18/09, Eraro–Trompo (TBA Readalong)

18th September takes us from the last section of Chapter 1 (“Eraro”) to the end of Chapter 2 (“Trompo”). In this section, we get hit with some education worldbuilding, and we meet a couple of our secondary characters for the first time: Nick Larrington and Mortimer Sark.

Nick showed up in the second draft of The Butterfly Assassin, though there was an unnamed student in the very first draft who fulfilled a similar role, at least in the opening chapters. His importance has varied somewhat over the years, and so has his fate (more on that in a later post!), but what surprised me, looking back over the previous drafts, is that his appearance also changed.

This probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, because appearance is very low on the list of character priorities for me; I just don’t care. To be honest, it’s more surprising that he had a description when he first showed up in Draft II:

“Hello,” says someone nervously; she turns to see a boy about her own age, freckles dominating most of what she can see of his face under a mop of dyed black hair. “Do you — I mean, are you going to Fraser School?”

His hair remained dyed black in Draft III, became simply ‘dark’ in Draft IV, and took on his more recognisable appearance in Draft V:

Isabel glances up at the boy waiting at the tram stop, his blond hair an unruly mass of curls as usual. Nick Larrington.

(Generally speaking, Draft V is when the first chapter starts to look familiar as the bare bones of the existing book’s opening chapter.)

He has remained blond since then, for no reason other than that it never occurred to me that he shouldn’t be. Dark-haired Nick Larrington, you were gone and, until now, forgotten. But you existed. Once.

The closing lines of this chapter, featuring Isabel hiding her bloodstained hands, existed in preliminary form from as early as Draft II, and were more or less verbatim from Draft III. It’s funny, when so much else about the book has changed (the published version is roughly Draft VIII!), to see the lines that survived – the ones I got right the first time around, and then kept forever.

And so on to the second chapter, when the worldbuilding starts to kick in.

The Fraser Secondary School (named after James E. Fraser, author of “From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795”, because it was on the shelf next to my desk at the time and so was in my line of sight) is a civilian school, located in a civilian borough called Lutton. Lutton, like all the Esperan boroughs, is named for a real place; they all correspond to small villages and hamlets in Yorkshire. I plonked a city on top of those villages, and then stole their names. I do apologise most heartily.

Finn Longman (a white person with short dark hair and orange-tinted glasses) taking a selfie by a sign reading East Lutton. The sign is attached to a small brick wall; there are some flowers in front of it, and a bench with a rubbish bin beyond it. Otherwise it is surrounded by grass and trees.
East Lutton, Yorkshire, April 2023

We still don’t know too much about what it means that it’s a civilian school, or even a civilian borough, though Isabel mentions here that a guild-sponsored school might have fast-tracked her into training. I’ve never been sure how clear the breakdown between types of schools was in the book itself, but here are the details according to my notes:

  • Guild-sponsored schools (spons).
    • Essentially like grammar schools. Entrance exams. Highly academic, with education in poisons etc in Level Three (sixth form) for promising pupils. Many go on to higher education or are recruited into the guild. Most recruitment happens after Level Threes (18), but some talented students are tapped earlier.
      • Comma’s spons: Linnaeus (Fordon), Latreille (Weaverthorpe), Nazari (Sherburn), Swainson (Cowlam)
  • Borough schools.
    • Essentially comprehensive schools, but in guild boroughs. Still opportunities for academics, but fewer pupils go on to university. Fewer agents recruited directly here; mostly adjacents.
  • Civilian schools (civs)
    • Comprehensives in civilian and industrial boroughs. Not all industrials have education all the way to Level Three. Opportunities vary depending on the borough and school: some are more academic. Rich boroughs like Grindale have better civs where more people go to uni. Rare for guilds to recruit directly here but some people from civs to apply.

As well as having to grasp the concept of a civilian school, this chapter also introduces us to Level Twos and Level Threes as qualifications. I tried to keep Espera’s schooling system as simple and intuitive as I could, and chose these names to correspond to NVQ terminology in the English education systems: Level Twos are equivalent to GCSEs or Level 2 BTECs; Level Threes to A-Levels, IB, or Level 3 BTECs. It’s probably still confused a few people, though, especially those not from the UK so unsure whether they were meant to understand it or not!

Isabel should be in the second year of her Level Threes – her seventh year of secondary school, equivalent to year 13. But as she was pulled out of school by her parents eighteen months ago (halfway through fifth year/year 11, and before taking her Level Twos, aka GCSEs), she’s behind, and has gone in at the start of Level Threes: sixth year, or the equivalent of year 12.

Level Threes require a minimum of five subjects for the two years, plus a sixth subject in the first year. Three subjects are taken at Higher level and two/three at Standard (it is a Standard subject that’s usually dropped, except in exceptional circumstances), so in this regard, it’s a little bit similar to the IB. They’re required to take one STEM subject, one Humanities subject, and one Vocational subject, with two/three free choices for the others.

At the Fraser, Isabel is taking Chemistry (Higher), Biology (Higher), Maths (Higher), History (Standard), English (Standard), and Woodwork (Standard). Nick, a seventh-year, is taking Higher Maths, Latin and Physics, and Standard History and Electronics. Emma, whom we’ll meet later, is taking Higher English, Art and History, and Standard Biology and Sociology.

Yeah, you know how I mentioned in yesterday’s post that worldbuilding tends to balloon outwards for me? I have so much more to say about Espera’s education system, about its universities, everything… but this post is already lengthy, and I might need to save some of that for later.

So. Woodwork. Isabel’s required Vocational subject, somewhat reluctantly chosen. And Woodwork brings us… Mortimer Sark.

I’ve made no secret about the fact that Mortimer is one of my favourite characters in the book. Named after Ian Mortimer (author of “A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England”, etc, which was in my line of sight at the time) and the island of Sark (because I finished writing the first draft in the Channel Islands in 2014), he was never intended to be a major character, but became one almost immediately regardless of my intentions.

Mortimer’s classroom is based on my old form room at school, since my form tutor was a DT teacher, but his personality is entirely his own. He’s the kind of teacher who cares too much about their students, and will go out of his way to check they’re okay – which is what Isabel needs, but absolutely not what she wants. Though Isabel’s relationship with him has changed slightly over the many drafts of this book, his basic essence was there right from the very beginning, especially his sarcasm. His iconic orange biscuit tin, however, shockingly didn’t show up until Draft V.

(I feel like this will become a theme, because yes, pretty much everything important about this book showed up in Draft V or later. It happens. I was writing the wrong book for four drafts, we have to live with that.)

But we don’t get to linger long with Mortimer here – only long enough to hint that he might become important later, possibly in the form of a threat to Isabel’s schoolgirl existence. Instead, we follow Isabel to Chemistry, taught by Dr Garner (named after Alan Garner, author of “The Owl Service”, which was, as you may be able to guess, in my line of sight at the time).

Being in a lab is triggering for Isabel, though she’s good at Chemistry – which, notably, I am not. I haven’t taken a STEM subject since I was 16, and the fact that her class is learning covalent bonding is due solely to that being more or less the only thing I could remember from Chemistry lessons back in the day. Having Isabel disappear into flashbacks and memories at least spared me from needing to write too many detailed science lessons, but there were times when I seriously regretted creating a scientifically-minded character!

And finally, the close of the chapter returns us to Nick, and a conversation about Isabel’s paper round. I skimmed past the references to this in Chapter One, but the paper round is interesting, actually, because it was a very late addition. It showed up in September 2020, in a round of edits I did with my agent before we went on sub to Simon & Schuster, among others.

This is strange to think of, because it winds up being the mechanism for several plot points and crucial pieces of information. But it’s true: it’s not in the May 2020 draft, and it’s there in the October 2020 draft. I even have an annotated version of the May draft with comments from September in which I floated the idea and identified the places in the book where the paper round would be mentioned.

So: Isabel has a paper round, delivering a newspaper called the Echo. The newsagent is called Ashvin (named after the pharmacist in the parade of shops at the end of my parents’ road), and paper newspapers are, it seems, still a mainstream form of news dissemination in Espera. Or a not-so-mainstream one, occasionally, because we also hear references to The Weekly Bulletin of the Free Press.

When it came to naming this one, I confess I spent a lot of time scrolling lists of defunct radical newspapers and academic journals, trying to find something that sounded right. The Bulletin (of the Board of Celtic Studies) was, I think, a suggestion from a friend; I had lost the plot by that point.

And as for plot, we should be getting some of that soon enough. Maybe I’ll be able to keep my next post under 2k, and not get too carried away with the worldbuilding infodumps 😅

But before I go, it’s over to you. How did you feel about the characters of Nick and Mortimer when you first encountered them here? Where did you expect their stories to go? (Somebody told me once they started shipping Isabel and Nick, which made me laugh, because it had never occurred to me.) And, please, assuage my curiosity: could you make sense of Espera’s education system, or did I confuse you all entirely?

Leave your answers or any other comments below, and let’s get this conversation started.


  1. Theia says:

    I love this so much, I must confess I was super intruiged about the school system in Espera – a few of my “worldbuilding” tabs were me making notes to myself about it in case it got more significant later in the story. I’m also so intruiged to hear about the evolution of the side characters between drafts! I loved Nick’s introduction, how he stubbornly attempts to gain Isabel’s friendship even if it’s the last thing she wants (and ends up not doing him any favours in the long run…) I actually think the first sentence I annotated and added to my “character moments <3" tab was the one where Isabel remarks how strange it was that he confessed he sometimes cries when he reads the death notices in the paper 🥺 I knew I'd love him as a character, but also knew exactly what kind of a book I was getting into (chapter one set that up *very* well. Even if I was secretly rooting for certain someones to live, I must say I prefer the complexity of TBA's moral discussion as it is in the final version :))

    • Finn Longman says:

      Ah I’m glad it was interesting! To be honest, most of the details of the school system in the finished book are background information, but in earlier drafts, there was more of a focus on Isabel’s efforts to stay in school (over and above her desire to stay away from the guild), so the qualifications she was trying to achieve had a bit more significance. In particular, since she was originally sixteen, dropping down a year meant she was still doing Level Twos; once she got aged up to seventeen, I had to shift her to doing Level Threes, which changed how I approached the distribution of subjects. At one point, rather than dropping down a year, she’d been switched to Vocational courses in place of academic ones, which is how she ended up in Mortimer’s Woodwork class; once I shifted things around, I needed her to still be doing Woodwork, so I needed Level Threes to involve a compulsory vocational subject even though she was otherwise doing academic courses, etc.

      Nick truly went “is anyone gonna befriend that” and did not wait for an answer when it came to Isabel, regardless of her interest in being befriended. Not the strongest self-preservation instinct, but admirable as a character trait, I think. It was always important to me to show Esperans who have grown up there and still maintained their soft-heartedness, because it makes Isabel more complicated as a person. Obviously, her upbringing and Nick’s weren’t the same, but they’re more similar than if he’d grown up outside the city. Death is incredibly normalised for Isabel, though, whereas for Nick, it’s still something to cry over. That makes Isabel’s emotional responses stand out more — she’s not JUST a product of her city, but also of trauma over and above what other people in the city are going through regularly.

  2. Chalkletters says:

    I managed to follow the school system, but I hadn’t spotted the similarity to the IB until you mentioned it. (I’d say I should have done, having taken it, but I don’t think the Higher Level / Standard distinction made it onto the page.)

    • Finn Longman says:

      No, it didn’t; it was one of those details I only needed to know in order to design Isabel’s timetable, since Higher subjects would get more classes per week than Standard ones. (Truly, trying to make the days of the week match up is the motivation for so many of my worldbuilding decisions.) I’m not sure we even got a full list of her chosen subjects, though most of them are referenced in passing, at least. My school offered both A-Level and IB; I took A-Levels but was sufficiently familiar with IB to draw on it when designing the nuances of Espera’s schooling, without trying to directly imitate it.

  3. tofukiin says:

    I’m finding it weird in this futuristic world with solar roads there are still papers being delivered by hand.

    Also I imagine guild schools for assassins are quite cut throat.

    • Finn Longman says:

      The presence of print media is one of those little … not anachronisms, per se, but an unlikely detail that I nevertheless put it on purpose. I see it as one major difference between Espera and the outside world (and between this alternate universe and ours). It’s a lot easier for the guilds to control, survey and censor print news than it would be if there were widespread, active digital news networks within the city, and it’s easier to set up an illegal print newssheet without being caught than it is to get around the guild firewalls to distribute one online without also being tracked and identified. So given the way the city works, it makes sense; they also rely more heavily on radio than you’d expect for the time period. But it’s one of the ways in which the guilds’ control has kept the city locked in the past.

      Ngl, I also just liked the aesthetic of newspapers and it worked with the vibes for book two. But there are actual worldbuilding reasons for it too 😅

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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