Crossing Genres: Finding my Thread

Recently I attended a writer’s conference and one session addressed crossing genres and how to market yourself. What I took most from this informative talk was that we as authors can find a common thread when we cross genres…or stay in the same genre.

Then a friend asked questions about my writing and it got me thinking.

What is my common thread?

A thread is hard to define. It’s your “brand”: what readers expect when they pick up one of your books. It’s not just your voice or your style, but it’s what makes your books uniquely yours. Your footprint. Elements, revolving themes, character types, etc. And once you have a handle on it, you can grip that brand/footprint/thread and take it through each book. My threads came about organically, subconsciously. Does this mean we are boxed in by predictability? No! It’s just our signature…our footprint. Each story is unique.

My writing is spiritual, emotional, as well as a form of therapy and healing, all tied up nicely with bow blooming with hopes and dreams. I take difficult aspects of my life (grief, loss/death, experiences) and weave them into my books. I love hope.

I write romance (historical and contemporary) and women's' fiction. Toss in travel magazine articles.

With my wheels turning, I dug for my threads. What did I find?

Love (parental, partner, or sibling),

spirituality, hope, journeys & nature.

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My Threads

Love

Spirituality

Nature

Hope

Journeys

(Life experiences)

Note: A few spoilers below but I won’t give away plot twists!

Love, Spirituality, Loss of a mother, Hope, Journey:

In A Hundred Kisses I delve into different religions (medieval Christianity and a "pagan" one of the isles). The heroine's mother is deceased and Deirdre misses that maternal connection with her kin. She wants a mother and to find her roots, get answers, figure out why she has this special ability. My mother passed away when I was 25 and I never had that adult-maternal connection a daughter yearns for. Furthermore, in the book, the hero and heroine learn that even though they have different beliefs, they are still on the human experience and can appreciate the other's journey.

Spirituality/Religion, Love, Hope/Healing, Nature:

The prequel (release date TBD, early 2019), A Hundred Breaths, tells the story of the mother of the heroine in A Hundred Kisses. I took a big leap into her family's religion, one that relies on nature and the gifts they’re bestowed by their deities. Her family uses the power they get from the earth and natural elements for good. The hero is a firm Christian, so enter a collision of beliefs…but they also begin to see how their beliefs and spirituality can overlap. Throw in some ruthless, exploiting Vikings/Nordmen and their gods (and a villain with a complicated, wounded past—oh how I enjoyed writing him!), and there is a boatload of spiritual exploration in this book. It's also a story of healing for the hero, as he has guilt over something that happened to his mother. The heroine also seeks protection for her brother. This is a big story of redemption, healing, and acceptance (of others).

Spirituality, Love, Hope/Healing, Nature, Journey:

My contemporary women's fiction (also early 2019 publication date) is a journey of a grieving widow raising an autistic son, on a road trip across the country to find her other missing son, in the wake of a natural disaster. She also struggles with anxiety. I took care to include the point of view of the autistic son. She meets a man along the way struggling with his own inner demons. I don't want to give away the twists, but her journey brings her to a point of learning to forgive, heal, and accept/embrace. It's an emotional book. It delves into philosophical questions about why things happen, too. Why autism? Why the natural disasters? Why pain or suffering? Why do we make the decisions we do? Why death/fate? It’s laced with spirituality, love, and hope.

Spirituality, Love, Hope/Healing, Loss of sibling, Nature:

The final book in my examples (I’ve been a busy writer this year!) is set to publish early next year. It’s a contemporary romance novella. The woman, divorced from an abusing ex, has extreme guilt over her sister's death while hiking (my sister died in an accident different than the type of accident in this book). The heroine meets a man who feels like an outsider in his world and misses home. For her, it's a story of healing and moving past her past (guilt and trust), and for him, it’s journey of self-acceptance. There are also overlaps of spirituality and the hero opens the heroine’s mind to exploring answers to life’s big questions.

I really love the emotional (and physical) journey and the spiritual elements in all my work. We all have emotional wounds and are on our own journeys of healing, growth/hope, and spirituality. So those are my threads.

Even if you write consistently in ONE sub-genre, you have a few threads in your writing, too. We all have unique footprints.

I’d love to hear from you. What are your threads?

Finding Your Muse

Authors are creatives, artists, daydreamers, ponderers, wanderers, observers. We muse over our ideas and stories. And we have muses that inspire us. But where do those inspirations come from? Every writer is different, and I find I have no shortage of ideas (knock on wood; perhaps that time will come? Better get 'em down now!). Rather, I tend to have a shortage of time to get them all written down. Regardless, what are my primary muses?

  1. Travel - Be it a local trail or new country, mountain or meadow or lake, the beauty of the world inspires me most!

  2. Personal Life - The old adage is write what you know. Be it subconsciously or purposely, my life experiences inspire my stories. (I lost my mother to cancer 15 years ago when I was 25, so the lost/ill/deceased mother element seeps into a lot of my characters in one way or another because I know how it can affect a person). 

  3. Personal Triumphs or Tribulations - That struggle I had when I was 25 and in graduate school might come in handy sometime. Same goes for that successful endeavor I took on, or a feat accomplished, or heartache experienced. Using some of our ups and downs can lead to inspiration...or character backbones.

  4. Areas of interest - by this I mean passions, hobbies, interests. I LOVE flowers. And coffee. And gardening, hiking, baking, science and nature. And my sons and husband. Well guess what? Hmm, my characters may have similar interests. But not only that, perhaps a hike up a mountain or a visit to the local post office while mailing a care package to a loved one might just stir up a story idea (ahem, both have; stories in work).

So many things can serve as muses:

Current events, music, art, history, biographies, friends, famous people, everyday people, travel, scenery, personal life experiences, heartaches, triumphs, passions, hobbies, objects, family...

Struggling with finding a fresh idea? Where can we go? Well... 

Many gather inspiration in public places: at the gym, on the street, in airport/bus terminals, on the subway, at the mall or grocery store or library or coffee shop (or [insert any building that houses people or things], in the country or city, with family or without family, mountains, meadows, beach, or desert...the list goes on and on. Don't forget your own backyard, too.

It comes down to the fact that not one tangible thing inspires writers...

The world around us and the people within it are our muses.

I asked the Twitter world (most of my followers are in the writing/outdoors biz in one way or another) and this is what they had to say. As more people responded, and at the time of posting this blog article, the answers are spread, but Everyday life experiences is just inching out Travel/places:

Getting specific, what inspired some of my stories?

For A Hundred Kisses, Scotland and the love of happy ever afters were my inspiration. I have always loved Scotland even before I visited. My first visit was in Diana Gabaldon's books. I was "in Scotland" for over 15 years...that is, I was perfecting my Scotland-based stories (and after three "practice" novels, the fourth, A Hundred Kisses, was the one to land a publisher). I also have a thing for historical romances, especially medieval ones, so that served as guiding muse. And to my surprise, I threw in some supernatural elements. So, to wrap up, my muses for this one: Scotland, love of romance, other books, history.

For its prequel (in the editing process), history, specifically the Vikings, was my muse. Of course Scotland, too. I also embed, without trying, some of my own personal hurdles into books, as I mentioned above. Death, loss, upbringing, personal hardships: they all sneak into my work, including this one.

For the sequel, similar muses arose. I'm currently writing that one now.

For another project, a women's fiction, I jumped out of my historical romance comfort zone and wrote what I knew: parenting, autism, loss, death, science.

In a different vein, my magazine article-writing was spearheaded by the idea that I wanted to write not only about traveling, but traveling with kids, and with my autistic son who adores nature almost as much as his mom and dad (maybe more?). Since that article, I've been fortunate to write several more, and I keep filling my portfolio, as I enjoy writing about the outdoors and my kids. Look out for one soon on our most recent family adventure!

Not to give away all my future/in work projects, but other muses for my current projects include: more travels to some amazing locales (New Zealand, the mountains of New England, Guatemala, Yellowstone National Park, to name a few) personal life experiences, parenting ups and downs and special moments, my son's fascinations with volcanoes and weather, a sweet (true?) story my aunt told me about my grandmother, and more amazing locales (see the trend here?), just to name a few.

So there you have it. What's your muse? I'd love to hear from you!

Best, always, and keep writing wherever your muse takes you,

Jean

Looking Beyond the Red

When you are in the throes of querying or submission, rejection can play mind games with you, so I figured why not write a post about rejection this month?

Let’s talk about rejection.

It comes at many levels. 

  • Querying/Submitting manuscripts (short stories, novels/novellas, chapter/picture books, etc.), at agent or editor level,

  • Entering contests (many Twitter-related),

  • Applying for grants/fellowships/writing opportunities,

  • Providing your manuscript to a beta reader or critique partner and they annihilate it,

  • Submitting to jobs related to writing.

  • And many more!

Per Merriam-Webster (one of my favorite websites), the definition of REJECTION is: 

a.    an immune response in which foreign tissue (as of a skin graft or transplanted organ) is attacked by immune system components of the recipient organism

Okay, okay. As a trained immunologist, I was compelled to keep that definition above. But the one I sought is below.

b.   The action of rejecting : the state of being rejected, or something rejected

Digging deeper: reject = to refuse to accept, consider, submit to, take for some purpose, or use. Unwillingness to accept something asked for. And Merriam-Webster even lists the example: “To reject a manuscript.” Ah, there we are.

I do love a good thesaurus, be it a writer's help guide or the regular old kind. Let's check out some synonyms for "rejection." Ouch. How about we toss those words down into that bubbly hot spring, shall we? Even if that beauty is called Morning Glory Pool (Yellowstone National Park) and is an exquisite sight.

Let's toss those synonyms into the depths of Morning Glory hot spring!   Photo by Jean M. Grant

Let's toss those synonyms into the depths of Morning Glory hot spring!

Photo by Jean M. Grant

Moving on to antonyms. Those are a bit more uplifting so instead of letting them sizzle inside a geothermal hot bath, we’ll let them rise on the warm muddy surface of Grand Prismatic Spring (Yellowstone National Park).

Bring on those happier words! And the muddy surface of Grand Prismatic Springs, Yellowstone National Park.   Photo by Jean M. Grant

Bring on those happier words! And the muddy surface of Grand Prismatic Springs, Yellowstone National Park.

Photo by Jean M. Grant

There are some enlightening words in that antonym box. Validation. Acceptance. Approval. Isn't that what we seek as authors? Don't we wish for that magic seal of approval stamped on our shining manuscript after we send it off to an agent or editor/press? Yes, we love our work. Our best friends love our work. Yes, we do write for ourselves. But, we do also write to get published, and we write the reader's enjoyment, too.

Like those hot springs, the surface to publication success is delicate. One wrong step, and down into the hot bubbly abyss you go. But if you can hover on the top, the heat is turned up...and you're okay.

How do we pull ourselves out of the heat and rise up for a warm bath instead? How do we keep our cool?

The road to publication is paved with rejection. Some authors  print all their rejections and line their entire floor’s square footage with it. Stephen King used to tack his rejections to the wall. What do I do? I made a spreadsheet! I even color-coded it:

Yellow: pending response (due to volume of submissions, many agents provide a timeline [sometimes] and say a “no response equals a no”). So when I first query, that entry gets highlighted yellow.

Green: positive response! The agent or editor asked for a partial or full. (insert dances and nervous checking of gmail five times a day!)

Red: where most of the queries end up. Rejection.

A bit blurry, but you get the point. Agent names have been deleted. But here is one of my many spreadsheets I created for each project and the querying status. Agent name, their specifications, turn around/info, date of submission, and response (if any). 

A bit blurry, but you get the point. Agent names have been deleted. But here is one of my many spreadsheets I created for each project and the querying status. Agent name, their specifications, turn around/info, date of submission, and response (if any). 

 

40 rejections. 1 yes. It only took one.

With A Hundred Kisses, I began writing in 2012-2013. After 6 months of writing, 6 months of initial beta feedback and revision, I began the querying process. During this time, I added a lot of red to that spreadsheet. In addition to thickening my skin , I also revised, again and again. I met with agents at conferences. I focused on the feedback that came with some of those rejections. I re-sent to betas. Finally, it was more ready. But instead of sending to agents, I took a leap and submitted to two small romance presses. One said yes. And there is my happy-ever-after, folks! Granted, it was not the traditional agent-editor/publisher path, but I am very happy with it. From start (writing, 2012) to finish (contract, 2016), the process for that book took 4 years. Disclaimer: A Hundred Kisses was my fourth book written. The other 3 hang out in a closet somewhere and are learning experiences in writing and querying.

The red sometimes gets to be too much when you see rows of it glaring at you on the screen. So with my current work I'm querying, I changed it to a pretty lavender instead. That's a bit more soothing. My current work is women's fiction and I'm going the red route again - agent to editor. Given my happy experience with The Wild Rose Press, I'm also about ready to send my editor the prequel to A Hundred Kisses after a bit more revision and beta-reading. And if all goes well (and she says yes!), then I plan to work on a third book to turn those romance books into a trilogy.

So what do I do when rejection gets me down?

  1. Realize rejection is part of the journey

  2. Maybe take a day or two to be sad, eat more ice cream or binge watch The Price is Right or The Walking Dead (those characters can definitely make you feel better about your situation)

  3. If given feedback, glean from it. What did the agent/editor say about my story that is in my control to change? 

  4. Revise more

  5. Query more

  6. Take a break

  7. Write something else

  8. Keep at it

  9. Rinse and repeat the above steps

I'd love to hear from you. How do you organize and deal with rejection? 

Looking past the red,

Jean

Going Berserk: Research!

This week I delved into the definition of berserk. Sure, I knew that it meant going a little crazy. I guess I never knew that it originated from the Vikings until I happened upon it in a book and online. A few clicks and turns of the page, and I read some fascinating articles by experts in the psychology field.

What does Merriam-Webster define it as?

Berserk(er): an ancient Scandinavian warrior frenzied in battle and held to be invulnerable

Old Norse berserkr, probably from ber-bear + serkr shirt

First known use was 1800. [ahem: I can’t refer to this elite frenzied warrior sect of the Vikings by that name in my circa 1300’s manuscript unless I can verify its use that early]

My research avenues: travel, museums & historic sites, libraries, my bookshelf (and cyberspace), and in-person interviews.

My research avenues: travel, museums & historic sites, libraries, my bookshelf (and cyberspace), and in-person interviews.

While I was on the berserker bandwagon, I also enjoyed (yet again) researching a variety of Scottish and Norse swear words. These are the things research for novels are made of. :) It can be entertaining…and time-consuming. Certainly I do my fair share of research for historicals, but contemporary novels also require a bit of digging for accuracy and authenticity. Writers submerge themselves in their worlds, and research is one powerful way to achieve such immersion. Sometimes I do the research up front, but usually, I find myself veering off the word-count train to look up a medieval remedy for fevers, to figure out if cork or stained glass was available in 1263, to find that perfect curse word, to read about the legends of the Kintail mountains, or to unveil the Norse wolf god Fenrir's story… and, and, and…. :) The list is long. Everything from minor to major…requires some level of research. And I am a bit of a research junkie.

What are my go-to methods for research?

  • Travel! Explore the location if possible. Be it a small seaside Maine town or the grand castles of the Scottish Highlands, nothing replaces being there, breathing the salty air along a bustling fishing dock, listening to the rustle of trees in an ancient wood, touching the crumbling stones of a grand keep, or observing the patterns of guards flowing in an out of an army base.

 

  • Museums: When you can’t get to the location, museums are a great place to find information, see relevant period pieces (furniture, tools, art representing time periods/clothes/culture, weapons, etc.).  Also, museum curators and employees usually LOVE to talk about the displays or may share anecdotes not typically found on the information plaques. A recent museum visit to look at dinosaur fossils and geologic specimens was such a delight (granted, I’m not writing any prehistorical novels) as the curator (I think a geology college student) regaled us with lots of information not found on the displays about the collections. This past spring I visited Mystic, CT where the Draken Harald Hårfagre, a reconstructed authentic Viking ship, was being housed. I walked on it, touched it, and asked questions (like why in heavens are there rocks in the hold below the wooden deck? - Answer: they needed to toss anything in there to give it the weight/balance it needed. Insert my college physics that I aced but still don't understand). It was an amazing experience. Lots of oh's and ah's.

 

  • Merriam-Webster or other etymology websites: Words have different meaning and usages among time periods and cultures. This website also allows me to know when a word first came about, so if it’s too modern, the phrase/word must go if I am writing a historical novel. Researching slang words and idioms is also quite enlightening! 

 

  • Websites: Wikipedia is an okay start but I always expand to other websites since Wikipedia is not always accurate or validated. I recommend starting there and then branching off to other reliable website sources. Double check. Find a fact and you’re unsure about? Hop around on the ‘net and verify it. Find academic articles or primary sources. We all have our favorite websites. I will not lie when I say that Mapquest or Google Earth are close seconds to Merriam-Webster. Again, they are stepping stones to lead me to other more time/area-specific mapping resources.

 

  • Libraries: Ah, books. Nothing can beat a book. I have so many favorites, and even though I’ve been knee deep in medieval Scotland for years and consider myself adequately knowledgeable, I still fall back on books. There is always room in my library for another book on lore, customs, clans, names, or life in a medieval castle. This time around as I write the prequel to A Hundred Kisses, I added in Viking and old Norse books and they are absolutely fascinating! Librarians are a great asset, too. Like the museum curators, they are filled with hidden knowledge.

 

  • In person/interviews or experts: Know somebody from the region you're researching or who has expertise in a specific area? They’d probably be more than happy to answer your questions.  Network. Connect. Put fishing poles out on social media. I bet you have a lot of friends and family who are experts in something you need help on. My graduate school thesis adviser and my editor are both from Scotland, so I asked them a few questions about words/phrases. I have a friend who knows all about horses, so she is my horse expert go-to. My father-in-law is an avid sailor who crossed the Atlantic Ocean solo in a sailboat (at the age of 70...yes, that's a story in its own!). I have friends in recovery who know about addiction (applicable to a character I’ve written). I’m a parent of a special needs child. I have relatives who are/were in the military. I connected with authors who live in an area of the country I’ve never traveled to but need to know about for a novel. The list goes on and on. People are a great resource!

I think that covers it. So what do you say…is it time to roll up your sleeves and go a little berserk on some research?

Sláinte,

Jean

Digging up Diamonds in the Rough: From Outline to Novel

 

(We like geology a lot in this household so bear with my metaphor)

This is a longer blog post but it’s loaded with links and resources for the writer.

Whether you’re a plotter with detailed spreadsheets, GMC charts, character questionnaires, extensive computer documents and files, and a tower of resourceful books…or you’re a pantser, with a cup of java and some scribbled Post-it notes at your side, at some point as an author you need to make sure 2+2+2 = 6 (and no you don’t need to use “new math” with tape diagrams or arrays to do this—ha, can you tell I am a mom dealing with the fun of “new math”?).

All this means is your story needs to be cohesive and hit all the benchmarks.

One look at my desk and you may think I am a free-spirited pantser, but I am a plotter down to my DNA. I envy pantsers a bit. It’s not to say I don’t do my fair share of hopping around in my writing as whims strike me, or I have to make stuff up as I go along. However, since I’m a resource gal, this post will be chock full of my favorite resources for outlining and pre-writing (or if you are a pantser, things to check along the way or during revision).

My favorites sitting on my desk right now.

My favorites sitting on my desk right now.

No matter which method you employ for your creations, there will always come a point in the writing process where you need to make sure all your ducks are lined up in a row. The story needs to make sense and have all the key components:

  • A cohesive plot and story

  • Goals, motivation, and conflict (both internal and external)

  • Stakes and urgency

  • Positive & negative character traits

  • A world the reader wants to get lost in

  • Emotional wounds that drive the character to overcome a lie they tell themselves (aka backstory)

  • Sympathetic characters that we want to keep reading about

  • The character arc

  • Genre-specific needs (e.g. if a Romance, two clear protagonists on their external/internal journeys with all of the above AND a HEA or a HFN, and usually a villain)

MAKE YOUR OWN GMC CHARTS, CHARACTER SHEETS – MY SAMPLE PDF

MAKE YOUR OWN GMC CHARTS, CHARACTER SHEETS – MY SAMPLE DOCX. WORD FILE

Beat sheets – what are they?

I'm new to beat sheets but I found Jami Gold’s website a gem in the rough and a great launching pad. I was already decently-versed on the key points to crafting a story but her beat sheets make outlining (and double-checking as you go along with word counts and pivotal beats) a breeze. I found her romance-specific sheet also helpful. Beat sheets are a writer’s accountability partner. It’s a bullet list or chart that shows the sequence of your story, including the key points of: hook, inciting incident, Acts 1-3 (if you follow that style), pinch points, mid-points, climax, and resolution. Even organically-driven writers need structure to determine the next point in the story. There are many posts about beat sheets aside from this one listed; just Google “beat sheets” and you’ll find a treasure trove! For my latest WIP, I ended up using her beat sheets as a guide and wrote my outline in Word, chapter-by-chapter with key bullet points. Then, I went through that and double-checked it with her sheets to make sure I hit all the beats. Rock on.

Goals, Motivation, and Conflict

I recently wrote a blog post with my abbreviated version explaining GMC. When I read Debra Dixon’s book a few years ago, I fell in love. [btw, the book is out of print and more expensive on Amazon, so I suggest purchasing directly through Gryphon Books. It’s a DIAMOND!] She uses movie and romance examples to clearly lay out what GMC is and how to achieve it. Every single story has GMC. All characters, even secondary and the villain, have goals, reasons to achieve those goals (motivation), and reasons why they can’t (conflict)…and these are both external AND internal (character-driven). I suggest a browse of the web again or purchase her book to acquaint yourself with these building blocks to a successful story.

Who Are These Characters Anyway?

My latest ah-ha moment was falling upon Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s book, The Emotion Thesaurus last year. It helped me polish and clean up my latest novel by fleshing out my characters’ physical signs, internal sensations, and mental responses to events in the story…oh, the broad spectrum of emotion, all in one book!

But wait. There’s more. I was surfing around their very resourceful website and discovered the hidden booty—the pirate’s gold—MORE thesaurus books…all about characters (and setting’s role in building worlds/characters)! I ordered four more right away and I was giddy having stumbled upon these tools. I read through them, rapt….I giggled, I smiled, I gasped. Oh yes, I did. I said “ah ha!” more than once.

The rest of that bullet list above (and in my sample PDF) was compiled from the Positive Trait and Negative Trait Thesaurus books. Although my character sheets list these key character elements in an abbreviated format, I suggest checking out their website or purchasing the books for further explanation. The books are actual thesauruses that you’ll use over and over during writing, and not just in pre-writing/development. They explain the causes, behaviors, and thoughts associated with character traits. I eagerly await the release of The Emotional Wound Thesaurus this fall.

Other Resources

I’d be remiss to not name a few of my other favorites:

1.    I can’t boast enough about Grammar Girl. Several of her books sit on my shelf and whenever in doubt (it happens in every book I write, even as I write manuscript #6), I search the web for her grammar points. Easy Peasy: type in the question (e.g. lay vs lie) and “Grammar Girl.” Score!

2.    Strunk and White’s good ol’ Elements of Style (or your other grammar/style resource).

3.    Eats, Shoots, & Leaves (Lynne Truss) is a punctuation classic. Anyone up for an Oxford comma debate? I need a t-shirt that says I love the Oxford Comma.

4.    For the romance writer or any writer who wants to build up their “descriptive tags,” Jean Kent and Candace Shelton’s The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book is one of my old favorites.

5.    Books and websites about your genre or subgenre.

6.    Books and websites about your topic (I’ve got loads of books on medieval castles and living, Scottish clans, myth, and lore, and Norse Vikings, to name a few). Libraries are a great go-to as well!

7.    Museums, travel excursions galore. Know a person with expertise in something you’re writing about? Interview them or use them as a sensitivity reader. Got the funds? Go visit a castle or museum or fort. I was fortunate to finally visit the dreamy landscape of Scotland a few years back and I recently toured an actual Viking ship in Connecticut.

8.    Podcasts. When you’re not reading or writing, you could be listening to inspirational stories or writing tidbits. My favorite is Brandon Sanderson’s Writing Excuses while I exercise.

9.    Everything else. I followed a Facebook writer’s group that tosses up daily writing pointers: from overused weak words (I have my own list for that), 75 ways to describe anger, 45 ways to avoid using the word “very,” elements of a good scene…the list goes on. So when I see these little nuggets, I print ‘em, hole punch ‘em, and stick them in my master binder that sits next to my GMC Charts, Character Sheets, and Notes Miscellaneous.

Well, there you have it! A glimpse into my treasure trove of diamonds. I’ve had two decades to gather them, and I still keep finding them—writing is a forever journey of learning (and fun!). There is an abundance of resources out there to help you along the journey, be it during pre-writing, mid-writing, or revision. Now, go dig up those gems and write a story!

I’d love to hear about your favorite go-to resources in the comments.

Sláinte,

Jean