April 28 – May 4: “Share an anecdote from when you used an incident from your own life in a novel.”

thriller-roundtable-logo5 This week ITW Members Mark Alpert, Colin Campbell, Paige Dearth, Tim Waggoner Bernard Maestas, Donald Bain, Neil Russell and Shelley Coriell share an anecdote from when they used a real-life incident in a novel. Bonus question: “Do readers sometimes relay their own stories from real life that dovetail with your story?”


The Furies by Mark AlpertMark Alpert is author of The Furies, a new thriller from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. A contributing editor at Scientific American, he specializes in weaving real science into his novels. His earlier thrillers — Final Theory, The Omega Theory and Extinction — have been published in twenty-three languages. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children and is a proud member of Scientific American’s softball team, the Big Bangers.


Montecito Heights (2)Ex-policeman. Ex-soldier. International tennis player. And full-time crime novelist. Colin Campbell is a retired police officer in West Yorkshire, having tackled crime in one of the UK’s busiest cities for 30 years. He is the author of UK crime novels, Blue Knight White Cross and Northern Ex, and US thrillers Jamaica Plain and Montecito Heights featuring rogue Yorkshire cop Jim Grant. He counts Lee Child and Matt Hilton among his fans.


When Smiles Fade by Paige DearthPaige Dearth was a victim of child rape and spent her early years yearning desperately for a better life. Living through the fear and isolation that marked her youth, she found a way of coping with the trauma of her past and the angst that scarred her present: she developed the ability to dream up stories grounded in reality that would prove cathartic for her and provide her with a creative outlet. Paige’s novels are a fine balance between what lives on in her imagination and the evil that lurks in the real world.


the way of all fleshShirley Jackson Award-nominated author Tim Waggoner has published over thirty novels and three short story collections of dark fiction. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program.



Say That to My Face by Bernard MaestasBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games or the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book. You can learn more about SAY THAT TO MY FACE, Bernard Maestas and his work on his official Facebook Page.


beverly-hills-is-burningNeil Russell is founder and president of Site 85 Productions, an entertainment-focused intellectual property rights company based in Beverly Hills.  He is a former senior executive with Paramount, Columbia, MGM, United Artists and Carolco—the company that produced the Rambo movies, Terminator 2, Total Recall and Basic Instinct.  Site 85 has entered into rights agreements with numerous companies, including Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Columbia, Disney, Universal, Warners, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, F/X, Activision and many others.


LightsOutcvr2Donald Bain is the author or ghost/author of more than 120 books, including collaborating with his wife Rénee Paley-Bain on 43 original murder mysteries in the “Murder, She Wrote” series. He also writes Washington-based thrillers in the Margaret Truman Capital Crimes series (Undiplomatic Murder comes out in July), and his novel, Lights Out! will be published in May. He can be reached at www.donaldbain.com, and is represented by the D4EO Literary Agency.


BrokenCoverShelley Coriell is an award-winning author of romantic suspense and novels for teens. Her debut suspense, The Broken, kicks off the Apostles Series from Grand Central Forever and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. A six-time Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Finalist, Shelley lives in Arizona with her family and the world’s neediest rescue weimaraner.



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  1. Trying to get the first word this time!

    Hi, again, readers. For those that don’t know me, I’m Bernard Maestas, author of the INTERNET TOUGH GUYS series. This is my third roundtable and I’m very excited to participate once again and also to be in such esteemed company.

    Many of my story ideas are combinations of real life events or circumstances combined with my own creative twists to them. It’s a tool I use often, especially when I’m stuck, I just try and think of a remotely similar situation in my life and take it from there. However, I also twist and embellish the tale until it’s almost unrecognizable from the original.

    Of my published (or soon-to-be, in this case) series, the best example is my second novel, GODWIN’S LAW. In it, the heroes are tasked with rescuing a young woman who has been lured, via an internet acquaintance, into a dangerous international cult, where she was held captive and experimented on. Without giving away too much of the story (especially its twist) and without giving away details that might lead people to identify the inspiration, I can say this: The original idea was based on a true story of someone I knew who was lured into what she thought was a loving relationship online. Instead, she found herself largely held prisoner and abused before finally escaping. I used many details about her, her story and her background to lay the foundation for the novel, but the two diverge wildly.

    Last year, I wrote four novels to completion, of which only one of them seems likely to be published. However, of the unpublished works, a great example of this week’s topic would be my book BULLET TO THE HEART. I experienced a death of someone very close to me and was wracked by grief, though it was a simple (if the death of a loved one can ever just be simple) situation. There was no conspiracy or foul play, no long battle with illness, it was just a condition with a sudden and fatal onset. However, I needed a way to deal with the overwhelming sadness of it all, so I started writing. I took a character I’d been wanting to work on for a while and started with the death and the grieving. I wrote a few chapters centered around that while the threads of the rest of the story wove together. Around this, I wrote a murder mystery with a heroine out for revenge. Aside from the common threads of loss and grieving, the finished product really had little to do with the original inspiration.

    So, I use these real life instances in a majority of my stories, but I twist and flavor them with my own creativity until they become anything but autobiographical. That said, I’ve been told more than once I should write more about my life. I considered (and started, briefly) writing a story based on my year as a rookie police officer but found it sort of disappointing. If I dramatize it too much, it’s been done to death. If I don’t dramatize it enough, there’s not as much of a story, more a collection of incidents without a unifying thread. Maybe I’ll revisit it someday…

  2. From Neil Russell:

    Like many authors, I became a novelist because I have had a number of unusual experiences that only I could disclose. When you’re in the movie business, you are invited places and shown or told things not typically shared with others—even the press.

    For example, the interior minister of a foreign country once provided me with an AK-47-equipped military escort and an armored SUV to take me to a mystery-shrouded archeological dig. For security and political purposes, the site’s location had been kept out of the country’s guidebooks, and no outside scholars had been permitted in. Seeing this place in person was stunning and, in some ways, a life-altering experience. I haven’t yet written about it, but I will shortly.

    The quid pro quo is that you don’t betray anyone’s confidence. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk about what you see, only that it doesn’t track back to a particular person—or in the case of the archeological site—to a particular government.

    On a different note, in the Author’s Introduction of my new novel, BEVERLY HILLS IS BURNING, I try to give a sense of growing up third generation in the movie business. From some of the events I heard discussed—and others I experienced—I extrapolated incidents for the novel. I had unique insight and was able to use it without compromising the innocent or the sources.

    My novel, CITY OF WAR, about Russian dissident art and savant forgery was based on interactions with government and museum officials here and abroad.

    WILDCASE, my novel about the illicit trafficking of tigers, was derived from stories told me by competing countries as we sought permission to shoot a picture. Each government was attempting to discredit the other, and some of the claims were disquieting but revelatory.

    My books are very clearly fiction, but some of the events are rooted in actual, similar or parallel circumstances. I’ve been to amazing places and met extraordinary people—some of them dangerous. But given the opportunity to have dinner with an insurgent guerrilla leader, an edgy despot or a defecting intelligence officer, I believe most of us would take it.

    As to the question posed, I haven’t yet heard stories from any readers that dovetail with my own.

  3. The beginning of my first novel, Believe Like A Child, is based on my real-life experiences as a sexually abused child. Although, my books are fiction, I do everything I can to keep my stories as close to real as possible.

    My readers who have suffered child abuse have written me many notes and emails to tell me they felt like they were not alone or that I have told their story for them. Other readers, who haven’t suffered abuse, write to tell me they have started volunteering at homeless shelters, The Boys & Girls Club of America and other agencies local to where they live.

    I love to hear from my readers and will continue to inject realism into my stories so that readers can relate to my characters and hopefully find inspiration through the darkness.

  4. I was in the midst of ghosting a long-running mystery/thriller series of novels for a well-known person when a fascinating incident from my own life lent itself perfectly to the story I was currently writing. I stopped. Did I want to squander an interesting anecdote from my own life to enhance a book that would carry someone else’s byline? I didn’t ponder it very long. I’ve always written with the philosophy that whatever I’m writing at the moment is the most important thing I’ll ever write, and maybe the last. I used the anecdote in that novel. To me it marked my passage as a professional writer, and after having written 120 books I’ve never looked back and second-guessed that decision.
    In my most recently published novel in the Margaret Truman Capital Crimes series, UNDIPLOMATIC MURDER, I live vicariously through my main character, perpetually disgruntled Washington D.C. private detective, Robert “Don’t call me Bobby” Brixton. While I’ve never personally lived through the sort of life-threatening experiences I have him facing, he’s a convenient conduit through which I can express my own views of the world in which we live. Books in that series also reflect the disdain which Margaret Truman, the president’s daughter, now deceased, had for official Washington, D.C. Her views were right-on, and it was satisfying working closely with her to put those views between the covers of bestselling novels.
    LIGHTS OUT!, my own recently published novel, centers around Carlton Smythe, a regular guy who’s faced with a monumental male mid-life crisis. He falls madly in love with a South American bombshell outside his loveless marriage, which leads him into an unlikely criminal scheme that goes horribly awry. While we all may face a mid-life crisis in one form or another in our lives, I’d never found myself in quite the same position that I put him in. But I was able to play out my own fantasies in the comfort of my office without suffering the same fate that I imposed upon Smythe.
    Finally, as a result of “being” Jessica Fletcher for 25 years in the “Murder, She Wrote” series of 43 books based upon the popular TV show, I’ve found myself having to be this fictitious character, maybe not to the extent of getting up every morning and putting on a pretty dress and makeup, but in how she navigates her life and keeps her sanity while tripping over dead bodies wherever she goes. Loyal fans know that Jessica Fletcher doesn’t drive, doesn’t even have a driver’s license. But because I am a licensed pilot I couldn’t resist having her take flying lessons and earn her own ticket. And because I have Jessica travel in many of the novels, I’m able to have her experience the same sort of adventures while on the road that I’ve enjoyed over the years.
    As for readers relaying their own stories that dovetail into the ones that I write, I enjoy using real places in the books whenever possible, including restaurants and hotels (provided I have something positive to say about them). A number of readers have planned trips based upon those on which I send Jessica, and many offer their own favorite places in which to set scenes. There’s nothing more satisfying (and helpful) for a writer than to have a two-way communication going with readers. I learn a lot from them, and their anecdotes about their own lives often end up as fictitious elements of Jessica Fletcher’s world.

  5. In my debut romantic thriller, THE BROKEN, my heroine’s sidekick is a blind Vietnam veteran named Smokey Joe who is based loosely on my father. Many of Smokey Joe’s antics are stolen straight out of my childhood. Like my father, cantankerous but lovable Smokey Joe treats skin wounds with Super Glue, teaches the heroine how to shoot, and wires a shed with C-4.

    Yes, I had an fascinating childhood.

    As for readers relaying stories that end up in my books? You bet! My recently released young adult book–GOODBYE, REBEL BLUE–is the story of a snarky teen who is forced to write a bucket list for a detention assignment. When talking with some of my teen readers about bucket lists, one girl joked around that before she died she wanted to hop in taxi and scream to the driver, Follow that car!

    It was too good NOT to use.

    Looking forward to a great week here on the Thriller Roundtable!

    Shelley Coriell
    THE BROKEN (The Apostles Book #1) coming Apr. 29, 2014 from Grand Central Forever
    “Intense…top-notch romantic suspense.” — Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
    “A definite must-read.” — RT Book Reviews Top Pick!

    1. Good morning, Shelley. Nice to meet you.

      Other than my non-fiction book, CAN I STILL KISS YOU?, which is about speaking to kids about cancer, my novels, by design, are not suitable for teens. They’re edgy–very edgy.

      When you are writing for a younger audience, how do you decide where to draw the line? My two sons were raised around the movie business and traveled, saw and heard more than the average kid. But they enjoyed books and movies targeted to their peer group as well.

      I’m curious how a professional makes such decisions.


      1. Great to meet you, Neil.

        Many authors of YA lit, including me, don’t worry so much about drawing a line but honoring our characters and their story journeys. Teens, in particular, can spot the BS and aren’t afraid to call it where they see it.

        I write what many consider “clean teen,” and while most of my readers are 12-17, some are as young as 10. The first draft of GOODBYE, REBEL BLUE included strong language, including more than a dozen f-words. In revisions I realized I was using swear words to show my MC’s rebellious nature, which was a woeful case of lazy writer-itis. On the second pass I edited out all but one f-word, not as a form of self-censorship, but to better serve my story.

        Personally, I think there’s a place for mature and graphic content in YA, but those who do it must be masters of the craft. And truly, there’s some masterful work coming out of YA these days. John Green, anyone?

        1. Thanks, Shelley. I probably won’t risk YA myself, but my next novel has a character who writes it. I’ll try to make it sound authentic. NR

  6. Two years ago I traveled with my family to the Amazon rainforest. We flew to Iquitos, Peru — the largest city in the world that’s inaccessible by road — and embarked on a riverboat that plied the Amazon River and two of its biggest tributaries, the Ucayali and the Marañon. At one point in our adventures we landed on a rare promontory of dry land and hiked a mile or two into the forest. There was wildlife everywhere, but I was most fascinated by an insect that our guide pointed out. It was an unusually large ant with oversized mandibles and a pointed abdomen. The guide called it a bullet ant, named after its vicious sting. People who have been stung by the ant say it’s as painful as being struck by a bullet.

    This detail got my attention, of course. I asked the guide for more information about the ant. He said the tribesmen who live in the rainforest use bullet ants in an initiation ritual. They weave a small sack from the jungle vegetation and trap the ants between the tightly woven leaves. The heads and thoraxes of the ants protrude from the outside of the sack, and the pointed abdomens wriggle on the inside. To pass the initiation ritual, the teenagers in the tribe have to stick a hand into the sack and endure the stinging of the trapped ants for ten minutes. Their hands are paralyzed for several days afterward.

    By the time the guide finished the story, I knew I had to put bullet ants in my next novel. They make their appearance on page 293 of The Furies, which went on sale last week.

    1. That’s absolutely fascinating! I’ve never heard of “bullet ants” before…

      I’ve never had the opportunity to travel abroad (unless Canada counts, which I don’t think it does) but I imagine it provides a lot of opportunity to gain valuable experience to be applied to writing.

  7. Bernard, you must have been up with the birds to get that on so quick. I am lagging behind you all this week. And I’m certainly not going to win the longest post award. All very enjoyable.
    As for the subject, this is a hard one because my first two UK crime novels were pretty much one long true life anecdote. Most of them mine but some were things I knew of or encountered. Apart from the peeping tom scene. That was wishful thinking. Okay, here we go.
    Back when I was a fledgling police constable I was very shy and inexperienced. I’m double crewed with Freddy Fox, my tutor constable when we’re called to a naked woman with a knife. When we get to the address the neighbors are screaming and waving their arms. “She’s in there. She’s in there.” Pointing at a house with the front door open. Not the best time for Fred to tell me I was lead. I went through the door. No woman. I checked downstairs. No woman. I go upstairs to the landing. This skinny naked woman comes out of a room dripping blood and waving a piece of broken mirror. Now up to this point in my life I’d not seen too many naked women. Skinny flat chested ones or otherwise. I didn’t know where to grab hold of her. She dashed downstairs and I followed into the front garden. We did a little headless chicken chase around the garden with Fred yelling at me to grab her. The neighbors were yelling at me to grab her. And I’m thinking, what do I grab hold of? Not to mention the possibility of being cut with the blade. Ambulance is en route. Neighbors are in a frenzy. Eventually Fred takes pity on me and steps in. He grabs her round the waist and takes the blade off her. The ambulance took her away and Fred lived off the story in the police canteen for most of my service.
    I can’t remember which book that ended up in but it’s there somewhere. As for readers? I’ve not had any skinny naked women tell me I’d read their minds. Not yet anyway.

    1. Colin, it helps that my time zone is like 12 hours ahead of you.

      Your story made me laugh. Those rookie year stories are always the best, I think, the ones where you were dumbstruck with disbelief, asking, “Am I really seeing this right now?” After a while on the street, things don’t shock us as much anymore but there’s always those first few calls…

  8. Having not participated in one of these events prior, I’m pleased to be part of such an accomplished group. A few questions:

    Mark, having also spent time in Brazil—and the Amazon—but having thankfully missed bullet ants, I’d be interested in your observations about the collision of modern law enforcement with local customs that pre-date European arrival—and usually have more relevance.

    Donald, you’ve been able to successfully navigate writing from both a male and female point of view, something few can do believably—men or women. Were you able to make that shift seamlessly? And are you also able to think, write and speak in more than one language, which would seem to be a somewhat congruent skill?

    Paige, your experiences are outside my ability to comment, and I’ve not read your work, but are you easily able to transition into another voice and later recognize the character as having separated himself or herself from you and your past? I’ve spent considerable time with former Vietnam POWs, and they struggle with that separation sometimes just going into a store. What authors do is far more intimate, and I’d be interested in your approach and results, should you chose to share them.

    Bernard, as someone who has spent thirty years making titles work for motion pictures, I want to commend you on SAY THAT TO MY FACE. In Hollywood we strive for aggressive lines people won’t forget. If you write like you title, you’ve got a film in your future.

    Colin, I’m a longtime fan of British cops and detectives in fiction. There’s a gene somewhere that lets them tell extremely clever stories in limited spaces. A neighborhood, a house, even a simple basement. Assuming I’m correct, and you also carry the gene, how did it impact an LA story, which couldn’t be further from an intimate space?


    1. Hi Neil — I’ve always felt comfortable writing in the female voice, although there may be women who feel I miss the point now and then, including my wife and collaborator, Renee. Some people assume that I put on my basic little black dress and white pearls every morning and go to work, which isn’t true (I swear). I suppose the trick is to forget what gender you are while writing and get deeply into the character, no matter whether it’s male or female. As for speaking another language, there was a time when I could get by speaking Spanish, but all these years have erased that ability.

  9. I often use bits and pieces of my own life in my fiction, although only those closest to me would ever realize it. In an early novel of mine, LIKE DEATH, I included a playground I used to take my then young daughter to, It had a creepy swingset with heads of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion on it, as well as an awkward (and not very safe-looking) swing designed for wheelchair users. LIKE DEATH is an extremely dark and surreal novel, and the scene that takes place in the park where that playground exists is one of the most nightmarish — and remarked upon — chapters in the book. Readers often refer to it as THAT chapter. My daughter is now 19, and she decided to read LIKE DEATH. I was worried that she’d get to THAT chapter and discover that I’d transformed one of her fondest childhood memories into a bizarre scene that even brain bleach wouldn’t erase from her mind. But after she finished the chapter, she told me that it was cool to see details from real life worked into a story. She did say the weird elements were REALLY weird. “But that’s okay,” she added. “I still accept you.” Parental crisis averted!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tim. Your heads-of-Oz swing set is such a vivid word pic, and I can see why this scene would be so powerful…the grisly heads juxtaposed with a child’s amusement. Good stuff!

  10. Thanks Bernard. Dumbstruck pretty much describes the first couple of years in the police. Having a sheltered childhood didn’t prepare me for the oddities of human life.
    Neil. Since the protagonist is English it is exactly those differences that make him see life from a new angle compared to the rest of LA. I’ve never seen such a mixture of strange creatures as I did walking around Hollywood. And I’m not talking about the pink fluffy dogs small enough to fit in your pocket.

    1. I’m with you, Colin. Earlier in the year I visited downtown L.A. for research on book #3 of my Apostles series, which is set mostly in the Warehouse/Arts District. Every time I turned a corner, I saw characters full of so much STORY. There was one graffiti artist who was so intense and animated that I watched him instead of the art he was creating. #PeopleWatchingInLA

  11. Years ago I attended a charity auction and offered to name a character in an upcoming “Murder, She Wrote” after the highest bidder. A woman won the bidding and asked that the character be named after her elderly mother, who lived in the south. I intended to make the character named after her a very minor one, but as I wrote I became more enamored of the character and she took on a major role, helping Jessica Fletcher solve a murder. The mother whose name appeared in the book was so excited that she was Jessica Fletcher’s sidekick and was Jessica’s friend that she contacted her local newspaper, which did a large spread about her, as well as the book and her role in it. I loved having given this woman her fifteen minutes of fame.

    1. Really nice thing to do Donald, and a nice result. We did an auction for a walk-on in a series, and the winner brought the entire family, some from as far away as France. There must have been thirty of them, which put studio parking to the test. Then, when the big moment arrived, and the director yelled, “Quiet on the set,” it took several takes before everyone got the message that didn’t mean applauding when their relative came on.

  12. Another LA story Neil. Walking the streets downtown I came across CSI:New York filming with Gary Sinise. During a break in filming I introduced myself to a member of the crew and asked if they minded me taking a few pictures. When he learned I was an ex-cop who did CSI work (SOCO in the UK) I was introduced to the police technical adviser, an ex LAPD cop. He introduced me to Gary Sinise and we had a nice chat about real life and TV CSI. Had a great time. Photos with the stars etc. Later, when I wrote Montecito Heights I put that entire scene in the book, long before it looked like it would get published. When it was picked up I realised that maybe Gary Sinise wouldn’t want our conversation verbatim in a fictional scenario. My agent checked with his agent who sent him the chapter to read. Thankfully he said it was okay. A very generous man. Despite embarrassing myself by thinking he had false legs after Forrest Gump.

    1. Colin. I don’t know Gary, but I have friends who do, and they say he’s a good guy, so I’m not surprised to hear it confirmed. I just ordered MH, so I can check out LA from an across the pond point of view. Can’t get enough cop stuff. NR

  13. Neil. Thanks. I hope you don’t recognise anybody else in there. If you do it’s purely coincidental, since I don’t know any Hollywood types. A few cops and a lot of porn stars. For research. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Let me know if I got anything terribly wrong. I like the sound of yours too. Which should I start with?

    1. Colin. Beverly Hills is Burning is the latest and very LA. My character, Rail Black, is also half British, so you can correct me where I got him wrong. I should mention, however, that all my novels are edgy, and you may feel compelled to go to confession afterward. NR

  14. Edgy? I was a police officer for 30 years. I’ll take edgy over people wanting to stab, bottle or petrol bomb me. I retired before people started shooting at us regularly. Ordered it today. Looking forward to more LA stories. Wambaugh’s The Choirboys got me started in crime fiction. Maybe see you at Bouchercon in Long Beach.

    1. You’re right, cautioning a cop about edgy is pretty amusing. In my defense, having been taken to task by more than a few readers for leaving them “aghast” at some of the sex and violence I’ve written, my knee-jerk reaction is to make it clear to everybody I’m no Nick Sparks.

      What intrigues me is that I’ve never had a complaint from a female reader. Ever. It’s always some guy praying for my soul or who has an anti-Hollywood agenda, namely how movies are destroying the culture of “real Americans.” Whatever that is.

      I take solace in the fact that I have yet to receive one of those letters that doesn’t look like it was written by a somebody who didn’t finish third grade and who hurls as much profanity as he’s complaining about.

      Early Wambaugh was good. One of my good friends and a former production chief at Carolco produced The Onion Field, though it wasn’t our picture. I just watched it again last week, and it still holds up. Woods was terrific as he always is, but an unknown named Ted Danson made the paring with Savage work. Anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. You’ll never forget it. And between that picture and LA Confidential, LAPD of the 50s and 60s gets laid bare.

      1. LA Confidential, one of my all time favourites. Also, for LA cops, TVs Southland made me feel like I was working again. But for early LA, Chinatown takes the biscuit. As for sex in books. It’s better than getting your head bashed in. We’re a long time past the first kiss, then fade to smoking afterwards. Nice talking to you. Take care.

  15. I am a film director here in New York. In the plot to my second book, The Hammer of God, the terrorist fake a movie shoot. With permits and police to see they work undisturbed, they plan, prep and execute an actually terrorist plot from the cover of a movie production unit. All it took was $50K in the Chase bank down on Broadway, with that they got an insurance policy naming NYC as co-insured and workers comp. In one part of the book, on the first and only day of shooting (the board called for 23 day/nights)the actors complain to one another that the director only seems to care about the props. One prop being a helicopter the other a suitcase nuke.

    At one point my main guy quips, “Movies, they’ll be the death of Western culture.”

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