Monday 19 November 2012

Serendipity Strikes

It was still dark across London. 

I hauled myself off the pre-dawn flight from Glasgow onto the dinky little Docklands Light Railway for a meeting with my publishers. I’d barely slept and spent the short flight in a hazy, waking dream of the futuristic novel I was writing and I still felt deep inside that world. I was at a crucial point in the story. My teenage heroine had just fought her way through a world of death and despair, up into a spectacular ‘sky city’ that rose out of the ruins of a flooded Earth. I was building up that world in my head - to survive in it, Mara had to absorb all of its strangeness, fast, and the reader too.

I’d imagined an empire of cloud-high cities with towers linked by sky trains, where people lived liked gods, by their wits, trading ideas, inventions and stunning technologies while the forgotten world outside rotted and drowned. 

The docklands train swerved around a bend and I jolted wide awake. For a stricken second I felt I’d slipped through a crack in reality into the sleek futuristic city of my imagination.

There, through the window, was my sky city. Giant glass towers soared up out of the dockland waters. Global market data flashed in reels around the skyscrapers, above processions of early traders walking to work through luxurious shopping arcades and entertainment malls. It was as if the plane from Glasgow had landed in my own book.
Global market data flashed around the skyscrapers
It was Canary Wharf. As the train wormed right through the heart of that exclusive trading bubble, my fictional cityscape burst to life in my head. It was a crucial part of the story that would become the Exodus trilogy and sell around the world. Somehow, in that half-dream state, the writing gods had gifted me just what I needed, exactly when I needed it.   

Serendipity strikes when you least expect. It’s like a tap on the shoulder of the creative subconscious from some unfathomable force. Suzanne Collins was half-asleep, channel-hopping between newsreels of the Iraq war and reality TV shows when the idea of The Hunger Games burst upon her. Jo Rowling was trapped on a broken-down train with no book, pen or notebook, nothing but her thoughts, when Harry Potter zapped into her head. 

It’s harder than ever amid the cacophony of social media, deadlines and deal-making, and the echo of your own voice selling your wares, to find a calm space to rummage around in your dreams, wander through doors in your subconscious, triggering impulses and inspirations we don’t really understand. Often it’s in those half-awake moments when your subconscious runs free that serendipity drops you a gift from the universe you can never quite explain. 

When writing my YA novel Soundtrack, a sea-drenched coming-of-age story, I remembered Bobby, a second cousin. He'd seemed godlike to us younger teenage girls; a good-looking charmer and, most amazingly of all, he was a guitarist in a band. He’d punkified his bedroom with cascades of netting hung with iconic album covers and posters. To an impressionable 14 year old from suburbia, it was a rockstar den. I don’t know why I remembered it decades later, but I gave my music-mad character, Finn, a bedroom just like Bobby’s. I also gave Finn a beautiful song, Walk The Last Mile by Scots band Love and Money, to leave to the girl he loves at the end of the novel. 

And this is where the story behind the story turns strange. 

Families fracture. I hadn’t seen Bobby since my early teens. Love and Money are one of my favourite bands and when I'd asked my relatives if their bassist, Bobby Paterson, was our Bobby, the family grapevine said no, couldn’t be, he’d gone off the rails, never got a proper job, fallen in with a bad crowd, got himself in debt... so I didn’t think any more about it. Moody-looking guitarists were ten a penny in Glasgow. Reader, I married one.

Tragically, Love and Money’s Bobby Paterson died, far too young, a few years ago and when I read his press obituary I was doubly gutted. It was our Bobby. The one whose bedroom I’d enshrined in my book. Old-fashioned Scottish values, the family rumour-mill and no doubt a bit of sheer green envy had twisted the truth. No, he hadn’t got a proper job, he’d fallen in with a bunch of musicians and run up music company debts - in one of Scotland’s best-ever bands. And the opening bass line that pulses goosebumps of soul through Walk The Last Mile, the song I’d given to Finn in Soundtrack, was Bobby’s...

How did Bobby’s bedroom and his song end up so strangely entwined in my novel twenty years on? I’ll never know. 

Orion Nebula, NASA image
Serendipity struck again a couple of weeks ago. Unhappy with my day’s writing, I began rummaging through books and websites, following trails (wasting time, but totally engrossed by my own curiosity.) It was like following a faint, unknown scent. My tracks led me to NASA and I made a mind-bending discovery, one that’s thoroughly discombobulated me. Somehow the universe itself, via NASA, seems to have gifted me the most extraordinary surprise in the exact spot of the cosmos that I need it to be in my new book. 

‘It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.’ Virginia Woolf

I don’t understand the hows or whys. I’ll just thank my lucky stars, keep following the scent of my unconscious and see what else serendipity brings. 

How about you?


  1. Serendipity is one of my favourite words...
    I'm in a tough spot at the moment, Julie. You don't know how badly I needed to read this post. Truly serendipitous!

  2. So sorry to hear that and I'm glad you found something in there that spoke to you. I truly don't mean to be trite - speaking from the heart and from experience - often in writing, as in life, it's in the darkness that new seeds sprout. But usually you don't know it until later. Lots of warm wishes for whatever you need to come your way soon x

  3. Lovely post Julie. So sad about your cousin-an amazing example of the subconscious at work, as if you'd dedicated the book to him without knowing.

  4. I love that thought. Thanks for saying that.