Saturday, April 17, 2010

Awesome Epistolaries and Why They Are Awesome

Hello, all! Happy Saturday. I intend to do very little that is productive (schoolwork wise, anyway). That's what Sundays are for, right?

In any case. I'll be working some more on Letters to Oliver, my lovely historical fantasy epistolary novel. Yes, epistolary. You'd be surprised how many people I have to explain that term to; I don't think it's a particularly common format. According to that wonderful source, Wikipedia: "An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic "documents" such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use. The word epistolary comes from the Latin word epistola, meaning a letter."

It is indeed an interesting format, if not often used. I have read some truly wonderful epistolaries that I am taking inspiration from now and I think I ought to share the love and point out these works of brilliance.

The first epistolary novel I ever read was Kate Klise's Regarding the Fountain. If you like MG, READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW. It's about an elementary school principal who commissions a new drinking fountain from an eccentric artist; she sends letters and drawings and all sorts of things back and forth with the principal and with the class of third graders at this school. It's a very clever book, and really, really enjoyable.

Now, I wasn't a really big reader of epistolaries, so from when I was say eleven and read Regarding the Fountain to when I was... er... seventeen? eighteen? (I have such a good memory, can't you see?) and read this next book, I can't particularly remember reading another one, although I know I read a few with epistolary elements. I just didn't really think about it much.

But then I came across The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and I fell in love. This book is WONDERFUL. Absolutely, completely, and totally wonderful. The moment I finished it, I wanted to read it again. I wanted MORE. (Unfortunately, there isn't any more - sadly, Ms. Shaffer, the main writer, passed away before the book was published.) It's about a journalist living in London and set at the very end of World War II. She's trying to recover from the horrors of the Blitz, and is contacted by someone who read her articles during the war. He lives on the British channel island of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Nazis. The story is both funny and poignant; it even made me tear up a little. Seriously. GO READ THIS BOOK.

After that, I went hunting for more epistolaries. One that I found was Jane Austen's Lady Susan. (After all, if one is writing anything set in the Victorian era, one must return to the source.) This one was fun because it was not at all a 'typical' Jane Austen story; the main plot focuses around a girl trying to get out from the clutches of her overbearing mother, Lady Susan. It is filled with typical Jane Austen wit, of course, and is quite lovely.

Another epistolary I came across, and which probably provided the inspiration for Letters to Oliver, was Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede's Sorcery and Cecelia. It is a Regency-era epistolary set in an England where magic actually works. The characters are quite clever (I especially love Kate) and the story intriguing and delivered with a sort of bounce and a great sense of humor that is really quite fun. There are also two sequels to this: The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician, or Ten Years After. All are quite good. I like the first and the third best; the second is in testimonies and diary entries rather than letters, which is an interesting format (especially when you look at what the one character includes in her diary but the other leaves out of her testimony), but I prefer the letters. Also, in book three, the gentlemen get to exchange a few letters as well, and goodness but they are hilarious.

In any case. Even after I had read all of these, I thought that I could never write something like that. It is an extraordinarily structured format, after all. But then Nathan Bransford had a contest on his blog to write a diary entry or unsent letter, and there was Emily, writing Oliver a letter he would never see. And after that, the rest of the idea followed. I'm discovering it is a very fun format, and quite useful. For one thing, I hate first person. Hate hate hate. I really dislike being limited to one character's perspective for an entire story, but this format allows me - basically forces me - to head hop, which is a relief. Also, I think the terribly structured format is good for me, since I tend to just scrawl out words and then have to clean up the mess later.

Speaking of which, I ought to go write.

Are there any epistolaries you would recommend to me?


  1. I used to read the Royal Diaries and LOVED THEM. They're all MG, I think, but they're fabulous. And gave me a love of history that's still strong. Can't wait to see the finished Letter's to Oliver! :)

  2. I love epistolaries! Meg Cabot's adult books (in the "Boy" series) are some extremely fun reads. My favourite though is Angela Morrison's Taken By Storm which is a mixture of epistolary and verse.
    I think you work the epistolary really well. I love reading your Letters To Oliver teasers :D

  3. I agree with Bee. You definitely do epistolary very well. :)