Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Unexpected

by Elizabeth

I got an email from my mom the other day, a forward from her cousin letting us know that the cousin's father is very ill. Totally out of the blue. Well, not so much out of the blue since he's on the far side of his eighties, but out of the blue as far as the diagnosis goes.

As luck would have it, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, and we had tickets to a play over there just two days after the email came. I trek over to see them several times a year, but hadn't called them this time as babysitters are expensive and it was already a busy weekend--just figured I'd see them the next time. I called, of course, made arrangements for the babysitter to come a few hours earlier, and off we went.

They need help. It was clear to me, someone they could trust needs to come in there and be a mom to them. The cousin had to head back to her own home and family three states away, the son in town has a sick family member himself, and the other son is in another state as well. Chemo was beginning in a few days, and while hospice had been called, and various arrangements were underway, my younger cousin was distraught over the situation.

It occurred to me the day after the visit that I might know someone who could help, a recent college grad who used to work in the daycare at my gym. Lovely young woman, caring and warm and someone I'd trust with my wallet and my keys and my kids. I emailed her on the long shot, and was astounded when an email came back explaining the job would be ideal for her this summer as she'd moved to the town where she'd start grad school in the fall, but hadn't yet found a job.

On Joan's advice, I'm reading All Other Nights by Dara Horn. I won't give anything away since you should read this book, and one reason is the way Horn keeps the story going with plot points that are unexpected and vibrant. Nearly every turn of the page brings an idea or circumstance leaving me shaking my head in wonder at how life is such a puzzle sometimes, one that makes sense even as it twists around on itself. We experience this in real life, and so when it works in fiction, the novel becomes more plausible and therefore more satisfying. In other words, the kind of book that makes people love books.

I've found that happen in research as well. A couple years ago as I was plowing through the first draft of my second manuscript, I needed an historical character to be in New York City at a very specific moment in time. "It's fiction," I excused myself, determined to just write the scene. I started, then gave up with a sigh and started researching. Lucky I did: I discovered a letter he wrote from New York the very day I needed him to be there. Serendipity or the unexpected, a twist I needed that worked with historical fact (not unlike Horn's book, which includes real people from the Civil War), and the words flowed from there.

Life has turns, and the real ones, the ones that seem like a coincidence, in fiction, done correctly, are part of the satisfaction of literature. Like my cousins and the girl who may be able to help hold down the fort during this stressful summer; like Horn's Jacob Rappaport who finds heroism and villainy and love and redemption as the pages turn on his remarkable twists; like George Washington taking his stepson to college in the spring of 1773: the unexpected keeps us engaged.

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