Monday 31 December 2012

When’s dinner time for an Inuit?


I read a lot about the Inuit people of the Arctic when I was researching SONG HUNTER: living in the frozen North, the Inuit have had to overcome the same sorts of problems that faced Neanderthals during the Ice Age.

The Inuit all have conventional homes nowadays (though they may shelter in igloos when they’re out hunting) but some customs persist from before they moved into settlements.

 For instance, there’s traditionally no dinner time in an Inuit household. A piece of cardboard will be put on the floor of the house, a chunk of probably raw and perhaps frozen meat will be placed on it, and anyone who’s hungry is free to cut themselves a hunk.

 If you’re not hungry, then there’s no particular obligation to eat.

 To me, a life without meal times is as alien as purple cheese and space suits.

Gosh, though, but that sort of thing doesn't half make you think.


Sunday 30 December 2012

Do you have to be mad to be an inventor?

 Well, of course you do.

 Inventing something, whether it’s as an artist or as a scientist, involves thinking about things that aren’t there.

 And that’s pretty much a definition of madness, isn’t it.

Of course that doesn’t mean that inventors all wear straws in their hair, or make ape-noises at the neighbours, or sing love-songs to the daisies.


So I suppose that, on the whole, we'll have to put inventors down as part-time nutters.

 I think that most of us would be quite happy with that.

Saturday 29 December 2012


Today SONG HUNTER has had the very great honour to be chosen as The Times' Children's Book of the Week.

The Times' website is behind a pay-wall, but the novelist, critic and journalist Amanda Craig says:

'As in her prize-winning novel Cold Tom, Prue is brilliant at weaving stories about the clash between species, and this is her best yet...Mica's feelings for Bear, and her frustrated creative intelligence and courage make this book thrilling, involving and convincing.'

Gosh. You know, I'm tremendously thrilled, myself.

Where do ideas come from?

 Like every writer, I'm always being asked where my ideas come from.

 It's a fair question because a work of art can seem miraculous, even a bit god-like (though not, unfortunately,  to those who know me).

 But a work of art isn’t a miracle. It doesn’t work like that. Not for me, anyway. It’s more like building bridges.

 These bridges are important in SONG HUNTER.

 In the book my heroine Mica finds out how to make bridges, and they lead her to a new world of her own creation.

 But would you trust your weight to a bridge made by a teenage girl? Especially if it seems to be made out of nothing but discontent and mist?

 Mica’s family are frightened and threatened and do what they can to put a stop to Mica’s new ideas.

 But once Mica has discovered those bridges then she can no longer bear to stay on the safe side, even though they stretch out across chasms of danger...

Friday 28 December 2012

Brains: not just for thinking.

I think I've already mentioned that reindeer brains, eaten raw, are a good source of vitamin C.

Well, when I say good I think I probably mean generous. Personally, given the choice, I'd go for the lemon meringue pie any day.

Anyway, brains are useful not only as a source of vitamins, but for preserving hides, too. First you have to scrape all the meat and fat off the skin, and then you rub the hide all over with a nice cold slimy handful of brains.

My Neanderthal people in SONG HUNTER spend a lot of time preparing hides. The information about how to do this came mostly from American hunters’ blogs. It seems to take a lot of care, and a long time, and it’s dreadfully smelly, especially if you’re based somewhere hot, like Arizona.

I’m sitting here at my computer wrapped in a fake fur throw; and I'm feeling extremely grateful for polyester, myself.

Thursday 27 December 2012

What do you mean, Adam and Eve never met?


 No, it’s true. All humans (and that means you) are descended from just one woman and just one man, but they missed each other by thousands of years.

 No, really, it is possible. It happened like this.

 Imagine a band of humans, the only ones in the world. There are only three women in this band, and, as the fates decree, only one of them has grandchildren.

 That soon means, of course, that everyone in the world is descended from a single woman.

 Thousands of years later, humans are again reduced to a very few individuals. There are only a couple of men in the world, and only one of them has grandchildren.

 That soon means, of course, that everyone is descended from one man.

 It also means we’re all very, very, very lucky to be here.

 Aren’t we, cousins?

Wednesday 26 December 2012

The Science of Fiction: visiting someone else’s world.

 Visiting someone else’s world? That’ll take some imagination, that will.

Luckily it needn’t necessarily be your own imagination: it could be a painter’s; or a musician’s; or a novelist’s.

 What’s it like to be a Neanderthal? What’s it like to see the winters getting colder and the animals fewer?

Is inhabiting another world a sign of madness?

And what if madness is your only chance of survival?

Is a mad you, really you?

 Those are some of the questions I've long wanted to explore.

And that's why I wrote SONG HUNTER.


Tuesday 25 December 2012

Unto us a child is born.

Neanderthal hips were a bit different from ours, but giving birth wouldn’t have been easy for a Neanderthal woman.

 A baby born at the time of Song Hunter, 40,000 years ago, would have opened its eyes to a cold and frosty world. This baby would have lost its body heat very quickly indeed, so someone would have had to dry its body and wrap it up snugly straight away.

This infant Neanderthal would have been completely helpless: it would have had to be kept safe from predators, and fed and cleaned regularly, day and night.

 You know, I suppose what I'm really trying to say is that someone would have had to love it.

It makes those Neanderthals seem very close, doesn't it.

All joy to you this Christmastide.

Monday 24 December 2012

Was fat a survivalist issue for Neanderthals?

Compared with modern western Homo sapiens, Neanderthals were muscular, barrel-shaped, and had short arms and legs. This body-shape makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, because the nearer ball-shaped a thing is, the better it is at keeping warm.

 (This means that, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, becoming spherical at Christmas is no more than sensible. So we can eat, drink and be merry with a clear conscience, hurray!)

 The advantage Neanderthals got from their stocky and short-limbed body shape was real, but fairly small. They’d have lived longer than us if they’d fallen into a cold river, but they’d certainly have perished if stuck out all night in winter without shelter.

 I wonder how many clothes we’d have to put on ourselves to be as hardy as a naked Neanderthal?

 My guess would be something like a padded lumberjack shirt and a pair of jeans – but as far as I know no one’s yet done the research.

 Now there's a nice project if someone in academia fancies it.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Is there room in the fridge for a mammoth?

Mammoths emerge from the melting (and therefore increasingly inaccurately named) permafrost quite regularly. Some of these mammoths are in astonishingly good condition.

 Now, it takes a long time to freeze a mammoth right through, so just why are these mammoths in such good shape? Why haven’t their innards gone off while the frost was working its way through from the skin?

 It turns out that these mammoths were preserved before they froze. If they fell into a bog, poor things, then the lacto bacilli (they're rod-shaped bacteria) present in the water pickled the mammoths like huge hairy onions.

 One very brave scientist, Dan Fisher of the University of Michigan, has proved this by chucking chunks of meat into a pond and then coming back much later and eating them.

 Good grief...

 A great, brave man, Dan Fisher.

 I’m happy to announce he survived the experiment.

 PS: At the moment there’s no room in my fridge for so much as a mouse!


Saturday 22 December 2012

The naked ape?

We have no evidence at all that Neanderthals wore clothes. Not so much as a needle.

The problem is that if Neanderthals were naked (as some academic theories suggest) then to survive the extreme cold they’d have had either to have 4cms of fur all over, or to be insulated by about 52kg of fat.

 This means that clothes Neanderthals must have had, whether there’s any archaeological evidence for them or not.

 I must say that for me as a writer of young people's fiction this information came as rather a relief.


Friday 21 December 2012

So you think last summer was bad...


 My poor Neanderthals didn’t half see some weather.

 SONG HUNTER is set 40,000 years ago. England (which wasn’t on an island, then, but was part of a landmass generally called, very charmingly, Doggerland) was mostly steppe, which is mixed grassland and bog with a few small shrubs. The top summer temperature was about 10C. A chilly night could easily go down to -27C.

 But still, it wouldn’t have been all bad.

 It's true that my Neanderthals would have had to live with lions, giant bulls, mammoths and cave bears breathing down their necks.

 Oh, and hyenas. ..

 ...and wolves...

 ...but at least there wouldn’t have been nearly so many slugs, would there.

Thursday 20 December 2012

How cold is an igloo?

In isolated places in the American Arctic shelters are provided for the use of huntsmen caught out in bad weather.

 Despite this, a lot of the hunters prefer to dig themselves an igloo. It’s warmer.


 Because snow falls as flat crystals, and this means that as the snow settles air gets trapped between the flakes. The result is that a covering of snow works just like a great thick duvet.


 An igloo is obviously jolly handy if you’re caught out at night in the intense cold. 

But what can you do if you have no shovel?

And what can you do if igloos haven't been invented yet?


Wednesday 19 December 2012

What’s the point of art, anyway?

This is one of the questions which led me to write SONG HUNTER.

 Is art just something to make the world prettier?

 Is it to show off?

What would a work of art mean to you if you'd never seen any sort of art before?

 Is the point of art to bind groups of people together? Provide a focus for worship? Let you step into someone’s else’s reality? Let you discover a deeper reality of your own?

 Because there always are deeper realities. Somewhere. Even if it's not in a world that's attached to this one in any sort of sane or normal way.

There are always deeper realities.

 And sometimes, as became clear during the course of writing the novel, not realising that can be absolutely fatal.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

How stupid were Neanderthals?

How stupid were Neanderthals?

Well, let’s start at the top. Neanderthals had bigger brains than you do. Quite a lot bigger brains, actually.

 Were these brains better than yours, though? Were Neanderthals, er, brainier?

 Scientists have made impressions of the inside of Neanderthal skulls so we can see what shape their brains were. Unfortunately this doesn’t actually prove anything very much, but that’s not stopped people coming up with theories.

 There are theories which say Neanderthals were too stupid to hunt; theories which say Neanderthals were too stupid to make shelters; theories which say Neanderthals were too stupid to wear clothes; theories which say Neanderthals were too stupid to make jokes; theories which say Neanderthals were too stupid to talk.

 In the end, for the purposes of writing SONG HUNTER, I decided to assume that Neanderthals would have been at least as clever as any currently existing non-human animal.

 And, you know, that’s pretty smart.

 Take wolves, for instance. There are wolves in India which send some members of their pack forward along a gorge to hide. Then the others will chivvy prey animals towards them so they can be ambushed.

 Just think how much organisation that requires. Good grief, humans have enough trouble arranging a night to meet up at the pub.

 So what do I think of the idea that Neanderthals were too stupid to hunt, and relied entirely on carrion for their food?

 Not a lot, quite honestly.

NEWSFLASH: Song Hunter is to be one of eight books available as part of the official World Book Day Young Adult app.

I;m afraid I don't know exactly what this means, yet, but it has to be good!


Monday 17 December 2012

Why didn’t Neanderthals get scurvy?

A prehistorical novelist (as I became when writing SONG HUNTER) needs to be able to smell the smoke wafting through her Neanderthal characters' encampment, and feel the frozen grains of meat crunching between their teeth.

But then any novelist always has to do a great deal of wondering.

So. Why didn’t Neanderthals get scurvy?

Now, every schoolboy knows that if you don’t eat your five a day you’ll get this nasty disease called scurvy which gives you spots, spongy gums, depression, suppurating wounds, loss of teeth, jaundice, fever, neuropathy - and finally a nasty touch of death.

Oh - and this is less well-known - the loathsome adjective scorbutic, as well.

Every schoolboy also knows that sailors used to drink lime juice to keep themselves healthy on long voyages. But what did people do in the Ice Age, when there was almost no vegetation apart from grass and a few shrubs?

Well, the short answer is that we don’t really know. However, there are people alive nowadays who have had to solve the same problem, and it was to them that I looked for an answer.

The Inuit people of the Arctic don’t get scurvy, and they don't have much green stuff growing where they live. How do they stay healthy?

Well, as it turns out, they do it by eating reindeer brains and seal liver. These contain quite a lot of vitamin C as long as you eat them raw.

So the good news is that there’s no need for any of us to eat cabbage ever again! No, indeed. We can eat raw reindeer brains instead!


...does anyone have an orange?


STOP PRESS: HERE is the first review of Song Hunter, in The Bookbag, by the terrific and dedicated critic Jill Murphy.