This year I am dedicating a lot of my time to something I have wanted to do for many years: write a novel. I often write fictional scenes and enjoy creating characters and I wanted to set myself the enormous challenge of extending those elements into a book. I’ve read that while many authors swear by detailed outlines and believe that spontaneity is recipe for disaster, others encourage new writers to see where their imagination takes them. I’m trying the latter technique. I have a protagonist and several themes I would like to focus on, but so far my plot is far from finalised. The following is a passage I’ve written as a scene-setter that introduces both the location and my leading lady.
The snow fell heavier than it had in a hundred years. There was no wind – the land lay still, muffled under six inches of brilliant white. Evergreens buckled beneath the weight of their silvery coats. Even the river had succumbed to winter; it lay motionless beneath a slab of ice, arranged in a winding, serpentine fashion between hills and mountains. It was late February – there was just over a month left of the winter that spanned half the year, but the coldest season still had a firm grip over the land. In March, the climbing temperatures would start to melt the snow into large freshwater pools and reawaken sleeping giants eager for the salmon run in July.
Halfway up a sprawling larch tree perched a teenage girl. She was small for her age, but agile and nimble. With her back pressed against the trunk, she had the perfect vantage point over the land. Before her the forest sprawled as far as the eye could see. Thousands of trees stood beneath snow and ice, their skeletal branches brittle in the cold.
Vanya’s breath rose from her lungs in icy shards, tumbling from her mouth in clouds of grey mist that swirled upwards into the sky. An eagle cried far away, her voice transported many miles over the sleeping land. Vanya had lived in the taiga forest her entire life, but gazed upon its sweeping scenery with the same wonder as the first time she saw it. It was a paradise of silver beauty. The silence was so thick she could feel it, heavy and palpable in the air. It was an anticipative silence that made the hairs on her neck stand on end. There was change in that silence – something new just beyond the horizon.
Despite her thick furs, Vanya soon began to feel the cold as the sun weakened. While she still had the light to see, she descended from her tree, scrabbling down the trunk with impressive confidence before dropping the last six feet to the soft ground. She padded down the hill, sinking into the snow with each step. Behind her lay a long trail of boot prints, already softened at the edges by fresh flakes. Frost clung to her eyelashes, brushing her cheeks with cold strokes and fringing her vision with a white vignette. Snow rustled in the folds of her coat and crunched beneath her feet. If undisturbed, the snow would fall and rest in utter silence. Only when it was touched did it begin to whisper and crackle. In the heavy air, the sounds were deafening.
When she reached a dense thicket of pine trees, Vanya slowed her pace and gazed skywards, scouring the canopy for birds. Snow clogged the gaps in the branches, concealing all manner of wild creatures. A sudden commotion cut through the silence like a knife. Vanya’s eyes flicked to the sound, freezing on the spot as a flurry of fine powder drifted down. The branch trembled, sending more snow to tumble from within its stiff needles. In moments the raid was over and the culprit emerged at the trunk. It was a young male sable, perhaps from last year’s litter, with dark brown fur and a splash of dusky orange on his neck. A small, carnivorous mammal, the sable belonged to the marten family. The animal cascaded deftly down the tree with agile limbs and keen claws.
Landing with a soft thud on the forest floor, he immediately looked up at Vanya, who had sunk down onto her knees to watch. The sable was clutching a stolen egg in his mouth, razor sharp teeth sunk into the shell for a better grip. Confidently, he trotted over to Vanya, dropped the egg and began sniffing her coat. Vanya extended a hand to the animal, noting the way his sleek fur rippled with each movement. The sable studied the girl’s face briefly before clambering onto the open hand, his nose twitching furiously. Vanya ran the backs of her fingers along his fur, delighting in its buttery softness. After a few more moments in her hands, she set the animal back down onto the snow, where he snatched up his egg. With a brief backward glance, the sable lolloped away to cache his prize.
To anyone else, this behaviour was unheard of. Sables, like many mustelids, could be notoriously aggressive towards humans, especially when food or kits were involved. Vanya was an exception to the rule. Since birth, she had truly understood animals. They were not stupid or cruel, like humans, but sensitive and respectful. Vanya saw no reason not to behave equally, and in response any animal she interacted with was fascinated by her. They sensed goodness in her; a quality that they had learned was absent in most humans. Instead of fearing her, they immediately trusted her.
Vanya studied the sable’s prints in the snow. In less than a minute, the snow obscured the impressions the tiny pads had made. In five minutes, they had disappeared completely. Her interaction with a wild sable might never have happened. Vanya was alone, and yet surrounded with life.