You cannot use co-incidence in a novel.

co-incidence, edgar all poe, Richard ParkerNot ever.

Every writer is taught that, from Story Structure 101.

Even back in Ancient Greece, when Horace was in short pants, the deus ex machina was the mark of the amateur.

Yes, but …

what if you write about a co-incidence before the co-incidence has happened?

Does that count???

Take Edgar Allan Poe for example.

In 1838 he published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. A whaling ship is lost at sea and four crewmen survive. The men draw lots to see who will be eaten, and the cabin boy, Richard Parker, gets the short straw.

The book bombed.

Critics hated it, they said it was too gruesome and too derivative. Poe himself later called it “a very silly book,” but no so silly that Herman Melville and Jules Verne didn’t draw inspiration from it later.

In fact Poe stole the idea from real life; it’s just that real life didn’t happen until 46 years later.

Richard Parker, Edgar Allan Poe, co-incidence

“Something’s upset my stomach – it was either those tinned turnips or the cabin boy.”

The ship’s name was the Mignonette, and the four survivors actually did eat the cabin boy.

Whose name happened to be Richard Parker.

Sailing for Sydney from Southampton in 1884 she sank in a gale 1,600 miles northwest of the Cape of Good Hope. The crew of four abandoned ship and climbed in the lifeboat with just two tins of turnips. And a very tasty looking Parker, as it would turn out.

When they were finally rescued two of the survivors – Tom Dudley, the captain and Edwin Stephens – were brought to trial in a landmark case that shocked Britain. The third crew member, Edmund Brooks, turned state witness – which some people found hard to swallow.

They were found guilty of murder but sentenced to just six months in  prison.

Poe’s story had bombed so badly no one recognized the extraordinary co-incidence until over a century later.

Life of Pi, Richard Parker, co-incidence

Richard Parker thinking about eating someone else for a change
source: Raul654

Yann Martel has since included a shipwrecked tiger called Richard Parker in his Booker Prize winning novel, The Life of Pi.

Parker the Tiger is shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a sixteen year old boy – but in a refreshing irony, he doesn’t eat him.

The Richard Parker case also inspired the infamous Monty Python sketch about four sailors in a lifeboat arguing about which one of them looks more appetizing.

(They finally decide to have the best bits of each other and call a waitress over to take their orders.)

Poe was not the only writer to have presaged real life with fiction.

In 1898 Morgan Robertson published a book called ‘Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan.’

Titanic, co-incidence, Morgan RobertsonIt’s about an ocean liner called Titan, the largest luxury liner in the world that everyone says is ‘unsinkable.’

But sink it does, after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic in April – 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland.

And guess what?

It doesn’t have enough lifeboats to save everyone.

No coincidence at all then.

Titanic, co-incidence, Richard Parker

“Anyone here called Richard Parker, you should get off right now.”

The rest of the book follows the hero, John Rowland, as he saves the heroine by fighting off a polar bear and locating a spare lifeboat; as Jack should have done, instead of wimping out on the floating door.

Imagination or prophecy?

I have no idea. Poe was a very strange man indeed, so I wouldn’t like to guess what brought him to anticipate the consumption of a cabin boy called Richard Parker after a shipwreck.

Morgan Robertson, Titanic,

Morgan Robertson looking creepy

But Robertson? In 1914 he also published a short story called “Beyond the Spectrum”, about a conflict between the US and Japan, in which Japan does not declare war but instead launches a surprise attack on the US fleet.

Was he a novelist – or some kind of a spooky guy who could see the future?

Who knows. But two Titanics?

I think poor Rose did well to survive just one.

Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, EgyptThere’s no Richard Parkers in this. Just …

‘Spectacular historical fiction blazing with intrigue, romance and dramatic action’

– Booklist




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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
This entry was posted in HISTORY and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Fascinating factoids of history, Colin. Thanks so much for providing a historical start to my day.

  2. Those are creepy examples. But I believe we can catch events from other worlds and times when we write. It would be interesting to learn how these two authors actually wrote. I mean: did their characters come to them like mine do to me or did they plot and populate their stories by characters they thought they developed?

  3. Awesome as always, Colin. So, when are you going to take on Edgar Cayce?

  4. filbio says:

    Some cool and creepy facts here. Coincidence? History repeating itself in a weird way?

  5. I think I would hate to write something like these examples…and then find out later that they actually happened. AFTER I wrote about them. It kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it? On the off chance that writers can predict the future…on April 1, 2013, Kristy K. James is going to find a huge trunk on her front porch. It is going to be filled to the brim with $100 bills and gold doubloons. Okay, no doubloons. Those would be hard to get rid of. Just thousands and thousands of $100 bills.

    There. I’ve predicted my future. Let’s see how well it works? So far I’m still not married to Robert Downey Jr. though, so I’m not going to hold my breath. 🙂

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