Tag: poison

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?

06/10, Ĉano–Heredo (TBA Readalong)

We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin together and exploring the worldbuilding and writing process, following the chronology of the book. New to the readalong? Jump to 17/09, Eraro, to start from the beginning, or join us wherever you like! (But beware spoilers if you haven’t finished the book yet…)

On Saturday the sixth of October, Isabel goes to Grace Whittock’s laboratory in an attempt to identify the poison that’s killing her and, hopefully, make an antidote. She’s hoping that either she can break down the poison itself to determine its ingredients, or that the experience of being back in a real lab for the first time since she ran away from home will trigger some more memories of the circumstances of being poisoned, giving her crucial clues. Mostly, what she triggers is a panic attack, the process too much a reminder of her father and everything he did to her – and everything he taught her to be.

This section was a killer to research, I have to say. I’ve already told you that I am Extremely Not A Scientist; I dropped Maths at fifteen and all sciences at sixteen, and the fact that I got A*s in my GCSE sciences was a sign that I am very good at taking exams, not that I understood anything in the papers. As such, I had never heard of high performance liquid chromatography or mass spectrometry when I started writing the earlier versions of the scene, and I definitely didn’t know how they worked.

All the earlier versions of this scene were… bad. Because Isabel was originally admitted to hospital much earlier in the book, the scene didn’t start existing at all until Draft VI, and by that point, most scenes were fairly decent and just needed refinement. Not this one. It was entirely Fake Science, just bullshit and vibes, and there was no way that anything Isabel was doing in that scene would have given her any useful information whatsoever.

Now, my target audience are teenagers, and most of them are probably not experienced chemists with significant expertise in this particular topic. So I probably could have got away with this, and my editor would have let me. But I know how I annoyed I get when a book doesn’t bother to make the details accurate; I was conscious that some of my readers would be adults and, given the nerd quotient of my circles of acquaintance, possibly chemists; and I knew that I needed to write for the teen with a special interest in toxicology as much as I needed to write for the one who barely knew which way up a test tube should go.

This was… challenging.

First, I had to figure out what sort of science was actually needed her. That was a process, especially as I was still refining the details of the poison. I spent a bunch of time reading about electron microscopes before putting that aside, for a while. My internet searches gradually led me to high performance liquid chromatography as a Thing You Could Use To Separate Out Ingredients, which seemed hopeful, and mass spectrometry as a Thing To Identify Ingredients, which seemed even more so, but I still didn’t know how they worked.

So I spent a bunch of time on YouTube. I’m not generally someone who finds videos a useful way of learning, but I needed to see the machines I was talking about. And there are a lot of videos out there! Unfortunately, a lot of them were more focused on explaining the science of these machines – i.e. what was going on behind the scenes. Which was great (I didn’t understand any of it), but it didn’t really help me with the questions a writer needs to answer:

What parts of the machine would the character interact with? What safety equipment would they be wearing? In what form do they receive information/answers? At what point in the process can something go dramatically wrong? (And, crucially: Was this the correct equipment/process to be using for what I needed the character to achieve in this scene?)

So, it was time to recruit help.

Off I went to Facebook, then, and put out a call for help: did I know any chemists who would be able to help me?  

It turned out I did. See, I went to Cambridge for my undergrad degree, which is notoriously full of absolute nerds. People talk a lot about “networking” as an advantage of Oxbridge-type universities, and while I have yet to make friends with a rich benefactor who will fund everything I ever want to do, I was heavily involved in the ballet club. And the ballet club had a higher-than-expected number of scientists in its ranks. And because we did shows together, we would add each other on Facebook, and now, years down the line when they were off being proper researchers in Chemistry and the like, they would see my call for help, and they would answer.

Thanks, Zoe. After several essay-length messages, a foray back to YouTube for help figuring out the basics, several video tutorials and probably a Crash Course explanation or two later, I returned:

Screenshot of Facebook messages. My message reads:
okay, so steps involved... (assuming the person who owns the lab already set things up to a certain extent)

1. soak the pellet (or possibly 1a. extract contents from special coating and 1b. add the contents to solvent? depends if the coating would break down otherwise i guess)
2. filter the solvent
3. inject the solution into the machine??
4. machine goes brrr 
5. pretty graph time 
6. test tube party 
7. do more science on what is now in the test tubes

The reply is cut off at the bottom, but the first line reads: 
Yup that is a great summary - I would assume your solvent can
I’m clearly great at this.

The science was a go.

Now, I can’t promise that everything that happens in this scene is 100% scientifically accurate. Again, I am assuming that the majority of my readers are not experts in this field, and will not be able to call me out on it, but also, I needed to write it in a way that was both accurate enough not to annoy those who knew more than me, and simplistic enough to be possible to follow for those who, like me, had zero scientific background. Eek!

This, I discovered, was really hard. When I’m writing about dance or music, I know enough about the topic to be sure which details are important, and which are unnecessary technical vocab that your typical reader won’t understand and doesn’t need. (Sometimes I still get overly technical, but it’s usually for effect.) I know when to name a part of an instrument, and when not to; I can simplify a description, and still be pretty confident that I’m accurately describing the steps a dancer is doing, and won’t annoy any ballet dancers reading it. Because I am a ballet dancer, and if I am not annoyed, then that’s a good metric.

But with science, with this scene, I didn’t have that knowledge. It was far harder to determine which terms and details were essential, and which could be jettisoned, and when I only knew one way of doing something, hastily learned from YouTube, it was a challenge to simplify a description while keeping it accurate. It took hours. I think a spent a solid week working on this scene, between the research and the multiple attempts at rewriting it, which, considering I only had about four weeks total to do that round of structural edits, was a lot.

And somewhere in the middle of that process I decided that everybody in The Hummingbird Killer was just going to get stabbed, because I was never doing that again.

When I was done, I sent the scene to a different scientifically-minded friend, who hadn’t heard me describe what I was trying to do, and asked her if it seemed to make sense and whether she could follow it. Only when she told me that it seemed plausible did I breathe a sigh of relief, and move on with the book – narrowly avoiding missing my deadline, because this chapter seriously pushed me to the brink.

This scene is also why I was extremely relieved and happy to receive a lovely blurb from Emily Suvada. For those who don’t know, Emily Suvada wrote an extremely science-heavy YA trilogy starting with This Mortal Coil, all about gene-editing and the like, and is a scientist herself. Now, I don’t know what she thought of this scene specifically, but she liked the book overall, which means my science must have been convincing enough not to annoy her as a scientist. The relief was immense.

Here’s Emily’s blurb:

Praise for The Butterfly Assassin:

"Dark, vivid and uncompromising, The Butterfly Assassin is an utterly addictive story of violence, trauma, and hope -- I told myself 'just one more chapter' well into the night." -- Emily Suvada of This Mortal Coil.

There are a couple of fun bits of foreshadowing in this chapter; I’m conscious, however, that a couple of the readers of this blog series haven’t finished The Butterfly Assassin yet, and I don’t want to spoil anything for them. All I’ll say is that I was leaning heavily on doubles in this one, and the associations Isabel makes between characters when panicking isn’t random.

This is also where we begin to get more hints of Grace’s backstory. As mentioned earlier in the series, her mother was Hummingbird. She gives us very little information about what this entailed, but the fact that she offers this information as solidarity with Isabel who is afraid of the person she realises she’s capable of being – afraid of turning into her father, afraid of how much she’s inherited from him – tells us a fair bit about the emotional side of that process, and some of what Grace may have grappled with in the past.

Grace’s mother was a contract killer, but one who often relied on poisons. Grace’s focus on antidotes takes on a new significance in the light of that, especially when we know, as we do from earlier drafts, that her mother killed her father. How else is a teenager meant to process that, except to try to learn to protect themselves in any way that they can, because they never know if they’ll be next? Grace wasn’t directly trained by her mother, but she was shaped by her work nonetheless.

Isabel, on the other hand, was trained. Quite the little scientist. She is entirely capable of becoming her father, and entirely determined not to, which shapes many of her choices going forward.

But for now, I want to know your thoughts. Did the science convince you? If you’re a writer, have you ever written a character whose expertise is wildly unlike your own? Do you love the research part of writing, or do you fudge it until the last possible minute and have to rewrite everything with the details? And how did you, as a reader, feel about Isabel’s failure to determine the formula’s formula and therefore its antidote in this scene?

No post tomorrow (“She sleeps through Sunday”, Chapter 19 tells us), so I’ll see you back here in a couple of days.