It was an unusual path that led to the creation of my third novel, Mourning Dove, and the thought that spurred me on was gifting the reader with something to ponder.
Mourning Dove started as a poem, written rather cathartically, in verse that sought to put into words the repercussions of a personal experience. I wrote the poem but never shared it, thinking it would be enough to write it and leave it in my journal. Then, in 2013, I saw a call for submissions in the San Francisco Writers Conferences’ contest. In looking at the categories, I decided to tell the abbreviated story behind the poem in the requisite 3,000-word limit and enter it as narrative nonfiction. Because I liked the images and rhythm of the poem, I began my piece with the poem’s first stanza. As I wrote the nonfiction story, I remained true to the feel and flow of the poem. I reached the word limit swiftly and submitted it to the contest, under the title Mastering Ambiguity (there’s a good reason for that title.)
Three months later, I received notice that Mastering Ambiguity was a finalist in the contest, and, as I live in Malibu, I decided to make the trip to the 2013, San Francisco Writers Conference and attend the luncheon where the winner would be announced.
Entering the auditorium, I saw thirty-five, eight seated tables spaced on the floor before a stage. As I found a seat, I told myself that if anything ever came of Mastering Ambiguity, I’d turn it into a full-length novel. Mastering Ambiguity wasn’t pronounced the winner at that luncheon, but it came in as the runner-up. Knowing I had a good story, I kept my pledge and set to work turning Mastering Ambiguity into a novel.
But how to turn a 3,000-word, nonfiction piece into a novel that is essentially a coming- of -age and then some, Southern family saga? It occurred to me that if I focused on a sense of place, in this case, the genteel side of 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis, replete with characters exemplary of old-world social mores, I’d have a solid foundation for a cause and effect story.
I began by defining the aim of Mourning Dove, which would help me suggest its point. Once I had what I wanted to say in hand, I settled upon Mourning Dove’s themes, knowing, if I let them lead, I could write the novel in scenes that would lead to gifting the reader with an overarching point.
When a writer settles upon a theme, or themes in a novel, the idea is to make them universal, so that the reader will identify from the vantage point of their own life. In Mourning Dove’s case, I wanted to expand upon the idea of a search, for I believe all of us are searching for something, be it a daily search or over a lifetime.
Once I knew the beginning and end of Mourning Dove, I wrote the following in a composition book I keep by my keyboard, and allowed it to guide me:
A search for place/home
A search for identity
A search for meaning/God.
From there, I wrote the story of two siblings who were born in Minnesota but moved abruptly during their formative years to the Deep South, where they entered the traditionally Southern environment as outsiders. From here, the novel took on a life of its own and became not only about discovery, but about displacement and the navigational tools one employs, while trying to fit into a culture.
For the most part, writers write from what they know. They use their own impressions and experiences as fodder to one degree or another, in the process of telling a story. I believe this is inevitable and inescapable, and in writing Mourning Dove, I portrayed Memphis as I experienced it. Because I now live in California, the geographical distance afforded an objective eye with a sense of nostalgia for an era now gone by. Late 1970’s through 1980’s Memphis was well worth writing about because I am of a generation raised by those many call “the old guard.” These were the people born to a culture steeped in Southern social mores and tradition, who held to its ways as if manners and form were the template to society, so much so that it verged on stifling.
My aim in writing Mourning Dove was along the lines of depicting the culture the siblings came to as outsiders to show how its influence contributed to their psychological wiring. Because we are all products of our upbringing, it raises the question of nature versus nurture in influencing how a life turns out. It’s a complicated amalgam that contributes to how individuals end up as they do, and in writing Mourning Dove, I wanted to tell the story of siblings who share the same history but come to disparate ends.
Because readers are intelligent beings, I wanted to take the reader through a series of one telling scene to the next, so that they could divine for themselves how what happened in the end came to be.
It’s a give and take in being a writer. If a writer gifts a reader with something to ponder, the reader will take away their own conclusion.
Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton is a Faulkner Society listed, and winner of the Bronze medal for Southern Fiction by Reader’s Favorite.
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