Guest Post by Erin Dealey: Six Quick-Read Crafty Tips for Writing a Manuscript in an Epistolary Format


Hello everyone! You are in for such a treat today! Erin Dealey, my friend and beloved agency sister, is visiting my blog to share quick-read crafty tips for writing a manuscript in epistolary format. Her suggestions are outstanding!

And speaking of outstanding. HAPPY ONE WEEK BOOK BIRTHDAY to DEAR EARTH FROM YOUR FRIENDS IN ROOM 5 (Erin Dealey/Luisa Uribe).

If you haven’t read this book yet, dash to your computer to order it from your favorite local indie or anywhere books are sold. It is FABULOUS! You can watch the book trailer here:

And now, without further ado, Erin Dealey take it away…

Feel. Write. Risk. 

I love this motto in the header of Lauren’s blog: INSIGHT AND INSPIRATION. It sums up the journey of my new picture book, DEAR EARTH…From Your Friends in Room 5 (Harper Collins/ Illus. Luisa Uribe / Dec. 1, 2020). It was a bit of a risk to write this story in letters, but I felt like Earth might have a lot to say about how kids can help her, and express how grateful she is when they do. 

Thinking of writing an epistolary story? Here are six Quick-Read Crafty Tips for you: 

  1. Know your characters. Who is writing the letters? Who will write back? My theater students know if you’ve been cast in a role in a play, the first thing to do is learn all you can about the character. I do this as a writer too. 

Create a bio. Delve into their world. 

In DEAR EARTH, Room 5 is making class New Year’s Resolutions and decides to help protect Earth, but they aren’t sure how. Some may think it’s crazy for them to write to Earth, but the kids in Room 5 are believers. They have high hopes. In thinking about the character of Earth, I felt like being out there in the vast universe might get lonely sometimes. In my mind, Earth does not get many letters, so she is thrilled to hear from Room 5. And in these crazy times, Earth’s spirits are lifted by Room 5’s positivity and dedication. 

Note that not much of this is actually said, per se, in the text of DEAR EARTH… But knowing these details helped me to craft the letters they exchange. 

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Illus. Luisa Uribe/ DEAR EARTH/ Harper Collins)

  1. Establish a strong voice for each character. Make a list of distinct words or phrases that each character might use in their letters. Make sure these match their age and experiences. Rhythm and length of sentence also help establish tone of voice. In DEAR EARTH, I wanted Room 5 to follow the basic format used to teach letter writing. I didn’t set out for the letters to rhyme, but they did. Room 5 breaks with the rhyme from time to time, which made their letters seem more kid-centric to me. And when Bernard takes over in the summer, I felt like he might not be a super-rhymer at first. (But he takes a risk!)  Earth, on the other hand, has many more years on the kids in Room 5 and I felt like her letters would be both lyrical and caring. 

Note that writing in rhyme is tricky. You can’t always say exactly what you want, because of established rhymes or rhythm. I solved this issue in DEAR EARTH… by letting Room 5 and Bernard break the rules when they needed to, because why should they be experts in rhyme? The postscripts are an example. I tried to make sure, however, that the breaks weren’t too abrupt, and that they still matched the tone. 

  1. Listen. When you’re deciding how a character might reply to the previous letter, listen. What is the character in the previous letter trying to communicate? Make sure the next letter is a reply to this, and not just a random letter designed to move the plot forward.
  1. Plot? Yikes! Yes, you need a plot, even in an epistolary manuscript. You may not have a classic narrative arc, but your main character needs to change somehow by the end. This handy STORYSTORM TEMPLATE UPDATED pdf might help you here. In DEAR EARTH, you will see that Room 5, Bernard, and Earth have evolved by the end of the book. (I’d explain further but–No Spoilers!)   
  1. Study a few mentor texts. As far as epistolary picture books go, I’ve always been a big fan of Mark Teague’s Mrs. LaRue books (Scholastic), and my all-time favorite is THE JOLLY POSTMAN (Allan & Janet Ahlberg/ Little Brown). Of course, you can also take a look at DEAR EARTH…From Your Friends in Room 5.  : ) 

(Illus. Luisa Uribe/ DEAR EARTH/ Harper Collins)

  1. Risk. Yes, it’s a bit risky to write a story in letters but GO FOR IT! I like to tell students that authors play with words. Why not play with format too? It was a risk for Room 5 to write to Earth, just as it’s a risk for you to submit an epistolary manuscript to an editor or agent. But who knows? Like Earth, they might just WRITE BACK!  

 (Illus. Luisa Uribe/ DEAR EARTH/ Harper Collins)

P.S. DEAR EARTH…From Your Friends in Room 5 (Harper Collins/ by Erin Dealey /Illus. Luisa Uribe / Dec. 1, 2020) is available wherever children’s books are sold. 

“A well-thought-out presentation of an important environmental message.”      Kirkus Review

To learn more about me or my books, see erindealey.com, or follow me on Twitter @Erin Dealey or Instagram @erindealey

P.S.S. THANK YOU, dear Lauren, for letting me take over your blog today!  

Thank you for coming, Erin! I loved having you. And again, HAPPY ONE WEEK BIRTHDAY TO YOU!

11 thoughts on “Guest Post by Erin Dealey: Six Quick-Read Crafty Tips for Writing a Manuscript in an Epistolary Format

  1. This is great. I have started several epistalary tales. I like that you say to get to know your characters first. Getting the voice is so important. I can’t wait to read this. I love the Jolly Postman as well.

  2. What a great post! Thank you! And congratulations. I’ve got your book on my list to buy 🙂 Some of my kids’ favorite books are epistolary, and I have no doubt we’ll all love this. It sounds visionary, empowering, and playful. I’m toying with an epistolary idea, too, so this is timely for me.

  3. Pingback: Storystorm Day 5: Erin Dealey Picks Pictures (and Pictures Potters) | Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)

  4. Pingback: Storystorm Day 5: Erin Dealey Picks Pictures (and Pictures Potters) – Kidz Times

  5. This is a welcome approach. I love “The Gardener” by Sarah Stewart / illustrated by David Small, in which letters were written back to Mama, Papa, Uncle Jim and or Grandma, which let the story evolve so beautifully. This Earth story lets the kids write their own letters, which involves anyone who reads this book. Congratulations Erin.

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