How to Write an Epistolary Novel in Ten Not-So-Simple Steps

“Is it difficult to write a novel told entirely in letters?”  

In the days since the release of my new epistolary novel, Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, I’ve fielded many versions of that question from readers of all ages, and my honest answer is, "Yes!  It most definitely is!"   

So for those readers and writers interested in the challenges of the epistolary form, I offer Ten Not-So-Simple Steps:

1.         Find a voice.  Maybe look for a bright light like Reenie Kelly who really loves to talk.  And talk.  And talk.  Let your character speak.  Learn to pay attention. 

2.         Find a listener for the letters.  The letter requires a receiver, someone on the other end to whom the message is addressed.  A kindly shut-in like Mr. Marsworth can always do the trick.  Dear Abby, too.  Imagine what they’ll answer.  Hear that second voice. 

3.         Go In search of story.   Girl in a new town in 1968.  Frightened girl awakening to the realities of the war in Vietnam.  Worried girl looking for a way to save her older brother from the draft.  Scrappy girl confronting bullies.  Lonely girl facing all these problems with no one else to tell.  Smart girl teaching lessons about love to an unexpected friend. 

4.         Find a way for the correspondence to be exchanged.  What about the milk box just outside the gate?  Or if there’s not a milk box, the mail will work fine.

5.         Know real time is passing.  June 21, 1968.   July 8, 1968.  August 12, 1968.   Date the letters.  Hang up giant calendars to keep track of the events.  

6.         Get used to writing letters in past tense.  As in: “While I was waiting for your letter, those bullies egged Gram’s house.”  Or, “Last night, we had a fight about the war.”

7.         Honor the intimacy of letters.  The letter belongs to the writer and receiver.  The reader can eavesdrop on a letter, but it isn’t meant for us.  “Dear Mr. Marsworth, It’s night and I can’t sleep.”

8.         Remember in a letter, every writer will both reveal and withhold.  Pfc. Skip Nichols won’t tell Reenie Kelly the realities of the war in Vietnam.  He can’t say all he’s seen, not to a child.  Mr. Marsworth is too shy to say what's in his heart.  Even loquacious Reenie Kelly keeps some secrets to herself.  Not everything between the writer and the listener can be said. 

9.         Expect to love these people you’ve been listening to so long.  Trust your readers will come to love them, too. 

10.       Realize a full story has been told in all those letters.  After years of living with these people and their private correspondence, it’s become a book just like you dreamed.  Your characters are living and ready for the world.  Choose a title from the letters.  Settle on Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, because it means their letters will continue long after you are done.   

Yours Truly and Sincerely, 

Sheila O'Connor


  1. This sounds delightful! Love the letter format of the post!

  2. Letter writing is a lost art and I love the idea of reviving it to tell a story from the past.

  3. I agree--I so love the idea of an epistolary novel right now. There's nothing quite as special as receiving a handwritten letter.


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