Tag Archives: Writing Tools

Face it

I’ve been thinking about faces recently; a friend of mine will be having reconstructive surgery on her face to restore the tissue and structure that was eaten away by a rare condition, and we were talking about the psychological effects of such a procedure, and the influence it could have on one’s own sense of identity.

After that talk, I did a bit of research online about the psychology of the face, and I found a series of photo montages called “Facial Expressions Reference Project” (just search that phrase on google images to see what I mean).  What I found interesting about that series is that, though they used the basic range of emotions such as sad, or amused, confident or embarrassed, nearly every person’s interpretation was different.  It highlights not only the differences of opinions when it comes to labelling particular facial expressions, but also potential misunderstandings that can arise from the varying interpretations of this key form of nonverbal communication – especially when in a cross-cultural situation.  For example, when I lived in the Philippines, I had to get used to the fact that shaking their head side to side meant “yes”, and wiggling their head up and down meant “no” – the wiggle was to make “no” less direct, so as not to lose face or cause the other person to lose face.

This train of thought led me to wonder what kinds of English idioms refer to the face; there are dozens of them:  You can have a long-, poker-, fresh-, or a straight face, or a face that would stop a clock, or conversely, traffic, or have a face that only a mother could love; you can be (not) just another pretty face, put on a brave face or be blue/red in the face, have egg on your face, or be two-faced.  You can face the facts, consequences, the music, time, or, let’s face it, you can be in someone’s face, lose or save face, show your face (or not), stuff it, fall flat on it both physically and metaphorically, and – well, the list goes on and on.

Below is a series of celebrity photos, in various characters; as a writer, I find it helpful to have visual references when describing physicality in the written word, and this fun montage gives a wide range to choose from.  Enjoy, and keep writing!

 

Actors in Character

Actors in Character.  Original source, unknown:  Pinterest

 

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Filed under Images, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Research, Writing Prompt

Similes Galore

Have you ever wanted to compare two people, places or things in a pithy way, but couldn’t remember a particular saying, or think of a way to put it?  For starters, what you’re looking for is called a “simile”, and they abound in English!   A simile is a figure of speech used to compare one thing to another, usually using “like” or “as”.  Some are obvious, some are quirky, and some must have a fascinating history.  Here is a small selection using “as…as”; if you know of any others, please add them in the comments below!  Have a great weekend, and keep writing!

blind as a bat & drunk as a skunk - by jellogiant, Deviantart

As likely as not

As long as your arm

As loud as thunder

As mad as a hatter / a March hare

As mad as a wet hen / a hornet

As mean as a snake

As meek as a lamb

As merry as a cricket

As mild as a dove / a lamb / milk / May

As much use as a handbrake on a canoe

As mute as a fish / an oyster / a statue / a stone

As naked as a jaybird / the day they were born

As nervous as a cat (in a room full of rocking chairs) / pig in a packing plant

As nutty as a fruitcake

As obstinate as a mule

As often as not

As old as the hills / Adam / Methuselah

As pale as a ghost / death / ashes

As patient as Job / an ox

As plain as a pikestaff / day / the sun / the nose on your face

As playful as a kitten

As pleased as punch / a dog with two tails

As plump as a partridge

As poor as a church mouse / a rat / Job / Lazarus / dirt

As pretty as a picture

As proud as Lucifer

As proud / pleased as punch

As proud / vain as a peacock

As pure as a lily / (the driven) snow

As quick as a dog can lick a dish / a wink / lightning / a flash

As quiet / still as a mouse / whisper

As red as a rose / a cherry / beetroot / a lobster / a turkey-cock / blood / fire

As regular as clockwork

As rich as Crassus / a Jew

As right as rain / nails / a trivet

As round as a barrel / a ball / an apple / a globe

As safe as houses / the Bank of England

As scarce as hen’s teeth / ice water in hell

As scared as a rabbit

As sharp as a tack / a needle / a razor

As sick as a dog / a parrot

As silent as the dead / the grave / the stars

As silly as a goose / a sheep

As slim as a willow

As slippery as an eel / ice

As slow as a snail / a wet week / molasses in winter / molasses in January

As sly as a fox

As smooth as butter / oil / silk / glass

As snug as a bug in a rug

As sober as a judge

As soft as butter / down / silk / velvet / clay / wax

As sound as a bell

As sour as vinegar

As straight as an arrow / a ramrod

As steady as a rock / the Rock of Gibraltar

As sticky as jam

As stiff as a poker / a ramrod / a board / pikestaff

As still as a mouse / death / the grave

As straight as a die / an arrow / a poker / a ramrod

As strong as an ox / a horse / a bull

As stubborn as a mule / a goat

As sure as death and taxes / death / taxes / a gun / eggs are eggs

As sweet as honey / sugar

As tall as a steeple / maypole / a skyscraper

As thick as thieves / blackberries / pea soup

As thick as two (short) planks

As thin as a rail / paper / thread / a stick

As timid as a deer / hare / rabbit / mouse

As tired as a dog

As tough as old boots / nails / leather

As tricky as a monkey

As true as steel / flint

As ugly as sin / a scarecrow / a toad

As useful as a chocolate teapot

As vain / proud as a peacock

As warm as toast

As watchful as a hawk

As weak as a kitten / a baby / water

As wet as a drowned rat

As white as a ghost / a sheet

As white as snow / chalk / milk

As wide as the poles are apart

As wise as Solomon / an owl

As yielding as wax

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May 27, 2017 · 12:23 PM

Say It Well

Let’s face it:  When writing dialogues between characters, repetition can tend to sneak up on us:  He said, she said, he whispered, she whispered, and so on.  There are a few tricks I’d like to share with you that I’ve learned along the way; one is regarding grammar, and the other is my own twist on dealing with the issue.

Regarding grammar, action verbs can often take the place of the more passive verbs (such as said):  “He said, ‘I’d like that.’” can be spiced up by giving him an action to do (“He picked up the travel brochure and flipped through it:  ‘I’d like that.’”)  The second sentence gives more context, and is more visually engaging for the reader.  Keep in mind that every word should count; don’t pad out the sentence just for word count, or make each exchange in the conversation a prop advertisement; but punctuating a dialogue with such moments can bring it to life.

My own twist is a literal one – a CD:  I took an old one, covered both sides with blank CD labels, and wrote all of the synonyms (listed below) for say and said in a spiral, starting in the centre, changing colours for each new letter of the alphabet.  To use it, I just put it on my finger and spin it around as I read through the spiral until I find the word that best fits my sentence.  I have several such CDs within reach of my computer (another CD, for instance, is for walk synonyms, and another for lie/lay); if you make enough of them, you could keep them in a CD pouch.  Here’s my list of the words around Say (click on the image to enlarge):

say-list

A word of advice to those of you for whom English is not mother-tongue:  Depending on the word, the sentence structure may need to be adapted.  If you’re unsure how to use a word, I would recommend looking it up on Wordnik, and reading the examples on the right-hand side of the page; then choose the sentence structure, prepositions, etc. that are more frequent than not.

I hope that this list helps you say what you want with the variety and precision you’re aiming for!  Feel free to reblog!  Feel free to print this list out and use it; if you pass it on online please put a hyperlink back to this blog, or recommend my blog if you pass it on by word of mouth… thank you!

If you can think of any words or phrases to replace say or said that I missed in the list above, please put them in the comments below!  Keep writing!

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Filed under Articles, Lists, Nuts & Bolts, Research, Writing Exercise

Writing Trivia: Earthen Floors

I do a lot of research online; sometimes it leads down the oddest of trails, and those are always the fun ones to follow – the road less travelled, and all that.  I keep a storehouse of “odds and ends” information, the trivial bits and bobs that might come in handy as I create a new world for a story.

I was recently writing an article for one of my other blogs (click here to read it), and came across an interesting article on the topic of earthen flooring; such an element could be used in historical fiction, science fiction, or modern eco-escapism fiction.

What I found fascinating is the way the writer describes her first experience of walking on such a floor:  The leathery softness, the warmth, the texture, and the creative possibilities this type of flooring allows.

Such things stir my creative juices, and I have to remind myself to finish my current manuscript before moving on!  But such an element will come in very handy for my next book, which is a science fiction story… and now, because I’ve shared it with you, I’ll know where to find it when I need it!

Click on the image below to read the article, and be inspired.  Keep writing!

Earthen Flooring

 

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5 Life Hacks for Productivity

Let’s face it… humans are creatures of habit.  That phrase often has a negative connotation; in a conference that lasts several days, people will tend to sit within a few chairs of the seats they sat in on the first day, whether they like the location or not; once a person starts hanging the loo roll on the dispenser either top or bottom, the other way is just wrong.  But habits can also work to our advantage, if we form good ones:  Cleaning up after ourselves should have been a habit formed in our childhoods; brushing our teeth, pushing a chair in after we leave the table, and dozens of other little habits are hygienic, energy-saving, and contribute to more harmonious relationships within our social and environmental landscapes.

Those of us who express ourselves through creative media (such as writing, arts or crafts) might tend to see ourselves or the expression of our craft as outsiders, or at least mavericks, when it comes to business practices.  However, there are many tools (such as the SWOT) and principles for increasing productivity in the business sector that we can and should apply to our creative streaks (if the intention is to take them beyond the level of hobby to a more serious endeavour).  One of those principles involves forming good habits.  Below, I’ve listed five things that I do to keep my creativity fresh, and thus keep the time that I spend writing more productive than it would otherwise be (I know from experience).  For practical purposes I’ll refer to the expressions from the perspective of a writer, but these hacks apply to any creative discipline.

5 Productivity Life Hacks

I’ve taken the liberty of making a “cheat sheet” as a reminder of these principles; if it’s helpful for you, feel free to print it out and hang it up where you work or write.

1)   Find your most productive time.

Are you an early bird, or a night owl?  Or are you a late-afternoon type?  Most people have 9-to-5 jobs that dictate when they have free time; but when you are looking for time to write, try to schedule it in your most productive time of the day.  I am an extreme night owl; I need very little sleep and work at home, so my time is flexible; yet my most productive time of the day is between 01:00 and 04:00, with the second-most productive period being late-afternoons. I know this about myself, so I use the less-productive times to get other things done that are no-brainers (housework, shopping, etc.).

2)  Use time management apps to focus your energy.

I have two (android) apps that I use:  “Clear Focus” and “aTimeLogger”.  The first app counts down from the time I set, with a five-minute break following; every three sessions, it encourages me to take a longer break of fifteen minutes.  The second app allows me to log how much time I spend in a particular activity; I have added customized activities such as editing and blogging.  I use these apps especially when I’ve got a dozen incongruous tasks on my to-do list – it helps me focus on the task at hand, thus being more productive.

3)  Learn a new skill.

That may sound a bit odd; after all, it takes time to learn a new skill, right?  But bear with me a moment:  The current thinking of today is that one should become a specialist; the thinking goes that if you focus your energy into learning one skill to a high degree, you will be successful in it.  But I have one word in answer to that:  Renaissance.  During the Renaissance it was considered ideal for one to pursue multiple disciplines; a gentleman of the time was expected to speak several languages, be well-versed in various scientific disciplines such as astronomy, botany, or medicine, and be eloquent with words through writing poetry, play a musical instrument, study philosophy, theology, and so on.  The standard was set, and met – think of all that was accomplished, discovered, and invented during that age!  Variety is the spice of life, and I find that iron sharpens iron – that one skill hones another.  So take some time to learn something new; it will stir the creative juices and get them flowing much more productively than if you stagnate in specialization.  And in gathering new skills, you will add to your arsenal of personal experience from which to draw on when fleshing out characters, worlds, scenes and dialogues.

4)  Create a music playlist.

Spotify is a great invention!  I have dozens of playlists, and depending on what I’m working on, I’ll turn on music to set the mood for a scene I’m writing (for me, it has to be just right or it can be counter-productive), or to speed me up or slow me down.  Music stimulates our creative energy, and helps our minds become more curious and more imaginative.  It affects our moods, and thus can influence the way we approach a particular scene or dialogue.  Just for the record, as I write this, I’m listening to the album Grace by Steven Sharp Nelson (of the Piano Guys).

5) Take breaks.

This is another habit that runs counterintuitively to conventional wisdom, but being “so close to the forest that you can’t see the trees” is never a good thing; staring too long at a problem, or a blank page, will get you nowhere fast.  Frustration builds, making any mental block that much thicker.  Set it aside; get some fresh air and exercise, airing both your mind and body.  By putting space between ourselves and the issue, we often gain fresh perspective.  Think of it as a backward approach to moving forward.  As Steven Spielberg advises, contemplation time is essential in the creative process – don’t fill it with brain work that distracts.  Take a bath.  Do the laundry.  Draw; doodle; do a craft.  Some of my best solutions or plot twists have come while doing a craft.  By the way, crafts encourage abstract thinking, problem solving, and creative perspectives.  To apply this, take a 20-30 minute break after you complete a particular element; sometimes it actually helps me to start that new element before taking a break – it gives my mind time to percolate away from the computer, yet gives me a starting point when I return to work.

I hope these hacks encourage you in developing and honing your craft.  Keep writing!

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Filed under Articles, Lists, Nuts & Bolts, Plot Thots & Profiles, Writing Exercise

A Page in History

As a writer I’m constantly absorbing information; I never know when something might come in handy!  It may inform my scene with more realism, or infuse a character with a quirk or a background that gives them depth.  History is full of oddities and amazing events that can spark our imaginations; the event below is one such event:  If you ever need to write a scene about an explosion, or the effects of wrong decisions gone awry, look to history to teach you how it’s done (or in this case, how it should not be done).  This story shows the importance of decisions, and begs the question, “What if?”  What if one of those factors had changed?  What if the captain of the SS Imo had given way to the captain of the SS Mont-Blanc?  We’ll never know, but as writers we can use our greatest tool:  Imagination.

This day in history:  The Halifax Explosion

6 December 1917 will live on in infamy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Canada, as one of the worst disasters in history.  On that day, the largest man-made explosion prior to the Nuclear Age occurred, wiping out several communities and reshaping Halifax forever.

The events that led up to the explosion that killed thousands and maimed thousands more reads like a thriller:  The delay of a shipment of coal; the climate of war that complicated the comings and goings from the harbour; an experienced captain now behind schedule who “bent the rules” for once; the captain whose impatience at previous delays pressed him to disregard the harbour speed limits and refuse to give way a third time; the third ship in his path who, because of their cargo (tons of explosives), could not make sudden manoeuvres and was relying on him to give way; a right decision made too late.  Curious onlookers who gathered at their windows to watch the blazing ship in the harbour had little idea that it would be the last thing most of them would ever see; if they were not obliterated in the initial blast, the light from the flash or the window glass shattering [in virtually every window within a 2.6-kilometre (1.6 mile) radius] blinded them; some 5,900 eye injuries were treated, leaving over 40 survivors permanently blind.

Confusion after the initial blast was compounded when people began evacuating thinking that it was a German bomb attack; fires throughout the city (caused by tipped oil lamps and ovens in collapsed homes) added to the confusion and hindrance to rescue efforts,  but within a few hours the true cause had become widely-enough known to calm initial fears.  Rescue teams started arriving from as far away as 200 km (120 miles), their help hampered by damaged roads and fears of secondary explosions from a munitions magazine at the Wellington Barracks.  To make matters worse, the next day blew in a blizzard which dumped 41 cm (16 inches) of heavy snow on the area; this blocked train transport with snowdrifts, and tore down hastily-erected telegraph lines.  Halifax was isolated, though the snow did help to extinguish the fires throughout the city.

Here in Switzerland, the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) reported on the 7th of December:

“Zerstörung der Stadt Halifax? New York, 6. Dez. (Havas.)  Aus Halifax wird gemeldet: Die Hälfte der Stadt Halifax sei ein Trummerhaufen infolge einer Explosion.  Die Verluste werden auf mehrere Millionen geschätzt.  Der Nordteil der Stadt steht in Flammen.  Es gibt hunderte von Toten und an die tausend Verwundete.

[“Destruction of the city of Halifax?  New York, 6 December (Havas – a French media group based in Paris.)  From Halifax was reported:  Half of the city of Halifax lies in ruins as a result of an explosion.  The loss has been estimated at several million (unclear whether it means Canadian dollars or Swiss Francs).  The northern part of the city is in flames.  There are hundreds of dead and thousands injured.”]

On the 8th of December, a similar footnote was reported, adding, “Kein Haus der Stadt ist unbeschädigt geblieben…” (“No house in the city has remained undamaged”)

That it even made it into a footnote of the international news section is actually remarkable, considering that Switzerland was surrounded by war at the time and had far more pressing matters on the home front and in neighbouring countries with which to keep abreast.

In the end, it is estimated that over 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured (of those injured, it is unclear how many died of the injuries, and how many were permanently disabled in some way).  The blast was so hot that it evaporated water in the harbour, exposing the harbour’s floor momentarily; as water rushed back in to fill the void, the resulting tsunami erased a settlement of  Mi’kmaq First Nations along the shores of Bedford Basin, on the Dartmouth side of the harbour; how many were killed is not known, though around 20 families lived there at the time.

Halifax Explosion, 6 December 1917To read the fascinating history of this event, please click here.

Sources:  Wikipedia; NZZ digital archives

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If These Walls Could Speak

There’s just something about abandoned places that speaks to me; each one has a unique history, and an ending that seems somehow premature.  Whether it be a shopping mall in Thailand now occupied by goldfish; cities within range of the radioactivity of Chernobyl; an island that was once inhabited but now forlorn; an underground station or even an entire train station in the middle of an inhabited city, or an abandoned house, they each have a story to tell.  If their walls could speak, what would they say?  What have they seen?  What would they have liked to see but were prematurely cut off from the habitation or transient experiences of humanity?

DSCN5118 - Overtoun House

Overtoun House. Image Credit: Stephanie Huesler

I once lived in a manor house in Scotland, called Overtoun House; it was often my home over the years that I lived in the UK; once we moved away it fell into disrepair, ransacked by vandals and left to rot by the town council that was charged with its maintenance.  Several years ago I went back to visit and actually cried at the state it had fallen into – it was literally like finding a good friend face down in the gutter.  Finally, a few years ago an organisation moved in to restore the building to its former glory, and it will be used to house women in distressed circumstances.  My husband and I met there in 1991, and this past summer we went back for a visit; it was comforting to see her in good hands once more.

If you google “abandoned places”, you’ll find thousands of photos and stories just begging to be told:  Salton City, former Olympic venues, World War Two installations, train stations, castles, theme parks, homes, libraries (abandoning books is just wrong), subway / underground stations, shipwrecks, asylums, private homes, and even (most tragic of all) the abandoned dead in the “death zone” of Mount Everest.  Each one with a history and a reason they were abandoned, yet also an inspiration for writers to dig below the superficial surface to create an untold tale.

If those walls could speak to your inner writer, what would you hear?  Write it!

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Filed under History, Research, Writing Exercise

The Psychology of Colour

I was recently talking with someone, and the topic of the psychology of colours came up in connection with health care; it got me thinking about how it could be applied to practical applications, as well as writing fiction.   My particular practical application is crocheting hats to donate to the local cancer patient clinics, and I wanted to know which colours would be more appropriate.

In writing fiction, colours play an important part as well; they help set the scene:  Is it a dark and gloomy scene?  Don’t choose pink or pastels – unless you want to make it a creepy-gloomy scene.  The colour of the sky, the grass, the sand, living room walls, a person’s eyes – they all help set the stage, or paint the backdrop of your fictional character’s life, situations, or the overall tone of the book; it can also help establish your character’s personality:  Are they a compassionate, stable person?  Perhaps beige combined with a bit of pink.  Is your character blind, (figuratively or literally)?  Red is the easiest colour for a visually impaired person to see, so accent their home in red.  You get the idea!  Advertisers have been using the psychology of colours to manipulate consumers for decades; the more we understand the application of colour, the more we can see through the tactic and at the same time apply it to our writing.  Here are a few images to consider as you think into this topic and apply it to your own fictional characters.

color-guide Colour & Mood Psychology 2 Colour & Mood Psychology

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Writing Tips: Dialogue

howtobebritish1Dialogue is (to point out the obvious) vital to a novel; it displays the voices of your characters and helps the reader get to know and care about the characters, understand their motives, their interrelationships, and distinguish each character’s point of view.  If you don’t get the dialogue right, you rip the reader out of the story, or worse – make them put down your novel and add your name to “never again” lists!  So, here are a few pointers and tips to keep in mind as you develop your characters and put words into their mouths:

1) Develop your characters well enough to make their voice distinct; do they have catch-phrases, or local dialects that influence their vocabulary?  Do they tend toward long or short sentences, or are they from a past time and place that had a different way of speaking?  Educate yourself if necessary in various modes of speech .

2) Dialogue is an illusion of conversation; but it’s also about what is not said.  Non-verbal actions reveal:

a) How a character says something

b) What a character chooses not to say, but inadvertantly reveals through actions.

c) Why the character says what they do.

Do they have particular actions when they are upset or aggitated that communicate their moods to the reader?  Do they bounce their knees when excited?  Does their body language confirm or contradict their verbal message?

3)  Fictional dialogue needs to cut to the chase; if there’s no point to the text (revealing motivation, character or plot point), then chop it!

4)  Avoid the trap of using dialogue as exposition (the proverbial villain’s monologue as he prepares to destroy the hero), but rather reveal essential information through action, or narration.

Explore your characters and develop their voices, and above all – keep writing!

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Archetypes: Aphrodite vs. Dionysus

Throughout literary history, archetypes have been used to help us relate to characters, their stories, the morals of the tale and the paths they choose and why.  Understanding the archetypes helps to figure out how to portray a particular character; it keeps you on the “same page” as you write, as you develop characters, and try to figure out what makes them tick and where that ticking will take you and them.  Today I’d like to take a closer look at Aphrodite and her male counterpart, Dionysus.  I’ll give examples of these characters from films and books, relatable to most whether you like to read or prefer the visual experience of film.

Kim Novak,  Vertigo

Kim Novak, Vertigo

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, pleasure, beauty and procreation.  Like a coin, there are two sides to the character:  The Lover (or seductive muse), and the Femme Fatale.  On the Lover’s side of the coin, there are characters such as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.  The positive side of this character motivates others to improve themselves.  The flip side of that coin are seen in Sharon Stone’s portrayal in Basic Instinct, Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo, or the Bible characters of Salome or Delilah.  On one side you have a character that is nurturing, attractive, seductive and at the core often good, while the Femme Fatale is seductive with often quite dark ulterior motives.  Sean Young’s character in Blade Runner is a good example of the Seductive Muse; she forces Harrison Ford’s character to examine his own sense of humanity by her mere existence.

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Dionysus is her male counterpart:  His two sides are the Woman’s Man, and the Seducer.  Either way, Dionysus needs women in his life.  He loves women; on the positive side, he loves to make women feel loved.  The flip side is abuse in one form or another, with darker motivations behind his love.  Fifty Shades of Grey is a touchy topic right now; on one hand it’s immensely popular, and on the other very harshly condemned as glorifying abuse, violence and manipulation in the guise of relationship or love.  I tend toward the latter view, as did the main actor in interviews during his junket (he often found himself apologizing to his co-star after their scenes, which speaks volumes about his instincts of what’s right and wrong, and Shades definitely crossed that line for him and for a growing number of critics).  Other examples are Mel Gibson’s character in What Women Want – his character makes the arc from the negative side to the positive; Cary Grant’s character in An Affair to Remember makes a similar arc.  Leo DeCaprio’s Jack in Titanic sits firmly on the positive side of the coin, and makes for a memorable and loved character.  Count Dracula is a typical Seducer, as is Jane Austen’s character of Mr Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility.

There are many other archetypes; if you’d like to know more on the topic, check out Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters.

Keep writing!

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