Tag: mithridatism

11/10, Savo (TBA Readalong)

Just joining us? We’re following the events of The Butterfly Assassin according to the book’s chronology, and I’m discussing the worldbuilding and writing process. You can jump to 17/09, Eraro, to start from the beginning (though that’s by no means obligatory! Join in wherever you like!). Since we’re now on Chapter 23, more than halfway through, all posts will involve a certain amount of spoilers. Continue at your discretion.

On the eleventh of October, Isabel wakes up in hospital. A Comma hospital, to be precise: Chadwick Green, in Weaverthorpe. (Named partially after Nora and/or H.M. Chadwick, who were foundational to my academic field. I used to have Nora Chadwick’s book The Celts on my bookshelf, so it’s probably her that it’s technically named after. I’m not sure who donated the Green.)

Daragh is there, and when she confronts him about working for Comma and his connection with Ronan, he admits that they’re cousins, and that he has always had a guild connection. He also tells her that she’s still sick, and they can’t necessarily fix it, because they still don’t have the formula for the poison.

The dates start getting a lot fuzzier at this point in the book, because Isabel is drifting in and out of consciousness, so while this chapter is actually spread over quite a few days, I’m going to treat the first half of it – up to the start of the flashback/memory – as though it all happened on the eleventh, and then you’ll get a break from posts until the seventeenth.

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly throughout this series, Isabel originally spent a lot more of the book in hospital, so this dramatic moment of surrender and then waking up in Comma’s grasp didn’t exist until I rejigged the plot and pacing in the sixth draft. That was also when I combined the characters of Dr Claudia Vernant, the civilian doctor, and Daragh, the Comma doctor, which means it was only then that Daragh became Ronan’s cousin.

Before that, I did briefly have a plotline in which Ronan and Daragh had known each other growing up, because they were neighbours / lived in the same area, and had been close friends. Making it a family connection was really just an intensification of that – it felt like it strengthened Daragh’s sense of obligation, as well as providing useful narrative parallels to Isabel’s own situation and her family ties to the guild. (It’s always about the doubles.)

You can see the moment I made this decision in my notes about Ronan from 2019, during AMM:

Mother’s family also from NI, like Daragh’s – brother is called Kieran, so names suggest this. Possibly actually related to Daragh – cousins??? (That would be wild, but ‘surprise, everyone’s related’ is basically a summary of every book I’ve ever written.) Anyway, this shared background explains why they grew up in the same part of Espera – big immigrant community.

I would also say that Daragh in the earlier drafts was a bit of a prick. I was reading through some of the early hospital scenes while writing these posts, and I was surprised how little I liked him. He was extremely ready to violate Isabel’s autonomy in the name of healthcare, failing to explain treatments to her or get meaningful consent for them, and he was also super complicit in efforts to pull her back into guild training as part of her rehabilitation/physical therapy, which I’d forgotten about.

Obviously, that version of Daragh belongs to a draft in which Isabel’s trauma was far less prominent (and in which it wasn’t handled well even when present). But it’s still the complete opposite of the Daragh we see in this chapter, where his defining feature is that he’s the one who makes sure Isabel knows what’s happening and that she’s okay with it.

Daragh being kind is crucial to Isabel ending up back in Comma. It’s easier to run away from an organisation that has only been cruel to you, and she would never have gone back to the Sunshine Project if she didn’t feel safe there. It’s because Daragh treated her with care and respect that she went to him, but that care is the reason she gets dragged back in, and that’s a betrayal she’s struggling to process here.

Comma is Ronan, her parents, bargains and violence and cruelty, but somehow, impossibly, Comma is also Daragh. […] When Daragh’s there, he explains the different treatments – the blood transfusions, the dialysis – and what her latest round of test results said, though most of it means little to her. […] He doesn’t touch her, but his hand is there and she grabs at it just to feel like she’s real. […] She’s clinging desperately to the hand of a Comma doctor and he’s the only person in this building who gives a shit what happens to her.

This moment is the reason that combining Dr Vernant and Daragh was one of the best decisions I made for this book. It’s rare for me to cut an entire character without also cutting the scenes that they’re involved in, but it added a level of complexity to Isabel’s relationship with Daragh that made everything more emotional: she both trusts him and doesn’t, has experience of him trying to help and associates him with the organisation that hurt her, is grateful to him and furious.

I’m pretty sure this decision was a direct suggestion from Rory Power (for those unaware, I overhauled this book during Author Mentor Match, with Rory as my mentor) and although I was originally hesitant, I’m extremely glad I took that advice. Thanks, Rory.

While most of this chapter is new, or has changed significantly from previous drafts, there are a few lines that I have been keeping and reusing and relocating across drafts for years: the description of Isabel’s nightmares, the strange iridescence of her dreams. After working my way back through draft after draft, I found that the first version of this passage comes from the second draft, dating to 2015:

She wishes she knew how to feel hope like that, but she’s too exhausted to feel anything but the dread settling like sediment in her stomach. The emotions of the day – both the laughter of earlier and the fear triggered by this discussion – have worn her out, and even as she tries to reply to Emma, she’s drifting into unconsciousness and the strange iridescence of her dreams. She’s no longer sure if they’re hallucinations or memories or both, only that they’re always full of blood.

This one has a soundtrack. She thinks she recognises the sound of herself screaming.

As we can see, it initially came after a conversation with Emma, at the end of the chapter where Emma paints the mural of Isabel on the hospital wall. (Comma are not impressed by this, and Emma is barred from the hospital after this point.) Because we’ve shifted everything around, and Isabel has only just entered the hospital, with Emma kept out from the beginning because of her civilian status, it now comes in the middle of a chapter and with a slightly different emphasis.

I knew I’d been keeping these lines for a while, but I didn’t realise it was that long. The other line I enjoy from this passage, the inevitable gravity of total implosion, was a later addition, entering some time after the sixth draft, although there were previous other descriptions of the gravity of illness/pain/giving up dragging her in. I find it fascinating to trace the survival of individual phrases and sentences across drafts, particularly when they wind up in different scenes and different context, and this section of the book is rich with those, because the basic details of the book have stayed similar enough that the lines can survive, but so much of it has been rewritten that they have to move if they’re going to stay.

I don’t think about it as moving, though, most of the time. I edit by opening a new document next to the old document and rewriting the whole book from the beginning, which horrifies a lot of people, including my editor. As such, I’m never deleting lines from the book – just choosing not to include them. And then I might choose to include them somewhere else. It’s a labour-intensive process, but it’s a good way to force myself to think about what I’m keeping: if I don’t want to type it out again, it’s probably not worth it.

But considering how radically I rewrite, I think it’s remarkable how many fragments of the early drafts survive after all these years. To end up in the finished book, they must have been retyped a minimum of eight times, probably more. Each time, I looked at them, and made a deliberate choice that I wanted those words, specifically. The entire scene might be new, but it’ll be built with the bricks of the old.

I did know this about myself, and I did know there were details in the book that had been there a while, but I didn’t realise how many of them or how long they’d survived: writing this blog series has been a fascinating exercise in going back to those old drafts over and over again, and for that reason, I’m so glad I decided to do it – even though it is, also, extremely labour-intensive as a way of working 😅 Did you know I’ve written over 36.5k in blog posts for this series so far? If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with an entire extra novel out of it.

One last detail in this section to discuss. Daragh admits that he doesn’t know how Isabel has survived this long, and Isabel jokes that it’s spite – but she also references the resistance her body has built up after years of poisoning. Now, originally, I had Isabel actually practice mithridatism, where you poison yourself tiny amounts each day to develop resistance to poisons. Turns out, this does not work and you should not do that, and even with the suspension of disbelief that fiction permits us, it was no longer at all convincing once the poisons Isabel started being exposed to were carefully engineered nerve agents and similar, rather than your average poisonous plants.

At the same time, bodies do habituate to bad experiences. People with chronic pain often end up with a wildly skewed sense of what’s normal, and endure situations that others would find unbearable, because that’s their day-to-day experience. So while Isabel’s past experiences of poison are more likely to weaken her immune system than strengthen it, they have taught her to endure sickness and pain and to keep struggling on when everything is awful, and they mean that it’s less of a shock to her body, because it has suffered in the past.

So if her past experiences are helping at all, it’s in that regard, not due to actual resistance to poison. (Again, we know the poison is a new invention and therefore not something she can have been exposed to before because that’s the whole plot.) But I realise the wording of this passage is slightly ambiguous, in part because it is influenced by previous versions of the book back when I did still believe mithridatism worked. (But it is not, as far as I know, a directly-lifted sentence from those drafts.)

So that brings us up to the flashback, which my calendar dates to the seventeenth of October. The twelfth through to the sixteenth are marked for me as “in and out of consciousness”, with parts of the scenes discussed above taking place in that period, but there’s no convenient way to express that in chronological post form. As such, you’ll get a more extended break from the readalong now, and I’ll see you back here on the seventeenth for some Dramatic Moments.

In the meantime, over to you: what did you think of the reveal that Daragh is related to Ronan? How does it make you feel that after fighting so hard to escape, Isabel is back in a Comma hospital? What else stood out to you about this chapter?