Fiction notes: Epistolary stories make it real

15/05/2023 at 9:28 am | Posted in Fiction notes | 2 Comments
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Recently I’ve been reading two excellent books presented as a collection of letters and other correspondence. One, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows, was fiction. The other, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, was fact. And yet both come across in a remarkably similar way, which I would describe as warm-hearted and real. Both feature World War Two in their recent past. Against the darkness of conflict, the humour and kindness of the main characters shine out. 

The two books aren’t really that similar. But they both left me feeling moved and uplifted – and curious about the epistolary form.

When you start looking, the epistolary form – also known as a story made from a bunch of correspondence – is everywhere, all through the history of novel (and indeed non-fiction) writing. It’s a great way for an author to present multiple points of view. But until now, I didn’t realise that I was a fan, even though I’d read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, and felt it had a freshness, an immediacy, that in certain ways surpassed his wonderful Narnia tales.

Why are epistolary novels so readable? The Smithsonian National Postal Museum has some interesting thoughts on the subject, as well as a giant list  (even 84 Charing Cross Road manages to tiptoe onto it). The gist is that letters are often written for a small and intimate audience. That means that they’re personal, private and revealing. The reader of fictional letters is able to peer into that intimate world. 

Reading epistolary books has made me notice the use of correspondence in the stories I’m writing. In my current work in progress, for example, a sealed letter was discovered that seems likely to reveal secrets. I have a rough idea of those are, but won’t know for sure until I get to that chapter…

And now, over to you. Do you have a favourite letter that you’ve read, or written, in a novel? 

Fiction notes: Who’s telling the story?

15/02/2023 at 8:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Novels written in the first person have a certain power. When I read, “I am a free human being with an independent will,” in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, I’m owning that thought. In my imagination, I am Jane.

Now consider these words further along in the same novel: “Reader, I married him”. That’s such a satisfying line – an emotional closure to a handkerchief-drenching plot. But Jane is now addressing the reader… and I am the reader, so therefore I can no longer imagine that I am Jane. So I slip into the role of confidante, which is nearly as good, but not quite. And yet the switch is worth it for the power of that line.

By addressing the reader directly, Charlotte Brontë breaks the fourth wall – she reminds us that Jane Eyre is a fictional character on a metaphorical stage. The stage, with its back and two sides, may resemble a four-walled room. But that illusion dissolves as soon as the audience is acknowledged.

Luckily, the reader’s imagination is elastic, as long as the storytelling is strong enough to support it. I’m quite happy to identify as Jane Eyre for the duration of the novel, except during those times when she addresses me.

If a novel is narrated in the third person, do we identify less with the central character? Logic suggests that we might. And yet consider Jane Austen’s Persuasion. My all-time favourite novel is narrated in the third person. However, Persuasion is stuffed full of dialogue, and possibly the best love note in the English language. There is therefore lots of first-hand experience to read and to enjoy.

What about you? Do you like a character to narrate her own story? And how does it feel to you if she talks directly to the reader?

Introducing Fiction Notes

03/01/2023 at 3:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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My day job is writing romance novels. And from now on – fanfare, roll of drums – that’s going to be represented in my blog. This is my plan for 2023, and I hope you’ll stay for the ride…

At the start of every month I will continue to post Wellbeing Notes. From the many years that I ran meditation groups, I know that wellbeing truly matters. It’s important to honour this truth. Those little reminders to care for yourself and appreciate life’s beauties will continue to drop into subscribers’ inboxes.

In the middle of every month, I will post Fiction Notes. Get ready for some thought-provoking themes. There is so much more to romance than fluff and laughter, nice though those things may be. Consider Jane Austen, and her two masterpieces, Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice. Each of these is a quintessential, romantic read, in which woman meets man. Major obstacles get in the way. And eventually, true love triumphs. Why are those novels so popular, 200 years on, and counting?

Hopefully we’ll find some answers together in the coming months. Fiction Notes are for readers and writers of fiction, especially in the category of romance. Maybe we do live in tough times right now. But through every era, humans – with all our hopes and yearnings and messy emotions – stay essentially the same. So join me next month, and for many months to come, while we explore the most compelling subject of all: true love.

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