Several of my books have followed instances of ‘everyday magic’ that came to me in a very ordinary way – via the TV.
Take Toadstone, the second Matilda Peppercorn book, for example. It had already taken shape with a particular scientific phenomenon in mind. I knew it happened in Europe somewhere, but I couldn’t remember some essential details as I came back to the story after many months to start the book in earnest. Feeling a little frustrated I went downstairs to make a cuppa and distract myself with a squizz at the television. It popped up instantly – the exact event I’d been struggling to recall. A whole half hour or more on the very nature-based conundrum I’d been thinking about (and the clue’s in the title if you’re wondering what element of nature it could be). Armed with some facts to turn to fiction, I went straight back up to my laptop and started writing, and Tilly 2 was born.
On another occasion, I’d started a novel with no real plan as to what I was writing about. This had come about after a discussion with my publisher about my third book to be published with them. I’d planned to write about the final friend in the trio of Cally, Bunty and Kat, as Cally and Bunty each had their own book already. My publisher didn’t like the premise or the title, however, which sort of threw me. I told him over our coffee in a crowded cafe that I had one other idea – but it was just a title: The Most Beautiful Man in the World. ‘That sounds good,’ he said. ‘Write that.’ (Such are the vagaries of publishing, but that’s for another time.)
So I’d set off into the novel with no idea who or what this book was about. A few characters poured onto the page; a number of incidents and plot-turning events zipped through my fingertips to the screen, but I didn’t understand what was driving this person – this so-called ‘Beautiful Man’. Then one evening, I turned on a random programme expecting a wildlife documentary, and instead found a man discussing a lesser-known psychiatric condition, with detailed research and horrifying evidence of what this condition could lead to. The presenter was suddenly blatantly, intensely angered by children playing outside his home, and then came the reveal: he suffered from the condition himself. Then came the reveal for me. I had my ‘why’. In an instant I understood all the characters, all the plot-turns, every nuance in a fairly complex novel. That book poured out of me in a dream-state like a chunk of my soul, so that I hardly remember writing it. It was sent, and I merely translated.
But the most transcendant, extraordinary story I ever ‘received’ in this way is one I have not (yet) turned into a book. It was so complete, so shimmering in its magical entirety that I don’t know that it could be improved upon by being fictionalised.
It was another odd moment of reaching for the remote for distraction. When I’m working at home, writing or consulting or editing, I’m very disciplined and tend to work flat out with limited breaks. I don’t know what had caused me to roam from my room that afternoon, but I know that I felt afterwards as if a trail of stardust had led me to that programme.
It was another documentary. I watch a lot of them, but not on this particular channel. This programme (and I’m telling this from memory so may have missed or mis-matched some details) was centred on a team of historians digging in a field in France, for a plane that had gone down during World War Two. Villagers had reported seeing the plane crash in the distance – I don’t recall now why they hadn’t investigated it at that point or how the wreckage had come to be so completely buried.
The search (and, I suspect, the programme) was funded by Parker Pens, who believed that the young American pilot had flown a plane sponsored by Parker. A Time-Team of scientists, geologists and historians had pored over the data to establish that this plane in this field was likely to be the one belonging to their pilot, though the pilot himself had parachuted out to safety.
There were many variables and risks in the dig – getting the right field, getting the right spot in the field, relying on apocryphal evidence of one very elderly villager … But dig they did, and before too long they hit metal. The excitement was palpable. Segments of wreckage were painstakingly removed, brushed off, identified and peered at to see if it was indeed the Parker Pen plane.
Suddenly there was a commotion from the deep hole in the ground. The producer started waving his hands at the camera, and the presenter rushed over to explain that there’d been a development and filming must stop. They’d found a skeleton. This was no longer an interesting archeological site. This was a death scene.
The upset and anguish caused to the team by this unexpected turn of events was evident. With the greatest of respect they stopped filming and set about recovering the bones of the pilot, along with any evidence of who he might be. The next televised scene was an explanation of what had gone on, with the presenter holding out some identity tags.
Not American. Australian.
And so the tale unfolded further. The Australian pilot, Smith (Smithy, to his friends) was one of a crack team of Aussie aviators based out of Redhill in Surrey. One day, as with so many young men and women, he didn’t make it back to base. His family had never known for sure what had happened to him – until the Parker family instigated a search into an indeterminate field in France.
But the magic, both heart-breaking and heart-affirming in equal measure, didn’t stop there. The Australian squad had been so unusual, so distinctive, that they’d been interviewed and captured on crackling, jumpy film. In it, the camera roams along the platoon, rows of handsome lads laughing and shoving each other. Once calls out, ‘Isn’t that right, Smithy?’ And the camera pans directly to a tall, dark-haired, reserved young man, who nods with a wry smile. Smithy. Smith. Our pilot.
Because of this programme, a family on the other side of the world were able to say farewell to a son, brother, a brave young man who died over seventy years ago, in an anonymous and barely distinguishable location. How the universe shifted all this into position, we may never know – but if any evidence were ever needed that we are all connected, and that we go on being connected, then this is it. The Parker Pen company didn’t find what they were looking for. Instead, a lost soul found his way home.
For me, there’s always been one final remaining piece of the puzzle. Why did I watch that programme, that afternoon, seemingly at random? I’ve always assumed that I will one day incorporate it into a book. But that would mean losing or adapting some of the facts – and as I mentioned, it’s so complete that I don’t know how or why it would be changed.
Today, it occurred to me. This is a true and beautiful tale of our universal connectedness. That’s the message to share right now. Find the programme. View it for yourself (and apologies if I’ve got any of it wrong). Watch the universe rolling out a magnificent matrix of uncanny coincidences before your eyes.
Maybe there was a purpose to me, a fascinated writer, watching that programme. Maybe it was just to share this tale. If anyone who reads this shares it with someone who could be heartened, comforted or uplifted by this tale, it goes on connecting us, one to the next to the next to the next.
And for this lesson in the unlimited power of love – thank you, Smithy. We go on.
(Jill Marshall is a best-selling author of fiction for tweens, teens and adults. Read more at www.jillmarshallbooks.com)