The Epistolary Novel
by Gretchen Archer
Have you ever read an epistolary, a story told through correspondence rather than by a narrator? Of the epistolaries I’ve read—comparatively speaking, there aren’t all that many out there — the one that made the biggest impression on me was A Woman Of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. With the single exception of A Woman, I’ve never read a book more than once, unlike my oldest daughter Laura, who reads the entire Harry Potter series every year or Margaret Tate, Sandra Bullock’s character in The Proposal, who reads Wuthering Heights every Christmas.
But, I’ve read A Woman at least a dozen times since stumbling upon it in my early twenties, and I’d happily sit down with it again today. I’ve gifted it to friends so often through the years that once when it temporarily went out of print, I panicked a little. I absolutely loved the epistolary format. I loved piecing Bess Steed Garner’s life together from her letters, starting with her fourth grade spelling bee and ending with her (assumed) death at eighty. There aren’t responses to Bess’s entries. It’s up to the reader to see past the words on the page and reach their own conclusions as to what might be going on behind the scenes. An epistolary is an interactive read, fully engaging the reader, a book in which the reader plays a pivotal role. And right about now, I bet you’re reading past the words on this page to see exactly where I’m headed with this; Double Wide is an epistolary.
Let’s talk pros and cons of an epistolary.
Author pro: it’s challenging to write. Honestly, it felt like putting an 80,000-word puzzle together, but every piece was the same color and shape. The trickiest? Deciding which character would advance the storyline. The hardest part? Holding back. Refraining from letting the characters know too much too soon. It was a delicate balancing act and I loved every minute of it.
Reader pro: It’s challenging to read. The story doesn’t unfold in the usual manner. It inches forward in surprising fits and unexpected bursts from a number of sources, requiring the reader to actively, rather than passively, pick up the clues. Like searching for story treasure.
Author pro: writing from multiple viewpoints. Let’s do some rough math. Before Wide, there were nine books in my series averaging 75,000 words each which means I’ve written roughly 675,000 words from my main character Davis Way’s perspective. That 675,000 views through one camera lens. Never had I ever spread my author wings to other character voices in a complete novel, much less the dozens of voices found in Double Wide.
Reader pro: a direct connection to every character. Within the pages of Double Wide the reader rides shotgun, for better or for worse, with all the contrasting characters. Until Wide, the reader has only been privy to Davis’s observations of the supporting cast and guest stars. In Wide, the reader hears directly from fan-favorites Bea Crawford and Baylor (Just Baylor). Reader feedback to the cameo characters appearing in Wide has been almost unanimous: I loved Nelson; I hated Tiffannie (poor misunderstood Tiffie). (Talk about a writing/reading challenge.)
Do you think you might enjoy an epistolary novel? Try The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, or Double Wide…by me!
Categories: Author, Book Review, Books, Mystery and Thrillers
It’s great to learn about this book, Marilyn. I am a big fan of epistolary novels and am trying to write not one, but two at the moment. I like this discussion which is very useful to me.
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It was really useful to me too. I didn’t know the name of the genre, but I wrote a book using it, so it was great to discover that it’s an actual genre in literature and that the kind of writing I was doing had a name — and that others had used it. And there is a reason TO use it.
I think it’s a very useful concept for writers, too. Especially for those of us that have done a lot of “short” writing so that letters are just about the right length for a concept or a clue or a description of feelings. It also gave me a whole lot of new ideas about how to use existing material.
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