We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin together and exploring the worldbuilding and writing process, following the chronology of the book. New to the readalong? Jump to 17/09, Eraro, to start from the beginning, or join us wherever you like! (But beware spoilers if you haven’t finished the book yet…)
On Saturday the sixth of October, Isabel goes to Grace Whittock’s laboratory in an attempt to identify the poison that’s killing her and, hopefully, make an antidote. She’s hoping that either she can break down the poison itself to determine its ingredients, or that the experience of being back in a real lab for the first time since she ran away from home will trigger some more memories of the circumstances of being poisoned, giving her crucial clues. Mostly, what she triggers is a panic attack, the process too much a reminder of her father and everything he did to her – and everything he taught her to be.
This section was a killer to research, I have to say. I’ve already told you that I am Extremely Not A Scientist; I dropped Maths at fifteen and all sciences at sixteen, and the fact that I got A*s in my GCSE sciences was a sign that I am very good at taking exams, not that I understood anything in the papers. As such, I had never heard of high performance liquid chromatography or mass spectrometry when I started writing the earlier versions of the scene, and I definitely didn’t know how they worked.
All the earlier versions of this scene were… bad. Because Isabel was originally admitted to hospital much earlier in the book, the scene didn’t start existing at all until Draft VI, and by that point, most scenes were fairly decent and just needed refinement. Not this one. It was entirely Fake Science, just bullshit and vibes, and there was no way that anything Isabel was doing in that scene would have given her any useful information whatsoever.
Now, my target audience are teenagers, and most of them are probably not experienced chemists with significant expertise in this particular topic. So I probably could have got away with this, and my editor would have let me. But I know how I annoyed I get when a book doesn’t bother to make the details accurate; I was conscious that some of my readers would be adults and, given the nerd quotient of my circles of acquaintance, possibly chemists; and I knew that I needed to write for the teen with a special interest in toxicology as much as I needed to write for the one who barely knew which way up a test tube should go.
This was… challenging.
First, I had to figure out what sort of science was actually needed her. That was a process, especially as I was still refining the details of the poison. I spent a bunch of time reading about electron microscopes before putting that aside, for a while. My internet searches gradually led me to high performance liquid chromatography as a Thing You Could Use To Separate Out Ingredients, which seemed hopeful, and mass spectrometry as a Thing To Identify Ingredients, which seemed even more so, but I still didn’t know how they worked.
So I spent a bunch of time on YouTube. I’m not generally someone who finds videos a useful way of learning, but I needed to see the machines I was talking about. And there are a lot of videos out there! Unfortunately, a lot of them were more focused on explaining the science of these machines – i.e. what was going on behind the scenes. Which was great (I didn’t understand any of it), but it didn’t really help me with the questions a writer needs to answer:
What parts of the machine would the character interact with? What safety equipment would they be wearing? In what form do they receive information/answers? At what point in the process can something go dramatically wrong? (And, crucially: Was this the correct equipment/process to be using for what I needed the character to achieve in this scene?)
So, it was time to recruit help.
Off I went to Facebook, then, and put out a call for help: did I know any chemists who would be able to help me?
It turned out I did. See, I went to Cambridge for my undergrad degree, which is notoriously full of absolute nerds. People talk a lot about “networking” as an advantage of Oxbridge-type universities, and while I have yet to make friends with a rich benefactor who will fund everything I ever want to do, I was heavily involved in the ballet club. And the ballet club had a higher-than-expected number of scientists in its ranks. And because we did shows together, we would add each other on Facebook, and now, years down the line when they were off being proper researchers in Chemistry and the like, they would see my call for help, and they would answer.
Thanks, Zoe. After several essay-length messages, a foray back to YouTube for help figuring out the basics, several video tutorials and probably a Crash Course explanation or two later, I returned:
The science was a go.
Now, I can’t promise that everything that happens in this scene is 100% scientifically accurate. Again, I am assuming that the majority of my readers are not experts in this field, and will not be able to call me out on it, but also, I needed to write it in a way that was both accurate enough not to annoy those who knew more than me, and simplistic enough to be possible to follow for those who, like me, had zero scientific background. Eek!
This, I discovered, was really hard. When I’m writing about dance or music, I know enough about the topic to be sure which details are important, and which are unnecessary technical vocab that your typical reader won’t understand and doesn’t need. (Sometimes I still get overly technical, but it’s usually for effect.) I know when to name a part of an instrument, and when not to; I can simplify a description, and still be pretty confident that I’m accurately describing the steps a dancer is doing, and won’t annoy any ballet dancers reading it. Because I am a ballet dancer, and if I am not annoyed, then that’s a good metric.
But with science, with this scene, I didn’t have that knowledge. It was far harder to determine which terms and details were essential, and which could be jettisoned, and when I only knew one way of doing something, hastily learned from YouTube, it was a challenge to simplify a description while keeping it accurate. It took hours. I think a spent a solid week working on this scene, between the research and the multiple attempts at rewriting it, which, considering I only had about four weeks total to do that round of structural edits, was a lot.
And somewhere in the middle of that process I decided that everybody in The Hummingbird Killer was just going to get stabbed, because I was never doing that again.
When I was done, I sent the scene to a different scientifically-minded friend, who hadn’t heard me describe what I was trying to do, and asked her if it seemed to make sense and whether she could follow it. Only when she told me that it seemed plausible did I breathe a sigh of relief, and move on with the book – narrowly avoiding missing my deadline, because this chapter seriously pushed me to the brink.
This scene is also why I was extremely relieved and happy to receive a lovely blurb from Emily Suvada. For those who don’t know, Emily Suvada wrote an extremely science-heavy YA trilogy starting with This Mortal Coil, all about gene-editing and the like, and is a scientist herself. Now, I don’t know what she thought of this scene specifically, but she liked the book overall, which means my science must have been convincing enough not to annoy her as a scientist. The relief was immense.
Here’s Emily’s blurb:
There are a couple of fun bits of foreshadowing in this chapter; I’m conscious, however, that a couple of the readers of this blog series haven’t finished The Butterfly Assassin yet, and I don’t want to spoil anything for them. All I’ll say is that I was leaning heavily on doubles in this one, and the associations Isabel makes between characters when panicking isn’t random.
This is also where we begin to get more hints of Grace’s backstory. As mentioned earlier in the series, her mother was Hummingbird. She gives us very little information about what this entailed, but the fact that she offers this information as solidarity with Isabel who is afraid of the person she realises she’s capable of being – afraid of turning into her father, afraid of how much she’s inherited from him – tells us a fair bit about the emotional side of that process, and some of what Grace may have grappled with in the past.
Grace’s mother was a contract killer, but one who often relied on poisons. Grace’s focus on antidotes takes on a new significance in the light of that, especially when we know, as we do from earlier drafts, that her mother killed her father. How else is a teenager meant to process that, except to try to learn to protect themselves in any way that they can, because they never know if they’ll be next? Grace wasn’t directly trained by her mother, but she was shaped by her work nonetheless.
Isabel, on the other hand, was trained. Quite the little scientist. She is entirely capable of becoming her father, and entirely determined not to, which shapes many of her choices going forward.
But for now, I want to know your thoughts. Did the science convince you? If you’re a writer, have you ever written a character whose expertise is wildly unlike your own? Do you love the research part of writing, or do you fudge it until the last possible minute and have to rewrite everything with the details? And how did you, as a reader, feel about Isabel’s failure to determine the formula’s formula and therefore its antidote in this scene?
No post tomorrow (“She sleeps through Sunday”, Chapter 19 tells us), so I’ll see you back here in a couple of days.