One of my favorite types of books to read (or write) is the epistolary novel. That’s a novel written as letters, in case you were wondering. It’s one of the few times present tense and/or changing tense doesn’t bother me when I read a novel-length piece of work.
As a writer, historical letters are a wonderful way for me to understand a period of time when I want to set something in another era. Reading collections of letters set in that time, by a wide array of individuals across professions and economic ranges gives me more of a picture of concerns, interests, and desires than a history book, or even a newspaper article. Because letters are about personal response to an issue or an event.
Diaries are another primary source I love to read when I’m researching an era. Of course, both diaries and letters are subjective, rather than objective. They were written from an individual’s point of view. But that’s what makes them so interesting. They’re not objective. You can see into the heart of the writer — even when the writer tries to obscure that heart, or put on a mask for others.
When I get stuck while writing a novel, I’ll often write a few letters between the characters, from different points of view. Those aren’t used in the novels themselves, for the most part, but they get me past the stuck parts, because I get to the heart of what’s bothering the characters. Then I can figure out what they’re trying to hide and why. I can build and move forward from there.
I had pen pals all over the world for many years. I loved it. In the third grade, our class in Rye, New York, wrote to a class in Rye, England. For years, I stayed in touch with my pen pal, and even got to visit her more than once when I was in England.
I admit, I don’t write enough letters now, although I’m trying to get back into it. I do write Christmas/Holiday cards. It’s one of my great joys of the season. Writing a personal note in the card makes me feel connected. It makes me feel I let each person know that they matter enough to take the time to find the card, to write the card, to mail the card.
Letters are about connection, which is why I like them so much in both fiction and non-fiction.
Some of my favorite collections that rely on letter writing and/or diaries:
84 CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff (non-fiction)
POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt
GRIFFIN AND SABINE by Nick Bantock
THE PULL OF THE MOON by Elizabeth Berg
THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova
LETTERS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (multiple volumes, non-fiction)
WORDS IN AIR (correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell, non-fiction)
JANE AUSTEN: LETTERS (non-fiction)
By far, the best book on diaries and their writers is A BOOK OF ONE’S OWN by Thomas Mallon.