The art of writing letters is centuries old. Sending and receiving messages between two people in the form of written letters began around 500 BC according to historians. The first recorded handwritten letter was written by Persian Queen Atossa. Letters were used primarily for communicating short messages and notes, whether it be for business, personal use, or for royal individuals to use. Now, there’s no better way to bare one’s heart in a frank and honest manner than in the form of letters. Therefore, letters are still very much around though their style and form has changed.
In my editorial space, I seldom come across stories in the jacket of letters. I often wonder how much the use of such a format would make an entry stand out in the slush pile or in a competition. No qualms admitting that I don’t write many either! (Quitting even before trying! Maybe start using it more?) YOU SHOULD TOO!
Apart from making your entry unique, I’ll list five more reasons why you should write more ‘Letter Stories’:
- BECAUSE you want to be candid, you mean to be honest, and you want to leave your reader feeling good. Read Caitlin Horrock in “It Looks Like This” (Blackbird, 2006)! “You said you’d show the paper around if I did a good job, try to talk my other teachers into giving me credit for their classes the semester I left, so I tried to put some math and science and stuff in for them. Fifteen to twenty pages is a lot, so I used some pictures. I hope that’s okay.” In this piece in letter-form, a High-School student uses maps and pictures to write a truly intimate account.
- BECAUSE there’s no better way to give the reader rich off-page tension than a narrative in an epistolatory form. More so if it happens in a series of emails remaining one-sided. Perfect example piece supporting this is On the Universal Rights of Ducks and Girls by Tara Campbell (CRAFT, 2020). In a series of emails, several important issues are addressed, including the prevalent violence in the natural world. The form enhances the horror because many facts are only gauged from the single viewpoint of the Dean, the tone formal and administrative. The story is steeped in mystery, and situational horror. “Civilization, Ms. Perkins, is what separates us from the animals. What keeps us in check. Perhaps we can reframe this as a powerful lesson for Dolores, and for all of us.” This is a powerful story to learn the craft of stories in the form of letters. Revealing the process of creating this piece, the writer says, “I’ve tried writing about this before, but it didn’t really go anywhere in a traditional prose format… so I decided to take this topic that had been occupying my mind, sexual violence in the animal world, and try to tell it through emails.”
- BECAUSE you want to write historical fiction, and there are too many events that you want to include, and all of them merit mention. Ashley Davidson’s story, “A Daring Undertaking” (Shenandoah, 2015) , is a narrative told through letters that focuses on a survivor of the U. S. Army’s notorious experiment with camels in the west. “The Secretary thanks you for your letter apprising him of the recent desertion of Sergeant Erastus Snow and the concurrent kidnapping of the Turkish handler Hadji Ali along with thirteen camels of the formerly arrived shipment and the plundering of certain staples at your post. ” A strange collection of letters, public and private, spanning from 1856 to 1933, are seralized to unfold the storyline, leaving the reader spellbound.
- BECAUSE you want to weave a web of memories, with overlapping characters and emotions, some repetitions, and an overall sense of nostalgia. In Alice Munro’s “Carried Away” (The New Yorker, 1991), the story begins with letters between Louisa and a man from Carstairs, who is overseas in the war. But she has written other letters, to another man. And her memories of these past letters overlap.
- BECAUSE you like to let go, like to let your imagination run wild, you’d literally escape this world if it promised a great story premise! Why not write a letter to Aliens? Or to ‘Earthlings’, after you’ve escaped the people that have wronged you. My piece “Dear Earthlings” (In Parentheses, 2020) does exactly that: “Possibilities! Even empty space has ceaseless latent complexity. Everything’s fluid, metamorphic, changing into the recognizable or the unidentifiable. Space and time, supposedly foundations of all theories, are not static; Nature’s seldom balancing, stable or static.” Write a letter to Saturn, transmit a message to Cassini, well, there are endless possibilities.
Hope you are inching closer to some new ideas after reading this article. Share with writer friends and readers.
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