Why Kid Lit?

Sometimes I get asked, ‘why write kid lit?’ The short answer is probably ‘why not?’ The long answer is a little more complex…

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My 10th birthday cake – perfect for a book lover

This week I renewed my annual membership to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international non-profit organization for authors and illustrators producing work for children and teens. I joined the SCBWI in 2013, just after we moved to the USA. I began writing ‘for real’ a year before that, and knew from the very beginning that I wanted to write stories for young people.

I consider myself primarily a middle grade* and YA* author. Occasionally I write short stories that fall under ‘adult fiction’, too, like my tale In Plain Sight, in the Aliens – The Truth Is Coming anthology, or Fool’s Quest, in Journeys. Sometimes it’s fun to write about certain themes without stopping to think ‘would I let my kids read this?’ (The answer is probably yes – I’m pretty liberal when it comes to reading. I tend to be of the ‘if you’re interested and think you can handle it, go ahead’ school of parenting.) When it comes to novels, however, all my work so far has been within the realm of kid lit.

I moved from England to Brazil when I was eight, brand new set of Narnia books in my hand luggage as my going away gift. With no handy English-language bookstores or libraries in those pre-ebook and pre-Amazon times, I slowly built my own shelf collection, which I read obsessively over and over in my preteen years. My little personal library had plenty of classic children’s authors like Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbit, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, as well as the ubiquitous Enid Blyton books all us 70s British kids devoured.

In my teens, I explored my parents’ bookshelves, reading other classics like Bradbury, Austen, Asimov, Brontë, and Tolkien, besides my mother’s large collection of Agatha Christie novels. But I always had time for my childhood favorites, and there was nothing quite like the beauty of those kid lit lovelies. “One day,” I whispered to myself, “one day I’ll do this too.”

A good children’s story has a streamlined elegance to it, very different from the longer, more intricate plot lines that adult novels by necessity demand. The sheer beauty of something like The Secret Garden or Charlotte’s Web is a gift that endures. What makes children’s books so special? Perhaps it’s due to the limits on word count/novel size, forcing authors to pare their stories down to the absolute essence. Or maybe the target readership (especially in the case of middle grade fiction) demands not a simplification (children have proved over and over again to be able to handle far more complexity than we give them credit for), but a directness that brings writers very quickly to the core of a tale.

Whatever the reason, I’ve always loved kid lit in all its shapes and forms. Young people today have a tremendous amount of choice in reading matter, with hundreds (probably more like thousands) of new books published each year. It’s an exciting and invigorating field to work in, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

*A loose definition: Middle Grade – fiction for 8-12 year olds/ Young Adult (YA) – fiction for teens.

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From the 2017 New England SCBWI conference

Taboo Or Not To Taboo

A guest post by Jo Zebedee, author of Abendau’s Heir, Sunset Over Abendau, Abendau’s Legacy, Inish Carraig, and the brand new dark fantasy release, Waters and the Wild.

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When I started my first book – which eventually became Abendau’s Heir – I had nothing more in mind than writing something that had been floating around my head for a number of decades. What I intended was to confront the concept of the ‘chosen’ one and challenge it. Which meant the poor main character had to go through an ordeal. That ordeal turned out to be a lengthy torture regime, including a rape.

Now, in genre novels rape is the great taboo. It is often used for weak plot reasons. It brings about accusations of gratuitousness quicker than practically any other trope. And, to add to the fun, torture isn’t that far behind it… And all in a debut novel….

I’ve often asked myself if I would have the guts to write something just as hard hitting as Abendau again. If I’d have known then what I know now (that many people would find the book too dark, that it might define me as the dark little bunny in the writing group), would I do it again?

On the face of it, Waters and the Wild, my latest book, is a million miles from Abendau. There is no torture. There is no rape. The darkness within it is subtler and less confrontational to the reader. But there are still themes within it which will challenge a reader and which were not the easiest to write about.

Firstly, the book has a main character dealing with the day-to-day reality of coping with a mental illness. Whether she is mentally ill or whether fairies really do speak to her is largely irrelevant – because, whichever it is, it causes compulsions in her, bring anxiety and fear, causes her confusion and disassociation. That Amy has had these thoughts, or has heard these voices, since she was a child, is redolent of our modern era – where teenage mental health problems are growing and our services (where I am, at least) are stretched and support is often patchy.

But the thing that Waters and the Wild does (which has been picked up in even the earliest reviews) is question what that does to a wider family. The repercussions of mental health difficulties – not just Amy’s – reverberate through the book. No one is unscathed by it – because we are not islands and when someone we love struggles, we can’t just close ourselves off from it.

Up to this point, I’m on safe ground, I feel. I researched. I got feedback from people who were more knowledgeable than me and acted on it. I researched some more. I drew on whatever personal knowledge I have, or have been privileged enough for people to share. As with Abendau, I’m confident the themes that have arisen have been dealt with carefully, with thoughtfulness and honesty.

That’s before the book is released, however. Once it goes out as a published book, I no longer own that book.

With Abendau, I hoped I’d be recognised for writing a thoughtful trilogy about a character’s journey. Mostly, though, I’m known as the lady who writes great torture. Those 3000 or so words in a sea of 250,000 are what define the trilogy. With Inish Carraig, my Belfast-based alien invasion novel, I’ve had to come to terms with people reacting to a reflected Belfast in the book. It’s not why I wrote it, but that’s okay. It’s what resonates with so many readers.

What, then, for Waters and the Wild? I hope the dark mythology will stand out but, looking at early feedback, the character interactions in all their quirked and strained ways, are coming to the fore. The mental illness themes, too, are resonating. We’ll see where they all settle down and what the book’s identity becomes.

What I do know is that, for me, it’s only by writing challenging themes that a multi faceted book emerges. Which I suppose answers my question. Would I tackle hard themes again, knowing they might cause discomfort, and put some readers off?

Yes. Yes I would. Because I should be honest to the story, the characters and their theme. And I hope readers will find that I have been.

***

You can buy Waters and the Wild here.

Add Waters and the Wild on Goodreads.

Follow Jo on Twitter @jozebwrites, and check out her wonderful blog posts on writing and publishing at her website, www.jozebedee.com

Summer 2017 Updates

Summer is here, bringing all the joys and challenges of kids on school vacation. It’s a lot harder to get writing-related things done when my not-so-little ones are around, but by mixing up the carrots (“we can go to the beach tomorrow if you let me work today”) and the sticks (“HALP! Leave me alone or I swear I’ll block your YouTube access”), I’m slowly getting to the end of my Night Blade revisions.

By next week, I’ll be ready to send my fight scenes to my sword instructor, Christopher Valli from Laurel City Sword. Chris revised all my sword and fight scenes for Heart Blade, and I’m hoping he’ll be pleased with the ones I’ve written for Night Blade. My climbing scenes also need a stern revision, since my only rock climbing experience was years ago, in my teens. I’m counting on my brother Simon, an enthusiastic climber, to look those over for me. The internet is a great resource for many things, but if you have access to someone who can revise sections that require a certain level of expertise, I thoroughly recommend it.

After incorporating any new suggestions from my experts, the next step will be a final reread of all the rewrites and edits I’ve made to Night Blade, before it goes back to my publisher for a last look. Once we’re all happy, the book will be ready for the copyeditor to get her teeth into.

Very soon, I’ll be able to share the gorgeous cover art for Night Blade. I’m lucky enough to have been given the chance to work with not just one, but two extremely talented cover artists. Merilliza Chan was in charge of the beautiful cover for Heart Blade. For Night Blade, my publisher changed direction slightly, and handed the cover over to Tom Edwards, who does some truly amazing SF/F book cover work. The result is very different from Heart Blade, but just as fabulous. I can’t wait to share it, and see what you all think.

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 7.39.33 PM  A teeny tiny teaser… Cover reveal coming soon!

And speaking of art, Corinna Marie, who did the adorable character art for Heart Blade, is working on a brand new set of character pictures for Night Blade. There are a couple of familiar names among them, and a couple of new names, too – I hope you’ll enjoy meeting them as much as I enjoyed writing them! And yes, I’ll definitely be doing some character art postcard giveaways closer to launch date.

Don’t forget to sign up for my monthly newsletter for exclusive mini interviews – in July, my guest is fantasy author Kerry Buchanan, talking about horses in fiction.

Happy summer to those in the Northern Hemisphere! Here’s to beachside reading, lazy days in the shade, and a chance to recharge those batteries.

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Small Press Publishing

*Based off my notes for the April 2017 Barnes & Noble panel on Publishing Your Book that I took part in, along with authors Carrie Firestone, Stephanie Robinson, and Jessica Haight*
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Publishing Your Book panel participants

 

Yesterday was #smallpressday2017. Congratulations to all those hardworking small presses out there! Keep up the good work!

What is a small press?

When you’ve been part of the writing community for a while, as I have, it’s easy to forget that many of the publishing terms that we author-type people tend to toss around can be pretty obscure to those who are unfamiliar with the industry. For instance, I get a lot of people asking me what I mean when I say I’m published by a small press. I’ve been asked several times if that’s the same as self-publishing. No, I tell them, it isn’t. Of course, self-publishing is a perfectly valid option, if approached in a professional manner. I have many writer friends who have self-published, or who are ‘hybrid’ authors (both self- and traditionally published), and who thrive within that format. But that’s not the publishing model I went with for my Blade Hunt Chronicles.

Heart Blade (and the upcoming sequel Night Blade) is published by Woodbridge Press, a small Canadian publishing house. A small press follows the same model of ‘traditional publishing’ as Penguin Random House, or Simon and Schuster, or any of the big giants. The difference is the size and scope of the company.

What can you expect from a small press? Like any large press, you can (and should) expect editorial input that contributes to a polished end product. This may be only a copyeditor, or it may include other sorts of editing. For Heart Blade, I had a developmental editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader. Other things you should expect include professional cover art, professional layout and design work, etc.

What you should NOT expect: to pay for any of this from your own pocket. Just like with a large publishing house, in the traditional model the money flows TO the author, not FROM the author. If you’re paying for any of it, you’re looking at some form of vanity press, or one of the many companies that facilitate things for self-published authors. Again, that can be a valid choice, as long as you make it with your eyes open and know exactly what you’re getting into.

Downside to small press

Your main downside is going to be reach. A small press will have a much smaller marketing budget than a larger company, and visibility will be limited. Your book deal probably won’t appear in Publisher’s Weekly, your ARCs (advanced reader copies) probably won’t reach any of the big reviewers, and your book itself may not even be in physical bookstores.

Another downside is impermanence. Of course a large press can also go under (and when they do it can be spectacularly catastrophic!), but a small press is far more likely to go bankrupt, or just quit the business. Make sure you get decent reversal of rights clauses in your contract in case this happens to you.

Upside to small press

You don’t need to have an agent (query letter phobics, take note!). Most small presses take direct submissions from writers. Some have specific submission windows, some take all-year-round subs, but they rarely deal with agents, because for an agent there’s not much point in a book deal that’s going to be worth either a tiny advance or no advance at all.

A small press is more willing to take risks on subject matter. With Heart Blade, for instance, I had two agents tell me that no publishers were interested in demons, angels, and vampires; that this sort of thing was all over and done with. But a small press such as Woodbridge can take a chance on something they like. UK press Kristell Ink is a good example: they’ve been publishing some really innovative fantasy work that might not have stood a chance in one of the bigger publishing houses. And Tickety Boo Press have invested heavily in space operas and science fiction (among other genres).

The ‘risk factor’ is especially important if you write something niche. For instance, Aqueduct Press specializes in feminist literature in all genres. Headmistress Press is even more niche: they only publish lesbian poetry. If you think your manuscript may be hard to pitch, perhaps a small press is for you. Do your research – there are many good small publishing houses out there.

Another advantage of a small press is it’s a lot more agile and fluid than a large press. If you get a publishing deal with a large press, it can take anything from 18 months to 3 years before your book comes out. A small press can go from signing to publication in a matter of months. So if you’ve written something time sensitive – maybe about a recent or upcoming world event – a small press can be a good fit for you.

Small press caution!

Study all your options. Look into the different publishing formats and models out there. If you decide that a small press may be the ideal home for your manuscript, then put all those researching skills to good use. There are plenty of less-than-savory companies out there, and that’s where resources such as the SFWA’s ‘Writer Beware’ page, or the Water Cooler at Absolute Write, can be invaluable in helping you avoid the scammers and find a good, legitimate fit for your work.

Also, dip a toe into the small press waters by reading a few authors who have chosen this publishing model. Get a feel for different companies by investing in the work they publish. At the very least, you may discover some hidden gems (check out the #smallpressbigstories hashtag on Twitter for inspiration). If you find a writer you like, help spread the word (and stretch the tiny marketing budget) by sharing your discovery. All of us small press authors thank you!

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Book Cover Sunday: Back Cover Blurbs

*This blog post is a follow-up to Book Cover Sunday: Fantasy Cover Art and Book Cover Sunday: SFF Book Spines.*

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a blurb as, “a short publicity notice, as on a book jacket.” Wikipedia tells us that the term ‘blurb’ dates from the very early 1900s, and refers to “a short promotional piece accompanying a creative work.” Wikipedia goes on to say that a blurb can be written by the author or publisher, or it may quote praise received from others.

Now, I have to say, when I first had the idea for this blog post, I was a bit confused about the whole blurb thing. Writers get invited to ‘blurb’ other writers’ books. (I myself wrote one for Suzanne Jackson’s The Beguiler.) But you also see writers talking about how hard they’ve been working on their book blurbs, meaning the short summary that often goes on the back cover. So which one, exactly is this mysterious blurb?

After a bit of enthusiastic Googling, I realized the answer is, of course, both. So what can make up a back cover blurb? All or a fraction of the following:

  • Synopsis – a short summary or teaser for the story, usually one or two paragraphs, giving potential readers an idea of what the book is about, aiming at ‘hooking’ them. In some cases, authors and publishers opt to use a short scene from the book, instead.
  • Tag line – not all books and series use these, and often they’re on the front cover. But every now and then they migrate to the back of the book.
  • Endorsements – quotes from market sources such as reviewers, or other writers, praising the book.
  • Author bio and/or photo – short and sweet (unless it’s non-fiction, but I’m sticking to fiction here…)
  • Author/publisher website address.
  • Cover artist/designer credits.
  • Other books in series/other books by the author – info and/or photos.

In the name of research, I went on a (well-behaved, church-mouse-silent) rampage around my local Barnes & Noble, looking at some of the new releases for examples of back cover blurbs. I actually found quite a variety, although the most common choice seems to be a combination of synopsis and endorsements.

Let’s start with middle grade fiction. Here’s bestseller Rick Riordan’s latest novel, The Hidden Oracle, which basically has nothing on the back but a few select bits of praise. Riordan is such a huge name in kid lit that he really needs no introduction or pitch, and his work sells on name alone by now. Compare it to my own battered copy of The Lightning Thief, his first ever children’s book. It’s the paperback, so it had already been out long enough to garner some decent praise, but it uses the standard set up of synopsis plus endorsements.

Moving into YA fantasy. First off, here’s Cinda Williams Chima’s first Seven Realms book, The Demon King. As you can see, it has a pretty extensive synopsis on the back, with only a couple of endorsements. Her most recent book in the same universe, Shadowcaster, goes for more of a teaser than an actual summary, and dedicates a much larger portion of the space to endorsements.

The latest book by heavyweight Sarah J. Maas, Court of Wings and Ruin, is actually pretty different from most of the others I looked at. It has an extensive synopsis on the back, and that’s it. She’s a big name in YA fantasy, though, and the line ‘#1 New York Times Best Seller’ on the front cover is probably the only endorsement she needs.

Another big hitter’s recent release, Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare, also makes an interesting choice. Here, the publishers have opted for nothing except a list of other works by the author. Possibly to find new readers for past works?

Moving into adult fiction, well-loved and established author Robin Hobb has nothing but an elegant collection of endorsements on the back of her newest novel, Assassin’s Fate. But then, when you start off your back cover blurb with a quote from George R.R. Martin, you don’t really need much more!

It was interesting comparing the first and second book in John Gwynne’s series, Malice and Valor (unfortunately, the bookstore didn’t have the subsequent titles for comparison). While most of Malice is taken up by a synopsis, the sequel devotes its real estate to praise for the first book, as well as a photo of its cover. Writer and editor Christy Yaros points out that part of the reason for this approach is to make sure that new readers understand this is a second book in a series, which is a really good point.

Another ‘before and after’ comparison: Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister, first in a new trilogy, devotes its back copy to praise for the author’s first two series. This plays a double role; it shows endorsement of Lawrence’s work, and also points new readers to his previous two trilogies. A clever example of making your back cover blurb work at multiple levels. Now, if you take a look at the paperback of Lawrence’s first published novel, Prince of Thorns, you’ll notice it dedicates a fair bit of cover space to a synopsis of the story. Back then, Lawrence was still a new name in the game. Now, he has a devoted following.

The next one I’m including for creative use of space. Julia Knight’s Swords and Scoundrels manages to include back cover copy, a cool little hook paragraph that makes it clear it’s the first in a trilogy, an endorsement, character art, and the covers for the three books in the series. And yet, even with all of this, it isn’t cluttered – in fact, it looks rather sleek, and as appealing as the front cover.

It was interesting seeing the difference between the back cover of a multi-published author’s first book, when they were still a new name, and their most recent one. That made me wonder, what do the truly huge names do? I dragged myself away from the SF/F shelves of the bookstore, and went in search of the latest bestsellers by some of the publishing industry’s giants. So, what’s on the back of work by Danielle Steel, James Patterson, and Clive Cussler?

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Voilá. Now that’s a back cover blub… 😉

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Sign up for my monthly newsletter for exclusive mini interviews. Coming in June: Historical European Martial Arts expert Christopher Valli on swords in fiction.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

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This one is special. This one is really special. It’s been on my mind since I read it a while back, and honestly? I can’t stop shouting about it. With a second tale in the Wayward Children universe about to hit the bookstores, this is the perfect moment to catch up on this fantastic award-winning novella by Seanan McGuire.

So, what’s so great about Every Heart a Doorway? To start with, the premise is fabulous (especially for those of us who grew up reading Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland, and all the other portal fantasies out there): what happens to the children who find the gateways from our world into other places when their part in the story is over? When the book ends, and these children go tumbling back to their own world, what then?

That not all these world-hopping travellers would be happy to return makes a lot of sense. That many of them might feel lost, estranged in the world they were born to, their stories dismissed as flights of fancy or hallucinations of a troubled mind, is a leap of logic. For the lucky ones among them, this might mean an invitation to study at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children – outwardly a school dedicated to rehabilitating troubled teens, but in fact a safe haven for travellers like Miss West herself, who long for nothing more than to return to the strange lands they journeyed to.

New girl Nancy is one of these children who have returned. She’s not happy about it, but at least in Eleanor West’s school she’s surrounded by others who understand her yearning for the magical land she lost. But when tragedy strikes shortly after Nancy’s arrival, she and her fellow students have to face the length and depth a person would go to in order to get to their deepest desire.

Every Heart a Doorway is a beautifully layered tale. We have, at surface level, a murder mystery set in a school. We have Nancy’s story, of trying and failing to fit in. And then we have wider ripples that touch many of her fellow students: the struggle to hold onto a newly acquired identity that does not match the neat little box that family and society has attempted to fit them into.

This is the heart of the novella – identity. Finding out who you truly are, despite what those you grew up with might say, and learning to reshape yourself and the world around you to fit this new identity, even if those who are supposed to love you best refuse to accept it. The child who would rather be a scientist than a princess; the assexual child who keeps getting pressured to date; the child who refuses the serious, responsible role she’s given; the transgender child. All those who keep getting forced into the wrong skin, so to speak, until they travel to a different world and have a chance to find out who they really want to be.

This is a truly lovely story of discovery, and refusal to submit, and the search for acceptance. It’s dark and unsettling at times, but that’s as should be, and it’s definitely going on my list of favorites. I can’t wait for the next book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones!

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones will be released by Tor.com on June 13th, 2017.

The Heart Blade Guide To Connecticut

Most of the first book in the Blade Hunt Chronicles is set in Connecticut, which – oh, hey! – just happens to be where I live. I moved here from Brazil almost four years ago, and was surprised at how heavily wooded the state is. I live in the Farmington River Valley, which although technically ‘suburbia’, gets plenty of wild visitors, like the black bears that like to make seasonal appearances in the area, besides coyotes, bobcats, foxes, beavers, and many others.

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Bear taking a casual stroll through my neighborhood

The Farmington Valley is where a good deal of Heart Blade takes place. I don’t specifically name the area in the book, but it was definitely the inspiration. In the stretch between New Hartford and Granby, the Farmington River meanders about in a wide U shape, adding grace to the small towns that nestle in and around its bend. If you want to get up close and personal with the river, Farmington River Tubing operates out of Satan’s Kingdom. And yes, that’s the real name of an actual State Recreation Area.

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A quiet stretch of the Farmington River

Heart Blade starts in Connecticut’s state capital, Hartford. Chapter 1 finds my character Del arriving at Union Station. She sets off along Asylum Avenue, which leads past the Connecticut Historical Society Museum and Library and on toward beautiful Elizabeth Park. The park straddles Hartford and West Hartford, and in summer runs a popular series of outdoor concerts.

Another scene in Hartford finds Del and Ash outside the Connecticut Science Center. This is a great place to visit, especially if you have younger kids in your group, as the museum has a huge range of interactive displays on a wide variety of subjects. The CSS is right next to the Connecticut Convention Center, where ConnectiCon takes place every July. Lots of con attendees end up over at the CSS for lunch, so if you time your visit right, you might end up sharing a table with a bunch of cool cosplayers.

Just over the state line into Massachusetts, Old Sturbridge Village shows up in chapter 2, when I introduce Ash and the sentinels. This living history museum provides a nice opportunity to step back in time and see how life used to be in the 1830s. If you want to experience Sturbridge at night, as Ash does, they have a fantastic event that takes place on weekends in December. It’s called Christmas by Candlelight, and recreates traditional Yuletide activities such as carol singing and ornament making. There’s a big bonfire on the green, and visitors can buy mulled wine and other seasonal treats.

Go Huskies! Ash’s dad expects him to remain nearby after high school, and go to the University of Connecticut or another local college. Established in 1881, UConn’s main campus in Storrs is home to some 30,000 students from the USA and around the world. UConn has the top women’s college basketball team in the country; they recently suffered their first loss after a record-setting winning streak of 111 games stretching back to 2014, including two national championship runs.

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UConn Men’s Basketball at the XL Center in Hartford

Famous for it’s pizza, New Haven, on the Long Island Sound, also makes a brief appearance in Heart Blade. Here, you can tour Yale University, and make a stop at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. If you drive a little further up the coast, near public beaches such as Hammonasset and Rocky Neck, you’ll find Mystic Seaport. Like Sturbridge, Mystic is also a living history museum, but this time centered on New England’s maritime heritage. For boat lovers, the yearly WoodenBoat Show at Mystic is a real treat.

It was so much fun including in Heart Blade some of the places I’ve visited over these past few years. Book 2, Night Blade (out later this year!), moves a little further afield – there are still scenes set in Connecticut, but we also get to go to Toronto, Canada, and the Adirondacks, in upstate New York. I’m looking forward to sharing some new book locations with you soon!

*all photographs used in this blog post are my own*

 

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