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To Whom It May Concern

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Flickr Creative Commons: Liz West

If you were newly rich or socially ambitious in the 18th century and wanted to fit in with the quality, there were plenty of people willing to teach you the skills you needed.  Elocution schools would help you lose the gutter accent.  Deportment classes would keep you from embarrassing yourself with your table manners.  And manuals of model letters would show you how to express yourself in writing with appropriate dignity and grace.

The most popular of these was the 1741 Letters Written to and for Particular Friends by Samuel Richardson, who later went on to help invent the novel with Pamela.  Richardson included model letters for all sorts of extremely specific situations, including, “To a Daughter in a Country Town who encourages the Address of a Subaltern (a Case too frequent in Country Places),” and “A young Woman in Town to her Sister in the Country, recounting her narrow Escape from a Snare laid for her on her first Arrival by a wicked Procuress.”

richardsonletters.jpg?resize=182%2C300&sIn an age when we are never out of reach of a phone, which also allows us to instant message, Facetime, and post pictures of our pets for the world to enjoy, it’s hard to imagine the role that letter writing used to play in people’s lives.  In late 19th-century London, mail was delivered twelve times a day, allowing correspondents to practically carry on a conversation by letter.  Nearly all contact with family members and friends who didn’t live within walking distance took place through the mail.  If you wanted to buy something that wasn’t available in the local shops, you sent letters to more distant sellers.  If you could read and write, you owned paper, pens, and an inkwell.  Until the middle of the 19th century, when steel pen nibs were invented, you also owned a penknife to sharpen the specially cut feathers that did the job. (Ruth once made a pen from a discarded turkey feather.  It’s easier than you might imagine.)

It’s hard to flip through a book written before the telephone (and many afterwards) without finding several letters quoted at length.  Entire novels were constructed solely from letters, from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela through The Color Purple.  But letters weren’t just pervasive in literature because they were such a big part of life.  Quoted letters give storytellers a unique opportunity to accomplish things they can’t do with simple dialogue.

A letter is essentially a natural uninterrupted monologue, giving your correspondent a chance to pile on their view of things without contradiction.  In Pride and Prejudice, when Lydia sends a letter to her friend Harriet saying she’s eloped with Wickham, readers get a full page of nonstop frivolity that emphasizes just how much trouble Lydia is in. “. . . it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them, and sign my name Lydia Wickham.  What a good joke it will be!”

Letters also give readers a window into how characters see themselves.  As Richardson’s model letters show, even when letter writing was common, correspondents put thought and care into what they wrote.  The style of their prose, as much as their choice of clothes or grooming, showed the face they wanted to present to the world.  That gives storytellers a chance to contrast how letter writers see themselves with how the rest of the world sees them.  When the unctuous Mr. Collins sends his condolence letter to the Bennets over Lydia’s elopement, the letter shows just how unconscious he is of the massive self-righteousness woven into his sympathy.  “. . . this licentiousness of behaviour in your daughter, has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence, though, at the same time, for the consolation of yourself and Mrs. Bennet, I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age.”

So, if you’re writing historical novels – and that would include anything up until a few decades ago – don’t forget the role letters played in your characters’ lives. Or the role they can play in your fiction.

Even if you’re not writing historic fiction, modern forms of communication over a distance offer a lot of the same advantages as traditional letters.  A tweet won’t show the same care and consideration as a handwritten missive, but it is still self-conscious enough to show how your characters think of themselves.  Twitter and Facebook have endless hours of fun with people who aren’t aware of what their tweets and posts reveal about themselves.

If you need to track some bit of action that takes place over time but isn’t critical enough to build into a series of scenes, consider a string of tweets or texts or posts.  They are much more personalized than a paragraph or two of narrative summary, give you a chance to reveal your characters’ take on things, and are often much easier to read.

And if you’re interested in social satire, well, modern social media provide a target-rich environment.

P. G. Wodehouse had a lot of fun with the instant communication of his day – the telegram. Since you paid for wires by the word, they gave rise to a system of abbreviation as elaborate and stylized as anything on social media today. “I got the message you sent on the 15th.  I’ll be there as soon as I can,” would boil down to “Yours 15th received.  Arriving soonest.”  Or, as Bertie Wooster once cabled to Gussie Fink-Nottle, after learning that Gussie had broken off his engagement to Angela Bassett, “You say ‘come here immediately,’ but how dickens can I? Relations between Pop Bassett and self not such as to make him welcome Bertram. Would hurl out on ear and set dogs on. What serious rift? Why serious rift? Why dickens?”

I’m sure there’s an equal amount of fun to be found with emojis and hashtags.

I’m sure I haven’t exhausted the topic.  How have you seen letters used in literature?  Have you used tweets, hashtags, and emojis in your own writing?  They often play a role in modern television, I’ve noticed.  (Looking at you, Emily in Paris.) 


About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


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