Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Keep Calm and Write On, a guest post by Jessica Ellicott

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: As most of you know by now, I love historical fiction. I majored in history in college, focused on early colonial history for my grad degree, and even wrote my law school thesis on 17th century law codes in Massachusetts. History is a story - it's no wonder it's had such appeal my whole life. 

And I used to wonder, what was it like to live through this time or that time? How did people live through political disruptions,  economic crises, war and plague? 

Well, now I know. Now we all know. But a lucky few, like historical mystery author Jessica Ellicott, actually get to spin gold from the mounds of straw we've all been dealing with.


 

 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been very interested in the different ways that writers have experienced the pandemic. For some, the circumstances made work almost impossible. For others it provided conditions that fostered the most creative and productive period of their lives. For me, the situation created an unexpected learning opportunity.

 

At the beginning of 2020, before any of us knew what was about to unfold, I was hard at work on the novel that would become my new release, Death in a Blackout. Although it was not my first historical mystery, or even the first I set in the UK, I had yet to write a novel that took place during wartime.

 

I have to admit, I felt daunted. After all, how could I begin to put myself in the shoes of people who faced such overwhelming uncertainty, in so many areas of life, for years on end? How could I possibly understand what it was like to feel that the whole world had changed overnight and that life as everyone knew it, was suddenly upended?

 

Which is, of course, where the opportunity came in. Just as the enormity of the pandemic became clear I had begun research that involved spending day after day poring through back issues of the Hull Daily Mail circa 1940. As I read those old editions of an English newspaper it occurred to me that an insatiable craving for up-to-date news on global events was something I could now completely understand. Informational notices about new rules and regulations scattered throughout the pages from 1940 eerily echoed the ones I eagerly consumed from that day’s Washington Post or NYT.

 

A sense of interconnectedness, of how the impact on far-off places could be felt locally was another point of similarity. Articles enumerating the toll advancing troops had taken on the economies, freedom of movement and even on life itself in cities across the globe struck new chords in me. Even something as mundane as a trip to the grocer snapped some of the war years’ experience into focus. The small, but shocking, amount of inconvenience and discomfort brought on by notices announcing rations on meat or cleaning products, or toilet paper left me with a far greater sense of how unrelenting years of such deprivations could have worn a population down.

 

Enforced distance from loved ones was another thing I had been lucky enough not to experience regularly until March 2020. Knowing how it felt to be unable to simply set a time to meet up with a friend or family member added so much to my understanding of the lives of my characters. Holidays spent apart drove the lesson home even more, especially as one year turned to two with no guaranteed end in sight.

 

But I think what taught me the most and urged me on as I wrote the novel was living with so much uncertainty. One of the most challenging things, at least for me, about writing historical fiction is that, positioned as I am in the future, is to remember that my characters have no idea how things will turn out. They do not know that the Allies will be victorious or for how long the war will last or how many people will lose their lives any more than we knew the path of the pandemic when it all kicked off. Uncertainty was our constant companion as much as it was theirs.

 

Although I hope never to write another novel under similar circumstances, I am very grateful for the opportunity to feel a deeper connection to people of the past, to experience intense emotions that added to my work and to feel encouraged and uplifted by the example of others who found ways to make the best of a difficult situation.  After all, isn’t that the ultimate purpose of stories?


JULIA: Has the pandemic - or another event in your life - made you feel more connected to the past, dear readers? One lucky commentor will win a copy of  DEATH IN A BLACKOUT!


 

Agatha award nominee Jessica Ellicott loves fountain pens, red convertibles and throwing parties. She lives in northern New England with her dark and mysterious husband, exuberant children and a precocious poodle named Sam.

When away from her desk, she obsessively knits wool socks and enthusiastically speaks Portuguese with a shocking disregard for the rules of grammar. She indulges her passion for historical fiction and all things British by writing the Beryl and Edwina Mysteries and the WPC Harkness Mysteries.

 

Jessica’s books have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly as well as from Library Journal. Her first novel won the Daphne du Maurier award for mystery. As Jessica Estevao she wrote the Change of Fortune Mysteries. When inspiration strikes, she writes contemporary mysteries as Jessie Crockett.

 

She loves to connect with readers via the Wickeds blog, FB, Instagram or through her newsletter.

64 comments:

  1. Congratulations, Jessica, on your newest book. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about WPC Billie Harkness and the story?

    I cannot say that the pandemic has made me feel more connected to the past except for making me long for the days when I was free to travel wherever and whenever I wanted to be with family. It certainly is a thought-provoking parallel between the pandemic and the uncertainty of wartime. I’m looking forward to reading Billie’s story . . . .

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    1. Thanks, for asking about Billie, Joan! She is a young woman who relocates to a new city just as it becomes the target of an air raid. In order to pitch in she joins the police force as one of the first 2 WPCs the city council has authorized to replace men who have gone to the front.

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  2. I am so excited about your new book, Jessica! I've been getting up a book order today for my favorite Indy bookstore, Murder by the Book, and Death in a Blackout is one of the books I want most. I am such a fan of historical mysteries, with WWII being my favorite period. And, setting it in Hull is another plus for me, as I attended a book conference through Zoom there last year, and one of my best English friends is from there. I'll also add that the book has a great cover. Congratulations on this new series that I know will be a smash hit.

    I loved your piece here today. It echoes so many of my own thoughts, like having that curiosity about how people actually felt going through historical events. Your comparison of the uncertainty people going through WWII must have felt to the uncertainty we have felt with the pandemic is right on the mark. I'm going to save what you wrote for the Jungle Reds.

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    1. That last sentence reads rather awkwardly, so let me rephrase. I'm going to save this piece you wrote for the Jungle Reds to my ones I like to reread.

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    2. Thanks so much for your interest, Kathy! I wish I had known about the conference you mention. Is it an annual event? And I am so flattered that you would save my piece to read once more!

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    3. Jessica, Hull Noir is an annual event, but I'm having trouble finding the 2022 dates. Here is my write-up on Hull Noir 2021 on my Reading Room Blog. https://www.readingroom-readmore.com/search?q=Hull+Noir

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  3. I look forward to reading this! As a retired U.S. history teacher, the recent event that startled me most (in the sense of Barbara Tuchman's "Distant Mirror") was not the pandemic but the 2016 election. My favorite period of study is the American Revolution -- and many do not realize that this was at heart our first civil war. Unlike THE Civil War, the Revolution was not sectional, North against South, but neighbor against neighbor. In New England during this war, one political party made it illegal to be of the other political party. People were arrested, or mobbed, and in many cases their property was confiscated and sold for the benefit of the state. I could not begin to imagine the sense of suspicion and fear that must have prevailed among neighbors until feelings surrounding the 2016 election came to a boil in my rural area. I was attacked on Facebook for an entirely unrelated remark and I realized I was worried that this zealous, possibly unhinged local gentleman might know where I lived and might take direct action against me or my home. This was a fear that people on both sides would have felt repeatedly during the Revolution. It was an "aha!" moment.

    I look forward to DEATH IN A BLACKOUT!

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    1. admilkmaid, I never thought of the similarities between 2016 and the Revolutionary War, but everything you said above is spot on! And it continues. I have often wondered which side I would have chosen in that conflict. Would I have been loyal? To whom? In 2016, my choice was easy.

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    2. I think the circumstances of the Revolutionary War could go quite a way towards explaining the reserved nature of many New Englanders. Keeping to oneself would be an act of self-preservation in such an environment!

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    3. Susan Nelson-HolmdahlMay 4, 2022 at 10:44 AM

      The current political situation can be compared to the Revolutionary War time but has more political similarities with the Civil War era. An excellent source of historical and political context of the current political crisis in the United States is provided by historian/ professor Heather Cox Richardson in her daily letters.

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    4. Susan Nelson-HolmdahlMay 4, 2022 at 10:48 AM

      I look forward to reading your new book Death In A Blackout.

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    5. I too am a great admirer of Heather Cox Richardson. What reminded me of the Revolutionary War era was not the outlines of the political situation but specifically the fear of retribution from neighbors. The Revolution was a frightening civil war.

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  4. So many congratulations, Jessie! I hadn't thought about that similarity between our recent lockdown and wartime, and it's so true. I did think a lot about the things my mom said about rations and victory gardens during WWII, when she was a teenager. I also remembered measures her family took to economize during the worst of the Depression.

    I got the call from my indy bookstore yesterday that my copy of Death in a Blackout is in - can't wait to get over there and pick it up!

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    1. Thanks for your enthusiasm, Edith! Victory gardens were things I heard about from my older relatives throughout my childhood. That said, most of my family had vegetable gardens no matter what the world conditions might be!

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  5. Hi, Jessica, and congratulations on starting a new mystery series with "Death in a Blackout." I found the parallels you drew between experiencing WWII and living through the current pandemic very interesting. As you say, both eras show people caught up in a shared sense of uncertainty and of ongoing tragedy that draw them together. Having been lucky enough so far not to lose a loved one or a friend to COVID, however, I can only push the parallel so far. I have a twenty-nine-year-old son who is vaccinated and boostered, and the chances that he will survive COVID are a hell of a lot higher than the chances he would have survived as a British or America soldier, sailor, or airman in WWII.

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    1. I completely understand about the parallels not extending to cover the enormity of the wartime experience. One thing that struck me as a major difference is our current ability to stay in touch with loved ones through technology that was not present in days gone by.

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    2. Susan Nelson-HolmdahlMay 4, 2022 at 11:17 AM

      I just finished your book Pesticide, and really enjoyed it. Are there plans to make it a book series?

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    3. Susan Nelson-HolmdahlMay 4, 2022 at 11:20 AM

      Off topic comment for Ms. Hays.

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  6. Totally involved in Beryl and Edwina, which was in between wars, and I'm not sure I want to venture out into wartime when it feels like that every day during the pandemic.

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    1. I really appreciate your interest in my Beryl and Edwina novels! And, I can understand that anything that brings up the pandemic experience might not appeal to all readers, at least not yet!

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  7. Goodness, not sure how I know nothing about Jessica’s books! I have just put my hands on DEATH IN A BLACKOUT; it’s piqued my interest.

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    1. I am delighted to have been discovered! Thanks so much!

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  8. Jessica, welcome to JRW. I am a huge fan of books that are set in WWII and your new book is going right onto the TBR list.

    It is very interesting to make comparisons between eras and the pandemic certainly has had many of the same effects as war. Once the US entered WWII, however, most of the country pulled together in spite of our differences. I have always been aware of divisions of thought and politics, but the last few years are beyond anything I have ever considered possible here.

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    1. Thanks for the welcome and your interest, Judy! Division and solidarity were things that I was interested in while researching. I was struck by how the war years seemed to pull many people together and perhaps the defining factor of the pandemic has been isolation. I think that explains some of the nostalgia for feeling like a part of something bigger the war years evoke and that I doubt COVID-19 ever will.

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  9. Celia commenting - Hi Jess, how great to open JRW this morning and find you’re our guest. Big Congrats! Has it been two years since you visited to talk with Victor about WWII? In terms of fear the past two plus years takes first place. I am still super careful of who we are seeing and where we are going with regard to Victor’s health. I feel a tinge of The Hunger Games in that the odds feel as if they are against us. I am grateful for vaccinations but it doesn’t remove the fear. I was born in London during the war but after the worst of the Blitz. I still react badly to sudden loud noises and I walked in my sleep when a child so I think there are some buried memories down deep. I use meditation now to combat adding to the negative memories and stay away from all visual news.

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    1. Hello Celia! It is lovely to chat with you here! And yes, it must have been over two years since we visited! There is something so entrenched about difficult memories from childhood, isn't there? I can absolutely imagine how sudden bangs could set off a flood of negative emotion for you. I'm glad to hear that you have found some help through meditation. I do it too and find it makes me far less reactive to many of the things life offers up, including fear!

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  10. JESSIE: Welcome to JRW! I enjoy reading your Beryl & Edwina books...love the 1920s!!

    Death in a Blackout is set in another memorable period during wartime England. I had not really thought about the parallels between the hardships and uncertainty people experienced during WWII and the pandemic. Comparison between the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and our current pandemic have come up a few times, though. My parents were kids/teens in WWII Japan. They rarely spoke about the hardships their families experienced during WWII. They did mention that the post-war Japan (US General Macarthur) years were harsher. That's part of the reason why my dad returned to Canada in the early 1950s (he was born in Vancouver, Canada).

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    1. Thanks for your kind words about Beryl and Edwina, Grace! So many people don't want to think or speak about their wartime experiences either at home or on one of the fronts. It is heartbreaking to think of the difficulties they must have faced and even more upsetting to consider how the post-war years made things even worse for some. I am truly sorry that your parents were amongst them.

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  11. When the pandemic first started I became very interested in the other one of a hundred years ago or so. But I now realize moments from history cannot be analyzed on their own; everything is interconnected. With the war in Ukraine I have finally understood more of what it must have been like for Europe in WW2. Has no one learned nothing? Or is it that we really don't want to learn from the past because we are different and times are different. It's like hoping a teenager can learn from our mistakes, but yet we realize the mistakes are theirs to make and learn from. Or not.

    Congratulations, Jess. I look forward to reading The Blackout. The other day I watched Mrs. Miniver again, which gave me a tiny taste of such life at that time, but I'd really like to know more.

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    1. A long view of history is not everyone's cup of tea, is it, Judi? I am often amazed as I research how many attitudes and circumstances seem to come up again and again. There are plagues, rivalries, blustering leaders and technological leaps that change everything. Still, with each new generation the picture shifts a bit and I think we experience it all as people of our own time despite lessons from the past.

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  12. Congratulations, Jessie!

    Like Edith, I hadn't thought about the similarities in such detail before. The exact details may be different but the uncertainty is certainly very much the same.

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    1. I couldn't agree more about the uncertainty, Liz!

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  13. Congratulations, Jessie!
    During the pandemic, I have often thought of people during WWII who, as you say, had no idea how long the war would last or how it would end. And I would think this, especially, when I would hear people say how fed up they were with mask mandates after two years. Sheesh! Our two years of privation have nothing on those experiencing the endless awfulness of war...

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    1. The endless not knowing must have been such a difficulty! I think that was one of the most clarifying lessons for me to take into the novel even in the much more limited way that I experienced.

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  14. Jessica, I love Beryl and Edwina and already have Death in a Blackout on my radar. Yes, the gnawing sense of uncertainty, even now. It's not like we can sign an armistice or peace treaty with a virus.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Flora! Your point about viruses and peace treaties really struck a chord with me!

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  15. So fascinating, Jessie! Big congrats on the new book and forging into new territory. And it's encouraging to hear that there have been positive results from the enforced isolation we're just now emerging from.

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    1. Thanks so much, Hallie! And I am delighted to have offered up a bright spot!

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  16. Hi Jessie--so great to see you here. During the pandemic I definitely thought about the far greater sacrifices of previous generations. Wearing a mask in a store seems like nothing compared to rationing of sugar, butter, or gasoline. I also took time to sort through a lot of family stuff I got when my parents died. I realized all four of my grandparents were in college during the 1918 flu. And just yesterday I found my father's and his parents' ration books.

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    1. Thanks for the warm welcome! Two of my sons have been in college during the pandemic so your comment about your grandparents evoked a lot of empathy from me! And what a treasure to have found those ratings books!

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  17. This is Pat D. I have to figure out how to get back in the loop here. We had our move from hell but I am happily in my new home in Lexington VA with lots of unpacking to do and barely able to move due to back pain. Congrats, Jessica! I can't wait to read this new series. As for events opening our eyes to the past I can't honestly say the pandemic affected me much. However having loved ones in combat, relying on the mail to hear from them, not knowing what is going on, all those are things I've experienced. I can totally relate to the people in the past who have gone through all the emotions involved.

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    1. It sounds like your life has been busy, Pat! Your experiences seem like they would make relating to the circumstances people faced during WWII quite natural.Uncertainty for loved ones is such an intense emotion!

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  18. JESSICA: Welcome to Jungle Reds and Congratulations on your new novel! I remember meeting you at my first mystery conference. Was Portuguese your first language or did you learn the language later? At the beginning of the pandemic, I was reminded of the Second World War with the uncertainty and how people in Britain stood up and kept on carrying on despite the odds. We will get though this! I have to remind myself that we WILL get through this! The pandemic has made me think of the past when there was rationing as in World War II. I remember an author was saying there may be rationing. I remember that there was a warning of declining supply chains. I remember that for a while there was a limit on what we could buy like two of the same thing instead of buying it all. Even now when I go to the grocery store, I often see empty shelves. So for that reason, if I want something and I see there are three left on the shelf. I get two and leave one for the next person. I could have gotten one but I had not shopped for weeks and we were out of many items!

    JULIA: Did you publish Your thesis on 17th century Massachusetts law codes? I would like to read that. My grandfather was an attorney and I always like to read law books. Though I didn't exactly attend law school, my paralegal training was at the same school where there is a law school. While I was reviewing notes from my paralegal classes, I would see students from the law school in the law library.

    Diana

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    1. Thanks, Diana! Portuguese is something I picked up from my relationship with my Brazilian husband and my in-laws. Limits on purchases, supply chains, empty shelves serve as such clear parallels, don't they?

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  19. I'm commenting from Bangor, where the fam and I are gathered in an AirBnB that could be period-perfect for WWII (if interior decor for the 40s was HGTV-inspired.) For me, the combination of having children and others come to live in my house in the first six months of the pandemic, and NOT being able to see distant family (including my dad, who was immured in his extended care apartment) speaks to factors people had to deal with during the war. There was a shortage of housing in many areas, as civilians flooded into places where war work was going on, and of course, the separation of armed forces, those war-work civilians, and the folks at home meant families went a long time without seeing one another.

    All of which must have made them so grateful when they had the chance to be together again - which is how I feel right now!

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    1. How I would love to see that AirBnB! I hope you have the very best time being together with your loved ones, Julia!

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  20. I got to read an ARC of this book, and it is great. Can't wait for book 2!

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    1. Thanks so much, Mark! I appreciate your enthusiasm for Billie!

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  21. Jessica, Death in a Blackout is going on my must-read list! Love your thoughtful essay, too. Cheers from your fellow Anglophile and fountain pen lover! (Favorite pen??)

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    1. Thanks so much! I love to compare notes about fountain pens! I have two Visconti Breeze pens that I adore for their lovely ink flow, juicy color ways and satisfying snick of their magnetic-closure caps. I also have several TWSBI ECO 1.1MM stubs that I reach for as my go-to writers. They lay down such lush, voluptuous swathes of ink without splotching or puddling. I love seeing the inks I choose sparkling away through the demonstrator barrels! I particularly like to use them with metallic inks like the ones from Diamine! Do you have some favorites of your own?

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    2. What fun! We could go on all day, lol. I have gone bonkers over Benu, the sparkly Russian pens. (They have left Moscow, the last I heard, and are now in Armenia. Hopefully they will be making pens again soon.)

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  22. Death in a Blackout interests me greatly. The story, era and setting are captivating and intriguing. In life we have to learn how to be strong and withstand any difficulties. I enjoyed your post today. Very thought provoking.

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    1. Thanks so much! I am glad you enjoyed the post!

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  23. Congratulations on Death in a Blackout. A favorite locale and period for me. During the pandemic I kept thinking of life during the Blitz and how individuals had to confront their deepest fears daily. Their courage and tenacity was admirable. They suffered greatly but continued to face the hideous attacks. I also thought of the camps and suffering there. While I was living in complete comfort with food, shelter and entertainment.

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    1. It really has changed how so many people view things, hasn't it?

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  24. It's so much harder to be complacent, isn't it?

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    1. Challenging circumstances do make one reflect and take stock!

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  25. Great book! I'm looking forward to more of Billie's adventures. Im reading a lot more history, to see the horrors we have lived through as prep for modern day horrors.

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    1. Thanks so much! I always feel a sense of perspective when I read anything about history too!

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  26. Hi Juia, I've been trying to contact you. Did you know that your website isn't working and you're getting a "This domain is suspended due to incomplete Whols Verification?" Sorry I had to publish it here, but I also tried to send you an email and that didn't go through.

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  27. SO late today! And this sounds fantastic. I have truly loved how nimble and smart you have been in your writing and your career. ANd you are an inspiration!

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    1. Thanks so very much, Hank! I have always felt incredibly fortunate to have so many writers in the mystery community as mentors to lead the way!

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    2. Yes. The pandemic made me reflect on how things were easier and people were more connected before the arise of Covid.

      Nancy
      allibrary (at) aol (dot) com

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