Friday, September 4, 2015

The Totenberg Violin

There was a wonderful story on National Public Radio about a month ago. The New York Times picked it up the next day. In brief, on the day the story broke, the FBI planned to restore a Stradivarius violin to the NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg and her sisters. Roman Totenberg, Nina’s father and a renowned concert violinist who lived to the age of 101, had played this violin for almost forty years until it disappeared one day from his office. He had long suspected the thief’s identity, but he never had enough evidence for the police to get a warrant. Then, a few months ago, the widow of the suspected thief discovered the violin in the attic and took it for appraisal to an expert, and that expert recognized it as the Ames Stradivarius stolen from Roman Totenberg thirty-five years ago.

The ins and outs of this story—and I’ve given only the rough outlines here—would draw any novelist. My first thought was for the widow. What would it be like to discover, years after your husband died, that he had stolen a musical instrument worth, even at the time, upward of $250,000, then kept that secret from you? How would that change the story you had told yourself your entire adult life—about your husband, your marriage, and yourself? (Note that we are talking about fiction here, so whether the actual widow knew or suspected the truth or was as innocent as she claimed is entirely irrelevant to the power of any resulting novel.)

I give this example because one of the questions writers are most often asked is where we get our ideas, as if the world were a marvelously logical place in which nothing fiction-worthy ever happens. On the contrary, on any given day, the issue is not finding ideas—one good look at the newspaper will suggest half a dozen—but disciplining oneself not to dash after each new and shiny possibility, leaving the current story unfinished.

Ideas are everywhere. Let a character voice into your head and start asking questions about who she is or what he wants, and ideas will start pouring into your head. The trick is to filter them out, to focus on the ones that serve this particular story, fit this individual character. I have a whole Storyist file called “Ideas,” where I jot down the ones that appeal to me most (yes, the Totenberg violin is there!). But I know I will never have time to explore half of them. I have three Legends novels to go, then at least one book to follow the left-over characters—and, oh yes, more Tarkei Chronicles begging for their time in the sun. I just hope I live long enough to complete them, although I will definitely work some of those lurking ideas into the plots.

And that is why writing fiction is so much fun.

Stradivarius violin image from Pixabay. No attribution required.

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