Friday, December 18, 2020

A Little Romance (Or the Joys of Secondary Characters)

DEBORAH CROMBIE: All summer, when it was a hundred degrees in north Texas, I was moaning and groaning over trying to imagine myself in London in November and December. Well, miracles occur, it's now December again and I'm STILL writing Kincaid/James #19, so maybe there are a few benefits to being a tortoise.

Here, just to put you in the mood, is my last photo from my very last night in London last year. It was two days before Thanksgiving, and this is Oxford Street with all the Christmas lights up. And that's my favorite department store, John Lewis, which always has the most wonderful Christmas window displays. It was bitterly cold that night and spitting with rain. I nearly froze to death waiting for my bus--which was not the one in the photo!

There might be a different bus, however, on the cover of the book-in-progress. A fabulous photo taken by my London photographer friend has gone to the publisher's art department, and my editor and I are very excited about it. Hopefully, I'll have something to show you soon! Along with the title!

But I can share a part of a scene I've had fun with recently. One of the things I love most about writing multiple viewpoint, series novels is having the chance to develop some of the secondary characters. They can hang about, doing their job of moving the plot along in the background, and then suddenly they stick their hands in the air and say, "Look at us! We have stories, too!"

In this case, it's two of the characters from several previous books; Dr. Rashid Kaleem, the dishy Home Office pathologist (unless that's an oxymoron...), and Detective Inspector Jasmine Sidana, the second-ranking and uber professional officer on Duncan's murder squad. They are both in their mid-thirties, and single. But that's about all they have in common. They come from different cultures, different backgrounds, different religious upbringings. Sidana, especially, is a bit of an enigma. She feels she was passed over for Duncan's job, she doesn't like anybody much, and she lives with her parents and her granny. I had to wonder why.

Here's a snippet from a scene with the two of them. Sidana has just attended the post mortem of the murder victim.

Dr. Rashid Kaleem’s office was not what Sidana had expected. It was a windowless room at the end of a long basement corridor, but it wasn’t a clinical cubicle. Colorful graffiti covered any bare expanse of the concrete walls not hidden by bookcases. The piles of books and papers on his desk seemed to be in a pitched battle to oust the large computer monitor. One stack precariously supported an old-fashioned shaded library lamp, the warm pool of its light counterbalancing the overhead florescent fixtures.

Kaleem had slipped a white lab coat over a t-shirt that she thought had said Play safe or I will see you naked, but she couldn’t very well ask him to give her another glimpse. She must have looked askance because he glanced at his chest and shrugged apologetically. “I don’t usually see the paying customers. Pathologist’s humor.”

“I wasn’t—” She stopped, flushing. She couldn’t say she hadn’t been staring.

He nodded toward a coat stand behind the door, where a pale blue button-down shirt hung neatly on a hanger, draped with a suitable conservative red-and-blue dotted tie. “I can look presentable if necessary.”

“I didn’t mean…” Trailing off, she sank into the chair Kaleem offered her. It was, in fact, the only chair other than the one behind his desk, and there was barely room for it in the small space.

He must think her a dreadful stuffed shirt. She knew black humor for the defense mechanism it was, but she’d never been very comfortable with it, even in the police.

Before she could dig herself in any deeper, he said, “Have a coffee to warm you up. It’s the least we can do.” He waved a hand at the counter behind his desk, where a state-of-the-art espresso machine and a jar of coffee pods were nestled in between more stacks of books and some very unpleasant-looking anatomical models. “There’s even milk,” he added, pointing out a tiny fridge below the counter. “I promise I don’t keep specimens in there with it, and I run the mugs through the autoclave.”

“I’d like that. The coffee, I mean.” She snapped her mouth shut before she babbled on. Why did this man make her feel so bloody awkward?

“I was just kidding about the autoclave,” he said as he popped a pod in the machine and retrieved a mug emblazoned with a large red heart between the words ‘I’ and ‘forensics.’ I wash them in the staff room.” The machine rumbled and hissed as the mug filled.

When he’d added a splash of milk to the coffee and handed it to her, she said into the silence, “Dr. Kaleem—”

“Please. Call me Rashid.” He sat behind his desk, looking suddenly less like a rock star and more like the expert he was.

“Rashid,” she said carefully, cradling her mug, “what else can you tell me about Sasha Johnson?”

I'm not sure where this is going, but I might see a way that it can mirror the main plot. However it turns out, I want to know more about these two.

REDS, do you enjoy writing secondary characters? And READERS, do you enjoy glimpses into the lives of characters that aren't the main focus of the story?

76 comments:

  1. I enjoy meeting the secondary characters in the story; even though they aren’t the main focus of the narrative, they certainly add depth to the story [and now I’m curious about Rashid and Jasmine and how this will fit into the story being told].

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    1. Me, too, Joan! Such fun to write and figure out at the same time.

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  2. Debs, you have a lot of secondary characters in your series that bring different viewpoints and scenes that are key to the story.

    Duncan and Gemma's sergeants, Doug Cullen and Melody Talbot, respectively, have gone through a lot both professionally and personally, and I enjoy reading about that.

    And the domestic scenes with Duncan and Gemma and their children (Kit, Toby and Charlotte) reminds us that these police detectives have personal lives outside of the murder investigation that is the focus of the story. This makes Duncan and Gemma well-rounded characters that we love to watch in their role of parents and spouses.

    And yes, after reading that scene, I want to learn more about Dr. Rashid and DI Sidana in your next book.

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    1. Grace, I've just written the first scene in the book from Kit's viewpoint, and it was lovely to be back seeing the world through Kit's eyes. And of course Toby is dancing in the Nutcracker in this book, so I'm having fun with that.

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    2. Debs, the scene from Kit's viewpoint sounds lovely! And of course Toby is in the background.

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    3. This is exciting! I’m enjoying watching the children develop. 😊

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  3. I definitely enjoy getting to know secondary characters. It's one reason I read series. The danger is balancing the secondary characters without them taking over the story and slowing things down.

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    1. You are right about that, Mark. I always try to have the secondary characters advance the plot in some way.

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  4. Debs, your secondary characters are an integral part of my love for this series. I’m always happy to see Melody and Doug taking their parts in a story. In fact, Debs, you are a master at making every character count in just the right way. I’m so looking forward to seeing what Rashid and Sidana bring to the table. I’m already intrigued by them.

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    1. You know I adore Melody and Doug, even when they are being contrary. I know more about Rashid from Necessary as Blood, but I really don't know much about Jasmine, and I think it will be very interesting to find out more.

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  5. Tantalizing! I agree with Kathy. Your secondary characters shine. Hazel, Doug, Melody all have become integral to the stories you tell and I look forward to hearing more about them in every book. I am eager to find out more about Rashid and Sidana. I know you won't disappoint. OMG, now I can hardly wait.

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  6. I love reading secondary characters - what a great scene you gave us - and I like writing them, too. It can also be a handy way not to clutter a story with too many new people. And since I already went to the trouble to create them in an earlier book, I know they have a good name and what they look like. I can bring back Barb from the hardware store, say, and then maybe she'll surprise me by waving her hand in the air, as you say.

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    1. That's a good point, Edith. If you can use a previously introduced character to advance the story, you don't clutter the book with new characters. Although, sometimes those new characters pop up unbidden, then go on to play a major part.

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    2. Andy is a good example of that last type. He was a walk-on, the first time we saw him. Now we're all broken-hearted that he and Melody have split, and we want to know if he and Poppy go on to world-wide domination of the pop charts.

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  7. My husband majored in English at Brown. When asked why he usually says because he enjoys reading novels so much. And when we met, both in our late 20's, after being single several years, we'd fallen into habits of reading while eating, which we just continued after we got married. So we talk about books and story a lot.

    Over the years we've decided that part of the draw of story is our human propensity for being nosy about other people's lives. Reading fiction lets us indulge that tendency, but without offending actual human beings by staring at them or watching them closely.

    That said, secondary characters, especially ones in series, further indulge our curiosity and imagination. It gives us a broader view of the lives we enjoy delving into so much, providing more clues about their character and backstory, and creating a richer background against which those players live and made decisions. It's all grist for the mill, as they say.

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    1. Great point, Karen! I suspect the driving force behind most novelists is nosiness. I am perpetually curious about people. Who are they? How did they get where they are? What are their lives like? And of course I always want to know what they had for breakfast, or dinner!

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  8. Yes eager to read more about these characters! Debs, do you have a pub date for this? Inquiring minds...

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  9. Debs, I agree with what several have said already -- secondary characters are a real strength of your series. And you may be pleased to know that I was ALREADY curious about Sidana. So I especially look forward to learning more about her. This excerpt definitely whets my appetite!

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  10. Secondary characters are such fun. They bring humanity, or stress, to the main characters and it's wonderful when they have lives of their own. Well done.

    P.S., I tried to turn the page to read more. Didn't work :(

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    1. I love that, Kait! And there is actually more to that scene, but the rest would have been a big spoiler, so I had to cut it where I did.

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    2. I know that feeling all too well, Kait.

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  11. Oh, you could have fun with these two, Debs.

    I love writing my secondary characters, sometimes even more than the main characters. They always are able to surprise me.

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    1. Yes, sometimes even more than the main characters, I agree, Liz. I think because they are a surprise, and there is a freedom to it. Our main characters are somewhat set in their lives, but the secondary characters can be or do anything!

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  12. I wonder if Jasmine ever has a bad hair day. Rashid, despite his gallows humor, is a great guy with lots of potential.

    I enjoy writing my secondary characters, particularly an intrepid gardener, Betty Birdsall, who has her standards.

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    1. Too funny, Margaret. And actually, I don't think Jasmine ever does have a bad hair day. It's black and straight and very pretty, which is one reason she--literally--never lets her hair down.

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    2. Speaking as a person who has dealt with straight hair all my life, there are bad hair days, particularly in colder climates. On the days when your wool coat stirs up static electricity, you can walk down a street looking like you're permanently attached to a Van De Graaff generator, with your hair reaching out to make new friends in every direction.

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    3. I've had those days, Gigi - including yesterday indoors!

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    4. I think Jasmine's hair behaves even with static, lol.

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    5. Gigi, I just looked in the mirror a few minutes ago, and there are stray short hairs sticking up all over. Honestly, it's like having a head full of unruly teenagers.

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  13. I care about all your second characters Debs and I'm curious to know more about those two.
    I laughed out loud reading : " Play safe or I'll see you naked " . Then I thought it a good advice for the time we are living.

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    1. I thought the same thing when I wrote it, Danielle.

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  14. Oh yes, Debs, I love reading about the secondary characters, yours especially! I've just been wondering what is happening with Gemma's old neighbors; I think I remember little hints that maybe they would be getting back together. I'm sure you'll let us know when you know! And, yes, I remember Rashid very well - glad he's getting a bigger part on the canvas.

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    1. I will have to check in on Hazel and Tim. I'd like to know what's going on with them, too!

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  15. Well, now I want to know more about these characters too! (good work)

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  16. You had me at "I had to wonder why . . ."

    I'm looking forward to this book, of course. Happy holidays to you!

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    1. And of course when I started wondering, I came with all sorts of ideas. We'll see which ones stick. And happy holidays to you, Brenda!

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  17. As much as I love certain authors (Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers come to mind), their secondary characters (Bunter, Detective Inspector Fox etc) never get a chance to step into the story and reveal more of their lives--just a snippet here and there.

    But this is what I love about a series--when an author can really nail a secondary character and you find yourself wishing for more of them--and sometimes your wish comes true! I'm looking at you, Deborah! And one author--Anne Perry--has found a way to do this with her Christmas novellas. These always feature one or two secondary characters, who step forward in their own story.

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    1. The Todds just did that with their novella, A Hanging at Dawn. We finally got to learn more about Simon! And Bess's parents. I would say that most of the secondary characters in those classic mysteries simply function as foils for the detective. Interesting thought. I'd love to have seen Peter from Bunter's point of view.

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    2. I have read the Crawford books from the beginning. A lot of readers are getting tired (I see this in reviews quite often, not just my own) of will they or won't they get together. I don't see where that would be the end of the series. Certainly wasn't for Duncan and Gemma. Normally three books or four books is my limit, and then a following book filled with angst of fears and semi-regrets. I did pre-order A Hanging at Dawn and enjoyed it very much. So, I have a question, do authors pay attention to what reviewers or readers who comment in other formants say about their books? Are they ever influenced? I try not to make comments that would ever signal what I think should happen ( not my brief), but I will admit I did so with a NetGalley review of a Bess Crawford book. Was I totally out of line?

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    3. Maureen, that's a difficult question. I can't speak for other authors. I know I worried a lot about whether readers would keep reading if Duncan and Gemma got together, but I couldn't very well ask. What it came down to in the end was what worked for me. I felt too many books of will they-won't would be tiresome to write, and I didn't believe it. So you have to write what you honestly feel your characters would do.

      As for the Todds, I understand your frustration. But I also think Bess and Simon's relationship is very complicated (we understand a little more of that from the new novella) and also that Bess needs time to make her own way in the world after the war. What I would really like to see, as a long time fan of both series, is for Rutledge to have a little smidgen of happiness. I don't know how the Todds feel about that, however!

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    4. This from Caroline Todd about Bess (she had trouble posting):

      As long Bess was a nursing Sister, she could not become involved with anyone or she would have had to resign. And as her father’s daughter, it was natural for her to put duty first, her personal life second. But the war is over, the Peace Treaty completed, and she must face her future. And she does just that in AN IRISH HOSTAGE—coming out in July—in fact, in the next book after that as well. So stay tuned!!

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    5. I can't wait for this! And for the new Rutledge, A FATAL LIE, coming in February! I'm sure Caroline visit then to tell us all about it.

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  18. Oh Debs, you ever disappoint. Can't wait to read the new book, maybe an ARC again if I'm lucky. What a long year this has been! Miss seeing you and my Texas kids, longing for the newest in my brood, finally here, yet I can't go hold him yet.

    But soon it will be over ... humming "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when ... "

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    1. Maybe next summer, Ann? Fingers crossed we can all get together soon!

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    2. Next summer. And you and Rick must come to the lake for some serious barbeque and adult beverages.

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  19. I think one of the core strengths of your series is that you make your characters real people in a real world. We all know that each of us, as readers and human beings, are the complete, fully-rounded heroes of our own stories. You, as a writer, know that about all your characters, too. You know that, if you shift the focus just slightly, the complete, fully-rounded lives of your secondary characters can step onto center stage. And people don't live in a void, do they? They have parents and siblings and old college chums who barge into the action at the oddest moments. You give us the whole Duncan and Gemma community, so Ronnie Babcock, and Joe the gardener, and (I live in hope) Alan Grant still exist out there and might drop back in at any time. Then they will introduce us to their Aunt Mildred or Cousin Syd, who will lead us off in other, new directions. It keeps your stories fresh, and makes each new novel a sort of homecoming for your readers, who want to live in that beloved community again for a while.

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    1. Oh, Ronnie and Juliet, and the wonderful Alan Grant... I like too many of them. And I really, really did love Joe.

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  20. Love secondary romances!!!!

    And tomorrow, I'm going to talk about feeling you have TOO MANY secondary characters all jostling for screen time.

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    1. What a problem to have, right? Your secondary characters add so much to every story and keep us coming back for more--not just Clare and Russ!

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    2. I love YOUR secondary characters, Julia. And I know exactly what you mean about too many jostling for screen time!

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  21. I think I lost my first try at answering this, a bright shiny object must have appeared in my sight. Anyways, Ms Crombie your secondary characters are one of your series greatest strengths; more so than in most any other series I read. Maybe Louise Penny and you have secondaries of equal strengths. I have your secondaries mostly divided, and if you are out of London, I miss the London gang, if you are in London and the kids are mostly doing well and off-stage, I miss them, etc, etc.

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    1. I miss the secondary characters when they are not on-screen, too, Maureen. I missed all the London characters in A Bitter Feast, so it's nice to get back to at least some of them again. It's hard to work them all into one book, though, with the ever-expanding cast!

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    2. Oh absolutely I realize you couldn't include all of them. So every couple of years I solve the problem of missing them and I go back and reread your entire series. PS At least two, maybe three of your books got me through the night of the very bad burn where I had to keep my hand in ice water, pain killers didn't help, and I was too stubborn to go to an E.R.

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    3. Oh, Maureen, how awful. Glad I was able to help in some small way.

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  22. You don't know where it's going? I DO! That scene is overflowing with sexual tension, right? Even to the descriptions of the furniture. oxoxoxo You are amazing!

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    1. Oh, Hank, you are brilliant!! I had to go back and reread the scene! You are absolutely right about the furniture and all the descriptions, but I didn't see it when I was writing it!!!

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    2. That is hilarious. I truly thought you did it all on purpose.

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  23. I think the secondary characters add so much to a series. Who they are, how they know the main characters, and how they interact with them says a lot about the main characters actually. I love to watch their development and how they affect relationships and story lines.

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  24. Late to the party again.

    Debs, as a new writer with a novel in progress, I am having fun creating secondary characters and how they relate to the main characters. As a reader, I enjoy reading about secondary characters. Sometimes they "steal the scene".

    Re: John Lewis, I visited the shop on Sloane Square in London. On my last trip to London years ago. I was browsing at John Lewis when I met a deaf lady who works there. She was awaiting her first cochlear implant surgery and I recall we had a conversation about the CI and surgery. She was getting her operation covered by NHS.

    Which reminds me. Debs, does Gemma and Duncan have health coverage under NHS? I would presume that almost everyone in your books have NHS coverage?

    Look forward to reading your next Gemma and Duncan novel whenever it is published.

    Diana

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    1. Diana, it's Peter Jones in Sloan Square, but it is owned by John Lewis. I love that store, too, and have shopped there many a time. If you remember, that's where Gemma gets her wedding dress!

      As for the NHS, yes, they will all be covered.

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    2. Deborah,

      Oops! I meant Peter Jones. Why on earth did I mix up these two names? Thanks for reminding that is where Gemma got her wedding dress.

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  25. The t shirt sounds like the one I've seen that says, "Be careful or you will end up in my next book."
    This is a tantalizing bit you've offered us.

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  26. Time for a spin off book/series! Please.

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  27. Sounds like it's going someplace exciting! Love the bus photo and the London lights.

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  28. This scene left me wanting more! I love all the secondary characters in your books. I so hope you give Rashid a ❤️ interest. Jasmine deserves happiness also. Prickly personalities can be so misunderstood. Thank you for this glimpse of your next book.

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  30. This is what you’ve managed to create— a fully peopled universe of people we feel we know and care about. As always I can’t wait to read it

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  31. I love and enjoy reading about your secondary characters as much as Gemma and Duncan. They are very real to me and I care about them too.

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