Let me say first of all that I love research. It’s just as well, really, because this book needed a great deal of it. A project like Winter Be My Shield is a bit like an iceberg — only about 10% of the research actually makes it into the story. The rest is a huge groaning mass of background information bobbing about in the writer’s head, threatening to spill over whenever an unsuspecting conversationalist ventures too close to the subject of the moment.
Once I realised my characters needed to live somewhere extreme, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I’ve never lived anywhere cold enough to snow, and most travel has taken me to places that are arid and hot, rather than cold and wet.
I started by hunting down books about winter camping and read them obsessively, until I was dreaming about tramping through the snow beside an open lead of ink-black water. I sought out memoirs from the Canadian fur trade, trawled for books written by folk who ran away to the wilderness and read the story of a nineteen-year-old college student who spent seven months in a tent over winter to babysit millions of salmon eggs. I hunted for information about native peoples in boreal forests around the world, their folklore and their way of life, and learned of the sound that breath makes when moisture freezes in the air. I read about the horse snowshoes that have been used in northern Europe for at least 700 years, which could have saved Scott’s Antarctic expedition and which were used by the rescue party who found the bodies of Scott and his men. I devoured the tales of men tasked with protecting Russia’s remaining wild tigers, and what happens when one of their charges become a man-eater, stalking them through the heart of Mother Taiga. One of the phrases my characters use, no-one’s dead until they’re warm and dead, is a mainstay of cold-climate search and rescue, where the cold draws a fine line between preservation and destruction.
Television was useful, too — anything mentioning Siberia, Canada or Alaska would have me glued to the screen. Just be warned, these methods are likely to result in shouting at Bear Grylls when he’s slogging through thigh-deep snow past trees that would give him perfectly good make-shift snowshoes, and demanding to know how he’s going to catch anything with snares covered with scent from his bare hands. On YouTube I watched videos of frazil ice and frozen rivers breaking up in the spring, and, when Eyjafjallajokull blew her top, I heard the sound a lava flow makes (for the record, it sounds like glass being crushed beneath a giant roller.)
Writing these books has been a labour of love, and it is truly love, for though the world of Winter Be My Shield is harsh and unforgiving, it’s sunk so deeply into me that part of me will never leave it — I think I’ll always have a little bit of ice and some scraps of fur around my bones. So come with me, here where the air is so cold that it bites and the falling snow muffles all sound; and seek out a tiny, warm tent full of the scent of wood-smoke and spruce, with a fire crackling in the stove and a kettle simmering on the hob. It’s a dangerous place, but it’s worth it. I promise.