On Alternate History and Investigative Research

Spike and Giles... Together at Last

One of the techniques I feel very strongly about when writing alternate history which, in many ways, is a component of many games, stories, and reference materials I write, is to take an investigative approach to research. There are many reasons why I feel this is necessary, and much of my thoughts on the subject come from the mistakes I’ve made or from the realizations I’ve come to over the years as I’ve delved into this approach on many occasions, for many projects.

Often, in games this approach is crucial because the point of a game is to be immersed in a world where you, as the player, make choices for your character either by yourself or in a group with the guidance of a games master. In both, however, the more specific the details, the better the readers/players are able to submerse themselves in a world similar, but different, from our own. The ability to be inspired by historical events is also impacted by popular media, what you’ve learned in school, what you’ve internalized, etc. Thus, sometimes a writer’s research might turn up facts that are often misrepresented, which can push narratives and settings into new directions for the reader–but have been there all along. “The Aliens Built the Pyramids” is a common example, and the idea that ancient peoples were less intelligent and less capable than people today, often reduces their accomplishments and their humanity.

As another example, I’ve written about the Salem Witch Trials. Did you know that Salem Town and Salem Village were two separate, but nearby, places? Or that this unusual event occurred at the tail end of the so-call witch hysteria in Europe? Or that prisoners had to pay for their own room and board which often bankrupted them? Or that the female Puritan believers were often taught to read the Bible, but not to write? Or that the supernatural was blamed for everything that went wrong, even crops failing? Of course, you might have known all of those things (and more) already, but my point here is that stories often condense facts in order to best fit the plot and characters or, for a game, its setting and the potential of telling stories. Instead of having Salem Town and Salem Village, sometimes we’ll see representations set in “Salem” to simplify the setting. I didn’t do that, myself, but it’s not uncommon to see a hyper focus on a specific aspect of the Salem Witch Trials as opposed to the broader overview due to budgetary, time, and narrative constraints. This can result in the same story being told over and over again, which can hurt writers, editors, and designers because it forces us to do something extraordinary in order to bring a fresh perspective.

I’m of the mind that conducting research benefits writers and designers in many ways. It allows you to avoid repeating the same, tired tropes and presents you with better choices to tell a more compelling story and create better games, because you’ll have more information to work from as opposed to starting with the expectations everyone already shares that stem from prior coverage. After all, there have been many changes in technology which have allowed the facilitation of faster and better research materials than were previously available five, ten, and even twenty years ago, which means the expectation to get the background details is a lot higher, even though there’s also been a substantive rise in the need to produce stories and games more quickly than ever before in order to remain financially soluble. And, of course, even beyond the creative there is the 24-hour news cycle and the constant stream of information begging to be read and no guarantees that what you’re reading is based in fact(1).

But often, investigative research tends to get a bad rap not because it requires time or critical thinking, but because it necessitates the understanding that bias exists. This, unfortunately, can be highly politicized even though the existence of bias really doesn’t have anything to do with politics. It is, simply, how our minds work. Avoiding the acknowledgement of our own personal biases is where research can fall down before it begins, because it essentially means that we have to be open to the possibility that what we know is wrong. This fear typically manifests in an assumption that fiction is all just made up stuff and, if that’s true, then what’s the point of reading and analyzing historical materials for our made up worlds? For others, this might challenge personal beliefs that are held dear, and force uncomfortable thoughts that could bring about a change to the way we think or what we believe. As time passes, however, materials within the historical record will include what we create–games, stories, etc.–and readers are often influenced by alternate history to the point where misinformation becomes true(2), for that is the power of a story. In other words: what we make becomes part of the historical record and public consciousness, especially if our reach is broad. And, that carries with it a certain amount of power that can create both positive and negative effects. Some of these effects can and are mitigated by research.

When the historically-inspired details resonate positively, they can be a force for good because it may encourage people to question what they know, to correct misinformation by thinking more critically about a topic they haven’t before, or to feel empathy for another human being(3). When details reinforce misinformation or stereotypes, however, it can do a great deal of damage, even resulting in the bullying of children(4). The discussions about race or gender or what-have-you, which is also connected to bias, has been attributed to politics and often raises eyebrows for the simple fact that when a claim is heard it isn’t believed. “It didn’t happen to me, ergo I don’t believe it’s true because it doesn’t fit my worldview.” But, I find it sometimes is affected by the idea that non-fiction is written rationally, and those materials are part and parcel to investigative research. That same idea can also be shaped by the trust we do (or don’t) place in our source material and that, too, can be affected by bias as well.

While the idea that non-fiction is written with a rational mind may have some merit to a certain degree, all information is often relayed for a specific purpose of some kind, and its meaning or reception is impacted both by context and how words change meaning over time. An example of this is the discussion related to the term “redskins” and the intersection of that slur and the Washington Redskins logo. The history of the term “redskin”, according to Goddard in that article, evolved over many years. This is just one story why I believe it’s crucial to think critically and research when attempting alternate history. Not only does the meaning of words change over time, but the words we use impact different groups of people differently as well. If we are making games and telling stories to be widely read, we don’t know who that ideal reader or player is anymore–especially in an era where we can digitally distribute works all across the world at a touch of a button. This doesn’t mean, however, that we won’t make mistakes, or that we’ll always make choices based on what happened in history. There is no such thing as a perfect story, game, comic, painting, sculpture, etc.–there will always be flaws, because we are not perfect. However, for myself I feel that the best thing I can do for my publisher and for you (reader, player, etc.), is to do the best job I possibly can–and that means I have to research and work with my editors and fellow contributors to make smart, informed decisions for the final result.

Before I go, I want to give you two tips if you’re interested in investigative research. If you’re researching an event or a subject, try to find sources from multiple perspectives–even advertising!–as opposed to relying on texts written through an anthropological or a victor’s lens. A 360 degree view is hugely helpful, and it might even give you insight and perspective that you never would’ve achieved otherwise. One word of caution, however, if you are researching groups of people you don’t identify or associate with. I’d avoid finding “a” representative and then treat their words as indicative of how that entire group feels or thinks. People will always have a varying degree of opinions, and what you want ideally is a bell curve of perspectives whenever possible to avoid the extreme ends of the spectrum. That can be a challenge, for sure, but I feel it’s also very exciting. After all, you are not only connecting with other people in a unique way through your research, I find that your work will be positively impacted because you’ll make better, more informed decisions that can reach more readers and players. Plus, the more you take this approach, the faster you’ll be able to apply those techniques for your next project.

My second tip is to build a research phase into your project–even if it’s for a couple of hours to find a broad range of sources or time to read them. This phase will also help you manage expectations if you’re working for a publisher, too, because it’ll help frame your internal process so you can still meet your deadlines and boost your confidence knowing that you’ve got a strong foundation to work from. You might decide to do this after you’re done with your first draft, or you might do this before you write your story or design your game to figure out what perspective you’d like to take. Regardless, I strongly suggest not relying solely on other media sources in the same subject matter for your research, because you don’t know if non-fiction sources were used to create them unless you can find the bibliography that was used. That said, I find it’s always helpful to read broadly.

(1) An open letter about Irish slaves is a good example of this, given the coverage was addressed in Scientific American, which is a source given a lot of credence.
(2) Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and its effect on religious beliefs comes to mind, here.
(3) For example, you might think about what happened when Alex Haley’s Roots first aired, or the movie Philadelphia, and the resulting conversations that occurred from them.
(4) There is a fair bit of work done, every year, around Halloween to explain why dressing up in feather headdresses and leather shifts hurts Native Americans regardless of tribe throughout the country. And yet, these costumes still exist despite the harm they cause. See also: there are dozens of links on the subject.

The Other Side of Ciao

There's a trojan on your computer

In preparation for a few posts about my writing process as it relates to my original work and projects like Dark Eras, I wanted to talk (eep!) a little bit more about me. To be perfectly honest with you, this is the part I hate. I don’t like talking about me half the time, because I feel there’s a certain level of complexity that human beings have, that cannot come across via the internet in writing. Too, I’m fairly private as well, because I tend to deal with my own b.s. and then move on as best I can. Today I’m going to try, because this will relate to a future post about my work and my research process that I’ve honed over several years when writing about other cultures.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a cross-cultural household, and that I’ve never really felt that I fit in to “a” specific culture. When I went to London a few years ago now, one of my friends noticed how I really was of two worlds, the old and the new. Though I’m not a hundred percent Italian, the culture (regionally, this would be northern Italy) dominated my formative years. If you are not already aware, like many countries there’s no such thing as Italy being “one” culture and there’s often a lot of assumptions made about Italian-Americans thanks to shows like Jersey Shore or The Godfather movies. Often, when people haven’t run into Italians before, whatever the popular media has shown them is what they assume and it’s not always good.

I remember being of two minds on the subject of my heritage. Proud and angry. Proud, because while other families forgot how their great-great grandparents came to this country, the idea of “where we came from” was more immediate and present. It made me appreciate being in America, and I fell in love with the idea of the melting pot to the point where I idealized it. Oh, I did. I wanted to know about everyone. (Still do.) I wanted to know about all the different cultures, all the beautiful people with the different ways they practiced their faith or what they had for dinner or what they wore or what books they read or what have you. As a child, I thought America was a place where everyone was welcome, and I was ready to meet everybody.

This is where the anger part comes in. I’ve always been pushed and pulled into this idea that there’s “the one true way” to live, to be, that whatever the dominate culture is happens to be the one that’s “right”, or that the culture you’re born with has to be the only one. (A belief that I fight with every breath I take.) What’s so “wrong” about not discovering popcorn until I was 12? What’s so “wrong” about not having blonde hair? (Yes, I do now. This is called “obfuscation” as I’ve been going grey since I was a teenager. Considering purple!) Or the right nose? Or body shape? Or… For me, I also had an added layer of angst as a teen. I am a very passionate person, and even something as simple the display of emotion can generate comments and rumors. I also talk with my hands as well, and being expressive can cause raised eyebrows, too. And it did. Even beyond personal expression, there’s also issues I had with personal space. I remember how I was helping a friend home who was utterly wasted, and I had my arm around her to keep her upright, and kids driving by shouted gay slurs at us simply because we were touching.

I’m skipping a lot here, including the bullying, but hopefully the gist of what I’m trying to say is coming across. For a lot of people, even though my skin tone was white, and we were blue collar/middle class, I was still “different” and different isn’t always good, nor is it celebrated. That? That crushed me at first. As a teenager, because of my experiences, I went from believing in the melting pot, to convincing myself I had to fit in. I had to wear the latest fashion or dumb myself down or change my hair or do all the things that weren’t necessarily me because this was the way to get people to back off and stop ridiculing me or accept me. In other words, I felt forced to pretend I was unquestionably just like everybody else who was considered to be part of the majority culture, and it never quite seemed to work. I wanted to be invisible, because that seemed easier than the alternative.

No, the story of where I came from cannot possibly be condensed into a simple post, nor are the reasons for the way I was treated in my formative years straightforward. They’re not. To me, though, none of that matters and I am certainly not trying to get into any kind of contest about whose pain is greater. That’s not the point here. None of my terrible past experiences matter anymore. Why? Because while I still struggle with living between worlds sometimes, I am hyper-focused on turning those experiences into something positive, and then channeling that into my work. I’ve said this before, but music saved my life and writing gave me a reason to live it. Without the arts, I’m not sure where I’d be today.

Shortly after leaving home for college, I realized I wanted the dream back, because I didn’t feel that what I’d been told or shown was true. I desperately hoped for the melting pot, the rainbow, and the beautiful people–all of them–back in my head. To that end, and I remember this very clearly, I refused to sit down and be quiet and accept the way things were. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. And, being young and stupid, oh I’m sure I made my fair share of mistakes trying to figure out the answers to my questions, too.

Over time, I’ve come to understand that there’s a lot of people in pain simply because they are considered to be “different.” While their pain is theirs to deal with, the best I can do is listen and either keep listening or, when appropriate, say: “I will try to understand.” The best I can do, is be there for them because I know what it means to be in a position where no one is there for you. To me, this has nothing to do with being liberal of conservative; I care about what I can do to be a decent human being. Being a good person, I feel, should not be politicized, because that dehumanizes us and reduces us into another pile of stereotypes.

Despite how the media sometimes simplifies it, culture is not a linear, flat shape that encompasses the entire U.S. It ebbs and flows and grows and changes all the damn time, depending upon where you live and who you’re with and where you come from and where you’re going. There’s a lot of things that happen in the popular culture due to propaganda or half-truths being shared, misunderstandings, global events, inventions, popular movies/TV, turns of the season, political leaders, basic internet connectivity, money, etc. Taking all of these things into consideration, the American culture fascinates me, because it’s the most complex, organic structure I have ever encountered, just like how most people fascinate me.

To me, especially now, America is still the melting pot, a mixture of beautiful people who’ll inspire me to write better characters and design more visceral settings. A potpourri of all kinds of people who (thankfully) aren’t just like me. I feel this is cause for celebration despite this country’s horrific past, despite the ways we seek to isolate, separate, and condemn one another now because of the fear of the unknown, because the world is changing. The question that I often ask is: what unites us? This often leads to more questions. What does it mean to be human? What do we all share? What’s the positive side to being unique? How can we come together and have great discussions despite being different people? How can we work together and respect our differences instead of condemn them? These questions, to me, are infinitely more interesting because the answers bring me hope and joy.

Next time, I’ll talk about how these experiences have led me to address writing about other cultures from a position of mutual respect. That post will have a stronger writing focus than this one did, and I’m hoping that my stance on this topic will make more sense now that you have a general idea where my head is at.

Comments are open on this post as well. I’m more than a little neurotic about opening up, so please be kind.

    Mood: Did I do this right?
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: I counted four.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: There was walking!
    In My Ears: White noise.
    Game Last Played: Sonic: All Stars Racing
    Book Last Read: Commedia della Morte by Chelsea Quinn Yarbo
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    Latest Artistic Project: Beading!
    Latest Fiction/Comic Release: Last Man Zombie Standing.
    Latest Game Release: Gothic Icons and Smuggler’s Guide to the Rim
    What I’m Working On: Read my latest project update.

Ditching the Ego in Favor of the Basics

One of the things I’ve been doing, is nurturing my inner artist. It’s something I haven’t done in a long, long time. Not because I didn’t make room for it, but because I was hung up on something. I was never sure what that was, until a few weeks ago.

My ideas are sophisticated, but I feel like I could never “get there.” I used to be in graphic design, but I’d reach the point where I couldn’t advance, and then I’d stop. Either out of frustration or because something else, something more important came along. Then I’d meet someone, as I often tend to do, who’s very sophisticated in their craft. Either online or off, I get drawn to people whose styles I enjoy. Drew Pocza. Echo Chernik. John Kovalic. Leanne Buckley. Jeff Preston. Liz Danforth. Michael Whelan. Alex Ross. Keith Haring. Mike Mignola.

And the list goes on.

When it comes to my own artwork — whether that be calligraphy or jewelry making or whatever — I’d freeze up because I’d see these very. awesome. people. do very. awesome. things. Only, I could do those things, one day, if I had the time to practice what was already there. What I had already started to do, but abandoned because I wasn’t “good” enough to move forward.

To get around that? I’ve been going back to the basics. I’ve been focusing on technique and learning about new materials as opposed to worrying about this amazing idea for “X” that’s in my head. I’m not selling it or sharing it or doing anything other than worrying about those fundamentals. So far, I’ve started with jewelry making, but I will be expanding out from there. Each technique I learn I’m gradually moving into more advanced ideas to progress from “simple” to “complex.”

Applying This Principle to Writing

This morning, though, it occurred to me that a lot of writers experience the same thing. You have this awesome idea in your head for a novel or whatever, but you’re worried about the execution. You don’t know how to get the words to flow right on the page, so you write halfway through a story and you stop. Or you become the perpetual fan of another author, admiring what they do, because you don’t think you can do the same thing.

The thing is, dear readers, you can. You really, really can do whatever you want — provided you have the patience to learn. While creativity often has roots in natural aptitude, it’s also about having the right mindset and allowing yourself to be creative in a non-judgmental environment. That frame-of-mind requires you to remove all of your objections, all of those people who told you “I can’t” or “You’re dumb” or “You’ll never be…” and focus on the work. Or, as Christine Merrill once told me: protect the work.

Even if you’re not an experienced author, you still have work to nurture, to protect. It may be unfinished work or developing work or learning-how-to work, but it’s still yours. It’s still your baby. If you can’t write a novel right off the bat, don’t beat yourself up. Would you write a symphony if you just learned how to sing? Sure, you could be a prodigy, but most authors aren’t. Like pianists, practice makes perfect.

Instead of making excuses or apologizing for what you can’t do: remove your ego. Remove the idea that just because you can’t do something, means you’re a failure. You are not. Just get that out of your head. Think of yourself as a student and try working on the basics instead. Grammar. Punctuation. Sentence structure. Action scenes. Love scenes. Description. Etc.

And don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do. Not right now, not when you’re learning. Accepting criticism, dealing with editors/agents/publishers, revising and applying comments to a story is part and parcel to being a writer, but that comes further down the road. For now? Fall in love with the words. After all, if you don’t love to write, then whatever else happens next is meaningless, because in your heart — you’ve already set yourself up to fail. You’ve said: “I can’t do this because I’m not good enough.” Instead, I’m recommending that you say: “I’m new, so I’m allowed to make mistakes. One day, I will tell the story that I want to write, but right now, I’m going to focus on learning how.”

The nice thing about focusing on my artwork, is that I’ll have examples to share with you further down the road. It’s a lot harder to explain that with writing, which is one of the reasons why I highly recommend you pick up Nascence by Tobias Buckell. If you want writing advice, this is the book to get because it does something that most writing advice books don’t — show you his failures on the story level when he first started out. That, dear readers, is invaluable because that is something that’s not easy to teach. That’s something you often have to learn.

The Hard Question for New Writers

I’ve talked about this a little before, about how we live in an age of immediacy. We have many tools that allow us to instantly connect with anyone, anywhere else in the world. I feel this connectivity is a double-edged sword because of something very simple, yet very important to all creative people.

Before I get to the whys and hows and whats of this post, I’m going to post the question first: Are you ready?

So what does that mean, anyway? Even though that sounds simple enough, there’s a lot more to it. You see, writing it’s just the process of putting words on the page or sticking up a story for readers to buy. It’s a journey. It’s the kind of journey that isn’t exciting or glorious or even fulfilling at first, because it can be very complex and grueling. After all, writing a short story isn’t the same thing as writing a novel. Writing a technical report isn’t a blog post, and it’s not marketing copy. Each form has its own function. Its own purpose.

To go from “new” to “professional” requires something that I feel the internet is obscuring. The steps — some emotional, some not — almost every writer goes through to get from Point A to Point B. The first one, of course, is to figure out what you want to write, and write that. The second is to study that form. I mean, really study it. If you like a genre, read books in that genre. Uncover why you like it. Etc. This process can take a short time or a long time, but the end result will help shift one role away from the other. Instead of being in the position of “receiver” or “consumer,” you will start to steer towards being the “creator.” This philosophical shift is huge, but often difficult to explain because being a creator resonates through every action you take — how much TV you watch, how many books you read, what music you play. The more you learn, the more you’ll go through. Emotionally, physically, mentally and even spiritually.

Where I feel the connectivity is hurting new writers is the way that it obscures and minimizes these processes. The medium facilitates immediate distribution and — in some cases — immediate creation. My blogging software allows me to type quickly and then publish the post with the click of a button. Once you’ve finished a book, all you have to do is go and publish it. Does that make you a creator? You created something and now it’s available for a consumer. So yes, right? Yes, it does — whether or not the work was ready to be published or not.

Earlier in this post, I posed a question. Are you ready? For me, this question means that it’s okay to not submit a finished novel or a short story until I feel it’s ready. It means that if I want to try a new technique, I can write a story and never submit it. I can write trunk novels or trunk passages and use them to experiment, to practice, to freshen up. With deadlines in the mix, it means that I have to gauge my time accordingly.

The idea that not everything you create has to be consumed is a freeing one, because now the decision comes back to you. If one project isn’t ready, then don’t submit it and move on to the next one. Abandon it. Use it as a learning experience. This is crucial, but especially when you’re new. Why? Because when you’re a creator, there is someone else you’re creating for — yourself. Allow yourself that luxury. Recognize it. Revel in it. Then, when you’re ready, take the next step. Whatever that is. Just don’t be afraid to say: “No, I’m not ready yet.”

Day 43: Personal Development By Way of Slowing Down

After I wrote my article for SFWA.org about my hunt for the value of social media, I realized that I’ve reached a new “phase” in my experiment.

Whether it’s a side effect of not being plugged in twenty-four seven or not, my habits have slowed down considerably. It’s not just caffeine consumption; I’m processing information more slowly and thoroughly than I have in the past six months. After a fashion, this makes complete sense to me. Several studies have pointed out how the web changes not only the way we think, but rewires our brains. For example, you can read this article dubbed Author Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires our Brains. Or check out Does the Internet Change the Way We Think? on Newsweek, where a neuroscientist makes the claim that it doesn’t.

Dealing with what I have been, I would argue that it absolutely has an impact on the way that I think and process information. Typical habits and personality quirks aside, what I suppose is this: because I’m not being bombarded with data point after data point, my mental response time has been adjusting to the lack of information I come across in a day. For the past two weeks, especially after being taken down with a nasty cold, my inertia has slowed.

If you’re keeping up with the analogies I’ve been giving, I’ve mentioned how it feels like I’ve been a student in a school of fish swimming this way and that, in perpetual motion. When I left the school, I headed toward the bottom of the ocean. At first, all I could see is a reef of coral because that was my destination. Then, I literally touched the sea floor and slowed to a halt.

Mind you, I’m not the type of person that can handle just “sitting still” for too long. At the bottom, though, I experienced something I haven’t in a long, long time — silence. Sheer, unadulterated, quiet. Then what? I can’t just sit there and wait until this experiment is over with. Right? Right. My thinking, is that in order for me to function more quickly, I either have to consume or process information more quickly, too. For me, the way to do that, is to become a student once again. To learn. To deliberately choose what I want to know, enhance or revisit.

For the past couple of years, there’s been a number of “personal development” type projects and initiatives I’ve always wanted to do but never got around to doing. Volunteer work. Revisiting my graphic design and layout skills. Running a 5K. (I have a long list.) In the past, the challenge I had, was that I was looking at these experiences from the perspective (or the visualization) that they were already done. So the progress from Point A to Point B (a.k.a. “the journey”) was lost in my expectations for constant progress. While the internet isn’t responsible for my demands (or expectations) of immediacy, I certainly believe it contributed to it. This is part of our culture — get it now. And in my mind, that’s not necessarily a good thing. We admire the artist who can paint an incredible portrait, but we don’t see the hours of practice. The same is true with just about any other creative talent out there — including writing. In a way, I feel talent and ingenuity have turned into thirty-second novelties. To be an expert at anything, takes time and experience. You can read the information and obtain substitute programs that’ll replicate certain tasks, but that’s not the same thing as doing it yourself.

What getting offline has done to my thought processes, is slow them down to the point where my mind cleared. Tabula rasa. Blank slate. By slowing down, I was able to get back to the basics in a valuable, meaningful way. Instead of submitting every short story I write, I’m playing around with techniques in a story I don’t intend to sell. Same goes for just about everything else I’m doing, too. Walk for fitness before run. Learn new jewelry-making techniques by focusing on basic designs before creating the ones I want. Etc. Etc.

Getting back to the “bottom of the ocean” analogy, I floated down onto the sea floor and stopped. Then, I realized I could go in any direction I wanted to, as opposed to following and connecting with the crowd. (In this case, quite literally. For to engage socially, you have to use the tools everyone else is using, too.) Once I clearly identified the areas I wanted to develop, then I started over from the beginning and am building momentum to create and do some really fun things. I’ll be showing you some of those projects over the next couple of weeks, too.

Now that I’ve got forward momentum on the personal development aspects, my next step is to speed up my productivity and get back to where it used to be. For that? I’m going to turn back to the clock and start building in some routines.

In the end, what’s happened here is a complete ideological shift by way of a slower thought process. Because I no longer feel compelled to share my knowledge or participate in a social network, I’m not proving or professing my expertise (either consciously or subconsciously). The end result of not doing that anymore, is that my focus is on development to increase my skills and my talents. The silence and sheer lack of social pressure (whether perceived or not) allows me to do that without fear, without time constraints. If I screw up, who cares? If I fall down, I get back up. If I do something amazing? I don’t have to show the “one awesome thing” right away. Instead, I’m going to work towards several awesome things. With the way my creative energy has exploded, I’m already well on my way to doing just that.

Next Posts

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