Creating a setting within a setting is an important tool for fiction writers. In the mystery genre, we place our sleuths within a distinctive milieu that becomes a character in itself. Whether it’s a small town, a neighborhood in a big city, or a regional locale, this setting imbues our stories with a unique flavor. Then we assign an occupation to our sleuth that further extends this world. We bring it to life using the five senses and determine how our protagonist fits into this environment.
However, we can’t stop there. For each story, we need to add layers that become the setting within the setting. This is often where the murder takes place in a cozy mystery. It can also give you a built-in cast of suspects. Think of the stories that take place at a mystery book club, a winery competition, a bake-off contest, a trade show, or a sewing circle. Someone within this group of people dies. Even if your general setting is a southern town, within that town your sleuth may manage a Bed & Breakfast inn. Then a group books rooms at this lodging. They stay there while participating in a work conference, town festival, local fair or stage show. This proves deadly for one of the guests.
In my Bad Hair Day series, the settings go beyond South Florida and hairstylist Marla Vail’s beauty salon. For example, stories have centered around a coastal preservation society, sports club, farm festival, haunted hotel, day spa and historic mansion. I’ve gone astray a couple of times and had mysteries on a cruise ship and an Arizona dude ranch. Those were fun but you can’t wander too often from your general milieu or readers might protest.
My latest title, Styled for Murder, involves a design center company that does home renovations. Marla’s mother is doing a bathroom remodel when she finds a dead body in her shower. It’s the design firm’s job foreman. Who are the suspects? The company’s staff, suppliers and former customers. Once you pick the setting within a setting, you get a related set of potential suspects.
Varying the setting within the setting helps to keep your series fresh. Each new place gives readers an interesting locale or special interest to explore along with the sleuth (and the author!). The narrower the group of suspects, the better. They should all be connected to the victim so that readers keep guessing at their secrets.
Are there any particular tropes that appeal to you in terms of settings within a setting? i.e. Maybe you like mysteries set in the mountains, but where in particular? A ski chalet in the winter? A working cattle ranch? A family restaurant in a tourist town? Or a river rafting company? See how easy it is to narrow the setting. Now tell us where you’ve set your latest novel or where you might like to see one take place.
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Most authors have several manuscripts gathering dust in their drawers. These are our unsold babies, books we wrote along the journey to becoming a published author. Are they really that bad, or were they merely not ready for the right market at the right time?
Aside from the corrections that our more skilled eye could now see to make, are these books worth pulling out and making saleable? Would readers who like our series books even want to read a stand-alone?
And yet it’s sad that these early books will never get to see the light of day. The characters are all alone with nobody to appreciate their stories or the time and effort we put into them. They contain the building blocks of our careers.
What do I have hiding in my drawers? I’ll share my secrets with you. In return, let me know if any of these raise your interest. Some of these stories are so old that I don’t have digital copies. The typed manuscript is what you get. We won’t mention the Star Trek novel proposals hidden away, but I have those, too. Let’s check out the rest of them from earliest to latest:
Key of Death – A retired spy living in the Florida Keys encounters an enemy from his past who leads him to the Cuban exile community in Miami.
The Root of Evil – A scientist living abroad comes home and deals with a mystery. I don’t even remember what this one is about but it’s a long book.
Garden of Love – Floral designer Penny Winters is hired to plan a dream wedding for entrepreneur Whip Lanigan but finds herself falling for his charms. How can she compete with his elusive fiancée?
Lethal Designs – When a lovely botanist and a businessman meet over murder in Key West, they become entangled in a web of deceit where the ultimate betrayal is their own.
The Disappearing Diet – Nutritionist Regina Kent takes a job at exclusive Hillcrest Resort, where guests check in but they don’t check out.
Murder on the Menu – When two chefs meet over murder in New Orleans, they become victims of a dangerous conspiracy and a passion as hot as a Creole sauce.
These next ones were attempts at restarting my mystery career after I’d been published and was seeking a new publisher.
Murder at Your Service – When personal assistant Keri Armstrong discovers her favorite client dead in bed, she risks her reputation and her life to find the killer.
Murder at the Yacht Club – Newsletter editor Claire Rollins finds more than she bargained for when death stalks the members of an elite yacht club.
What is the lesson learned?
Persistence pays. Keep writing. “Never give up. Never surrender,” as they say on Galaxy Quest. Each book improves your skills as you learn more about the craft. It may seem as though you are climbing a mountain, but a beautiful vista awaits you on the other side. One final push might get you there, but you won’t make it if you quit. So keep following your dream and the road to publication might be just around the next corner. It takes hard work and dedication, and when you do find a publisher, this doesn’t end because then you have to learn all about marketing.
Excerpt from LETHAL DESIGNS
The eerie whistling sang through the night like a banshee, ebbing and flowing on the wind. Lani had never heard it before, and she’d been to the Galleon Marina in Key West enough times to recognize the familiar sounds. This one was different, disturbing in its strangeness.
She paused on the dimly lit dock, her sharp gaze scanning the darkness. Row after row of boats faced her in serene solitude, like sentinels of the night. Even the breeze, salty and laden with moisture, seemed to be whispering words of warning. A feeling of foreboding swept through her, chilling her despite the warm summer air.
Tightening her mouth, she strode forward. Her feet were bare, and the wooden boards felt cool and damp as she padded silently toward Don Cambridge’s yacht. Slip number sixty-six lay just around the next corner.
She spotted his boat right away. The bridge light was shining like a beacon which usually meant he expected visitors. Shrugging, she quickened her pace. Even if he already had company, he’d be glad to see her. She’d just gotten back from Miami and couldn’t wait to share her thrilling news. Don knew how much she’d wanted to win that research grant. As her best friend, he’d celebrate her triumph.
Nearing the vessel, she listened to the sounds of the night. The eerie whistling had faded, its melody a faint wailing that floated on the wind. Creaking and clicking noises from boats reverberated all around. Water trickled from through-holes and waves splashed onto rocks. Water, the music of the sea.
Music. Lani stopped abruptly.
Don’s yacht was ominously silent. She didn’t hear any music coming from his stereo. Don always played it nonstop and loud enough to be heard outside but not too loud to violate the codes. He’d never turn it off unless something was seriously wrong or he was ill. Maybe he’d fallen asleep and had just forgotten to turn out the lights. But that was unlikely. Ten o’clock was like the middle of the day for Don the Night Owl.
Concern propelled her forward. Grasping hold of the boarding ladder, she climbed up onto the carpeted aft deck where her glance rose to the empty bridge. He’s not here. That leaves the cabin area below.
To be continued… or not. How many manuscripts are hidden in your drawers?
How do you create settings that come alive for readers? What kinds of details can provide this experience? In this workshop, award-winning author Nancy J. Cohen will discuss what type of research you’ll need, how to build your society in a unique fashion, and what specific elements you’ll want to include. Examples from different genres will be offered. You’ll come away with a checklist of items that will help you set your story in a memorable universe of your own.
Saturday, Oct. 30, 2:00 pm – 3:00pm, “Characters and Conflict” with Nancy J. Cohen via Zoom for Alvin Sherman Library at Nova Southeastern University. Details TBA.
How do you create memorable characters that readers will remember? In this workshop, award-winning author Nancy J. Cohen will discuss how to develop your protagonist and secondary characters, use dialogue, add conflict, and follow genre conventions in regard to plot. Examples of conflict as the engine that drives your story will be given. You will feel confident in being able to create your own main characters and devise subplots for the recurrent cast in a series.
During the Discovery phase of your novel, which I discuss in my post on Five Stages of Writing, you’ll begin formulating the characters. If you’re writing a mystery series, you may already know the protagonists and recurrent characters. So now you have to determine the suspects that are specific to your WIP (work-in-progress).
As a plotter and not a pantser, I’ll create these characters before I begin writing. This means knowing their goals, motivations, and conflicts as in Debra Dixon’s excellent text on the subject. I’ll assign each person a secret with a motive for murder. At this stage, I may not know which one is the killer because it could be any of them. Or, the person I pick to be the killer might turn out later to be a red herring.
Here’s an example of how I develop my characters. This guy is one of three judges for a bake-off contest in Trimmed to Death.
Alton Paige, food critic, has a pudgy face and a rotund figure that reminds Marla of a dog. He’s a bit of a philanderer. Alton extorts money from restaurant owners in return for a good rating.
Oops, I have an Alton and an Alyce, one of the contestants. Watch out for similar names when creating your characters. I will change the judge’s name. In the next round, I fill in his secrets and start working on his relationships to the other characters.
Carlton Paige, 44, food critic, has a pudgy face and a rotund figure that reminds Marla of a dog. He’s a bit of a philanderer. Carlton accepts gifts from restaurateurs. In return, he gives them a high rating but only if warranted. The word to describe him would be smarmy. His wife, Sally, who accompanies him on his food jaunts, spends most of her spare time at the gym. She’s always criticizing his lack of restraint in eating…and in other things. Since she’s having an affair with her personal trainer, she overlooks his marital transgressions. Secretly he has an inferiority complex, being the younger brother of three siblings and on the plump side even as a kid. He strives for recognition. Food has been his means of consolation. He’s worked his way up in journalism and aspires to be editor of the entertainment section. Carlton’s reputation is all important to him, and he resents the attention being given to upstart bloggers like Alyce Greene (a contestant in the bake-off). Her blog is eroding his ratings and putting his job in jeopardy. He has to learn self-respect in order to refuse bribes and move ahead in his career…or to realize his worth in his current role.
Carlton Paige, 44, food critic, has a pudgy face and a rotund figure that reminds Marla of a pug breed of dog. He’s a philanderer whose sensual attitude in life appeals to women. Carlton accepts gifts from restaurateurs. In return, he gives them a high rating but only if warranted. The word to describe him would be smarmy. His wife, Sally, who accompanies him on his food jaunts, spends most of her spare time at the gym. She’s always criticizing his lack of restraint in eating…and in other things. Secretly he has an inferiority complex, being the younger brother of three siblings. He strives for recognition. Food has been his means of consolation. He’s worked his way up in journalism and aspires to be editor of the entertainment section. But this won’t happen unless he gains readers. He resents the attention being given to upstart bloggers like Alyce. Her blog is eroding his ratings and putting his job in jeopardy. What will he do to protect his reputation and his readership?
Sally Paige, Carlton’s wife, knows Francine Dodger, another contestant, from the gym. When Carlton complains to her about Alyce, he suggests Sally should discredit her to Francine. But Sally hesitates to approach Francine because the food magazine publisher knows about Sally’s affair with her personal trainer. And while she overlooks her husband’s marital transgressions because she’s unfaithful as well, she still loves Carlton. How far will Sally go to protect her husband and her marriage?
You see how each round adds another layer? These people will come alive when they walk onstage for the first time. I don’t bother with long biographies. I’ll see how they move and speak and act when I meet them on the page. What matters now are their motives for murder. If you want to get a better handle on their physical descriptions, search for images online at the royalty-free sites.
After you have a profile on each character, it’s time to connect them to each other. These interrelationships are crucial for a cozy mystery, because the focus of this subgenre is on personal connections among the characters rather than on forensic details or police procedure. More on this next time in Writing the Mystery – Whydunit?
NOTE: This post topic was originally published in Feb. 2017
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Have you ever been blessed with a story dream? I consider myself fortunate when this happens and write it down first thing in the morning to preserve the memory. You’ll think you might remember it but the scenes fade as the day wears on.
I’ve been lucky to have dreams that have inspired some of my stories. That’s how Circle of Light, my first published book, began. The dream ended and it was too good to let go. I had to finish the story. Scenes for Silver Serenade came from a dream, also. I can’t say that this has happened for my mysteries, but perhaps this recent one will be the start.
I have recently moved to a small village and am exploring the environs. Nearby is a big city that I’m eager to visit. I walk around the urban center, gawking at the tall buildings as though I’m in Manhattan.
While there, I am inside a department store several stories high when I notice white smoke billowing from a window below. Fearful that I would get trapped if there was a fire, I hurry down the interior stairs praying the exit door wasn’t locked. I get out and overhear a conversation between two officials. There was no fire, but they believed it was an act by a subversive group to cause confusion.
I go home to my new house, glad for the peace and quiet. My daughter comes to visit and we decide to take a walk. I haven’t found any paved walking trails nearby, so we hitch a ride down the main avenue to a bustling flea market. We can walk and shop at the same time.
We dump our coats on a chair to shop unburdened. As I browse the colorful wares, I don’t see anything I want to buy. We’re at one booth when I get worried someone will steal my fur coat. I scurry back to the chairs where we left our outerwear and observe with relief that I had only brought a cheap cloth jacket. It doesn’t matter if I lose that one. I tell my daughter I’m going home and will take the coats. It’s warm and we don’t need them. I’ll return shortly.
At the village, I notice a dirt walking path I hadn’t seen before. It borders woods on one side and a field on the other. I walk a short distance down the trail and come upon a gunship on a landing. What is that weaponized transport doing here? I am not quick enough to take a photo with my cell phone before the engine revs up and it’s gone.
Remembering the conversation I’d overheard earlier, I wonder if this vessel belongs to insurgents in the area. I should tell someone but I have no evidence.
I go back to the flea market but my daughter isn’t there. I take the bus home and call her during the ride. To my great relief, she answers and is safe. And that’s when I woke up.
What do you think? Is there a germ of a story idea in here?
Sometimes it’s the emotions from a dream that can be useful in creating a scene. The fear of being trapped in a high building, losing touch with a loved one, or making an ominous discovery are feelings I can glean from this dream.
What part of this story would you want to see developed? Have you had any interesting dreams lately?
Transitions are some of the hardest scenes to write in a novel. Your hero has to go from Point A to Point B without boring detail or abrupt shifts of any kind. If you’re like me in racing through the first draft to get the story down on paper, then doubtless your critique partners may say, “Needs a better transition” in more places than one.
These scenes provide an opportunity for you to expand on the hero’s reflection of recent events or for him to decide on his goals for the upcoming scene. Another option is simply a time transition with a space or chapter break.
Here’s an example from my work in progress, where my critique partners pointed out a rough transition. The italics are for demonstrational purposes only.
They’d bought a house without a pool, an anomaly in South Florida, but Marla couldn’t bear to have a backyard pool after the tragedy in her past. Images still haunted her of little Tammy’s body. That awful day when a toddler drowned while under her care as a babysitter was forever imprinted in her mind. No way she would tempt fate with a swimming pool on their property. Instead, Dalton planned to hire a landscaping firm to plant a formal garden they could enjoy.
Speaking of plants, April flowers provided splashes of color amid the regal palms and manicured lawns at the Broward County Convention Center. Dalton searched for a parking space in the adjacent garage. It was ten-thirty and already mobbed but he found an empty spot. Marla appreciated the water view as they exited and headed toward the massive white building. Sunlight gleamed off the Stranahan River where Marla caught a glimpse of a cruise ship over by Port Everglades.
A faint chemical smell pervaded the lobby as they entered along with dozens of other guests. She paused to admire the towering walls of glass windows and the turquoise and coral patterned carpet. Its seashell designs, along with a series of potted palms, added to the bright and airy tropical ambiance.
They’d bought a house with enough land for an elevated garden in the backyard. Marla hadn’t wanted a pool after the tragedy in her past. Images still haunted her of little Tammy’s body. The toddler had drowned while under her care as a babysitter, and it had taken years for her to come to terms with it and move on. No way would she tempt fate with a swimming pool on their property. Instead, Dalton hoped to hire a landscaping firm to create his dream vegetable garden.
The arrival of their son had put a halt to those plans. Between the baby, their two dogs, and a teenager in the house, they had enough to handle for the moment.
As they approached the parking garage at the Broward County Convention Center, Marla considered her goals for the day. Caroline was sure to be present at the design company booth, since she ran their office. Would Brad or Nadia accompany her? Either way, Marla hoped to learn more about their operations.
She put off these thoughts as Dalton found an empty space. He retrieved the stroller from the trunk while Marla grabbed their baby supplies. [Baby] was happy to get out of the car and into the fresh air.
April flowers provided splashes of color amid regal palms and manicured lawns on the path leading to the convention center. Sunlight gleamed off the rippling current from the waterway in back. From her vantage point, Marla glimpsed a cruise ship docked at Port Everglades. She remembered her own voyage to the Caribbean with a pang of nostalgia. It would be a long time before they’d be able to travel in luxury again.
A faint chemical smell hit her nose as they entered the convention center lobby. She paused to admire the towering glass windows and the turquoise and coral carpet. Its seashell design, along with a series of potted palms, added to the bright and airy tropical ambiance.
It’s helpful when you learn what isn’t working so you can fix it. Don’t skip over your transitions. In your first round of revisions, review these scenes to ensure they roll smoothly from one setting to the next. Some scenes may need to be lengthened and others will need to be trimmed. Either way, you’ll want your story to flow like warm honey and taste just as sweet to your readers.
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Revisions on your novel can get as intense as writing the book. You still need to get into the zone, live inside your character’s head, and breathe in the scene. But you also need to step back to view the pacing and structure objectively.
I’m involved in this process now for Styled for Murder, book #17 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. All I want to do is sit here glued to my chair to work on my book, but life keeps intruding. It’s hard to remember what I wrote from one chapter to the next with so many disruptions.
Nonetheless, my critique partners were right when they said my sleuth repeats information. She tells various people about the murder case. It’s okay to have a periodic review of suspects with a sidekick or friend, but I’ve been repeating too much material. I’ve hit the delete key many times by now, and I’m only on Chapter Eight. There’s also the issue of suspects who reveal too much information. They should either question Marla’s interest or clam up on her. She has to work more to get answers.
It took me a whole week to get past Chapter Seven. Why was this? Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, can get brusque when interviewing potential suspects. My critique partners pointed this out to me. So in my first revision, I am smoothing out these scenes to make her more sympathetic. She must coax or cajole or flatter people into talking, not fire questions at them like the cops. This means nearly rewriting entire scenes. That’s okay. I expect my first draft to be rough. I’m writing down my stream of consciousness and telling the story as it comes.
I’m also cutting out the unnecessary repetitions. Instead of telling each person she knows all about the case, I’ll insert a line like this: Marla updated her friend on recent events.
Another problem is that I’ve forgotten certain aspects of Marla’s personal life. When she’s at home, she cares for her baby and has discussions with her husband. Oops. What happened to her teenage stepdaughter who lives with them and their two dogs? Each scene at home, I have to go back and make sure I’ve included these elements.
It’s a juggling act inside my head. By the time I get to the last chapter, I’ll forget again what I wrote. That’s when the revision process will start in for the second round. This goes on until I am satisfied that I caught everything and polished every sentence. The work will never be perfect, but it’s time for me to step away at this point and hand it off to someone else with a critical eye.
Editorial and beta reader comments lead to a new round of revisions. Each change can lead to other changes. And so on, until I’m nearly cross-eyed from looking at the pages. Then I call a halt and get set for publication. Thereafter, the book stands up to your scrutiny.
Without a doubt, there’s always something a fan will find that needs fixing. I am grateful for these tips, especially when the mistake is significant. Things do get past my multiple readings, the editor, and the beta readers. We’re only human.
Here is a sample from the first page of Chapter Eight (Spoiler Alert):
Old Chapter Eight
“We’re thinking of renovating our bathroom, and that’s how we met Lenny,” Marla explained, thinking she’d offer the same excuse to the granite guy that she’d given to the tile man. “We had considered Amaze Design Center, but I don’t want to deal with them if jobs are being delayed due to the foreman’s death.”
“That’s a wise decision.”
“What kind of problems did you have with him, if you don’t mind my asking? I’d like to know what to watch out for in the future. I heard customers got annoyed when he scheduled appointments and nobody showed up.”
George lifted a hand to shade his face from the sun, making Marla wonder why he didn’t wear a hat if he was outdoors so often.
“My problems stem from the fact that the louse hadn’t paid me for the last two loads. I refused to extend them any further credit. Jack was upset and chewed me out in front of another contractor. He hollered that a customer blamed him for the delay in obtaining the granite to complete his job. This client wrote a nasty note to Brad.”
He snorted. “A lot of good that did. Brad would never fire Jack. They knew too much about each other.”
Oh yeah? Like what?
“You couldn’t have been happy about Jack taking out his frustration on you,” Marla said in a sympathetic tone.
“I could have punched him in the face. It wasn’t my fault that his company was behind in their payments.” George curled his fist for emphasis as his lips thinned and his eyes squinted.
New Chapter Eight
“I understand Jack riled lots of people,” Marla told the granite guy. “I’m not sure I want to do business with his company.”
George glowered at her. “What does it matter now that Jack is dead?”
“His death has shut things down, meaning projects will be delayed more than usual. If you don’t mind my asking, did your problems with Jack relate to his job?”
George lifted a hand to shade his face from the sun. “Their firm hadn’t paid me for the last two orders. I refused to extend them anymore credit. Jack burst in here one day and chewed me out in public. Apparently, a customer had blamed him for the delay in installing their granite countertops. This client wrote a nasty note to the company president.”
“I’ve met Brad. How did he respond?”
The granite dealer snorted. “Jack didn’t say, but I knew Brad wouldn’t care. He could never fire Jack. They knew too much about each other.”
“Is that right? Like what?”
“Things from the past,” George said, hunching his shoulders.
His stance indicated an unwillingness to elaborate, so Marla tried a more sympathetic approach. “It must have been upsetting when Jack came here and railed into you. He shouldn’t have blamed you for his aggravation. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t fill another order until the company’s debts were paid.”
“You said it. I could have punched him in the face for yelling at me in front of customers.” George curled his fists for emphasis.
Revisions are a never-ending process. But eventually the book is done, and it’s time to begin another work of creation. Personally, I’d rather fix what’s written than face the blank page. How about you? If you’re a reader, do you notify writers about typos or mistakes you discover?
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Questions often asked of writers include: What is your writing process? Do you set yourself daily writing goals? Do you plot the book in advance?
For me, I’m a plotter, not a pantser. I write a synopsis ahead of time. The storyline may change as I write the book, but it acts as a roadmap along the way. Once I get started writing and get past the first few pages or beginning chapters, I’ll set a deadline for completion. Then I put myself on a writing schedule of five pages a day. I don’t stop to polish my work or perfect my sentences. It’s important for me to get the story down on paper and then I can go back and revise.
If you want to finish a manuscript, it helps to set daily goals. When you sell to a traditional publisher, you’ll have definitive deadlines for the next book. Small press publishers may require a submission date as well if they offer multibook deals.
I’d started out working for Dorchester and did two books a year for them, meaning I had to complete a book within six months. Strict self-discipline is the only way to get this done. When I wrote for Kensington, they only wanted one book a year. That was easier because it gave me time to plan an extended launch campaign.
Now that I’m indie publishing my work, I set my own deadlines. My writing happens early in the morning before normal office hours. Then I have the rest of the day free for excursions or to work on marketing or other book projects.
When I’m in the revision stage, I also set goals. For a 300-page manuscript, this would be 10 pages a day to get done in a month. And that’s only for the first round of line editing.
Besides the creative goals, I also set business goals. This year, I am bundling my mysteries into box sets. Last year, the goal was to complete reissuing my backlist titles. Next, I’d like to do more audiobooks and perhaps revise some old manuscripts sitting in my drawers. This is in addition to writing book #18 in my series.
Keep in mind that my method might not work for you. Whichever way you can finish a book, go for it. But if you’re floundering and can’t seem to get past the first few chapters, set yourself some achievable goals.
The Muse has returned! Now that things are settling on the home front, I am back to writing. I’ve hit page 50 in my WIP that is tentatively titled Styled for Murder. It’s book #17 in the Bad Hair Day mystery series.
What helped was taking my notes and writing a synopsis to put the story into a cohesive whole. Also I wrote out my Cast of Characters, assigning names and finding photos on a royalty-free site to represent my suspects. This was a fun exercise and helped to gel the story in my mind. Here’s one of the suspects. The other shows Marla’s mother Anita and her stepfather Reed.
Now I go to the computer first thing in the morning. Instead of wrestling with decisions involving the house, I can focus on writing. I get up very early to do this before dawn because once I am distracted, it’s over. If I can get a few pages done, that’s enough to satisfy me. Marketing might not be my priority right now but I need to write the next book.
Then for the rest of the day, I can tackle the other chores on my to-do list, such as dealing with the propane gas company, the gutter people and the tree trimmers. We’re still finding doctors to replace the ones we left behind and that takes time-consuming research. It means tempering our annoyance when the PA shows up for our appointment and says the specialist isn’t there. But the list is getting shorter. Then maybe we can branch out and enjoy our surroundings like described in our farm trip below.
It’s a good feeling to be writing again. Marla is back in my head and the setting is familiar. Now I only have to channel the story and see where it takes me. I’d much rather be visualizing Marla’s antics than making decisions on which vendor to hire.
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