WHAT DO THE BAADER-MEINHOF EFFECT AND MYSTERY WRITING HAVE IN COMMON
The Baader–Meinhof effect, aka “frequency illusion,” is the name for the phenomenon in which you hear about something for the first time ever or the first time in a long while and suddenly the term seems to pop up everywhere you look. What has happened is that your brain is more aware of the specific subject and so you pay more attention to mentions of it.
According to Wikipedia (and dozens of other sources, but it’s the discusson that showed up first on Google and is the most succinct and non-jargon laden), “the name ‘Baader–Meinhof phenomenon’ was derived from a particular instance of frequency illusion in which the Baader–Meinhof Group was mentioned. In this instance, it was noticed by a man named Terry Mullen, who in 1994 wrote a letter to a newspaper column in which he mentioned that he had first heard of the Baader–Meinhof Group, and shortly thereafter coincidentally came across the term from another source. After the story was published, various readers submitted letters detailing their own experiences of similar events, and the name ‘Baader–Meinhof phenomenon’ was coined as a result.”
Note: “coincidentally came across the term from another source.” It happens all the time. It just happened to me the other day.
First, to understand how gobsmacked (great Britishism) I was, some background on my Work-in-Progress, Killah Megillah (and my continuing appreciation to Ellen Byron for coming up with the title). At the beginning of the book, my protagonist, Rabbi Aviva Cohen, receives a call from the overseer of a demolition project. In order to make room for more mini-mansions in a fairly rural area, they are taking down an abandoned building that decades earlier had been a synagogue. He was informed there was a trunk full of old, worn out Jewish books in the attic that needed to be removed and buried in a Jewish cemetery. Could Aviva stop by and authenticate the findings? While doing so, she finds a bag full of human bones in the trunk and the plot takes off from there. The trunk and books are the MacGuffin that sets the events in motion.
The synagogue building is situated on a fictional street called Walford-Southampton Road in a neighborhood once known decades earlier as “Jew Town,” but it is based on a real building on Hartford Road, in Mount Laurel, NJ, only a few miles from my house, in an area that decades ago was known as … Jew Town. It was a summer enclave for Jews from Philadelphia to get away from the heat.
I am taking a lot of liberties with my descriptions and history, but want to be as authentic as I can. So I’ve done a lot of research, found some information, but most of it scanty. Be patient – Baader-Meinhof is about to take effect (so to speak).
Last week, I paid a visit to one of my favorite sources for herb plants and native perennials, the Springville Herbary (springvilleherbary.com) on Hartford Road close to the old synagogue building, razed a few years ago for, yup, mini-mansions. I was chatting with Andy, a former farmer and Gloria’s husband, when, knowing I’m a rabbi, he said, “Did you know this area (long called Springville) used to be called ‘Jew Town’?” I assured him I did. “And,” he continued, “did you know that our land here was once a Jewish summer day camp?” No, I didn’t. I knew about the bungalows that had lined Hartford Road, most of which are gone, I knew that there had been a small number of Jews who lived in the area year ‘round, but that was all I knew.
Baader-Meinhof. I had been researching, writing, weaving history with fiction, and suddenly, out of nowhere, serendipitously, the topic not only came up in casual conversation, but added a slew of new information and sources for me to check out. Unfortunately, the camp director’s grandchildren had contacted Gloria to find out what she knew, as they don’t know anything about the camp, so they’re a dead end. But Gloria has a brochure from the camp and will send me a copy.
So what does this all have to do with writing? One of the most frequent negative comments made about mystery novels is “too many coincidences,” or “the author relies on coincidence to find out information.” I recently read a book by a well-regarded mystery writer in which the police detective’s best friend told him the killer confessed all to him in a drunken state before committing suicide. If it hadn’t been on Kindle, I might have thrown the book across the room.
But sometimes, coincidences are needed. And, in small communities, where many cozy mysteries take place, they are often unavoidable. I try to limit my use of them or at least make them seem like logical extensions of other events, but … it’s hard.
As I’ve learned in the past week, though, they do exist. Now I have to figure out how Aviva can learn the information without its seeming like a farfetched coincidence. To be honest, I’m having trouble accepting it, and it happened to me.