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The Writer's Mailbag: Installment 166

Updated on September 4, 2017

And the Beat Goes On

Labor Day Weekend . . . temperatures in the 90’s in Olympia, Washington . . . a sure sign that hell has frozen over!

When I tell you those kinds of temps, at this time of year, are unusual, take it to the bank. Sure, it’s happened before, but I can count on one hand the number of times it has happened here in sixty-eight years of me breathing. And the whole summer has been like that here. After the wettest winter ever, we now have had the warmest summer ever.

Thank God climate change is a hoax or I would be concerned. LOL

We don’t have much mail this week. Probably because of Labor Day! That works out fine, fewer people during the holiday weekend to read fewer questions.

Let’s do this!

How much dialogue is necessary to capture this scene?
How much dialogue is necessary to capture this scene? | Source

More on Dialogue

From Tammy: “You talked about dialogue in the last mailbag, but I still struggle with it. How do you know when you have too much dialogue, or too little? Is there a magic formula so you have the right balance of dialogue, action, and narration?

Tammy, this really is a great question. I wish I had a “one size fits all” answer for you.

Hopefully, your dialogue will do three things: establish atmosphere, establish characterization, and advance the plot. Dialogue simply for the sake of dialogue is fluff and needs to be weeded out. In other words, there must be a purpose for the dialogue.

Several experts I checked with said the ratio is 50-50, narration and dialogue. I can live with that ratio, but with this caveat: it will depend solely on your story. There is no nice, neat ratio which will encompass all novels.

This is one of those things which I believe improves with time for an author. One learns almost instinctively when to add dialogue and when to leave it out.

Keep working on it; keep learning from it!

Real people speak using contractions; your characters should mirror real people.
Real people speak using contractions; your characters should mirror real people. | Source

CONTRACTIONS

From Penny: “Is there a rule about using contractions in dialogue? How often can you use them? I feel like I don’t use them enough, but I just don’t know.”

That’s a first, Penny, so thank you! And yes, I used a contraction there.

For those of you from countries where English is not your native answer, contractions are slang. They are beautiful slang but they are slang nonetheless . . . they are shortened street talk . . . instead of saying “that is all” one would say “that’s all,” or instead of saying “he will rock your world” you would say “he’ll rock your world.”

Why would you use contractions in dialogue? Because I’m assuming you want your characters to sound like real people. Listen, most English-speaking people I know liberally use contractions, so your characters should do the same. Otherwise they’re going to sound like they’re giving a dissertation at Oxford, and how terribly boring would that be?

I actually do a “read through” on a novel, one entire edit, devoted entirely to contractions in dialogue. I go in and make sure I’ve used them enough so my dialogue doesn’t sound like Queen Elizabeth giving a directive to the butler.

So yes, they are important. Just listen to people talk on the street. Most of them can’t say one sentence without contractions, and you want your characters to sound like real people, right?

Right!

Can you write a metaphorical novel about this community of chickens?
Can you write a metaphorical novel about this community of chickens? | Source

Metaphorical Tales

From Bruce: “What makes a good metaphorical story? Are there certain elements which must be included? I have one in mind, but I’m not sure I know how to actually write it.”

Wow, another first!

Perhaps the most famous metaphorical novel of all-time is “Animal Farm.” It’s the one that immediately came to mind for me. It is brilliantly constructed and so obviously about something other than farming that even most pre-teens can see the message in it.

But I have no doubt, despite its simplicity, it was a difficult book to write.

There are no golden rules when writing a metaphorical novel. The metaphor is good if you, as the author, like the final result. The one suggestion I would give you is to work backwards when writing a metaphorical novel. Begin with the point you want to make . . . the evil of corporations . . . the abuse of power by governments . . . the cruelty of children in school . . . and build your story around that point. Never lose sight of that central point.

Some of these central themes are easy to write around. Abuse of power is one example….take any species of animal….chickens….and you can write a story about a flock of chickens in one coop, the hierarchy within that flock…..one chicken decides to take control of the flock, start using corrupt influence on the others, and . . .

Anyway, my suggestion is to start small. Work on using metaphors within short stories first, and then graduate to an entire novel.

ATMOSPHERE

From Caylin: “How does a writer establish atmosphere, or mood, in a novel or story other than through dialogue?”

Is it my imagination or are the questions very good this week?

If you don’t set mood/establish atmosphere through dialogue then you have to do it through narration.

Pure and simple!

Now, if you want specifics, remember the five senses. We all share them. Paint a picture with your words. A dark, foreboding mood can be established by gloomy, miserable weather. The landscape can be rat-infested, the people downtrodden. Use metaphors and similes to help establish the mood/atmosphere. What does a gloomy setting look like, feel like, smell like, sound like, . . . well, you get the picture.

Word use and sentence structure will also help in establishing the mood you are looking for. Generally speaking, short, choppy sentences with short words speed up the action and give an urgency to the story. Long paragraphs, long sentences, multi-syllable words, they all tend to slow down the action and give the story/book a deliberate feel to it.

That was a quick answer to a complicated question, but I think it explains the basic point I’m trying to make. Good writing incorporates all of these things without making it seemed forced or contrived.

We’re All Done for This Week

I don’t mind a scarcity of questions when they are humdingers like we had this week.

I’m going to give you some writing homework this week. Maybe it will help you in developing characters. If not, it will still be a fun exercise for you to try.

Meet a stranger this next week without actually speaking to them. Go to a public place, like the library or a coffee shop, and observe a complete stranger. Jot down your impressions of that stranger by simply observing them . . . what do their clothes say about them? What does their body type say? What is their mood? Just randomly jot down descriptive words about that person.

And then use that person in your next story/novel.

Have fun!

One final note: I finally hit one-million views on HP. Seems like it took forever, but I’m happy it finally arrived. I have all of you to thank for it. It is humbling knowing that my words have been read so many times. I know some of you have many more views than that but still, I am very grateful and blown away by it all.

See you next week!

2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Lawrence, that is an ambitious agenda. A billion? How many will be cut down in that time, I wonder. :)

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Bill

      First of all, no need to worry about climate change, Our new government here has pledged to plant a billion trees in the next ten years! (seriously)

      These were great questions, and answers, thank you for the tips here, only sorry I didn't get here sooner.

      Lawrence

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 4 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Well thank you, Nancy! I'll save your question for this week's Mailbag if you don't mind.

    • Nancy Owens profile image

      Nancy Owens 4 weeks ago from USA

      Hi! I remember when you started this series, and congratulate you on your success with it. How did it begin. Do people email you through Hubpages, or send actual letters by mail?

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Zulma, I'm horrible with languages...that part of my brain doesn't work that well LOL but yes, I would think English is one of the hardest to learn simply because the rules seem to change constantly.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 2 months ago from United Kingdom

      So, it's a cultural/language thing? I get it. English has so many contradictory rules it must drive a people learning it crazy.lol

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Dee! Much-appreciated!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 months ago

      Another great article on writing!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I have none, Zulma! I don't see any problem with them at all. :) I think non-English people have a much harder time with them, though.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 2 months ago from United Kingdom

      Maybe I'm missing something but I don't (see what I did there) understand the problem with using contractions. If you're writing a legal brief or professional paper, contractions wouldn't be proper. But if your characters appear easy-going and not uptight, then they would most likely speak in contractions.

      I welcome any enlightenment you can offer. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Yes, Michael my friend, you have the green light to use contractions. As for "C u"....that is better left for dialogue written in stories.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 2 months ago

      Ah, CONTRACTIONS! using them actually one have to be born and raised in English speaking environment. Finally you gave me approval to feel “comfortable” using them as you’re doing, liberated from the solely “royal English’’.Thanks my friend.

      PS(what about this type of corresponding “ C u - or see you - I see you anyway)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Alyssa, believe me, I would love to send some heat your way. It's been so unusual for these parts...but rain is predicted today, so we are all hoping.

    • Alyssa Nichol profile image

      Alyssa 2 months ago from Ohio

      Well... first off, I'm envious of your 90-degree weather. Maybe you could send some of that my way? We've been struggling to get into the 70's. I'm not quite ready to let go of summer, so 50-60 degrees feels like 7 right now to me.

      Congratulations on hitting one million views! That is awesome!

      And thank you once again for the great writing advice! This was extremely helpful and a little inspiring to jump back into a piece I've set aside.

      Have a great week!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Of course we can break the rules, Chris! We would all be robots if we didn't, and that doesn't sound like fun to me!

      Thanks for being here!

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 2 months ago from Maple City, Michigan

      50/50 for dialogue and narration? I have one that is 100% dialogue. It's my favorite flash fiction that I've written. It works for me, but not for everyone. I think as we are learning to write, it is ok to go overboard with some aspects, such as dialogue. We learn by doing, even if we are breaking some good rules. We have the chance to see why some things are bad ideas, like a story with 100% dialogue. Good questions and very sharp answers this week, Bill.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Well, Ann, I wish you a freakishly fun Friday, so there!

      bill

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 months ago from SW England

      Nice one! I don't know though, I've come across a few crass Brits.

      Wishing you a thoughtfully thrilling Thursday, bill!

      Ann :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      The poor queen, MizB. No one wants to sound like her. LOL Enjoy that cool weather, friend. Meanwhile, we're praying for rain before the whole damned state burns.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Larry! Enjoy that lovely weather. Meanwhile, here, the sun is red. It's not supposed to be red,is it? LOL

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      And I appreciate you, Linda! Thanks so much!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      It feels pretty amazing, Zulma! Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very welcome, Dora, and I thank you for your friendship.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 2 months ago

      Congrats on one million, my friend. Very good questions this week, Bill. I don't have any problem using contractions in dialog, but when I'm writing humor, sometimes I use contractions in my narrative when it starts to sound stilted. I don't want a folksy story reading like the Queen directing the butler either.

      That's funny, your area had one of the warmest summers on record, and my area had (still having) one of the coolest. The temp may have hit 100 degrees one time this summer. It was cool today, and the nights have been falling to about 57 degrees. Unusual for the South. Have a good rest of the week, my friend.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 months ago from Oklahoma

      Still just lovely weather in OK, lol. Just surprised me. Weird year weather wise. Last year this time you still couldn't breathe when you stepped out the door.

      As for dialogue, the right amount for your concept, really, in my opinion.

      Always enjoy the Bag.:-)

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      The questions are definitely very good this week, Bill. I appreciate your answers, as I always do.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 2 months ago from United Kingdom

      Congrats on the 1 million mark, Bill. That is amazing.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 2 months ago from The Caribbean

      Congratulations on your million views! Thanks for sharing your skills and expertise on HP. I learn or re-learn something valuable in every mailbag.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Heck, Jo, you used two of them, so this was a bonus. :) Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I am having a good week, Flourish, thank you! I wish the same for you. In fact, I'm ahead of my schedule so I'm feeling quite accomplished today.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 2 months ago from Tennessee

      Congratulations on reaching one million views! I do not have many more views than that and probably never will, so I'm impressed.

      On another note, I think of contractions as informal, not slang. Not using contractions sounds stilted to me at times. See, I've even used one in this response.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 months ago from USA

      It's rare to get such new and different types of questions. I enjoyed them. Hope you're having a good week.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Rasma! Hugs from Olympia!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Kailey....yes, it was a joke...what a joke,and the joke is on all of us. :(

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      In the States, Ann,we call it a brain fart, but we are so much crasser than you Brits. :)

      Have a torrentially-happy Tuesday.

      bill

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 2 months ago from Riga, Latvia

      Thank so much for another great and informative mailbag.

    • social thoughts profile image

      social thoughts 2 months ago from New Jersey

      Bill,

      Haha I love the climate change joke!...That was a joke, right? ::sarcastic serious face::

      I like the questions this week, and your suggestion to observe a stranger. One sociology class assignment I had was to people watch and take notes. It reminded me of taking writing notes.

      I'm excited for your one-million views! Yay!

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 months ago from SW England

      Now why didn't I think of that?! Brain fade!

      Metaphorical Monday is mind-blowing!

      Ann :D

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Mike! A rodeo coloring book? Where in the world did that come from? LOL What I know about rodeos you could stuff in a very small stirrup. LOL

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Aww, thanks Shannon. Maybe some day that book will materialize.

      As for metaphors.....consider this....every novel ever written can be analyzed in some way as a metaphor. All it takes is an active imagination to do so.

      I like the Lord of the Flies; couldn't stand The Great Gatsby! :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, I can't imagine writing an entire novel as a metaphor. How exhausting! LOL

      Munchkin Monday? How about a Metaphor Monday?

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Clive! I will try, my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Great thoughts, Mary...pecking order...that one becomes obvious to anyone who has ever raised chickens. We are constantly adding chickens to our flock, and the dynamic changes with each addition.

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 2 months ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Hello Bill - Not related to todays Mailbag. A Rodeo coloring book may be in order. The little girls are enjoying the bulk of the coloring book focus of late.

      You mention reading your work out loud. That is a wonderful suggestion, as it helps the authors mind hear how their words sound. That enables the author to smooth out their writing were necessary. (I am learning this too late.)

      The million mark is very impressive. Congratulations.

    • shanmarie profile image

      shanmarie 2 months ago

      Yes, these are good questions this week. By now, you probably have enough writing related questions to compile your own how-to book on the subject! Why not? Your answers are expertly given and very informative. Sometimes I learn a thing or two, but even when I have my own opinions already formed on a matter, I can see your knowledge is from both education and experience. It's nice to have a thought confirmed by people who write so well. LOL

      So that said, this week you introduced the idea of a 50/50 ratio between dialogue and description. I hadn't even stopped to consider the ratio. I just write by instinct most of the time. I do know that dialogue should be used to help move a story forward or to serve some purpose and that is usually best served by avoiding long-winded speeches.

      On a side note, the mention of metaphorical stories, made me think of two stories from high school: Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby. Never read Animal Farm. And still not quite sure I see much of a metaphor in Gatsby, but I remember there's supposed to be one about jealousy or envy and that green light. But the beast in Lord of the Flies is supposed to be the darker side of human nature.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 months ago from SW England

      Certainly were good questions this week, bill! Metaphorical novel - now that's ambitious! I'm not sure I'd have the bottle to tackle that.

      Contractions are essential in dialogue, as you say; if not, we end up with stilted conversations, unless you want to sound like the nobility! One cannot possibly imagination what one would sound like, can one?!

      Great answers, bill.

      Have a munchkin of a Monday!

      Ann :)

    • clivewilliams profile image

      Clive Williams 2 months ago from Nibiru

      keep up the good work billy.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Sheez, Eric, that sounds like Mission Impossible! Don't hold your breath waiting for me to pull off that miracle article, but thanks for the suggestion. It had me laughing.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 2 months ago from Brazil

      Hi Bill,

      Once again congratulations on hitting 1,000,000 views here on Hubpages.

      Regarding contractions, I find I type without them and have to go back and correct to make my writing more readable. I remember in school, the teacher asking what the word 'let's' was a contraction for. No one knew except for me. (or at least I was the only one to raise my hand and answer). Their use is so widespread in English, that the lack of them seems wrong. It is another sign of language evolution. I help people with their English here in Brazil, and contractions are hard for them to grasp.

      I love your example of the chicken coop as a metaphor. As a fellow farmer, I see a lot of similarities to 'real life' in the coop. It's easy to see where the term pecking order came from.

      Another fine mailbag, thanks.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      LOL...Heidi, you provided the Laugh of the Day! Have a great holiday if you do the Labor Day sort of thing.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      Good to see that today's holiday mailbag is less labor for Labor Day!

      Re: Contractions. Indeed, they do help make writing more conversational. Otherwise, you talk like the android Data on Star Trek. You sound robotic.

      Well, I'll keep it short, too, for the holiday. Hope you have a relaxing one!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much, Kristen! You are appreciated.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Bill my friend here is a Mailbag type answer to a question you did not ask. You really should be at 7 or so million. You need to rename this series with a How To in the title, you need to add at least one recipe and you simply must cram in a travelogue with most content coming from Wiki. And then I expect to see at least a 50% uptick in repetition of those special words.

      When you have done all that you may use about 250 words for you creative writing.

      I will do your exercise today now you do mine.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Aww, thanks Linda! Too hot for me. I'm going to work in the office and not move very much. LOL

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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Melissa! A hot one here today, but a normal work day for this boy. I hope you and your family have a great one. The next milestone? Gosh, I guess I'll have to think of one. :)

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      Kristen Howe 2 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Bill, congrats on that huge milestone here at HP. Once again, another great maailbag that's filled with useful and compelling insightful information.

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      Linda Lum 2 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, what great questions. Quality trumps quantity every time. Contractions are extremely important, otherwise your writing sounds stilted and stodgy. Congratulations again on your 1 million reads milestone. I did the math, and it truly will take me 85 years (more) to get there.

      Oh well, what really matters about Hubs is having friends like you. Try to find some shade today and tomorrow.

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      Melissa Propp 2 months ago from Minnesota

      Happy Monday Bill! And I hope you are having a great Labor Day Weekend, despite the heat!

      1 million views on HP? Wow, that is mind-boggling...Congrats! What is the next milestone?

      Hope you have a great week!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks so much, John! I was feeling great about the 1 million until someone else on HP mentioned they had 7 million. LOL

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      John Hansen 2 months ago from Queensland Australia

      You are so right, Bill! What wonderful questions this week. About Penny's contractions...lol....couldn't help that. I use them all the time in my writing without even thinking about it...maybe too many...but I write almost exactly the way I speak, so that is just my voice in words.

      And Animal Farm would have to be one of my favourite books ever and what a perfect example of a metaphorical novel it is.

      Congratulations on the million views, that's about 10 times as many as me. Great job.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Janine! Not sure this is a contest we wanted to win. 100 this Tuesday here...unheard of!

      Have a fantastic week, my friend.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 2 months ago from New York, New York

      Congrats on your HB views and very well deserved. As for temperatures was a cooler than usual end to summer weekend here with rain, as well. Seems like you won the heat lotto this summer, while here not he east coast is was wet and chilly for much of it. That said wishing you a wonderful week ahead and Happy Monday, too Bill!! :)