Epistolaries at Dawn

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March 20, 2018 by bradcharlesbeals

Imitating another writer’s voice (as I wrote about here) requires time spent in the work of that writer, but picking a pocket for a clever device doesn’t.

For my novel Catastropolis, I picked Patrick O’Brian’s pocket for his use of secondary texts to convey plot. He wrote a many-volumed series of historical novels set in the context of the British navy during the Napoleonic wars. His two main characters regularly communicate through letters and dispatches, and he draws heavily on these to narrate the plot.

I thought the device would work well for me. I was writing in the first person and needed to break from that POV to convey the story of character who leaves the narrative for several chapters and then returns. My first-person narrator couldn’t follow him there, so I relied on letters. I think it worked.

Freeing up a POV limited narrator is one application of the tool, but there are others. The occasional letter (epistle or epistolary in literary contexts) also allows you to…

  1. Explore the voice of the character writing the letter. It’s a temporary first-person shift, the novelist’s equivalent of the dramatist’s aside (ok, maybe a diary entry would be a true equivalent, but the letter does give the reader a more fully formed voice that we might not otherwise hear).
  2. Condense plot into summary form. Somewhere between outright narration and an indirect quote in terms of word count, this strategy allows for the voice to compress events while at the same time staying more closely connected to those events.
  3. Add variety to the narration. It’s a different voice, different from the narrator, different from the speaking character. It’s also a different point of view, which can be handy when you’re locked into one perspective as I was with Catastropolis.  

 

The epistolary is a tool and, as with most tools, you can usually find more than one use for it. So thank you, Patrick O’Brian, for letting me pick your pocket.

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