Two Recent Historical Fiction Heavyweights: Golden Hill v North Water

Golden Hill by Frances Spufford and North Water by Ian McGuire are both novels written by academics who have brought their considerable historical prowess to the field of fiction.  Interestingly, both books in their way are frontier stories, exploring the borderline...

A Brief Affair by Margaret Leroy

I'm a big fan of Margaret Leroy and think she's a little under-rated – her prose has the poetic, luminous quality that I associate with writers like Helen Dunmore and the delicate worlds  she conjures into existence have a depth and resonance that belies their...

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

  An uneasy yet ultimately rewarding novel,  The Trouble with Goats and Sheep offers a lethal look at human frailty that is softened but not blunted by childhood nostalgia, by the heat of a long ago summer and by a sense of our own complicity – that we are as...

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

  Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a refreshingly original read.  It is a slim volume that packs extraordinary literary punch.  To use Max Porter's own words it, "…eats sorrow, unbirths secrets and has theatrical battles with language and God." The shadow of...

I’m Reading: Brexit – What the Hell Happens Now? by Ian Dunt

Brexit – What the Hell Happens Now? By Ian Dunt If you are an unashamed Remainiac like me, Ian Dunt's analysis of how we extricate ourselves from the European Union following the referendum in June 2016 is a compulsory read. Even if you voted to leave, it is a...

I’m Reading: My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal

My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal Told from the point of view of a nine year old boy in care, My Name is Leon is the only book I have read in the last twelve months that has left me feeling utterly shaken at the end, uncertain of where to put myself. It's spell-breaking,...

I’m Reading: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry Sarah Perry's novel is a brilliant evocation of the Victorian age: its preoccupations about science, religion and superstition all find subtle expression in this wonderfully gothic tale of a young widow with an interest in archaeology,...

I’m Reading: The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney Winner of the 2016 Bailey's Prize for Fiction, Lisa McInerney's debut novel is a theatrical tour de force: she captures with brio the voice of her young antihero, the drug dealing Ryan, and through him we are allowed a glimpse...

A New Door Opens…

After a long period of writing, rather than writing about writing, I'm back in the blog again, with words of encouragement for people who are slogging away trying to find some kind of platform for their work.  Don't give up.  I've spent the last thirteen years working...

I’m Reading: Shambala Junction by Dipika Mukherjee

Shambala Junction by Dipika Mukherjee A spirited account of one of the darker consequences of poverty in India, where babies are sold to orphanages for $25.00 then put up for adoption by wealthy westerners who pay $35,000 for the privilege. An unsentimental yet...

I’m Reading: The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse by Jessie Burton Having been slightly under-whelmed by The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton's stratospherically successful first novel, I approached her second book a little warily. It tells the story of a picture that was painted during the Spanish civil war and...

I’m Reading: Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Exposure by Helen Dunmore I've always been a passionate fan of Helen Dunmore and devour her books greedily as they are published. Having said that, I found The Greatcoat a little disappointing, so it is a great relief to be able to fall in love with her work all over...

I’m Reading: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie What a breath of fresh air The Portable Veblen is. Elizabeth McKenzie's quirky account of a young woman whose obsession with squirrels provides her with some protection and diversion from her dysfunctional family (and her...

I’m Reading: Everything Love Is by Claire King

Everything Love Is by Claire King I've just (reluctantly) finished reading Everything Love Is by Claire King.  This lovely book is set on a barge on the Canal du Midi, which is dear to my heart as we have spent time in Toulouse in our boating lives. It tells the story...

I’m Reading: A Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

A Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George Still on a boating theme... I've got my nose buried in this at the moment, some delicious escapism for the summer.  It's good to read something in translation - something I don't do enough of - there's a subtle shift in...

Back From the Drink

I've been travelling for a couple of months with only limited access to the Internet, which is why my posts have been few and far between, but I'm back from careering down the River Rhone, so wide they say you can see the curvature of the earth, and hot for some...

Health and Safety for Writers?

I took this photograph in a disused pottery in North East France. It's a lovely old health and safety notice positively steeped in period atmosphere. Roughly translated, the exhortation reads, All injuries must be declared – good guidance for writers of fiction,...

A Sea Dog’s Tale….

A lazy post for a lazy summer's afternoon – the Daily Mail has published my online account of a trip to New York my mum and I made on the Queen Mary 2 back in the spring, so I thought I'd share a link with y'all...Have a great...

Scouting for Locations

Think of all the novels you've enjoyed, and I'll bet that a number of them are defined by a sense of place – not just defined, but enhanced. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking any one of the Brontë novels, anything by Thomas Hardy, The French Lieutenant's Woman...

Protective Clothing for Writers

In Scotland recently we visited Ballindalloch Castle, ancestral home of the MacPherson Grant family whose ancient coat of arms is carved above the entrance. I was intrigued by the family motto: Touch Not the Cat Bot a Glove, which I take to mean don't do anything rash...

Starting as Story TS Eliot Style

In my beginning is my end...I love TS Eliot's eloquent line from East Coker (The Four Quartets) – the melancholy in it is balanced and weighed and there is an inevitability about it which I find appealing.Eliot's elegant summary of the trajectory of a human life can...

How to Create Tension – Am I Keeping You in Suspense?

Suspense is the tension that is created when you are waiting for something to happen. You might be waiting for news of a loved one; you might be waiting to see if the creak on the stair which sounded suspiciously like a footfall sounds again; you might be waiting,...

Franz Kafka: a Dead Man Writing

I'm sitting in my shed at the bottom of our garden with the doors and windows open, revelling in what passes for peace and quiet in an inner-city. Next door's runner beans are dying, but the ash trees which thresh and rustle overhead have survived the dieback blight...

White Rabbits, Wonderland and Writer’s Block

Recognise this little fellow? Said to be carved in approximately 1330 and wearing the distinctive satchel of the pilgrim, he graces the archway of St Mary's Church in Beverley, Yorkshire, a town where Lewis Carroll stayed while he was preparing to write Alice in...

Twenty Questions about Characterisation

Do you remember playing that car game, brilliant for long journeys, where one of you assumes a character and the others have to guess who it is by asking twenty questions? When we were little we whiled away hours playing it on the autobahns and autoroutes of Europe,...

Monet, Monet, Monet…

Because it's high summer (!) I thought I'd share with you this picture of Monet's garden at Giverney just north of Paris. He is reputed to have regarded it as his greatest work of art and if you gaze at it through half-closed eyes you can almost see his impressionist...

An Exercise in Sensory Deprivation

The sun is shining, I can hear birds singing outside my window and it's the longest day, so the last thing you probably want is a writing exercise for the weekend, but if you think that the longest day will, by definition, give you more time to write, and allow your...

Why I Hate Fantasy Fiction

I've never been a great fan of fantasy fiction. I don't like its expedience or its lack of boundaries – the way that rules can be endlessly changed to suit the author's creative intent. It's too geeky for me, too concerned with form rather than content, too...

A Light Touch – A Lesson in Characterisation from Mark Chagall

On a recent trip to France we stumbled upon a stunning window by Mark Chagall in a restored chapel in the town of Sarrebourg. Peace, his extravagant bouquet of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, takes your breath away when you first walk into the room. Although...

How to Make Your Fiction Faultless (Read Your Work Aloud)

This may not occur to you when you are starting out as a writer, but any time spent reading your work aloud is time well spent. Usually, when you stumble over a phrase, it's a cast iron indication the phrase does not ring true.  Perhaps it's the literary...

Fracking for Fiction

"There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges."Ernest Hemingway's description of the creative process sounds a bit like fracking to me – occasionally you strike oil...

In Defence of Flashback

I know that some writers – and editors – view the use of flashback with some misgivings, objecting to it because the reader is made to look back at events which have already happened and therefore knows there is a positive outcome (your heroine is still alive and...

Hot Off the Press…

...my picture of the statue of the renaissance man who invented it – Johannes Gutenberg - standing proudly in the square named after him in the centre of Strasbourg. Gutenberg was a goldsmith by profession and modified existing screw printers while adding innovations...

Punctuation – To Be Punctilious, or Not?

I was chatting to a writer friend last night who had recently been doing some editing and she remarked how much the rules of punctuation seem to have changed since she started out. Should you use double quotation marks or single, for example? Though strict grammarians...

Wanted : Goethe’s Dog

Wandering through the rain-soaked streets of Strasbourg recently, we passed a house where the playwright Goethe lived for a time... ...and I was reminded of a remark that he once made: wanted, a dog that neither barks nor bites, eats glass and shits diamonds. Part of...

Summer Reading

I've had a rush of summer reading – well, let's just call it reading: not much sign of summer here – and it's made me realise how much I miss feeling besotted by a good book. I've done a lot of work reading over the winter, which is always thought-provoking and...

How Detail and Context Work Together in Fiction Writing

We're currently stuck in the rain on a broken boat in eastern France, so whiled away an afternoon in Strasbourg. In the cathedral we spotted this mason's moment of madness, or sentimentality, or rebellion, or joie de vivre... This little dog is tucked away at the back...

Telling the Difference Between Showing and Telling

This is a tough one, the mistake most writers, but new ones in particular, are most likely to make: telling the reader something, rather than bringing it to life by showing it happen. In a sense it's the art of dramatisation; it's certainly the raising agent that...

Plotting – Taking Affirmative Action

I've recently finished reading My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young. You'd think that everything  which could possibly be said about the First World War has already been said, truth, in this instance, being considerably stranger than fiction, but Ms...

Rainer Maria Rilke’s Rubbish Lorry

I'm just back from New York and still dazzled by the vibrancy and brightness of the city – the vast electronic hoardings that pulse with colour in Times Square, the vivid yellowness of the taxis and...this! It's an American garbage truck and even in the murky light of...

The Three Rs of Creative Writing

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I'd passed the the first three chapters of my Work in Progress to my writing mentor to see if she thought I was working along the right lines. Like a good friend, she responded incredibly swiftly with some trenchant and radical...

It’s There in Black and White – and Grey?

We are complex beings and our behaviour frequently lands us in complicated situations, something you should try and reflect in your fiction writing. Things are rarely cut and dried in the real world, so it is a good idea to tie some intriguingly complicated knots in...

A View from the Bridge…

....in this case, the bridge in question is on the Queen Mary 2 and the view is of the North Atlantic, where I've been busy on a press trip hence my silence on the blog front this week, but am now safely back home and full of literary inspiration... As it said on our...

All at Sea

Literally! I'm writing this in the mid Atlantic, where I'm on a press trip for the travel pages of www.dailymail.co.uk so intermittent posting for the next few days, but worth it in pursuit of a wonderful story!In the meantime, I'm trying to think of literary...

A Small Slice of Research Lite

I love a good bit of research to get me going with a book, whether it's set in the present or the past, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, digging around for information is a great stimulus of the creative juices.  Things that I unearth can often help in the...

Breaking the Spell

As a writer, you're an illusionist: you create brave new worlds for your reader and go to great lengths to make them seem as real and as plausible as possible -- that is what writing good fiction is all about.The subversive in me is interested in the effects of...

The Laxative Powers of Catharsis?

Weirdly, my dictionary (a lovely old Chambers that my mum and dad gave me in 1989) defines catharsis as purgative medicine having the power of cleansing the bowels - they missed that bit out in my drama degree.  It does go on to say that it can also mean the...

Literature, Lycanthropy and Howling at the Moon

I love Margaret Atwood when she is slightly off the wall. She once told someone I knew to bury the names of the people who frightened her in a hole in the garden, something I've considered doing myself, although it would have to be more of a pit in my case.Here she is...

Writers’ Block – Finding the Hidden Slipway of the Imagination

Am I suffering from writer's block just now? I don't think so. I hope not. It's just that I'm not entirely sure what story I want to tell and at the moment it feels as if the various component parts of my proposed novel are straining to get away from each other. If...

Free Range Writing

I'm having a break on the coast of Cornwall, so my posts (when I can manage them) are shorter than usual... Here's a pic of some free range eggs, West Country style. I like the chromatic echoes of brown and fawn and cream and palest blue, colours that are sympathetic...

Normal Service Will Resume…

...but at the moment I'm hidden away in a remote spot without access to the internet - yes, such places still exist and the breathtakingly lovely Helford Estuary in southernmost Cornwall is one of them. It's an inspiring place in which to think and dream and I shall...

I’ve Just Killed My Darlings…

....because that's what they tell you to do when you are writing – cut the parts you like the best because you may be blind to their failings or including them for the wrong reasons.The section I've eviscerated is the opening of my new novel: The Watermill appeared to...

Lost in Translation # 5

I love the weird dissonance that can happen during  translation – the way in which two languages collide and send words glancing off in unexpected directions. Here's something I saw in Venice last autumn... On the contrary, I think historical pasta might be very, very...

The Coffin and the Sharpened Stake – Accepting Criticism

I've just sent the first three chapters of my new novel to my writing friend and mentor, so I'm feeling a little unsettled and unstable. I want her to like it, but I don't necessarily want her to tell me that she does, as I don't think that would be helpful or...

The Literary Come-On

Ooh, I've been writing so hard I feel as if my head is spinning and I could easily have parked my bicycle high on the wall of this French restaurant and in fact perhaps I did! Although I hardly know whether I'm on my head on my heels, I do recall rash promises of...

Story Structure Made (Very, Very) Simple

In my previous post I made a few suggestions about how you might approach the plotting of your story and finished with rash promises about offering some thoughts about structure, so here goes...I've never read how-to books on structure, other than Christopher Vogler's...

How to Achieve Plotting Perfection without Really Trying

Finding the perfect plot is something which writers agonise about, but asking yourself a few simple questions will soon help you to tease out the germ of a good idea. Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl wins boy back and they live happily ever after. Think of...

Time Travelling – the Use of Tenses in Fiction

In my manuscript-appraising life, I'm prone to slashing and burning when it comes to the pluperfect tense - cuts here, red lines there – I think it should only ever be used sparingly. I know that when they teach you grammar in school, they tell you that the pluperfect...

The Multi-Tasking Manuscript

We've become so adept at multi-tasking – bringing up children, sustaining a relationship, running a house, keeping down a job, writing a novel - and that lot's just for starters. Doing one thing at a time doesn't really cut the mustard any more, we've got to succeed...

Steinbeck’s Rule for Writing Fiction

The Grapes of Wrath...Of Mice and Men – okay, okay, John Steinbeck knew a thing or two about writing fiction, so I was interested to come across this quote from him on the Goodreads site,"If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a...

Scrabbling for Metaphors…

I found my parents' ancient set of Scrabble in our loft the other day - the box (which boasts New Plastic Tiles!) endlessly repaired with yellowed sellotape. Inside was a record of all the scores of all the games they'd ever played. Forty two years of unarmed combat!...

Creative Writing: Working with Mosaics

I thought you might like some gilded Art Nouveau flowers to brighten up this interminably long shortest month. I am so through with February. I'm desperate for some mad March wind to blast the grey away and shake the gold from the daffodils. In the meantime, here are...

Writing Fiction : The Perfect Beginning

I've just read the first two chapters of Maggie O'Farrell's new novel Instructions for a Heatwave, an opening so exquisitely orchestrated that it has left me feeling every other writer should just pack up their things and go home. I'd be full of gloom and despair for...

Fiction Writing – Drawing on Your Own Experience

"A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar." So says Stephen King in his own particular take on the old adage that you should write about what you know, drawing inspiration...

Creative Writing – How to Set Your Story in Time and Place

I'm just starting to work on a new writing project, so the setting of the story is very much on my mind. As a huge fan of Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels, as well as classics like Wuthering Heights, I'm conscious of the powerful role that location can play in a book....

Finding a Frame for your Story

I took this picture just outside the Place Stanislas in Nancy, looking into what is said to be the most beautiful square in the whole of France. It was designed by Emmanuel Héré and lavishly embellished by Jean Lamour, whose wrought iron archway draws the eye into my...

Ghost Writing?

I went to visit my father's grave yesterday. He is buried in a churchyard at the foot of the Cotswold escarpment, in a place that is haunted by memories: of my dad, of my son's childhood which was spent in the village, of life as it used to be and is no longer, yet...

The Spaces Between Words

We're Borgen slaves in our house, gone into mourning now that the second series has finished. How I'll make it through the year without my weekly dip into the lives of Danish Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her soulful, straying husband...

In Praise of Criticism

Criticism stings; it hurts. Sometimes it makes you want to curl up into a ball, block your ears and go lah, lah, lah, lah, lah. It can feel as rejecting as someone slamming a door in your face, even this poor, rickety, broken thing. Yet criticism is one of the most...

Top Tips for Starting a Novel

I am – I think – on the threshold of starting my Next Major Work. If you detect a note of caution, it's because I'm not absolutely certain that I'm ready to begin, even though I started making notes about possible ideas last May, so I've already had a good forty...

Cooking Sources

I'm reading Michael Plampin's brand-new novel Illumination which is set in Paris in 1870 when the French capital was under siege by the Prussian army. It's a riveting tale, with lots of surface glitter, made all the more interesting to me because I've just finished...

A Kiss in the Dark….

....from a stranger. What an intense, terrifying, exciting thought. It's how Stephen King describes a short story: a kiss in the dark from a stranger.There are two things that strike me about this extraordinary image. One is its transience – think how fleeting even...

The Seven Secrets of Writing Good Dialogue

I won't beat about the bush here (although realistic conversation often does) - the best way to write good dialogue is to start by listening to how people speak. Eavesdrop at every opportunity and you will quickly capture the idioms and cadences of conversation. The...

The Waiting Game

For someone who is a control freak (just ask my husband) I find it extraordinarily difficult to loosen my grip on what matters to me. Writing a novel is fine, the whole process is a heady exercise in autocracy: you want something to happen and – hey presto – it does!...

The Sessions – A Miniaturist Masterpiece

When you are writing do you work as a miniaturist, or do you prefer a sweeping canvas? Do you go large at every opportunity or hone in on the detail? There are pros and cons to both approaches, but I'm rather a fan of the small scale. I worry that if you describe a...

Deep and Crisp and Even?

I'm sitting in my little shed with a hot water bottle on my knee wrapped in a blanket and very toasty it is too. We are shrouded in snow where I live and when I inched my way down our hill to forage for supplies I was struck by the atmosphere – it's amazing what a bit...

Creative Contradictions

Jean Cocteau once observed that, "the spirit of creation is the spirit of contradiction," an interesting avenue to explore on a Wednesday morning. You can think about this in a number of different ways. Writing fiction is often an exercise in polarity. You establish a...

No Ladies Dancing!

I'm feeling punch drunk having cut seventeen scenes from the screenplay that I'm working on – once you start, you just can't stop – and on the subject of cutting, I've realised that I left out Nine Ladies Dancing from my Creative Writing Christmas Carol. Perhaps...

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

...Twelve Drummers Drumming! I imagine the sound as urgent and climactic, rallying the listener (and in this case the reader) onwards. Drums, whether at a gig or on the field of battle, are there to energise and inspire, setting the pace for a song or a march, and...

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

...Eleven Pipers Piping, an apt reminder that when you are writing fiction your prose will have a music all of its own. We are born with an innate sense of rhythm and the more you write the more you will develop a feel for the words you use. You will become conscious...

On the Tenth Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

...Ten Lords a-Leaping. Lucky old me! Over Christmas I went to see the Bristol Old Vic's anarchic and inventive production of Peter Pan. Rather than have conventional flying, Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys used bungee ropes to convey the magic of their flight to...

On the Eighth Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

...Eight Maids A-Milking... that's to say, eight young women doing something typical of their daily lives. When you're writing fiction and about to introduce your hero or heroine, it's important to show them in action. There are two reasons for this: firstly, it will...

On the Seventh Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

...Seven Swans A-Swimming, and there is no prettier sight than one of them gliding along the water towards you. Their passage is elegant and effortless - you never see their black feet beneath the surface, hammering against the current. It's the same with writing:...

On the Sixth Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

...Six geese a-laying. If you are very very lucky and have worked very very hard, one of the six just might be the goose that lays the golden egg – a book which gets published and even goes on to be a bestseller. A Christian interpretation of A Partridge in a Pear...

On the Fifth Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

...Five gold rings. It's been suggested that these gold rings represent the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Alternatively they may refer to the gold ring around a pheasant's neck – some think that the early verses of A Partridge in a Pear Tree are a...

On the Fourth Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

.......Four calling birds. Aha! You might think they were calling birds, that's certainly what I've always sung, but it only takes a little light fact checking to discover that in the earliest version of the song they are actually four colly birds, which through its...

On the Third Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

......Three French hens. Now it turns out that the French hens in question are actually Faverolles, a heavy breed of utility fowl which originated in north central France in the 1860s and are characterised by their beards and muffs. They are excellent layers and good...

On the Second Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

......Two turtle doves who, because they mate for life, symbolise undying love – one of the great themes of fiction. Almost every major novel has a love story at the heart of it (though if you can think of ones which don't, email me because I'd like to know!)It is a...

On the First Day of Christmas My True Love Sent to Me…

... a partridge in a pear tree, which in creative writing terms is an excellent example of alliteration, so this is what I'm going to look at in the first verse of my Creative Writing Christmas Carol.Alliteration is when you cluster the same consonants together for...

Creative Writing – Getting down with the Detail

I love this picture, taken in France last summer. I like it because of the moody sky, the black trees, the dark earth. I like the layered light of the setting sun. It's a brooding scene, full of atmosphere. There is - you've guessed it - a creative writing lesson to...

(Christmas) Presence for Writers

In my chequered past I was an actress. An early and indelible lesson I learned was about stage presence: if you sidle on to the stage looking as if you have no right to be there, uncertain of what to do with your hands, you're doomed from the start. You would do...

The Narrative Hinge

I took this photo of a hinge in France during the summer. I think it's very beautiful: it is functional but the decoration of leaves and fruit (acorns? vines?) prevents it from being merely utilitarian. I like the contrast between the dark metal, the gilding and the...

The Literary Chicken and Egg Question?

First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him, according to legendary sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury who, to be honest, makes it sound all too easy, but perhaps he does help to resolve the literary chicken and egg question of what comes first – plot or...

Exploring the Past by Degrees

Without getting too metaphysical and going way beyond my pay grade, we experience time in a number of different ways. How we relate to the present differs from how we relate to the recent or even the distant past, and all the way stations in between have their own...

How to Make Your Reader an Accomplice

Have you ever watched someone you love hurtling headlong for disaster? I hope not. It makes you want to reach out and physically contain them – in your arms, in a safe place, even in an institution, if that's what it takes. When a person is, for whatever reason,...

A Long Day’s Journey into Writing

I've had a long day's writing and I'm tired. You would think this might mean that it's time for me to shut down my computer and go and have a cup of tea – even a biscuit! However, I've learned over the years that I often write best when I'm weary. Perhaps it's because...

How to Give Your Writing Voltage – by Voltaire

Voltaire,  historian, philosopher and designer of doors (see my earlier post) was no slouch as an author either, his satirical novel Candide, which charts the passage from optimism to disillusionment, vying for attention with other literary and philosophical...

Writing – A Kind of Renewable Energy?

When you're preparing to write a novel or a story, you need to be in a receptive state, alert to all the diverse scraps of conversation, news, visual images and situations that come your way. As Margaret Atwood wisely observed, it's all material. How you collate...

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