Stories of Serendipity: Writing Historical Fiction Series Featuring author Maryanne O’Hara

Stephanie Renee dos Santos



Author and Art Historian Horace Walpole painted by John Giles Eccardt, circa 1755.

When something serendipitous happens in our life it often leaves us awed and aghast as to why, and how. We are surprised, even shaken sometimes by the event. Serendipity is defined as making happy discoveries by luck, by chance, by accident — things not sought for. The word serendipity stems from “Serendip,” the Persian and Urdu name for Sri Lanka, adopted from the Tamil “Serendeevu,” or originally from Sanskrit “Suvarnadweepa,” meaning “golden island” and called “Sarandib” by Arab traders. It was coined in the English language by British writer Horace Walpole in 1754 from the title of his fairy-tale book The Three Princes of Serendip, in which its characters unearthed the unknown by accident — things they weren’t in pursuit of.

As historical novelists, we write about the past — the people and places and cultural attitudes of bygone days, filling in ambiguities and casting light on overlooked or popular stories, characters, sites. And while doing so, sometimes we write about things we think are figments of our imagination, but later come to learn are historically true. As if by chance we wrote about a person, a location, an item that we’re not privy to have known we had knowledge of, or we come across a piece of sagacious or verifying information miraculously connected in some way to our story. Somehow, I believe, we have tapped or plucked from what psychologist Jung called “The Collective Conscious.” Jung deduced that life was not a series of random events but rather an expression of a deeper order that lends itself to insights, demonstrating that a person is both embedded in an orderly framework and is the focus of that orderly framework. For how else can we write about people, places, and things that we have no personal contemporary past history of studying, nor explanation of knowing?

For the next seven weeks I will post here an author’s magical story of serendipity while writing, researching, and publishing historical fiction, along with their speculations as to possible reasons behind such phenomena. Many of the stories also have elements of synchronicity, defined as experience of two or more events being meaningfully related: coincidences.

Nossa Senhora - Copy

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição Velha

To commence, here is one of three personal accounts of serendipity while writing my current novel, Cut from the Earth (working title). My novel’s story begins in 1755 Lisbon, Portugal, in a city riddled with churches, at the time before the devastating November 1, All Saints Day earthquake and the tragedies that followed. Prior to a research trip and prior to studying the churches of Lisbon, I wrote and described a church with an ornate Manueline-style portal and located it near Lisbon’s waterfront, a church I thought I’d created. But later, while on an investigative trip to Lisbon, I came to learn it was an actual historic building: The Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição Velha, its decorative façade left standing in a precarious place within the city center where most everything else around it came down that fatal day of November 1, 1755. One day out researching — but I was not is search of this — I just walked upon it: The church of my internal vision rising before my stunned eyes.

What I’ve come to realize is these are not rare, nor isolated happenings, but fairly common incidents amongst our historical fiction genre. As you will come to see while reading author Maryanne O’Hara’s amazing accounts of serendipity and synchronicity while writing and publishing her recent novel Cascade

MaryanneOHaraAuthorPic“I’ve always been fascinated by the human impulse to create art. And I’m fascinated, too, by what cultures deem worth saving. I liked the idea of using a doomed town threatened with extinction as background for my story about Desdemona, a young artist in the 1930s who is trying to create lasting works of art.

My Cascade, Massachusetts, is based on four real towns that were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s. One day, as I was nearing completion of the novel, I took a ride out to the reservoir and found myself traveling behind an antique maroon Ford. A maroon Ford makes an appearance in the pages of Cascade, and this car looked exactly like the car of my imagination. I was a little spooked, and snapped a photo of it when we stopped at a traffic light.

Much later, after my agent sold Cascade, Penguin’s art department was working on designing the cover. Since postcards play a large role in the novel, the art department originally thought it would be Maroon-Ford5good to use old postcards in the design. They had acquired some vintage cards randomly, from places like eBay and One of the postcards showed a maroon car traveling down a country road! I was a bit taken aback when I saw it. Yet what they’d sent me wasn’t the whole postcard—it was just the photo, the “Greetings from” part cropped out.

A month or so later, when we were deciding on art for the inside pages, I asked about that maroon car photo. I thought it would make a good illustration for Part 3 of the book. At that point, Penguin sent the whole postcard, and that was when I saw that the photo was from Belchertown, MA.

The Quabbin Reservoir’s legal address is Belchertown, MA.

cascade_tpb coverHow to explain? I’m not sure. There are those who say, “There are no coincidences.” Others argue that we humans look for coincidences, and then find them because we have looked for them. Nature itself is full of patterns; is it any surprise that we find patterns in our own lives?

Fated or not, I take the appearance of the maroon car, the Belchertown postcard, as a sign that I did the right thing, investing so many years into the writing of this novel. Many of the displaced people and their descendants continue to work to make sure the lost towns are not forgotten. They are grateful to me for keeping their story alive.”

To read and learn more visit Maryanne’s website.

Please leave a comment and share your story of serendipity.  And visit here next Sunday, September 8th, for author Essie Fox’s captivating serendipitous tale!

Posted by Stephanie Renee dos Santos


  1. Alana White
    September 1, 2013

    Such an interesting story, Maryanne. Thanks for sharing this…I think the truth is we cannot always explain things away. We have to expect magic.

    • JLOakley
      September 1, 2013

      Enjoy this post. Serendipity certainly can happen in historical research — like finding the correct spelling of a 19th century tied to my time’s founding and open up a whole new world of maritime history. I’ll have to check out both Cascade and your area of MA. My mom and brother live there around Concord/Littleton area.

  2. Cynthia Robertson
    September 1, 2013

    What a wonderful post, Maryanne. I too, have had this experience many times in my life. One of the most profound was when I was writing a historical novel and had to name and place a fabricated castle and town in England, then downloaded an ancient map a few months later, and found a castle by the same name existed exactly where I had imagined it.
    It’s nice to know another has had a similar experience. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story!

  3. Danielle Huffman-Hanni
    September 1, 2013

    What a wonderful and fascinating series this sounds like it will be. It is amazing to think that as we writers use our imaginations to come up with a person, place, plot, whatever, that there may be actual historical evidence to support a figment of our imagination!
    I find in my own research, it’s reassuring when a plot or character I’ve been thinking about can be backed up by history. I guess it goes to show how universal humans are.

  4. Maryanne O'Hara
    September 2, 2013

    Thank you, everyone, and thanks Stephanie for this wonderful series! I love hearing everyone’s tales.

  5. judith schara
    September 6, 2013

    Serendipity, intuition, creative force, the collective unconscious. The universe is made of mysterious and wonderful things and we unduly flatter our selves to suppose we are wise enough to fathom it all. I think writers intuitively know this truth – and write stories to feel less lost in this great cosmic unknown. (And of course, there are other reasons we write!)

  6. M. Louisa Locke
    September 10, 2013

    Talk about serendipity!I was taking a break from writing a post in celebration of my newest book coming out on Sunday when I checked my blog list and saw the title of this post. My tentative title for the post I am working on is “When Truth is Stranger than Fiction” and it is about exactly this topic. I will be sure to link back to this series when it goes live in a week. Looking forward to the rest of the posts.

    Mary Louisa

    • Stephanie Renee dos Santos
      September 14, 2013

      Mary- Wow, there you go! Looking forward to the link your story: “When Truth is Stranger than Fiction”. Best.