I’ve always been a memoirist, and of course read and enjoy—and teach memoir writing, but all my life I’ve devoured fiction. Though I imagined one day I’d write a novel, I had no idea about how that might happen–until a topic grabbed me and wouldn’t let go! I began with what “really” happened, and read all I could, not thinking seriously of writing yet.
I came upon a book about Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand. He was an American who saved refugees from Austria and Germany who were trapped in France when it lost the war in six weeks in June, 1940. Germany occupied half of France while the other half was controlled by a collaborationist government in Vichy under Philippe Petain. Now Hitler was coming after them again. I worried about what was happening to people in Vichy France and immersed myself in research, piling hundreds of books in my living room!
A group called the Emergency Rescue Committee in New York sent Fry to Marseille, with a list in his pocket of intellectuals, artists, and politicians in danger of arrest. Fry was to help them get the proper papers and escape France. When he arrived, he discovered that many thousands of refugees were in danger of arrest, especially Jews, and he was unable to turn his back on them. But the Americans were not helpful. I read the book dozens of times to understand who he was. His memoir helped me write my book.
After being immersed in the true history of what life was like then, a story began to reveal itself to me. I wanted to readers show the struggle of that terrible time. I was a memoirist, but had always wanted to write fiction. A memoirist, my question was: how do you know how to make things up? As my characters formed, they led me deep into the story of that time.
Sarah, a young Jewish artist in Berlin, and her father figure, Mr. Lieb, a luthier and violin teacher escaped Berlin in 1938 and took refuge in Paris. Inspired by my own art and music background, I wanted to show the importance of the arts for survival.
Sarah enjoyed Paris but couldn’t completely shake off the shadows of danger and terror she’d lived through in Germany. In Paris she met a man at a café—a Spanish Republican, Cesar. as I stood on the border of Spain and France during my 2018 visit, a character who tapped me on the shoulder. I was discovering the magic of fiction! My three characters evolved and endured the terrible developments as the war came to them, and they fled to Marseille.
I drew upon memoirs and personal stories to write this novel. Varian Fry’s memoir, Surrender on Demand, is a powerful testament to his work and the incredible dangers he faced, a danger that was ever-present for the refugees. To survive, they needed to have the proper papers, visas, birth certificates, and passports. Many were “stateless,” with no papers and in danger of being arrested for lack of proper documentation.
What if? Was my mantra. I drew upon my imagination to create how my fictional characters would meet the “real life” Fry, and how they all would work together to save lives. What if Sarah used her art background to become a forger?
A plot was forming! I followed the ideas, outlining and writing into the wilds of my imagination.
Ideas for writing fiction:
- Even if you are primarily writing memoir, have you noticed characters popping up that want to speak to you, or do something interesting and different that didn’t happen in real life? See what they have to say, without any pressure to decide what you have. Just experiment.
- Let the characters do their thing—without deciding where the story is going. Feel free to experiment in another genre.
- Freewrite things that happened in real life, and in your imagination. Create character sketches! Explore your imagination. That’s what I learned to do as I began to explore this new genre.
Ways to enhance your fiction writing:
- Take classes and join or create a writing group. There are Meet-ups in most cities, and many writing groups can be found online. Zoom allows people to join groups from all over the world.
- Feed your curiosity and make friends with other writers.
- Read, read, read.
Contact me if you would like help with your novel. Linda@lindajoymyersauthor.com