Genre tips

#AtoZChallenge: Genres–Epistolary

The A to Z Challenge asks bloggers to post 26 articles on a themed topic. It’s supposed to be every day except Sundays during the month of April but I find that too busy and decided to post mine ‘about’ once a month. Yes, it’ll take me a couple of years. Sigh.

My topic, like the last three times, will be writing genres.

This genre:

Epistolary Fiction


a novel written as a series of documents. 

Tipsa to z

  1. Documents can be letters, journal entries, emails, transcripts, police reports, chats–anything that’s a document and is transmitted to others. Popular document choices are journals, letters, and diaries (see the list of popular books) but don’t limit yourself to those obvious choices.
  2. Pick documents that fit your writing style. For example, if you love dialogue, tell the story with chats.
  3. Make it clear who is writing the document and why. Then, stay in their POV. Don’t jump into omniscient.
  4. Do change POVs via a change of documents that represent the new person’s POV.
  5. Information may be difficult to convey in an epistolary but rise to the challenge. Show your writer chops.
  6. You can mix tenses because you’re mixing documents.
  7. Time gaps are important in this genre. Because the communication is so authentic and real, there will be times the character doesn’t have time to write. That’s OK.
  8. Epistolary writing doesn’t have to be fiction but that’s what I focus on in this post.

Popular Books

  1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  2. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  4. Lady Susan by Jane Austen
  5. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  6. Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede
  7. The Martian by Mark Watney
  8. Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
  9. We Germans by Alexander Starritt
  10. The Problem with Uncle Teddy’s Memoir by Ed Charlton

Click for complete list of these 26 genres

Click for a complete list of all genres I’ve written about

More E Genres:

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Man vs. Nature saga, and the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Laws of Nature, Summer 2021. 

80 thoughts on “#AtoZChallenge: Genres–Epistolary

  1. Epistolary fiction was the found-footage genre of its day! Classics like Frankenstein and Dracula were all the more terrifying for having been written as “documented accounts” versus straight prose.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done, Jacqui. Also: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, a brilliant story about fishing, love, ambition, politics, and achieving the impossible. The book is much better than the movie, though it wasn’t awful. Herzog by Saul Bellows, a masterpiece about redemption. The Diary of Anne Frank, mentioned by many others, is only part of the diary she actually wrote, and of course, it isn’t fiction. This is a genre I love reading but it’s a challenge to write. Requires a really different approach to story telling. There must be a course about how to write epistolary stories, right?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am familiar with this genre. I would add The Castle in the Pyrenees by Jostein Gaarder,The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and The Diary of Anne Frank. I’m sure there are others if I think about it too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      • I hadn’t sought them out either. But I enjoyed all of the books I mentioned. I’ve read quite a few of Jostein Gaarder’s and love them. He came out to our Writer’s Festival at the time he was writing or had just released the Pyrenees book and I got to hear him speak about it in person. I was already a fan from his earlier books.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You left out one of the heavy hitters from high school–The Diary of Anne Frank.

    I read epistolary from time to time–almost all the source material we have about saints takes this form–but it’s never been something I want to write myself. I do run across the odd epistolary to review in historical fiction, usually in the form of letters. When it’s well done, it can make a satisfying story. It does have one structural advantage–the scene breaks are all baked in. : )

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read any book from this genre Jacqui. I have read Jane Austen but not the one you’ve mentioned and Frankenstein adorned the book shelves of my home for many years but I could never dare to pick it up. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think this kind of writing would add another level of difficulty because there would be so many things you couldn’t present to the readers, being limited to what was in the letters or documents you decided on using – even assuming you did it with fictional letters.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I recently finished a journal story, “Every Secret Thing” by Susanna Kearsley. Loved the audiobook. Whodunit noir with a journalist heroine Kate Murray who uncovers a secret murder from WW2. The narrator Katherine Kellgren immerses herself in the story and the many character voices. My husband and I listened to the audiobook in the car on a recent trip to Dallas. He loved the story too.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve always loved the epistolary novel, but I thought the form was restricted to letters. Not long ago, I wrote a story in the form of diary entries from multiple members of a family. Now I can count it as my first venture into the epistolary form!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I think an epistolary novel done well is so captivating, like a peek into a very private world. I can think of two that I really like, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, especially for it’s historical details, and The Taxidermist’s Lover by Polly Hall, even though you don’t realize for many pages that it’s an epistolary style (horror!) novel.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hi Jacqui – I visited a ‘Dear Diary’ exhibition in June 2017 – that I posted about … the first note I made is this:

    “The first ‘diary’ was the Almanac (c 1400 BC) … almanac in Arabic apparently means making a camel kneel: ‘al-munak’ … that’s what was written up …. ?!”

    Actually this would probably suit me … but it’s not going to happen!! The blog does my bit for me … and I don’t know all the books you’ve listed – but did see the film ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ that LibrePaley mentions above. But Jill’s comment makes sense! Cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Dear Jacqui,
    this is indeed a genre fallen out of fashion. The romantic authors liked it.
    Thanks for sharing 🙏 🙏
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂


  12. This seemed to have fallen out of fashion as a genre, but perhaps it’s coming back in. recently enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. In more modern fiction, Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin stands out for me, too – By only showing one point of view in the letters, Eva is the ultimate unreliable narrator.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Superficially, I don’t like unreliable narrators but really, so much of stories and life is how it’s viewed through the eye of the beholder. I need to get past dismissing those stories–like Girl on a Train.


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