“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ― Marcel Proust
I tend to think of a discovery as something unexpected even though that’s not necessarily so. One might be on a quest to find something and happily make the discovery. But the encounters that expose themselves unbidden are the most exciting and unnerving.
Writers of novels and memoirs, in particular because of their complexity and length, tend to make numerous unexpected findings. They get used to the serendipitous nature of the clues leading them to these disclosures because they’re so prevalent and cumulative. Opening yourself up to the narrative of your characters’ lives starts the avalanche, pulling you in directions you never expected to go and exposing everything from little cracks to seismic gaps revealing blatant truths you were blissfully ignorant of when you started writing your story. All of that may be unsettling, a feeling the release of any buildup of pressure is likely to include, but receiving these revelations along with one’s readers is also a lot of fun and especially collaborative.
I had one of those serendipitous clues dropped in my lap recently, and the excursion it led me on uncovered a whole new meaning for my novel about to go to print, and its sequel waiting in the wings. A young musician friend wrote to say she was eagerly awaiting the arrival of my novel (she and me both) and enjoyed the last blog post about research for historical fiction. That followed with a question about my knowledge of Maud Powell, the first American violinist of international fame in the 1800s. Surely I had come across her in my explorations…but I hadn’t. Surely I was too smart to be enticed by my friend and Maud when my book was already finished…but I wasn’t!
I learned of Maud’s childhood as a violin prodigy when there weren’t any in America yet, and especially no girls, in the late 1800s. I read of her biography, listened to her music, read the book she wrote for children preparing them for a life of professional playing and warning them of the pitfalls. I learned of why she was so good, who her teachers were and how universally badly women, and especially those who dared live a life in the public eye, were treated. I marveled at the universality of that truth, having read the same things in my own great aunt’s diaries as I saw in news articles announcing Maud’s untimely death from a heart attack and/or stroke on stage in her 50s. The same cause was given as when my great aunt had a miscarriage after surviving the San Francisco earthquake while on tour with the Metropolitan Opera. The public diagnosis of choice for all these women was the same: nervous breakdown. How ironic when the iron-clad nerves of steel these women had to develop in their chosen professions and flaunting of the norms of their days are considered. There were no women less likely to be suffering fatally from nervous breakdowns.
And then…I learned of the inspiration for Maud who was literally the first female violinist to perform on the American stage, anointed as the “Queen Violinist of the World”! Her name was Camilla Urso, and she’s all but forgotten due to her pioneering debut before the age of recording, as well as the fact that she “did not fit comfortably within the late 19th century paradigms of womanhood.” Oh, my heavens, where would this tributary take me? Do I have time to use these new discoveries for the first book or do they all have to wait for its sequel to enrich the fictional landscape?
None of what I discovered about my protagonist from this foray into new territory will show in an obvious way in this novel, but both this book, Certain Liberties, and its sequel, The Gilded Cage, will be irrevocably affected by it. What would have been different had I never taken that path? Many subtle things and one blatant one: I would not have seen so clearly why music doesn’t play an even larger role in the books than it does. And thanks to my discovery prompted by my introduction to Maud Powell and Camilla Urso, you will too. I’ve had my early designated readers make the mistake of thinking the books are “just about music”, and then wonder why they don’t learn more about the essentials of the writing, learning and playing of it. That’s because they’re about so much more. I used to have trouble explaining why the protagonist spent such a relatively small amount of time agonizing over the specifics of her art form. Now the many challenges and passions that motivate her are so much clearer to me, and they will be to you, too. Thanks, Maud, and Camilla, and…