Stashed Away–The Secret Letters

This is part three of a series on letter-writing in fiction.

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Secret letters can create many routes in a novel, and they offer the ultimate versatility to your story. These secret letters that suddenly appear in a book, they allow some of the deepest twists possible in storytelling. The story becomes the owl with its head turned all the way around, and you might even be able to stand the plot on its head at the same time.

I’ve noticed that the novels with secret letters don’t set out to be epistolary. Those secret letters are not referenced in the beginning of the book. The narrator never alludes to letters or secrets in that way. Then, the secret letters surprise everyone by showing up like a poof of dusty magic.

You can make it subtle, while retaining the lucidity of the scene and the significance of that moment in the storyline. In Multiple Exposure, Ellen Masters is legally adopted by her grandmother and grows up with a distant relationship to her mother. When her mother comes for a rare visit to see Ellen graduate from high school, Ellen’s mother finds all of the letters with money still stuffed inside that she and Ellen’s stepfather mailed to Ellen over the years. Prior to this scene, the narrator, Ellen, has never let the reader know that her mother and stepfather mailed letters and money to her. It should come as a bit of a shocking revelation on the part of the narrator to the reader for many reasons. The scene shifts again quickly, and this serves as a striking memory flash. Those letters are never mentioned again in the book, and there’s no reason to do so, as they served their purpose in the story.

You can make secret letters have a generational impact by revealing an even bigger secret decades later. In my second novel, Poke Sallet Queen & the Family Medicine Wheel, I used the idea of secret letters again, and they lead to the revelation of a secret that changes the family structure (for this blog, I won’t spoil the story and reveal that here). These letters are about the history of the Ballard family and are never seen by the narrator, Robin Ballard. She hears the story of the secret love letters from her Great Aunt Cora, whose heart is broken as a young woman by not receiving anymore letters from her secret lover. She tells her great niece about it decades later: “I don’t think my heart stopped hoping I’d open the mailbox and find my name written by his hand until I finally married someone else and moved away from there. It was like the mailbox could never be the same again.” For Cora, the letters are painful, but for her great niece, Robin, they are a revelation.

To read more about Multiple Exposure, my
first novel about narrator Ellen Masters who is trying to raise her daughter, hold down a career and home, all while facing the fears that surface due to her husband’s deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and a shocking murder that takes place close to her home, visit thorncraftpublishing.com

You’ll also find more information about my second novel, Poke Sallet Queen and the Family Medicine Wheel, which follows the generational stories of a middle Tennessee family and the various talents of the Ballard family, from shaman, to moonshiner, to singer, and more.

Parts One and two in this series are about the confessional letter and passing notes in high school, respectively.

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The Art of Letter Writing & Postal Fidelity

Ink pen explosion–all over my hand and fingers. That hasn’t happened in a long time since the computer took over and I usually type out most of my work. I was addressing an envelope to my friend who inspired the concept of postal fidelity in the last chapter of my novel.

I’ve been writing letters since I was in third grade. First, to my pen pal, Victoria, who actually goes by the shortened name, Tori, and has for many years (decades in fact) but I’ll always know her as Dear Victoria. She made the writer in me materialize early. Complete with a penchant for exaggeration, her name inspired reverence and intrigue. I was really putting letter writing to practice by addressing someone as Dear Victoria. And, she was mysterious and exciting simply by living in California, with the name Victoria. California was a state I had never visited and doubted I would ever visit since a weekend in the Great Smokey Mountains was as far as my parents were going in our Ford Pinto at that time in their lives. Now, they’ve followed me much farther than they ever imagined.

Though we no longer write letters, Dear Victoria kept me writing for decades, trying to tell her stories about my life and make it seem more exciting. My letter writing expanded to include friends in school and elaborate notes with secret codes and nicknames. Love letters to a boyfriend and recorded cassette tapes of poetry readings and love songs, my letter writing grew and grew. Envelopes addressed to soldiers from my family–in Germany, Kosovo, Iraq. I bought quill pens, wax seals, and parchment paper—got all fancy. I decorated the envelopes & called it Happy Mail. And then, email came along and took over. Facebook status updates. Tweets. I lost my touch, and put all my efforts into fiction and editing. Writing interviews.

I finally saw letter writing as a prelude to my creativity with a longer work. However, my mailbox (the real one by the road) was empty for too long. Sad even, flag always down. A friend from graduate school moved away and sent a postcard, and I sent a card back, and then a letter arrived, and I scurried to write a response. And one of my close friends deployed to Afghanistan, and I berated myself for not writing to her enough.

Hand-written letters allow us to get lost in writing, to forget about editing, to avoid our reliance on the delete key, and to allow the ink to flow across the page. Within letters, I can see the way my friend’s pen strokes show that she is tired, or annoyed, or angry, and they also show how excited or frantic she might be. A sealed envelope invites anticipation and personalization that email cannot offer.

Now, my grad school friend and I write back and forth with dedication for a while, but life takes over periodically and we stop writing, then we pick it back up again. We’ve written two letters in about a month. The pen explosion felt like an old signal, the start gun of a long run with writing and creating.

What gets your creativity in motion?