Maria Bauer and Mary Sargent, with the ink barely dry on their first books, blush shyly under the admiring glances cast at a meeting of their writers' group.
''We should have given all of you a present,'' says Mrs. Bauer, unwrapping the gift bestowed on her by the American Association of Foreign Service Women Writers' Group. ''It was your kindness and patience, having to listen to things over and over again, that got us here.''
The group - like others across the country - provides nurturing support for new and experienced writers. But members here, all of whom have Foreign Service experience, tend to come not just as writers looking for guidance, but in search of ''an outlet for using the marvelous experiences we've accumulated,'' says member Jane Teeple.
Mrs. Teeple, like many of these women, used writing as a ''portable career'' as she followed her husband abroad, starting as a feature writer for the Indian Express when they were posted in New Delhi 15 years ago. Others sent articles back to their hometown papers on the joys and traumas of living in foreign climes (like learning to ''say windshield wiper in pantomime,'' quips one, who describes herself as a ''housewife in Iran'').
But the two who recently burst into print started writing seriously, they say , only after attending this group. At first, Mrs. Bauer says, ''I just felt privileged to be allowed to be there - I didn't dare read my work.''
She finally brought in a manuscript, 50 or so pages she'd written down for her children on her privileged Czechoslovakian childhood, the shock of becoming a displaced person in World War II, and the struggles and triumph as she and her family rose above that shock. ''And they kept saying, 'Go on, go on,' until I'd read a whole hour,'' she says with remembered amazement.
At the group's urging, she took the manuscript to New York and showed it to an agent, ''just to find out if I could really write in English,'' says Mrs. Bauer, who speaks the language, her fifth, fluently. ''It never would have occurred to me to take it to New York,'' she says.
That was eight years, many rewrites, and four rejection slips ago. ''I sent it to (major publishing houses) and they wanted me to fictionalize it and put in more horrors and sex,'' she says. ''But you can't fictionalize your own life.''
The book, ''Beyond the Chestnut Tree,'' finally found its publisher in the Overlook Press and has been picked up as a summer offering by The Literary Guild. ''It's an affirmation of the present,'' believes the author, who adds that ''our whole culture and literature tears old age down, and gives one the impression that it's terrible getting older. This book shows there are compensations - I've never been happier in my life than I am now,'' she asserts.
Going back to Prague to track down the missing threads of her life enabled her to see its important episodes ''in a completely different way,'' says Mrs. Bauer. ''I saw why people had done what they did, and the resentments and hurt just melted away with understanding. And when those old resentments are gone,'' she continues, ''it makes everything else seem more interesting, more enjoyable.''
The sense that people like to read ''heartwarming books that you can put on your coffee table and won't mind if your children read,'' says Mrs. Sargent, is the philosophy behind Triumph Press, publishers of her book ''Runway Towards Orion.'' At a recent Writer's Group meeting, Mrs. Sargent read the first chapter of her book, which the jacket describes as ''the true adventures of a Red Cross Girl on a B-29 air base in World War II India.''
Watching the pilots come back from a bombing mission there, she wrote, ''I'd go outside and stand in the thin shade, and think about all their families at home in the States, thinking how I was really the lucky one. Their mothers, sister, wives, and sweethearts couldn't know, as I did, that right at this moment they were all safe, tonight and for the next few days as well.''
She read those same words roughly one year ago to this group, who ''egged me on'' to completion of her book, she says. ''When I heard her chapter,'' says Mrs. Bauer of Mrs. Sargent's book, ''I thought, she'll be next. And, in fact, she published just a few weeks before me.''
The group is now nursing perhaps another half-dozen works ranging from children's books to poetry. The range - and professionalism - of the writers has grown considerably since the group started nearly 20 years ago. Then, Biffy Sanders (who still functions as their eminence grise) got together with one other woman to start a low-key group of those who write as a hobby.
But the support and constructive criticism the members give one another have been constant throughout its history, members say. Virginia McHenry, a professional nonfiction writer and ardent supporter of the group, sums up the key to its success: ''There is no competitiveness among members. It is impressive that these women sincerely want everyone to succeed.''