THE HUNTER RETURNS owes its genesis to the fact that Jim Kjelgaard's estate was represented by a very clever agent, Eleanor Wood. Jim Baen and I both were big fans of Kjelgaard's YA (Young Adult) novels when we were growing up, but the one that had the greatest impact on Jim was Fire-Hunter, which I hadn't read. For Jim it was one of the two books which he believes were the most formative on him. (The other was Against the Fall of Night, by the way.)
Eleanor learned this--and offered the book to Jim for reprint. He took it, though Fire-Hunter only marginally fits within an SF line: the novel describes the adventures of Hawk, a Paleolithic youth, who's expelled from his tribe for innovation. Hawk not only survives but flourishes; at the conclusion, the wretched remnants of his former tribe beg to be allowed to join him.
After Jim took Fire-Hunter, he called me. A YA in 1951 was 40,000 words. That wasn't long enough to publish as a mass-market paperback in 1991. Jim asked me to bulk the book up to 65K. I agreed because it sounded interesting; because I too had loved Kjelgaard; and because Jim's a very good friend.
Fire-Hunter has an episodic structure. After Hawk is expelled (for inventing the atlatl, the spear-thrower), he goes from strength to strength by taming dogs, inventing the bow and arrow, moving into a cave instead of living a nomadic life, inventing arrow poison, inventing pottery--well, you get the idea.
Jim suggested that I expand the novel by following the adventures of Hawk's tribe after they kicked him out. The new chapters could be fitted between the originals which describe Hawk's repeated triumphs. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I executed it. That's when things got interesting. Kjelgaard gives the size of the tribe when Hawk leaves it: over thirty, as I recall. When the starving survivors meet Hawk again, there are only seven of them left. I had seven chapters to reduce the numbers by three quarters. That isn't as easy as it might seem, but I'm a professional.
The trick was to avoid repetition; that is, I didn't want to have dire wolves kill people in more than one chapter. Also, I didn't want to use the animals over which Hawk himself was triumphing. Kjelgaard had taken most of the good ones: mammoths, sabertooth tigers, cave bears, and poisonous snakes.
Well, I still had dire wolves, heavy-bodied relatives of the timber wolf, which I've always liked. My tribesmen try to steal spears and fall into conflict with another tribe, but this was completely different from the fashion in which Hawk routs human invaders. And I used a herd of the great Imperial Bison, a species which became extinct before Europeans reached North America. (That was a good chapter; you can get rid of lots of spear-carriers, so to speak, in a bison stampede.)
After that.... A mixed herd of horses and camels aren't the most exciting animals on their own, but I used them as a lead-in to the conflict with another tribe. I thought of hyenas--really scary beasts--but it turns out that the only hyena in ancient North America was a cursorial hunter similar in habits to the cheetah. There was a canid specialized for crunching bones, though, so I used a group of them in one of the book's more grisly scenes.
I still needed to kill more people. This is where the chapters whose working titles were The Giant Beaver of Death and The Marmot of Doom came in. The first was a very large Pleistocene beaver, a grazer rather than a bark eater, which got rid of a hunter for me. The marmot was just that, a little furry critter that lives in a hole in the ground, but it in its way finished whittling the tribe down to the size I needed for the reunion with Hawk. (Come to think, there were lots of grisly scenes in my chapters.)
I sent the material in, feeling I'd done a good job on a project that was trickier than I'd assumed when I took it on. I immediately got a horrified call from Jim. Jim doesn't insist on books being all sweetness and light, but jeepers! This was one of the most depressing thing he could remember ever reading!
I reminded him that my chapters were to be interfiled with Kjelgaard's, so that the person who bought the new book wasn't going to read straight through 25,000 words of men, women, and children dying horribly. Jim knew that, of course, but my text had shocked the fact out of his mind. I think says something about the strength, if nothing else, of what I'd written.
There were two remaining problems, a new title (since the book was substantially different from the original) and a cover. About that time Jim saw a show of work by Charles R Knight, the wonderful Turn-of-the-Century artist of prehistoric life. Among the paintings was a Paleo-Indian coming back to the cave to find his mate under the claws of a lion. It was perfect for the new book, so Jim bought reprint rights to it.
The painting's title was The Hunter Returns. I thought for a moment and suggested that we use it for the title of the expanded novel. That's what we did.
Incidentally, two books in 1991 used Knight's work on their covers. The other was Wonderful Life, Stephen J Gould's discussion of the Burgess Shale and the beginnings of life on Earth.
The Hunter Returns didn't make me a lot of money in exchange for the amount of research it required; but heck, the research was fun and it's not like I was missing meals as a result of poverty. I like to do different things in my writing. This project was not only different, it was a lot of fun.