Countdown to BREAKOUT: Making room for serendipity

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. 

Making Room for Serendipity

I was on an airplane on my way home from the NCTE conference in 2015 when I met a stranger who ended up helping me reimagine my BREAKOUT rewrite.

I was sitting next to my writer pal Linda Urban, talking about how I wanted to start the book over, rewriting it as a collection of documents, and Linda was helping me brainstorm. When we first sat down, the woman on the other side of me was reading a book. But after a while, I noticed that she’d put it down and seemed to be listening, so I turned to let her know why her seat mates were blabbing on and on about school field days and news reports about police searchers.

She was a teacher, coming home from the conference, too. She was excited to hear that we were authors, talking about a novel-in-progress, and asked what it was about. I explained that it was about a prison break, inspired by the real life prison break at Clinton Correctional Facility in Northern New York, which was close to where I lived. When I named the prison, her eyes lit up with recognition, and I said, “Oh! You heard about this on the news?”

“Yes,” she said. “My brother is an inmate at that prison.”

My mouth dropped open. When I regained my composure enough to talk, I shared with her that my character Elidee’s brother was an inmate at the prison in Wolf Creek, too.

“Wow,” she said.

“I know,” I said. And then I took a deep breath and took a risk.

“Is there any way you might consider talking with me more about this? I’d love to have your perspective on this story.”

She nodded. “Yes, I think I’d like to do that.” She paused, and then said, “I feel like I was supposed to sit next to you today.”

My next question: “How long is your layover in Philadelphia?”

It was long enough that she had time for dinner, so we found a restaurant, ordered, and talked. She told me about her brother’s experiences and what it had been like to grow up with an older sibling who got in trouble with the law, how she’d felt pressure to be extra good to make things easier on her mother. I told her what I’d written so far, including the detail that Elidee and her mom had moved to Wolf Creek to be closer to her brother in the prison. She frowned a little. “Not sure I buy that unless she has another connection there and knows it’ll be okay. Does she know someone?”

She didn’t. But she could. What about a friend from home who’d moved there the year before? My new friend nodded. That would work, she said. And maybe give her a church community, too. That would help.

Eventually, we had to leave for our gates, but we kept in touch, and she offered to read the new version of BREAKOUT when it was ready. I still get chills when I think about how with all those flights home from NCTE, and all those seats on the plane, I ended up sitting next to her. I’m so grateful that she was open to talking with a stranger, to share her story. She provided a perspective I simply didn’t have.

Tomorrow, I’ll share more about my challenges with point of view and perspective in BREAKOUT.  Here’s today’s prompt:

Your assignment: Spend five minutes writing about a moment of serendipity in your life, as it relates to writing or something else.

Thanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  

Breakout cover image



2 Replies on “Countdown to BREAKOUT: Making room for serendipity

  1. Excellent post! There’s risk involved with sharing, but when we do, I think we often find connections and exactly what we need. (Though it might not come in the most gentle way.) And if you hadn’t gone to NCTE, and hadn’t been talking to your friend…well, one thing leads to another when you put yourself out there in the world!