Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Writing Epistolary Novels

By Jessica Brockmole, @jabrockmole

JH: Please join me in welcoming Jessica Brockmole to the blog today, to chat with us about writing epistolary novels. Her story of how she decided to write her novel this way is a fascinating example of a writer's process. You never know were a novel will lead you.

Jessica has been enamored with historical fiction since she was old enough to sit still for bedtime readings of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Now, she writes stories of her own (and is much better at sitting still). When not writing, she can be found reviewing historical fiction as part of the Historical Novels Review's editorial team. She enjoys getting lost in secondhand book stores and sifting through odd bits of ephemera and calling it "research." Her novel, Letters From Skye, is out now.

Take it away Jessica...

When I was feeling my way through my first novel, a sprawling, plotless thing now thankfully now tucked away in a box, one of my weaknesses was dialogue. My written conversations were always somewhat stiff, perhaps hampered by this perception I had of how characters in historical fiction must sound (Like Shakespeare, right? Regardless of the era?). I tried to add voice to the lines of dialogue by giving each character a pet phrase or an overfondness for exclamation points. Something that made them sound different from one another. At least I thought.

I needed to learn a better way to dialogue. I searched my shelves for diaries and collections of letters, the closest thing to captured speech from my era. I wanted to learn how people conversed. What sorts of things were they willing to admit on the page and when were they more likely to slip into euphemism and evasion? What words and phrases came up again and again? I learned through those diaries and letters that people sounded much more modern than I thought, even back then. They joked, they confessed, they swore. They used contractions. When writing to family and friends, they were as casual as if they were sitting in front of the fire.

I wanted to try my hand at it. Letters seemed a good way to practice dialogue. With a new plot and set of characters in my mind, I set off to write an epistolary novel set during World War One, a time far enough back that people had to depend on the postman, but close enough that their language was accessible to contemporary readers.

With the very first letters, I knew the characters. Voice came so easily via their own words. Each letter answered the previous and asked something new, so like a conversation when getting to know a new friend. I let them sound as nonchalant and “modern” as the real WWI letters I’d read. Elspeth, my Scottish poet, and David, the American college student who first sends her a fan letter, began to feel like friends I’d cheerfully chat with over a cup of coffee. On the page, that’s pretty much what we did. I’m very firmly a “pantser” when I write. I got to know my characters as they got to know each other.

But writing in letters was not without its pitfalls. I had to, of necessity, keep a certain distance to real time events. When David, who volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western Front, is in a particularly harrowing sector, he can’t exactly pull over to the side of the road, apologize to the wounded in the back, and dash off a letter to Elspeth. He has to wait until he’s safe and then write about what happened then. So many things were written as flashbacks, so to speak, in the letters, though they were not so to the recipient.

It was also tricky to find and carefully walk the line between epistle and narrative. How much dialogue to include when recounting an event via letter? How much scenic description? How many internal thoughts? I tried to let the emotional state of the writer dictate how narrative her or his letter was. When telling something emotional (a death, a battle, an unexpected meeting), something where the pen is held by fingers still trembling and the thoughts race ahead of the words, I let my writers go deeper into the situation. I’ve been there; I know the feeling of needing to work it out on the page. I try to keep things epistolary, but I understand when my characters need to slip into narration to let their correspondents into their heads. But they always write to each other, never to the reader. To me, that’s an important distinction.

Writing an epistolary novel was instructive. It taught me not only how to loosen up my dialogue, but how to hone in on voice. I use that technique to this day when getting to know new characters—I let them write a letter to me. I also learned how to be sparing with description and how to convey as much as I could through few words, not letting my narration and world-building sprawl on the page. But, most of all, writing in epistolary style is just plain fun. Letters are irresistible, even when they’re not addressed to you!

About Letters From Skye

A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.

March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.

June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

Sparkling with charm and full of captivating period detail, Letters from Skye is a testament to the power of love to overcome great adversity, and marks Jessica Brockmole as a stunning new literary voice.


  1. I've tried journal format, but never epistolary. What a neat idea!

  2. The only epistolary novel I've ever read is Poor Folk by Dostoyevsky. It was his debut, not among his best novels.

    Would be fun to try to write ans epistolary novel, just as an experiment >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  3. Ref: But they always write to each other, never to the reader. To me, that’s an important distinction.

    That is the one thing I've been working out as I currently have an idea for a story rattling about in my head. Thanks so much for sharing, Jessica :-)

  4. I like the 'eavesdropping' angle epistolary writing gives you. Looking forward to your book Jessica, and thanks for bringing this to us Janice.

  5. Thank you so much for having me, Janice! I really enjoyed writing an epistolary novel and it was fun to talk a little about that process!

  6. Rachel6: I've had characters journal before too; that's another great way to find their voices. But it's a different layer of voice, if that makes any sense. The kind of thoughts that you write only for yourself and the kind of thoughts that you write for someone else's eyes, even someone close to you--both can have different nuances.

  7. CA Heaven: It is fun and definitely something I recommend, even if just as an exercise! The revision, where you're trying to tackle some of the challenges I mentioned, can be harder, but that first getting-to-know-you draft is so freeing.

  8. Angela Brown: I agree that there's a distinction to be made between characters writing to each other vs. to the reader. And also, may I add, only to themselves? Some epistolary novels told through journals or diaries have such an intimate feel (and, of course, titles escape me at the moment) that I, as the reader, really feel guilty peeking into the pages.

  9. Staceylee: Agreed. Honestly, the "eavesdropping" aspect wasn't something that occurred to me before I started writing, but in revisions, it struck me, and I loved the extra veil of intimacy it added to the novel.

  10. This makes me want to try writing in this style. And read that book!

  11. It was great having you here, Jessica! Thanks for stopping by.

  12. This sounds like such an interesting story, Jessica! I love reading stories involving two time lines, and the setting sounds full of atmosphere. I haven't read an epistolary novel for a while now, so I'm going to look for Letters from Skye.

    I have my characters write letters to me after I'm done with my first draft. I'm a plotter by nature, so I'm always worried about losing the voices of my characters in the intricacies of the plot. Having them write to me about themselves in their own words helps me a lot in fleshing them out during revisions. That said, I doubt if I'd have the courage to write an entire novel using letters and journal entries as a vehicle. Kudos for reviving this method.

  13. Swati: How wonderful to hear that someone with a very different writing style (I struggle with plotting) also uses letters to check voice and deepen character. It gets right to the heart of the process, doesn't it?

  14. When I was in high school, wrote two letters adding to Lady Susan as an assignment in my literature class. (I had a few options for what to do, and that was what I did.) Sadly, those letters are lost in the computer changes and such since then, but I remember my teacher (and his wife, who was my teacher in another class) being impressed that my letters actually sounded as if they belonged to the novel.

    But I enjoy the epistolary format. I'll be putting Letters from Skye on my to-read list.

    Someday, I'd like to write a story or series in that style, even if it's modernized into e-mail, IM, or Twitter. Until then, I'll just have to enjoy epistolary stories when I see them. ^_^

  15. That sounds like a fun assignment, Carradee! And it's a really neat way to write a novel. Not without challenges, of course, but a fascinating way to get to know story and characters!