The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post 9 – The Jazz Age

Last time we had a look at spiritualism. Now it’s time for…

All That Jazz

Jazz was a big part of the scene in the 1920s, especially in New York City. In SIRENS Jo Winter falls for sweet jazz musician Charlie, who moonlights as a waiter at the Algonquin Hotel. The music revolution of “the Jazz Age” is a backdrop to the Roaring Twenties and the novel.Jazz dance

By 1920 jazz as a musical form had already been developing for some time in the tenderloin district of New Orleans. Born as a hybrid of slave blues, West Indies calypso, ragtime, Negro spirituals, and marching brass bands, jazz was picked up by talented young artists like Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, and transported to Al Capone’s Chicago.

Jazz infused an idancing to jazzntense energy into the music scene; artists like Armstrong had no professional training but learned to play by ear, and improvised and collaborated with other artists. This spontaneity and creativity, and the fact that many of the talents were black, lent jazz a Bohemian aspect.

Capone owned many Chicago speakeasy clubs and he enthusiastically attended performances by these jazz musicians, supporting them financially. Jazz spread as artists picked it up and writers and poets (like Langston Hughes) found rhythm to underscore their work, and New York’s underground nightclubs – especially those up in Harlem – became renowned havens of music patrons.

Dances like the Cakewalk, Black Bottom, the Monkey Glide, and, of course, the Charleston were considered decadent and sensational – which therefore made them wildly appealinLouis Armstrongg to the young white crowd that frequented the clubs. The exoticism of cavorting in a club where the musicians were black made for an even edgier appeal. Jazz was a symbol of creativity and freedom in a decade when both were emerging from the repressive decades of wartime and Victorian propriety.

Radio and the phonograph were central to bringing jazz from nightclubs into every home, but especially in the big cities. In New York one could find a radio station broadcasting black musicians playing jazz – rare in other parts of the country.

Tales of the Jazz AgePictorial depictions of flappers and swells dancing the Charleston were popular covers on magazines and further served to spread the influence of the dances and the music.

Langston Hughes wrote, “The rhythm of life/is a jazz rhythm/Honey,” and his words epitomized his time.

In my last post, we’ll look at one of the defining influences on the 1920s.

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post 8 – Spiritualism

The previous post discussed the radicalism that grew in the 20s. Here’s something else altogether:

Calling All Ghosts: Ouija Boards, Spiritualism, and Harry Houdini

One of the central images of SIRENS is that of ghosts and spirits and magic. I found this facet of the 1920s by accident, but it fit so perfectly into the novel I couldn’t ignore it. Cue the spooky music…

Maybe it was the war, maybe it was the influenza outbreak, but people in the 1920s became obsessed with life after death.ouija board

There were (well, yeah, there still are) two camps: those who believed in life after, and those who didn’t. Harry Houdini didn’t. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Howard Thurston did.

Houdini and Thurston were both magicians, so they knew how to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. Doyle – Mr. Sherlock Holmes – knew how to uncover secrets. These three were all good friends, and they argued this point excessively. Were there spirits? Ghosts? Was there life after death? Who could prove the point?seance

Two of the popular parlor games of the 1920s were séances and Ouija boards. Both of these purported to channel the dead through a medium, in the case of a séance, or through the group emotions, in the case of a Ouija board (if you’ve never played with the latter, it’s kind of fun. But you have to suspend your disbelief. That makes it spooky.) The dead would send, through these media, obscure messages back to the living.

Magic shows were a public phenomenon of the 1920s, and two of the greatest magicians were Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston. Houdini was a skeptic: he knew how to make people think one thing, but “it was all a trick. Fakery.” Thurston, too, was an excellent magician, but he actually believed that there was something guiding him, a kind of spirit life. The two engaged in a friendly competition, culminating with a wager that the one who died first would haunt the other.Houdini spiritualism

Thurston’s shows were all about spiritualism. He would make a girl float magically in the air; he would make a girl vanish altogether; he would call forth floating apparitions to “speak.” His illusions were some of the best and his popularity high. But Houdini’s renown was greater, due to his amazing performances in escaping dire circumstances. And Houdini’s premature death of peritonitis gave a legendary aspect to his name, since the secrets of his magic act – ironically – went with him to the grave.

Thurston lived on but his magic shows were supplanted by a new public fixation: the moving picture.Thurston spiritualism

As the decade progressed and Americans forgot their heartbreak over the war and their losses during the flu pandemic, and became more and more obsessed with the “new” things – cosmetics, automobiles, wealth, and glamour – preoccupation with spirits slipped away. They didn’t know it, but at the end of the 1920s Americans would bump up against a whole different kind of haunting experience: the Depression.

In the next post: all that Jazz!

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post 7 – Radicals

As I discussed in my last post, gangsters were one negative aspect of the Twenties. Here’s another:

The Wall Street Bombing of…1920?

The Wall S1919 postertreet Bombing of 1920 plays an important role in SIRENS, as the brother of one of the characters died in that blast, and the brothers of two other characters may be implicated in the bombing itself. Since no one knows to this day who carried it out, I was free to play with the possibilities…and the parallels to our own time.

Yes, there was a bombing on Wall Street long before 9/11. The similarities between the bombing in 1920 and that in 2011 are eerie.

They both took place in September. They were both the work of foreign nationals (although no one was ever convicted in the 1920 bombing, that foreigners were involved remains the belief). Both were related to anti-US sentiment following war years. Both were leveled at institutions of finance in the Wall Street area. Both killed scores of innocent people, although in 1920 “scores” meant 38 – but that was huge at the time.

immigrants arriving New YorkFollowing World War 1, the number of immigrants coming into the US increased dramatically. Some of those, and some of the returning soldiers, brought ideas about government that were considered hostile to traditional American thinking. “Radicals,” “Bolshevists,” and “anarchists” were a few of terms tossed around, and pretty soon these terms and other derogatory epithets were applied to any foreigner/immigrant whether justified or not (sound familiar?) Tensions ran high, and the “Big Red Scare” created hysteria that set everyone on edge.

The government took radical measures to roust out these radicals, and succeeded in arrested a couple of Italian men, Sacco and Vanzetti, who were almost certainly involved in the anarchist movement, but were probably not responsible for any bombings of which they were acwall-street-bombing-1920cused. It’s believed that the September 1920 Wall Street bombing was in retaliation for their arrest.

Regardless of perpetrator, it was an ugly incident. A horse-drawn wagon loaded with the bomb was parked at noon on September 16, right across the street from the offices of J.P. Morgan. The blast went off a few minutes later, killing 38, wounding 143 (plus the horse.) The ostensible target, Mr. Morgan himself, was not in his offices, and only one person in that office was killed; but there was a large number of clerks, secretariRadical arrestses, delivery people and so on out on the streets for lunch break – innocents, all.

It turned out that this bombing was the culmination of the Red Scare. After 1920 other obsessions took the place of anti-immigrant sentiments: Prohibition, radio, advertising, the automobile, sports, clothing, jazz, the Ku Klux Klan, moving pictures, flappers….all the complex things that made the 1920s “roar.”

The moral of this story? Life is complex; don’t jump to conclusions; until we learn, we are doomed to repeat our lessons.

In the next post: how spiritualism gained ground.

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post 6 – Gangsters

Last post I talked about Prohibition. Here we see the result:

1920s: Gangsters, Gun Molls, and Gin Joints

Danny Connor, in SIRENS, is a gangster. Lou is his moll, or girlfriend. While both are fictional characters, I could envision that when the very real Al Capone left New York for Chicago in 1921, someone had to fill the void, so I made up Danny. He’s not a nice man. Gangsters are not nice men.

gangster lineupGangsters really can’t get a foothold unless they can offer something everyone wants but nobody can get legally. In the 1920s, that something was alcohol.

Let’s face it: Prohibition was a bad idea. It glamorized alcohol by prohibiting it. Gangsters like Al Capone – already involved with other criminal activities – saw the opportunity to provide the people with what they wanted, and “rum-running” or “bootlegging” was at the top of the list.

Al Capone was the most notorious of the 1920s’ underworld mobsters. Tough and determined, he rogangstersse to the top by his intelligence and by his determination to rise above his poor immigrant upbringing, both fueled by his brutality. Mobsters in general were society’s outcasts, and as the son of immigrant Italians, Capone couldn’t find success in legitimate enterprises. He turned instead to the underworld: gambling, theft, corruption, gun-running, and alcohol.

Girlfriends of gangsters were known as their “molls.” A penniless girl didn’t have many choices in the 1920s – women were only just beginning to break into the job market – and being a rich man’s girlfriend sure made life easier.

Gin joints – speakeasies – were a product of the prohibition of alcohol. Sure, speakeasies could be fun places – joints like “21” with its upscale décor, joints in Harlem featuring great jazz, or the “Nineteenth Hole Club,” made to look like a golfgangster stories magazine course – were swanky, happening places. Dancing, smoking, and drinking were extolled in the society columns of writers like “Lipstick”. A girl who couldn’t find a glamorous job, like that of a secretary? She could earn an ok wage as a factory girl, sewing machine operator or domestic servant, but how could she afford to buy the clothes she needed for work and the clothes she wanted for play, plus all the other extras?

The life of a gun moll must have been very tempting.

But short. Bonnie and Clyde were gun moll and gangster, and they came to a pretty rough end. Most did.

Even Al Capone paid, although not until 1931. He was finally carted off to prison but not for murder or racketeering or anySt. Valentine's Day Massacre of the other myriad activities he’d engaged in, but, ironically, for evading taxes on his illegal profits. It was all the violence around him that really brought him down, culminating in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, when the public finally turned against him and the cops could no longer look the other way. (Although it must be said that no one was ever brought to trial for that crime, including Big Al.)

The Roaring Twenties had a bright side and a dark side. Bright were the changes that brought new style, new music, new ideas to society. Dark was the greed and criminality that fed off of Prohibition. It’s important that we recognize both.


In my next post, another dark side of the Twenties.

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post Five – Prohibition

In my last post I referenced Prohibition. Here’s what it meant:

No More Booze! (Really?) Prohibition in the 1920s

In SIRENS, Jo Winter’s father is a bootlegger, a middle man for the sale of alcohol. That gets him into big trouble because it means he’s doing something illegal in 1925; and worse yet, he may be hiding something from the gangster he sells to, Danny Connor. Pops’ bad decisions pull Jo and her brother Teddy into the deadly world of gangsters and 1920s violence.

making moonshine during Prohibition

making moonshine during Prohibition

When in January 1920 the 18th Amendment to the Constitution took effect it prohibited the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol in America. (Not the purchase or consumption of alcohol – that’s important to note.) Prohibition supporters claimed it would create a society that was sober and therefore patriotic and prosperous. No more corruption, lazy workers, or violence.

Yeah, right.

Instead, almost overnight as alcohol became illegal, people searched for new and sometimes dangerous ways to find a drink. The romantic allure of something forbidden gave rise to a glamorous depiction of mixed drinks and drinking in general.

speakeasy with swellsAl Capone and other gangsters became efficient at transporting alcohol, which resulted in turf wars and deadly raids. Home distillers brewed up alcohol – dubbed “moonshine” – from almost anything, including toxic substances. And “speakeasies” – so called because you were encouraged to speak softly – sprang up all over the country.

Some clever entrepreneurs created bars known as “blind pigs,” where a patron could pay to view a blind pig (what a thrill!) and, oh, by the way, consume a “free” alcoholic beverage (remember, it wasn’t illegal to purchase or consume, just to sell.) Others created fancy jazz joints behind closed doors where admission was only gained by knowing the correct password.


Lois Long

Prohibition of alcohol made it romantic, glamorous, and exciting to drink. Some speakeasies were elaborate constructions. One New York speakeasy went by the name “County Fair,” and was pretty much a set decoration: it was made to look like a fairground, complete with a white picket fence and grandstand boxes for booths.

The exploits of the flappers and the gents who frequented speakeasies were documented by a New Yorker columnist who went by the pseudonym “Lipstick,” and who made speakeasies and their patrons sound enthralling. Lipstick was actually the writer Lois Long, and she was good at Cotton Clubher undercover job because she was the quintessential flapper: tall and thin, bob-haired, attractive, and dressed for the job.

Corruption among police and other officials was rampant, mostly because their salaries were so low they were easily tempted by cash offered by the bootleggers. When they did bust a gin joint, they let the patrons go and gave the owners a slap on the wrist, and (after exacting a donation to the “Policeman’s Benefit Fund”) the place would be back in business the next night.Prohibition cops dumping liquor

One of the main things that made the 1920s the “Roaring” decade was Prohibition. One of the others was the emergence of the liberated young woman. Lois “Lipstick” Long was the epitome of the modern young woman who went to speakeasies and stood toe to toe with the men around her, drinking alcohol as much as they did and staying out all night. Would she have emerged without Prohibition? What do you think?

In my next post, more about gangsters.

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post 4. Flappers

My previous post addressed 1920s fashion. Here’s what happened to behavior:

New York City in 1925: Up All Night

In one scene in SIRENS Jo goes to a New York speakeasy. She can see that Melody is “up all night” most nights. So were most young people in the cities, which is one reason they were the Roaring Twenties. What was that all about?

They were the “Roaring Twenties.” It was the decade of “anything goes.” Young girls were nicknamed “flappers” and danced and partied all night long.1920s flappers

We carry these images of the 1920s because they are true. And New York City was a hotbed of the activity that led to these images – it was, from the title of a forgotten silent film of the decade, “the city that never sleeps.”

So many things contributed to the party-on atmosphere of the 1920s that a complete discussion would take a book (and if you’re curious, check out Anything Goes by Lucy Moore.) But several key contributing factors were Prohibition, the rise of the automobile, the birth of the movies, and a reckless, self-indulgent attitude cultivated in books and movies and adopted by the youth.

The prohibition of the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol by the 18th Amendment that became law in 1920 had the opposite of its intended affect. Rather than preventing people from drinking, it encouraged gangsters to step iflappersn to traffic in or “bootleg” alcohol. Prohibition also led to the use of “speakeasies” – underground pubs (often literally underground, in basements) where one could buy a drink. Police officers corrupted by easy money looked the other way when alcohol was involved, and backyard distillers made their own “moonshine.”

Because alcohol was illegal and one had to be “in the know” to find it, the illicit activity was exciting and encouraged daring young people to seek out venues that proliferated throughout New York. One society column, penned by the anonymous “Lipstick” (Lois Long), detailed the shenanigans of all-night parties, speakeasy busts, and arrests. Few took Prohibition seriously, which led to a devil-may-care attitude.

And then there was the automobile. For the first time, a young man and young woman could drive away from parental supervision and spend plenty of tithe-great-gatsbyme alone. This led to a lot of…well, back then it was called “canoodling.” Old-fashioned Victorian attitudes toward sex gave way to uninhibited behavior, and “petting parties” were common.

Popular books and movies only reinforced these attitudes. From The Great Gatsby to The Sheik the code was “eat, drink, and be merry;” “live without regret.” Flappers adopted an almost uniform clothing style that not only set them apart from their elders but allowed freedom of movement and exposed a good deal of skin, and actresses like Clara Bow and Colleen Moore epitomized the flapper in a string of movie successes and in their off-screen lives.

flapperMany other things contributed directly or indirectly to the party-on atmosphere of New York in the 1920s: jazz music, rampant political corruption, increase in the divorce rate, the rise of advertising, the development of cosmetics. Even The Great War and the flu pandemic of 1919 had an impact on this devil-may-care behavior. Regardless of cause, the effect was one of abandoned fun.

And New York City was the epicenter of fun in the Roaring Twenties, all night long.

In my next post, we’ll have a look at Prohibition.

Check out my short video for more images:

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know: Post 3. The Women’s Fashion Revolution

In my previous post, I addressed women’s suffrage. Now let’s look at another impact on behavior. Fashion really took a turn in the 1920s, due in part to the influence of Coco Chanel…

Kicking Up Their Heels: The Women’s Fashion Revolution of the 1920s

Flappers were Coco Chanel influenced this group of high school flapper girls posed for a formal portrait, ca. 1925defined in part by how they looked. When in SIRENS Jo meets her cousin Melody, she sees the perfect flapper; and when Jo borrows her cousin’s clothes she worries she’s turning into a flapper. But, golly, it was a great look! And it sure beat wearing those horrific corsets.

In an earlier blog post I talked about some of the reasons fashion changed so radically in the years from 1900 to 1925. The war, the suffrage movement, the feminist movement, women in the work force, even cinema, the automobile and advertising – these elements came together to encourage more practical, less restrictive women’s clothing (corsets – gone!)

But what happened in the early 1920s pushed the clothing evolution into revolution. And the greatest proponent and inventor of the new fashion was Coco Chanel.Coco Chanel photo

Chanel was thin, athletic – she was a great horsewoman – and attractive, and she personally favored less restrictive clothing, adopting men’s clothing and the comfortable styles worn by sailors (like boatneck sweaters and espadrilles.) It was her personal taste that women found attractive, as Chanel used knits and flannels rather than silks and taffetas, and she dispensed with frills and ruffles in favor of simple lines that allowed freedom of movement. To make up for the lack of fabric adornment, Chanel introduced beadwork and patterned cloth. It was Chanel’s slim, straight silhouette that became the fashion almost overnight.

Young women in America particularly took to Chanel’s chic new look. Dresses were tubular, with no waist or a dropped waist, and those huge, overdone hats were reduced to the close-fitting cloche. Long hair went out of style – too fussy, too much work – to be replaced by the short, loosely styled bob. Hemlines in about 1919 were mid-calf, but by 1925 had climbed well above the knee. While frills were gone, they were replaced by the “Oriental” look that featured beading on the dresses, and jewelry of beads, bangles, and long strands of pearls.1925 flappers with the Coco Chanel-inspired look

Because these slender dress styles sporting bare arms and lots of leg look best on young figures, those who dressed in Chanel style were mostly young and thin. And the young women of the 1920s were already pushing against their elders’ formal restraints across society. When women entered the work force during The Great War, they didn’t want to return to passive domestic duties. They needed comfortable clothes, and they needed them ready to wear.

That was the other part of this revolution in fashion: the shift away from elaborate hand-sewn costumes made from delicate fabrics that required lots of care to practical fabrics sewn into practical garments that could be purchased – by an ordinary working girl – off the rack. Technology combineSybil's Pants from Downton Abbeyd with practicality: a factory could produce many more dresses using far less fabric with the new styles. And a girl could walk into a shop with her week’s wages and walk out with the latest flapper style, and have money left over for entertainment.

Which was a huge part of the 1920s culture. Dancing, drinking, and dating – every self-respecting flapper wanted to be out all night taking in the “scene” and being “seen.” More about that in an upcoming post.

See more women’s fashion of the 1920s on my dedicated Pinterest page.

The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know, Post 2

In my previous post, I addressed the impact of World War 1 on the Roaring Twenties. Now let’s see what happens….

When Women Got the Vote and Left Their Corsets Behind

Both Jo and Lou in SIRENS are conflicted about their roles as women. The men in their lives don’t value them as individuals. In fact, until the 1920s women were really second-class citizens. Here’s some of the context of the women’s suffrage movement:

women and the women's suffrage movementWait…you didn’t know that once upon a time not so long ago, women in America couldn’t vote?

Until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, women in this country had no voice. No say in politics. No choice in leadership. Yes, that’s right – not even 100 years ago women were completely dependent on the men around them to make their choices for them.

(Just think about this, though – there are still many places in the world where women still have no vote, no choice, no freedom. We Americans are the lucky ones.)

Some states – like those in the West, where there was a shortage osuffragettes marchingf women – encouraged women to settle by granting them the right to vote at the state level. But the right of all citizens to vote in any election in America without regard to gender was not granted until the passage of the 19th amendment.

Until the First World War (The Great War, 1914-1918) most young women in the lower classes worked “in service” – as maids or cleaning staff for the wealthier classes, while upper class young women were expected to marry successfully and raise children. A middle or upper middle class young woman working in an office, or teaching, or clerking? Unthinkable. But during the war, while men were away at the front, women went to work to make up for the employment shortage. When the war was over, women stayed in the work force rather than return to domesticity. Women in the work force spoke up about working conditions and health care and that paved the way for suffrage.

When PresideCorset Backnt Woodrow Wilson announced that The Great War was a war for democracy, women took this as encouragement and began an even more active campaign for the vote, by picketing the White House and protesting in Washington for equal rights. Women had been involved in the suffrage movement for most of the early twentieth century, but the war catapulted the suffrage movement forward to success.

And corsets? Those horrifying undergarments were a form of social control. A study of tight lacing of corsets in the late 1800s showed that a corset could contract a woman’s waist by between two and six inches. And the pressure the corset applied to a woman’s body could be as high as 88 pounds, crushing the internal organs. Yikes! Women were so confined that they were unable to move, breathe, or digest properly. Early feminists made it their mission to convince women to abandon the corset, and the war sent women to work, and work required more freedom of movement in unrestrictive clothing, and so th5 H_S_ Girls Learn Mechanics(8)e corset faded (thank goodness) into history.

Interestingly, women who worked for the suffrage movement and considered themselves feminists took umbrage at the young women who would be called flappers in the 1920s. Early feminists thought the Chanel-inspired loose clothing styles and looser moral standards of flappers were a sell-out to the cause of equality. Early feminists might have shed their corsets, but they didn’t necessarily buy into the flapper behavior or the shorter skirts and hairstyles. The early feminists wanted to be taken seriously, and, really, how could someone who dressed in a frivolous costume that barely covered her bare skin be serious?

More on that fashion revolution in the next blog post on this tour!

A New Series: The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know, Post 1

As a follow-up to my research on SIRENS (Penguin, 2012) I wrote a series of ten articles that summarize different aspects of the 1920s. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting them here so that they’ll be available in my archives. Here’s the first in the series…

Home From World War 1: Returning From the “Great War”

In SIRENS, Jo Winter’s most pressing internal problem is the whereabouts of her missing older brother, Teddy. He returned from his stint in World War 1 damaged by “shell-shock.” Here’s a bit about what that means:

The end of the First World War in 1918 was a time of great social and economic transition that led directly to what made the 1920’s “The Roaring Twenties.”departing for the front 1917 World War 1

Soldiers who fought in the First World War, then called “The Great War,” and survived came home with devastating injuries to both body and mind. Over four million Americans served in the First World War, and served under ghastly conditions, facing for the first time in battle heavy artillery, machine guns, and poisonous gases.

And while these physical traumas were terrible, the internal traumas may have been far worse. PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – isn’t a new thing. Called “shell-shock” at the time of the Great War, the damage inflicted psychologically on soldiers serviDownton-Abbey-Season-2-downton-abbey-31759476-960-543ng in the war was unanticipated. Men in the 1900s were expected to be “masculine” and repress their emotions. Crying and breaking down were behaviors thought unacceptable, and were often cited as reasons for placement in insane asylums. Doctors, and the public, had no way to understand the experiences of these soldiers, and they were treated indifferently at best and punished for their behavior at worst.

The end of the war for these returning soldiers could not mean a return to “business as usual”, even if thin the trenches World War 1at had been the hope. Technological advancements, urbanization, and immigration led directly to the social upheavals of the 1920s. With so many men serving, killed in action, or returning disabled in body and mind, women had been needed in the work force, and they were reluctant to return to domestic situations, which served to strengthen the cause of women’s suffrage and independence. This independence was evidenced by the adoption of less restrictive clothing and shorter skirts and the fad for shorter hair that was easier to manage.

Movements like pacifism, isolationism, and spiritualism grew following the end of the war as people sought to retreat from the horror. And the need for relief from the emotional traumas of the war may have contributed to the “anything goes” atmosphere that prevailed in the 1920s. Advertising, commercial manufacturing, the rise of the cinema, and the automobile promoted “new” and “more liberal” ideas that conflicted with the traditional thinking American soldiers left behind when then went off to fight.

Any war impacts the generation thworld-war-i-women-working-in-a-british-munitions-factory-1915at lives it and the decade that follows it, but the changes in society following World War 1 were rapid and extreme. It would have been a tough homecoming for those soldiers.

(Check out the fashions in the Downton Abbey image. The designers of that show have it right. Austere, severe, and probably uncomfortable.)

In my next post, what happened when women got the vote.

Writing the Killer Query Letter

Writing a great query letter is an art, but once you’ve created your synopsis, you’ve got the bones. Here’s the rest of the story:

Your synopsis forms the basis for your query letter.

Almost all queries today are email cover letters; your manuscript or pages are sent as a Word attachment – but these are requirements you should establish first as some houses still prefer your pages in the body of the email and rarely do houses or agents ask for hard copy. Note also whether the editor/agent prefers pages (usually the first 10-20) or the full manuscript. Never send something from the middle of your novel.

All editors and agents will specify their requirements for submission, so follow those exactly.

The norm today is multiple submissions are acceptable as long as you notify the recipient of your intent. My advice is to limit multiple submissions to 3-4 agents/editors in each round, and if you should hear back in the positive let the others still considering your submission know that you have interest right away. Also, the norm today is that if you don’t hear back in three months, consider your work rejected. Not nice, not fair, but that’s what it is.

Here are the fundamentals of query letter writing:

  1. Should be no longer than a single typed page. Seriously. Shorter is better.
  2. Should be addressed to the individual editor/agent. Check spelling, check your facts. Find out what the editor/agent has previously edited/agented because you will tell them why you believe your work is a good fit for them.
  3. Your opening sentence should be short and to the point: “I submit FAR CRY, my 75,000 word young adult romance set in contemporary Indochina, for your consideration.”
  4. Follow this with your pitch sentence: why you have chosen this editor/agent for your work: “I’m submitting to you based on your work with Joe Smith and his acclaimed young adult contemporary romance, LET LOOSE THE DRAGONS, one of my favorite novels of last year.”
  5. Your middle should be your synopsis or a reasonable facsimile thereof. This is where you really pitch your story, with an enticing, engaging summary based on your synopsis. Don’t go into details; leave the editor/agent hanging and wanting more – you are pitching your concept and selling your book.
  6. Your ending summarizes your previous publications if any, and your professional writing related experience (i.e., membership in SCBWI or other professional organization, MA/MFA from wherever, whether you are/have been a teacher or librarian). Non-writing related experience need not be mentioned.
  7. Don’t tell the editor/agent that your mother/aunt/children/students loved the story.
  8. Don’t go on and on with gushy personal feelings.
  9. Do sound professional, serious, and educated.
  10. After sending this out for a couple of rounds, if you’ve had no interest, revise and try again. Good luck!