• I think making ‘mistakes’ is an essential part of the creative process and therefore of becoming a writer.
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Randolph Lundine Writing Prompts

Writing prompts, news, information, and resources to help expand your writing community, hone your writing habits, and to waste time in a way that feels like you're working on your writing.

Just Write (70)

Before the parade of poets, receptions, readings, and the crush of books that is AWP 2015 fades into memory, let’s immortalize it. Take your favorite memory—be it the most memorable character, favorite bit of overheard MFA earnestness, or reconnection with old friends—and spin it into something more. Perhaps you’ll write that rebuttal to MFA vs. NYC you’ve been hanging onto, or about your new BFF Karen Russell…

If you were wise enough to stay home this past weekend, I feel satire is in order. Surely, if anything was worthy of a Christopher Guest treatment, it’s AWP.

If you have no idea about this AWP of which we speak, get thee to a computer. There seemed to be a constant snapping of iPhones and actual cameras and oh, the twittering (#AWP15 ). 

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Just Write (69)

Let’s talk.

Dialogue can be tricky. Whether you’re working on a piece of fiction or serious nonfiction, it can enliven a story, expand the point of view, and capture a moment or concept in a vital way. But regardless of genre it’s hard to incorporate different voices and quotes well. How much should you use? How should you introduce it? Do you listen to Elmore Leonard and “never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue?”

Today’s writing exercise is all about playing with dialogue. Since this is something that comes up VERY frequently when I work with scholarly writers, we’re breaking this into two exercises (one for scholarly writers and one for everyone else).

  1. Fiction and nonfiction writers: construct a scene almost entirely using dialogue. Only allow yourself a few words for set up, pauses, or important shifts in scene (or really, enough breaks that you have to figure out how to begin the dialogue again). Can you capture the different characters without the luxury of description? Can you make the conversation real and alive when it’s the whole narrative?
  2. My academic darlings, your writing prompt is the reverse of this. The point of your exercise is to create a piece that relies heavily on quotes without being overrun by them. You are forbidden from using block quotes.

 Select a primary document, preferably one in the first person (a personal account, memoir, interview, diary, etc.). Tell the story of this document. Focus on your version of the account using a few carefully selected quotes to enrich your narrative. These quotes should not repeat what you say or abruptly shift the tone of the piece. Rather, they should clarify, expand, prove, or make alive a point you are trying to make as succinctly as possible. Remember to vary how you incorporate the quotes, how much of a given quote you use, and to make the quoted material secondary to your own words. 

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Just Write (69)

Just Write (69)

I've spent the last week on the road, touring the Gulf South. These were lazy days filled with food, drink, oceans, and rain. With a dog that is frankly too large for sane people to travel with, we meandered back roads and enjoyed every second of it. 

But then there's the reentry. It's a bit like riding one of those amusement park gondolas--your personal escape pod slowly ferrying you high above all of the crazy below--only to have the bottom drop out... One morning you're in New Orleans drinking the best coffee you've ever had, and the next you're praying there's any coffee in the house so you can face all of those things you know are lurking beyond your bed. The post-vacation piles of laundry, the empty refrigerator, and all of that damn email.

No matter how well prepared I think I am, those first few days back in reality are always madness. So here's a little chaos-inspired writing prompt for you:

Chaos Follows. Write a set of short scenes in which confusion or chaos follows a character, as if in his wake. The character does not cause this, knowingly or unknowingly, but disorder nearly always happens after he has left a room, an intersection, or an elevator. This should not be magic. Imagine an exotic wake, but try to make these effects and aftereffects grow naturally out of the character you're describing. 400 words

--Brian Kiteley, The 3 A.M. Epiphany (2005, Writers Digest)

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Just Write (68)

A funny thing about yogis...we don't often get sick. I know, this sounds like hippie hogwash. But whether it's mind over matter, the power of regular exercise, or all of that deep breathing, we aren't hit as hard by the seasonal bugs. Or at least we like to think so. 

But not this week. This week I'm in bed. I have watched more television than anyone should. Ever. My mind is fuzzy and my head is not securely attached to my body. 

So I'm letting the fine folks at Electric Literature do all of the work for me. Your, belated, weekly writing prompts: http://electricliterature.com/february-fiction-prompts-culled-from-the-news/

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Just Write (67)

Just Write (67)

Fangirl Ode

This week’s writing prompt is inspired by a double dollop of fangirling. I love Kim Gordon. I love her far more than I love Sonic Youth (which is vaguely blasphemous as an indie fan of a certain age). But even though I could never be won over by the noise, there was no denying Kim was the coolest, smartest, most badass girl in the world. She was not manufactured, she was not decoration. She shredded. And she wasn’t afraid to wear a miniskirt while doing it.

So imagine how my fangirl heart skipped a beat when I saw this essay about Kim Gordon by Elissa Schappell, who may very well be the coolest, smartest, most badass lit lady in the world. (If you don’t know who she is, for shame! And read this).

I love how Elissa tackles the tricky issue of writing about someone or something you love too much to be impartial. How do you approach the subject that turns you all gooey and inarticulate? The one that makes you want to mumble, while looking earnestly at you toes, “I love you so much. I’m such a big fan.”

Your assignment this week is to dive into that gooey abyss. Write a profile of your longest standing infatuation. Who or what did you love when you were younger that you still love now? You all immediately thought of something terribly embarrassing. Don’t pretend you didn’t. That’s your subject. Try to tackle this honestly. Don’t feign impartiality; don’t try to be cool. What did Doctor Who mean to you? How did Madonna transform your preteen, suburban world?

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Just Write (66)

Just Write (66)

It’s a ripped from the headlines sort of morning…

There are two teenagers in my house with what appears to be strep throat…and last night I started sneezing and haven’t stopped. Pure joy. So, forgive me if this week’s writing prompt is a bit of a cheat.

We’ve urged you to look to the news for inspiration before, but reading yesterday’s paper I was reminded how fantastically inspiring the real world is. Here are five stories from the New York Times that are far better than any writing prompt I could offer today:

  1. A love affair ignited by low-carbon energy leads to political scandal: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/us/politics/oregon-governor-john-kitzhaber-and-fiancee-cylvia-hayes-walked-tangled-path-to-exit.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0
  2. A remote South Korean province’s $375 million experiment with Formula One racing failed, but it left behind the seeds of a car-racing culture. Oh, and a giant racetrack: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/world/asia/a-korean-auto-racing-debacle-but-hope-around-the-bend.html?ref=world
  3. The oldest person in Europe attributes her longevity to “Raw Eggs and No Husband Since ’38.”: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/world/raw-eggs-and-no-husband-since-38-keep-her-young-at-115.html
  4. Spider Martin took the famous photos of Bloody Sunday in Selma, 1965. And was also George Wallace’s campaign photographer. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/arts/design/spider-martins-photographs-of-the-selma-march-get-a-broader-view.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=photo-spot-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news
  5. The inventor of Nutella, which made him justifiably the richest man in Italy, has died. On Valentine’s Day. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/business/michele-ferrero-pioneer-who-gave-the-world-nutella-dies-at-89.html?hpw&rref=obituaries&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region®ion=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well
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Just Write (65)

I've started to keep a list of rules. These are things I tell almost every author after I've edited their work. I'd like to wrap them in a bow and send them to anyone working on a book, whether they be novelists or botanists.

This week's writing prompt (which is really a revision prompt) is a bit like that list. Rather than telling you what to write, or focusing on words and paragraphs, it asks you to consider the whole narrative. The forest, rather than the trees.

Often I am asked for more prompts for academic or serious nonfiction writers. Each time I say, "but you should do them all because you too are a writer." All writers should think of their craft, language, and storytelling. And this revision prompt is no exception--all prose writers, regardless of genre, should consider questions like these.

Five More Questions to Ask During Revision:

1. Does this draft have a beginning, middle, and end?

2. Do scenes flow logically from on to another?

3. Is there a missing scene?

4. Is the ending too rushed, or to the contrary, too slow?

5. Does the ending leave you with too many questions to be able to say what the piece is about?

--from The Pocket Muse 2: Endless Inspiration for Writers by Monica Wood

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Just Write (64)

It’s all in the details....part 2

You probably saw this coming…take a look at the list of details and moments you created for last week’s writing prompt. Pick one thing (or for that matter, several things) to use as your jumping off point. Build a story around that overheard bit of conversation, giving it flesh and bones. Give the woman at the bus stop a life, a home, an adventure. Remember those subtle details are what we are after here--the bits that tranform a collection of facts into a story.

And since you’ve got this shiny new notebook, use it. Keep noticing and recording. Anytime an idea, character, or chunk of story comes to you, write it down. When that line you’ve been fussing over finally comes clear while you’re in traffic, write it down (or record it on your phone so you don’t crash). Don’t worry if it’s silly, trite, or irrelevant to your current project. Don't judge it, just collect it. Something in there will be worthwhile, trust me. 

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Just Write (63)

Just Write (63)

It’s all in the details…

This week’s writing prompt is about paying attention to your world, rather than getting words on paper (though I hope it helps you do that as well). It’s also one that will require you to hang with me for more than a single sitting.

Like anything, writing is a habit. It’s more about making time, setting a schedule, and sitting your butt in the chair than it is about divine inspiration. But sometimes we need a little inspiration, divine or not. So all this week I want you to gather it.

Keep a notebook, a sturdy sheet of paper, or (sigh) an iPhone on you. Anytime something strikes you, write it down. An overheard snippet of conversation, a powerful smell, the way emotion washes over your child’s face, a song lyric, the woman standing at the bus stop. Big or small, write down whatever catches your eye or your imagination. You won’t remember when you get home. Grab it before it’s gone.

This is about the subtle detail, the nuance, the little pieces that transform your writing from a collection of facts to a story. At the end of the day, it’s not telling me how tall you subject is that makes them come alive. It’s showing them to me, and often it’s these little bits of life we capture that make this distinction. So spend the week gathering glimmers of life. Notice, observe, record.

*Inspired by sage advice in The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith

*Image of Word Nest by Siobhan Martin

 

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Just Write (62)

Just Write (62)

As a hippie yogi instructor, I’ve been reading about mindfulness lately. As an editor, a lot of this is just too terrible to read. But I love Thich Nhat Hanh.

As a terrible meditator, I love him even more.

Rather than telling you to secret yourself away in a quiet temple and chant for hours (which you should totally do if you’ve got the time and disposition for it), he encourages you to be mindful in everything you do. If you’re eating a tangerine, eat a tangerine. If you’re talking to someone, talk to them. And my favorite, wash the dishes to wash the dishes:

 …which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

So for today’s writing prompt, in the ailing monk’s honor, let’s focus. Pick one simple task. Making the bed, walking the dog, painting a fence. Let it be the only action that takes place in the entire 500 words you’re giving over to it.

If you’re working on a larger piece (be it novel, monograph, biography, etc.), pick some quotidian activity your character or subject would do. How would they do it? What would the experience be like in the place and time in which they live? What details would they notice as they strove to focus on this one thing? Would they be able to do so?

Bonus prompt: try this in different voices or perspectives. Write it from a third person omniscient perspective, for example, and then try it from a first person point of view.

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Just Write (61)

A short and sweet writing prompt this week (and not just because I have a fast-approaching deadline and homemade chicken potpies to make for a birthday dinner):

Beyond Words. Create a brief fragment of an epiphany, a moment beyond words, beyond explaining, in which a character sees the necessity of change. 300 words. 

--Brian Kiteley, The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction (Writers Digest)

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Just Write (60)

Just Write (60)

Today, dear readers, write of sleep.

Start by imagining you spent a few more hours than planned in a Midwest airport, trying to return home after a long conference weekend. Imagine your dog was so happy to see you when you finally dragged your carcass to bed that she kept getting up to make sure you were still home throughout the night. Imagine this involves a Great Dane licking your face. Imagine you were foolish enough to think you could still wake up at 4:45am to teach your early morning yoga class.

But who would be so foolish (yawn)?

So please, write to me of deep slumbers. Of warm beds and snoring. Make it a brief history of the sleeping pill. A fairy tale sleep from which a tired editor can only be woken with a perfect paragraph. Thank you. Good night. 

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Just Write (59)

Just Write (59)

I live in Nebraska--one of those square-ish states in the middle of the country. Outside of football, my adoptive home isn't often celebrated beyond its borders. It's cold, flat, and filled with corn, conservatives, and rabid football fans--just ask anyone who has never been here.

There's an element of truth to this, of course (it is often horribly cold, there is a shocking amount of corn, and Husker Nation is a sight to behold), but it's not the whole truth. 

Nebraska has a true plains beauty, with glowing fields and (slightly) rolling hills. Its people are kind, as our dreadful new state slogan attests. It’s home to Willa Cather, the Sand Hills, Saddlecreek Records, poet laureate Ted Kooser, the Prairie Schooner (one of the oldest literary journals in the country), and Jun Kaneko. We are the birthplace of Kool-Aid, Johnny Carson, and Alexander Payne.

All of this home state boosterism leads me to Mary Pipher, psychologist, author of Reviving Ophelia, activist, and Nebraskan. Her recent op-ed in the New York Times let "Nebraska" be printed without "corn," "football," or "Starkweather" in a national news outlet and that always makes me happy. She also lets me champion the virtues and diversity of my state under the disguise of a long-winded introduction to today's writing prompt as I'm headed to New York (and cocktail conversation that is certain to include "You still live in Nebraska?" and “I drove through there once. It’s really flat”)...

To repay you for your patience, this one is really several prompts rolled into one, all of them uniquely yours:

 

Finding Your Voice

By diving into the experience of writing, you will learn what you truly think and who you really are. Your self-exploration is a way to pay attention to the world, within yourself and outside yourself, and to experience what Allen Ginsberg called "surprise mind."

Try answering these questions on paper:

What makes you laugh, cry, and open your heart?

What points do you repeatedly make to those you love?

What topics keep you up at night, or help you fall asleep?

What do you know to be true?

What do you consider to be evil?

What is beautiful to you?

What do you most respect in others?

What excites your curiosity?

If you were the ruler of the world, what would do first?

What do you want to accomplish before you die?

--from Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World (Riverhead 2006)

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Just Write (58)

Just Write (58)

I am not a copyeditor. Like most of us (she said hopefully), perfect comma usage eludes me. But a quick perusal of social media is enough to unleash the inner grammarian in all of us. Everyday, word nerds around the world can find examples of how punctuation alters meaning. This can be intentional, but the vast majority of the time it’s so not. Today’s writing exercise dives into this thorny grammar nest. Stop yawning--it comes from the indomitable Ursula Le Guin (she of the best National Book Award speech ever).

Before you begin, Le Guin advises you to ask yourself: “What issues do you have with punctuation? What do you feel uncertain about? What rules are you impatient with?” Look up the things that trouble you. You must get all Jackson Pollock on these things—you need to know the rules before you start throwing words on paper, rules be damned.

If you’ve never given a second’s thought to semicolons, Le Guin advises you to “sit down all by yourself and go through a few paragraphs of prose narratives that you like and admire, and just study the punctuation in them.” Be aware of what the author is doing and why. Beyond the mechanics of the grammar, ask yourself “how much of the rhythm of the prose is actually established by the punctuation, how’s it done?”

Now for the exercise:

I Am García Márquez

Write a paragraph to a page (150-350 words) of narrative with no punctuation (and no paragraphs or other breaking devices).

Suggested Subject: A group of people engaged in a hurried or hectic or confused activity, such as a revolution, or the first few minutes of a one-day sale.

To think or talk about in critiquing the exercise: How well does the unbroken flow of words fit the subject? To what extent does the unpunctuated flow actually shape the narrative?

...

The likelihood is that, read aloud…the piece wasn’t too hard to follow. Is it comprehensible to another person reading it silently?

To think about after writing it: What writing it felt like; how it differed from writing with the usual signs and guides and breaks; whether it led you to write differently from the way you usually write, or gave you a different approach to something you’ve tried to write. Was the process valuable? Is the result readable?

--from Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, Ursula K. Le Guin (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)

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Just Write (57)

Just Write (57)

It’s not a very well kept secret. My name is heather, and I have some serious luddite tendencies. I’ve confessed (here) my undying affection for people, pencil, and paper.

Don’t get me wrong--I love my computer. It’s handy and pretty (thank you, Apple). But when we write on the screen, there’s an almost overwhelming urge to edit. To scroll up and down, rereading, tweaking, and moving entire blocks of prose before you’ve even finished a chapter.

It’s also easy to fool yourself into thinking these tidy typed words are it. That you’re crafting a finished product that must be perfect, rather than a first draft. This denial of the draft becomes a much more cumbersome feat to pull off with your pen.

So today, I’m forcing my ways on you (bwahahahaha).

Today’s writing exercise requires you to turn off your computer. To pull out a pen (or really do me proud and grab an actual wooden pencil) and a pad of paper.

Choose a discrete part of your current writing project—a single character, scene, or background history—that has been troubling you. And just write. Don’t reread, don’t tweak, don’t edit. Simply put words down on the page.

When you’re done, and only when you’re done, reread it.

When we allow ourselves to finish a section before we monkey with it, our edit is so much better. We can approach our writing with fresh eyes. The gaps, clunky sentences, and thick parts are that much easier to see when we’ve not been looking back all along. We give ourselves time and distance, which gives us perspective.

*Inspired by The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell

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Just Write (56)

Just Write (56)

The Action of a Sentence

I have a list of editorial advice I almost always give, regardless of genre. Of course, every writer has their quirks and tics--those nagging issues that bedevil their work. But over the years, I have realized there are many quirks we share. You probably don't commit every sin on my list, but you're probably guilty of a few.

Lazy sentences are one of these common sins.

On a sentence level, we bury the lede. We mitigate. We overwhelm the action with words. We are boring. We lose our reader and our meaning. Don't give into the verbal malaise--make your sentences active. Think about your verbs and be certain every sentence actually has one. 

Today's writing prompt is a sentence generator focused on this missing action. Don't overthink it. Have fun. 

 

From the ever wise Natalie Goldberg:

Fold a sheet of paper in half the long way. On the left side of the page list ten nouns. Any ten.

lilacs

fiddle

muscles

dinosaur...

Now turn the paper over to the right column. Think of an occupation; for example, a carpenter, doctor, flight attendant. List fifteen verbs on the right half of the page that go with that position.

A Cook:

sauté

chop

slice

marinate

...

Open the page....Try joining the nouns with the verbs to see what new combinations you can get, and then finish the sentences, casting the verbs in the past tense if you need to.

Dinosaurs marinate in the earth.

The fiddles boiled the air with music.

The lilacs sliced the sky into purple.

...

This does not mean that while you are writing you should stop and contemplate a new verb for an hour. Only, be aware of your verbs and the power they have and use them in fresh ways. 

*I've truncated this section from Writing Down the Bones. I urge you to read the whole damn book. 

 

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Just Write (55)

Just Write (55)

An Ode to Gluttony

Write a limerick about gluttony, over-eating, or your favorite glutton. In case you don't bust out limericks often, they contain five lines, three long and two short, and typically have an aabba rhyming scheme. 

 

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Just Write (54)

Happy (almost) Thanksgiving! This will be a food-free post (though rest assured I will be baking pies shortly). This week's writing prompt is a bit naughty, which is how I like most things. Have fun with it:

You've had a really rotten day, you're mad at the world, and in an evil moment you decide to give a classroom full of impressionable, hopeful young writers [SCHOLARS: insert your chosen field (historians, botanists, ethnographers...) here] all the worst possible advice anyone could give...

--The San Francisco Writers' Grotto, 642 Things to Write About (Chronicle Books, 2011)

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The Prodigal Blogger Returns

The Prodigal Blogger Returns

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
—Ernest Hemingway

So it turns out that advice I give writers about keeping a schedule--about making writing a habit, even when you don't feel like it--is totally spot on. I've spent the last year eyeball deep in yoga-land. I went through an intensive teacher-training program and started teaching. I still edit a lot, but between that work and all of the yoga, I let the blog/Facebook/communication side of things go...and man, when that habit falters, it falters.

But this morning I came across this quote. So many of my favorite writing quotes come from Papa, even though I don't suffer from HWS (Hemingway Worship Syndrome). This succinct little gem made me want to come back here. To talk to you about yoga AND words because it's such a perfect fusion of yoga wisdom and writerly wisdom.

In yoga, we learn (or try to learn) to approach things with a beginner's mind--to remember what it's like to first try, to be curious and unsure, to be always honing your practice--and this is so much like facing a blank page. Every time we return, every time we pick up our pencil again (or open a new file), we should approach things with a beginner's mind. 

Are you ever going to be a master? Maybe in some things. Hopefully, we master the habit of writing (ahem)...of not dreading the solitary blinking cursor. But there's always ways to grow, new ways to see the world, different questions to ask.

So take a nice, deep, yogi breath and remember there's some good stuff here in apprentice land. Not being a master means we can try new things, we can remain curious. If we are not masters, we are not stuck in a perfect, unchanging box. 

 

 

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Just Write (53)

Just Write (53)

I've spent the last week on an island, waking up to this view. There were no events. All deadlines and assignments were soundly ignored (hence my absence from here). If I overlook the presence of two crabby and bored teenagers, it was bliss.

Turns out bliss, sunshine, and Presidentes greatly diminish my intelligence and drive....I'm fairly certain I could be one of those strange souls who drop out and live in a permanent state of vacation. I have never uttered such bizarre sentiments as "I think I'd get island fever," or "I'd just miss the structure of work and normal life." Needless to say, my reentry into real life has been sluggish and frequently stalled. 

Perhaps you could turn my hedonistic, drop out tendencies into a writing prompt...making them constructive and helpful? Write a scene in which a vacationer refuses to return to her real life. Why does she stay? What does she leave behind? Capture the rhythm of travel, the nuance of life in the surreal space of the tourist destination. What happens when that space becomes your permanent reality?

My scholarly darlings: there are so many actual examples of people jettisoning their lives in favor of permanent vacation...pick your favorite and do a mini research project. But for authenticity's sake, you should absolutely visit the far-flung new home of your subject. 

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