Tag: writing

03/10, Batalhalto (TBA Readalong)

I’ve realised these posts are feeding through to my Goodreads profile, via the RSS feed there, so I’m going to make more of a conscious effort to add an introductory paragraph explaining the project to make sure no spoilers are visible until people click through. I apologise if these get a little boring and repetitive to those tuning in daily, but I’d rather that than ruin a plot point for a reader who didn’t choose to seek it out. (I’d completely forgotten I had a blog feed over there, and since it’s Goodreads, there’s a high chance people do have strong opinions about avoiding spoilers.)

So! We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin according to the book’s calendar and discussing the worldbuilding and writing process. Jump to 17/09, Eraro to start at the beginning, or join us whenever you like along the way.

On the 3rd of October, Ashvin, the newsagent, asks Isabel to take another delivery alongside her usual paper round – the boy who usually delivers the Weekly Bulletin of the Free Press is Isabel, and he trusts Isabel to fill in for him. It’s a risky choice for Ashvin to have made, and he can’t know how close he came to disaster, clueless as he is about Isabel’s guild connections. Isabel takes the Bulletin, and is startled to discover that one of the papers is for Mortimer Sark. They have an awkward confrontation, which ends in a kind of truce, or at least, the recognition of mutually assured destruction, with both knowing more about the other than they’d like.

Also on the 3rd, Isabel and Emma reconcile, and Isabel promises not to lie to her anymore. This immediately means having to confess the truth about Grace’s sideline as a freelance poisoner, which is a bit of a shock to Emma. The two skip school, and Emma shows Isabel some of the artwork around the city – as well as taking her to the cemetery, where they talk about Emma’s sister, Jean.

These chapters were largely late additions to the book. There was no space for them in the early drafts, when Isabel was already in hospital by this point, and Isabel’s confrontation with Mortimer couldn’t happen until Isabel had her paper round, an innovation of my 2020 edits. But even before that, their presence in the story required the existence of the abolitionist movement and its illegal writers and newssheet, and that was a much later addition than I remembered.

I’d been vaguely aware that they weren’t in the first draft – the words Free Press appear nowhere in it, and nor does abolitionist. I didn’t realise, though, that the abolitionist movement wasn’t even mentioned until Draft V. In hindsight, this makes sense: it was only in the fifth draft that I began to articulate the crucial pieces of worldbuilding that explained the city of Espera’s history and nature. But since the abolitionist movement plays a fairly significant role in The Hummingbird Killer, and since I had drafts of book two almost as soon as I had drafts of book one, I have to wonder what on earth was going on in the second book before that, too.

And when I wrote my Developmental Notes in 2019, I wasn’t sure what Mortimer’s relationship to the movement was:

Is Mortimer an abolitionist? I’m not sure. I don’t think Espera is split into guild-favouring and abolitionist – there are probably plenty of people who don’t like the guilds but don’t feel that getting rid of them is the solution. I think Mortimer has abolitionist values, but I also think he’s not sure what would be better – bearing in mind most Esperans have only a very warped and limited understanding of the outside world. He may see the guilds as the only barrier between Espera and political chaos. But also, I think, they’re very normalised to Esperans. They’re hated the way most governments are – by people who don’t actually have a clear idea what they’d choose instead, so they complain about it and find complex workarounds to societal problems while never working actively to change it. Mortimer’s own revolution is a small one – helping a handful of students. It isn’t a lot, but he’s afraid. He wants safety, after all.

This is still, broadly, true – Mortimer isn’t about to lead any revolutions. But he is somewhat more involved in the Free Press than he used to be, and certainly more than Isabel knows at this stage in the proceedings – that will become apparent in The Hummingbird Killer, for those who haven’t read that yet.

Isabel and Emma’s reconciliation is a scene with a longer history, although the initially tentative text messages before the in-person meeting are a later addition. The scene in which they skip school and go to look at the artwork only showed up in 2020, though, as did the visit to the cemetery.

There is a lot of street art in Espera. I mentioned before that some of this was inspired by the Berlin Wall, as well as by the art I saw in cities when I lived in Ireland. Here, it gives us a chance to talk about the political dimension of the artwork, such as the abolitionist mural that has been scoured away – a sign of unrest within the city that we didn’t get in the earlier drafts. Establishing those abolitionist elements – first the Free Press and Mortimer, now this art – was part of my efforts to set up book two and three, which of course, I could only do once I knew where I was going.

I’ve heard plenty of writers of series say that they have detailed outlines for the whole thing, spreadsheets telling them what to foreshadow, extensive planning notes… and that’s great for them. That’s not me. As is becoming incredibly apparent throughout this series of posts, I have a wildly chaotic approach to writing, especially the worldbuilding side of things. Crucial details show up at the last minute, and scenes that have stayed intact since the first draft get obliterated five minutes from publication. The only reason I am able to foreshadow anything from books two and three is because I’d already written them.

I wrote the first draft of The Hummingbird Killer immediately after finishing the first draft of The Butterfly Assassin, since they were always paired in my mind; I edited it somewhat in 2015, and then put it aside until 2020, when I worked on during lockdown. In November 2020, while The Butterfly Assassin was on sub, I decided I wanted to draft the third book. I didn’t know if the first one was going to sell, but I wanted to know, for my own peace of mind, how the story ended. This meant, when The Butterfly Assassin did sell in January 2021, I already had a rough draft waiting for me. Admittedly, it didn’t have a proper ending, but at least it meant I never had to draft a book from scratch on deadline.

A photo of my old laptop, with me reflected in the screen taking the photo. The screen background is dark green with white illegible text. The room is a brightly-lit conservatory cafe, empty apart from me; there's a glass and a can of Fanta next to my computer.
Writing the opening of book two in a cafe on Guernsey, 1st August 2014

And it meant that the entire time I was editing The Butterfly Assassin for publication, I had a fairly good idea what happened in the third book, and where I needed to get to. So while a lot has changed about books two and three since their first drafts, those early versions were pretty essential to my backwards writing process. I am in awe of anyone who writes a series in the correct order without the option to go back and change things to match; couldn’t be me.

The cemetery scene with Emma talking about Jean, and about her own experiences after she was fostered, was also new in 2020, as I mentioned. It was a weird year, with a lot of death in the air. I’d lost a friend to COVID in May 2020, which probably intensified the extent to which everything I wrote in 2020 was, in some way, about grief. I’ll confess, though, that the line about how death means somebody can never surprise you again was stolen, shamelessly, from something I had heard in a Quaker meeting in 2019; it struck me as one of the truest things anyone had said about grief.

I write about death a lot – sometimes very literally, as in my longstanding Death & Fairies series, in which one character is an actual death god, one character is immortal, and one is cursed to kill those they’re in love with. Here, it’s no less literal, though it is less personified: this is a more familiar flavour of grief, one that can and does happen in the real world, bundled up with the added complication of the main character being a murderer.

I think this series has always been about grief; the characters who die in The Butterfly Assassin continue to haunt the rest of the trilogy, their presence inescapable within it. It’s about how to continue after the worst has happened, except sometimes, the worst that’s happened is you. But where grief makes Emma kind, as Isabel notes in this chapter, it makes Isabel sharp, and bloodied, and angry.

This scene was, of course, the direct result of the character development I was doing in 2019: for this scene to exist, I needed to know that Emma was still grieving Jean; I needed those glimpse of her childhood panic attacks and the way that her sister helped her through them. I needed to understand Emma’s relationship with Jean before I could understand her friendship with Isabel, and this scene is where those debts and that complicated tangle of emotions becomes very apparent.

This discussion seems to imply that this is a bummer of a chapter, but it’s not, is it? I mean, you may disagree, and feel free to do so in the comments, but I think this is actually a hopeful moment. Isabel calling a truce with Mortimer, starting to understand Emma and therefore to trust her a little more; these glimpses of the city’s art and its resistance to the guilds, reminding us that Espera is more than its darkness… I think this is a thread of light amidst the shadows.

But perhaps it doesn’t feel that way to you. In which case, tell me how it does feel, and what these insights into Mortimer and Emma meant to you, and I will see you back here 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?

01/10, Vereco (TBA Readalong)

As of today, everything kicks off with my PhD and various induction activities, so I may be slower to respond to comments. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave them, however; I will be delighted to read them as soon as I get a second to catch my breath!

If you’re new here, we’re reading The Butterfly Assassin in real time according to the book’s chronology and discussing the writing process and the worldbuilding. Head to TBA Readalong Starting This Sunday for an overview of my approach, or start at the beginning with 17/09, Eraro.

On the 1st of October, Isabel runs into Emma, who rejects her; asks Grace Whittock for help with an antidote, and discusses her father’s lab; and has a tense conversation with Mortimer, in which he reveals that he speaks Esperanto and has guessed a certain amount about her past. (For those following along in the book, this is Chapter 15.)

None of these scenes exist in the first draft, which doesn’t give us too much to talk about. Although Grace/Graham was always trained as a poisoner, this aspect of the character was far less prominent in early drafts – involving her in trying to create an antidote was prompted by my attempts to keep Isabel out of hospital for longer, and give her more agency in saving herself. In the early drafts, she was in hospital not long after her first meeting with Toni Rolleston, so around this point in the book, and stayed there for most of the rest of it; while there was some action in these scenes, it definitely robbed Isabel of a lot of her narrative power over the plot, and a big part of my Draft VI/AMM rewrites was focused on changing that and keeping her independent and autonomous for longer.

The memory suppressant which Grace mentions in this chapter was also, I think, a reasonably late addition; pretty much all the specifics of the poison changed drastically over time, with various approaches in between, and this would have been an attempt to create a situation in which Isabel didn’t have the knowledge at first but might, over time, recover or discover it, giving her more personal responsibility for and autonomy over the antidote process.

Moreover, since the significance of Esperanto has changed over time, there would be no reason for Mortimer to reveal that he spoke it – in the earliest drafts, everyone spoke Esperanto, even though I hadn’t yet come up with a valid worldbuilding reason why.

I have to say, I do find it very funny when Isabel briefly thinks Mortimer is a Hummingbird spy, watching out for talented students to recruit, until it occurs to her that he’s a Woodwork teacher and the only talent he’s going to spot is for carpentry. While the guilds employ a lot of people with a lot of skills, and some of them are purely practical, everyday abilities, I don’t think those are the people they’re going to be headhunting straight out of school.

This moment is also a sly nod to the fact that in the early drafts (I-V), Mortimer did have a connection to Hummingbird: his sister and niblings worked for them, and he was estranged from them as a result because of his moral objections to the guilds. This was a detail that primarily had significance for book two, but was cut due to a broader overhaul of the characters involved, which disentangled those relationships entirely. For years, it seemed that every book I wrote had a “surprise! Everyone’s related” reveal, and while these are occasionally very effective, I figured we had enough of that with Toni and Emma and didn’t need to do it again.

But, in those drafts, we didn’t see much of Mortimer outside of formal classroom contexts until Isabel was already in hospital – which made his friendship and offers of help a lot less believable. Once again, his larger role was the result of prioritising secondary character development when I overhauled the book… but this specific scene, this moment, was a late addition.

By late, in this context, I mean it showed up in 2020, in the edits I did after I signed with Jessica as my agent. This whole section of the book got restructured, mostly for the sake of pacing – at one point we had two visits from Michael here, multiple scenes with Grace, a Symbolic Card Game, and a far more casual interaction with Mortimer. To keep the tension up, and add to the sense of threats on all sides, I shifted the scene with Mortimer to something a little more hostile and less relaxed.

It’s funny, after writing book two where Mortimer means a great deal to Isabel, to look back at these early meetings and see how suspicious she is of him, and how he’s essentially functioning as a minor antagonist within the narrative. I do love that, though, the transition of a potential threat to a weird uncle/surrogate father figure. Villain decay, but in the most chill way possible, with biscuits. For the moment, it seems like he might be one of the few adults who sees straight through Isabel despite a lack of other information: obviously traumatised. But this does make you wonder exactly how obvious it is that somebody who hardly knows her can see it.

Mortimer also says that he speaks Esperanto because he thought it might come in handy – know your enemy, etc. I have very little in my notes about this, except for one small detail that I had entirely forgotten: according to my Developmental Notes document from 2019 (during AMM), Mortimer originally trained as a Latin teacher.

We already said he was in the model-making club (what a soft nerd boy), and maybe he finds consolation in that – it’s his outlet while he’s grieving [a family member killed by the guilds]. He carries on with the Latin too, and ends up tutoring younger students, which is part of why he thinks he should become a teacher. Goes to college to train as a Latin teacher, but something’s missing. Halfway through he joins an engineering society or something and realises he misses being able to make stuff. Trains as a DT teacher instead, but uses his language (Latin) skills to teach himself Esperanto, in case it ever comes in handy.

I don’t know if this is canon. I had entirely forgotten it, and I’m always coming up with new headcanons about Mortimer’s backstory that I’ll never confirm on page. Since these notes predate a fair bit of crucial Mortimer characterisation due to the extremely late addition of all the most important scenes, it may be that our Mortimer doesn’t have a word of Latin.

But, hey, that’s the joy of these old notes. They’re true for a version of the character, even if it’s one who only existed between drafts as I refined ideas and played around with backstory. If it’s not on the page, you can ignore it or adopt it as you see fit.

That’s pretty much it for today, so over to you. I realise I’ve skimmed over the scene with Grace without delving too much into it: I think everything I might want to say about that part of the chapter is on the page, and I don’t want to focus too hard on that. But if you have any questions or thoughts on that scene and on Isabel’s childhood in her father’s lab, drop them in the comments, or tell me how you felt about Mortimer and his Suspicious Esperanto.

Otherwise, I’ll see you back here tomorrow!

29/09, Ĉifro (TBA Readalong)

We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin in real time and discussing everything that’s not on the page, and some of the things that are! Confused? See TBA Readalong Starting This Sunday. Want to start at the beginning? Jump to 17/09, Eraro.

Late at night on the 28th September and into the early hours of 29th September, Isabel tries to decode her father’s files.

Her father, we learn, doesn’t use Comma’s usual system of codes (computer-generated single-use decryption keys), but an older and arguably less secure approach: he’s still using a double transposition-type cipher based on a code phrase. This was a code in use during the Second World War, and if you’re interested in that, I would recommend Between Silk And Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941–1945, by Leo Marks, since that’s where I learned almost everything I know about codes.

It’s at this point I have to make a confession: I do not, in my brain, fully understand how double transposition works. I’m sure if somebody actually showed me how to do it, it would start making sense to me; I have read dozens of explanations of it, however, and not a single one made sense to me. I am faking it. I am pretending to know. I am basing my descriptions purely on other people’s descriptions and hoping that nobody calls me out on it. I’M A FRAUD.

What makes Ian Ryans’ codes difficult isn’t the cipher itself, but the fact that they’re multilingual with weird combinations of languages and alphabets that the majority of people in Espera wouldn’t be able to read. Modern languages, we’ve learned, are rarely taught in the closed city, since nobody within it is ever expected to leave; Latin is a popular school subject, since an ancient language with scientific and medical applications is more useful than learning how to ask for the train station in French when you’ll never go to France.

Isabel, however, was raised by her father, taught languages by her father, and understands how her father’s mind works – which makes her the best person for the job when it comes to decoding his files.

As she begins to untangle them, we see glimpses of her upbringing and the violence that she’s faced at the hands of her parents. I tried, throughout the book, to give enough information about Isabel’s childhood to make it clear exactly how badly she was treated, without ever being gratuitous about portraying abuse. I didn’t want it to be Misery Porn, and I was conscious also of writing for a teenaged audience: those of my readers who have personal experience of abusive family environments may well still be living in them, without the autonomy to leave, and I don’t want my book to be unnecessarily triggering or upsetting to those seeking escapism.

I don’t know how well I walked that line (that’s for readers to tell me, not for me to judge for myself), but it’s one of the reasons I kept these excerpts brief, impersonal, distanced from the present by being words on a page and fragments of memory, rather than delving frequently into elaborate flashbacks. But this chapter does give us a glimpse of some specific moments, including the story behind the scar on Isabel’s hand – a breaking point for Isabel, and the moment she realised that obedience was never going to be enough to protect her.

This, again, was something I developed only once I started digging much deeper into the psychology of my characters (and once I had a better understand of trauma and how it shapes people’s brains). These kinds of turning points are crucial to understanding a character, especially when it comes to something as big as the moment they resolved to run away from an abusive home. While I’m never going to be the kind of person filling out entire psychological profiles for characters, I do think you need to understand what drives them – particularly in a story that deals so much with trauma and the past – in order to write consistent and realistic behaviours in the presence.

Isabel has spent her life trained to obedience, and that’s still her first instinct, because she fears punishment. At the same time, we have seen her disobey; we’ve seen her refuse Ronan Atwood’s offer of help (strings attached), and the only reason the story is happening at all is because she ran away from home. Why? Because she’s realised that obedience doesn’t prevent punishment, and that she isn’t safe even if she does as she’s told. It hasn’t broken the instinct or the hold her parents have over her, but it’s fundamentally changed how she behaves.

In this chapter, we also see Isabel starting to fall back on the new lessons she’s learning – notably, Emma’s grounding technique of naming five things she can see and five things she can hear. Some people do this as a countdown technique instead: five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, or similar, using all the senses. I did five of each, because it’s how I’d encountered the technique myself.

Here, it serves several purposes: it shows the impact of Emma on Isabel’s life, but it also allows us to focus in on the sensory details of the scene. Moreover, because Isabel is on the verge of a panic attack, she initially can only name very small things very close to her – her vision narrowing to her immediate surroundings. She has to force herself to open her senses out to the whole room and ground herself within her flat, and in doing so, ground the reader in that environment too.

Some of my critics (a fancy word for “people who gave the book three stars on Goodreads”) have commented on the relative paucity of visual and sensory descriptions in the book, and it’s true; there are more of them than there were in earlier drafts, but it’s still not lush with descriptive detail. That’s partly a stylistic choice for this particular book and partly a side-effect of having an extremely non-visual brain, but I like to think that it gives these sensory-focused moments a greater impact, too. If we were always wreathed in descriptions, there would be less power in the moments where we’re forced to suddenly zoom out and consider our surroundings.

But perhaps that’s wishful thinking. You decide: you’re the reader, after all. Did my descriptions of codebreaking convince you that I knew a little bit about codes? How did Isabel’s desperate attempts at decoding these files make you feel? Do you have any good grounding techniques for those experiencing anxiety/panic? Tell me in the comments, and I’ll see you back here in a couple of days. (Yep, you get a day off.)

28/09, Helpo–Historio–Rekuniĝo–Ĉifro (TBA Readalong)

We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin in real time! Just joining us? For an explanation of this project, see TBA Readalong Starts This Sunday; to start at the beginning, jump to 17/09, Eraro.

On Friday 28th September, Isabel goes in search of Grace Whittock for help with an antidote, but Grace is absent. Instead she finds Emma, and admits to her that she’s sick. Emma invites her to come home with her after school so that she doesn’t have to be alone processing this news, and Isabel goes – only to discover that Emma’s foster mother is Toni Rolleston, one of the Comma agents who led Cocoon and helped train Isabel. The confrontation is tense, and results in Toni’s identity being revealed to Emma, who didn’t know about her mother’s connection with Comma. Isabel storms out, has a bit of a breakdown, gets home, and finds Michael Griffiths in her flat.

Michael was another product of Cocoon, slightly older than Isabel, and saved her life when she was fifteen and got stabbed on a job gone wrong. However, it was partially his fault that the job went wrong in the first place. Comma considered kicking him out, but in the end, he was taken in by Ian and Judith Ryans and lived with them and Isabel. Isabel sees him as something like a brother, but has always kept her distance from him emotionally, knowing that their parents would have used affection against them. Michael confirms that Isabel’s father did in fact poison her and drug her to forget about it, and reveals that her parents have defected to form their own guild – leaving Michael behind.

When Michael mentions that the only hint to saving Isabel from the poison might be in Ian’s files, which Comma have confiscated, Isabel retrieves the documents that Ronan gave her, and resolves to decode them. Michael offers to help, but Isabel would prefer to handle this herself. He gives her his number, and they part as allies.

Whew, that’s a lot of plot to get through in one blog post. Two previously-mentioned characters (Toni and Michael) make their first on-page appearances, we get way more insight into Isabel’s backstory, and we also learn a bit about Emma’s upbringing – but it’s looking like their friendship might not survive Toni’s involvement.

Let’s have a look at Chapter 12 first: Isabel’s reunion with Toni.

I have to admit, of all the chapters in the book and all the angst that Isabel experiences, this is the chapter that gets me. When I first listened to the book as an audiobook, and therefore was able to experience it as a piece of fiction rather than something I was supposed to be editing and improving, this chapter nearly made me cry.

I think the reason it gets me is that Toni – whom Isabel holds responsible for a lot of what she’s been through, including the job that nearly killed her and Michael – acknowledges, out loud, that Isabel’s upbringing was messed up. That somebody should’ve helped; that she was failed by the people who were meant to protect her; that she could have been something else if given that chance.

And that’s the bit that really gets me: the idea that Emma and Isabel were once alike, but Emma was loved, and Isabel wasn’t and now Emma is colour and sunshine and mischief and an outstretched hand, […] hope in human form, and Isabel is broken glass and barbed wire and a knife clutched in bloody fingers.

It would be safe to say that I’m interested in doubles and narrative foils. I wrote my A-Level English coursework essay about doubles and dissociation in The Bell Jar and The Dream Life of Sukhanov: how the characters see themselves in others, fail to recognise themselves in mirrors, are mistaken for other people, watch their lives branch into different possibilities, are replaced and imitated.

Since then, it’s a topic I keep returning to, both in fiction and in academic works. I’m fascinated by narrative foils who end up confronting each other, and those who represent another path the character could have taken, and those who are acknowledged within the narrative as somebody’s double or mirror but denied the chance to share their fate.

I would argue that both Emma and Michael are foils for Isabel, in different ways. Emma is what Isabel could have become, if somebody had loved her and looked after her instead. If Toni had saved her, instead. We see it in her: the way she loves art even though she doesn’t understand it, craving colour and expression that she’s always been denied. She may not permit herself attachment to many people, but when she cares, Isabel is all in for her friends. Some of that she learned from Emma. But some of it, I think, was always part of her, and never given a chance to grow before.

This moment with Toni is also key to one of the ethical questions of the series: to what extent is an individual culpable for the crimes of an organisation they work for? Toni involved herself with Cocoon because she thought she could make it better, keep it from being ‘completely evil’; instead, she became the tool used to hurt Isabel. Over the course of the trilogy, we come back to this question: is there a way to work for Comma without being complicit in their atrocities?

We may not, in our everyday lives, be forced to ask ourselves whether we want to work for a guild of assassins or not, but the parallels aren’t difficult to draw. Many of my more scientifically-minded friends have had to consider whether they want to work for companies involved in the arms industry, in weapons development, in military intelligence, in the fossil fuel industry. They have little use for experts in medieval Irish literature, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to avoid the question. Every day we are made complicit in the crimes of corporations in small ways: our banks investing in arms or oil, our taxes funding military investment, and so on and so forth.

Toni became complicit in Comma’s child abuse, despite her good intentions. Was there a way she could have done otherwise? I don’t know. I don’t think books are supposed to give you all of the answers, and I think stories are less interesting if those answers are obvious. But the difference between Toni and the rest of this Comma, in this moment, is that she looks at Isabel and says: I’m sorry. We failed you.

And in doing so, and in drawing the parallel between Isabel and Emma, she denies Isabel the small comfort of believing she would always have been like this and there was never any other path open to her. She means well, but acknowledging the trauma in that way forces Isabel to acknowledge it, and I don’t think, at this point in the book, that Isabel is ready to.

A version of this scene has always existed – which is to say, Emma has always brought Isabel home to her house, and Isabel has always run into Toni Rolleston there, and Toni’s identity has always been revealed to Emma. In the first draft, the impact of this moment was weak. Toni and Isabel had less of a direct connection, and Toni’s identity was immediately revealed to Emma, rather than discovered by accident; there was little to no exploration of Isabel’s trauma.

A woman comes out of the living room and stares at Isabel. She stares right back.

“Well, well, well,” she says. “Isabel Ryans. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Toni Rolleston,” she responds. “I could say the same for you.”

Emma stares at them both. “Wait, you two know each other?”

“Indirectly,” says her foster mum.

“I guess she never told you that she works for Comma,’” says Isabel.


“I don’t work for them anymore, Isabel, you know that. I left years ago.”

“Before or after fostering me?” says Emma, clearly outraged, and then something occurs to her. “Wait, hold that for a second. How do you know?” she demands of Isabel.

It actually took until Draft VI – the AMM rewrite/overhaul – for this scene to start looking like it does now, and for all my favourite parts (i.e. directly contrasting the young Isabel and Emma) to enter the picture. I think this scene needed me to have developed a more nuanced understanding of trauma before I could write it, as well as to have thought more about the secondary characters and their backstories, treating each of them as if this was their own story and figuring out what they wanted.

When I really want to cry about this (and believe me, I am always crying about my own characters), I like to imagine a story with alternating chapters: Isabel and Emma, c. 2021-22. Emma, ten, recently fostered by Toni and still processing the trauma of abandonment by her parents and a string of unsuccessful placements; Isabel, nine and then ten, in the first year of Cocoon. Toni spending the day working with Isabel and then going home to Emma at night. And the contrast there – the care vs the hurt, the healing vs the damage – makes me sad, because it was happening at the same time, and by the same person.

Because that’s the other point I’m trying to make in this trilogy, really. That people are not Good or Bad, inherently. That people can do great harm, and still have the capacity to do good; that people can do good, and still have it in them to harm. Toni helped Emma, and she hurt Isabel, and those are both true statements and they are both crucial parts of her character. Is Toni a good person or a bad person? No. There is no answer to that question and there isn’t supposed to be.

And there’s Michael. Three years older than Isabel, so he’s twenty here. He was fifteen when he was recruited into Comma following his mother’s untimely death, so he had a little more time to grow up beforehand than Isabel did, but fundamentally, he was another child destroyed by the guild. A fellow survivor – not just of Cocoon, but of their parents, even if Isabel bore the brunt of their abusive behaviour.

The reunion with Michael came much, much later in the early drafts. In the first draft, she encountered him while recovering in the hospital, and once she had already done an assignment for Comma (this specific assignment got cut in later drafts):

“Mind if I join you?” he says.

She sighs. “If you must.”

There’s a creaking sound as somebody lowers themselves onto the weights bench next to her. She lowers the weights and sneaks a peek through barely-opened eyes. The young man is probably five or six years older than her, but something about him is vaguely familiar.

“Michael,” he says, seeing her looking at him. “Remember me? Of course, you probably don’t.”

Slowly, memories start to come back: an older boy putting pressure on her wound after she was stabbed in the assignment that went wrong; pleading for his life when Comma wanted him dead for failing the assignment… “You saved my life,” she says.

“And you saved mine. So I guess we’re even.”

By the fourth draft, Michael had been spying on Isabel for Comma earlier in the book and she’d caught sight of him once or twice, but they only ran into each other once she was already in hospital, as before, although a little earlier in the process. The same was true in the fifth draft, and it was once again only in the sixth draft, the AMM rewrite, that he entered the book at this point and became one of Isabel’s allies and a more significant character.

A big part of the decision to introduce Michael earlier and allow the reader to get to know him more was, as I already mentioned, to an increased focus at this point in the motivations and intentions of secondary characters. In developing these, I found the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron to be helpful, although I have to say I did not vibe with that book’s writing style. The content, however, helped immeasurably in my quest to create secondary characters who weren’t just props for the plot.

I wrote a lot of notes about Michael, exploring his backstory and his relationship with Isabel in far more depth:

To Isabel, Michael is a reminder of her parents and her training, which is a negative. She may initially find his presence triggering and she’s definitely not going to trust him. But he also has shared experiences with her that nobody else has – he gets her.

A lot of these notes focus on his role as a foil for Isabel, but also on the way he represents her father, Cocoon, and everything she’s running from – more on that later. Despite all these intensely detailed notes full of symbolism, however, there were some things I never did figure out about him:

Interests: ??? that would require him to not be a brainwashed screwed-up assassin boy 
Playing cards, I guess?
Surely you have some interests, Michael, please talk to me a little here.

As a result, there are whole aspects of Michael’s character that bear no resemblance to Drafts I-V, and everything important about him showed up in Draft VI. Even the white streak of hair behind his ear, which we share; I gave him this small aspect of my own appearance because I was hastily trying to construct a physical description due to a lack of these in the earlier drafts (I am not a big one for describing people).  

I like the Michael we meet in this chapter, although he’s a deeply flawed individual, and his cowardice has, in the past, left Isabel open to her parents’ abuse. But what she starts to realise here, and what we as the reader are learning with her, is that Michael is also deeply traumatised, and the two of them are alike in that way. This Michael is a lot more interesting than the Michaels of the early drafts, and it’s hard not to root for him at least a little bit, despite Isabel’s complicated feelings towards him.

But he can’t, in this moment, help Isabel, and she’s left with the knowledge that her father poisoned her and a pile of documents she doesn’t yet know how to decode.

So, before we dig deeper into those codes (it’ll be a shorter post tomorrow, I hope), let’s stop there for a minute and discuss these chapters. There’s a lot going on with these two unexpected reunions; which one had a bigger impact on you, as a reader? Do you believe Toni when she says that she’s sorry? Are you rooting for Michael, or suspicious of him?

As always, leave the answers to these questions or anything else you might want to say in the comments below, and I’ll see you tomorrow for the rest of Chapter 14.

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…

26/09, Konfeso (TBA Readalong)

On the 26th of September, the Echo reports that Comma claimed the murder of Ian Crampton, Isabel overhears Mortimer and Grace talking about her, and Nick invites Isabel to go clubbing with him.

Of these three scenes, Mortimer and Grace’s conversation is the oldest: a version of it existed way back in the first draft. I like finding scenes like that, even when they’ve changed significantly, because it reminds me that no matter how completely I rewrote this book, it is still at its core the book I wrote in 2014. I was onto something – I just needed to refine it a lot before it got to this point.

In the first draft, the scene happened slightly earlier in the book, before Isabel gets sick, and there was, of course, no mention of Ian Crampton, since he didn’t exist at that stage:

She’s only a corridor away from the library, so it’s a matter of moments before she pushes open the door. Graham’s in the small office to the left of the entrance, deep in conversation with somebody. Alarmed, Isabel makes sure she’s not in sight, and tries to make out the gist of their conversation.

“The kid sliced her thumb open and barely even blinked.” It’s Mortimer, she realises. They’re talking about me.

“So she’s tough. What does that matter?”

“Don’t pretend you’re not always the one to befriend the troubled kids. She’ll have been up here half a dozen times already, I’ll bet.”

“Even if she had, it’s not my place to tell you anything she hasn’t told you.”

“You’re infuriating, Graham.”

There’s a major difference between the first version of this scene and the final version, though, and that’s Mortimer’s attitude. In the first draft, he was suspicious of Isabel:

Graham sounds bored. “In fact, she’s meant to be here any moment, so if you really want to know, why don’t you ask her yourself? I’m sure she’ll be delighted to tell you all her secrets if you only ask enough times.”

Mortimer doesn’t miss the sarcasm. “She worries me.”

She worries you?”

“There’s something odd about her.”

“There I was thinking you were asking out of concern for her welfare. She’s a sixteen-year-old girl, Mortimer. If that’s enough to scare you, maybe you’re in the wrong profession. I didn’t realise teaching was high-risk these days.”

All three of them know that teaching’s the safest job there is, at least while Comma and Hummingbird hold back from hiring teenagers. “You’ll regret laughing at me when you realise what I mean,” says Mortimer, and storms out of the office.

In the final version, he’s similarly suspicious that her story doesn’t add up, but he’s concerned for her, worried that she’s in up to her neck in guild trouble and that it’s going to result in her getting hurt. This is partly that I never intended Mortimer to be such a significant, sympathetic character in the first draft, so didn’t particularly work to make him likeable in his early scenes. It’s also because, as I mentioned before, the more I started to understand Isabel’s trauma and background, the more I realised what kind of behaviour would send her running for the hills, and there was definitely no way she’d ever have trusted the first draft version of Mortimer.

In this conversation, we also have a tiny bit more worldbuilding – a reference to rumours about the spons which suggests that even Esperans don’t necessarily know what’s going on in their own city, especially when it comes to the guild-sponsored schools. This is something that always interests me in books – how much do characters know about their world? I couldn’t explain how everything works in the real world, especially if it’s not something I’ve experienced first-hand. There’s a lot that Isabel doesn’t understand about the economy, so it’s never going to be on the page, and the only reason she knows how guild-sponsored schools work is because she attended one.

Grace tells us that the guilds only start interfering with the kids’ education in sixth year, and that tallies with what Isabel told us before about the subjects she would have been doing for Level Three if she’d stayed at Linnaeus. It does beg the question of how Grace knows that, though – is she simply better informed about Espera’s education system, or does she have some personal experience?

We already know, from the introductory scene with Graham and from Grace’s later remarks in the published version of the book, that Grace’s family were Hummingbird. Exactly what kind of school Grace went to isn’t something I’ve delved into, but you could take her knowledge here as a sign of personal experience…

…or you could read it as librarians talking to other librarians, and her being clued into the educational system in a purely professional capacity. Up to you.

The only other small worldbuilding detail we’re given in this chapter, really, is Nick’s invitation to go to an underage club night in Weaverthorpe – a Comma borough, as Isabel notes, when trying to decide whether or not to accept. As I said in one of the first posts in this series, all of the boroughs in Espera are named after real villages and placenames in the area, but their guild affiliations don’t follow any particular pattern. Some of them even share borders with their rivals.

I didn’t delve into the logistics of this, but I have to say, I think I’d enjoy a sitcom about two Esperan neighbours living in adjacent houses with the borough border running straight through their house. Both of them believe their neighbour is a guild agent for the rival guild, and is trying to get them to give themselves away; in fact, they’re both low-level adjacent workers with no guild secrets to spill even if they wanted to, but they’re both convinced that’s the other person’s cover story. Shenanigans ensure. If you would like to write this fic, you are extremely welcome to do so.  

That’s more or less it for this half-chapter – an eventful day for Isabel, but a light one for us. So it’s time for your thoughts. Did Mortimer’s concern for Isabel here make him seem more or less suspicious as a character? At this point of the book, does he seem like a potential ally, or like an antagonist?

As always, leave any and all thoughts and questions in the comments, and I’ll be delighted to chat with you.

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.

24/09, Doloro – Part II (TBA Readalong)

On the 24th September, Isabel goes to school, still suffering from severe and miserable stomach aches, and asks Grace Whittock for help finding a doctor. But it’s Emma who answers, giving her the number of a non-profit clinic for low-income civilians: The Sunshine Project. When Isabel’s anxiety gets the better of her, Emma helps her out by calling her brother, Leo, who volunteers at the clinic, and asking him to help Isabel get an appointment.

It’s a fairly short scene, but one that allows Emma to demonstrate her willingness to help Isabel – and her tacit understanding when Isabel’s fear gets the better of her – as well as giving us the names of two new characters, Leo and Daragh Vernant. It’s also a scene with a long history, though it’s changed considerably over the years.

In the first draft of this book, Isabel did her own research and found that Dr Vernant (originally a separate character from Daragh) was her best option for accessing healthcare. But while she was talking to Graham about it, Emma overheard, and came out from among the library shelves to contribute to the conversation – her first meeting with Isabel.

I mentioned in a previous post that the Sunshine Project (a name it only acquired in a much later draft) was, at one point in the book’s history, more focused on reproductive and sexual healthcare, and that was a focus in the earliest versions of this chapter. Isabel had made the appointment using a phone at school, since she didn’t have one of her own; the receptionists, overhearing the name of the doctor she was seeing, gave her Knowing Looks that she didn’t understand, which is what she was asking Graham about.

From the conversation that followed, in which Emma explained that her knowledge of Dr Vernant’s practice was because she’d accompanied several friends there for STI testing and similar appointments, we got a glimpse of Isabel’s sex repulsion. More than a lack of interest, in earlier drafts Isabel found the entire concept of sex distasteful, and that came across strongly in these chapters.

Isabel is, of course, asexual, but attraction ≠ action, and not all asexual people are sex-repulsed. Some are; others are indifferent or disinterested; and others are actively interested in it and may seek it out. In more recent drafts, I’ve tended to write Isabel as disinterested, with a side of bafflement that anybody finds the idea appealing, because she doesn’t really get it; I’ve downplayed the profound disgust she felt in the first draft. This is mostly due to my own more nuanced feelings about her sexuality and how I wanted to portray it, but also because it was incredibly hard to convey her own personal sex-repulsion without it straying into seeming like she was shaming others, since it was rarely her own actions she was having those feelings about.

These details also became a lot less relevant as the nature of the Sunshine Project shifted and expanded. But versions of that conversation with Emma persisted until Draft V (by which point it was no longer her first meeting with Isabel, but her second, as in this version):

“Though you might as well get tested for chlamydia while you’re there.”

“That won’t be necessary,” she says emphatically. Emma raises her eyebrows, but doesn’t press the point. “I needed a doctor’s appointment, and I’m not registered. That’s all.”

“It’s your call. And don’t worry, Dr Vernant’s legit for, like, regular stuff too.”

“You know a lot about her, Emma,” says Grace.

“Yeah, my friends always make me come with them when they fuck up.” She seems unconcerned by this, and by swearing in front of a member of staff. “Why they think I can offer moral support, I’ve no idea, but I’ve been five times. Herpes, chlamydia, pregnancy, Alice’s hormones…”

“That’s enough,” the librarian interrupts. “Spare us the details.”

Now, though, the focus is more on Isabel’s anxiety about seeking out healthcare – her fear of discovery, her past trauma creeping up on her. It gives us a glimpse of Emma’s backstory, when she mentions her sister helping her through her panic attacks, and we start to understand why she stopped to help Isabel when she was panicking in the bathroom, even though she was a stranger.

It’s also our first mention of Leo and, while he only appears very fleetingly here and in this book more generally, I do want to give a shoutout to Leo, my beloved. (For those who haven’t read it yet, he plays a much more significant role in The Hummingbird Killer, so this isn’t just me being randomly attached to a background character, I have my reasons.)

I think that’s all there is to be said about this scene, so it’s over to you. Emma is really the star of the show here, and we’re getting hints of what she’s going to mean to Isabel later on, but what did you think of her at this point? I confess, I love the ending of this chapter, and Emma threatening to fight the universe for Isabel – that showed up in around Draft VI, if I remember correctly, and I went out of my way to keep it. What about you? Any standout lines for you?

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.