Novelists Who Navigated From Newspapers

What did some novelists do before they became novelists? I assume they ate and breathed, but some also worked as full-time or contributing newspaper writers.

Makes sense. If somebody had a propensity and aptitude for writing, newspapers were one of the logical places to start — at least in the days before those print publications struggled and became thought of as “old media.” Newspaper writers learned to write fast, rewrite fast, write clearly, do research, and be accurate — well, much of the time. ๐Ÿ™‚ They met people from all walks of life, and saw how those people thought and spoke. They visited different places. Heck, they even got used to low pay — also the lot of the many novelists who don’t hit it big. So, all in all, newspaper work could be good training for becoming a novelist.

Why did certain writers make the switch (even as some continued working for newspapers after penning novels)? Among the reasons: the chance to be more creative, use more of one’s imagination, experience longer-form writing, be more of one’s own boss, and perhaps find fame and fortune.

I’ll now proceed to offer a list (by no means complete) of newspaper writers who became novelists — mentioning them chronologically by their birth years.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) worked as a journalist during part of the 1830s — covering Parliament, election campaigns, and more in England.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) wrote for a Nevada newspaper and later The Sacramento (Calif.) Union in the 1860s. A funny anecdote relating to Twain’s Union stint is at the end of this blog post.

Bram Stoker (1847-1912), author of the influential 1897 novel Dracula, was a theater critic for Ireland’s Dublin Evening Mail in the 1870s.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote articles for London’s The Pall Mall Gazette in the 1890s before authoring his first novel, The Time Machine.

L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942), best known for Anne of Green Gables (1908), wrote early-1890s nonfiction content for The Daily Patriot in Charlottetown on Canada’s Prince Edward Island.

P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), creator of the Jeeves novels and stories, wrote a column called “By the Way” for The Globe of London from 1901 to 1909.

Rebecca West (1892-1983) was a journalist for feminist and leftist newspapers and also wrote for dailies such as the New York Herald Tribune, the New York American, and The Daily Telegraph of London.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) worked as a reporter for The Kansas City Star just after high school. (According to Wikipedia, he “relied on the Star‘s style guide as a foundation for his writing: ‘Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous Englishโ€ฆ'”)

Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) wrote news stories, feature articles, and some book reviews for The Atlanta Journal starting in 1922. She left the Georgia newspaper in 1926, a decade before Gone With the Wind was published.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) became a newspaper journalist starting in the late 1940s — first writing for El Universal, then El Heraldo, then El Espectador in Colombia. He wrote stories, columns, and film criticism — all well before his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1967.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was associate editor of the English-language weekly newspaper The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, in the early 1960s, and later did freelance writing for The Ghanaian Times. (Angelou didn’t become a novelist per se, but of course wrote memoirs with a literary bent, poetry, children’s books, etc.)

Charles Portis (1933-2020) — best known for his 1968 novel True Grit — was a reporter for newspapers in Tennessee, Arkansas (where he also wrote a column), and New York City (the Herald Tribune) before leaving journalism in 1964 and turning to fiction.

Anna Quindlen (1953-) was a reporter and then Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion columnist for The New York Times before concentrating on novel writing. (I took the photo of Ms. Quindlen that’s atop this blog post after she spoke at a Newspaper Features Council meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1991 — the year her first novel came out.)

Carl Hiaasen (1953-) is a syndicated Miami Herald columnist who still writes those columns as he churns out his many part-comedic thrillers set in Florida. He was a reporter before becoming a columnist.

Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) was a journalist in Sweden before and while penning his best-selling, posthumously published Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.).

Geraldine Brooks (1955-) was a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and then a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. The native of Australia is best known for her Pulitzer-winning 2005 novel March, about the harrowing Civil War experiences of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Connie Schultz (1957-) is a Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnist whose first novel, The Daughters of Erietown, was published earlier this year. She was a reporter before becoming a columnist.

Leonard Pitts Jr. (1957-) is also a Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnist who has authored four novels while continuing his Miami Herald-based column. He was previously a music critic.

Here’s the promised Twain-related anecdote, also mentioned in my 2012 memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional, that I heard at the 1993 National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Portland, Oregon. Herb Caen, the famed San Francisco Chronicle gossip columnist who had previously worked for The Sacramento Union, said the Union kept the desk ostensibly used by Twain. When someone expressed interest in buying it, the newspaper parted with it for $200. “We sold dozens,” Caen chuckled.

Any journalists-turned-novelists you’d like to discuss?

I spoke about my past career covering cartoonists (and columnists) in the latest podcast hosted by masterful Vancouver, Canada-based interviewer/conversationalist Rebecca Budd, who also writes several blogs and often comments here as Clanmother. Link below. You’ll hear my memories of, and thoughts about, these comic creators I knew: Charles M. Schulz (“Peanuts”), Gary Larson (“The Far Side”), Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”), Milt Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates”), Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”), Lynn Johnston (“For Better or For Worse”), and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”). Some of those memories and thoughts are also in my aforementioned Comic (and Column) Confessional book.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning โ€œMontclairvoyantโ€ topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about two local champion soccer teams, my town’s ambitious mayor, and Thanksgiving — is here.

112 thoughts on “Novelists Who Navigated From Newspapers

  1. A thought-provoking post. I have trouble with journalists-turned-writers. I don’t usually like their style of writing, which is crisp and to the point, but also usually too abrupt for me. There is something about the “effectiveness” of a journalistic style which I even consider to be detrimental to the final product which I would consider literature. But I also realise the profession has many benefits for the future writer. At times I even think that those writers who were never journalists but who are inspired or influenced by journalists-turned-writers produce books which are even more journalistic in style than their idols’ work.

    I didn’t know that Dickens or Mitchell wrote for newspapers, but looking at their biographies they worked on so many other written material, including lengthy reports for Dickens and articles for Mitchell, that I don’t think they really picked up any “newspaper style of writing”. I personally perceive none of that in their books, in any case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Diana!

      I hear you — some journalists-turned-novelists wrote/write novels using journalistic language, which isn’t always literary. Others can make the transition and create rich prose. Looking at the authors mentioned in my post, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maya Angelou were certainly among the ones who made that transition.

      And great point that some authors who were journalists never got locked into a journalistic style of writing.

      Like

    • Thank you, constantcommoner! Great addition! I didn’t know that Eudora Welty had started out as a journalist — certainly making her a minority as a woman doing that in the 1930s. I haven’t read a lot of her fiction, but what I have I’ve thought excellent!

      Like

    • I first stumbled upon Welty’s photographs in 1971– a small selection of her WPA work was published then in hardback, and I think, for the first time. Mostly, that little book, and a larger softback that came out in the 90’s, reproduced photos of Black Mississippians. I bought both books because they helped me see the people and places as they were in the Blues Era. There were at the time, and so far as I know today, few such photos, and hers are wonderful. She has a good eye, and a palpable compassion that frames shot after shot.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, jhNY! Sounds Eudora Welty was an excellent photographer, and I’m glad she took pictures of all kinds of people. A real treasure to have that record of Black Mississippians in the 1930s.

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  2. Here are some entrants who have gone unmentioned (unless I missed them while reading through this week’s comments here– in which case: apologies):

    Ring Lardner, who came into print as a sports columnist for the “South Bend Times”.

    Jack London, who wrote from the front during the Russo-Japanese War for the “San Francisco Examiner”.

    Stephen Crane, who wrote for the “New York Tribune”, and managed, while reporting on various doings in Asbury Park, to embroil himself in controversy after writing up a picnic held by the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, for which he claimed later to have been fired. (I have provided these details as a means of interesting our host, who as all readers should know, maintains an interest in local affairs.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Three great mentions! Interesting that none of the three lived long lives (Lardner, 48; London, 40; Crane, 28). Perhaps not a factor in their relatively early deaths, but there’s of course a burnout aspect to some kinds of journalism.

      I enjoyed reading that paragraph about Crane! My first daily newspaper job after college was not far from Asbury Park, NJ. And, yes, the weekly humor column I write is very local to Montclair, NJ.

      I’ve read eight London novels, and four of them were riveting: “The Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” “The Sea-Wolf,” and “Martin Eden.”

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      • I think it’s fair to attribute those early deaths, in the order you list them to: 1. drink, 2. drink, 3. TB.

        Strangely, both Crane and and TB victim Robert Louis Stevenson were treasured friends of Henry James– and stranger still, there’s at least one photograph of Crane in which he resembles Stevenson more than a little. Were I not such an interwebs troglodyte, I would attach photos here to compare, but, I am, so I can’t.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Great point, jhNY! Of course, drinking and journalism often went together in those days, but a very fair allusion that the drinking may have been more to blame than the journalism for ill health.

          Fascinating about those friendships. Henry James was certainly quite a different writer than Crane and Stevenson, though there was some overlap here and there. (For instance, Stevenson’s last, unfinished novel “Weir of Hermiston” has a more James-ian feel than any of RL’s other work.)

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  3. Martin Walker, ex The Guardian, ex Moscow correspondent and Bruno, Chief of Police, who really doesn’t enjoy the arresting and charging part of the job. And loves food. Recipes in almost every chapter.
    Crime writers as foodies ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther, for the great mention of Martin Walker! After just googling him, I can see he was a journalist for MANY years. Having been a journalist can definitely be helpful when creating and writing a detective series. And the food aspect is a very nice touch. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. Just thought of another one.

    Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons) was a journalist on the Manchester Guardian who continued to write for the press occasionally after he became an author. According to Wikipedia he gave up the day job in preference to being sent abroad as foreign correspondent ๐Ÿ˜ฌ

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Although she wrote nonfiction books instead of novels, I might mention Lyn MacDonald, one of my favorite WWI historians. I think she did some news work with the BBC before she began hunting down remaining WWI veterans, recording their stories, and turning them into books. I’ve read a lot of her works and none of them disappoint! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Working for the BBC is not a bad way to spend part of one’s career. Sounds like she turned into a great historian who found a terrific niche. So glad she got the stories of a number of World War I veterans while they were still around.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When we went to Dublin about 8 some years ago, loved it, with friendly folks , even taxi driver gave us a histry lesson.
    Ther,e Bram Stoker (1847-1912), (author of the influential 1897 novel Dracula ) was a big deal in Ireland , also in Trunity College.

    ” Stoker was Irving’s (Sir Henry Irving) business manager at the Lyceum Theatre in London for 28 years, even after publishing his classic novel. He was devoted to Irving, regularly choosing the job over his wife and son . Irving was an egotist, a striking, mesmerizing figure, and a demanding employer.
    Stoker began writing “Dracula” in 1890 while working for Irving.
    With a force as dynamic as Irving in his life, it’s only natural that he would draw upon his own experiences.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I had a rough time finding a journalist of a famous author, but I finally found one. It is Chuck Palahniuk, most famous for Fight Club both in book and movie. He grew tired of being a journalist and then became a diesel mechanic as well as writing technical manuals, which became fodder for his early work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Don! That’s a really good example! “Fight Club” has definitely become iconic.

      Chuck Palahniuk’s work history reminds me a bit of Frank Bill, who went from being a factory worker to write the novel “Donnybrook.”

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  8. I absolutely love your thought, dear Dave, about why many of these very important journalists became or become novelists and I very much think, like you, that more freedom and creativity was one of the reasons and we can be greatful about this, because otherwise we would maybe never have heard of them! It is also true that they were well informed, saw a lot of the world and had consequently a lot to say.
    I checked out about a Swiss writer Lukas Bรคrfuss, who wrote f.e. “A hundred Days” (about the war in Ruanda and Burundi) and it seems that he, for example, had broken up school, worked in different jobs and lived for several years on the road. This may show that personal experiences can also help to take a new direction in life.
    Many thanks for your challenging list and all the best.:) Martina

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Martina! Happy you liked the post!

      You eloquently made several excellent points — about the gratitude readers feel about certain journalists taking the novel-writing plunge, and about how journalists can have much to say in fiction after experiencing a lot of their country or a good deal of the world. Lukas Bรคrfuss (who I have not read) sounds like a great example of this.

      That kind of experience, often gathered when a writer is relatively young, can serve as creative inspiration for a lifetime. One example I can think of is Herman Melville taking various adventurous sea voyages as a young man that led to many sea-set novels and stories in the decades that followed.

      All the best to you as well!

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  9. Great post Dave, bookmarked it to come back to. Very interesting read indeed. So many great writers there who worked in newspapers. Now I am but surprised you missed one author here….as you can see…. , “George Orwell wrote for The Observer for seven years. He and its proprietor-editor, David Astor, were friends”…..

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  10. An amazing topic; especially when we consider that E. Hemmingway had created a new style in the novelism with his works. I’d just add my father and brother into your extensive list but they both had not such a chance to become enough known as it needed! Someone must be born in the right place at the right time somehow, sometimes. ๐Ÿ˜‰ LOL! Have a nice week ahead and thank you. ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ™

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, lampmagician! It IS interesting to think about how Hemingway’s brief newspaper stint might have impacted his terse, minimalist writing style.

      Sorry your father and brother (both journalists?) haven’t become better known as writers. Luck, or lack of, can be a factor. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      Have a good week, too!

      Liked by 3 people

      • They both were first journalists and then writers. and as I know them both well, I can’t see any “Lack of” in their works, then it must be just lack of Luck, which of course is unknown in the western countries, or the first world.. Man must be born in the third world and see how hard it is to get through! Thank you.

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  11. Is there anything that Dickens fella canโ€™t turn his hand to?! He crops up everywhere doesnโ€™t he!
    The assumption (for me) has been that every trained journalist must have the capacity to be a good novelist, but not always the case I suppose. Interesting the comments here about Larsson.
    I enjoyed looking through this list. I hadnโ€™t realised how many had started their literary careers in this way.
    An author Iโ€™m quite fond of is Canadian writer Robertson Davis who was editor for a paper in his formative years.
    Evelyn Waugh, of course, who wrote the wonderful satire โ€˜Scoopโ€™ based on his experiences in the 1930s.
    Ian Fleming also started his career as a journalist around this time along with a friend of his and writer called Sefton Delmer.
    Iโ€™m not sure Delmer strictly qualifies for this list as such as his writing is mostly memoir and about propaganda based on his war time experiences. However I do think he has a rather lovely accessible style to his writing.
    Thanks again Dave for another interesting post thatโ€™ll get me hitting wiki all day as authors spring to mind.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      So true about Dickens! His life and work fit MANY blog post themes.

      Also true that every trained journalist has the potential to be a novelist — whether a great, adequate, or not-so-good one. Of course, a journalist’s inclination, the amount of free time (if any) she or he has, how the journalist wants to spend that time, etc., also have something to do with that.

      Glad you mentioned Robertson Davies! I’ve read one of his novels — “Murther and Walking Spirits” — and found it very offbeat and interesting. And I appreciate the other mentions of authors with journalism in their backgrounds!

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Interesting topic, Dave! The mystery writer Tony Hillerman worked as a journalist and a professor of journalism before turning to fiction. I think I recall him saying that it was good training, for some of the same reasons you mention–the ability to produce copy quickly being one of them!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sheila! Great addition! Tony Hillerman worked as a journalist for quite a few years — and many of them do churn out a LOT of copy, quickly.

      I read Hillerman’s “The Blessing Way” and “People of Darkness” novels not that long ago. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  13. How interesting and fascinating Dave !
    Lived in Overland Park, KS for almost 30 years, never know Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) worked as a reporter for The Kansas City Star .
    Those days we used to get morning and evening papers, together with the funnies. Sunday a separate page of comics.
    Then after years , it was only the morning papers , that was shocking !

    Mark Twain (1835-1910) wrote for a Nevada newspaper and later The Sacramento (Calif.) ? So when He was in Cincinnati I wonder.
    Mark Twain vs. The Enquirer: ‘I think the Cincinnati Enquirer must be edited by children’

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    • CINCINNATI
      “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times.”
      – This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until the attribution can be verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, bebe! Hemingway was apparently at the Star for only a few months, but it seemed to have left an impression on his subsequent writing.

        I had no idea what Twain’s Ohio connection was or why he disliked Cincinnati. I just did some googling, and there may have been some dispute over an Enquirer review of Twain’s travel book “The Innocents Abroad.” Not sure; it was all rather confusing. ๐Ÿ™‚ But it IS clear that Twain could always be quite scathing.

        Newspapers have indeed unfortunately folded or shrunk in great numbers in recent years. Many are a shell of their former selves, with much smaller staffs. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

        Liked by 1 person

        • Paul Rudd the well known actor was a native of Kansas City, I think his family still lives there. graduated from Shawnee Mission West High School .
          Years later I worked in the Dental School. One day Paul was already famous and had an appointment. The whole school went crazy. ย ๐Ÿ™‚

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Such an interesting topic, Dave and commenters! I thoroughly enjoyed the bestselling novel, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” which was written by the Canadian-American award-winning journalist, Richard C. Morais. If you have watched and liked the movie based on this novel, featuring Helen Mirren, the book is even better and richer.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Nora Ephron. Was a journalist, started out as copy editor if I remember, became a well known essayist, screenwriter, film director to name only part of the accomplishments in her exemplary life .
    She was personification of wit ,she wrote heart felt stories and led a fearless life. May she rest in peace.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Dave – what a brilliant post. Again, you have set my mind to working and thinking, and reflecting. I love these Sunday morning dialogues. We often think that writing is about articles, term papers, short stories and books, nonfiction or fiction. Writing is much more than what is contained in a bookcase or library or is captured in the prevue of โ€œwriters.โ€ With every letter, e-Mail and even a grocery list, we are writers that have been given the gift of literacy. And as writers, we are responsible not only to our personal values, but to the narrative of history. I have reviewed your list of newspapers writers several times over this morning and am filled with gratitude that these men and women made the switch to novels. The world would be lesser without โ€œA Christmas Carolโ€ and โ€œHuckleberry Finnโ€ and Anne with an โ€œEโ€. These novelists shed light on dark places and continue to challenge us with their calls to action. May we, in our writing, use words that lift the spirit and share ideas that bring positive outcomes to our homes, and community both local and global. Thank you again for joining me of Tea Toast and Trivia. It is a joy to connect. Looking forward to Dear Ann and Dear Abby….

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for the kind words about the post, Clanmother!

      Those are VERY wise/eloquent thoughts of yours about writing — its impact, its inspirational qualities, its invitation to human interaction, and more. Words on paper (or in pixels) are almost living, breathing things, because they were created by living, breathing people. Often (not always, of course) people who are smart, observant, compassionate, etc.

      So true that the world would be a less-positive place without novels such as “A Christmas Carol,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and a certain L.M. Montgomery book in which the title character does NOT want her first name spelled “Ann.” ๐Ÿ™‚

      I’m also looking forward to our discussion about Abby and Ann (without an “e” ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely, Brian! Thank you! Can’t believe I forgot to mention Pete Hamill; heck, I even met him a couple of times. I’ve only read one of his novels — “Forever” — but it was very good.

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  17. This is really interesting, thank you! Not something Iโ€™d thought about.

    A really important part of the journalistic background, it seems to me, is the ability to write swiftly and purposefully on a wide range of subjects. So no fear of the blank page. The immense output of Dickens probably the best example. But also the journalistic approach may bring humility (in a way) to oneโ€™s subject: the ability really to see and care about the world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Dog-eared blogger! Glad you liked the post! I agree that Dickens was incredibly prolific (which might have contributed to his dying at the relatively young age of 58).

      A GREAT point that many journalists write on a wide range of subjects, which can only help when turning to novel writing. And they probably indeed have less writer’s block.

      I also agree that a journalistic approach can bring some humility, though of course some journalists are on the abrasive side. ๐Ÿ™‚ (As a former newspaper and magazine reporter, I saw some of that firsthand. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ )

      Liked by 2 people

  18. I’ve always envied columnists who could also write fiction. I’ve never been able to delve into it. I believe Erik Larson used to be a journalist but he’s referred to as a narrative non-fiction writer. Not sure if he’s written anything that’s total fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan! I hear you — newspaper writing and novel writing definitely require different skill sets (albeit with some things in common) that not all writers possess. And I appreciate the mention of Erik Larson, who I unfortunately have never read.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Brian, for those two examples!

      And you’re right that there’s still somewhat of a newspaperperson-to-novelist pipeline — albeit probably less than there used to be given how much the newspaper industry has shrunk. Meanwhile, there has undoubtedly been a big increase in novelists who started out writing online — on social media, in blogs they launched, etc. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

  19. Interesting, Dave! I knew some of these were journalists before they became novelists, but not all of them. Stieg Larsson wrote fiction like a journalist, his style was boring, although his stories not so much. The only journalist/novelist I can think of off the top of my noggin is Camus. His style also seemed a bit dry to me; I originally wrote it off to existentialist ennui. A few of his short stories are more poetic than others, although not by much ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! Interesting — you’re right that Stieg Larsson wasn’t a strong prose stylist, but the plotting and vivid characters in his three Millennium novels were riveting.

      I hadn’t realized Camus did some journalism! Wikipedia says he worked for the leftist newspaper “Alger Rรฉpublicain,” among others. I’ve read “The Stranger” and “The Plague,” and agree his writing style was on the dry side, even as I found both novels (especially “The Plague”) very compelling.

      Liked by 3 people

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