Written on 2004-02-17; Read the original post on LiveJournal
Know what your characters can and cannot eat. They can't eat foxes. Nor can they eat ravens and crows. Trapping either of those animals won't do your half-starved hunters much good, though they might be able to use the blood as bait for larger game.
As well, the taste of animals will be influenced by how wild they are and what they feed on. It's certainly possible to eat wild geese, but they will be far more gamy and tough than their tame counterparts, because they have to fly and flee predators while farmyard geese don't. Use of the muscles toughens them and makes them harder to bite into. And if an animal spends a lot of its time eating meat, it's much more likely to have a nasty flavor than an animal who spends its time eating honey, fruit, and other sweet foods.
Of course, this may not matter to characters lost in the wilderness with nothing else to eat, but it's worth noting the fact.
Know what kinds of crossbreeds you can and cannot have. It's possible to breed wolves with dogs, especially if a bitch dog in heat is tied near an area where wolves are known to frequent the woods. (If it was a female wolf and male dog, it's unlikely that the dog's owner would find the pups). If the character lives in the right area, he could also have a crossbreed of dog and coyote.
Foxes, however, cannot breed with dogs; they've simply evolved too far in a different direction. Nor can cats breeds with tigers or lions, or tame canaries with wild parrots. Animal genetics, without the help of magic, are far less forgiving than fantasy genetics tend to be.
Even with those animals that can produce crossbreeds, such as horses and donkeys, what you get depends on what you use. Mules are the product of a mating between a female horse and a male donkey. Male horses and female donkeys produce a weaker, more horse-like animal called a hinny. Both are sterile, as many live hybrids tend to be, and can't pass on their genes. (Consider that, too, when you're creating a hybrid: they may be hardier than their parents, but are unlikely to be as fertile).
With fantasy animals, the choice is probably up to you as author, but should depend on more than just whim. I've read several fantasies with flying unicorns, crossbreeds between unicorns and pegasi. Usually, though, unicorns are described as more delicate and less horse-like than pegasi, especially with such features as cloven hooves, goat beards, and leonine tails. The more different the two animals are in your world, the less likely they should be able to breed, and the even smaller the chance for producing fertile offspring.
Skinning an animal is a lot of time and work. Most fantasies with hunters either don't include the skinning scene or just fly right past it, leading to the impression that the deer politely wandered out of the woods, killed itself, skinned itself, and chopped itself up into venison.
Not the way it works, especially if your character wants the skin for whatever reason, such as to make clothes out of. The skinning will be long, difficult, slow, and extremely messy, even with a sharp knife. If it's a winter environment, the blood will start freezing eventually, and the hunter will have to have some means to keep himself warm while he's out there (or transportation, like a dog sledge, to get the deer back to his house). If it's an environment with other predators, such as wolves, the smell of the blood is likely to attract them, and crows and other carrion-eaters will also probably show up. The predators may try to drive the hunter away if they're bold enough, and attack him themselves if it's a lean winter. The carrion-eaters will be nuisances. Crows may work so that while the hunter is concentrating on getting one of them away, others will come in behind and steal bits of the meat.
If your hunter only wants food, he doesn't have to take as much care with the skin, but he still has to get it off somehow, separate the best meat from the rest of the body, secure it for transportation back to his house, and decide what to do with the parts he's not going to use. If he wants to save them for later use, he'll either have to bury them, if the ground's cold enough, or stick them up in a tree. If he leaves it for predators, this isn't a problem, but if he killed the deer close to his home, then the meat could attract creatures he doesn't want to deal with. (I always wanted to see a story where a careless hunter who cooked his meat out in the open wound up luring in a dragon).
Preparing animals for the pot isn't easy, either. There's that matter of having to cook the meat, which many fantasy characters apparently do by sticking the meat directly in the fire. If they have a spit, what's it made of? Who turns it so that the meat isn't charred on one side and raw on the other? If they're making stew (the great fantasy staple, according to Diana Wynne Jones), what else is it made from? Meat and water, without any herbs, would wear after a while.
If the animal's a bird, do not roast it whole or I will picture your heroes with mouthfuls of feathers and laugh and laugh. If it's a fish, gutting and cleaning it will take a while. Non-mammals don't walk out of the forest or air or water and lie down for people to do with them as they will, either.
Unless your character is not human, the animal's senses will likely be better. This means that, usually, stalking the deer or the rabbits is out of the question for an inexperienced hunter. Setting a snare for an animal as small as a rabbit will work better anyway.
For deer and larger game, your character can lie in wait. It's boring, it takes a long time, and it slows up the all-important Quest, but it's necessary if they don't have anything else to eat. Have them build a blind and lie down behind it, or wait above a game trail long enough that a deer or other game will pass beneath them. This can actually be beneficial; beyond adding a dose of reality to the food-getting, it will make it seem as though your characters aren't blithely walking through the wilderness along the equivalent of an interstate.
They can also try hunting animals near rivers, where the sound of the running water masks other noises, the smell gets in the way too, and the animals have to lower their heads to drink. Hunting near ponds and lakes is possible, but the characters will probably have to take a few more chances than near rivers, and if they overhunt it, then the game's likely to start going somewhere else.
Research a few of the more medieval-like ways of hunting. These include hunting with dogs, with beaters, and with hawks/falcons. Except for hounds, they're rarely used in fantasy, and then the dogs seem used more often to hunt down fleeing criminals. Prey animals are less clever than humans, so they're less likely to get away, but they can be dangerous in their own right when cornered. Stags have their antlers and their hooves. Boars have their tusks. Wolves have their teeth, and if they're running in packs and the hound pack is smaller, they can win. Tigers, lions, and other large predators are even more obviously dangerous. The hunters shouldn't win every time.
Hawks and falcons have their own whole subset of cares. They have to be trained to bring prey down and not just fly away, for one, and their handlers have to take care not to launch them at prey too large. (A gyrfalcon could probably take on most birds. A merlin, not so much. And if the hunter is launching a kestrel at a dove, he should be prepared to go home without dinner). Most of the time, they're hooded to prevent them from panicking, and they're jessed to keep them on their perches; those have to be loosed before they can fly. If they break feathers, those have to be imped back in. The only fantasy hawks and falcons that have any excuse for acting as tame as most of them do are the ones who are actually intelligent and telepathically bonded to the heroes, and even then they're usually too tame- willing to forget a meal when hungry to help out the hero, for example.
Beggars can't be choosers. It's going to be very hard for fantasy heroes to be as picky as modern characters are, especially when traveling through the wilderness. If they're not sure what animals or plants may be poisonous, and only know a few for sure that aren't, they'll have a rather boring diet. If they've never cooked before, they'll have to learn by trial and error. If the characters are vegetarian, but have never bothered to learn how to identify and eat wild plants, their choices are learning really quickly, eating meat, or starving for their principles. All too often, authors shelter and pamper their characters from making such choices, and that makes me snort. How can I expect vegetarian Princess Raven to stand up and face the angry murderous villain down when she doesn't ever have to eat anything but the sweetest of corn and tomatoes and stew, and never has to choose between going hungry or eating meat?
It's ridiculous, the animals who apparently inhabit some fantasy worlds. I'm inclined to agree with Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which notes gaping holes in Fantasyland's ecology. The few exceptions are mechanical-like horses, rabbits, crows, and sometimes deer and dogs.