Sunday, April 17, 2016

Winston Churchill's Ungentlemanly Side

Was principled gentleman Winston Churchill also the master of dirty tactics?

You bet he was!

With his back to the wall in 1940 and invasion from the Nazis imminent, not only did he use every trick in the book… it turns out he "wrote the book"! I've covered it all in my latest release:

 Churchill's Secret Armies War Without Rules: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Behavior by Ian Hall

Monday, January 11, 2016

Two Old Farts Writing Science Fiction: Dennis E. Smirl & Ian Hall

The new series; Star-Eater Chronicles

Can you remember when real Science Fiction was Asimov’s Foundation, or Herbert’s Dune? When Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers, and Clarke did 2001: A Space Odessy?
Yeah, so can we.
So, fed up with the dark matter of today, Dennis and I got together to write some of our own. We didn't want to wallow in depression, though, we decided to write some old-fashioned Science Fiction, you know, the stuff with blasters and aliens, rockets and ray-guns, the type of SF from a more buoyant age, stuff that we’d like to read. No more cruel, dark, Dystopia, no more end-of-the-world scenarios, each dimmer and more depressing than the last, no Zombie apocalypse.
We decided to go back to the good old days of optimism, the eager look to the stars that once kindled longing in our childhood.
It wasn’t quite the dip into the age of Dan Dare, or Flash Gordon, but it was a definite vision into a time where the whole of mankind would rally together in the face of an alien foe, rather than wallow in fear in an age of terrorists and bomb-plots. It was a trip back to the day when the phrase ‘dirty bomb’, just meant one that had been rolled into a muddy puddle. It was a time of rockets to the Moon, then Mars, times when NASA actually launched rockets, not lectured about it.
Book 2: The Stars Are Fire

Dennis and I began with a universe containing a small human federation of planets; the Fellowship. Then we gave everybody a corporate entity to universally hate; BIG SPACE.
The MacCollie Company owned space travel, having invented both drives to take us to the stars. They allotted franchises, they literally controlled the very nuts and bolts of getting out to the stars. It gave us a good feeling to give the humans an enemy of sorts, but then again, things change bloody quick up there.

So, to our story… the STAR-EATER CHRONICLES. MacCollie (with their new FTL drive) have sent 1000 Survey-Scouts to the edges of the galaxy to map it for mankind… well for MacCollie to collate the findings and sell it to mankind.
Seth Gingko is one of those Scouts. When he reaches the edge of the galaxy, his contract is over, as payment for his five year mission (yes, it was a five year mission, Star Trek fans, an homage, we did it on purpose) he takes ownership of his one man Scout ship.
But being an owner-operator was never going to be easy. Seth discovers an invading fleet, and must warn Earth of the impending doom.
Thus begins volume one in the STAR-EATER CHRONICLES, A Galaxy Too Far; Seth’s first solo adventure. We’ve finished book 2, (The Stars Are Fire) and we’ve raced right into book three. We’ve put them on Amazon kindle, on Nook, iTunes, Kobo and in paperback.
It proves to be a great ride, but you better hold on to the safety bars, ‘cos it’s about to get real bumpy out there… real quick… and don't expect us to be "Politically Correct" about it.
After all, we are just two old farts....

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The SOE Counter Espionage Manual... How it Won World War 2

The 1943 SOE Manual; Available in Kindle and Paperback format

When we think of spies, we conjure images of Ian Fleming's James Bond, the suave 007, the ladies-man, licensed to kill.
But truth is always darker than fiction.

Around the town of Dunkirk in May 1940, the British Army had abandoned most of its tanks and artillery. As the men were transported home, Britain was truly at the‘darkest hour’ of World War 2. The newly appointed Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had a lot to do, and very little time or money to do it with.

Churchill poured every resource into the RAF, for if Hitler wanted to invade Britain, he would need control of the skies. But Churchill had many other plans, hatched in those ‘dark hours’… plans for small units that would survive Britain's defeat; the Commandoes, Long Range Desert Group, British Resistance (GHQ), and the cream of the crop; the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Formed from three separate military intelligence entities, the SOE would be solely responsible for counter-espionage, and behind-the-lines projects. Back then, many thought Britain itself would soon be under German control, and Churchill prepared against it. By the end of 1941, the SOE had a program of Special Training Schools, both in the Home Counties (near London) and in the depth of darkest Scotland, training agents for covert operations.

A manual was written, over 400 pages of studiously crafted courses in espionage, propaganda, cell making, demolition, and many more. Wrap those up with in-depth instruction on close combat, arms training, parachuting, fitness, and Morse code, and you have a ready supply of agents ready for action. But this was no Geneva Convention led syllabus. Agents were taught to shoot first, and ask questions later. One section in the manual, on searching prisoners, has the following advice… 

“Searching a Prisoner, if you are armed.... Kill him first. If that is inconvenient, make him lie face to the ground, hands out in front of him. Knock him out, with rifle butt, side or butt of the pistol or with your boot. Then search him."

That’s not exactly like the instruction at boot camp in the regular army. This was preparation for a dirty war, one run by knives in the throat and jackbooted Gestapo interrogations. The gloves were off, and both sides knew it. Nearly 7000 men and women graduated from the ‘schools’ in Britain, but the manual did not stop there. In the event of Britain falling to the Nazis, camps were set up in Palestine, Singapore and Canada. The newly formed OSS (soon to be the CIA) took the British manual and trained their own agents. Soon the SOE-trained agents were operating all over the world.

There are many stories of bravery in the SOE annals, and many thousands of men and women did not come back from their missions abroad. Their biggest day was D-Day, May, 1944. On the night before the invasion, over 1000 different operations were put into place behind enemy lines in occupied France; roads blocked, officers assassinated, railway bridges blown up, communication lines fouled, locomotives put out of action; of the 1000 operations, over 950 were successful, meaning the invasion of France could continue.

In 1940, Churchill told the SOE to “set Europe ablaze”, and they didn’t do a bad job of it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Your Book Title Doesn't Have To Suck!

Would these titles have caught your imagination? can you name the films?

Let's Face It; Book Titles Don't Need to Suck!

Who gets paid the most money on the planet to write the fewest words?
Copy writers? Good guess, but the people who get paid most… are the people who find the ‘perfect’ name for a movie, when the book’s name just sucks. If movies had been named like their books, we’d have a host of different movies…
Here’s a list of books, that got their name changed for the movie. (Thank Goodness)

  • We can Remember it for You Wholesale... Total Recall
  • Lost Moon... Apollo 13
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?... Blade Runner
  • Heart of Darkness... Apocalypse Now
  • Nothing Lasts Forever... Die Hard
  • Q & A... Slumdog Millionaire
  • Rope Burns... Million Dollar Baby
  • The Short-Timers... Full Metal Jacket

Getting a Great Title for Your Book.

For some writers the title of their book is a foregone conclusion; the words on the book’s spine come from a phrase, passage or action inside the book,.. and there’s little to no point in changing it. I'm quite sure when George Orwell penned Animal Farm, he had the catchy title in his mind from day one.
But if this isn’t the case why rack your brain trying to find the perfect title, when others have already done the research for you.
Whether you know the lyric or not, it tells a story

A Book Title from a Song Lyric

Getting your book title from song title or lyrics is always a good one, although if you make it too obvious, people may think you're shallow or that the book is fan based. Feels Like Teen Spirit, may sound good in your head, but perhaps just Teen Spirit may be better. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? might seem ideal for your romantic drama, but perhaps a simple All the Flowers, or Flowers Gone? will allude the whole quotation to some, while still finding a good title. You can also use a lyric, maybe with a twist... Davy's on the Road Again, is a good book title for a road novel, but how about Maybe's... On the Road Again. A twist to the original title, then made special. How about a line from Billy Joel's hit, Piano Man; Better Than Drinking Alone. Now, isn't that a good book title... doesn't it just draw you in?

Novel Titles from The Bible?

You could get ideas from other books. One superb source is Bible quotations. Here’s a very short list of book titles taken from the bible, and trust me, there are many hundreds… A Time to Kill (Grisham), East of Eden (Steinbeck), Number the Stars (Lowry), The Wings of the Dove (James), Behold the Man (Moorcock). How about taking words from other great works? With so many well-read poets, so many Victorian novelists, how could you not find something that fits your story like a glove? R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island is a treasure trove indeed... how about Take This Black Spot... or Shivering My Timbers

From Shakespeare quotations?

Here’s a short list of both books and films, the titles inspired by the great bard… The Mousetrap (Christie), The Dogs of War, Where Eagles Dare, Journey’s End (Sherriff), Band of Brothers. The book opposite doesn't need the first part of the Shakespeare quotation... Alas Poor Yorick..., it's implied enough already. Sometime subtlety is the best method of making a splash.

How About Stealing From Other writers?

Stealing from other literary sources seems to be quite a pastime with writers, here’s a few that have robbed titles from the lines of their predecessors… All the King’s Men, Cabbages and Kings, From Here to Eternity, The Grapes of Wrath, A Passage to India.

Let's face it, all these above methods are quite acceptable, but there is a wealth of book titles in one easily-accessed basket, in fact it lurks so close to your nose it’s a wonder you haven’t smelled the roses already…

Ten Billion Titles at Your Fingertips

One step down from the Film-naming job...? Television episodes. Yes, I said television episodes. Are you writing a thriller? So go look at a thrilling TV series. Wikipedia is chock full of episode lists for almost every television show ever aired. Whether you write Romance or Urban Adventure, there's a billion title variations just waiting for your novel's spine.
Below, just a few examples…
Blindspot… Episodes include; A Stray Howl, Eight Slim Grins, Bone May Rot, Split the Law, Cede your Soul. Let’s face it, not every title will fit your thriller book…. but these are catchy titles, and at the time of writing this blog, none show up in as a book title.
Sons of Anarchy… Episodes include; Old Bones, The Sleep of Babies, Orca Shrugged, Playing With Monsters.
If you’re writing horror, vampire, werewolf, you could do a lot worse than take a look at the numerous television offerings. Even The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural, with most titles a terrible cliché or a song title, is worth a look…
The Vampire Diaries… Episodes include; Fade Into You, Best Served Cold, My Brother’s Keeper.
Supernatural… Episodes include; Dead Man’s Blood, Red Sky at Morning, On the Head of a Pin.

And it’s not just a matter of trawling your own genre… try mixing it up. For instance, no one would think of looking at The Waltons for literary titles, but even there you’d be wrong. Each Waltons episode has a ‘the’ beginning, and although that stymies some titles, it also gives rein to a series…
The Waltons… Episodes include; The Last Mustang, The Hiding Place, The Changeling, The Last Ten days.

The Fun in the Litter; Mix 'n' Match

Then there’s the mix and match… just going from the titles above, we can switch the words around, we can shift one word, either obviously, or with an allusion to what’s between our book covers. Here’s my mix of the above; Red Sky at Mourning, Not My Mother’s Keeper, The Wings of Stars, The Last Changeling, The Stars… Shrugged, A Fade Into War, Wings of the Dive, Howls of Eagles.
You have no limit to the titles you can forge, new, stolen, mixed. But what you can be is original, while still being pithy and catchy.
Best of luck, and I hope I’ve fired your imagination.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Varney the Vampyre: A New Take on an Old Classic

Varney the Vampyre, first published as a Penny Dreadful in 1845, lives in vampire folklore as the pivotal moment in the creation of the genre. Its writers, James Rymer and Thomas Prest wrote over 200 weekly chapters spanning over four years. In 1847, it was published as a novel, and has been read by millions of aficionados.

The influences of this work are enormous; Dracula would never have been written without it, and most of the vampire fiction that followed in its wake owes much to the Victorian original.

I first came across Varney in my research into other vampires, and was immediately captured. Although the language is dated from modern terms, it retains an aura of Victorian melodrama imitative of Dickens and Thackeray.

In my new novel series, The Penny Dreadful Adventures, I find documents in my grandfather's will that present a history to me of his own grandfather, Alexander Mair MacNeill, the nephew of James Rymer, the author of these Penny Dreadfuls in London in 1845. 

In my story, Varney was actually a creation of three men; Rymer, Prest and MacNeill. Rymer and Prest churned the chapters out, and MacNeill edited them into a readable fashion. They made a formidable team. But all was not well in the partnership. As the chapters are written, Alexander begins to question the storyline itself, wondering if the vampire legend has a basis in fact.

This Penny Dreadful series is far more than a re-hashing of an old genre, it is a new, energized vignette into the lives of the times... bold, exciting, yet full of darkness and intrigue.

I included pages from the original texts of Victorian writings such as Varney the Vampyre by James M. Rymer, The Mysteries of London, by George Reynolds, and Burke & Hare by Alexander M. Mair himself.

There are two novels currently available in eBooks;

We hope you enjoy.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

How to name Your Characters Like a Professional

Bad Character Names Can Spoil Your Book

Have you ever been intrigued by a good storyline or hooked by a good book description, only to be knocked out of the story by badly named characters? I know I have. Esmeralda, Troy, Sebastian, Anastasia, Dirk and Xavier may sound good to you in your warm writing room, but if your story is set in backwoods America, you’ve missed the mark completely. Before your readers begin to feel empathy towards your characters, the names have to fit properly. They have to feel right.
Let’s look at a few examples… I walked into his office, shiny surfaces everywhere. behind the glass desk sat a suit costing ten grand. the name on the door said ‘Dudley Penbright III’. I knew I was in for a heck of a meeting. “Sit down, Constantine,” he said, “your father, Troy,warned me you were coming.” he pressed a button on the desk. “Esmerelda? Bring me two coffees… strong, black.”
What kind of people do those names conjure? What do they look like in your imagination?
Character names are about the most important items in your arsenal, and if you don’t use them properly, you could weaken or destroy your story.

The Influencing Criteria

There are four different conditions which influence your character’s names… Period, Geography, Genre, and Author’s Choice. If you do not adhere to these four tenets, whatever your skill level, you will fail as a writer.


Before you name a character, you need to consider the time period in which your story is set. Unless you’re involving time-travel, there’s no point in calling someone Debby, Brian, Brittany or Winston in the 1500’s. Back in those days, in the English speaking world, most names were taken from the bible, and even the most obscure of prophets were invoked; Ezekiel, Jedidiah, Malachi, etc, etc. If in doubt, look on Google for “most popular names in 1500’s”. You’ll get plenty there to satisfy any novel.


The geographical setting also plays a huge part in defining a character’s name. There are few David’s born in China, and as far as I know, an Eskimo has never been called Puff Daddy. Your characters must have names that fit them like a glove, almost becoming part of their persona. A Romanian thief would never sound convincing if you had named him Charlie Babbit.


Writing in any particular genre will obviously influence your choice of names. Detective stories have very solid character names, names that conjure an image instantly. Science Fiction is another genre that begs for some form of deviation from the norm… BUT NOT TOO MUCH! Don’t forget the first time you read Zaphod Beeblebrox from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy!

Author’s Choice

This is a special one; the choice of a name can be a conscious move by a writer to impart special features, either physical or emotional to their character. By their name the reader is coerced into regarding the character in a specific way, designed and directed by the writer. Arthur Dent (Hitchhikers again) is a classic example. He’s portrayed as a dithering Englishman… look at how Douglas Adams manipulates the name; Arthur (old-fashioned English name) Dent (simple single syllable, then dent, referring to being inherently flawed). Classic.

Flying by the Seat of Your Pants... NOT advised

One gem of advice; unless you’re in a different planet or universe, never make names up from scratch. An American Indian called Chakata, may sound okay to most ears, but if it means Crappy-Pants in Cherokee, you may find some bad reviews coming your way.

The SIX Keys to Success in Naming Your Characters

I have six methods I use for character’s names, all are equally legitimate, all have excellent qualities, and all will fit your characters perfectly, or add to the story. All these methods have merit when faced with doubt regarding naming a character.

Use Familiar Names; Names From Family or Friends

I’m Scottish/British, so it makes sense that when I’m writing either Scots characters or English/Welsh/Irish ones, that I dredge my memory for names from my childhood or family. In Opportunities, (a Scottish mission to Panama in 1698), I used some Christian names or surnames from my school; Hugh Wales, David Muirhead, some from my direct family, Henry Alisdair Harrison, Mungo Mair, James Ross, and a couple from my adult friends too, Andrew Rankine. I mix them up a bit, and get a nice selection of names.

Use Names From History

Using the names of accepted historical figures is an acceptable way of imparting some gravitas to a character, without actually making it obvious; king’s names, dukes, and famous people ie, John Stuart, James Baptist, Rupert Wheeler, Howard Weeks, Henry Haliburton. They just sound more important than the average character.

Use Names from the Media; Movies, Television, Music

Not one I go to frequently, but it does bring interesting names to the fore. Once I was looking for something just a little off the wall for a character… frustrated, I tried actors/pop groups, and came up with Maximillian Schenk. (Actor Maximillian Schell, add rock band Michael Schenker) He never was a major character, but I wanted something out of the ordinary. It worked. There’s also nothing wrong with ‘borrowing’ a name or two from the professionals… If you’re looking for cowboy names, flick through a Louis L’Amour novel.

Use Names of Towns, Cities, Counties, Rivers, Countries

Again, this is one to use sparingly, maybe just one character per book is enough, but if used correctly it does work well. Here’s a few to let you get the idea; Devon Standish, Jeremy London, Jason Glasgow , Walter Cheshire. And here’s a few real ones used already; Josey Wales, Jack London , Douglas Fairbanks, Rock Hudson, etc etc. Just look in Google maps, you’ll find a planet literally full of names.

Use Nicknames for Male Characters

Again, not one to use frequently, but if you have a cast of six or more men sitting at a bar, most groups will have at least one nicknamed character in the group, especially men! These can be rude- ‘PussySniffer’, gross- ‘ShitForBrains’, geographically orientated- ‘Flanders’, or cute- ‘TeddyBear’. Men love nicknames, women, not so much. Adding a nickname to a surname is also allowed; example, take Anthony Bunter, but he hates the name Anthony, so is quite happy with his friends calling him Fatty Bunter. What image does that name conjure? You've given Anthony a whole backstory, just with a nickname.

Need Authentic Foreign Names? Look No Further… Help is at Hand!

Thanks to this article, foreign names, such a huge bugbear of many writers, are now easy as pie! Every country in the world has an official soccer team. Most now have women’s teams too. These teams are all based on players having been BORN in that country. It’s a veritable GOLDMINE of perfect foreign names, endemic to that country! To find these, go to Wikipedia, the newspaper or the TV, and look at foreign soccer teams… YES, FOREIGN SOCCER TEAMS, (male or female) for the nationality of the character in your story. Mix the names, you get huge great results, and no clichéd ones either… these are the real heroes of a particular country, let’s take some examples, derived from this method; (Russian)- Ivan Vyhovski, (Romanian)- Tomas Lucescu, (Scottish)- Ally McLeish, (Italian)- Roberto Schilachi. All great names, all very solid characters, perhaps the names already inspire your mind to make a physical description.


Mix and Match All of the Above to Find Your Dream Team. Take the six categories above and let it be a guide. Find your own personal route to good character names. Mix and match, have nicknames and real ones. There’s no right way to do it, but perhaps you’ve now got more ideas to whet your appetite. You are now armed with all you need to successfully name your characters…
Let’s wrap this up with a list of six fictional hit-men, all sitting in a bar, (one Scot, one German, one American, one Russian, one Romanian, and an Englishman, quite a mix) discussing their next job. Getting the six names believable, and have them easy on the tongue is difficult. The first list is the names you may have chosen BEFORE reading this article… Hamish MacDougal, Franz Muller, Brad Dangerman, Vladimir Adamov, Conrad Petersen, and Johnny Beckham. A good bunch of characters, but clichéd as hell, and boring; no backstories there.
Now AFTER reading this blog we can do much better… Mousey Fairbairn, Ernst Baumann, Sheepdip, Dmitri Dulayev, Alexandru Gunesch, and Billy Nile. Man, I can see them in my mind already. they have names begging for a story; each one!
Try the above method; write a list of characters from various countries. See how easy it is now, with no more agonizing! What would your list of hitmen be? Pick another six countries, and change the hitmen into hit-girls!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Penny Dreadfuls; the 99c Kindle eBook of the Victorian Era

Penny Dreadfuls; the 99c Kindle eBook of the Victorian Era

My own homage to the genre, Kindle version

It’s easy for a generation to think they’re innovators, let’s face it, most generations are. A new age ushers in new inventions, and the world advances. But there’s one phrase that keeps rearing its ugly head; ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’.

The Arrival of 99c eBooks

In the early 2000's the arrival of the eBook turned the world of publishing on its head. Suddenly anyone could publish, authors had control of their own works and destinies, free and 99c eBooks were the norm and flooded  through the ether into devices of all kinds and sizes. Self-publishing shed some of its past stigma, and the indie writer now considered by many to be mainstream.
Yup, such a publishing revolution has never happened before… or has it?
Answer? It did.
Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo, 1845

The Adventure Novel, but not for the Common Man

Almost 200 years previously in the early 1800’s, the modern adventure/romantic novel had broken through as a genre, but the books were expensive to buy, sometimes costing as much as 10 shillings (when the average workhouse worker earned 5 shillings per week). Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), and Ivanhoe (1819), were paving the way for the likes of James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826), Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo (1840) and a host of others in every major language.
The novels sold well enough to make the author a fair profit from his work, but even second-hand copies were out of the reach of the working man.
But wait no more, things were about to change; a publishing revolution was about to break out; an innovation in publishing as big as eBooks.
Charles Dickens, 1867

Book Chapter Serialization

Instead of waiting a year to write a book, writers like Charles Dickens began to publish their novels a chapter at a time. Priced at a shilling (twelve pennies), this allowed Dickens to have a more regular income, but also he could change a novel’s direction, mood or character development depending on public feedback. Does this writing approach sound remotely familiar?
In similar fashion, Alexandre Dumas released the Count of Monte Cristo in 18 parts before finally binding it into a full novel.
Times had changed, but they were about to get real ugly, and fast. In 1830’s Britain, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, a major element of the working class could now read and write, and had a thirst for fiction; a need to explore the world outside their own parochial existence. The demand for cheap material was in no doubt, and the authors who would fill that demand were about to get real dirty.
Black Bess, ran weekly for 2 years

The Ugly Side; Plagiarists, Thieves, and Copiers

Driven by this ready audience, and the fact that publishing rights were in their infancy and rarely enforced, a host of copycat writers took to pen and paper. These plagiarists took popular works, re-wrote them in shorter versions, selling them for one penny… nicknamed Penny Dreadful’s; not because of the plagiarism or bad standard of content, but because of the predominantly macabre subject matter; murders, kidnappings, highwaymen, etc, etc. Titles such as The Penny Pickwick (a lampoon of the Pickwick Papers), Nickelas Nickelbery and David Copperful became commonplace. The stories were not technically copies, they were re-written, shorter, and usually made fun of the original. Writers made their fortunes selling a folded sheet, two columns on each of the four pages, usually containing about 2500 words and a couple of lined illustrations. The 99c Kindle for the age had arrived. Foreign writers fared no better. French tales were translated, and American dime novels were re-written for a British audience, with the original author receiving no remuneration for his work.
George Reynolds, sold a million copies

The Penny Dreadful; the Victorian 99c eBook

Despite the initial surge of such shenanigans, the writers in the penny dreadful industry soon began to write their own stories, with serialization becoming the norm.
Series such as Varney the Vampyre (230 weekly episodes), The Mysteries of London, (240 weeks) Dick Turpin (254 episodes) had readers queuing outside publishers every week. The Mysteries of the Court of London ran every week for an incredible Eight Years!
Working class Brits who could or would not afford the penny, joined reading clubs to share episodes, almost like a subscription library system.
Over the next sixty years, these single page publications expanded into magazines of note, newspapers still around today, and newsletters. These new, bound publications still included many pages of serialized and single story fiction, but non-fiction articles and news items were added, and by the 1890’s the Penny Dreadful had gone from the publishers bookshelves.
But the revolution of the cheaper novel lived on; they were mass produced, cost far less, and paved the way for the next revolution in publishing; the paperback.

If you would like to read my own "Penny Dreadful", it is available on eBooks everywhere.
Penny Dreadful Adventures on Kindle.
Penny Dreadful Adventures on Nook
Penny Dreadful Adventures on Kobo

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