Epistolary, anyone?

When the novel was dreamed up several hundred years ago, it was very “nouvelle,” a shocking way to tell a story. It started life as a series of letters between people, stitched together. Aphra Behn‘s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister is an early example, published in several volumes in the 1680s. Another is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, published in 1741 by the author, a printer, and often referred to as the first modern novel. Novels containing letters are now called epistolary novels.

Today we have evolved. No longer are we a bunch of well-educated but ‘middling’ women, sitting around writing letters to each other to improve our characters. Nor do we need to be preached at about morality, as many early novels did. Jane Austen cured of us of all that. Her novels told complete stories, sometimes including letters but mostly in a modern prose narrative that still seems fresh. The French, Spanish, and Germans also had epistolary novels in the 1700s, like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but by the 19th Century the pure epistolary novel of letters was on its way out.

I loved writing letters to my friends when I was in high school but sadly we don’t write many letters any more. (When was the last time you got a handwritten anything in the mailbox?)

In modern novels there can be other sorts of documents though: emails, texts, newspaper articles, and even blog posts like this one. I am, I guess, a throwback in that I love these “auxiliary documents” that shine a light on some aspect of a character or situation. The police report can be a concise way to deliver the goods about a crime or criminal. A news report or article can offer different aspects of the public interest in an event in the story. Bridget Jones’ Diary entries were hilarious. These elements are economical and get straight to the point. And they can be very fun.

In my new suspense novel, The Girl in the Empty Dress, I use blog posts from one of the Bennett sisters to set the stage and further the story. All five sisters are lawyers. The blog is called Lawyrr Grrls so any of the sisters could have written it; figuring out which one is doing the deed is part of the fun. The five sisters go on a walking tour of France with one friend along. That friend, Gillian, the titular “Girl,” causes trouble from the start. The problems snowball after she insists on keeping an injured dog they find along a road.

The main character is the middle sister, Merle, so much of the story is told from her perspective. The blog offers another sister’s thoughts in a catty, humorous way. There are also text messages back and forth between the sisters and their parents. This is my favorite, from a sister obsessed with French cheese:

Girl in the empty dress• M&D: Why didn’t you tell me about Camembert? You’ve been holding out on me! Thinking of cheese biz. My friend Gillian is driving us crazier than we are already. Must drink wine to hold tongues! Sisters having fun!

• Remember, dear, cheese is very binding. Mother.


I think epistolary elements add spice to the modern novel, keeping it fresh and accessible to readers. I hope I’m not alone. 🙂


Lise McClendon’s new suspense novel, The Girl in the Empty Dress, is available now from Thalia Press. It’s a sequel to Blackbird Fly, her bestselling novel set in France. Check out her other books at her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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