Friday, February 3, 2012

Dear Reader...

Recently, a friend bought a copy of one of my books as a gift and asked me to write a letter to her daughter to go along with it. I was happy to write the letter (which you’ll find below).

Who wouldn’t want to write to an eager reader?

Along the way, I realized something valuable. Writing this letter helped me identify why I wanted to write the book in the first place.

Now, I’m thinking: Why wait for someone to ask? I should be writing letters to my (real or imagined) readers for every book I write. This one letter led to a whole slew of ideas:

  • It probably wouldn’t hurt to write a Dear Reader letter while I’m still in the middle of a draft—and another one after I’ve sent the final proofs off to the editor.
  • Because some of my books appeal to readers both young and old, it would also be a good exercise for me to write separate letters to the different audiences.
  • Since so many of my books are used in the classroom, I should even come up with a letter (or, better yet, a bulleted list) for teachers on how to share the book in class.
  • And, lastly, pulling together ideas for the letter is a wonderful (not too stressful) way to get ready for author events in both schools and bookstores.

Really, writing a Dear Reader letter is a great exercise for any writer. So, without further ado, here’s my letter to Hannah. (Happy Birthday!)

Dear Hannah,

I hope you enjoy the three different stories in WORLD WAR I. I’ve written fiction and nonfiction—and this book contains some of both. A lot of research went into the book, but then I got to make up stories about three people and give them lots of decisions to make.

People are always asking writers where they get their ideas. For this book, the ideas came from my own family history and from books. One of the storylines follows a young American who is thinking of volunteering with the French Army as an ambulance driver on the front. It’s all based on my great-uncle, Francis Dana Coman. Here he is in his uniform.

Uncle Dana sent postcards home to my grandparents, who were having an adventure of their own. Grandpa was a chaplain at an American army fort, and Grandma was a fresh-out–of-college newlywed. A few months into Grandpa’s work as a chaplain, the new recruits started getting sick. Soon, the Spanish influenza was killing hundreds. My grandparents remember the soldiers coming in on trains and then going back home by train…in coffins. It was a very sad time for them.

One of my grandfather’s great heroes was a nurse from World War One. Living and working in Belgium, Edith Cavell—a British citizen—was killed by the Germans for her work treating sick Belgian, French, and British soldiers caught behind enemy lines. She’s part of another storyline in my book, the one about a Belgian nurse.

The storyline that follows a young British soldier in the war doesn’t come from family stories at all. I’d been reading Michael Morpugo’s novel WAR HORSE and knew I wanted to include a cavalryman or a soldier who cared for horses during the war. Really, horses were such tragic victims in the battles. Warfare had changed, horses didn’t really belong, but no one in charge had figured that out yet.

I hope you enjoy the book. But be careful what choices you make: not everyone was as lucky as my great uncle…

All best,
Gwenyth Swain


  1. What a great idea, Gwenyth. I've always thought it was important to identify your reader and write for her/him, and what better way than to write them a letter. --Terry

  2. Terrific suggestion for writers. Why are the best ideas both obvious and elusive? Thank you for sharing this with us.