences surrounding my husband and me, it defies belief.

I met him two years after I moved to apartment #7, the same weekend his first wife moved out of apartment #6 in the same building. In fact, I took some things off the trash cans the day I moved in, things we later figured out were hers.

She died in a car accident just a couple months later, so I never met her. But my best friend turned out to have also been her good friend in high school and college. Also, we think that years earlier my first husband had bought my husband's mother's old '57 Ford Fairlane convertible, the car I learned to drive in the early 70's.

It was meant to be, I guess. No sense arguing against fate.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Karen, your story reminds me of being in a restaurant in Paris 3 yrs ago and stumbling through a conversation with 2 couples at the next table from Normandy vacationing in Paris. The next night, I had a hankering for North African food, so we went to a different district -- and guess who was across the restaurant, waving madly at us?

Susan Elizabeth said...

Hallie - While I don't remember that Agatha Christie moment specifically, I think I remember something about Hercule Poirot having a twin that shows up (or maybe he's pretending to be his own twin?).

angelaparsonmyers said...

My landing my "dream job" at the age of 46 came about because of a series of coincidences that started when my daughter entered first grade nearly 15 years earlier already reading at sixth grade level. I won't bore you with all the steps, but no one would ever believe it if I tried to pass it off as fiction.

AnnOxford said...

No, I'm not annoyed at any of you, least of all for spotting a coincidence — what I prefer as serendipity. On the 4th of July 1973, I had drawn a horoscope for a man I knew only tangentially. I took one look at it and realized this was THE ONE. My date that evening sort of unraveled. I didn't mind and decided to see if I could find my "client." He was in a student hang-out bar with money enough for only one beer. He was seated next to a cab driver who said, "Ah well. Just wait a nice young lady will come up behind you, put her arms around you and offer to buy you a drink. Not 10 minuets later, I did! Richard and I have been together ever since.

Lora in Florida said...

Ok here's a weird story. Hubby and I moved to FL from PA rin 98. I join a church group, and make friends. One Easter the church group goes to Ronald McDonald house to make dinner, and one of the ladies I've known for SEVEN years mentions that, if her Father-in-law were with us, he'd be carving the butter into a lamb. She and my hubby get talking about how its a cultural thing (Slovak) and how her FIL grew up in a little town in PA. Which as you guessed it, is where we were from. Not only does Hubby's mom know the family, they grew up next door to each other AND the friend's FIL married my hubby's grandmother's sister. So we're related. I've known this woman for years! And now we have family in FL that we have spent the last 5 Easters with.

I would believe any coincidence...because it happens in real life!

Reine said...

I am really too late to comment here but can't resist. Driving to the college where I was working in California, a student forced me to the side of the road as she passed. When we got to the parking lot, I parked nearby and suggested she not do that, that someone could get killed. She gave me the finger and described me with some unfortunate adjectives and a few nouns that, even I, was uncomfortable with. I went to my office to prepare for my first appointment, a student who needed a waiver of some sort. Guess who it was. Yes, the very same driver with the pushy car and the big finger.