Tag: Espera

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.

17/09, Eraro (TBA Readalong)

Here it is! The first post in our readalong of The Butterfly Assassin. All of the posts in this series are, naturally, going to involve spoilers. If that doesn’t bother you, you’re welcome to read them anyway, even if you haven’t read the book, but I highly recommend reading the book, and then you can join us in the comments to discuss it 😊

These early posts will probably be the longest of the series, because there’s a lot of backstory to the opening. Today, we’ve got some alternate versions of the opening paragraphs, we’ve got some Vital Context – lots to get our teeth into. The rest, I hope, will be shorter. But before we start, I feel I should provide some vital context to my ability to pin chapters to dates in the first place.

You see, worldbuilding, in my experience, tends to be a retrospective escalation of small details into larger ones. Take the Esperan education system, for example, which developed like this:

  1. During edits, my editor encouraged me to keep track of the days of the week and the date that events were occurring, to make sure they were consistent.
  2. In order to ensure that events happened on the correct days, and that Isabel was attending the correct lessons, I needed to know Isabel’s school timetable, so that she was always in the right class.
  3. In order to design Isabel’s school timetable, I needed to know how many subjects she was taking, and how many lessons per week she would have for each one.
  4. In order to figure that out, I needed to know what was required for a student of her age within the Esperan education system, beyond my previously vaguely defined “Level Two” and “Level Three” exams.
  5. In order to do that, I needed to understand how university and vocational training worked in Espera, what the difference was between civilian schools and guild-sponsored schools in terms of subjects and qualifications, and how borough and wealth affected these things.
  6. In order to do that, I needed to know which jobs would be done by guild members and which by civilians, what training was needed for each of them, what was required of tangential guild employees in terms of training, how guild boroughs were structured, how secret the identity of guild members actually was, relationships between guilds and civilians in neutral areas…

You can see where this is going.

By the time I actually drew up a timetable, and therefore a calendar of the events of the book, I had several pages of notes about the education system and not only knew what subjects Isabel was taking, but also what subjects Emma and Nick were taking, and what kind of careers or further training they might be looking to pursue. The fraction of this information that made it onto the page is… small.

My calendar for the book lives in the same document as the timetable I drew up, but these notes I made are handwritten, and live only in the notebook where they originated, along with a lot of other worldbuilding material that never made it into the book(s). Hopefully, I’ll get to share some of that with you during this readalong, and then the hours of my life spent figuring out the structure of Espera’s local government will feel more worthwhile 😉

Another crucial piece of information is that this book takes place in 2029, so a few years from now. There is no special significance to this year; I just wanted it to be a near-future date, and this was the first year that matched up with most of the established days of the week in the book as I had written it at the time, so required the fewest edits to firm up. It does mean that Isabel was born in 2012, which is faintly horrifying to me. She would currently be eleven years old.

With that in mind:

Today is the 17th September. On this day in 2029, Ian Crampton breaks into Isabel’s flat, and Isabel kills him.

Technically, this happens at 3am on the 18th, but I’m saving tomorrow’s post for the other half of chapter 1, so it’s the 17th. And technically, one could argue the book begins earlier than this. That first night in her tiny flat – that first night was the 31st August. Two and a half weeks of a normal life, before it all goes wrong, and it goes wrong with a bang. A burglar, a murder, a body to be dealt with.

Opening a YA book with your protagonist murdering somebody can be a risky prospect. A certain degree of sympathy for the character tends to be a staple of the genre, and you don’t want to alienate people too early. But I also knew that I needed to establish quickly what sort of a book we were dealing with. One that contained a lot of violence, yes; one where the protagonist wasn’t a good person, yes; and, crucially, one where the assassin character actually killed people, and wasn’t non-specifically badass in a morally uncomplicated manner.

This has always been the point I’m trying to make. That “assassin” isn’t a neutral character type – death means something, and murder has consequences beyond simple plot points. That if we want to ask difficult moral questions, we have to have characters who actually do bad things, otherwise our questions will lack teeth. The opening chapter is aiming to make that clear right from the start.

This wasn’t always how the book opened. That first night in her tiny flat, she cuts off her hair and her name. Not to toot my own horn, but I think it’s a pretty good opening line… and it didn’t show up until the fifth draft.

Openings are hard. Early drafts had a much slower opening, establishing Isabel’s “normal life” long before anything went wrong, and the murder of Ian Crampton was entirely absent from the first draft:

Isabel lets the door of her flat fall closed behind her and locks the first two locks. Both of them are still shiny with newness, and the key slides into them like a knife into soft flesh. She glances around, but there’s nobody nearby to see her retrieve the third key from her bra and lock the third lock, concealed within the wood.

Comma-proof, they said that one was, but she picked it herself when she forgot her keys on her second day here, so she doesn’t put too much faith in the locksmith’s claims. Still, she knows it’s there, and she was trained to do that since she was barely old enough to walk, unlike most of Comma’s people. The only ones she’s got to worry about are, for the most part, her relatives, and if they decide she’s better off dead, she’ll have bigger problems than whether they can get into her flat.

But that opening chapter was slow, boring, so in the second draft, there it is: There’s somebody in her flat. Straight in with the break-in, the scene following almost the same beats as it does now, though with variation in the wording used. That remained the opening line for another three drafts.

Maybe it was then, or maybe later on, when I decided I needed to study openings. I knew something wasn’t quite working about what I’d got so far, but I didn’t know how to fix it, and none of the books I reread for ideas were helping. So I tried watching the first episode of several TV shows, instead. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember it included Buffy, Orphan Black, and Sense8, among others. I made notes on how the shows introduced characters, how they established ‘normal’ while also hinting at the drama to come, and how they situated us within the characters’ worlds.

It was a useful exercise, so useful that I wish those notes were among the illegible handwritten plot notes I still have in a folder, but they don’t seem to be. I knew I needed context – a normal life for Ian Crampton’s death to disrupt, because it was too bald and abrupt if it happened straight away, before we had any reason to care about Isabel. But I didn’t want as much context as I’d had in that first draft, where we had several pages of normality before we got into anything resembling plot. So, in 2018 I sat down and started trying to rework that opening into something that walked the line between drama and necessary backstory.

It was around then that I realised there was no way Isabel would be living under her real name (as she had been in the earliest drafts), so I gave her a false name to live under: Bella Nicholls. It took me several years to realise that I’d given her my sister’s name; somehow my brain never made that connection until the real Bella pointed it out. They live in entirely separate boxes in my head, even if I did borrow the surname from one of my sister’s friends, the one who seemed the least like Isabel of all of them.

This name became a focus for my attempts at reworking the opening, but it took a lot of attempts before I got one I liked. I have a document from May 2018 in which I go through a bunch of different approaches, trying to find one that clicks.

Here’s one:

It’s impossible that they haven’t noticed she’s gone.

For sixteen years, they’ve made the decisions, controlled her options – and none of those allowed for a scenario where Isabel Ryans could pack herself a bag and walk away.

And it’s impossible that they don’t know where she is. She cut her hair, bought new clothes, and the name on her lease and bank account isn’t her own, but that would never be enough.

Comma can find anyone. It’s why they’re so good at what they do.

Which means they’re just biding their time.

There are a lot of recognisable lines further down the page in this one, but it’s… slow. Lacking in immediacy, in drama.


Isabel Ryans is studying survival.

It looks a lot like school. Like a fake name on her exercise books and on the labels of her new civilian borough uniform. Like not making a fuss when they told her she couldn’t move on to level threes before taking the level two exams; like dropping down a year without trying to explain her past absences. Like agreeing to whatever electives they could offer her when her previous options didn’t work out. Like getting a medical exemption from PE so that no one sees her scars.

It looks like this tiny flat with its shitty locks that she checks and triple checks every evening before wedging a chair under the handle so that at least she’ll have prior warning if someone bypassed them. Like the lease signed with the same fake name as her school registration: Bella Nicholls. Like the bank account filled with stolen money, siphoned over weeks and months so that nobody even noticed it was going.

It looks like waking up every morning with a knife in her hand because today might be – should be – has to be the day that they find her.

What she’s learned is that survival and fear can be difficult to tell apart.

I like this one. It foregrounds the trauma that shapes all of Isabel’s choices in this book. It tells us she’s desperate, and will do whatever she has to do. But it’s a little passive. I hesitate over that word – Isabel is traumatised and frequently denied power and control over her own life, and her lack of agency is not passivity but a part of the abuse she’s suffering. Still, there’s something about this opening that didn’t quite get us where we needed to go, and didn’t provide an effective springboard for the rest of the chapter.

A third:

It’s a strange feeling, to know that you don’t exist.

Bella Nicholls exists. She has a bank account, rents a tiny flat, and goes to school. They call her name in registration and she answers to it. After two days she stopped hesitating. After a week it’s become second nature.

Isabel Ryans, though… Isabel Ryans is a ghost. The people who know her by that name are the reason she changed it. Her parents. The guild.

Yet inside her head, and when she looks in the mirror, that’s the name she wears. Isabel Ryans. Legally speaking more of a fiction than the lie on her student ID card, but a thousand times more real.

We see this sense of identity in the finished draft, Isabel looking in the mirror and seeing only herself. This version wasn’t sharp enough, though. She changed it is a choice. She cuts off her hair and her name is violent, a severing, forced by circumstance.

And that’s the opening line that shows up on the next page of this document, the first where I continued beyond a few paragraphs. I knew, almost immediately, that I’d hit on something that would work, and I chased it until it took me where I needed to go.

The main focus of this chapter is Isabel’s encounter with Ian Crampton, an unfortunate burglar who picks the wrong seventeen-year-old girl to rob. Beyond the fact that Isabel is capable of murder and willing to commit it, we learn several crucial things from this scene:

  1. Isabel speaks Esperanto.
  2. She has baggage relating to her parents, because she flinches at the thought of them.
  3. She’s on the run from the ‘guilds’, who rule the city, though we don’t exactly know who they are yet.
  4. The guilds don’t typically train children, so Isabel is unusual.
  5. She also has baggage relating to the name ‘Ian’; we don’t know why yet.
  6. The city has solar panels in the roads.

We’ll explore all of these in more depth as we go – the Esperanto, for example, becomes more of a focus point in chapter 6, which will be Friday’s post. But a quick note on the solar panels, because they are a small detail but one of the oldest in the book.

In 2014, I saw a Kickstarter for “solar roadways”: roads made of hexagonal interlocking solar panels, which could be programmed to light up to display road markings, traffic lights, speed limits, or heated to melt snow or evaporate puddles. They were, the video suggested, the clean energy solution – better roads and electricity in one go. They’d be perfect especially for long stretches of highway through the desert.

I was so excited by these, so enamoured by them, that when I started writing this book less than two months later, I put the solar roadways in the book. In the past nine years, they’ve not exactly flourished in the real world the way the Kickstarter suggested, but the book’s near-future setting means I can justify their efficacy (even in an urban context) and attribute it to technological advances. The guilds have plenty of weapons developers and scientists who could have refined the invention in a more peaceful moment.

When I describe Espera’s solar panelled roads, I’m thinking of this real invention. I put it in the book for no reason other than that I found it exciting; it has stayed there through many, many drafts, and through vast changes in worldbuilding. It’s a throwaway detail, in many ways (the solar panels are never plot-relevant!), but it’s essential to the Espera that lives inside my head, and it has important ramifications for the city in general.

Here, though, it’s a passing reference. The glittering solar panels of the main road send their coloured lights into the night. A signal: this world is not quite like our world. Priming the reader to anticipate further worldbuilding.

And further worldbuilding is what we will get. But that, my friends, is another day’s post.

So now, over to you:

What struck you about this opening chapter when you read it? How did you feel about Isabel committing murder when you’d only just met her? Is there anything about this scene’s backstory – its past versions, my reasoning for the choices I made – that surprised you?

You’re welcome to leave any comment you like – these are just a few prompts to get you started. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this chapter!