Sunday, February 9, 2014

Writing in a different format: the Epistolary novel

Ever since I read A. P. Herbert’s Poem, “At the Theater (to the lady behind me)” I’ve been toying with the idea of writing an epistolary novel--a story written just in the form of letters.  In Herbert's poem he starts out, “Dear Madam you have seen this play, I never saw it till today…” and he goes on to paint a picture of a very frustrated theater patron being disturbed by a woman who is narrating the play (you know how that feels).  You can feel the anger, the frustration and the disdain for the woman and her friend.

This is not a new format for poetry.  There are epistolary poems dating back to the 8th century, maybe even earlier.  But I read A. P. Herbert’s poem when I was a child and it made such an impact on me that I have written several poems in exactly that format.  You’d think writing the poems would quench my desire, but it hasn’t.  It is still my dream to write a full length romance just using letters.

A few years ago I read James Patterson’s novel, “Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas” and that ignited the fire even more.  This wasn’t written as letters, but a series of journal entries as a young mother explains to her infant son how she met and fell in love with his father.  I loved that book … a masterfully crafted romance without one descriptive sexual encounter, yet so full of emotion.

Like I said I toyed with the idea many times, but never quite got around to penning it.  Why?  Maybe it’s the restriction of the format.  The POV is of only the writer and is further restricted by the relationship with the one to whom the letter is written.  Events that could impact those two people could only be written about from the perspective of the letter writer’s direct experience.  If not crafted properly it could leave lots of holes in the narrative.  Or maybe it’s my lack of confidence in my ability to write in a format that deviates from the writer as the omniscient narrator.

To improve and expand my writing skills in that area, I tried to do a little research on epistolary novels.  I found a short list of epistolary novels on Wikipedia, but not much on the craft of writing them.  If there is any of you who know of a resource that would help a person hone this specific skill, I’d like you to tell me about it.

Until I get the courage to leave the safety net of the omniscient narrator and write my love story as an epistolary novel, I will leave you with my epistolary poem written when I was a teenager.

To the Preacher

Dear Sir,
   I watch you very close,
   But you don’t know me, I suppose?
   I listen to the words you say to me
   And try to be what I ought to be.
   You speak the words of truth, I know,
   Because I search the bible to see if it’s so.
   But there is only one little flaw:
   What I heard, is not what I saw.

   So often you speak of humility,
   But I don’t know the meaning, you see,
   For when I look upon your side
   All I see is pomp and pride.
   Jesus was a lowly man
   Ate with sinners and publicans
   But because my father is a drunken man
   He is not welcomed to shake your hand.
   All this and more I see,
   Plus the church is filled with hypocrisy.
   We need a broom to sweep the floor,
   Starting from the pulpit, right to the door.
   But all this shouldn’t surprise me when
   The church is led by businessmen
   Oh my humble spirit longs to see
   Your destiny in eternity.
                 Signed: yours truly
                       Grieved within.
   P.S. I hope the broom sweeps out the sin!


Charles Gramlich said...

I did one short story in the form of notes to a diary. but otherwise I haven't experimented with this. I'd kind of like to try the epistolary form. it sounds like a challenge.

Liane Spicer said...

I've never been tempted to try the epistolary form, but I have to say I enjoyed the novels and memoirs I've read, especially The Color Purple. Alice Walker manages to convey other POVs although they are filtered through the first person POV of the main character. I'd say the best way to learn to do it well is to read books by authors who have done it incredibly well.

Jewel Amethyst said...

That is true Liane. I read The Color Purple as well and that made a very big impact on me. It is literary writing at it's best.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles, it is a challenge, but what is life if we don't do embrace challenges?

Lauren said...

Great poem. I've not read "Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas", but it sounds very interesting.

I've read letters a few places in novels used as a scene and that can work very well.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Thanks for the compliment Lauren. "Suzanne's diary for Nicholas" is a really nice love story in almost all letter format.

I've read one or two that's written just in letter format or mostly in letter format, but I don't think I've ever read one that has just a letter used as a scene, though I'm certain there are a lot of those out there.

I've also seen some where each chapter is introduced as a diary entry or letter but then the chapter itself is written in 3rd person.

I think it is really artistic.