Tag: chronic illness

05/10, Ĉano – Part II (TBA Readalong)

Hello! We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin together, following the calendar of the book, and discussing the worldbuilding and writing process. Jump to 17/09, Eraro to start from the beginning, or join us wherever you like!

On the 5th of October, Isabel continues to have a shitty day. She’s sufficiently unwell – and visibly so – that Ashvin sends her home rather than let her do her paper round, and she doesn’t make it to school. While she’s trying to remember how to think in a straight line, Daragh calls her, and gives her the results of her latest blood tests. They’re not good. You always know it’s not good when doctors start using words like “prognosis” and “palliative care”. But Isabel hasn’t given up, and she asks Daragh for Grace’s number.

It’s another brief one – though we get about a page and a half today, rather than yesterday’s scant handful of lines – and the focus is still on pain and illness. Some reviewers aren’t fans of that, finding it frustrating that Isabel spends so much of the book suffering. To which I can say two things: first, trust me, this was even more pronounced in the early drafts, and second, yeah, being in pain all the time sucks and is boring, I agree.

Sorry, did that sound bitter? If it is, it’s not because I’m annoyed at the reviewers (they’re well within their rights to dislike the book for any and all reasons they might mention, and it is in fact none of my business unless they tag me in it! Although sometimes they do tag me in it. Alas). The bitterness is because chronic illness and pain do suck… but also because it’s so rare to find characters who have those experiences and, in part, it’s because there’s a belief (perhaps justified) that nobody wants to read about being in pain all the time. For those of us for whom this is our lives, though, this basically just tells us we’ll never be the  main characters of our own stories, and that’s… kind of a bummer?

In a previous draft, the AMM rewrite, this scene was another in-person appointment with Daragh, and Emma had come with Isabel for moral support, so it was Emma who gave Isabel Grace’s number:

“I’m sorry,” Daragh says, “but this is bad.” And what she hears is, You’re losing.

But she will not die like this. Nor will she go to her father and beg him to save her, which seems to be the only rope anyone can throw her as she drowns day by day in the encroaching blackness of the poison. Never mind that he’s missing, that she might not be able to find him even if she tries – she will not try. She refuses to give him the satisfaction of seeing her come crawling back to him.

And she won’t go begging at Ronan’s door, either.

She looks from Daragh to Emma and back at the test results on the doctor’s desk. “Emma,” she says, “do you have Grace’s number?”

As with many of the changes to this middle section of the book, it was largely for pacing reasons that I cut this appointment, combined several days into a single chapter, and made this a phonecall. And, of course, in the earliest drafts, Isabel would have been in hospital by then. Although she suggested they asked Grace for help, it wasn’t an active decision that she made as part of her attempts to solve this herself – it was, instead, part of her relying on others to fix things. I was very keen to push Isabel to be as active a participant in the plot as possible, and that was one of the main changes in the AMM rewrite: Isabel tries to save herself, and asking Grace for help is part of that.

We’ll see more of that in tomorrow’s post, in which you’ll get to learn about the chapter that required the most research of anything in the book. In the meantime, I want to hear your thoughts – anything and everything evoked by this chapter. Drop them in the comments and I’ll see you tomorrow!

02/10, Kulpo (TBA Readalong)

On the 2nd of October, Grace gives Isabel the antidote to the memory suppressant. They talk a little about Mortimer, and whether or not he poses a threat, and Isabel wonders exactly how deep in Grace’s debt she’s going to be.

Since the previous chapter didn’t exist in any of the early drafts, neither did this scene, although Isabel did, at one point in the first draft, discuss Mortimer with Graham:

“Mortimer’s more perceptive than most people.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“You shouldn’t trust him.”

“I don’t. I don’t trust you either. That doesn’t mean I won’t accept your help.”

(A classic taste of how much of the first draft was pure dialogue with no dialogue tags. This is often the case with my first drafts, but when you take a scene out of context, it makes it very hard to figure out who is speaking. This one is Graham – Isabel – Graham – Isabel, ftr.)

There’s a slightly more readable version of this in Draft IV:

“Oh.” Warily, Isabel allows Grace to take her arm again, and they make slow progress down the corridor towards the medical room. “Mortimer knows about you, you know.”

“You told him?”

“He already knew. He says you’re bad at hiding it.”

“Mortimer’s more perceptive than most people.” A moment of silence. “You shouldn’t trust him.”

“I don’t.”

She thinks Grace probably smiles at that, but she can’t see her face from this angle. “I’m sorry this has happened to you, Isabel,” says the librarian eventually, and Isabel has no idea how to respond to that.

We can see that Grace and Mortimer are on friendlier terms in the late drafts than they were earlier on, but that’s mostly because I gave them actual characterisation, and also because Grace is no longer affiliated with Hummingbird the way that Graham was. Mortimer isn’t aware that Grace is a freelance poisoner, but if he was, the fact that she specialises in antidotes and nonlethals would probably reconcile him to that information, even if it would initially be a shock. On the whole, though, he’d struggle to be friendly with a guild member – Isabel becoming a notable exception to that. His suspicion that Grace was/had been a poisoner in the early drafts was a big part of the tension between the pair of them.

Come Draft VI, Grace was a poisoner, Mortimer didn’t know but suspected, and we were creeping towards a recognisable version of this scene, but we still didn’t have my favourite moment, a version of which showed up in 2020:

“He doesn’t know I’ve been poisoned. Or that I was trained as a child. But the rest…” She shrugs, trying to hide her discomfort. “I don’t know what he’ll do with that information. I don’t think he’s planning to do anything yet, but I can’t be sure.”

“Want me to poison him for you?” says Grace.

Isabel looks up, shocked. “No,” she says instantly. “No, of course not, that would – wait, was that a joke?”

The librarian pulls a face. “Not exactly. I mean, I’d rather not. Despite his many flaws, I do actually like Mortimer. But if you’d asked, I’d have considered it. Something nasty but nonlethal.”

Want me to poison him for you? I love Grace in this moment. This is the moment we realise she’s switched from a threat to Isabel to a genuine ally: somebody who will protect her. And Isabel has few enough of those.

There’s not much else to discuss in this chapter, so I’m going to be slightly cheeky and slip into the 3rd October, because I have a couple of sections to cover there. Since the first of them happens at 04:23am, it’s still kind of the 2nd, especially as it’s not quite dawn.

In this scene, Isabel wakes from a dream, triggered by the memory suppressant breaking down, in which she remembers creating the poison for her father. She wakes before she can remember the formula, horrified to realise she’s been, in part, the architect of her own suffering. Michael, suffering his own nightmares, calls her, and the two have a late-night call, solidarity in the face of mutual trauma.

There are two things I want to say about this section.

Firstly, that it was important to me that Isabel was at least partially implicated in her own suffering. It’s pretty clear that the poison wasn’t her idea, and nobody else would hold her responsible for creating it, or think that she deserved to suffer as a result – but Isabel does, to a certain extent, see it that way. She doesn’t consider herself blameless, and this moment creates ambiguity (to her) about the extent to which she’s a victim.

When I temporarily lost the use of my hands at seventeen, a lot of it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t design my own genetics and give myself hypermobility syndrome. I wasn’t the one who gave me bad medical advice and worsened what might otherwise have been a smaller issue. I didn’t create the school system that pushed me to try and overachieve.

I did, however, write 700,000 words of fiction in eight months while doing my AS Levels, writing for three blogs, preparing for grade eight flute and violin, and playing in half a dozen musical ensembles. Repetitive Strain Injury was, as it seemed everybody wanted to tell me at the beginning, my fault.

For most people, RSI would have been temporary, if possibly recurring; for me, I became disabled, at first quite significantly. And it was my fault. I believed that. I’d overdone it, I hadn’t listened to warnings, I’d had bad posture, I’d pushed too hard, I’d done this to myself and therefore I deserved it. Did this mindset contribute to the pain sensitisation that trapped me in a cycle of chronic pain? I don’t know. But it sure didn’t help, because believing I deserved it also meant, on a deep subconscious level, that I didn’t truly believe I deserved to get better. Or that I was allowed to get better.

And then, when I got diagnosed with coeliac disease, it was after a year in which I had more or less exclusively lived on bread and pasta. (I was a first-year undergrad with limited kitchen facilities; it happens.) In other words, I’d spent a year poisoning myself. Did I know? No, of course I didn’t know. Did it make it worse? In the long term, probably not; in the short term, yes, it was the reason my antibody count was through the roof and my general health was so poor.

What mattered, though, at the time, was that I was not the blameless disabled person who had done everything right and still got sick, and was therefore worthy of sympathy. I had done everything wrong, and I had made myself sick.

In the years since then, I’ve learned two things: first, it doesn’t matter if you do everything right. This is an awful thing to have to learn, because it makes you realise that no matter how hard you try, you can’t actually protect yourself from illness, because illness is not a moral punishment and sometimes it Just Happens. Yes, even if you were good, even if you took all of your vitamins, even if you exercised, even if you rested – we are not, in the end, in control of our health, and we cannot protect ourselves from illness and injury and pain. And recognising that also doesn’t wholly take away the guilt and sense of responsibility. But it helps a little.

The second thing I learned is that it wouldn’t matter if I was fully, 100% responsible for all of my health issues: I still deserved help. I still deserved to get better.

That is, frequently, the point I am making here. Isabel is not blameless – in so many ways, she has been the cause of suffering. She is not perfect, not innocent, not untouched by her parents’ teachings. She still deserves better. She still deserves help, she still deserves to be safe, she still deserves medicine and care and friends. Because those are not conditional.

I said I wasn’t going to over-explain my motivations and thematic intentions because I want the book to stand alone, but I couldn’t help myself with this one, because this matters to me. It matters to me that Isabel isn’t innocent, and it matters to me that she still deserves better – and this is the first chapter where we really get a sense of that.

The second thing I want to say about this chapter is, you’ll be pleased to know, a little lighter in tone.

When Isabel is on the phone with Michael, he tells her that he can’t sleep because one of his roommates in the hostel where he’s staying is snoring like a rowing machine. This is drawn directly from my own personal experiences of staying in a hostel in Leeds in 2018, on my way to a job interview with the British Library in Boston Spa. Somebody in my dorm snored exactly like this: a long, noisy drag in, and then a sudden whoosh out. I had Green Day playing at top volume through my headphones and I could still hear them.

I may have hit them with a pillow. More than once. You can’t prove it. I’ll deny everything.

By the time I woke up at 7am to catch the bus out to my interview, I had not slept very much, and I was not very happy. I was also wildly unqualified for the job and, frankly, I don’t know why they interviewed me; needless to say, it didn’t work out, which is why I still live in Cambridge with its extortionate house prices, and not in Yorkshire, where less of my monthly income would go on rent. But the experience taught me something vital, and that is that some people snore like rowing machines.

I’m sorry, Michael. Nobody deserves to go through that.

Again, I have to say, I have a soft spot for the Michael we meet in this chapter. It’s clear he understands Isabel in a way that nobody else does; they’re alike, and they have shared experiences that nobody else has. This scene was another late addition to the book (really, this whole section was) – it showed up in 2020, and then almost got cut again in my autumn edits that year, but I decided the character moment was worth keeping. I’m glad I did. I think it was worth it.

What about you? Any thoughts on this chapter? How did it make you feel to realise that Isabel had helped make the poison – did it change how you viewed her and her illness? And, to keep things light, who’s the worst snorer you’ve ever had the misfortune to share a room with?

27/09, Konfeso–Helpo (TBA Readalong)

Content note: this post discusses infertility and traumatic injury.

On the 27th of September, Isabel has her second appointment with Dr Daragh Vernant.

This scene gives us more of Isabel’s backstory – the stories behind some of her scars, for example. As I told you a few days ago, originally this conversation came in her first appointment, and was much more detailed, but I have no regrets about all the details I cut there. Sometimes, less is more, and it’s certainly more believable when it comes to how much Isabel would disclose to a near-stranger about her upbringing.

Nobody asked me what I thought. This small, terse remark that Isabel makes about her infertility is all we really need to know about her feelings on the matter. She’s not upset about not being able to have children – but she does mind the circumstances that led to that being true, and the denial of her bodily autonomy.

This was important to me, and it’s also one of the more spiteful details in the book. Sometimes, I confess, I’m inspired by other works not because I liked them, but because I didn’t, or because something about them annoyed me and I decided to write my own. In this case, it was Age of Ultron, and specifically, Age of Ultron’s treatment of Natasha Romanoff.

For those who never saw the film, or somehow managed to forget about this detail, it emerges during Age of Ultron that ‘graduation’ from the Red Room, where Natasha was trained as an assassin, involved forced sterilisation. We learn this around the same time that Natasha is making it clear she considers herself a ‘monster’, and I have to say, the film very much made it feel like these two facts were related.

I will never judge anyone who struggles with fertility issues for how they feel about that: whether they’re devastated or relieved, whether they feel it as a burden or it never bothers them at all. But I will judge a movie that threw it in as part of a character’s traumatic backstory in such a haphazard and, dare I say it, unconvincing way. Natasha’s grief for her infertility could have been handled well – but it wasn’t.

And I don’t doubt that the Red Room would have sterilised the women it trained: controlling people’s reproductive capabilities is usually step one in owning and controlling them, and an unexpected pregnancy could cost them a valuable asset at a crucial moment. (Which is why it makes sense that others would have made those decisions for Isabel, without consulting her; it’s part of a broader spectrum of being denied bodily autonomy.)

But making it their ‘graduation’, making it the culmination of all that training… frankly, to me, that reeks of misogynistic storytelling, undermining the fact that these are highly-trained women. It implies that their infertility is the crucial thing qualifying them as assassins, and not the rest of their training. And I hated that, both for how it undermined Natasha’s skills, and for what it implies more generally about infertility.

So. This detail of Isabel’s past, this throwaway moment that was only one small thing in a lifetime of being controlled and trained in others, this detail that doesn’t define her, that hardly even bothers her except that it left her with a scar – this was, in large part, a reaction against Age of Ultron.

It was also because I wanted to write a character for whom infertility wasn’t a tragedy, just a fact of life. This isn’t to suggest that it’s never a tragedy – for many people, it is a cause of grief – but that thwarted desire to have children seemed to be the only narrative about these things I ever saw, and I wanted to write a character whose only reaction was, “Yeah, well, wish it hadn’t happened like that, but oh well…”

It also means, because Isabel lost her ovaries specifically, that she needs to take hormones. Isabel’s HRT is only mentioned a couple of times in the trilogy, but sometimes I feel like it’s a crucial detail, in a story about an apparently cis girl written by a trans author. I joked in the NaNo London discord a few weeks back that Isabel’s assigned gender was “assassin”, and her actual gender is “girl”. I’m not sure I was actually joking, though. She wasn’t raised to be a girl; she was raised to be a killer. She wasn’t expected to become a woman; she was expected to become a weapon.

Her infertility is, perhaps, part of that; while her womanhood wouldn’t have been defined by her ovaries in any case, the utilitarian “yeet it all” approach that her parents took to her reproductive system when she was injured shows that they were never interested in allowing her to make those choices for herself, nor did they value her body in that way. They wanted a weapon, and this was one small step in their journey to making one.

So perhaps you could, in the end, read Isabel as a trans girl who was nevertheless assigned female at birth: she is trying to reclaim her girlhood, become a woman and not a tool, and because of how her body was perceived and used by others, she needs to take HRT as part of that.

I don’t know. It wasn’t an intentional metaphor or allegory; I’d have done it less clumsily if it was. But this book is certainly a story about becoming something you were never expected to be, and having to fight for the bodily autonomy to do it. And that is an experience that resonates for trans people.

Talking of experiences that resonate, let’s jump back a second to the symptoms and test results Isabel discusses with Daragh. Vitamin deficiencies, white blood cells going haywire, immune system eating itself, etc etc. Nasty work, this poison she’s facing. Also something that can happen without the intervention of poison, though – when it came to the autoimmune symptoms Isabel faces, I took a lot of inspiration from real conditions like Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).

I do not, thankfully, have MCAS, but I do have an immune system that likes to overreact to small – and often harmless – triggers. MCAS is like if you took that and dialled it up to eleven, and it’s bad. I know a number of people who suffer from it; if you’ve ever heard of somebody being “allergic to sunlight”, they probably had MCAS. Mast cells are the cells responsible for allergic reactions – for example, when somebody allergic to nuts is exposed to them and goes into anaphylaxis, that’s due to the activation of the mast cells. This is already not great, but it’s when they start going haywire and activating without an allergy trigger that things start going really wrong.

A lot of autoimmune conditions can also wreak havoc on your ability to absorb vitamins, or deplete your body’s existing stores of them, causing nasty forms of anaemia or other misery. This is also not great, especially because things like B12 deficiency can be enough to kill you on their own, let alone when combined with other things…

I spend a reasonable amount of time in chronic illness communities online – often not intentionally, I don’t seek out forums for it, but birds of a feather flock together and I’ve wound up with a higher-than-average number of chronically ill people in my immediate social circle and among my online friends and acquaintances. As such, many of Isabel’s symptoms are drawn directly from reality, even if the cause is different. Sometimes, I was extrapolating from my own experiences; more often, I didn’t need to use my imagination, because I would know somebody whose condition was ten times worse, and I could see exactly what that looked like.

I’m not a scientist, so I don’t always understand the exact mechanisms behind autoimmune things, and I’m not an expert in poisons (despite all my sketchy research). But I do know what it’s like when the immune system goes wrong. I’ve had it happen, I’ve seen it happen to friends, and I know that bodies can become a threat to themselves in a way that many healthy people don’t. It’s that knowledge of illness, rather than any medical study, that allows me to write these moments with Isabel and Daragh.

Daragh, in these scenes, is extremely careful to respect Isabel’s autonomy and obtain her consent before he acts; when juxtaposed with the details of her past, we can see why she would be both drawn to that and suspicious of it. He also still hasn’t revealed his sources of information, but he does reveal that he’s familiar with the name of her father’s lab: Parnassiinae.

One of three forming Comma’s biological and chemical weapons development division, and the most notorious of them. From my notes about Comma code names:

Individual weapons developers don’t have codenames as such, but labs do. There are 3 poison / nerve agent teams, which are each named after a subfamily of papilionidae butterflies. There are 4 major ballistics/explosives designers, and their workshops are named after subfamilies of pieridae butterflies etc. Weapons and poisons are therefore known by the code name of lab that produced them.

And, on the previous page, we had a list of Comma’s departments:

  1. Pieridae. Weapons dev: ballistics, explosives etc
  2. Papilionidae. Weapons dev: poisons, nerve agents etc.
  3. Nymphalidae. Field agents / contract killers (internal and external).
  4. Lycaenidae. Intelligence: codes, research etc
  5. Riodinidae. High level admin including lawyers, accountants.
  6. Hesperiidae. Medical and education.
  7. Hedylidae. Adjacents (manufacturing, logistics, janitorial staff, teachers for schools rather than training, IT staff, low-level admin, locksmiths, etc)

(Any misspellings are because I can’t read my own handwriting.)

Are these names the direct result of me spending too long on a Wikipedia page about butterfly taxonomy? Absolutely, and only a couple of them are ever mentioned on the page, nor is there a great deal of logic about which department is given which name – although one or two of them did involve some clever symbolism, I believe, which of course I now don’t remember at all and cannot point out to you.

Sometimes people say to me, “So, do you know a lot about butterflies now?” And the answer is… no. Well, I know a lot more than I did before, but that’s only because I was starting from zero. I still don’t know anything useful about butterflies, I just have slightly more scientific terminology rattling around in my brain. I can identify a few on sight, especially commas; I can tell you that the butterfly on the cover of The Butterfly Assassin is a swallowtail. Beyond that, though, no, I don’t know a great deal about them. We are purely using them for aesthetics over here.

But I do know a lot more about Comma’s internal structures than is ever on the page. And that is the important part.

There are just two more things I want to say about these chapters. First, when Daragh removes the poison pellet and Isabel thinks that, although it’s small, a grain of polonium far smaller than that would have been dangerous, that’s an echo of the fact that there was a draft in which she was suffering from polonium poisoning specifically. I changed it, because there was too small a chance that she would actually survive that 😅

Secondly, in this chapter we learn that Grace is a freelance poisoner, specialising in antidotes and nonlethal poisons. Grace has always been a poisoner, but wasn’t always freelance – in the early drafts, she worked for Hummingbird, and didn’t tell Isabel this. She finds out from Toni, instead:

Toni folds her arms. “Graham Whittock is Hummingbird,” she says.

As if that’s a surprise. “He told me.”

“He told you and you’re still taking lessons from him?”

“He told me his mother was Hummingbird but he left when he was fifteen. He wasn’t trained.”

“He lied. He’s Hummingbird through and through.”

It’s another punch in the stomach, but Isabel’s too bruised to care. “He doesn’t look athletic enough,” she says eventually, when she’s processed this idea.

“He was a poisoner. Like your father.”

One day, I promise, I will finish writing the Grace-centric short story I was playing around with, which talks about how she became a poisoner and her motivations for doing so. But for now, this post is long enough, so it’s time I stepped back and gave you the floor.

How did these chapters with Daragh make you feel? There’s a lot of trauma and backstory coming out – did it help you to understand Isabel better, or had you already guessed the bulk of it? And if, like me, you’re chronically ill and tired of inconclusive blood tests and GP visits… what would you do to have a doctor like Daragh? Because I have to say, he is definitely wish-fulfilment for me…

25/09, Koloroj–Veneno (TBA Readalong)

I’m going to have to restrain myself today, because two whole chapters happen on 25th September, so there’s lots to get through without me going off on a thousand-word digression about the worldbuilding. So, let’s get right to it:

It’s the 25th September, a Tuesday. Unable to sleep because of pain, Isabel’s used the extra time to finish off her Woodwork homework, jumping through Mortimer’s protective hoops in order to take the safety exam and be allowed to use sharp things in class. When it comes to actually taking the exam, though, her fear gets the better of her, and she panics. Mortimer is a delight about it, but she’s still afraid to confide in him.

Later, she takes the tram to her first appointment with Daragh Vernant, accompanied by Emma, who is heading in the same direction. Emma tells her that the 25th September is her sister’s birthday, so she’s meeting Leo at her grave for a picnic: her sister died of cancer a couple of years earlier, and she and Leo rely heavily on each other to make grief bearable. She makes sure to take Isabel to the door of the Sunshine Project first, though, with a brief tour of the city’s street art beforehand.

Isabel has her first appointment with Daragh Vernant, who tells her that he suspects she’s been poisoned, and guesses that her family has a guild connection. He takes some blood samples for further testing, and Isabel heads home, where she digs out a book on poisons in the hope of answers. While she’s reading, Ronan Atwood shows up at her door again, asking for her help to decode her father’s files. She refuses, admitting that her father experimented on her, and is unmoved by Ronan telling her that her father’s defection puts the whole city at risk, despite his offer of medical care to help deal with the poison.

Phew. There’s a lot in there, and I don’t even know where to start. If we didn’t have so much to tackle, I would definitely be focusing on Mortimer, and how much I love him, but since there’s little worldbuilding to discuss in that scene, let’s move on to Emma and Isabel on the tram.

Isabel running into Emma on the tram and Emma guiding her to the clinic has existed since the very first draft, but initially Emma was meeting Leo for lunch to celebrate him getting a new job, rather than to commemorate their sister. It was also previously the moment when Emma told Isabel that she was fostered, and that her parents had left Espera when she was a child, abandoning her; now, we don’t learn anything about Emma’s family until chapter twelve.

The death of Emma’s sister Jean, and the part it plays in Emma’s desire to help Isabel, was a fairly late addition; I think it originates in Draft VI, the AMM Rewrite. It was a direct result of sitting down to treat my secondary characters as people in their own right, and not plot pieces, giving each of them backstory and motivations and personality traits that reflected both of those things. I’ve always loved Emma as a character, but I have to admit she didn’t have as much depth to her as I’d have liked until quite a few drafts in.

It’s not that Jean’s death is the sole reason Emma befriends Isabel – it’s not as simple as that. But Emma is definitely looking for that kind of sisterly relationship that she no longer has with Jean, and this time she’s taking on the protective big sister role, helping somebody else the way Jean helped her. Understanding this about her clarified a lot for me, although the abandonment issues that drove her in the early drafts haven’t disappeared; they’re another facet of her need to be useful to others. 

The tour of Espera’s street art is also a late addition, from around the same time. Emma has always been an artist, and I’ve always imagined the city as being colourful – I was keen from the beginning to avoid the cliché of a dark, monochromatic dystopia, and I took a lot of inspiration from the Berlin Wall and the graffiti that covered it. Those who follow me on Instagram will know that I love street art in general, and photograph it whenever I get the chance. In Ireland, a lot of major cities have murals covering entire buildings; it’s one of the things I miss about it, living in Cambridge, where there’s very little art of that kind.

A 3x3 grid containing photos of street art, including a colourful mural of a kingfisher covering an entire wall of a building, a surrealist design on a cafe, and some smaller butterfly designs on walls.
A few of the pieces of street art I’ve photographed in Dublin, Brighton, Cork, Utrecht, Co. Kerry, Waterford, and Catford (London).

One thing I enjoy about this scene is that, although it’s new, it does contain echoes of earlier versions. The wall Emma painted is a ‘luminous, rainbow paisley design’; in the early drafts, we saw Emma paint something very similar on the wall of Isabel’s hospital room. (She spent a great deal more of the early drafts in hospital; it wrecked the pacing.) In my head, it strongly resembles the design on a paper napkin I saw back in 2014, which I still have kept inside a writing folder somewhere! There are also a few worldbuilding details tucked away here: the ‘shoddy construction’ of housing in Espera, for example, or the fact that Central Espera is a neutral zone, with guild employees living side-by-side with civilians.

Isabel has visited the Sunshine Project – or Dr Vernant’s unnamed clinic – since the very first draft, but that, too, is a scene that has changed considerably. For starters, Dr Claudia Vernant used to be her own character, but having two significant doctors in the book weakened the character development of both, so I combined Dr Vernant with Daragh, and that combination made several plot points possible which hadn’t made sense before.

Another difference was that we used to see a lot more of Isabel’s backstory at this point in time. Daragh ‘guesses’ that Isabel has a guild connection (he does, in fact, know exactly who she is at this point, but she won’t find that out until later), but he doesn’t pry, and he doesn’t see her scars or ask about them until a later appointment. In the first draft, though, Dr Vernant examined Isabel’s scars during this scene, and Isabel told, in full, the story behind one of them – which was when we found out about Cocoon, and Isabel’s backstory.

All of the essential information conveyed in that conversation remains in the book:

  • Isabel was trained as part of a minors’ training programme
  • She was sent on a job that went wrong, and was stabbed in the abdomen
  • Another trainee, Michael, saved her life
  • The injury wasn’t given enough time to heal, and she was re-injured, leaving the noticeable scar she has now
  • As a result of this injury, Isabel is infertile

But all of that is now given piecemeal when it becomes relevant – i.e., not in this specific chapter – rather than as part of a big infodumpy flashback narrative. Because, realistically, there’s no way Isabel would trust anybody with that much personal information the first time she met them, especially not a doctor.

That’s something that actually changed a lot over the years. As I gained a better understanding of medical trauma, and as I refined the details of Isabel’s backstory, I completely overhauled almost every scene in which she interacts with a medical professional, because there is no way Isabel would have reacted well to how they behaved around her in the first draft. In particular, Daragh’s characterisation changed significantly when I decided his defining feature would be that he respects Isabel’s autonomy, as others have failed to do – which I would say he didn’t really do in the first draft.

The first draft version of this chapter ended with Isabel being told she had cancerous growths on her organs, so that obviously changed (thank god, because I did no research for that first draft and it was terrible as a result). This final version of the scene doesn’t take us anywhere near to an answer about the nature of her illness – only a hypothesis that it was poison. But from Isabel’s own investigations that follow, we learn that her father was a poisoner (this has been true since the first draft), and Isabel begins to suspect he might have something to do with her illness.

His poisons are unique concoctions designed to turn your own body against you, to convince your immune system to shut down and your nerves to shred themselves. I spent a lot of time researching poisons over the years of writing this book, from lead and radiation poisoning to your classic plant-based murder methods to the most vicious nerve agents. I ended up with a deeply sketchy internet history – especially the fact that I was researching nerve agents right around the time of the Salisbury Poisonings – and explored several different approaches within the book itself. In one draft, it was polonium poisoning; in another, lead. Eventually, I settled in a completely fictional poison, but one that essentially functions as a slow-acting nerve agent, or a manufactured autoimmune disease.

We’ll see more of how those symptoms manifest later in the book, and I’ll talk about my research and inspirations for those. In the meantime, though, we’ve got Ronan Atwood’s second visit, and a few crucial world-building details:

First, Espera’s currency is pre-decimal British currency, e.g. pounds, shilling, and pence. We sort of already knew this, since shillings were mentioned in an early chapter as part of a conversation with Nick, but we might have assumed meant the money was old. In this chapter, though, Ronan is playing with a freshly-minted shilling, telling us that the city produces its own money.

This is the part where I confess I had absolutely no idea what currency Espera used until after the fourth draft when one of my beta readers asked me, isn’t it? Because… yeah. I really didn’t. The economics of this whole thing were a fairly late development, due to my early drafts coasting by purely on vibes, and those are the kind of basic questions my younger self never thought to ask.

The scene with Ronan and a shilling was an extra scene I wrote and added in somewhere between drafts IV and V (the document was entitled “ronan currency and comma supremacy”), although it got cut back considerably when I combined it with this chapter. It had its moments, though:

Ronan’s playing with a coin – one of the new shillings, still as shiny and polished as the day it was minted. Isabel watches it flash between his fingers and disappear momentarily before reappearing in his palm, wondering what point he’s trying to make.

He places it on the table and slides it across to her. “Take a look.”

“It’s a coin.” But she picks it up anyway and turns it over. The back’s emblazoned with a butterfly, Comma’s primary logo. Not like the old coins, which had a maelstrom of wings representing both guilds. Or the brief issue before that, which simply bore a skull. If Comma’s minting currency under their own symbol…

“Do you know who controls this city, Isabel Ryans?” Ronan asks.

She flicks the coin back across the table towards him. “You, apparently.”

The scene also contained a moment of dialogue that persisted for several drafts but eventually got cut, which I was devasted by:

“I’m not trying to make any enemies.”

“Then you need to stop killing people.”

“That was one time.

Did it make me laugh? Yes. Did it work in the moment and with the focus being on Isabel’s trauma? No, it was pulling us right out of it. That, my friends, is called a darling, and that is why we kill them.

All in all, though, what that scene was lacking was a real sense of the city’s economy and how the guilds functioned – which is what Ronan’s anxiety about Ian’s defection gives us. He’s concerned for the future of Comma’s trade with the outside world, which is the most information we’ve got so far about what that trade entails, and where the city sits, politically. Will this become relevant later on? It sure will. Take notes. You’re going to need them when book 3 comes along.

Mostly, though, the focus in these two chapters is on Isabel’s emotions and Isabel’s trauma, and that is where the early drafts showed up my immaturity. I started writing novels when I was thirteen, and I first wrote this book when I was eighteen. There are no doubt plenty of young authors who could have pulled this off at that age, but I couldn’t. It took me several years to develop the emotional maturity to handle those topics sensitively, accurately, and realistically. Even the things I ought to have understood on a personal level, I didn’t know how to write them in a way that felt authentic, and that’s what I see lacking when I look back at the earlier drafts.

The journey to publication was long, but it gave me time to write this book the way it was supposed to be written, focusing on the stuff that actually mattered. I’m grateful for that.

I’ve probably missed dozens of interesting details in these chapters in the interests of keeping this post a reasonable length, so please, let me know what caught your eye and I can run wildly over wordcount in the comments instead 😅 Or, if you’ve nothing to say about these specific chapters, tell me about your favourite piece of street art (or any other art) that you’ve ever seen.

22/09, Doloro (TBA Readalong)

You will be relieved to know that this is a short post and you get a day off tomorrow, since nothing in The Butterfly Assassin takes place on 23rd September. (For Isabel, it’s a Sunday, so a quiet day amidst a school-based schedule.)

On the 22nd September, however, Isabel wakes up in the middle of the night, in severe pain, and wonders what to do next. This is the first couple of pages of Chapter 7, for those keeping track. For the first time in this scene, Isabel attributes her symptoms to the probability of poison, and not to anxiety or general sickness, and we begin to get a sense of where the plot is going…

There is no wound, no knife, and there are no weapons that can protect her from an enemy that’s inside her.

Poison has always been a plot point in this book, even back in the earliest drafts, but it’s changed significantly over time, in terms of the nature of the poison and the symptoms it causes, as well as its purpose within the plot. When I wrote the first draft back in 2014, I had never knowingly been poisoned. By the time it was published, I was describing it jokily as “OwnVoices for poisoning”. What changed?

Well, in 2015, I got diagnosed with coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition which means I can’t eat gluten.

Some coeliacs are largely asymptomatic. They don’t experience noticeable symptoms when accidentally ingesting gluten, although that doesn’t mean there’s no damage: it can cause nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition, and increase the risk of bowel cancer. Many are diagnosed because of persistent, severe anaemia due to malabsorption of iron, which was also true for me – I complained of fatigue, said I thought my anaemia was probably returning, and mentioned that I’d stopped taking iron supplements due to stomachaches. The doctor ran a routine test for coeliac antibodies just in case, and discovered my immune system was halfway through setting itself on fire, with an antibody count of 216. (Around 20-30 would’ve been enough to suggest coeliac disease.)

But I hadn’t had significant symptoms before then, so it was a surprise, the first time I accidentally ate gluten after diagnosis and a couple of months of a strict gluten-free diet, to find myself in the bathroom wishing for death.

It turns out, when your immune system is on fire at all times, you don’t notice the reaction when somebody throws a bit of extra fuel on the pyre. But once you’ve got the fire under control… yeah, after that, the smallest thing sets it off like a flamethrower.

These days, I have to avoid all traces of gluten. “May contain wheat” is enough to mean I can’t eat something, just in case. I have to have a separate toaster to avoid crumbs touching my bread, because they would make me sick. I have separate utensils, especially wooden spoons which are hard to clean thoroughly, and I essentially travel with the kitchen sink to make sure I can safely prepare food when I’m away from home. I have an extensive list of additional dietary restrictions, which makes things extra complicated, but it’s only the gluten where the tiniest trace will make me sick.

I don’t get glutened often, because I’m very careful. But when I do… it sucks. And I drew on that experience for Isabel.

There are no weapons that can protect her from an enemy that’s inside her. Writing as someone with a couple of autoimmune conditions and chronic illnesses, plus chronic pain and fatigue… this, here, is one of the main things the book is about. That terrifying loss of control that comes from realising your body is turning on you.

OwnVoices for poisoning.

I know that this loss of – and fight for – control over your own body has been something that’s resonated with disabled and chronically ill readers, because they’ve told me so. But it probably wasn’t clear from this first glimpse of the poison that that was going to be such a major focus of the book, so I’d like to know how youse reacted to this scene. Did you think, “Oh, she’ll be fine, YA books never kill off main characters”? (lol) Or did you think, “Oh, shit, how’s she going to get out of this one?”

Leave your answers, or any other remarks, in the comments, and I’ll see you back here in a couple of days for the rest of this chapter.