Monday, August 8, 2016

Laurel Garver's 5 Reasons to Write Letters

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

Almost There
YA inspirational

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. 


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Never thought of it as a storytelling aid. I never wrote many letters. (Most guys don't.) I do still hand write thank you cards though.

Laurel Garver said...

I've often wondered why men lost the art of letter writing. You look at literary greats like T.S. Eliot, whose correspondence fills volumes, and it's clear letter writing was once a formative practice for both poets and fiction writers.

Heather R. Holden said...

Fun post! Even though my generation grew up with the internet, my family couldn't afford a computer, so I remember doing lots of letter-writing growing up. I still do it on occasion, whenever sending gifts and such through the mail. Really love #4 on this list. May have to try this kind of exercise out with my own characters sometime!

Laurel Garver said...

Glad you found my brainstorming idea useful. Have fun with it!

Mark said...

All great points! I would also gets the voices in your head to stop talking (for at least a while anyways). ;)

Natalie Aguirre said...

I used to write a lot of letters, but none in ages. I had never thought of writing them as a storytelling help.

Tyrean Martinson said...

I'm seriously impressed that you hand write thank you cards. I try to do that, but I often call and say thanks because I'm terrible at actually mailing the cards that I write.

Tyrean Martinson said...

I like the idea of characters writing letters, too. I think it could be a fun way to write a story.

Tyrean Martinson said...

True. :)

Tyrean Martinson said...

I've used letters a few times as storytelling help, but not in the in-depth way that Laurel seems to be alluding to in this post. I did read a book recently that was half--written in letters between two characters who are coming together for the final half of the adventure. It worked really well and I enjoyed the book a great deal.

Laurel Garver said...

I find it simply helps me direct the character chatter in my head. They are a noisy bunch. :-)

Laurel Garver said...

Your storytelling has been shaped by that practice, no doubt, Natalie. All wonderfully transferable skills--especially audience focus and narration. I do like to use "epistle brainstorming" a great deal. It gets me unstuck more often than any other kind of brainstorming, in part because I am a voice-driven writer.

Laurel Garver said...

Thanks for having me, Tyrean. I was rather worried everyone would give me a hard time for sending envelopes full of lies to some sweet Texas girl back in the 80s. I convinced myself it was no big deal at the time because it was unlikely we'd ever meet IRL, having found her in a "pen pals wanted" ad in the Breyer horse collector magazine. Ah, the foolishness of our youth, that we pull these dumb stunts.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

That's a really interesting technique. It already has me thinking.

Laurel Garver said...

Have fun with it, Susan!

Unknown said...

I think it's sweet. I had a pen pal from France who stopped writing me letters, so I kept writing a few to him and not sending them, imagining a conversation for a while. It didn't really work, but it gave me some imaginative verbal sparring. He had stopped writing when he realized that Tyrean was a girl's name.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I totally had pen pals when I was a kid! And I really like the idea of having our characters write letters as well.

Tamara Narayan said...

MIssing a trip to Paris to go see a cranky relative sounds like a fantastic way to jump start the tension. I only write a Christmas letter each year and I know it's going out to a large number of relatives so I try to make it as entertaining as possible. The key? Writing about the worst things that happened over the year (in a slapstick fashion) instead of the best.

Laurel Garver said...

Tapping into the fun you had with it as a kid can be really motivating. Perhaps you might find those memories become story fodder too.

Laurel Garver said...

Ha! Love that idea, Tamara. My mother's mantra in the face of everyday disasters was "it will make a good story later." You're really honing those narration skills--especially the tension building and comic timing--with your holiday missives.

Laurel Garver said...

Aww, so sad that he got girl-phobic. I had a really awesome guy penpal I'd met at Christian camp when I was 14. We corresponded well into the college years. I couldn't pull the fake identity on him, since we met IRL--and again when I was a senior (it got a smidge weird then, since I'd outgrown my uber-awkward phase and he just stared and stuttered most of that visit. LOL.)

Chrys Fey said...

Years ago, I used to write letters to my friends and family ally the time. Then they pretty much stopped replying back because of technology. I'm one of those people who long for the old days.

I've been thinking of writing letters to myself. Like to a younger or older me. I think that might be fun and a good form of therapy.

Tyrean Martinson said...

He sounds like a great pen pal even if the IRL visit was awkward . . . :)