Dear Writers: Is an Epistolary Book Right for You?

By Gina L. Mulligan, author, Remember the Ladies; From Across the Room; and Dear Friend

If you lived in the late 1700s, you drank corn whiskey, spun your own cloth, and spent your evenings in the glow of candlelight reading an epistolary novel. If the term epistolary is unfamiliar, you’re not alone. An epistolary novel is a story told through letters, and though it’s not common today, it was the most popular novel format throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. In fact, epistolary novelist Samuel Richardson was the Stephen King of his day. Since its heyday, the epistolary format really hasn’t really made a come-back. But there are a few that made it big like The Color Purple, The Guernsey Potato Peel Society, Carrie, Dracula, and 84 Charing Cross Lane. If you’ve only seen the movies, you’re missing out!

Like many writers, I’m fascinated by letters. They’re a voyeuristic peek behind the curtain and so I decided to try writing an epistolary novel. A few years after I started, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I discovered first-hand the healing power of letters so I founded Girls Love Mail, a charity dedicated to giving hand-written letters to women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. My epistolary novel was published, From Across the Room (Five Star 2016); Girls Love Mail has distributed over 120,000 hand-written letters; and the charity published a collection of 100 letters called Dear Friend; Letters of Encouragement, Humor and Love for Women with Breast Cancer (Chronicle Books 2017). I’m now a letter expert. So, what does an epistolary book require? Is the style right for you?

Telling the Story

Fiction or non, because letters are first-person expressions of beliefs and feelings, readers organically develop a quick and deep understanding of characters. Think how much we know from a simple “My Dearest Rebecca,” versus, “Hey Dude.” Letters also have built-in pacing. Short or unfinished letters create a page-turner. To slow down important moments, a longer, intricate exchange or multiple letters with different points of view do the trick. Even setting and plot are advanced because a letter naturally demands some level of description.

That said, not every story works in this format. Maybe you have wonderful World War II letters from your grandfather or you love writing letters yourself. You need to ask yourself if the story (true or not) is enhanced by using letters. To make this call, try sorting them by story arc, not date. Do you see the story you want to tell within the context of the letters? Or will you need a fair amount of narrative commentary to explain what’s going on? The best epistolary stories are the ones where the format itself is either imperative or greatly improves the narrative. For examples, look at The Shirley Letters: From the California Gold Mines (non-fiction), and Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (fiction).

Telling the Reader

Second, you need patience. The pivotal challenge for this format is how to get information to your reader in a way that isn’t forced. Unlike a narrative, you have to know which characters to tell what. If you’ve already told one character, then how do you share it with another without boring the reader? Language is also a big consideration. Would your character write in the same style to a friend as he would his mother? And if letters are going back and forth, how important is the timing of the letters? It’s a giant puzzle. To save time and your sanity, I recommend a very detailed outline of your characters, their part in the story, and their motivations for writing letters. You’ll also want to resolve if you only want to use letters. For example, Dracula has diary entries interspersed with the letters. It’s a wonderful technique to go deeper into the thoughts of the characters.

Finally, you’ll need many draft readers who will be honest with you and let you know if the story is making sense. No friends and family for this. You need the hard truth.

It’s comforting to know that classic epistolary works are still studied in Literature classes, and a few modern authors have experimented with the traditional epistle by creating stories from blog entries, emails, and text messages. These create a wonderful record of our current culture. The ongoing fascination with letters continues because they connect us with our past and provide a means of recording our society with in-depth perspectives and first-hand accounts. They also ideal in helping writers develop story pacing and unique characters.

Overall, trying this format is a great exercise and will only improve your writing. So go for it. We may not live in the 1700s, but Lord Byron’s words still resonates today. He wrote, “Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.”

Gina L. Mulligan is a veteran freelance journalist and the author of two historical novels; REMEMBER THE LADIES and FROM ACROSS THE ROOM, and the non-fiction DEAR FRIEND; Letters of Encouragement, Humor, and Love for Women with Breast Cancer. After her own diagnosis, Gina founded Girls Love Mail, a national charity that collects handwritten letters of for women with breast cancer. Since the formation in 2011, the charity has sent out over 140,000 letters across the country. Gina has been featured on The NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, The Steve Harvey Show, People.com, Today.com, and Woman’s Day Magazine.

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