Sunday, December 11, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Hidden Letters

There are three ways to do the espitolary novel.

1) Straight. Sally Ann writes to Dorothy Jane and that's all we know about it.

2) Sideways. A descendant of the original Dorthy Jane, DJ, finds the letters and the correspondence illuminates a problem, parallels her own experience, or gives her to the clue to a mystery.

3) Tangled. Same as 2, only the Sally Ann-Dorothy Jane correspondence is interspersed with diary entries and letters from DJ's hand (keyboard, phone, whatever). This is justifiable only if the act of writing is part of DJ's illumination process and gives the reader a better grasp of what's going on. Done wrong, it's likely to drive the reader into conniptions.

Any of these forms will serve equally well for domestic, mystery, or fantasy stories; the fantasy could conceivably turn into a horror novel. Writers of supernatural short stories used to be fond of the documents-in-the-case approach, but you don't see it as much anymore.

The ideal way to write in an odd format like the epistolary novel is, that one has a story that can best be told that way. It is risky to sit down with the idea "I want to write an epistolary novel!" as then you have to go searching for a story that is best served by that format.

And they're rare. I have images in my head for the Sally Ann-Dorothy Jane story - a lake, woods full of blackbellied whistling ducks, rowboats with Gibson girls in them, a vacation cabin converted to year-round use, a bundle of letters hidden in a hole in a wall, DJ in exile and desperately searching for Something - and have had for fifteen years or so. They'll remain nothing but images, though, till I figure out what exactly happened to Sally Ann and Dorothy Jane, and what that has to do with DJ now.


  1. I hope you find out, because now I am curious also.

  2. Feel free to figure it out your ownself. I never think about this without getting lost.