World Building Post #5 – Maps and Pulling it Together


Phew. What a lot of work this is. Now is the time for the writer to become an artist. Don’t panic. Drawing maps is easy, trust me. Let’s look at our example cultures.

Southern Race lives near water, lots of water. Northern Race lives in a heavily treed area but still has room for farming. Northern Race has access to metals, which probably means mountains for mining, the Southern Race does not. These two races share their magical ability and have similar cultures so they must live relatively close together. There are no other races outlined so either these are the only two on the planet or the others live too far away to be of any consequence.

We know we need a coast line, probably some inland water sources, a division of some kind, light forests in the south for hunting, heavy forests in the north, and mountains that don’t stretch south of the divider.

A sample map based on known cultural criteria for Southern Race and Northern Race

A sample map based on known cultural criteria for Southern Race and Northern Race

Here’s a quick map done in paint. You can see the mountain border cutting these two races off from the rest of the continent. You can see that the Southern Race has more water and the Northern Race has more trees. You can see the big cities and the small cities. Use this as approximate for deciding distances, and for naming places. This map took me five minutes. It’s basic. You can’t use it for a reference in a published book because it’s crap. But it will serve its purpose well. And, if I don’t like it or it doesn’t suit later tweaks and adjustments to the plot or cultures, I’m out five minutes of time. You can do this on computer or by hand but keep a physical paper copy on hand so you can make quick notes.

Pulling it together – you still have to cover interactions – do they trade with each other, do they intermarry, are they at war, were they ever at war? As you sort out these questions, and start laying out your plot in greater detail you may discover things that don’t work. Maybe you need to introduce more possible hair colours to help distinguish between characters. Maybe you need to shift the locations of cities, or change the number of deities. That’s fine. I spend months shuffling details, trying out new combinations, and adapting my cultures as I mesh world and story together. This is a fluid and dynamic process that should be entertaining and a challenge.

Oh, one last note on language. Though you’ve chosen a language frame for your naming system it’s easier for you and the reader if the people all speak the same language, and that they all speak the same language you speak. If they have a separate language let them use that for official or religious purposes – or have a handful of characters who can translate or speak both languages. If your story takes place primarily in the Northern Country have them speak “English” and have the Southern Race speak a foreign language, but have enough people who speak both, and spend as little time as possible in the Southern region to avoid confusing situations.

Watch “The 13th Warrior” with Antonio Bandares for ideas on handling foreign language. Very interesting how they deal with it.

Okay, that’s my series on World Building. Tomorrow I start Camp Nano so my July posts will focus on my Camp progress and stories. Any questions about this process? Just ask in the comments, I’ll answer as best I can.

Signing off …


World Building Post #4 – Culture and Language

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Right now we have two cultures, Southern Race and Northern Race. If you want to call them that in your novel you certainly can. Most people prefer something more natural – we don’t call the Easterners, we call them Asians – right? So how do you decide on a name for each culture, or civilization? And what about naming cities and other map details? And naming characters?

If I listed a few names for you would you be able to identify the culture they come from?

1) Sun Li

2) Patrick O’Hara

3) Stuart Mackenzie

4) Charles Smith

5) Hunter Two-Hearts

Did you guess Asian (sorry I can’t be more specific on that), Irish, Scottish, English and Native American? What about Louis Chartier? Sounds French? Each Earth culture has a style of naming that is unique. Sometimes it’s a suffix or prefix on the surname, sometimes it’s a leaning towards certain sounds, letters, or lengths. Because of the character based language in Asia (Kanji and such) their names tend to sound short when said in “English”. We all know the famous last names of the Irish and Scottish clans and the prestigious names of New England (“Parker Brown of the Connecticut Browns”) and this can be useful in your writing.

Let’s pick two language frames for our two cultures – and let’s not pick the ones that match the culture frame we picked earlier. So, the Southern Race cannot use Aboriginal languages or tribal languages and the Northern Race cannot use British or Welsh (and should probably avoid Latin as well since that was the language of the Church). We don’t associate Poland with feudal society, so let’s give Polish, or Eastern European, to the Northern Race. Now, every culture underwent a hunter/gatherer/agriculture period so let’s use something that sounds pretty instead of primitive – like Latin.

Now for research. I highly recommend for first names. You can search by culture, by meaning, or by gender. Research the language family you’ve chosen – look for patterns within the names, this will give you a structure for choosing names for your places and characters. Also study old maps to see how place names were chosen within those cultures.

Now that you have a language for each you can name the cultures, give titles to prestigious people (like religious and civil leaders), and name big cities or regions or mountain ranges. Translate a few words, like bridge, town, city, river, ocean, lake, etc. into the frame languages and see what you get. Tweak the words to make them sound “right” for your story. By staying within a single language family for each culture you draw a distinction between them and you provide unity within each culture.

Signing off …

World Building Post #3 – A Second Example

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If you remember from the last post, we had created two humanoid races – Southern Race and Northern Race. We went over Southern Race in detail creating the basis of a culture. I’d like to do that again, a little quicker this time, for the Northern Race.

Start at the top – cultural evolutionary starting point. Last time we went with a combination hunter/gatherer and agriculture. This time lets go with Feudal Europe with heavy agricultural base (think Arthurian times). That means we’ll need a king, lords, merchants, knights, and soldiers. It means we’ll need metal workers for weapons and armor. You can already see all the differences here.

Next – gender roles. Traditional patriarchal, or non-traditional matriarchal? For simplicity let’s go male dominated. Males hold leadership roles, males control the land and money, males run the church (whatever that might be), inheritance passes to the males.

Social hierarchy – Obviously the king is at the top. Here’s how I generally stack this: King, Royalty, Nobility, Merchant Class (upper and lower), Artisans (upper and lower), Freemen (farmers), Peasants or Serfs (farmers, labourers) with women and children as a half caste within each.

Religion – same set of choices, and we want to avoid sounding too much like Earth so a monotheistic male-dominated religion is out. Also, at this time period in European history the old Gaelic and Druid traditions were “fighting” with Christianity so you may want to avoid those too. We’ve already decided patriarchal so a male based polytheistic or an abstract religion would be best. Why not have two gods and a goddess and make the goddess the trickster, against tradition. Just be careful that the book doesn’t come across as anti-feminist or “all women bad”.

Practices probably lean more to the ritualistic – prayers, ceremonies, official places of worship. Maybe some sacrifices still, all very ritualized. Highly controlled.

Magic – we’ve established that. 20% of women, 2% of men. The 2% of men go into the church – but they aren’t the only men serving the church. The 20% of women are closely watched and taught so that the trickster goddess doesn’t influence them. Lower class women use their magic to help with the fields, etc, just as in Southern Race, upper class women need another outlet for their magic since they can’t go working in the fields or divining for wells. Since the upper class makes up only 5% of a population (maybe 10%) there still wouldn’t be too many women with magic in the upper classes, not as many as among the farmers.

A quick look at the math. If you have 1000 people – 50 would be upper class, 100 would be merchants, 150 would be skilled workers, 250 would be Freemen, 450 would be peasants and serfs. If there is an even split, male to female, your numbers are 25, 50, 75, 125, 225 – and the number of women with magic would be: 5, 10, 15, 25, 45 for a total of 100 women out of 1000 people and 10 men out of 1000 people. Consider 1000 the size of a large city plus surrounding estates and farms and you get the idea of what the population spread looks like if the births are even. That 20% isn’t going to pay attention to class distinction so the numbers can vary greatly, but shouldn’t veer too far from 100/1000 for women and 10/1000 for men.

Yes, this level of math is something I often do for figuring out magical density and frequency, population spread and size, and country size. I use similar math for geography but we’ll get to that on the map post.

Oh, we forgot one thing. The Southern Race, with their blue-green hair, live near the water. The Northern Race let’s say lives in a heavily forested area backed by mountains so to explain the brown hair and the access to metals for weapons and armour. Maybe the Southern Race has no access to such resources and that’s why they haven’t taken that step yet.

The two cultures are similar – patriarchal, magical minority, with similar but distinct religions and a distinguishing physical feature. In my next post we’ll return to these two civilizations and go over fine-tuning the culture and adding language. Then it’s on to mapping!

Signing off …

World Building Post #3 – Culture, Tech, Relgion, and Magic

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This may end up being a long post, but there was no way I could pull these four items apart from each other, they’re just too intertwined. We’ll go over picking a cultural stage, fine tuning the details of the cultural, choosing a level of technological advancement, picking a religion and fine tuning the details of their practices, and deciding on the rules of magic.

So, lets say you’ve picked two sentient races – both are humanoid and will share the same magic (so in essence they’re the same, like all humans here on Earth) but the Southern Race will all have blue-green hair and the Northern Race will all have brown hair. They are mostly isolated from each other and have evolved separate cultures, religions, etc.

The Southern Race lives by the water (we don’t know what the coastline looks like yet or if it’s an ocean or a lake because we haven’t made the map but water plays a huge role in their culture). What cultural stage are they in? I always start with a stage from here on Earth and then tweak it, so are they comparable to hunter/gatherers, or agriculture based, are they pre-Roman empire, Roman empire, Colonial, Shakespearean, Victorian, industrial revolution?

For this example I’ll combine hunter/gatherer with agriculture. They’ll be a settled people, living in permanent villages and farming, but still rely heavily on fishing, hunting, and gathering. This probably means they have domesticated plants like wheat or corn but no domesticated animals, or very few domesticated animals, like cows or sheep. From this we can discern that they’d probably wear animal skins and you can choose the style from among the various examples provided by the North American Natives, the Australian Aboriginals, and the African tribes.

With this information we can begin to shape their culture – let’s start with gender roles. The men are stronger, physically, so they would do the physically intensive labour like cutting down trees to build new homes, plowing the fields, and hunting. Women then would be responsible for the planting and tending of the gardens, making and caring for the clothing, looking after the children, and gathering extra foods. Preparing the meat and skins and harvesting the crop would be a joint effort. Teaching the young males would be the job of the village elders – all males. Young girls would learn by working along side their mothers.

Technology would include the type of tools they use for building, hunting, and farming. It would also cover the style of their buildings. They obviously have simple tools since they are able to cut down trees and plow land, but are they bone, stone, or metal? Moving from bone and stone to working metal is always a big step, but doesn’t mean the culture has to evolve past basic huts and hunting/gathering/farming. It does determine how effective they are at feeding themselves and protecting themselves.

Religion – again, I base mine loosely on something we already have on Earth, polytheistic – male dominated, polytheistic – female dominated, monotheistic – male or female, ancestor worship, nature worship, or abstract (such as Confucianism which follows principles for harmony with the Universe but no specific deity). Trust me, you have a lot of room to work within those options.

We’ve already sort of established a male led society by making all the village elders male. This means the spiritual and intellectual leaders are male. This doesn’t mean the deities will all be male. Just because the women don’t hold positions of power doesn’t mean they aren’t respected. If you look at most polytheistic religions the darker gods or trickster gods were male (Loki, Raven, Hades, Seth). In the Greek and Roman traditions many goddess played important roles as patrons of wisdom, the hunt, the moon, and seasons. In pre-Roman society the female deity was most often associated with fertility, childbearing, and the health of crops.

So, for this example, let’s go with the most basic of polytheistic religions – one god, one goddess. The god represents strength, the hunt, success in war, and is responsible for the overall protection of the people. The goddess represents success of crops, prosperity, health in childbirth, and is responsible for the well being of mothers and infants. They are both good deities so to have good things happen worship must be offered in some way. Neglecting this worship would result in the deities neglecting their duties to the people and bad things happening. Choose a method of worship, the form of prayer, type of ceremonies, type of sacrifices/offerings and how they differ based on intent (is the offering to the god for success in battle different from the offering a husband would make the goddess when asking his wife be protected during childbirth?)

With good or benevolent deities offerings of crops, hunted animals, or crafts is usually enough. Sometimes the “deities” lay out rules that the society has to live by (like the 10 commandments) and breaking these rules can result in disaster unless penance is made. With a dark deity the people generally make offerings to the “bad god” to appease him and prevent his wrath from falling on them.

I almost forget – priests. Is there a set person, or group of people, responsible for making the offerings? Are they male or female? Can it be either, or, or both? And is religion connected to the magic.

Okay, magic. You’ll need to decide how much magic, how complicated it is to use, and how many people get to use it. You also need to know if it is taught, innate, or a combination of the two. Since the culture we’ve chosen leans towards the Medicine Man, a person chosen by the spirits at a young age to learn from the elder all the secrets of the gods and people, I’m going to spice things up by choosing something else. The ability to use magic is innate, control is learned, and it appears in 20% of the females and 2% of the males. The magic is connected to the land, things like divining wells, finding rivers, helping crops grow, finding animals, etc. The village elders are responsible for offerings to the god and goddess and magic and religion aren’t tied too tightly together.

Congratulations, you now have the basics of a society. Placing them on a map will help determine more about them. This is already a long post so I’m going to split it here and tomorrow we’ll do a second example with the Northern Race because there’s so much left to explore and by changing just one detail you can spin a whole new web of possibilities.

World Building Post #2 – Races and Species

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I had thought long and hard about the order I was going to present these in. At first I was leaning towards maps and geography – you’re building a world, you need a map, right? But then I started thinking about the actual process I go through and I realized that maps were maybe the third thing I started working on so I decided to start here, with races and species.

When I start a new world it’s usually because I’ve had some interesting character jump into my head, or a scene, or a race, or a plot. For example, I had a scene once where a monkey (one of those little Gibbons) was chasing a rather fat striped tabby through a crowded tavern. From there I built up a few countries that were locked in a war and a band of travellers that wanted to cross the ‘war zone’. Another time it was a luscious queen in a stone palace surrounded by statues of snakes and a hot jungle outside. With those little snippets I start building, and I start with the race they belong to.

Often magic, culture, politics, and technology are tied in with this step but I’ll cover those in the next two posts. For now I want to focus solely on the following questions:

What information do I need to make my sentient race sound real? How much detail do I need? How many sentient races work and how many are too many? What other species do I need and how different/similar to Earth counterparts should they be? What about naming them?

What information do I need to make my race believable? You need to know what they look like – how many hands, feet, eyes, heads? Possible hair colours and eye colours? Are they hairier than humans here? Skin colour? Stature? Gender differences? This is more than just “the main character has green eyes and brown hair”, this is all the possible eye colours genetically available to your race, and all the hair colours, and all the skin tones. You need to know what stage their civilization is in. You need to know if they have magic or not. You need to know their attitudes towards women, the age of majority, the available careers, and the social castes. You need to know how they dress, what they eat, and their religious practices.  You need to know about their language and how they select their names.

How much detail do I need? The more the better in my opinion. But at the same time don’t fret about how you’re going to jam into all into the book. You need to understand every aspect of the race so you can write a compelling narrative and make the reader believe. A lot of history, back story, and “fact” won’t ever show up in print, or if it does it will be a subtle detail, a casual remark, a passing note, just to embellish the story and make it feel more real.

When world building resign yourself to a lot of writing or typing. Make lists and webs and charts and maps. Change and tweak as the pieces fall into place and affect older pieces.

How many sentient races work and how many is too many? – I believe in the KISS rule. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Look at George RR Martin, I think he has 2 races (humans and giants), and then he has 5 separate human cultures within the world. They’re all human but they’re different nationalities with different believes and customs and appearances. David Eddings is another example of this.

Most science fiction features 2 races – humans and some alien species.

On Zoedar I have 7 sentient races but I only focus on one most of the time, and never on more than two (very rarely 3) in a scene). Of those sentient races, one is human with some magic, one is elven and very similar to the standard elven mythology, one is a human cult that was cursed and has become a separate race with a different skin tone and religion, one is a winged human species that is very reclusive, one is a standard fairy race, one is a cat-people race, and one is a Dryad/Nymph race. Because I went with so many I relied heavily on commonly used themes and ideas to build the background races so they’d feel familiar without too much work on my part.

There are lots of examples like this: Tolkien (humans, dwarves, elves, giant eagles, ents, dragons), Patricia Briggs (humans, vampires, werewolves, fae, demons), etc.

Now, vampire/werewolf fiction is a little different. It’s more of a modern or urban fantasy for the most part and while vampires and werewolves are distinct from humans, they are still human too. Fae are a little different, definitely a separate race from humans, but heavily bound by long traditions and narratives (which you can follow or abandon as you please as long as you are consistent within your own world). Sorry – side note.

Keep in mind that long list of details you need. You need it for EVERY race you create within a world. You also need to chart interactions between races.

What other species do I need? – Unless your races are all vegetarians, you need animals. Generally one or two domesticated farm animals, or more, plus horses or some other work/riding beast. You should have a few game animals (deer and such), and a few natural predators for the game animals (wolves or large cats or something more fantastical). If you are going with lots of sentient races, or sentient races that are very different from humans and will require a lot of explanation then my advice is to keep references to the common animals to a minimum and keep them as close to human standard as possible. Call the deer-like creature a deer and simply note that it has 3 eyes, or 2 tails or something. Maybe a cat is a normal cat, except that it can hover. By making only one simple change to the background animals, or none at all, you can spend less time describing them. (Saying, “he shot a deer for dinner” is easier than “he shot a kuthing, a slender, four legged, herbivore that populated these woods. The creature was …” you get the idea) If you are using a fairly humanoid species with fewer changes then you can get creative with some of your animals. It’s really about balance – not overloading yourself or the reader.

Naming – what do you name the races? Or the species? We’ll start with the latter because it’s simpler. Unless absolutely necessary call the background creatures by earth names. Call your three-eyed deer and three-eyed deer. Your reader will get the point quickly.

Races are harder. You can call them humans or elves or any of the standard terms. You can make up new names – my cat people are called Haider. Make it pronounceable and easy on the eyes – two syllables is best, with a few three syllable names in there for variation. The same goes for naming countries and cities, and characters. Also consider language. Is this a Celtic type culture? Victorian England? North America before Europeans? What is your language structure based on. Pick one per race. Give your elves Native sounding names and your humans British/Welsh sounding names. It’s not that you have to use Earth names for all your characters but look at how the names within certain cultures are constructed – endings that denote gender, commonly used letters and sounds, rarely used letters and sounds, etc. This means a character is more easily identified within its race.

Phew, a lot of information. I’ll go more into Religion, Politics, and Magic over the next few days. For now, this is enough, even for me.

Signing off …

World Building Post #1 – What to consider

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I write mainly fantasy, some science fiction, and occasionally more realistic stuff. My science fiction is often near future sort of stuff while my fantasy is more the high fantasy sword and sorcery as opposed to urban fantasy (I love reading urban fantasy though). That being said, I’ve done a lot of world building.

I plan to do a series of posts on the different aspects of world building: geography and maps, religion and culture, technology and cultural evolution,  races and species, and alternate Earth scenarios, in some order. But today I want to do an overview on what is required in building a world, sort of a heads up on everything you’ll have to consider at some point, and some things you should consider before you even start.

First – is creating a new planet/world/etc. the right thing for your story? Give yourself an honest answer. For a lot of my science fiction creating alien planets isn’t needed to tell the story, the story fits quite well in a future Earth or alternate Earth setting, limiting the world building, and effort, I need to put into it.

Second – is this fantasy or science fiction? Is this a whole other planet that humans will stumble upon and meet the native alien creatures? Or is the whole story self-contained on this new world, with the humans, or human equivalents, already living there?

Third – how big is this world, and how big a stage does your story need? Does the story take place in a single country? I’ve got one novel like that and I’ve labelled the neighbouring countries on the map but I know little about them, except what I need for them to interact economically and politically with the country in my story. The rest of the planet is a grey-zone, I know nothing about it. I have another novel that features a smaller planet wrapped up in a global war – I know as much as humanly possible about every country, race, and religion on that planet and how they fit together.

Once you’ve answered those questions you’ll basically be ready to start. Here are some things you’ll need to design, organize, plan, plot, and decipher.

1) a map – you need this, even if it’s never published with the book, it’s a good way to track place names, distances, and such things even if it’s not to scale.

2) religion – how many deities? their genders, style of worship, and are they “real” or do the people simply believe them to be real? Take a look at David Eddings’s Belgarad series – the gods actually walk among the people at different times and talk to them, they’re real. In George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice you get the feeling that the seven are just something people believe in and that’s why they’re being pushed out by other equally “fake” religions. I’ll explain this better when I get to the post on religion. Just know that religion can be tricky

3) cultural views – this includes views on gender roles, caste, class, economics, and politics.

4) cultural stage – hunter gatherer? agricultural? Victorian era? Early industrial revolution? This of course will dictate, to some extent, your politics, economics, and level of technology

5) magic – does it exist? in what form? how common? sounds easy but when we get to this post you’ll see it’s hard to create something unique and “realistic” that still fits your plot and imagination

6) races and species – how many sentient races will exist on your planet? what will they look like? how do they communicate? And guess what – you need culture, religion, magic, evolution, and tech for every single one of them. In addition you need non-sentient species: farm animals, wild animals of both predator and prey, birds and bugs, what is there and how frequently will your culture encounter them?

Yeah, I know, a lot to consider. And the bigger and more complex your world the more all of these play off each other. It’s going to be hard for me to separate them for the sake of writing an organized blog on all this, but I’ll do my best. It sounds hard but many writers claim this is the most exhilarating part of writing fantasy and science fiction – and I’m one of them. Give yourself permission, before you start the process, to change anything and everything on a whim, at any time – you can always change it back. Understand that this will take time, a lot of time, and there will be a lot of wrinkles to iron out.

I’ll walk you through the steps I use, the things I consider, and hopefully that will give you a place to start. Mainly I’ll focus on fantasy but I’ll try to note where things may be the same, or different, for science fiction.

I’m really looking forward to writing this series.

Signing off …

Sharing some “inspiration”

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The word inspiration makes us think of grand and wonderful things that drive us to do better and be better. “You inspire me”.

Writers see it a little broader, it’s anything that sparks idea or passion in our writing. “I got the inspiration for that scene when …” But there is still, somehow, a positive note to it. Being inspired is positive. But the point of inspiration isn’t always positive.

The main characters in my fantasy novel, twin sisters, Meryum and Sepherym, watch their father die in a duel. That scene always fell flat, so did the fact that they both seemed to move on pretty damn fast after the fact. But what did I know about death?

My mother died 10 months ago, cancer. We were able to keep her home until the very end. We were able to say goodbye, even my son who was, at the time, almost 3. 10 months later it’s only now starting to get better. And only a little. Now, I understand. Now I know the pain these two girls are going through, I know what drives them, and I know what eats away at them. I think that when I finally rewrite that scene and continue past it I will examine my own feelings, reknit them into something else, and maybe finally find release and acceptance. Writing fiction as therapy I guess. Can’t hurt to try – might hurt while I do it and I’ll cry through those scenes, but I hope they will resonate with readers instead of falling flat.

All that was an introduction to the recent experience that is driving at me to write this post. My grandmother (my mother’s mother) went to the hospital last night – she’s fine, she’s already home. But there is a lot of drama in my family that I will not lay out here because I don’t know who reads this and I don’t want to insult people by speaking of things that aren’t my business.

There’s family drama, a lot of it, and my grandmother has been put squarely in the middle. She feels that four of her grandchildren are being used to “blackmail” her actions and choices. She feels she has to choose between two people she loves dearly. She told me Saturday afternoon that she was heartsick because of it, that she didn’t know what else to do.

Immediately after a phone call from one of the people involved she felt nauseous and dizzy and went to the bathroom. My grandfather found her there, sitting on the floor, unable to get up, barely able to speak. So she went to the hospital.

I came home from ice-cream with my family to find out that less than a year after my mother had died my grandmother was in the hospital and we didn’t know if it was anxiety, or a heart attack, or a stroke. Tense hours followed as we waited for news. And this time it was good news, a lot of relief, a lot of thankfulness. She’s fine.

And more than coming to know this set of emotions and knowing I can now use them to create realistic characters I am driven by a sense of anger. I am angry at the person who made that phone call. I am angry that person let the situation get this far out of hand. I am angry at this person for their own actions, and not for anything I was told about the whys and the who-dunnits. That anger is strong inspiration, this whole situation is strong inspiration. I know exactly which character is going to really come alive because this person has acted … okay, deep breath, don’t say anything insulting. But this character will come alive, this character will have a believable personality, and I know it will be believable because I have seen it first hand. No, this situation, this family drama, won’t be featured in any piece of writing I have on the go, but I have been inspired.

Signing off …

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