"Heart of the Forest" by Ian Creasey — story background

All day the forest grew quieter, until only the thunk and chip of iron axes echoed among the trees.  Near the forest's edge, two manlike shapes watched the woodcutters at their grisly work.  One of the hidden onlookers was the weathered brown of an old oak, his eyes the green of spring leaves.  The woodwose felt the sting of each axe-blow like a gnawing frost that cracked roots to topple trees.  But unlike ice, the humans attacked in all seasons.

No longer, he vowed.  He had summoned wolves, more wolf-packs than ever hunted here before.  As they arrived and settled in the undergrowth, the presence of so many predators subdued all the forest's creatures.  No rabbits stirred; no birds sang.

This is one of my very oldest story ideas, and consequently I've long since forgotten what inspired it.  "Heart of the Forest" is about a dryad, whose forest is under attack from humans who keep clearing more trees for timber and farmland.  In an attempt to save her home, she leaves the forest to enter the human realm, with the intention of finding their leader and persuading him to curb the incursions.  However, the further she journeys from her tree, the weaker her bond with the forest becomes, and the more she is tempted by the wide variety of human experience.

In composing this story, I discovered the difficulties of writing from the viewpoint of a nonhuman character, particularly one who — initially — doesn't know any human language.  So, for example, when the dryad enters her first village and walks down a street, strictly speaking the text shouldn't use the word "street" since the dryad has no concept of this.  But if I described everything by paraphrasing it in terms of the dryad's limited experience, the narrative would be vague and unwieldy, frustrating for the reader to wade through.  In the end I fudged the issue and, while still attempting to depict the dryad's naïve perspective, I used a few words that she wouldn't in fact know.

In any case, the issue of viewpoint is one that exercises writers much more than readers.  It is common when critiquing to flag up "viewpoint glitches", which is when the narrative mentions something that the viewpoint character doesn't know.  However, readers tend not to notice technical faults of this nature.  Normally I take a fairly hard line and say that just because most readers won't notice, that's no excuse for getting something wrong.  But if the solution is worse than the problem, then sometimes it's best to simply be pragmatic and commit a viewpoint violation.

The alchemy in this story is loosely derived from my as-yet-unwritten alchemy novel.  The story takes place deep in the imagined past of the novel, and the character of Doran the court alchemist is intended to become a legendary figure within the novel's mythic backdrop.  My other stories that draw upon the same background are "The Sounds That Come After Screaming" and "Memories of the Knacker's Yard", although both those tales have a rather different and darker tone than this one.

Page last updated: 22 May 2015