Monday, September 05, 2005

Cultivating Serendipity

I’ve talked before (in my non-fiction book Creating the Heavens: Writing the Science Fiction Novel) about the idea of cultivating serendipity - the notion that writers should place themselves in the way of possible ideas whenever they can. And I also have to admit it can be hard. After all, how can you know where a good idea will come from, so that you can get to it — and if you do know, you’d already be there. So I talked kind of vaguely about being willing to try new things, to experience stuff that doesn’t immediately appeal to you, and I think that still applies.

However, a couple of weeks ago I experienced a different kind of serendipity — the next step in the process, if you will. We were in Saratoga Springs, NY, visiting friends who are involved in racing and therefore seeing lots and lots of horses (and famous jockeys, trainers, etc., which was extremely cool). Lisa, knowing that I’m less involved in the horse scene than she is, kindly checked out other options, and found that there is an Auto Museum in the town as well. (Hey, it’s all horsepower, right?) We went originally hoping to see Shirley Mulrooney’s dragster, which the website said was on exhibit. When we got to town, we found out that there was a huge Bugatti exhibit just opening.

In many ways, this was even better. I had just sold a short story called “Mr. Seeley” (to the Haworth Press collection So Fey, coming out at the end of 2006, last I heard) which involved bootleggers, the Seelie Court, and a car that might be magic, all in 1930s Arkansas, and I’d based the car in part on Bugattis I’d seen in photos. Plus the short story is in the process of turning into a novel — maybe minus the magic entirely, maybe shifted more into the magical-realist school — so this was on-going research rather than worrying about what I might have done wrong.

The Bugattis were indeed wonderful. They are amazing beautiful cars, as much works of sculpture as a means of transportation. And, yes, there was one that was probably a better sculpture than it was a car: it had the most gorgeous rivet-studded fin, like the crest on a gladiator’s helmet, running down the middle of the hood and top and falling down over the trunk and off the back bumper. Unfortunately, the back window was too small to see out of, the side mirrors were impossible to see, and the camber was so severe that the car was hard to steer. Not terribly practical, but lovely to look at. It looked like something out of a ‘30s sci-fi serial, or Aquaman’s helmet: fabulous visual inspiration.

Then we went upstairs. And there, between a 1960s short track race car and a wood-wheeled car built in New York state, was... a Franklin. A 1928 Franklin Airman, to be precise, one that had been owned by Charles Lindbergh himself. That’s cool enough, but.... When I was working on “Mr. Seeley,” I had to give Joe Farr, the older bootlegger, a car of his own: a good car, something a bit fancy, preferably a name that evoked the period better than Ford or Buick or Oldsmobile. The Franklins looked and sounded good, they were expensive but within his means, so I gave him a Franklin, and implied it was late ‘20s. I’d never seen the interior of a Franklin, or even a good shot of the nose; the only photo I had was a small black and white side shot. And here was Joe’s car, ready to be explored.

I must have spent 20 minutes, maybe longer, just walking around the car, peering in every window, jotting down every detail of the dashboard. I sketched the delicate pinstriping that ran along the edges of the hood and door (Joe’s car had that pinstriping, but I hadn’t known real Franklins did), and the boxy trunk — a real trunk — strapped on the shelf above the back bumper. I craned my neck to see into the back seat, sniffed hard to catch the smell of the cracked leather, checked the choke settings and the funny levers that opened and closed the upper part of the windshield. The people I was with gave up and went downstairs to sit at the picnic tables outside. I kept looking and making notes until a woman from the museum asked if she could help me. I told her the situation, but unfortunately she didn’t have any more information on the car.

So, finally, I went on downstairs, leaving Lindbergh’s Franklin — Joe’s car — sitting where it could look down on the Bugattis. It wasn’t on the website, and it was pure luck, pure serendipity, that I found it. It was even better luck that it was the car I hoped it would be.

Oh, yes, and in the gift shop, I found, marked down to $1.95, a catalog of all known cars built between 1909 and 1929. No pictures, but all the makes, models, and variants, laid out with the original costs and equipment supplied.