Monday, May 16, 2022

Coincidence?

 RHYS BOWEN: Have you noticed that reviewers love to point out that you have coincidences in your books, as if this is some kind of failing? There is a coincidence, or maybe two coincidences in the book I am just finishing: ISLAND OF LOST BOYS. I expect reviewers to point this out. I don’t care. The coincidence had to happen to reward the characters for what they have been through. I couldn’t leave them with a bleak, depressing end to their story.

And real life is full of coincidences, isn’t it? Some of them quite amazing. When I was a teenager, going up to London to drama school, there was a horrific train crash on the line I would have taken. I was stuck in London and ended up walking home, fourteen miles in dense fog. That was the drama, not the coincidence. The latter was the number of people who told me that their father usually took that train, but for some reason was held up at work that night. So many lives saved by the smallest twist of fate.


Since then I have been amazed at chance meetings all over the world. My daughter was standing at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when she heard a voice behind her she thought she recognized. Turned around and it was my next door neighbor’s mother!.   We were entering a temple in Candy, Sri Lanka, when a group of people came out, including two friends from Marin. We hadn’t know they were in Sri Lanka!  Recently we were in France and I started up a conversation with an English couple and… he went to the same school as John. Knew all the same teachers. 

And the most amazing coincidence of all:  Our first house was up for sale. It was a charming little cottage but suddenly too small for us with the arrival of a third child. A couple was hiking up our hill, saw the For Sale sign and came in to look around. They loved the house and bought it. A year later they had a baby girl–Gracie. I held her in my arms when she was two days old.  Fast forward about thirty years. A woman came up to me at a convention and introduced herself as the head of Thomas and Mercer. Gracie Doyle. Yes, THAT Gracie I had held when she was two days old! And I was just about to be published by Lake Union, a sister Amazon publishing house.  I sit with her at conventions. She came to New York to share in the celebration when I was nominated for the Edgar for THE VENICE SKETCHBOOK.



So I’m not sure of the dividing line between coincidence and fate. Karma. Destiny. If you believe in this, there is no coincidence, only what was destined to happen, so the reviewers have nothing to complain about, right?  So Reds, have there been amazing coincidences in your life? Have you ever used coincidence in a story? Got criticized for it? And readers, does coincidence in a story annoy you?

HANK: Rhys, I just GASPED. That is incredible! Whoa. Well, let’s see. Recently, I was doing a session in The Back Room, and one of the panelists was the fabulous Canadian Bestseller Samantha Bailey. In the 20 questions round, I asked another panelist, the brilliant Nita Prose (!!)  where  she’d grown up, and whether that affected her writing. She said she’d grown up in such a rural part of Canada that her address was only Rural Route 2.

So I laughed, and said that I had grown up in rural Indiana, and that MY address was only Rural Route 2, and so clearly that meant we were  neighbors. Ha ha.

Then Samantha Bailey (who is from Toronto) added that, such a coincidence, she had gone to summer camp in Indiana as a kid at a camp that was on Rural Route 2. 

I said: Union Camp? 

And she said yes! How did you know that?

And I said: Union Camp was right across the street from my house. And moreover, I WENT TO THAT SUMMER CAMP, TOO! 

What are the odds?

(And coincidence in a story? Oh, I guess it depends on whether I notice at the time.)

HALLIE EPHRON: Real life is full of coincidences. So is crime fiction. Isn’t there an Agatha Christie short story about a guy who walks out of a barber shop and passes his doppelganger going in? Turns out…. You guessed it, it’s the twin brother he never knew he had.

In my own writing, I like it best when something that *looks like* a coincidence turns out to have been engineered. Then it packs a double surprise. 

RHYS: Hallie, I don't think I would dare to bring off the unknown twin brother story!

LUCY BURDETTE: The strangest story I ever heard from my family: A commuter train crashed near my grandparents’ home in New Jersey. An official came to the door to tell my grandmother that her husband, Charles Isleib, had been killed. However, my grandfather, another Charles Isleib, was already home!

Oh my, now I’m getting story ideas based on that crazy coincidence…who was that second guy? (Trust me, there aren’t a lot of Isleibs floating around, so this was truly weird.)

And yes, reviewers do love to point out coincidences in books. By then it’s too late to do anything about it anyway:). Hopefully my writers group would point these out as I’m writing along, and also hopefully, I’d figure out a way to make the scenes more believable.

JENN McKINLAY: “I don’t believe in coincidence.” Isn’t that what the detectives alway say? I try to be very careful with coincidences in my stories - Hallie’s twist is genius. I don’t know if I’m just trying too hard but I can’t think of any weird coincidences in my life except for one. 

It was the middle of the night and a man called my apartment (this was pre cell phones), waking me up. He was clearly tipsy and he asked for Jenn. 

I said, “Speaking.” 

He said, “This is Mike.” 

Well, Mike was my college boyfriend, who I went back and forth with for four years - a very overwrought relationship - so I was dumbfounded. 

“It’s the middle of the night,” I said. “And I’m three hours behind you.” 

“No, you’re not,” he said. “You live across town.”

“Where are you calling from?” I asked.

“St Louis,” he said.

Then I started laughing. I had never been to St Louis in my life. This was a different Mike drunk dialing a different Jenn. When I explained it to him, he laughed, too. 

I’ve always thought it would be a great opener to a book…hmmm.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Jenn, now I'll be waiting for you to work that into a story! I can't think of any big real life coincidences that have happened to me, but I do believe they happen. There's a fine line in fiction. I've used a small one just for fun in my latest book, but I don't think I'd use coincidence to solve a mystery.

RHYS: Don't you love these amazing stories? So, dear readers--how do you feel about coincidence in a book you are reading? And who has an amazing coincidence to share in their own life?

66 comments:

  1. I don’t mind coincidence in stories . . . after all, look at all the real-life ones you’ve mentioned. However, I do get a bit frustrated when there are so many coincidences that they make the story seem contrived.

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    1. that's exactly it Joan, if the coincidence feels contrived as though the writer forced the story, then people can and should complain!

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  2. HANK: Whoa, that RR2 Union Camp coincidence is amazing!

    And I agree with Joan about not liking a story when the coincidences are too convenient/contrived, and it's not believable. I am also seeing this problem more often in season TV show arcs. Fan reaction there can be quick & harsh.

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  3. Amazing coincidences. I'm coming up empty for ones I've encountered in real life, although I'm sure I have. But I'll take Hallie's approach to them as a personal challenge in my WIP - writing an engineered coincidence!

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  4. Rhys, I am looking forward to your book.

    I don't mind coincidence in stories. A reader or critic can take that complaint way too far. I just finished listening to To Dwell in Darkness. Was it a coincidence that Andy was playing on stage and Melody was the cop on the scene during the incident and the one who met Ryan Marsh? Or a coincidence that Duncan was the detective in charge? I certainly won't complain about the personal connection that brought all the main characters into this story, and a fabulous story it is!!

    We have bumped into people we know while traveling. I know a dozen stories of that happening to others, too. At conventions, people always know someone connected to someone else, same home town, same summer camp, a cousin, same ancestor...name it. If you look for the common thread, sometimes you find it, and sometimes you find it without looking. Life is full of coincidences.

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  5. One of my critique partners allows one coincidence per book.

    As for real life coincidences, I never thought about it as such, but my dad couldn't go anywhere without running into someone he knew. If Mom and I were shopping in a mall and Dad was waiting outside, when we'd find him, he was always talking to an old buddy he'd chanced upon. Even when we went to Florida on vacation, it turned out my dad was old friends with the man living in the house next door to where we were staying!

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    1. Annette, we must have had the same dad. Hahaha!

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  6. Coincidences can happen, and I'm tolerant. I like engineered coincidences. Apparently, I resemble a lot of women, particularly on Cape Cod. I've been approached by men in restaurants and on the street. "You seem so familiar. Do I know you?" I want to reply, "No, I ditched you at the mixer."

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    1. Margaret, that's hilarious. "The mixer!!" I used to go to those, too.

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    2. The mixer!! Ahhhh...SUCH terrible memories!

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  7. Some amazing and funny coincidence stories! My favorite from my past was when I had just finished my UK overseas study program. Two friends from the program, my twin sister (who was about to begin her overseas study in Kenya) and I were traveling in Europe. We were on a train going from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, when an older, elegantly dressed woman joined us in our compartment. She spoke excellent English and told us she had been visiting in Iran and was on her way home to Luxembourg. We explained that we were from Oregon and were students at Lewis & Clark College who had been or were going on overseas study programs. Her face just lit up! We were all history majors, and it turns out she was the sister of Dr. Rassekh, one of our favorite professors.As I have aged, I realize that these coincidences are little gifts that happen occasionally in life. At the time, I was completely blown away.

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  8. I enjoy coincidences in well plotted books, because we all have had experienced them as well. I don't like them when it seems the author/writer has used them to get out of a failed plot situation i..e the killers kitten just happened to be eating the same brand of cat chow, thus our detective figured out he was the bad guy.

    Early in my courtship, we used to go on long day trips. Once we were east of the mountains about 150 miles from Seattle. Ol' Betsy, his Buick, died. We were walking along the highway, just about to pick a fight out of boredom, when one of my college mates drove by us. Fate rescued us both from the road and from the argument. Betsy survived too for another few years.


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  9. As others have pointed out, coincidences happen in real life. It almost seems odd to have a book-length story without any coincidences. But I'm generally not happy when a coincidence is the only reason for the resolution of a story. It feels like a statement that the world is entirely random.

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    1. I like to think that the coincidence in my book is more like the universe righting a wrong

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  10. When I was 13 we moved from western PA to south Jersey. As an adult I always wondered what happened to those PA kids I went to school with. Fast forward 50 yrs and I meet the mother of a new neighbor my age (the neighbor). I mentioned her accent as being from western PA. One thing lead to another and lo and behold, Tom and I were in the same 2nd grade class! I started whipping off names of kids and his mouth dropped more and more as I said each one.

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  11. I can't think of any coincidences in my life - not that I remember. Oh sure, I've met plenty of people who went to the same college or grew up near me. No wait! I was talking to Lissa Marie Redmond at a conference. She writes a series set in Buffalo, NY and I told her I grew up in Hamburg. She and I went to the same high school (years apart)! Then I mentioned something about how my dad was at a launch party held by his cousin, Maura. Turns out Maura is Lissa's aunt by marriage. So we're kinda-sorta related. LOL

    Oh, and I'm Annette's critique partner who allows one coincidence per book. As you point out, life is full of them. But the entire solution to the mystery shouldn't hinge on that coincidence.

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    1. Oh, I do have one, sort of. A few years ago, author Connie Berry introduced herself at Malice Domestic, saying, "We're cousins." What? Turns out her husband's brother is married to a Maxwell third cousin of mine in Indiana. It guess that makes Connie and me distant cousins-in-law. But it's still fun!

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    3. You grew up in Hamburg? I went to the International School here for a year...(you weren't born yet, so we couldn't have crossed on the Kurfurstendamm. :-) )

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    4. LOL Hamburg, NY Hank - not Germany!

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  12. There have certainly been coincidences in my life, some of them funny, some not so funny. One of the more amusing ones: about ten years ago I answered the phone at work, and the caller asked for one of my coworkers. My coworker was on the phone, so I offered to take a message. “Tell her that Deb Romano returned her call.” I had a momentary understanding of what it’s like to live in The Twilight Zone!

    DebRo

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  13. I thought this was a pretty amazing coincidence: right after our wedding my husband and I packed up and moved to NC, not knowing a soul there, or even where we would live. I had a teaching job, via a telephone interview and he was going to avionics school. Luckily, we found a nice place to rent in a mobile home park. A day or so after we moved in there was a knock at the door. A young woman stood there and asked if I was the new home ec. teacher. Why yes, I was, but how did she know. All she knew was that the new teacher was coming from NY and when she saw our tags (license plate) she thought I must be she. It's a good thing she did stop in because she said we had to be at the school the next day and I had been thinking I didn't have to be there until the next week. The mobile home park was rather large, but her place was perpendicular to ours. If I had read this in a story I would find it rather hard to believe.

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  14. Wasn't it Charles Dickens who packed his stories with coincidences? "A Tale of Two Cities" comes to mind. Mark Twain used them too-- a lot. I don't think I've used them in my writing, but real life is full of them.

    Example: I was in NYC for the 1980 Democratic National Convention. My brother was there, working for NPR. We kept trying to connect and couldn't. I'd go to their skybooth and be told he was on the floor; he'd look for me with our delegation and I'd be off looking for him. Then one day I went to meet a friend for lunch near the Museum of Natural History. I was on an unfamiliar subway line and was standing at map posted in the car, trying to ascertain where to get off. I felt a tap on my shoulder-- yep, my brother, also on a subway line he wouldn't have normally taken.

    And then there was my friend Elliot--we had gone through junior high and high school together, and also religious school for a decade, and then he was at Columbia while I was at Barnard. He was the only person I knew from Milwaukee in the whole city of New York. I never ever ran into him on our campus (Barnard is the sister school of Columbia) yet every time I would date a new guy, no matter where we went on that date, we would run into Elliot and his girlfriend.

    I won't count running into three of my Barnard classmates (traveling separately) in front of the Duomo my first day in Florence because that was in 1963, and I think the whole world was in Florence that summer.

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    1. That's funny--same year I was in Greece and everywhere we went we ran into classmates--it was the year to DO Greece!

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  15. I don’t mind the odd coincidence in a story as long as it isn’t obviously contrived. And real life coincidences do abound.

    Years ago we were wandering in the leather market in Florence when someone called out my name. I turned, saw no one recognizable. Then a woman waved her arms. It turned out she knew me from work but I’d didn’t know her.

    Another was when the new wife on the block was an old classmate of mine from college. Both of us were from the Midwest, and now we lived a hundred yards from each other in Irving, Texas

    Neither of these would fly in a book yet they happened to me.

    Ann

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  16. Same for me in fiction: coincidence happens, but not every whipstitch, thank you.

    My own life changed because of coincidence, so I'm maybe more flexible than some about it in fiction.

    I was looking for an apartment, and I ended up moving to a great older 10-unit building with neighbors close to my own age. When I was taking some trash out I found a cross stitch picture of flowers and a pair of pheasant feathers laying on top of the cans, so I retrieved them for my new place. Ten weeks later the building was abuzz about a woman who had moved out to get married right when I was moving in who had been killed in a bad accident.

    Fast forward two years, exactly: I was meeting friends after work one hot Friday, and they, as usual, were late. So I decided to go home and have a bite, plus change into something cooler. When I got back to the watering hole I found them talking to a cute guy, and they introduced me. We started chatting, and he ended up asking me out for the next week. This was Steve.

    What he didn't tell me is that he recognized my address, because he'd been married, briefly, to a woman who lived in that building--the very woman who moved out when I was moving in. (She had lived in #6, and I lived in #7, down the hall.) She'd been his college sweetheart and they had dated for eight years, very tragic.

    Another couple years passed and I was at a hunting friend's house and admired a vase full of pheasant feathers on his mantle. He said, "Steve should have a pair, too. He's only shot one pheasant." Then he asked me what was wrong because I'd suddenly gone white. Two years before I even met Steve I'd rescued those feathers from the trash.

    There are other pieces to this, too. My best friend went to high school with the first wife, and they had double dated with Steve and a friend once. The first wife and I looked very similar to one another. Steve took photos of me holding fox pups once, and we later found a photo of her in an almost identical pose, including wearing similar clothing. It was uncanny, and Steve had no memory of taking the first picture.

    So coincidences are okay with me!

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    1. Wow, Karen, your story gave me chills!

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    2. It still gives me chills, Debs!

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    3. Doesn't this feel more like karma than coincidence? You were destined to meet him? Great story idea, Karen!

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    4. It kinda does, Rhys. But if I had not gone home and then come back later--or just stayed home, the story would have been so different!

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    5. Wow! Talk about incredible coincidences! That could be a movie.

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  17. Coincidences do happen, so I'm fine with them in a book unless the whole denouement of the mystery turns on one that has nothing to do with the rest of the book.

    A small coincidence I recall-- with one of my high school classmates. I was in graduate school, riding the bus home one evening like I always did. Same route, same time. Lost in thought. A woman took the vacant seat next to me. After a moment or two, she said, "Flora?" It was Rita--I'd always wondered where life had taken her. She told me she recognized my hands--she'd drawn them often enough in art class. We caught up on our lives, she got off at her stop, and we never ran into each other again.

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    1. Wow, by your hands? Amazing!

      An long ago friend recognized my husband, from the back, by the way he jogged. And I was once in a store in the near-empty mall when a neighbor I hadn't seen in 25 years recognized my voice as she was passing. That still floors me.

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    2. She recognized your HANDS? ::shaking head::

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  18. RHYS: That word "coincidence" reminded me of a book where someone said "coincidence is messenger of truth". Perhaps it was Maurice Blanche in Jacqueline Winspear's MAISIE DOBBS?

    How wonderful that the lady you met was the same person that you met as a baby. I have heard of stories like that train crash. And Lucy's story reminded me of my grandfather. When my grandfather was off fighting during the First World War, his ship was torpoeded (I cannot spell that word) and his crew had to get into lifeboats. He and his crew were rescued and taken to a hospital in England. Meanwhile my great grandparents got a visit from the military saying that my grandfather was killed in action. They were arranging a memorial service when they got a letter from my grandfather saying that he was in the hospital.

    Chance meetings: When I was at University, there was a young man in my class who turned out to be a family friend's son. I had not seen that family since my childhood. Years later when I visited him and his new family, I saw a photo of him as a child. I recognized the photo and I remembered asking about him when I was a child. NO one knew who I was talking about and it turned out that I had the wrong name - someone introduced me to him by a different name, I remembered him because he knew Sign Language and we had a conversation. For some reason, someone told me that he was our neighbor (wrong! LOL). We are still in touch today.

    Coincidences are a funny thing. I cannot think of another coincidence off the top of my head.

    Diana

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    1. wow, what a relief for your great grandparents! I'm certain I've read books where characters I knew had been killed re-entered the scene. It can be done well, or seem unbelievable.

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  19. Kathy Emerson here, with a great real-life coincidence. My father-in-law realized, at our wedding, that the same minister who was performing our ceremony had married him to my husband's mom some twenty-five years earlier in another state. We took it as a good sign, and 53 years later we're still going strong.

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  20. Oh, I love coincidences, and they don't bother me in stories either. Unless they are contrived.

    I've had more than a few in my life. I had a ticket to return to school on the Eastern flight that went down in the Everglades. The day before the flight, my college roommate called, her car, that wasn't supposed to be ready until Easter break had been delivered early. Did I want to drive instead? I attended a small girls' school in Upper Montclair, NJ. There were 150 girls from first to 12th grade. I graduated in 1970. In 2004 I accepted a job with a law firm in Miami, Florida. One of the attorneys and myself were discussing our high school days. Turns out she was senior when I was a freshman and we knew each other back in the day. Yep, coincidences.

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  21. This is Julia - for some reason Blogger won't let me sign in as me. *Sigh*
    Anyway, I'm an idiot and I can't believe I missed this conversation. Although it may be just as well, because I'm honestly blanking on any amazing coincidences I've experienced. A solid string of green lights when I've been in a hurry is as close as I can come. Maybe my mind just doesn't register events as coincidental?

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  22. When I was pregnant with my first child my cousin's wife was also pregnant with their first child. I was not particularly close with this cousin, and kept up mainly through my Aunt. On the day he was born, I called my mother to tell her she had a new grandson and his name was Daniel. Later that day her sister, my Aunt Blanche, called my mother to tell her her son and daughter-in-law had their baby-a girl born on the same day as my son - they had named her Danielle.

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  23. Susan Shea here. Tim and I never went to the town of Ubud in Bali without running into Americans from where we lived, although that was less coincidence than the little mountain retreat becoming the “in” place through word of mouth here. I don’t mind it in novels as long as it isn’t used as a crutch to avoid having to write a better story.

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  24. I love coincidences, in books or otherwise. My husband was searching for retail property in Nashville. (We lived in Columbus, OH at the time). He contacted a realtor, out of the blue. They met at the location, but had to wait for the owner to let them in. Meanwhile, they decided to walk across the street and get an ice cream cone. While chatting, they started talking about Indiana. Ken mention that his wife was from Corydon. The realtor's mouth flew open. "I lived in Corydon until I was 8! What's your wife's name?" Turns out we were best friends at that time and also took dancing lessons together! We met the next month in Nashville and spent as much time together as possible until she died, unexpectedly a few years later. I'll always treasure the time we had.

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    1. That is SUCH a coincidence! Whoa.

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    2. Especially considering he picked a commercial realtor out of the phone book! (decades ago, obviously)

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  25. Coincidences are fun! My husband met the neighbors across the street (I haven't yet) and turns out they moved here from Houston 18 months ago. I need to meet them and find out what's what. Another odd one was I found out an ancestor of mine, Sam Houston, was born here. Who knew? Years ago we drove from Summit County, Ohio into Canada along the St Lawrence River. We stopped one night at a motel and there were two more cars there from Summit Co. No one we knew though. It seems like you can talk to people and find something in common. I was talking to our new insurance agent and it turned out his wife was from a county in southern Ohio that we had owned property in years ago. I can only hope that she isn't a member of a particular family that our relationship did not end well with. One more. My in-laws lived in Wharton, Texas for many years. It is a little town about 60 miles east of Houston. My m-i-l took me to visit a neighbor and church friend one day. The friend's sister and brother-in-law were visiting from Metairie, LA. In fact they were sheltering while a storm threatened the area. We got to talking and it turned out her son was in my senior class at a private school I attended in Metairie for one year. She kept referring to him as "poor" Reese so I really wondered what had happened in his life. But I didn't ask because I didn't want to be nosy. I still wonder.

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    1. Wharton is west of Houston, not east. I am still discombobulated from the move.

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    2. Love your story! I lived in Destrehan for a year.

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    3. So many coincidences, Pat!

      My oldest daughter and her husband moved into a house in Birmingham, Michigan, and when they met their neighbor across the alley they turned out to be family friends of my son-in-law's mom since the 1950s. And they had lost touch and were actively looking for those friends.

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    4. Hi Pat, it's Lynn in Texas. Another coincidence you may not have known (or see since I'm late: We moved from NOLA to Metairie the summer I turned 6, and I went to a brand new Catholic school, St. Lawrence from 1st through the middle of 5th grade in the also new Westgate area. Once while shopping in Las Vegas for my 50th birthday the sales woman got chatty and we found out we'd both lived in Metairie at the same time. Odd coincidence!

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  26. I might buy one coincidence in the book as long as the entire plot doesn't hinge on it. Too often, however, it comes across as lazy plotting. It can be done well, however, so it's not a hard and fast rule with me.

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  27. I don't mind a coincidence or two in a book. I don't want the whole plot to be a series of coincidences, but as someone has already mentioned, coincidences do happen in life.

    It seems that two factors in my life bring me the most coincidences. The first is my hometown of Maysville, Kentucky. You wouldn't believe how many people I've met have a connection to something or someone there. Of course, to us older folks, it's always been the hometown of Rosemary Clooney, and that further the connections out in the world. The second factor is my ancestry, being kin to Daniel Boone. One of my favorite chance meetings was at Bouchercon in Raleigh when I was standing in an author line and Stacy Allen was in front of me. We started talking and realized we both were related to Daniel. Stacy is now a dear friend.

    Like Karen, one of the most important coincidences of my life led to my husband. I was a senior in my last year at the University of Kentucky. A friend in my English studies asked me to wait for her to go to the student union building. I didn't really want to wait but I did. Walking with her to the student union building, my future husband looked out the window of the ROTC building and saw us. He was friends with her and asked her for my number. As they say, the rest is history. If I hadn't waited for her, if he hadn't looked out the window at that exact time, if I hadn't answered his call ...

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  28. Wow, what amazing coincidence stories! I really enjoyed reading them. A well-done coincidence in a book can give me a little thrill, so I don't mind.

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  29. What Jan said. I like a well done coincidence. Sort of like deja vu - very cool in a mystery!

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  30. A lot of Agatha Christie's stories relied on coincidence. The suspects all having motive of some kind even if they didn't know each other or plan to be there before.

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  31. TODAY! One of my daughters was at her 30th high school reunion over the weekend. She was at the airport, flights delayed because of weather when she took a photo of a beautiful rainbow. She sent it to a classmate who texted back that he had just received another photo in the exact same spot from another '92-er. My daughter found the person, someone she hadn't had much time with over the weekend. And they had a great visit while they waited. for their flights (to different states).

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  32. Life is full of coincidences and connections, with so many variables in play, it's going to happen -- some, just not always and solving everything.
    My then-ex-MIL once called me by mistake, looking for by ex-BIL, whose wife is also named Mary. After a round or two of Mary?-yes, we figured out who we were, and then she said she was hoping Kurt could help with a computer issue -- which I was quite able to do, because my jr. high students had found nearly every possible thing that could go wrong with Apple computers. Her wrong call was the right call.

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