As of today, everything kicks off with my PhD and various induction activities, so I may be slower to respond to comments. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave them, however; I will be delighted to read them as soon as I get a second to catch my breath!
If you’re new here, we’re reading The Butterfly Assassin in real time according to the book’s chronology and discussing the writing process and the worldbuilding. Head to TBA Readalong Starting This Sunday for an overview of my approach, or start at the beginning with 17/09, Eraro.
On the 1st of October, Isabel runs into Emma, who rejects her; asks Grace Whittock for help with an antidote, and discusses her father’s lab; and has a tense conversation with Mortimer, in which he reveals that he speaks Esperanto and has guessed a certain amount about her past. (For those following along in the book, this is Chapter 15.)
None of these scenes exist in the first draft, which doesn’t give us too much to talk about. Although Grace/Graham was always trained as a poisoner, this aspect of the character was far less prominent in early drafts – involving her in trying to create an antidote was prompted by my attempts to keep Isabel out of hospital for longer, and give her more agency in saving herself. In the early drafts, she was in hospital not long after her first meeting with Toni Rolleston, so around this point in the book, and stayed there for most of the rest of it; while there was some action in these scenes, it definitely robbed Isabel of a lot of her narrative power over the plot, and a big part of my Draft VI/AMM rewrites was focused on changing that and keeping her independent and autonomous for longer.
The memory suppressant which Grace mentions in this chapter was also, I think, a reasonably late addition; pretty much all the specifics of the poison changed drastically over time, with various approaches in between, and this would have been an attempt to create a situation in which Isabel didn’t have the knowledge at first but might, over time, recover or discover it, giving her more personal responsibility for and autonomy over the antidote process.
Moreover, since the significance of Esperanto has changed over time, there would be no reason for Mortimer to reveal that he spoke it – in the earliest drafts, everyone spoke Esperanto, even though I hadn’t yet come up with a valid worldbuilding reason why.
I have to say, I do find it very funny when Isabel briefly thinks Mortimer is a Hummingbird spy, watching out for talented students to recruit, until it occurs to her that he’s a Woodwork teacher and the only talent he’s going to spot is for carpentry. While the guilds employ a lot of people with a lot of skills, and some of them are purely practical, everyday abilities, I don’t think those are the people they’re going to be headhunting straight out of school.
This moment is also a sly nod to the fact that in the early drafts (I-V), Mortimer did have a connection to Hummingbird: his sister and niblings worked for them, and he was estranged from them as a result because of his moral objections to the guilds. This was a detail that primarily had significance for book two, but was cut due to a broader overhaul of the characters involved, which disentangled those relationships entirely. For years, it seemed that every book I wrote had a “surprise! Everyone’s related” reveal, and while these are occasionally very effective, I figured we had enough of that with Toni and Emma and didn’t need to do it again.
But, in those drafts, we didn’t see much of Mortimer outside of formal classroom contexts until Isabel was already in hospital – which made his friendship and offers of help a lot less believable. Once again, his larger role was the result of prioritising secondary character development when I overhauled the book… but this specific scene, this moment, was a late addition.
By late, in this context, I mean it showed up in 2020, in the edits I did after I signed with Jessica as my agent. This whole section of the book got restructured, mostly for the sake of pacing – at one point we had two visits from Michael here, multiple scenes with Grace, a Symbolic Card Game, and a far more casual interaction with Mortimer. To keep the tension up, and add to the sense of threats on all sides, I shifted the scene with Mortimer to something a little more hostile and less relaxed.
It’s funny, after writing book two where Mortimer means a great deal to Isabel, to look back at these early meetings and see how suspicious she is of him, and how he’s essentially functioning as a minor antagonist within the narrative. I do love that, though, the transition of a potential threat to a weird uncle/surrogate father figure. Villain decay, but in the most chill way possible, with biscuits. For the moment, it seems like he might be one of the few adults who sees straight through Isabel despite a lack of other information: obviously traumatised. But this does make you wonder exactly how obvious it is that somebody who hardly knows her can see it.
Mortimer also says that he speaks Esperanto because he thought it might come in handy – know your enemy, etc. I have very little in my notes about this, except for one small detail that I had entirely forgotten: according to my Developmental Notes document from 2019 (during AMM), Mortimer originally trained as a Latin teacher.
We already said he was in the model-making club (what a soft nerd boy), and maybe he finds consolation in that – it’s his outlet while he’s grieving [a family member killed by the guilds]. He carries on with the Latin too, and ends up tutoring younger students, which is part of why he thinks he should become a teacher. Goes to college to train as a Latin teacher, but something’s missing. Halfway through he joins an engineering society or something and realises he misses being able to make stuff. Trains as a DT teacher instead, but uses his language (Latin) skills to teach himself Esperanto, in case it ever comes in handy.
I don’t know if this is canon. I had entirely forgotten it, and I’m always coming up with new headcanons about Mortimer’s backstory that I’ll never confirm on page. Since these notes predate a fair bit of crucial Mortimer characterisation due to the extremely late addition of all the most important scenes, it may be that our Mortimer doesn’t have a word of Latin.
But, hey, that’s the joy of these old notes. They’re true for a version of the character, even if it’s one who only existed between drafts as I refined ideas and played around with backstory. If it’s not on the page, you can ignore it or adopt it as you see fit.
That’s pretty much it for today, so over to you. I realise I’ve skimmed over the scene with Grace without delving too much into it: I think everything I might want to say about that part of the chapter is on the page, and I don’t want to focus too hard on that. But if you have any questions or thoughts on that scene and on Isabel’s childhood in her father’s lab, drop them in the comments, or tell me how you felt about Mortimer and his Suspicious Esperanto.
Otherwise, I’ll see you back here tomorrow!