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[Guest Post] Building a Brilliant Vocabulary: Nuanced Nouns, Vivacious Verbs, Ambitious Adjectives, and What to Do With Them

Today’s guest bloggers are LetterMo Community Members Jaynie Royal and Ruth Feiertag. Ruth and Jaynie are quintessential, complementary twin peas in the pod. While I, Jaynie, perpetually seek to refine my developmental nose—and I speak of character and plot, not day-old fish or malodorous swamp—when it comes to punctuation, I am much in need of Rutherian advice. And I, Ruth, look to Jaynie for insight on content, flow, and characterization. I keep trying to get her to impart to me her tact and diplomacy, but until then, I rely on her to remove my foot from my mouth before anyone notices it’s there. Their full bios are below.

4th February, 2017

Dear Readers,

Ruth: Some years ago, the laurel I inherited from my father turned into a tree with leaves to spare; since then, I have stopped using dried bay leaves and now rely on the supply of fresh ones that I have always to hand. The fresh leaves impart a more vibrant, brighter flavour to my culinary concoctions, one that I notice particularly in my marinara sauce. But I miss the more robust quality of the dried leaves and may buy some to use with the just-plucked foliage from my father’s tree.

Obsessed as Jaynie and I are with language, I cannot help but see how like cooking the writing process is, particularly when it comes to word choice and diction. We start with some basic content and then enhance the flavour, the significance by making judicious choices about the herbs and spices we add or the vocabulary we employ. I suppose we could even say that acquiring an extensive vocabulary is as necessary to a writer as is a wide range of pigments to a painter.

Is it my imagination, or does adding laurel leaves bring out a more triumphant note in soup than adding bay? Or does a laurel, like a rose, smell as sweet by any other word? And does it matter whether Shakespeare wrote “by any other word” or “by any other name”? Whether what Hamlet wishes would resolve itself into a dew is “ too, too sullied flesh” or “too, too solid flesh”? I would say yes, it matters, but that the different inflections have equal value and the discussion about the connotations sharpens our verbal palette.

Really, it’s all about having sufficient choices to bring out the flavours of food, the contrast between shade and light, the nuances of a text, about experimenting with diverse spices and tints and turns of phrase.

6th February, 2017

Jaynie: I do rather adore Ruth’s culinary metaphor there. Well done. A perfect analogy for the carefully crafted literary piece.

Perhaps my advice here, in regards to refining the vocabulary, is to give over your manuscript to a well-read third party with the pointed directive to examine whether said vocabulary engages; whether the reader is immersed in the narrative, spellbound by the ongoing action, enamored with vividly drawn characters. For if the vocabulary is spot on, it will not be noticed. It might occur to your reader, on some level, whilst immersed in your story, that this character or that event was indeed marvelously described, but she or he will be enthralled.

A poverty-stricken vocabulary, one that is limited in scope, can quickly become tedious and repetitive for your reader. It is not that one must learn multisyllabic words and utilize them ad nauseam; one can write beautifully with a simple, direct, precise prose—indeed, often this style is to be preferred. Acquiring a rich vocabulary, however, as Ruth has so aptly put it, stocks your herb shelf to bursting. And if you want a simple four-ingredient soup: pumpkin, chicken stock with a little ginger and salt, carefully combined, it will be delicious. There is, however, in these simple recipes, a secret of which all accomplished cooks are well aware: the ingredients themselves should be even more thoughtfully selected since each will have to carry more of the gustatory burden; I would recommend farmers-market fresh, preferably organic. In this respect, while the narrative prose might be clear and straightforward, the words themselves should be most carefully chosen and thoughtfully combined.

If you have, however, a more extensive repertoire to hand you can, should you so decide, experiment with all kinds of fusion cuisine. Perhaps you might want to delve into the layered intricacies of a freshly made Thai curry or the herbaceous brightness of Vietnamese spring rolls? Or the decadent layers of a rich chocolate-mousse cake? Okay, I’m starving. Whose idea was it to feature culinary cuisine in a vocabulary-feature anyway?

But, in all seriousness, I would have to say that the absolute best source of vocabulary enrichment comes from great works of literature. From W.E.B Du Bois to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, to the poems of Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson, from the Great Bard to Fydor Dostoyevsky. I mention, of course, very few of the many works available to the reader of contemporary writing.

These works are rightly deemed classics because their magic is pervasive and perpetual. Subsequent generations continue to be enthralled by these literary masterpieces because the vocabulary contained therein is not only a rich repertoire of the mother tongue but because these writers wield it with such wondrous facility. Read and learn. That’s what I do.

7th February, 2017

Ruth: Jaynie, I want to pick up on your idea of “fusion cuisine” because that’s so very much what English is. While the most notable “fusion” was thrust upon the Anglo-Saxons by the Norman-French almost a thousand years ago, English has sponged up words from Hindi (shampoo), Italian (sprezzatura), Yiddish (mishegas), Arabic (candy), Spanish (renegade)… I am pleased to see that your list includes authors beyond those in the DWM (Dead White Males) Club. We can also grow our word-hoards by reading authors magazines—magazines offer us a phenomenal smorgasbord of modern eloquence.

The two-lane Miracle-Gro route to vocabulary proliferation runs through dictionaries and thesauri. Word-of-the-Day calendars offer verbal boosts in palatable doses. And language courses—try Latin or Greek—can provide the building blocks for understanding new words we encounter, even when there is not a dictionary in sight.

There are some wonderful books about words as well. Two of my favourites are both about that unparalleled compendium, The Oxford English Dictionary. The first is Ammon “I’m reading the OED so you don’t have to” Shea’s hilarious Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages; the second, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, an intricate and compassionate portrait of the relationship between the Civil War doctor who contributed literary examples to accompany definitions and the professor who was the driving force behind the greatest lexicographical feat in history.

But I would suggest that merely reading won’t make one true friends with new verbal acquaintances. As with all deep, meaningful relationships, the way to cement the bond is to use your friends. Casually drop them into dinner conversation: “Darling, don’t prognosticate doom for your siblings just because your connection to them is tenuous.” Keep a vocabulary journal and write flash fiction based on three words culled from your collection. And write letters, lots and lots of letters.

9th February, 2017

Jaynie: I think that you make a critical point, Ruth, insofar as usage is concerned. In order to render your newly acquired vocabulary (or those marvelous words you have been hoarding for fear of sounding pretentious in conversation) fluid, smoothly integrated with the more mundane verbiage that often constitutes daily back and forth, you have to actually use it. Use it in speech and use it in prose. These words need to flow trippingly from your tongue and your pen, otherwise they are jarring to the ear or the eye; they lack the natural rhythm that attends to well-lubricated language. They do not sound authentic. And in order for your letters to successfully engage your reader, the words you use must come across as vividly authentic.

Just as a complex recipe benefits from multiple makings (I will not tell you how many times I have been disappointed by my attempts at southern-style biscuits), deliberately expanding one’s vocabulary and using these new words often affords you, the writer, a greater linguistic facility that will invest your letters with added depth and power. And rather fun to be able to bring them out at dinner parties (in conjunction with that elaborately wrought chocolate-mousse cake): “Darlings, a decadent chocolate confectionary for your post-dinner delectation!”

BUT—a word of warning here—these words must come naturally to you. You must formulate your own particular literary style. While an expanded vocabulary is indubitably a marvelous tool in the writer’s repertoire, these words, indeed all words, should be judiciously and appropriately used. How do you know if you are using them in a fluent and engaging manner? In a way that enhances your letters rather than weighing them down? Natural speech provides a good clue in this regard: if you can (and do) utilize these particular words in daily conversation, with the fluency that accompanies unpremeditated dialogue, then chances are that these words, now a natural part of your own lexicon, can be used with ease in your writing as well.

Oxford English Dictionary

Ruth: Jaynie darling, you’re absolutely right. Familiarity and use will make new words second nature. Besides adding scintillating, sparkling new terms to one’s collection, compiling a range of options for more commonplace vocabulary can add dimension and variety to one’s discourse. So here are lists of some our favourite verbal gems and reliable workhorses:

  • Nouns: abluvion, apricity, credenda, kindness, urchin
  • Verbs: coruscate, defenestrate, evoke, honour, imbricate, scringe
  • Adjectives: copacetic, gimlet, idiopathic, moribund, plangent, poignant

Word groups:

  • Said: replied, responded, told, cried, whispered, whimpered, remarked, observed, noted, snapped, injected, interrupted
  • Asked: queried, inquired, begged, pleaded/pled, requested
  • Tired: sleepy, somnolent, exhausted, zombie-like, weary, fatigued
  • Write: pen, pencil, author, scribe, scribble, scripted, scrawled, scratched
  • Affect (n), affect (v), effect (v), effect (n)
  • Project, inject, eject, reject
  • Arrogate, abrogate, interrogate
  • Evoke, provoke, invoke, revoke
  • Inversion, perversion, reversion, conversion

Linking words:

  • Again, another, besides, furthermore, likewise, moreover, not only this but that as well

Turning words:

  • But, however, despite, maugre, although, conversely, nevertheless, on the other hand, still, yet


  • Red: scarlet, blood, ruby, garnet, pomegranate, incarnadine, rose, ruddy, wine, burgundy
  • Orange: flame, amber, sunset, copper, mango
  • Yellow: sun, topaz, golden, citrine, school-bus, wheaten, brassy
  • Green: emerald, kelly, Lincoln-green, grass, forest, moss, fern, verdigris
  • Blue: cobalt, navy, sapphire, peacock, sky, ocean, lake, azure, turquoise, indigo
  • Violet: purple, amethyst, eggplant, aubergine, morning-glory, grape
  • Black: ebony, inky, pitch
  • White: snow, ivory, linen, bone
  • Grey: smoke, ash, storm
  • Multi-coloured: pied, mottled, brindled, motley, spotted

Jaynie and Ruth wrote each other’s biographies.

Regal House Publishing

Jaynie Royal is the author Killing the Bee King and the General Editor and Publisher of Regal House Publishing and its imprints, Fitzroy Books (for Young and New Adult literature) and Pact Press (an imprint dedicated to encouraging conversations that will help bridge the divisions that pervade our society). Jaynie is a talented cook, a proud parent, an educator, and a devoted epistolarian. She is also brilliant, lovely, possessed of wit and hope, and TOTALLY cool.

Ruth is the owner of PenKnife Writing and Editorial Services, the Senior Editor for Regal House Publishing, and an independent scholar who writes about Medieval and Early Modern English Literature. Ruth has a heart of gold and is a staunch and loyal advocate for the downtrodden wherever she may find them. She has a sharp wit, an incisive eye, and a marvelously dry sense of humor; in short, she is utterly AWESOME.

Guest Post: Creating Stamp Jewelry by Sara Glassman

Today’s guest blogger is LetterMo Community Member Sara Glassman, a bookseller, school librarian, jewelry maker, and passionate letter writer. She has a stationary and postcard addiction that she is not trying very hard to recover from. This is her fourth year participating in LetterMo. Be sure to check out her blog, Twitter, and Instagram.

One of my favorite parts about getting letters is looking at the stamps my correspondents have used. With mail art and general envelope design being so popular it is rare to get an envelope with a simple flag stamp these days. Most of my letters have two or three coordinating stamps of varying denomination. They are tiny paintings on every envelope.

I’m always loved stamps. When I was eight, my mom got me a First Day Cover subscription from the Post Office. Once a month, they would mail me a fancy envelope with a special stamp. They all went into a special presentation book. (Although, there were apparently two Glassmans in my city who were part of the program and we kept getting each other’s packages.)

First Day Cover Bugs Bunny

My mother had a wealth of vintage stamps from her own stamp collecting days. I marveled at the stamps in soft reds or greens, but I never really knew what to do with them except paste them into a scrapbook. As I got older I realized the potential for collage, but it still didn’t quite fill the itch I had to do something really special with the stamps I was receiving. And then much, much later I started making jewelry. And I realized that I had finally found the exact thing that I wanted.

The first stamp I used was an amazing dragon stamp from Botswana. My friend was there with the Peace Corps and she wrote to me frequently. Botswana had some beautiful stamps! I’ve also been active in PostCrossing for several years, which has brought me some beautiful stamps from various parts of the world.

necks made with dragon stamp from Botswana

The actual process of making the necklaces is fairly simple.

  1. Find a stamp you like. If it’s been stuck to an envelope or postcard already, soak it in a bowl of warm water until the glue loosens. Then lay the stamp out to dry. (I usually dry them face down just in case there is some glue left.)
  2. Decide what size pendant you want to make. I usually give the stamp a small 1 or 2cm border. Cut a piece of thin cardboard to fit. (The backing board the post office uses when they ship stamps is ideal!)
  3. Find a background paper that compliments your stamp. Scrapbooking paper or origami paper are my usual go-to papers for this. You can find so many beautiful patterns and colors. Tissue paper will also work, but you usually need several layers.
  4. Coat the cardboard with ModPodge and wrap the paper around the cardboard. You can either leave the seams showing or cut a backing piece to fit. That is entirely up to you.
  5. Use the ModPoge again to stick the stamp to the pendant. You can center it or offset it if you’d like. Coat the entire front with ModPoge and then when that dries, flip it over and coat the back.
  6. eyeletsOnce everything has dried completely, use a scrapbooking eyelet tool to punch holes and then set the eyelets. I often put another eyelet at the bottom so I can hang a few beads. This can dress up the pendant and also give it a bit more weight once you’re wearing it.
  7. The final step is to add cord and there you are! If you want to get fancy, you can use chain, silk ribbon, or anything else you like.

I will warn you, once you’ve seen how simple it is, it can be very difficult not to eye every bit of paper or scrap of decoration on an envelope as something to make wearable. I hope you find some beautiful stamps to wear.

[Guest Post] The Letter Game – Caroline Stevermer

Today’s guest blogger is Caroline Stevermer, who has written nine and a half novels, if you count Sorcery And Cecelia, The Grand Tour, and The Mislaid Magician as half a novel each (since they were written with Patricia C. Wrede). She lives and writes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her most recent letter game (written with Ellen Kushner) is the short story “The Vital Importance of the Superficial,” which appeared in Queen Victoria’s Book Of Spells.

Ellen Kushner taught me to play the Letter Game when we were in college.

What is the Letter Game? I checked just now and there is a Wikipedia entry for it. Here’s part of the entry:

A letter game involves the exchange of written letters, or e-mails, between two or more participants. The first player writes a letter in the voice of a newly created character; in this first letter, the writer should establish their own identity and that of their correspondent, should set the scene, and should explain why they and their correspondent must communicate in written fashion. In subsequent letters, plot and character can be developed, but the writers should not talk about plot outside of the letters and the characters should never meet.

I play a slightly looser version of the game, in that the first letter writer isn’t necessarily correct–the second letter writer could be someone who intercepted a letter intended for someone else, for example.

Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline StevermerWhen Patricia C. Wrede and I were writing Sorcery and Cecelia, we allowed ourselves to gossip about the characters but we agreed never to discuss the plot. I’d played the Letter Game before (and have since), but the sheer delight of playing the game with Pat comes through in those letters. We didn’t know we were writing a novel. We were just playing the game.

According to my recollections (Pat may see things quite differently) once we finished up the last letters, we felt confident we had a book on our hands. Pat, the consummate professional, had been keying her letters into a file on her computer all along. (I didn’t yet have a computer.) She made certain the manuscript was complete and presentable. Before we sent it to our literary agent (we had the same agent in those days), Pat and I made a few changes, mainly to remove some loose ends that didn’t contribute to the plot. Terri Windling purchased the novel for Berkeley Books. Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, it went out of print almost instantly. Harcourt Brace bought it and its two sequels, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician, years later and reissued it in hardcover. Digital editions are available from Open Road Media.

Since we didn’t realize we were were writing a novel until we were nearly finished, it is tricky to talk about the writing process. I said before, we were just playing the game. But this Letter Game was set in a place and time we both knew well, the intersection between Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and all the fantasy we’d both read all our lives. The regency romance provided a clear template to follow.

In both sequels, we had gone beyond the regency romance template. We had characters who were in established relationships. More difficult still, in The Grand Tour we had characters who were in the same place at the same time. We got around that difficulty by alternating between extracts from Kate’s journal and portions of Cecy’s legal deposition recounting the events they’d been embroiled in.

TL;DR: The Letter Game is great. Give it a try. (Bend the rules.)


P.S. Pat adds: Speaking of bending the rules… Since Sorcery and Cecelia came out, I have had mail from all sorts of people who’ve played the game in different ways, including a pair of eighth graders who used it as a history class project (each playing a cousin from opposite sides in the American Civil War), a group of about ten people playing a cross-universe version in which none of the characters were able to meet physically, and another couple who each played multiple characters who were all corresponding with each other (and most of them were lying to some characters and conspiring with others). The game is very adaptable.

[Guest Post] A PenPal For Over 30 Years

Today’s guest blogger is LetterMo Community Member Heather Cunnah, a busy mum to 7 children, of which 5 still live at home. She blogs about cross stitching and her family on a regular basis and says that “I could never dream of the day that I was without these things. Letter writing and stitching is part of who I am!” You can find her on Twitter @xstitchchick.

I am now 44 years of age and from around the age of 10 years old I have always had penpals, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t. I started off by writing to friends in the area that we moved from in 1979 (see I am showing my age!) then I saw penpal adverts in weekly comics/magazines and it all started from there.

I used my pocket money to buy my stationery and stamps. In those days a first class postage stamp was around 15 pence. On my morning walk to school I passed the post box, which was very handy indeed as I could post my letters of a morning on the way to school! Returning home from school to find mail most days was fantastic.

A very dear friend of mine saw an advertisement in a magazine about an organisation that could match you up with a penpal abroad. Well imagine my excitement!! She gave me the page from the magazine (checking there were no hunky pop starts on the reverse side haha!). So I sent off for the information package and form to fill in. The organisation, which was called the International Youth Service (IYS) If I remember rightly, charged 40p for every pen-pal they matched you with.


I could choose the age and nationality of my penpal. Wow, amazing! My penpalling went on from there and every year or so I would use this service to find a new pen pal and I haven’t looked back since.

It was so exciting sending letters abroad and way back then (the “olden days”). I used aerogrammes to write to my penpals abroad. They were great for short and quick replies but since nothing was allowed to be enclosed in them they did restrict my letter writing. Have any of you heard of them or even used them?

aerogrammeThey were basically a sheet of airmail paper that once written on folded up a certain way then stuck together to make an envelope. When you bought the aerogramme the postage was included in the price which was why nothing was allowed to be enclosed. I used them for a short while then started using ‘proper’ paper and envelopes so I could add little extras in with my letters or over the envelope in stickers. I still do that today.

I still write to many of my penpals that I have had for years. It has been great growing up with them and watching each other’s family grow. I have even met a number of my penpals, one is now a very good friend via social media. Another penpal, from Australia, came and stayed in our house for a week as he was doing a tour around Europe. I still write and email him very often. He has “watched” my children grow up. He came to stay a few months after I had my first child so it is fantastic that he has met most of my family.

Some of my children are showing a great interest in penpals, particularly now as I start to get ready for LetterMo, and my youngest girls have a penpal or two each and are looking to expand their letter writing and picture drawing. I think it’s important they learn the art of letter writing and written communication.

This day and age it’s all about the computer and e-mail–both of which I do not let them use too often without supervision–plus letter writing is a great activity to do together. The children really enjoy coming home from school to find a letter or postcard waiting for them… I understand that feeling very well! It is like watching myself in a mirror.

I really take great pleasure in taking over the dining room table when I write my letters. I keep the letters I need to reply to in a folder which is in my “penpal basket”. That is where I keep all my stationery; these days itt’s getting harder and harder to find good quality paper at great prices. I know when I buy paper I always have to buy extra as my girls always pinch some off me!

Heather Letter Station

During my many years of penpalling I have met some brilliant people and I hope over the next 30 years I meet many more. I hope that we have all received many letters and cards during February and that we form lasting friendships.

[Guest Post] Dear Spock, From: Genghis Kahn – Amber Benson

Today’s guest blogger is Amber Benson, an actor, writer, director and maker of things. Until recently she did not own a television. Follow her on Twitter.

When I was a teenager, I was an obsessed letter writer. We’d moved from Orlando, Florida to Los Angeles and writing (coupled with the occasional expensive long distance phone call) was the only way I could stay in touch with my friends.

Obviously, this was before the advent of the internet and email–yes, I’m old–and though it required more effort to buy paper and envelopes and stamps, there was a real joy in putting my thoughts down in such a tactile way. You had to really think about what you were going to say and it made me feel closer to my friends than writing an email ever has.

Amber Benson Mail
This is a letter for me, ‘aka Genghis Kahn,’ from my friend, Tanja, ‘aka Spock’

The real art to writing a letter–for me, at least–was in the addressing of the envelope. As evidenced in these pictures, we spent a lot of time and energy entertaining ourselves with our ‘art’––and annoying the crap out of the post office.

[Guest Post] Writing the Elderly

Today’s guest blogger is LetterMo Community Member Sarah, who enjoys writing letters to keep in touch with and encourage family and friends. She helps care for her grandmother who lives with her family and runs three blogs: Sarah’s Scribblings about the mail she sends, Simply Shoeboxes about packing Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes, and Simply CVS about deal shopping at CVS Pharmacy, and is on her church’s media team.

I’ve enjoyed taking part in LetterMo the last three years, so am so excited to have this opportunity to guest post, and especially something as near and dear to my heart as mail for the elderly.

In spite of the fact I grew up hundreds of miles from my great aunts, and my paternal grandparents, it seems I’ve often been around the elderly. When I was in preschool and early elementary school my grandmother who lived near us worked at an adult daycare, so my mother, sister, and I volunteered there often doing projects with the elderly participants. That’s also where I had my first pen pal, one of the participants… although I don’t think I was reading yet and my mom had to help me!

Then in middle school I “babysat” my great-grandmother one afternoon a week. High school and college brought attending the traditional service at our church where most the other worshipers were elderly. Through those experiences I learned how much the elderly long for and enjoy interaction with the younger generation, and I learned how much a hug could mean.

But, as I said earlier, my great aunts and one set of my grandparents have never lived close to me, how could I be a part of their lives to encourage them? Then my grandmother moved in with us, and I saw how she would light up when she got a card from her nieces and nephews. She would show it to us when we went in, often repeatedly. One time a nephew wrote a letter and she was THRILLED, kept reading it, and saying how she didn’t know if she ever got a letter like that.

And with that, a light bulb went off in my head.

I had already started sending more mail in general, so why not try to send them something more often? As I’ve taken part in A Month of Letters Challenge I started sending Valentine’s cards to my great aunts. Then it grew to trying to send something from my family every month or so, just simple things like dollar store cards for New Years, Valentines, St Patrick’s Day, Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, while trying to include a note about something that’s going on around here or the weather. This year I was sure to get all their birthdays, so we are doing that, too.

Holiday Cards

The response blew me away! No, my mailbox didn’t fill up, although I did get a couple responses; most of them are either getting too old or have too many grandkids to whom they need to send cards to write often. But when they do write, or when I get a chance to see them occasionally, they are sure to mention getting them.

A few years ago I got a chance to visit my great, great aunt, that’d I’d only met once, in a nursing home in another state. She had notes and photos displayed that I’d sent! As my aunts were trying to tell her daughters–who I had never met–who I was, they said they knew who I was, I guess in part from the photos and notes I’d sent. Another great aunt told me it made her feel “like we love and care about her” and her daughter kept telling me that it really meant a lot to her mom. Another great aunt told me she really appreciated getting them, and her daughters said she always reported to them when she’d heard from me. That great aunt even told my aunt at a family shower how she really liked getting cards from me. Another one was eager to show me how she displayed and kept them all! I think every one of them, and a number of their children, have mentioned to me how much it means. I could not have imagined how big a deal it was for them!!!

In a way I’ve become the family “newsman” giving updates on my immediate family, and sometimes sharing photos of larger family get-togethers or of a mutual family member in the armed forces I saw online. Of my seven great (& great, great) aunts, only two are online or texting at all, and that’s pretty limited. So, if no one contacts them the old fashioned way, whether by phone or mail, they really lose touch and miss their extended family they so care for. This is true for so many of the elderly today, and some as they start to have problems with their hearing, it becomes hard to keep up over the phone. Their only contact may be through the mail.

But it’s not only the elderly we’re close to that appreciate us writing. Of those I write, only a couple had I seen even yearly as a child. I saw the same thing with my grandmother last summer when she had a to stay in the hospital and nursing home for a month. My mom signed her up with the Facebook page “From the Heart” and a number of people from across the country sent her cards. To her it didn’t matter that she didn’t know them, she was just thrilled to get cards and kept showing them to us and everyone else. Her roommate even said the room would be dull once she left and took her cards, so I sent her one!

Cards in nursing home

And as a caretaker for my elderly grandmother, I know how encouraging it is for the caregivers, too. Being a caregiver can be a hard, thankless, and lonely job. Often one is so busy with providing care it’s hard to find time and energy to do much cheering. In our case, we’re the only children and grandchildren involved in her life and care, and her sister-in-law and nieces and nephews are out of state. So, when someone (especially one of our friends) takes the time to send her a card or note it helps us feel less alone. Also, when she was in the nursing home, we had the cards from From the Heart sent to a friend’s business (without a PO Box, we don’t like giving our address out online) and picked them up from time to time, and then every time we visited her, we gave her one when we left so she had something to look forward to/do after we left. It really was a great help and stress relief to us.

Would you consider adding the elderly to your letter writing list to put some mail in the hands of someone to whom it may mean the world? If you have older friends or family members, that is a great place to start. Or ask your friends or pen pals if they have one they’d like you to write, especially if they are caring for them.

If not, you can check with your local nursing homes, adult day cares, or senior center to find people in your community in need of some mail cheer. If you’re a member of a church or other religious or social group you could check with them. I know our church keeps a list of homebounds and highlights one in the bulletin each week as well as collects cards at Christmas to be hand delivered to them and I have seen a similar thing at another church.

There are also places online to find people to mail to, as I mentioned earlier “From the Heart” is one we’ve used personally. I hope you can do this and find it as rewarding as I do, maybe not in getting mail, but in knowing you’ve helped and brighten someone else’s day!

Hands with card

[Guest Post] A Letter That Stayed With Me – Paul Cornell

Today’s guest blogger is Paul Cornell, a writer of SFF in prose, comics and television. His Shadow Police urban fantasy novels continue this year with Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? and his Witches of Lychford novella will also get a sequel this autumn. His episode of Elementary will be screened in March and his comics prequel to the Warcraft movie is out in May.

ElephantmenI can think of a couple of letters that made a big difference to my life.

The one from Virgin Books editor Peter Darvill-Evans, stating that “if I wasn’t careful” I’d be writing one of the first original Doctor Who novels had me leaping up and down in my hallway, until I started to wonder what he meant by “careful”.

But the one I’m going with was much earlier than that, from Richard Starkings, who at the time was editor of the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, and who I’d written to for some advice on getting into comics. What he sent me in return was hand-written and ten pages long, and I kept it for decades. (I lost a lot of stuff over the years because I tended to have ex-girlfriends who wanted to burn things.) It was full of good advice. But, more than that, it assured me that to make the leap to writing professionally was possible.

Richard is, quietly, still a big deal in comics, as a letterer for just about everyone, a marketer of fonts, a file preparation guy, and the creator of his own comic, Elephantmen. He’s also the heart and soul of the business, someone who’s done every job, who’s still helping everyone to do their best. He doesn’t get enough recognition for that.

So I thought that, by remembering his letter here, I’d get to say that about him.

[Guest Post] LetterMo Goes to University

Today’s guest blogger is LetterMo community member Susan, who is (in absolutely no particular order) a science librarian, a mum, a knitter, a baker & bread-eater, a stationary hoarder, a wife, gardener, and formerly-bendy yoga participant who still is giving it her best shot.

It was a Goulet Pens email that first caught my eye–a message about stationary (for which I am a total sucker) and matching envelopes, and a note on how these items were currently available for sale “…just in time for InCoWriMo!”

I had never heard of InCoWriMo, so I did what any fountain-pen and stationary obsessed librarian does–I Googled it. When I read all about InCoWriMo, and next about LetterMo, I was totally hooked–I love to write letters, I have a ton of vintage fountain pens that I love to use, lots of pretty coloured inks, and a veritable overstuffed shelf of cards and writing paper/envelopes that I could use. The question wasn’t if I was going to participate in LetterMo, the question was HOW was I going to do so?

If I chose to simply write my own letters that would be fantastic in and of itself–a fun thing for me to do all on my own. But my job as an academic librarian at a very accepting and open-to-new-ideas library means that I can frequently blur the line between what I want to do for myself, and what I can do in my office and count it as “work”. I put on my thinking cap and started pondering–and didn’t immediately come up with any ideas. It wasn’t until a day or two later while talking to my art librarian colleague that I mentioned my interest in LetterMo–and casually let drop that my initial interest in writing letters was spurred on by the Griffin and Sabine books by the amazing author/illustrator Nick Bantock.

Now, my colleague, being a good 10 years younger than me, had never heard of Griffin and Sabine before, which in my mind was a true travesty! We consulted our library catalog and much to my delight and amazement despite this being an academic library, we had all three volumes of the first Griffin and Sabine trilogy.

As I was walking to the second floor to pull the books to show her, the idea suddenly occurred to me: what if for every day in February, I was to not only write and post a letter, but to also call attention to a ‘famous’ letter found in one of our library books? I could write up a daily post on the library’s Tumblr account, and post pictures, include links to the library catalog records for that book, etc. And all of a sudden, that was it. I could write my letters and make the whole endeavor academic at the same time–highlighting various titles in our library collection and bringing our student’s attention to some (hopefully) new authors they had never seen or read before.

LetterMo Social Media

February is just about halfway over, and so far I have been able–by the skin of my teeth!–to keep up. Every day, I have posted about a ‘Book of Letters’, and included various pictures of the book’s cover or title page, and a snapshot of a portion of the letter itself. I have also written and mailed at least one letter every day, and likewise through our social media outlets have included snapshots of each letter, envelope, stamps, stickers, or wax seal–depending on what each letter does or doesn’t have and what I think folks might like to see the best.

I have also written and mailed at least one letter every day

I daily put up tweets on the library’s Twitter account highlighting whatever has been detailed on that day, and also have been adding several pictures to the library’s Instagram page on a daily basis as well.

Instagram LikesWhile I cannot yet say for certain that I have inspired dozens of our students to begin writing letters, I can happily say that the response (at least via our Instagram site) has been extremely positive and gratifying. Every day the Instagram account gets upwards of 25 ‘likes’ from a wide variety of folks, and we have been averaging 1-2 new followers every day since February 1st. Official student groups have started to follow us, the Chief of Police of our town regularly likes our photos, and libraries from all over the world have been giving us a virtual thumbs-up.

When February is finally over, and March 1st rolls around I am not too sure what I will do. Survey our students to see how many actually saw and/or read the posts? Ask via Instagram if folks would like to see this again in 2017? Ask if anyone out there would like to write to me c/o the library? I haven’t yet decided what will be the best to do, but already know for certain that LetterMo2016 has been an extremely fun and gratifying event–and that even if I don’t do it in the guise of work next time around, I’ll be participating in LetterMo2017 for sure!

(After all, I did give in and bought new writing paper, envelopes, stickers, and wax seal stamps for the project, so it isn’t like I will run out of fun supplies anytime soon!)

If anyone is interested in following along for the rest of the month, follow my library’s Tumblr account and our Instagram photo feed. If you feel so inspired, please do join us–the more, the merrier!

Feathers WaxSeals


[Guest Post] “To the Letter” – A Meditation on Love Letters Across Time

Today’s guest blogger is LetterMo Community Member Ruth E. Feiertag, owner of PenKnife Writing and Editorial Services, Senior Editor for Regal House Publishing, and an independent scholar who writes about Medieval and Early Modern English Literature. She has a spouse and two children and dabbles in photo editing as a hobby.

14 February, 2016
St. Valentine’s Day

My dear Ms. Bradford,
Greetings and enthusiastic wishes for a Valentine’s Day alight with loads of loving letters! I write you today not only to send greetings, but also to thank you for giving me the singular honour of writing the Valentine’s Day post — and to tell you with immense regret that I can’t possibly write such a piece.

To the Letter by Simon GarfieldAllow me to explain. You asked that I focus on the love-letter sections of the book I have been reading, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield 1. If only you had asked me for a general review of the book! In that case, I could have extolled its wit and the wide range of historical examples it provides. I would have offered up moving passages, such as the one in the introductory chapter, “The Magic of Letters,” in which Mr. Garfield writes eloquently about what we are in danger of losing:

Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world used to run upon their transmission — the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall [sic] of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvelous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love. It must have seemed impossible that their worth would ever be taken for granted or swept aside. A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen (p. 19),

and provided instances of the author’s humour, such as when, in an aside to his discussion of Seneca’s instructional correspondence, he gently pokes fun at academics who study epistolary matters. In this note, Mr. Garfield informs us that

Seneca’s letters were longer than the norm, ranging from 149 to 4,134 words, with an average of 955, or some 10 papyrus sheets joined on a roll. Philological scholars with time on their hands have calculated that a sheet of papyrus of approximately 9 x 11 inches contained an average of 87 words, and that a letter rarely exceeded 200 words (note, p. 55),

an observation that betrays the author’s own interest in such minutiae. He also spares not the Fathers of the Church. He points out that during the millennium when “Literacy was not encouraged among the populace” (p. 81), letter-writing declined and “theological letters are all we have.” Mr. Garfield finds these letters uninspiring and cautions his readers that we “may prefer death to the lingering torture of reading them” (p. 82).

I shall say nothing at all about Mr. Garfield’s three chapters reviewing historical advice on “How to Write the Perfect Letter,” about the heated debates regarding whether letters should mimic informal conversations, about the importance of addressing recipients as befits their stations, about where to place one’s signature, nor about how leaving wide margins was a sign of wealth and status. Epistolary silence shall envelope the fascinating descriptions of the evolution of the modern postal system; not a word will there be from my pen about the incredible fact that postage used to be paid not by the sender of a letter but by the person to whom it was addressed, nor shall I mention anything about the invention of the postage stamp, despite Mr. Garfield’s engaging description of its conception2.

But love letters! You must see how this will never do. Love letters can leave us open to terrible embarrassment. Mr. Garfield acknowledges that

Love letters catch us at a time in our lives where our marrow is jelly; but we toughen up, our souls harden, and we reread them years later with a mixture of disbelief and cringing horror, and — worst of all — level judgement. The American journalist Mignon McLaughlin had it right in 1966: ‘If you must re-read old love letters,’ she wrote in The Second Neurotics Notebook, ‘better pick a room without mirrors.’ (p. 336)

Letters inside wooden box - credit Ruth FeiertagReading the love letters of others can be almost as cheek-reddening as reading our own. Shall we really subject our LetterMo companions to such blushing?

Moreover, we all know the power of a love letter. Think how we are charmed when Hamlet, that most articulate of Shakespeare’s creations, writes awkwardly to Ophelia:

‘Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
‘O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
‘Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.’
(Hamlet, II. ii. 1212-203)

And never let us forget that it is a letter, and not even an intentional love letter, but merely a letter of explanation, that finally wins Mr. Darcy the heart of Elizabeth Bennet. Do we wish to tempt our friends to deploy such power wantonly and without discretion?4

But these are fictional examples, created strictly for our amusement or even for our edification. I really don’t know whether we should intrude upon the privacy of people who actually lived — though Mr. Garfield patently feels no such compunction. He shamelessly lays out for us not only the ecstatic feelings of historical couples, he even brings up — and we’re both adults, so I’m just going to write the word straight out — SEX. I fancy you don’t believe me. Permit me, for veracity’s sake, to share some examples.

If you were to glance at page seventy-three, you would find Mr. Garfield’s account of

The letters between Marcus Aurelius and Fronto [which] track the rise and fall of a courtship from about AD 139, when Aurelius was in his late teens and his teacher in his late thirties, until about AD 148. The heart of their correspondence is ablaze with passion. ‘I am dying so for love of you,’ Aurelius writes, eliciting the response from his tutor, ‘You have made me dazed and thunderstruck by your burning love.’

All I will say is that, with all the conjugating the Romans had to learn, it’s a wonder there was time for such extra-curricular activity.

Mr. Garfield follows this Latin love affair with the tragic, even more explicit tale of Heloise and Abelard, those misfortunate, twelfth-century lovers. Theirs is another pupil-pedant passion, and Abelard writes that

‘With our lessons as our pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love.’ There followed ‘more kissing than teaching’ and hands that ‘strayed oftener to her bosom than the pages’ (p. 76).

The story culminates in pregnancy, a secret marriage, Abelard’s castration by Heloise’s relatives, and the retreat of both lovers into monastic life. Heloise’s love and desire for her husband remain unabated; during Mass, ‘“lewd visions of the pleasures we shared take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on my own prayers”’ (p. 78).

Letters seals ink - credit Ruth Feiertag

In a later chapter, Mr. Garfield treats us to a discussion of the romance of Napoleon and Josephine, and compares the market worth of their letters to the arguably more valuable missives of Admiral Lord Nelson. “In letters,” our author confides, “as everywhere else, sex sells: the Nelson [letter] went for Ł66,000, a fair sum but less than a quarter of a Bonaparte” (p. 192).

Mr. Garfield puts before us the affaire de cœr of Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. He quotes “a letter which echoed the steamy transactions of Abelard and Heloise …: ‘When [the pastor] said Our Heavenly Father,’ I said “Oh Darling Sue”; when he read the 100th Psalm, I kept saying your precious letter all over to myself, and Susie, when they sang … I made up words and kept singing how I loved you”” (p. 248).5 In another letter, Dickinson breathlessly confides to Gilbert that if they were together, “we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language” (p. 248).

To be sure, there are genuinely moving examples of great love to be found in the book. We are reminded that passionate romances need not be defined by tragedy. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett fell in love through their letters, and their correspondence describes a “swift 20-month crescendo from endearing fandom to all-consuming craving” (p. 345). The two poets eloped and lived happily for the duration of their marriage. Browning was “the man who swept her [Barrett] away and liberated her passion” (p. 347) — and married her.

While the concerns of the famous hold a particular fascination for the masses — as Shakespeare writes, “What great ones do the less will prattle of6 — the most touching and poignant letters are those of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore. Mr. Barker was a British signalman during the Second World War, Miss Moore an acquaintance from Mr. Barker’s time working in the Post Office. When they began to write, Ms. Moore was involved with someone named Nick, but three months into their correspondence Ms. Moore has shed Nick and is trying to persuade Mr. Barker that they are friends, and not mere acquaintances. She succeeds admirably, and soon Mr. Barker is assuring her of his interest in having “fun at a later date” while warning her “not to let me break your heart in 1946 or 47” (p. 145), and stoking her interest by wondering what she’s like “in the soft, warm, yielding, panting flesh” (p. 147). But before long Miss Moore’s unwavering admiration and epistolary dedication have complicated Mr. Barker’s desire and he is writing “I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU” (p. 202).

Miss Moore waits for her signalman throughout the war and his time as a POW. In the epilogue, we learn that they were married in October 1945 and had two sons. It is to the elder, Bernard, that we owe thanks for the preservation of their letters. The younger Mr. Barker says of his parents that “Their love for each other was so complete, always, that it was difficult for my brother and I in childhood and adolescence to relate to each of them as a single person” (p. 425). In the last letter of the war, Mr. Barker writes his by-now wife, “I can never be as good as you deserve, but I really will try very hard … We shall be collaborators, man and woman, husband and wife, lovers” (p. 426). The Barkers’ letters cannot be read without becoming involved in their growing affection and in the history Mr. Barker includes in his letters to the steadfast woman who would become his partner. The letters are tender and grateful and passionate, and we learn a great deal from them about Mr. Barker’s experiences as a signalman, about how to lay the foundation for a lasting, loving relationship, and about how thoroughly Victorian sexual mores had been trampled into the dust.

Letters on top of box - credit Ruth FeiertagI cannot but think that you are as shocked as I am. You have not read the book and are innocent regarding its contents. I am sure, in my heart of hearts, that you didn’t understand what you were asking me to do. But I am equally sure, Ms. Bradford, that you agree these matters ought not be laid out before the Month of Letters community, that none of our letter-writers could ever have the slightest interest in reading about affairs of the heart (and of the body) of other people. Our reputation as an Internet society devoted to promoting the respectable art of epistolary composition would suffer dreadfully, and neither of us wants to be complicit in bring such a judgement to pass.

I do hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me for letting you down so. To make up for the lack of a post, I offer you a poem in its stead, one more suitable for our impeccable epistolary society, as a substitute for the piece I should have given you:

But For Lust
Ruth Pitter

But for lust we could be friends,
On each other’s necks could weep:
In each other’s arms could sleep
In the calm the cradle lends:
Lends awhile, and takes away.
But for hunger, but for fear,
Calm could be our day and year
From the yellow to the grey:
From the gold to the grey hair,
But for passion we could rest,
But for passion we could feast
On compassion everywhere.
Even in this night I know
By the awful living dead,
By this craving tear I shed,
Somewhere, somewhere it is so.

I trust you understand my reasons for writing you this letter and do assure you that I remain

Your honoured and admiring epistolary confederate,
Ruth E. Feiertag

[Guest Post] The Princess and the Pens – Alethea Kontis

Today’s guest blogger is Alethea Kontis, a princess, author, fairy godmother, and geek. She’s the author of the award-winning Books of Arilland fairytale series, multiple picture books, including The Wonderland Alphabet and Diary of a Mad Scientist Garden Gnome, and a myriad of poems, essays, and short stories. She lives and writes on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie.

I once received pens as a bridesmaid gift.

I you’re reading this post, you probably don’t find this as shocking as the rest of the attendees of that particular rehearsal dinner. Bridesmaids are supposed to get shiny, pretty things (and this was long before wearing tiaras was a regular occurrence). I opened the bag, gasped with joy, and proudly showed off my bounty…of office supplies. Where there had been oohs and aahs for the other girls in the wedding party, my display was met with complete silence.

“You just have to know her,” Margo explained to her guests while I giddily skipped back to my seat.

Margo and Casey and I found each other in the seventh grade. The Three Musketeers. Best friends forever. We were misfits of the mid-eighties, when it was *almost* cool to be an outcast. Our trio loved to write almost as much as we loved to read, and our correspondence reflected this.

We didn’t pass notes in class, we passed a NOTEBOOK.

It was really, quite clever, if you think about it. What teacher will stop you from passing a notebook to your friend in class, or stop you from writing in it? As a result, our letters often looked like class notes: jotted down in all sorts of different directions, highlighted in different colors, and bullet-pointed, complete with doodles in the margins. There were no rules—anything went.

I sign my books with some of those same doodles.

alethea kontis signature

Margo’s handwriting was messy and scrawly. Casey’s was happy and round. Mine was that of an engineer’s daughter: often small and printed. The creativity came out in my pens. I loved experimenting with colors and thicknesses. Eventually I settled on a favorite—the Uniball ONYX. And then I received my first fountain pen.

Different colored ink was best thing about fountain pens. Where my D&D-playing friends had dice bags, I always had a bag full of ink cartridges. I liked writing in blue, then switching it out to green and watching as the ink transitioned through my writing. Granted, the transition switching to red was always a muddy brown, but I had too much fun writing my way through the rainbow to mind.

Switching unfinished cartridges also left its mark—hands stained with ink were always proof that I had been hard at work. These days I do most of my fiction writing on the computer, but after a book signing I’m often covered in a myriad of colors, and it makes me smile.

I reached the height of my letter-writing game the summer during high school that Casey was accepted to Governor’ School for the Arts and I wasn’t. Unlike the “anything goes” scattershot notebook of yesteryear, these letters were more formal and cohesive. Our trio had evolved to higher levels of expression…and boy, did we have some complicated, real-life emotions to express.

I wrote to Casey once or twice a week all summer, each letter in my trademark shifting ink. I then folded the paper, lit a candle, and melted crayons to make a wax seal. I forget what I used as a stamp for the impression—a ring? I didn’t wear many rings in those days, and I still don’t. I put the fancy sealed letter into the envelope, and then properly decorated the envelope before licking the stamps and sending it off.

Casey still has that stack of letters in her hope chest, a beautiful time capsule of days gone by in this modern age of ephemeral, ethereal emails.

I was actually thrilled at the advent of email—think of all the letters I could send! Instantaneously! Imagine the possibilities! I do miss those days of crayon wax seals, but I appreciate being able to write 30 emails and receive 10 replies in the time it would take to craft one of my Works of Letter Art. What makes me wistful is the thought of my fountain pens, dusty in a drawer somewhere with a dozen random cartridges of decades-old ink, a testament to bygone days and a reminder of something I’ve never stopped loving.

The Princess and the Pens: Best Friends Forever.