Guest Post by Fran Schwartz
At a girls’ summer camp in Maine in the 1940s, Fran Schwartz regaled her bunkmates with imaginative tales. She reconnected with her storytelling gift after moving from Los Angeles to Mendocino in 2005. Publications include a memoir piece in Woman’s World magazine and stories in On the Edge and Upwelling, anthologies published by Writers of the Mendocino Coast. She has served on the board of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference for four years. In Los Angeles Schwartz taught French in a pioneering audio-lingual program and worked as a print production director for 25 years on catalogs, magazines and for an in-house marketing department. She thanks her writing teachers, Charlotte Gullick and Norma Watkins, and “The Write Women” for their invaluable feedback and encouragement.
When I retired and moved from Los Angeles to Mendocino in 2005, I enrolled in a creative writing class at the local community college. I’d wanted to write for many years and now had the opportunity to test the waters. I began with short memoir and creative nonfiction about my godson, parents, and friends. Feedback was positive and constructive; the weekly class became central to my new life on the Coast.
Five years passed, and an odd thing happened. I began what appeared to be yet another short piece about a fictional character and a box of letters unopened for sixty years. The words poured out, and before I knew it, I’d written fifteen pages. The character intrigued me and I kept going. Eventually I shared my story with a writing friend. “You’ve got the beginning of a novel,” she commented.
“Novel”—the word intimidated me. I knew nothing about constructing plot or developing character. I’d never dealt with organizing anything longer than six pages. I put away the manuscript and returned to the safe, familiar ground of short story.
Three years ago I left the class and joined a writing group. With trepidation I brought the opening pages of my “novel” to my initial meeting. After I stopped reading there was silence, followed by a strong emotional response from the group. Their insights were perceptive and raised questions I hadn’t considered. They helped me focus on craft, character, and going deeper. They wanted more. I was deeply moved and felt validated.
Since that first meeting, I’ve grown to feeling comfortable with my novel and have developed a deep connection to my characters. I’ve learned the importance of giving them actions that reveal their inner emotional state. Figuring out how to create a strong sense of place has been a work in progress; more research will provide the vivid details needed for authenticity, especially for scenes set in another country. I recently completed Chapter 30 and haven’t figured out the ending, but have learned to trust that my characters will “speak” and guide me where I need to go. We have evolved from strangers to intimates. I look forward to completing the first draft and anticipate with pleasure the hard work of revision, expanding my characters’ inner lives and outer world.
What I’ve learned is that it’s okay to “own” my novel, to move out of my comfort zone and seek encouragement in a supportive group. If you find yourself drawn to a new genre, let yourself go and explore. Seek out constructive feedback. When my protagonist took a box of letters from her closet and began to read, she opened a new world for me.