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.
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.