Words Get In The Way

My first published fiction was erotica. Porn, if you will, perversion and filth if you won’t.

I always wanted to do an erotica anthology called Filth and Perversions. Alas, the market for print erotica has long since dried up; there’s too much easily accessible and free/low cost visual erotica available these days. It’s a shame–because all notions that erotica writing is all trash is incredibly incorrect; part and parcel of the American puritan ethic about sex and sexuality that is responsible for a lot of things wrong in this country today, frankly.

Or maybe I’ll just call my memoirs Filth and Perversions. It’s too good of a title not to use, you know?

But I often credit writing erotica with helping me understand how to write short stories better. Erotic stories are the ultimate definition of a story: beginning/middle/end; characters meet/have sex/resolution; writing erotica essentially taught me/help me understand story structure, which for some reason I just couldn’t get through my head before.

As I mentioned in my afterward to Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories, there’s not much of a market for short stories with gay characters. In fact, the only way to get gay-themed short stories published was the write erotica.

So, I basically would write a story and then figure out how to add a sex scene to it so it could get published.

That’s not to say, of course, that some of the stories weren’t simply about the sex; but I wanted them to be about more than just random gay guy meets other random gay guy, they have sex, and each goes on his merry way.

The title story of my collection, Promises in Every Star and Other Stories, is about going back to your high school reunion and running into someone you had a mad crush on when you were a closeted, bullied gay teen.

There’s nothing quite like the smell of a cornfield after a heavy rain.

I’d forgotten that in the twenty five years since I’d left Kansas and never looked back. Off in the east I could see the black clouds and the mist that hung from them to the ground, blurring everything beyond it. I’d forgotten that the sky in Kansas surrounds you and goes on forever, so that you could see the weather coming and the weather that was just there. There were no clouds overhead now, just sky that was something between azure and robin’s egg, reaching down into the wet corn. The pavement of the county road beneath the tires of my rented red Mustang convertible was wet and splashing every once in a while, the water being thrown up making a slight slapping sound against the rubber. Twenty five years. What else had I forgotten?

As I turned off onto the Allen road, I slid Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours into the CD player and turned it up. This was the way  used to drive to school when Mom let me have the car or one of my friends picked me up and I didn’t have to ride the bus. It was a CD now rather than a scratchy 8 track player, and the sound quality was much better, but it was still the same. I smiled to myself as I saw my old green Chevrolet Bel Air with holes rusted in the sides running up the Allen Road, the old muffler pipe hanging too low from the back end. All the windows would be open to catch the breeze and eliminate the smell of the cigarette dangling from my lip. Stevie would be wailing about the thunder, and the rain washing you clean, and you’ll know. I would be singing along at the top of my lungs, thumping my hand on the steering wheel with the bass line.

No, it didn’t look too different, I thought as the Mustang sped along. The same fields, the same houses, the same barns. Every once in a while there’d be a clearing in the corn and a brick house I didn’t remember would appear, laundry flapping in the sweet after rain air on a clothesline, a couple of cars in the unpaved drive. I crossed the Cottonwood River bridge, and saw a house coming up on the right. The Gosses used to live there, I thought as I drove by. Mrs. Goss was the school secretary, and Sue her spoiled only child. I couldn’t remember what Mr. Goss did for a living, but I remember Sue had her own custom Mustang when we were in school, and she always dressed nice. Sue was cute, in a little girlish kind of way, and a lot of the guys thought she was sexy. I thought she was funny. She made me laugh. She also didn’t strike me as the type who’d marry any of the boys in our school. Sue would, I thought even then, marry money.

The mailbox still said GOSS. I guessed the Gosses would probably be in their seventies by now, and why wouldn’t they still be there? Sue was undoubtedly long gone, came home a couple of times with her kids to see them a year, every once in a while they’d get into their Buick and go see her.

Hmmm. A lot of this is drawn from my own experience, obviously, being a closeted bullied gay teen in a Kansas high school–and the Allen road was one of the ways to get to my high school from the town I lived in, but I’ve never been to one of my reunions so that is all fictional.

This story was actually triggered by getting an invitation to attend my twenty-five year reunion, and that got me started thinking about what it would be like to go back. I’ve written a lot of fiction about Kansas (mostly unpublished, with Sara the noticeable exception. The WIP, by the way, is set in Kansas, and I have an idea for another Kansas novel called Kansas Lonesome that I hope to get to next year).

The next story in the collection,  “Tell Me a Lie,” was written for an anthology but I can’t remember which one, but it was one I didn’t edit. It was specifically about going out looking for sex, cruising a gay bar looking for your trick of the evening, and not really caring about who that person is…it’s kind of a cynical story, in some ways, now that I think about it; cynical and sad, about wanting a physical connection with someone out of need, but wanting nothing more.

Hmm, I should read that again.

And now back to the spice mines.

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I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On

I’ve been traveling down memory lane a lot lately, it seems. I am also beginning, for the first time in my life, beginning to understand the pull of nostalgia. It’s something I’ve never quite gotten before–the past is the past and it basically is what it is, has always been my mentality, and I have always been quite happy in the present. But rereading Bourbon Street Blues again as I did the proofing/copy editing took me back in time, and I kind of liked revisiting that time again mentally. Setting “Never Kiss a Stranger” in the summer of 1994 also has me revisiting that time, and remembering it quite fondly. Also posting my daily “Pride Books” on Facebook has also had me spending time in my past, as I remember books and what they meant to me at the time I read them.

I also saw a call for submissions for crime short stories set in the past, which also has me wondering about something I could write. I have an idea–don’t I always have an idea?–but it’s still too amorphous. And I still have these other two short stories to write, and need to get six more chapters of the first draft of the Scotty done and then I can let it sit for a couple of months.

I did work on my short story “Children of the Stone Circle” a bit yesterday, and also managed to write a really shitty chapter of the Scotty book. I mean, a really shitty chapter. I now have six chapters left in which to solve two murders, find a kidnapping victim, and wrap up all the other stuff I’ve thrown at the boys in this book. Heavy heaving sigh.

It should be interesting, to say the least.

So, I made my first ever red velvet cheesecake this past weekend; it was a co-worker’s birthday and another co-worker suggested I make one. I used the Cheesecake Factory recipe, but adapted it a bit–I didn’t, for example, cut the cheesecake in half so there would be four layers instead of three–and it turned out pretty well. (I think the red velvet layers were a bit dry, but everyone else seemed to think it was fine. The cheesecake and cream cheese frosting, though, made the dryness not so noticeable. If I had only made red velvet cake, I think it would be too dry.)

I actually love to cook; I love trying new recipes and changing them up a bit to make them my own. I just wish I had a bigger kitchen, or at least more counter space. I have a galley style kitchen, long and narrow, and my workspace for writing is at one end, in the bay windows which would ordinarily be used, I think, as a breakfast nook. I always think, whenever I am cooking and feeling confined in my kitchen, that there would be plenty of room if I didn’t have to use the kitchen as a makeshift office as well. I suspect that is actually untrue; it wouldn’t really change the counter space much, although I suppose I could have a table where my desk is and use it for the microwave and coffee maker, which would free up a lot of counter space.

Yeah, right.

I really just want an entire room for my office, so I could have bookcases lined along the walls and filled with books.

Perchance to dream.

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No One Is To Blame

Writing has always been my salvation.

That may seem melodramatic, but it’s true. As long as I can remember, no matter what was going on in my life, the dream was always there and after I actually became a writer, it’s been the foundation of my life. The business drives me crazy, but the writing itself keeps me sane. When the rest of my life or the world seems to have gone mad, I can always escape anything and everything by immersing myself in writing or reading. No matter what else was going on my life or my world, I could always escape by either reading a book or getting out a journal and writing. Whenever I had a bad day at a job or some kind of personal-life conflict, I would always think to myself, one day I will be a writer and none of this will matter anymore.

That got me through more hard times than I care to remember, honestly.

Which is why, of course, the weird duality of being a writer/writing fascinates me so much. I actually love being a writer, and most of the time I love writing, but it can be enormously frustrating at the same time. No matter how much I love to write, how much I enjoy actually doing it, no matter how much of my real identity is wrapped up in being a writer–I dread doing it every day and have to actually force myself to do it. Today I need to write a chapter of the Scotty book (at least one) and I need to work on two of my short stories; one has a bigger priority than the other, of course, but we’ll see if I even get to them. I intended to write yesterday, but after running errands and doing all of that I was exhausted, which is also concerning: why am I so easily exhausted, and what has happened to all of my energy? I spent the rest of the day in my easy chair, watching Evil Genius on Netflix and getting caught up on Animal Kingdom (which, in Season 3, I’m not enjoying as much as I was in earlier seasons), and then wasted some more time I should have spent cleaning or doing something productive. But I also need at least one day a week where I don’t really use my brain too much, and even so, as I sit there watching television my mind does tend to wander a bit, and I wind up working out puzzles and problems that I’m encountering in my work.

I had another story rejected yesterday, and I consider it a badge of honor that I no longer get my feelings hurt or react in disappointment or in other rage-y ways to rejections. One, it’s always lovely to receive a direct email rejection from the editor herself when they have a system where you can actually go look and see if your story was rejected; so a personal note from the editor is always appreciated. And as I have mentioned before,  my short stories are crime-related but not mysteries per se; so it’s not really a surprise when they get rejected from mystery markets; the surprise comes when they are actually taken. But never fear, I shall keep writing them, if for no other reason than I enjoy doing so…but I am also very well aware that my writing, and the limited time I have available for writing, should be spent working on things that should make me money.

That’s the other dichotomy of being a writer; writing what you want to write vs. writing things that make you money. I am a firm believer in the axiom you must always pay the writer, and yet many times I’ve written things I haven’t gotten paid for, that I knew up front I wasn’t getting paid for (this is an entirely different thing than writing something you are promised payment for but never actually receive the proffered payment for; that’s fraud) because it was something I either wanted to write or because it meant sharing the table of contents with writers I deeply admire, hoping that sharing the pages of an anthology or magazine or whatever-it-was with those writers would somehow end up with some of their luster and stardust rubbing off somehow on me.

I reflected on this a lot this past week as I wrote my afterward to Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories; some of those stories I never received payment for, or was paid so little for them that the money was merely a token of appreciation rather than something I could get excited about receiving; there’s a significant difference between getting ten or fifteen dollars for a story and getting fifty to a hundred (or more). As I said in that afterward, no one gets rich writing short stories. (Well, maybe Joyce Carol Oates makes money doing it, and names on that level. Those of us on my level of success? Not so much.)

So, on that note, I am about to put on my miner’s hat and head into the spice mines for the day. Have a lovely day, everyone.

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Papa Don’t Preach

So, for Pride Month, on Facebook I am posting a queer book every day that impacted me in some way; whether it’s personally or professionally or both. It’s actually been kind of fun tracking down book covers on the Internet, remembering these books and how I felt when I read them. My teen years were sort of a barren desert; the 1970’s in rural areas wasn’t exactly where the we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it chants were ringing across the prairies.

And, as always, I found solace and comfort and joy in books.

As I write the afterword to the short story collection, I find myself reflecting more and more on my life and my past; how things have changed for society in so many ways over the many decades, how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. The afterword hasn’t quite gelled in my mind yet; there are so many thoughts to process and put together and work out; I’ve already tried to get started on it several times, but I am going to knock it out this weekend.

I’m also going to finish reading that damned Roth novel if it kills me.

I want to get some work on the manuscripts done this weekend as well; and maybe even a short story or two. I feel so crazy talking about yet another mental breakthrough I’ve had about short stories. For some reason I’ve always thought they needed to be written about and set in the present; why, I don’t know. I realized with “Never Kiss a Stranger” one night this would work so much better if it was set in the 1990’s and BOOM.

Why can’t it be set in the 1990’s?

And there it was. I started revising the story so it’s set in 1994 and it flowed and worked and made more sense; and I realized how silly I had been. I really am stubbornly focused sometimes, and then when I realize how silly and stubborn about something I am being, I feel so freed and relieved once I get past it. No, no, this is how I have to do this. Um, no, you don’t have to do anything this way. This was, you know, the primary problem with the WIP. I’d become so adamant that it had to play out the way I originally envisioned it, and then tried to force the story to fit the structure I envisioned…well, that’s why I never could figure out how to end it. And then I realized that I’d pretty much tagged every single cliche in the manuscript, the beginning as I’d seen it wasn’t the beginning and actually was yet another horrible cliche, and thought, hey, why don’t you start the story HERE and see how that goes? 

And there it was.

So simply, really. And I am never sure if it’s laziness (ugh, I’ve already written an entire draft and that’s a lot of work) or stubbornness (the way I originally envisioned the story is the only way it can possibly be written) or something else…but it’s a lesson I never seem to learn, even after all these years of writing and editing and rewriting and revising and so forth. I never seem to learn the trick to step outside of myself and the story and looking at it in a different way. Is it any wonder that writing makes me crazy?

Sigh.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Human

And it’s back to work.

What a lovely time the last five days were; probably the best stay-cation (I do really hate how we are making up words these days) I’ve ever had, and I think I am probably going to need to do this periodically; perhaps every couple of months or so. Don’t get me wrong, I do love traveling and visiting places, but having time to relax, catch up on rest, and focus on not only cleaning the house but getting some important writing work done cannot be over-estimated in importance. I also managed to get a lot of other loose ends tidied up, which was also equally lovely. This morning I need to send a bunch of emails, and then it’s back to normal; or what passes for normal around here.

I finished watching The Shannara Chronicles yesterday, and kudos to them for an excellent ending to Season 2 and a terrific cliff-hanger. Should the show be renewed, it’s essentially rebooted; if it isn’t, well, it had a lovely run for two seasons. It was originally on MTV, where it was almost as highly rated as Teen Wolf, but moved to Spike for its second season (MTV moving away from higher-cost scripted series), where it lost a significant chunk of audience. If it is popular in streaming, though, it’s entirely possible either Netflix or Hulu could continue it. It’s very well done; a glossier, prettier Game of Thrones, and it’s not like there aren’t over twenty Shannara novels by Terry Brooks to use as source material.

As I said, it would be an enormous shame should the series not continue.

I also did some writing yesterday; again, not so much actual writing as making notes for the stuff I am working on; my creativity has been raging out of control lately, which is fantastic, of course. I made notes for an old story called “The Trophy Boy,” which I think could be redone as a crime story, and came up with some ideas for another short story that’s been floating around in the outer reaches of my creativity, “Head Shot.” I also made notes for a noir novel idea I had, centered around a French Quarter strip club, Girls Girls Girls, and of course, more notes on both the Scotty AND the WIP, which is very exciting. I think the thing I am enjoying the most about not being on deadline is the freedom to not stress about free-associating something else without being slavishly devoted to, or stressed about, whatever the contracted piece might be.

It’s kind of a lovely feeling to embrace the creative ADHD for a change, rather than trying to fight it.

Then again, if giving into the ADHD makes the work I am focusing on (supposedly) better (which I think it is), this is good.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Holding Back the Years

Yesterday was rather dreary, weather-wise, and I feel fairly confident we are still under a flash-flood warning; but this morning all I see is blue sky and sunshine. Things still look a little damp out there, but over all, much better than one could have hoped. And in checking the project path for Alberto, the cone of uncertainty has narrowed to New Orleans in the west to Panama City in the east; much, much smaller cone; but we are on the outside of the western edge. As storms also tend to turn to the east–even Katrina did before landfall–I’ve breathed a slight sigh of relief this morning.

It is, I suspect, going to be a long hurricane season–particularly since it doesn’t officially start until June 1.

I slept deeply and well last night, and my back–which was aching–no longer hurts, which is a good thing. I wish I could figure out what the hell I am doing to it to make it hurt in the first place, so I can be more careful, but I am more than happy to take the pain being gone as a win this morning. Huzzah!

Yesterday I was scribbling away in my journal as I continued to read Philip Roth’s When She Was Good. The writing is very good, and the characterizations are also quite good; all that remains is the plot/story, and I am intrigued enough with it to continue reading it. Maybe I should dial it back for a while on the crime fiction and read outside my genre for a little while; not just for a break but to come up with better ideas for my own writing, which can never hurt.

I wrote all kinds of notes in my journal yesterday; notes for the WIP, notes for the short stories “Never Kiss a Stranger” and “A Holler Full of Kudzu” and “The Brady Kid” (I’ve not even thought about the latter for months now), so I am feeling all kinds of productive here in the Lost Apartment this morning. I am going to actually write today for a while; I also intend to do some reading–not just the Roth, but I am going to read everything I’ve written on the Scotty thus far and make notes. I also don’t know my characters in the Scotty book as much as I should, and I need to get the plot figured out so I can get the goddamned draft done. I also have a few other things I need to get done as well.

And there’s always cleaning, of course. I am currently working on washing the bed linens, and the living room of course needs to be vacuumed. I also need to clean out my car a bit; and Armor-all the inside of my car now that summer is looming. I also need to put the recycling out. But I have to say, this well-rested thing is actually working out quite beautifully. I could easily get very used to it, I must say. I must also say that I’m greatly enjoying this creative phase I am currently experiencing. I am thinking about character, and why I write the things I write, and how to broaden my reading audience. I’ve been thinking about moving forward with the agent search, how best to approach an agent, how to put my best foot forward, not only with industry professionals but also with the readers of my genre.

I’ve also come to realize that, over the last few days, as I’ve put my finger precisely on why I wasn’t getting anywhere with “A Holler Full of Kudzu” is because I was trying to not be subversive; the write from the gay male point of view without rubbing people’s faces in the sexuality. But WHY? Why would I do that? The point of the story, the theme, if you will, has everything to do with the point of view character’s sexuality; of beginning to understand what your sexuality is and that is partly why you feel different from everyone else, and also, learning how people feel about people who are like you, and how dangerous those feelings are, can push you deeper into the closet. I think the theme may be larger than the story itself, to be completely honest with you; which is why I am tending to think this story may actually be a novel a-borning in my mind rather than the lengthy short story I was thinking it would be. As I plug in some of the story pieces today that I brainstormed in my journal last night, I will come to a better understanding of the story and how long it is going to be.

Likewise, “Never Kiss a Stranger” is becoming much longer than I originally thought it would turn out to be; it’s going to come in far longer than the six or seven thousand words I originally had planned. That will make it harder to place, of course–not that it’s not already hard to place stories with gay characters and themes; it’s almost impossible–but I’ve also decided that I simply have to stop writing things that are specifically intended for markets. I have to write the story the best I can and then try to find a market for it. And I can always, always, always, simply do another collection of stories.

I also like that “The Brady Kid” is starting to shape in my mind; mainly, who the point-o-view character is. Part of the issue with some of my stories is that maybe I don’t define the characters enough; it’s hard to write a good story when you don’t know who your characters are.

I’m also finding that experimenting with voice and style and tone and place is much easier to do in a short story rather than in a novel. I think writing these stories is making me a much better writer, to be honest, which is ultimately going to be more helpful to me in the long run than I’d possibly thought. During my brainstorming last night I also figured out some of the problems I am having with the Scotty novel; not solutions, per se, but actually diagnosing the problems, which is key to figuring out how to solve those problems.

Which is fun, actually, and I have to say, it’s so awesome that writing is fun again.

I also read some short stories. Here’s one: “Crazy Margaret” by Jack Fredrickson, from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017 issue.

The gravestone had room for only the first name, but it was the largest he could carry up the hill. He set in on ground covered now, as then, with curled brown leaves.

He’d meant to slip into town quietly, place the stone, and slip out again. There was no one from his old life he wanted to see. But a voice had called his name when he was gassing up the rental, a guy he’d known in high school. They’d chatted for a moment before Dave, acting casual, asked about her.

The old classmate had scratched his head, surprised. Crazy Margaret, he said; that’s what the kids sneaking out there called her after she dropped out of school. But new kids came along, kids who didn’t know her, and soon enough, nobody gave her any mind at all. “Hell, it’s been at least twenty years,” he said. “She could be dead.”

I enjoyed this story; which is told from the perspective of someone coming home to their small town and remembering something that happened years earlier, something criminal; this is something I often do in my own stories–in fact, “This Thing of Darkness” is sort of one of these stories. The Margaret of the title is a beautiful young woman who sunbathes out at the lake where she lives in skimpy bikinis; luring young boys out there to watch her and possibly, just possibly, killing some of them. It’s sort of a retelling of the siren myth, from the Greeks: the beautiful woman who lures men to their deaths. Although…really, should the boys be out there spying on her in the first place? Isn’t that a form of harassment?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story; it’s very well done and how Margaret gets her own punishment for what she’s doing is very Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery; crime is always punished in a macabre, ironic way and so it is for the Crazy Margaret of the title.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Friends and Lovers

Well, I wrote practically nothing yesterday; maybe a couple of hundred words on “This Thing of Darkness.” I did reread Chapter 2 of the WIP, and realized it needs a complete overhauling, but that’s fine. There’s an endgame in sight, and now I kind of know how to get there, so I don’t mind the massive work that will be required to get me there. Huzzah! And I know that, when it is completed, I will be enormously happy with it.

It’s weird because this story; these characters, have been brewing inside my brain for a very long time; I’ve used this fictional town in Kansas for aborted novels and short stories before. I’ve always wanted to write about this town–I cannot deny that it is based on/inspired by Emporia, Kansas, the seat of the county where I spent five years of my life. When you said you were going to town you meant Emporia, even if you lived in a one of the small hamlets scattered throughout the county. My particular hamlet, Americus, was one of the larger ones; I believe with a population of approximately 932. I do know it was more than nine hundred and less than a thousand. I know that the main crossroads of the town had a flashing red light suspended on wires over it’s center, the town park was right on one corner and the bank was on another. I’ve gone back to the well with Kansas and that area several times in my writing career, but it never really ever seems to get anywhere. Sara was set in Kansas, in a county based on the real one,  in a high school based on the one I attended, but very loosely.

I’ve always wondered if it’s because I’ve not been back there since leaving in 1981 that the stories are so hard, so difficult, to write; the place so hard to envision. And then again, of course it’s ridiculous because any inconsistencies, or changes in my fictional town, might not matter simply because I am writing about a fictional place.

But this manuscript, which I’ve really been working on, in one shape or another, since about 1982 (!), is hard for me because I’ve been trying to write this book for over thirty years. The story and plot has changed dramatically over those years, the names of the characters have been changed, and I’ve blatantly stolen or adapted plots that were originally thought up for this book for others (Murder in the Garden District being one of them; the murder in the back was originally set in my fictional city in Kansas in its original version; for a Chanse novel I had to pare back the literal dozens of suspects and adapt it into New Orleans). For years in the aughts I called this “the Kansas book” as it went through different iterations and ideas and how the story worked; it was originally intended to be a two different time line novel, with a crime that was committed back in the 1970’s with the wrong person convicted and going to prison and dying there; a chance encounter between two people who knew each other back there and then in New York City–one now a successful realtor, the other a successful journalist–and a casual conversation in which the realtor reveals to the journalist that the wrong person was convicted and the murder was a lot more complicated than anyone knew, gets her to thinking. Then she finds out the realtor went back there and also turns up dead; this brings her back as well, as she investigates the current murder and the old one at the same time. I thought it was a very clever idea, but I could never get the story to work for me properly; and I still like the idea; I may write it someday. But I’ve taken the characters and the town from that idea and used it for this one. I also then tried another version, where it was the same town and the same characters and the same set up from the past, only with a dramatically different storyline for the present.

And now, I am using the town and the characters for something completely different.

As I have said numerous times, I am nothing if not stubborn, and apparently I am determined to someday publish a novel about this fucking town and these fucking characters.

“This Thing of Darkness”, the short story I am currently working on, while set in New Orleans, also harkens back to Kansas in some ways. I like this short story, I like the idea behind it, and now it’s really just a matter of seeing whether or not I can pull it off the way I want to. I’ve also realized that my own satisfaction with my short stories is the most important thing, not whether they get published by a magazine or not. I also need to expand my scope of where I submit short stories to; not everything works for the major crime magazines, and who knows? Maybe some of these stories are more  correct for other markets. I’d love to have something in some of the Southern magazines, for example.

Anyway. I am looking forward to this weekend, and hope you all have a lovely, pleasant one as well.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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