All posts by Christy Shorey

84, Charing Cross Road

epistolary adj
epis·to·lary | \ i-ˈpi-stə-ˌler-ē  , ˌe-pi-ˈstȯ-lə-rē  \
1: of, relating to, or suitable to a letter
2: contained in or carried on by letters
3: written in the form of a series of letters
Merriam-Webster  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epistolary

When putting pen to paper, the words convey a story – whether it is a fantastical tale of swashbuckling heroes, or in the thoughts shared with a friend. A series of letters can be a powerful thing, painting an image of an entire world from hints hidden in each envelope.

One of my favorite epistolary books is 84, Charing Cross Road, which is a selection of real correspondence between the author, Helene Hanff, and bookseller Frank Doel.

The collection starts in October 1949, with a letter sent from her New York apartment, in which Helene inquires about used copies of several titles. Her queries to the London based Marks & Co. Booksellers are handled by one FPD. Over the course of her letters and requests for various titles, Helene gets the bookseller, Frank Doel, to open up.

There is great contrast between Helene’s bombastic personality, and Frank’s staid one, but you get the sense of genuine care between the two. This friendship grows over twenty years, over many book orders, and Helene ordering much coveted foodstuffs sent to the shop in the heavily rationed England, making sure to include other shop workers in her generosity.

Her actions cause other staff at the shop to reach out:

“Please don’t let Frank know I’m writing this but every time I send you a bill I’ve been dying to slip in a little note and he might not think it quite proper of me. That sounds stuffy and he’s not, he’s quite nice really, very nice in fact, it’s just that he does rather look on you as his private correspondent as all your letters and parcels are addressed to him.”  Cecily Farr, 7th April, 1950

The book contains several letters between Helene and others in Frank’s life, including co-workers, his wife, and even one from a friend who is traveling and visits the bookshop on Helene’s behest, writing back a lovely description of the establishment. Several letters include plans for Helene to travel to London and visit the bookshop herself, though as of the time of the last letter in the book, in 1969, she had not. Marks & Co. closed in 1970, the year the book was published.

It is the little things in the letters, the attitude of Helene when she has not received any books in a while (including the absence of capitalization), the warm responses and small details about the shop included in the invoices from Frank, that draw a reader in, so much that at times it feels more like fiction than non-fiction.

Personal correspondence contributes not only to literary endeavors, but also to history, providing first hand accounts of life – a snapshot in time of the senders’ world. Letters can bring to life events that history books may paint with a broad brush through small details, such as the food rationing in Britain during and after the second world war. 

Other epistolary stories I’ve enjoyed include Bram Stokers Dracula, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn.

Do you have a favorite tale conveyed via correspondence? Perhaps you and a pen pal may find something to talk about in this unique form of literature.

The Art of Letter Writing in a digital age

With most of the employees at the library where I work suddenly working from home last year, one of our administrators began hosting a bi-monthly “Kindness in Crisis” Zoom meeting. Staff were invited to come and share topics that they were passionate about. This enabled opportunities for more meaningful connections with our colleagues when we were physically separated.

As most of my writing during the quarantine consisted of letters, and as it is such a beautiful way for people who are separated to connect, I presented on the art of letter writing. Below I share my slides with my talking points.

This is a presentation I created for our "Practicing Kindness in Crisis" series at work.


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Overview of Topics

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How to Find Pen Pals: Reconnect with family, friends - Postable (screenshot of Postable Address Book.

Handwritten letters provide not just communication, but an opportunity for real connection.


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Why Write Letters - image of USPS logo.

Plus, our postal service is in peril, help support these vital front-line workers, buy stamps, send letters.


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What to write: Date and greeting; introduction; about self/ pepper with questions, what do you know about them?, If from site, check profile; Closing - word cloud of different hobbies and interests.

If you are writing to a new pen pal, you can engage by writing about your interests, then asking about theirs.


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How to Find Pen Pals: Reconnect with family, friends - Postable (screenshot of Postable Address Book.

Postable is a site where you can not only send cards, but also its a free online address book.


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How to find pen pals: Online letter writing groups / challenges - LetterMo (www.lettermo.com), InCoWriMo (incowrimo.org). Images - banner from LetterMo.com and banner from InCoWriMo 2020 Facebook group page.

There are several challenges, such as LetterMo – where the goal is to mail something each day the post runs in February. That’s how I got started.


How to find pen pals: Online postcard writing groups / challenges - postcrossing (www.postcrossing.com); image of PostCrossing website, image of 5 postcards from various cities.

There are also sites that match you with folks for exchanges, like postcard swaps.


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Beyond the Word: Stationery

A handwritten letter, unlike electric correspondence, is more than just the words on the page. You get to customize it in so many ways, such as stationery.


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Beyond the Word: Cards / post cards

Blank cards come in many sizes and designs.


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Beyond the Word: Pens / typewriter / etc.

How you put the words to page can be as interesting as what you say. Whether you’re a fountain pen aficionado, or prefer a simple ball-point, your writing implement gives others a sense of who you are.


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Beyond the Word: Stamps

Stamps, along with ink or markers, can personalize mass-produced cards, envelopes, or even dress up plain old notebook paper.


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Beyond the Word: Postage Stamps

Of course, don’t forget that postage stamps come in many styles, as well. Domestic or international, most stamps sold now-a-days are “forever” stamps, and will be good even after any future rate changes.


Beyond the Word: Washi tape

Paper washi tape is easy to apply and remove, and makes an excellent accent and, given current circumstances, can be used to seal envelopes, rather than licking the adhesive.


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Beyond the Word: Inserts

Your letter doesn’t have to be the only thing in envelope – share pictures, recipes, tea, seeds for gardens, or whatever you can fit.


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Express Yourself: Language

What language you use, whether you are formal or more casual, allows you to express yourself – no two people talk alike.


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Express Yourself: Interests

Share what you are passionate about, it will come through in your words.


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Express Yourself: Inserts

What you choose to include, from washi tape samples, to art you’ve made also tells a bit more about you.


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Express Yourself: Letter / Envelope Art

And the letter doesn’t end when you seal the envelope. Stickers, stamps, washi tape, etc. can be used to jazz up the envelope – or you can make your own out of sturdy paper.


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Letter / Envelope Art - Image of various decorative paper, Image of a variety of stickers, image of "do-dads," including buttons, cutouts, blank recipe card, worn playing card, among others.

Stickers, interesting paper, stencils, stamps, and do-dads can all be used (or even repurposed) to decorate or make cards or envelopes, or even art to include inside.


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Letter / Envelope Art - images of hand decorated cards, and a poem made of phrase stickers on the back of a mass-market card.

You don’t have to have someone specific in mind when you make a unique card, but if you do know them, you can certainly find things that remind you of them.


Hopefully this post has given you some ideas, and raises your excitement for February and the official start of LetterMo. There is no wrong way to write a letter, so play around and figure out what feels most authentic to you. And maybe share what you love about letter writing, and help this beautiful form of communication to continue to thrive. pace


Resources

There are many, many, many resources on the Internet (like with all things.) Many organizations for letter writers to connect, to meet folks, and to talk about what is most important/ valuable to them in letter writing.


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Flynn, large orange tabby, laying on a half-written letter, with a folded paper fan between his paws
Flynn loves to help with letter writing.