I take my pen in hand

Feb. 14 is a day to communicate your feelings. But what's the best way? Romantic card? Roses? What about taking out a pen and writing a letter?

Whether it's a personal note on a spouse's pillow (include a piece of chocolate), or in a child's lunchbox (don't get too mushy, but you can add a heart-shaped sandwich), your personal handwriting says you care.

That's been true down through the ages.

Handwritten letters were described as "monitors," "comforters," and "heart-talkers" by Donald Mitchell (pseudonym, Ik Marvel) in "Reveries of a Bachelor," written in 1850.

Letters can spark and sustain passion, connect family, or provide humor when it is sorely needed.

Love-letter etiquette is not taught in school, but with a few tips, anyone can master the basics.

For your true love, use watermark stationery (nothing ripped from a spiral binder, and not your business letterhead) and real ink, preferably from a fountain pen. Embossed wax seals are optional, but classy. A spritz of perfume or aftershave should be used only if you have a light touch. (Pity the poor mail carrier.)

How to start? Consider Felix Mendelssohn's "My heart is so full that I must tell you about it!" On the other hand, there's Snoopy's love letter (by cartoonist Charles Schultz): "Dear Sweetheart: Last night I thought of you. At least I think it was you."

The most common way to begin a note is to say there is nothing to write about - but that's clearly no way to start a love letter. American writer and critic Margaret Fuller began, "I have now taken the kernel of your life and planted it in mine," which would be a terrific line if your love is a gardener. (Include a packet of spring seeds.)

Still stumped? Try this prompt: "Since you came into my life..." and see where it takes you.

If it leads to "my laundry is always done," think again. Even if you've been married for longer than you can remember, avoid the commonplace or dull; never begin with an apology; and ignore the state of your health or the nation. A "heart-talker" should have the feeling of an intimate conversation.

If you attempt overly flowery language (often referred to as purple prose), include a hefty dose of humor to show that you aren't taking yourself so seriously.

Figuring out how to end your romantic missive is easier than deciding what to put in it. But, here, too, the tone is important.

The options run the gamut from X's (kisses), O's (hugs), or lipstick imprints to a simple "Love" or "Forever yours." Save "Sincerely" and "Cordially" for the office.

For a new love, you might choose Mark Twain's "Yrs Affy." If you haven't gotten to affection, but want to push the boundaries, you could attempt Marcel Proust's "The most respectful servant of your Sovereign Indifference."

Not all love letters end with a signature. Some people seem to write a letter for the sake of the PS (maybe they just wanted the last word).

If you still have more to say after the PS, second thoughts properly fall under PPS for "post postscriptum," but that may get confusing, even for Latin lovers.

To speed their letters along, writers once added the instruction "haste, post, haste" on the envelope. While the term "post haste" survives, the hasty post now requires additional postage. White envelopes usually get there quicker than red ones, however, because modern postal screening machines can't decipher dark colors.

Even the placement of the stamp on the envelope can have romantic implications. In 1879 the Niagara Falls Gazette suggested that an upside-down stamp indicated "I love you," but a crosswise placement meant "My heart is another's."

When the stamp is affixed in the upper left corner, it signifies "write no more" - and given the likelihood of delivery when placed in the opposite corner from where the post office usually looks for it, might ensure that result.

Love letters aren't just an end in themselves. The writer hopes for a suitably romantic response from the recipient.

In 1757, Poor Robin's Almanac mentioned a typical reaction: "And if a man gets [a valentine] he loves, he gives her first a pair of gloves." That was the first step toward asking for his true love's hand in marriage.

After that, the heart-talking is up to you.

What's your favorite way to say 'Be mine' - card, candy, flowers?

Love letters are still in the minority as a way to communicate love and affection on Valentine's Day.

No. 1 is cards. A decade ago, more than 900 million valentines were sent through the US mail each February. That number tops 1 billion today, but could decline if "virtual valentines" - sent via e-mail - catch on.

According to the International Mass Retail Association, half of all greeting card buyers prefer a humorous message. Romantic sentiments rate a distant second, at least if coined by the greeting card company.

Evidently men often buy two greeting cards, one humorous and one romantic, which indicates they're either hedging their bets or dividing their attentions.

Women buy more cards (about 83 percent) than men (17 percent), according to recent research.

Men, on the other hand, are more likely to head to the florist than the greeting card store. Valentine's Day is florists' largest holiday, with men their biggest buyers - generally at the last minute.

Flowers are always welcome, but it might be safer to say what you mean via card or candy, unless you are familiar with the Victorian "language and sentiment of flowers." It specifies that red roses signify "I love you," white roses indicate silence, and yellow suggests infidelity.

A hasty delivery of pink larkspur (meaning fickleness) or narcissus (egotism) could spell an untimely end to a budding romance.

E-mailed virtual valentines have their own pitfalls. E-mailing love notes on company time could cost you your job, if your employer monitors your mail. Or just imagine one misplaced keystroke sending your steamy sentiments to the wrong address, or an unrequited love forwarding your private prose for others' amusement.

Sometimes, tradition is best. Since 1902, those tiny candy hearts from the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) have been proclaiming BE MINE or MY PAL. Recent additions include FAX ME.

But if you're looking for something more original than candy and cards, perhaps the best idea is to write a love letter. For more ideas, see the website www.loveletters.com.

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