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.
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.