When I was a girl, I had pen pals. Lots of them. I wrote letters to anyone who would write me back, as a rule. That included my grandmother, friends from camp, a cousin who went to jail for a short stint, my uncle who wandered, my friends who moved away.
I also had actual pen pals, people I’d never met who lived in places I’d never been. One was a girl from Long Island. She was Greek and wrote in purple ink, and her life was exotically different from mine. We were pen pals for quite some time, a couple of years, maybe. Others didn’t last as long. At one time, I had perhaps a dozen correspondences going.
We found each other through a kind of mailing that went around in those days—almost like chain letter, where a very unfancy booklet, usually made of notebook paper cut into a four inch square then stapled at one end, made the rounds via the mailbox. You wrote your name and address down, yoflicur age and interests, then looked through to see if anyone seemed a likely friend, and wrote them a letter. Sometimes, you heard back. Sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes, a frequent correspodent would suddenly stop writing, for no apparent reason. Sometimes, that person was me.
It was exquisite to get a letter in the mail. Opening the box to find an envelope with your name written by hand, often in very good handwriting, because we tended to be vain about that. You would carry it inside and get something to drink, or maybe a snack, and carry it away somewhere private to read. Sometimes it would be a long letter, sometimes shorter. Sometimes there would be pictures. One of my pen pals drew exquisite things on the outside of the envelopes, little works of art that were meant just for me.
Letters opened the world to me, and as a result, they show up a lot in my novels. One of the first to use letters was a category romance called The Last Chance Ranch, and the letters narrate the heroine’s time away from her son, when she was forced to give him up after killing her abusive husband. At first, Silhouette turned the book down when I refused to get rid of the letters. Then they came back to me and agreed to publish it the way I wanted to write it. (It ended up winning a major award, which was quite satisfying, I have to admit.)
Another book that used letters is Night of Fire, which is the story of two lonely, lonely people who each think the other is an elderly scholar. Of course, they are not, and that’s where the fun begins.
The most recent is, of course, The Sleeping Night, which is the tale of two friends who fall in love completely through their letters and then must grapple with the consequences when fate brings them face to face.
I still adore handwritten letters and have toyed with finding pen pals, maybe in Europe or South America. What fun would that be?
Have you ever had a pen pal, or a long relationship via snail mail letters? Do you like to read letters in books?