19/09, Memoroj–Sekvoj (TBA Readalong)

Before we start: I spent a lot of time yesterday attempting to resolve a problem with email and WordPress subscriptions to this blog, which may have been occurring for longer than I realised. I think it has now been resolved, but I’m not sure if subscriptions are working properly. If you received this post as an email, or as a WordPress notification, or you are viewing it in the WordPress Reader, please comment to let me know, as I’ll be greatly reassured to know that it is in fact being correctly sent out!

If you missed the earlier posts due to a subscription error, we started two days ago with 17/09, Eraro and continued yesterday with 18/09, Eraro-Trompo.

19th September is a big day in The Butterfly Assassin, because the entirety of chapters three and four take place today. On this day, the death of Ian Crampton is reported in the Echo; Nick invites Isabel to the school library, where she meets Grace Whittock for the first time; and we have our first encounter with Ronan Atwood. We also get a few glimpses of Isabel’s past, in the form of a nightmare about her childhood, a scar on her hand, and Ronan’s offer, which gives us a much clearer idea what exactly Isabel is running from.

Let’s start with Isabel’s conversations with Nick and her visit to the library, because there’s probably the most worldbuilding here, but a lot of it is covered in close succession and easily skimmed over.

We learn that Nick is one of six siblings, while Isabel is an only child; in earlier drafts, this was accompanied by a comment that it’s hard for civilians to access contraception because the guilds have a vested interested in keeping the city’s population up, so being an only child inherently implies that her family might be guild. From Draft V:

“How old is your brother?” she asks Nick; it’s possibly the first time she’s shown an interest in his life.

“That one, ten,” he says. “With the energy levels of a six-year-old and none of the cuteness. The others are thirteen, eight, and four.” He rolls his eyes. “Siblings.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You’re an only child?”

“Yep.” Isabel’s glad of that, because siblings would have made everything harder, given her parents more ammunition. But she shouldn’t have mentioned it to Nick. Nothing screams guild like access to contraception.

This conversation implies that Nick is the oldest, although I don’t know if that remains true in the published book, since his siblings are now unspecified in age. If they’re still living at home and he’s in his final year of school, though, this seems likely; rent in Espera is sufficiently affordable that adult siblings would have moved out.

Contraception, and access to it, was more significant in earlier drafts because the non-profit clinic Isabel later seeks out for healthcare, The Sunshine Project, was originally more of a Planned Parenthood type setup, specialising in contraceptive and reproductive healthcare (although they did cover other things too). As such, it’s not somewhere that a guild member would ever have sought out, but it was a fairly essential lifeline for civilians.

This early conversation with Nick, then, was setting up a worldbuilding domino that I planned to knock down later, but the significance of the detail diminished enough that eventually it got cut entirely. Whether it remains canonically ‘true’ is unclear, and I never completely committed in either direction. We don’t encounter too many large families, so I’m going to lean towards it no longer being the case, but it’s possible that it was true at one point in Espera’s past.

Another crucial piece of worldbuilding information we’re given in this chapter comes via Isabel’s History homework, writing about the “1942 Sanctuary Act”. Espera, the City of Hope, taking in refugees amidst the carnage of the Second World War. That is, of course, the other reason it still has a sizeable population despite the murder. People can come in, but they can’t leave; its deliberate neutrality in wartime has, in the past, made it a desirable location, and some of its industrial and civilian boroughs have significant refugee and immigrant populations.

And this detail brings us on to Ronan Atwood. Or, as he was called right up until a very late draft, Ronan Isaacs.

I gave Ronan the surname Isaacs because it was a name that had personal family significance to me. In my head, it also provided a certain degree of backstory for Ronan: perhaps his grandparents or great-grandparents arrived in Espera during the war, fleeing antisemitism, although I never put these sorts of details on the page. (I know a fair amount about Daragh’s family history that never showed up in the book, too.)

I changed it because… well, you can probably see the problem. I should have seen it sooner. I remember sending a very frantic, late-night email to my editor (it was literally 3am): “It’s a family name so I had an actual reason for using it, but don’t you think people might read it as antisemitic to give a Jewish name to the ambitious leader of this shadowy organisation that controls the city and sometimes kills children??”

talk about it, though it's more complicated than that), and the reader obviously doesn't know this story. So I'm worried it may come across as antisemitic. Like, the only character with a visibly Jewish surname and he's the ruthless, ambitious bastard in charge of one of the two shadowy organisations that controls the city? Not to mention the fact he repeatedly causes the deaths of minors, albeit indirectly (via Isabel, usually) -- which is a bit yikes considering the whole blood libel thing.
Email sent: 03:14am.

Yeah. So, that detail had to go. Unintentional though it might have been, and whatever my personal connection to or original reasons for choosing the name, once I realised it had the potential to do harm, I couldn’t knowingly leave it in there. The name, and Ronan’s familial backstory, changed accordingly. Atwood is solidly English; Ronan is Irish. His mother’s side of the family is from Northern Ireland, a detail confirmed somewhere in the trilogy (book 3, definitely, but possibly earlier as well? I’m not sure), and came to Espera to get away from the Troubles.

I don’t often change character names – I find it so hard to come up with a name in the first place, I’m not about to start coming up with two. But these chapters introduce us to another character whose name also changed, for a very different reason: Grace Whittock, the librarian.

Grace, like Mortimer, is a firm favourite among a specific proportion of my readers (mostly those who work in schools or libraries, which shouldn’t come as a surprise). She’s been there since the first draft, but she was originally a male character, called Graham Whittock. (Named for Graham Robb, author of The Ancient Paths, and Martyn Whittock, author of A Brief Guide to Celtic Myths and Legends, both books in my line of sight at the time. I’m sorry, there is no Significant Name Symbolism in these books, this is pretty much the story of everybody’s name.)

Graham, in his earliest incarnation, came trailing Backstory™.

He takes a pen out of his jacket pocket. “Can I have a sheet of paper?”

“Oh, sure.” She tears one out of the refill pad and gives it to him. He writes a title at the top of the page and, like a student, his name in the left hand corner. Graham Whittock. “You moved out too? Sorry. I don’t mean to pry. It’s just…”

“I was fifteen,” he says. “My father was dead. Had been since I was a child.”

“Oh.” She doesn’t know what to say. She’s never been good at consoling people — her understanding of emotions is limited. “How did he die?”

“My mother killed him.”

His mother was Hummingbird; when a hit was called on her husband, she fulfilled it. Graham tells Isabel that he moved out as soon as he was old enough, fearing the same might happen to him. (Later, it became less clear whether this was true.)

Hints of this backstory linger: My mother was Hummingbird, says Grace in the lab, though we won’t reach that scene until 6th October. I began writing a short story about Grace a few months ago, exploring this aspect of her past, but have yet to finish it. I won’t say more on it now, in case I ever do get to the end and decide to share the details, but we can see that I shifted the dynamic considerably if this is no longer the first conversation that Graham/Grace and Isabel have!

So why is Graham now Grace? Simply put, it was a numbers game. I realised that male characters were dominating, particularly in positions of authority or power: Ronan Atwood, Daragh Vernant, Mortimer Sark, Ian Ryans. At one point Dr Vernant was a separate character, and Isabel’s head of year, Ms Cunliffe, played a more significant role, but after the doctors got combined and Ms Cunliffe was cut, that left only Toni Rolleston as a significant on-page adult woman with any power or authority. So, Graham became Grace, trying to even the numbers a little.

It was an early change – it happened in the second draft, before most of the other changes that made it wholly necessary – so it’s funny sometimes, to remember that ‘Graham’ ever existed. I like Grace as she is, and she’s been a woman in my head for a long time now, but it was Graham who laid the foundations of her personality and characterisation. Much of her role only showed up in later drafts, though.

Finally, Isabel’s conversation with Ronan gives us several crucial pieces of information:

  1. Her father developed weapons – poisons and nerve agents – which the guilds sell to world governments (among other clients), and this made him important.
  2. Her father is missing.
  3. Her father’s name is Ian.
  4. “Defecting” is something that guild members can theoretically do.  
  5. The guilds are not supposed to train children, but they did.
  6. There was somebody else, Michael, who knew Isabel ran away.

1 is of course crucial to understanding the world the story is set in; 2 is establishing the plot; 3 explains Isabel’s actions two days earlier, when she resorted to trauma responses and murder upon being faced with a burglar called Ian; 4 is both a worldbuilding detail and a hint to some of my historical and real-world influences (I looked a lot at closed cities, the USSR, the Berlin Wall etc for ideas); 5 is the missing piece of Isabel’s backstory that’s been hinted since chapter one; and 6 is teasing a future character reveal. A very multi-purpose conversation, this one – I’m rather proud of it.

It goes without saying that it didn’t originally exist, of course. Ronan only started showing up at Isabel’s flat several drafts in, but mostly, this scene didn’t exist because – and this is going to shock you – I didn’t figure out that the guilds developed and sold weapons until the fifth draft of the book. Yep. I have no idea what book I was writing before that – I told you everything important showed up in Draft V. As such, her father’s importance was diminished, and the possibility of defection didn’t really exist. In the earliest draft, Isabel’s parents did disappear, later in the book… because they’d been kidnapped, and were being held for ransom, which Isabel originally considered paying.

Again. I was writing the wrong book. It’s impossible to imagine this Isabel trying to ransom her parents, when she would happily never see them again. But I promise you it was the case. Here, from the first draft:

It’s hot on the heels of the realisation that she cares too much about her parents’ fate for somebody who walked out on them, and for somebody who spent sixteen years resenting their plans for her life, but she’s not sure whether she wants to address that at this moment and so she ignores it to be on the safe side. She doesn’t hate her parents, anyway, just what they did to her. She wouldn’t want them dead.

*flashbacks to how this book ended* Hmm. Yeah. So, that changed a little. (<- Nominates this one for understatement of the year.)

Overall, there’s a lot going on in these chapters, and this is purely on the worldbuilding/process side of things; I could go for hours if I dug deep into the text itself. So I’ll refrain now, and hand the floor over to you. I want to know how you felt about these early explanations of Espera’s backstory, or about Ronan, or what we’re gradually learning about Isabel’s past. Did anything stand out to you about these chapters that I didn’t mention at all in this post?


  1. Chalkletters says:

    Grace Whittock is an excellent name, it feels very librariany (this may be because I wrote a librariany character myself called Henrietta Whitlock once upon a time).

    Ronan is also already excellent — an interesting blend of seeming to be reasonable but still menacing.

    I am a little suspicious of Nick, purely because he’s always there waiting for her at the bus stop, no matter whether she’s early or late. It may well turn out to be nothing, but it pinged my wariness radar.

    • Finn Longman says:

      Ronan’s greatest gift is seemingly like a Normal Bureaucrat while secretly being utterly awful 😅 I think the mask was a bit too good in book 1 though, because too many of my readers liked him, lol.

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

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