Ask #MyrtleMondays: Let’s Talk Epigraphs

This week’s post was inspired by Reader Mail! One of the most common questions I get is about “the quotes at the beginning of the chapters” in the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries. Today we’re going to take a deeper dive into one of the features that makes a Myrtle book a Myrtle book: the epigraphs!


Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries Book 5, Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity, introduces a new set of epigraphs.

First, a nota bene for series writers: Whatever conventions you establish in Book 1 must be repeated in every book hence. So if your first, say (just as a random, made-up example), Victorian murder mystery includes clever chapter titles in legal Latin, foreshadowing epigraphs from scholarly tomes, and explanatory footnotes, be prepared to cough up another couple hundred or so in the next few years!

The Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries feature quotations opening each chapter, called epigraphs, from the works of erudite 19th century scholar H.M. Hardcastle: Principles of Detection, Hardcastle’s Practical Travel Companion, A Modern Yuletide, Foundations of Legal Medicine, and A Country Gentlewoman’s Guide to Estate Management (historians debate the identity of the anonymous author who calls herself only A Country Gentlewoman, but the Readers may draw their own conclusions). Each text was carefully chosen (er, created) to reflect the setting of its accompanying volume, and each selected quotation reflects something about the coming chapter.

An early edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with the epigraph to “The Pardoner’s Tale” (a Bible verse) highlighted.

The word epigraph simply means inscription, and the literary device of adding these elucidating passages to texts is hundreds of years old. Epigraphs have been found in medieval texts, like the Chaucer manuscript shown above, and in Western literature, the practice reached a heyday in the 18th and 19th century. Authors quoted classic works like the Bible or The Odyssey to provide deeper context for their readers, suggest their own inspiration for the work, or participate in a larger literary conversation.

Robert Westall’s marvelously spooky ghost story The Watch House opens each section of the novel with a new epigraph. Part 3 begins with this quotation from William Blake’s 1794 poem “The Tyger,” hinting at the terrors ahead for the reader.

Myrtle’s fictional epigraphs are one of the elements that help build Myrtle’s world for the readers, making readers feel as if they’re reading a “real” 19th century text. Victorian readers like Myrtle would be familiar with such popular literary devices, and an aspiring scholar would be likely to employ them in her own writing.

One of my own favorite epigraphs from the series

Ideas for Myrtle’s epigraphs come largely through my research. With each Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery, I know what the setting is going to be—a holiday to the seaside, an Exceptionally Victorian Christmas, a cutting-edge modern hospital—and I therefore know right away what sort of text will be supplying Myrtle’s epigraphs: a travel guide, a history of Christmas, a treatise on forensic medicine. During my research into the setting, I set aside fascinating, morbid, and funny tidbits I come across.

Our epigraphist occasionally waxes passionate on her subject matter…

I keep an ongoing file containing all my ideas for epigraphs, footnotes, chapter titles, and more–and when I come across the right moment in the story, I can fit them right in! …Usually. Sometimes. Once in a while. Sometimes I’m not sure exactly how a chapter will unfold, so I’ll pop one in as a placeholder (or, in the worst case, simply write: CHAPTER X: TITLE & EPIGRAPH HERE.). But within a few pages, I generally have a good sense of what each chapter needs. Chapter titles and epigraphs occasionally get shuffled around, until I settle on the very best arrangement.

Like the “Easter eggs” of their day, epigraphs are a treat for close and clever readers, adding an extra layer of richness and familiarity to a passage. And since I was indulging in the practice anyway, in a very metafictional moment, there is an epigraph of an epigraph in one of the Myrtle books. But you’ll have to find it yourself.

The next time you have a term paper or story due, why not impress your teachers by including an epigraph!

One Response to “Ask #MyrtleMondays: Let’s Talk Epigraphs”

  1. Natalie Aguirre

    So interesting how you come up with your epigraphs. I always love reading them. And I use an X sometimes in my writing too when I have to write description, my least favorite part of writing.


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