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Friday, 24 June 2011

Serendipity by Sarah Bryant

“Where do you get your ideas?” is probably the most common question people ask me when I tell them that I’m a writer, and it’s definitely the most difficult to answer. It’s not so much that I don’t know (although at some point, flash-in-the-pan inspiration is always a factor) but that the origins of my books are usually so distant, so mundane, or so apparently unrelated to the finished product, that people either don’t believe me, or are disillusioned by the utter banality of the truth.
“Serendipity” is no exception. Its point of origin is seventeen years ago, my second year of university, when I was a competitive dinghy sailor. I woke up one morning from a dream about an old white wooden sailboat named “Heaven”, wanting to write about it, and sailing’s addictive quality, and of course, being a rose-tinted twenty year old, about love. The result was an abysmal short story about a girl who loved sailboats, and a boy who loved her. It sank into my “stories” folder without ever seeing the light of day, and I forgot about it until the following year, when my first real relationship ended in a spectacular mess.
Among other fallout, I quit sailing. I had to, if I didn’t want to see the boy in question every day. I missed it at least as much as I missed him, but there was no question of going back to either one. So what to do with the sudden, gaping hole in my life? Write about it, of course! I dusted off the sailboat story, trashed most of it, but kept the two characters and a few sentences belonging to each of them. Then I started listening. The guy was silent. But the girl had a lot to say about love and loss and disillusionment. I started writing.
It wasn’t until the following summer that Meredith’s pages of broken-hearted rumination began to take shape as a novel. But oddly, it had nothing at all to do with Meredith, or even sailboats. I was working that summer on a small teaching farm – a little bit of the nineteenth century marooned in the Massachusetts suburbs. Before I knew it, a world was forming in my head: one which took shape around that farm, as it might have been in a different time or place. And out of it, unexpectedly, the silent man began to speak. He was intelligent and wry and as-yet-inexplicably damaged. I put Meredith aside, and started writing Silence. I knew that they were connected, but how? Writing a novel about a sailing prodigy and a farmer seemed like a fool’s errand.
The answer came out of nowhere. Well actually it came from Adam, a friend I’d made at that farm, who announced one day, “My new favourite word is ‘serendipity’.” I asked him why, and he said, “Because serendipity explains everything.” I said, “Right, whatever,” but I found the word knocking around my head the next few days as I demonstrated the joys of cow milking and composting to a lot of hot, bored suburban children.
And then Adam took me to see his family’s farm. It had a huge old red barn, intriguingly empty. It was like a cathedral. It was big enough to hold a boat. And that was it, the flash in the pan: Silence was building a boat in his barn! And sooner or later he was going to need help; enter Meredith. Serendipity, indeed.
I’d like to say it all went smoothly from there, but that quote about love’s course hold true for novels too. I took “Serendipity” with me onto a writing masters program, thinking it was great. The tutor hated it, and did her level best to fail me. A year later, I was lucky enough to find an agent who loved it, and I thought I was sorted. Wrong again: the agent couldn’t sell it, and ultimately gave up on it. So did I.
I wrote other books, found publishers for them. It wasn’t until I was writing my third historical novel that “Serendipity” got its Eureka moment. I was bogged down in that third book, with two small children and too little time to do the research it required. Then something strange happened: I was slogging away at 19th century Edinburgh, but it was Meredith and Silence who kept speaking to me. And they were saying, “When are you ever going to figure it out? Our story belongs here!”
I still can’t believe that when I emailed my editor and said, “Um, about that book you’re expecting…is it okay if I write a completely different one?” she said yes without hesitation.
I took “Serendipity” back out, rewrote the first section as set in the 1890s rather than 1990s, and everything just fell perfectly into place. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to see that this story had always belonged in an earlier era. At long last, despite myself (and with a little help from Bob Dylan – just read it, you’ll see!) I knew exactly how to make “Serendipity” into the book it was meant to be. And if it took me seventeen years? Well, better later than never!


Charissa Weaks said...

I write Fantasy/Sci-Fi but I can relate to your story. My characters won't let go either. They are bound and determined for me to tell their story. It's taken me a couple years to figure it all out...okay, I'm still figuring it out :)...but I know I'll get it done. Thanks for posting this!

scaughie said...

You are welcome! And I'm glad I don't come across as just plain least, I hope I don't! :-)