What is the value of a letter?
When I was a kid growing up on the farm in the 1950s, I waited everyday for the mailman to stop at our mailbox. It wasn’t as though anyone was going to write to me, but any letter we received was exciting. Before email, Skype, texts, when telephones were used mainly for emergencies, letters were the common form of communication. Letters recorded the everyday; letters recorded the extraordinary.
For writers, letters are a treasure trove. Where would David McCullough be without the letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other? All of the letters telling of their love for each other, their concerns about their children and the farm, their interest in affairs of state.
My maternal grandmother and grandfather were the inspiration for my upcoming novel set in pre-WWI Iowa. Because my grandfather died in 1918 and my grandmother never talked about him, the story I’ve created is fiction. In creating their world 100 years ago, I drew from many sources, among them a handful of letters my grandfather saved.
Before he married my grandmother, Carl Jensen homesteaded in Canada. That didn’t work out for reasons we don’t know and he returned to Iowa. The letter I’ve included here is from one of his neighbors. As short as this letter is, it provided a wealth of information to inspire my writing.
Among other things, I learned how people addressed each other, how they abbreviated names, the price of horses, what kinds of equipment they used.
I learned that terms could be agreed to in a letter and both parties could be comfortable with that. I learned that the mailman didn’t come to every Canadian farm – Mr. Johnson was sending his letter into town to be posted by a neighbor who was going to make the trip to town.
On a personal level, the fact that my grandfather saved these letters said something powerful to me about the loneliness of farming on the Canadian prairie. Only a handful of letters from that era survive, but I treasure each of them.
I regret that we don’t write letters so often anymore. I wonder what writers of the future will use for their research? From time to time, I print out significant emails, but the fact that I print those and discard the others that deal with the mundane also says something.
What about you? Are you still writing letters? Do you save any that you receive? Writers – Have you used letters as research for your writing?