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Monday, February 2, 2015


How often do we as writers rely on “serendipity?”

It seems that we often think that our ideas are the result of hard work....but, in truth, many of our ideas and even our successes are serendipitous. Purely the result of one thing leading to another – one idea cascading into a series of ideas, one event stumbling into a series of events.
In thinking about where my ideas come from, I decided to investigate the history or definition of serendipity.  The result:

Word Origin and History for serendipity.... n. 1754 (but rare before 20c.), coined by Horace Walpole (1717-92) in a letter to Horace Mann (dated Jan. 28); he said he formed it [serendipity] from the Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip," whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." The name is from Serendip, an old name for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), from Arabic Sarandib, from Sanskrit Simhaladvipa "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island."”

So that means ideas or opportunities, per chance, often come from things we are not actually in quest of.  Perhaps they’re accidental? As in stream of consciousness, perhaps they fall on the heels of other actions – thoughts—ideas—images—we are in quest of?

With that in mind, I found myself reflecting on where two of my story ideas came from. Let me see....

The “story idea” for ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS came as a result of teaching American history where I stumbled upon a little-known event, which should have been a WELL-known event: the Marias Massacre of 1870! Disgruntled, I began to dig...and, sadly, found little in the way of documented or written history. That led me on the quest to KNOW more...which led me to take a trip to Montana (at the insistence of my sister!). The quest began in earnest when I found few primary documents and decided “this story just had to be told!”

And so, the next year became two, then five, then eight! And finally I finished the novel--a romantic historical--which was anchored in and around the events leading up to and following the tragedy of the Blackfeet Massacre by the U.S. Army. 

That it won a WILLA Literary Award from Women Writing the West meant all the more to me because of how strongly I felt about the history and the people whose lives and living were destroyed by this rarely discussed but devastating history.

And after that, I found myself—through happenstance—introduced to a friend of my father’s who had spent six years researching the life of Charles Boles, aka BLACK BART. He didn’t consider himself a writer, but he’d spent six years traveling in Charles’s footsteps, from New York to California and back again, from the California Gold Rush through the Civil War years and beyond. Again, serendipitously, I found myself intrigued by the “lack” of story surrounding Black Bart. 

Yes, there were newspaper articles and a couple of books outlining his 28 successful Wells Fargo stage robberies, but there had never been a “STORY” about his life -- about why he chose the life he did. Why he abandoned his wife and family and became a stage bandit, albeit a “gentlemanly” one, who used a plugged shotgun and only targeted Wells, Fargo and Company! Thus the quest to understand the man behind the gunny sack mask became the foundation of the story that I penned (coauthored) entitled  BLACK BART: THE POET BANDIT.

As it turned out, this story placed 2nd in the Jack London Novel Contest.

And nowserendipitously—that book led me to another recent opportunity--so totally unexpected! I was asked to be interviewed for an upcoming history series on characters from the Old West, to premiere April 12, 2015, on one of the Fox Network channels. 

Entitled “Legends and Lies,” the series (that features 10 Old West characters) created and to be narrated by Bill O’Reilly. As “luck” or good fortune would have it, I was flown to Montana (is there something about Montana? <g>) just last week to be interviewed as one of several authors/et al, on the infamous and little-known life of Black Bart. 

The TV series will also be tied to an upcoming book. Promoted on amazon, the blurb reads:
The book tie in for Fox’s highly anticipated documentary series Legends & Lies, which exposes the truth behind the wild western legends we all think we know, with spectacular color artwork
Why did Black Bart, the "gentleman bandit" and one of the west’s most famous bank robbers, suddenly disappear at the height of his success robbing stagecoaches? For how long after he was presumed dead did Billy the Kid continue his mischief making? How did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid really die? Generations of Americans have grown up on these beloved western legends. In Fox News’s forthcoming documentary series Legends and Lies, the true stories behind these infamous tales are revealed in the same gripping, edge-of-your-seat treatment readers have flocked to again and again in O’Reilly’s mega-successful KILLING series. The first of its kind for the network, Legends and Lies will be given a huge red carpet roll out when it debuts. Heavily illustrated and told in fast-paced, immersive narrative, Legends and Lies is an adventure packed ride back into one of the most storied era of our nation’s rich history.

After a series of phone calls back in August and October, I could only laugh when I told my husband that I was going to be flown to Montana, paid a stipend, and even given a car during my stay, just to share what I knew about this unusual and intriguing outlaw, Black Bart. My husband shook his head, “Wow,” he said. “All because of a STORY?”

“Yes,” I replied. “All because of a STORY. But a little told, little-known story,” I added (BTW, I had a great time in Missoula, MT!).

And therein, I believe, is the ultimate truth for we writers searching for “stories:” Look for those random, little-known, relatively obscure bits of story that are hiding in unusual—or maybe not so unusual places. These are the stories that are just waiting to be discovered!  

Just waiting to be TOLD. 

And......who knows where those stories may ultimately lead...?

Gail L. Jenner is the author ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, recently re-released by Prairie Rose Publications.

She has also coauthored five nonfiction regional histories and has contributed to a number of anthologies, including ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP (GlobePequot/Two Dot), also Prairie Rose's LASSOING A BRIDE, PRESENT FOR A COWBOY, and COWBOY KISSES. Her work has been published in numerous women's and Christian publications, including Better Homes & Gardens, Everyday With Rachel Ray, Country Woman, Range, Parenting Teenagers, Living with Teens, Keys for Kids, Decision, and more. She writes for NPR/JPR's historical series and for JEFFERSON BACKROADS, a monthly regional publication.

Gail has also been interviewed for other "random" TV series, including: "How the States Got Their Shapes" (History Channel); PBS' "Oregon Experience"; and an upcoming episode on "Mysteries at the Museum." They were all the result of other serendipitous events :-)


  1. I do agree wholeheartedly with you Gail. Stories and story ideas can arrive when you least expect it. All it takes is a nugget and we can spend hours finding the rest of the story. I think that was why the Earl Nightingale radio broadcast always fascinated me, he told the rest of the story.
    Congratulations on the upcoming broadcast with Fox, I know it will be good. Doris

  2. Thanks, Doris! I'm not familiar with the Earl Nightingale radio broadcast.... but I remember how Paul Harvey used to tell the rest of the story, too :-) Thanks for stopping by. I will let everyone know about "Legends and Lies" -- coming in April 2015.

  3. You're right, it was Paul Harvey, I been doing other research and Nightingale was on my mind.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who replaces names with other names!!! :-) Sometimes I have to wait half the night until I get the right name

  4. Gail,
    Wonderful post. I totally agree about the nonlinear way we writers find our way to a story. Really looking forward to the Fox show, and especially your contribution. How exciting! You're a regular celebrity. We can never know where our writing will take us. :-)

    1. Thank you for your post. I doubt I'm much of a celebrity, but it has been a fascinating "journey!" And you're right -- we don't know where we're going to go as a result of our writing...

  5. Gail, sorry I'm late chiming in but I wanted to say what a wonderful bit of "Karma" for you! You're right--you never know what a story will bring in the future. I wrote a story for Chicken Soup and met a couple of wonderful author friends through that experience I never would have known otherwise.

    There are so many "ripples" that happen from the things we do in our lives, including writing. I'm thrilled for all the wonderful things your Black Bart knowledge/writing has brought you. That's just fantastic--and thanks for sharing it with us.

    I saw Bill O'Reilly talking about this new series the other night--will you let us know the time and date when your segment will be on? We don't want to miss it--and I'm sure I speak for every one of us here at PRP!


    1. Thanks, Cheryl! I will keep everyone on my radar :-) It does begin in April. Not sure exactly what station. And, of course, I'm not sure how much I'll be "featured" as there were 5 or so people also interviewed on Black Bart, but I was the only one who has written a novel. Also, I was able to provide the production company with the fifth (5th) ONLY known photo of Charles, aka Black Bart, given us by his great niece who was in her 90s! They were thrilled with that. So, yes, I will certainly keep everyone in the loop. Again, thanks for stopping by!