Please welcome Laurel Garver today!
Five Reasons to Write Letters
By Laurel Garver
As a Gen-Xer, I’m part of the last generation to grow up pre-Internet, so my formative experiences with distance communication were very much of the analog variety—land-line phone calls and, yes, “snail mail” letters. I had a number of pen pals through middle and high school. One of them, I’m a bit ashamed to admit, wrote to a completely fictional version of me, because I invented for her the life I wish I had, plus fake dramas with fake friends just to keep things interesting. You might say that set of correspondence was my first epistolary fiction.
Ethically questionable forms of entertainment aside, writing letters has a number of benefits for fiction writers.
1) Trains you to communicate to a focal audience
Correspondence is by nature a very focused form of communication, meant for a specific recipient. Your choice of what topics to cover, in what order, and with what level of detail depends on who will read the letter. What things will this person easily grasp, and what things will s/he need extra explanations—and examples, illustrations, parables, or metaphorical language—to fully understand your meaning? What other literature, film, music, art, historic event, or cultural icon can you allude to, and how subtly, and this person will immediately get it?
You’ve often heard it said to “picture your ideal reader” when you create stories. But that’s a tall order. With letters, your reader has a name, a face, opinions and preferences. Learning to write to appeal to an audience of one prepares you to do the harder task of writing for an audience of many.
2) Challenges your narration skills
Narration often gets a bad rap in contemporary fiction. It’s assumed to always be telling when showing is better. But well done narrative is really just a pacing tool, a way to condense action and dialogue and move a story along. Letter writing is excellent practice to hone this skill. Composing a letter about the fiasco of a camping trip you just took will involve choosing which details to include, building tension, using comic timing, and framing the series of events in a narrative arc.
3) Connects you to your deepest emotions
It’s rare for any of us to be anything but our “curated selves” on social media. We tend to share only a sliver of what’s going on in our lives—especially our emotional lives. Letter writing invites deeper intimacy with your correspondent, because it’s a slow medium, it’s private, it’s handmade, and it holds a certain history-tied cachet. In writing letters, I often discover how I really feel about what’s going on in my life. Writing to a friend or relative invites us to share the deeper things, the “I wish…,” “I fear…,” “I hope…”. Those deep emotions are where you find your heart-stories, the ones that stir your creative passion.
4) Serves as a brainstorming tool
Epistle brainstorming involves writing imagined letters from a character, between characters, or to a character. It is a great way to get to know your characters, develop voice, and work out kinks in your plot.
By writing a letter as a character, you can begin to really hear how a character would express him/herself, how this person would interpret events, and which details would be focal. I’ve also found that writing letters to my character—and letting her answer—enabled me to dig deeper into her personality, to process my thoughts and feelings when the plot stalled, and to imaginatively seek the character’s help to develop solutions that fit her sense of who she is. As wacky as that sounds, remember that your character is also you. So this is really just a way to trick your brain into letting parts of yourself interact more directly.
As an example, here’s a brief “character instant message exchange” from my brainstorming notes from my latest release:
Me: Hey, Dani, it’s been a year and a half since you lost your dad. Any new developments in your healing process?
Dani: Remember how I when I first lost Dad, I kept one of his old shirts and hid it? And my therapist said it wasn’t sick but healthy to keep it? Well, I’ve taken to putting on Dad’s old shirt when I’m stressed. I feel wrapped up in his protection and blessing when I’m wearing it.
This was one of several details I was able to tease out of my brain to create deeper characterization, and create ties between the prequel and the current book.
Not sure where to start in corresponding as or with a character? My post “No stamp required: Epistle brainstorming” has some specific brainstorming exercises to try.
5.) Brings texture and off-scene voices into your stories.
I also like to use correspondence in my fiction—digital forms like instant messaging, e-mail and texts, as well as handwritten types like letters and journals. Because it’s a different type of storytelling material than standard narration or dialogue, it adds texture to your story. And as I mentioned in reason 3, letter writing naturally makes someone go deeper emotionally, so a well-placed letter can be a good way to, for instance, let a character say something deep, heart-felt, or even gooey-romantic that would sound extremely cheesy in dialogue. The formality of a letter gives profundity a free pass, it seems. (Green’s The Fault in Our Stars does this to great effect.)
Letters are also a way to bring off-scene characters’ voices to bear on current situations without all the bother of transporting them on scene. With letters you can access voices of a geographically distant character, or even one from another time. One of Dani’s great treasures in my latest book is correspondence and journals from a grandmother who died when Dani was an infant. This voice from the past gives her insight into her present troubles.
If you don’t want the access to be too easy, make the WiFi spotty or the cellular reception nonexistent. Snail mail comes with a built-in delay mechanism: apart from personal delivery, it’s rare for a letter to arrive in less than twenty-four hours. Or put the correspondence in a foreign language, as I did with Dani’s journal from her Nana, which she has to work to translate and learn the truths hidden in it.
Are you now or were you once a letter-writer? How might your add letter writing to your routine or to your fiction tools?
About the author
Laurel Garver is a writer, editor, professor’s wife and mom to an arty teenager. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she enjoys geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who, playing word games, singing in church choir, and taking long walks in Philly's Fairmount Park. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or her blog.
About Laurel’s new release
Paris, the City of Lights. To seventeen-year-old Dani Deane, it’s the Promised Land. There, her widowed mother’s depression will vanish and she will no longer fear losing her only parent, her arty New York life, or her devoted boyfriend.
But shortly before their Paris getaway, Dani’s tyrannical grandfather falls ill, pulling them to rural Pennsylvania to deal with his hoarder horror of a house. Among the piles, Dani finds disturbing truths that could make Mum completely unravel. Desperate to protect her from pain and escape to Paris, Dani hatches a plan with the flirtatious neighbor boy that only threatens the relationships she most wants to save.
Why would God block all paths to Paris? Could real hope for healing be as close as a box tucked in the rafters?
Read sample chapters free on Wattpad
Note from Tyrean: woke up and discovered missing files on my pc, so I might be focused on that today. Hope you enjoy this post by Laurel Garver.