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The Curved

The Official Harold Lamb Site




Writing Techniques

Lamb's historical accuracy played a great part in the success of both his non-fiction and fiction, and he brought vivid narrative to both biography and adventure yarn.

He had many other strengths as a writer of fiction, however, and it is these that are discussed here. The following comments for the most part address the years 1917-1936, when Lamb was writing the fiction for which he is best remembered.

Complex Characters

Because he was writing adventure fiction, Lamb's heroes had to have certain qualities. Most are skilled fighters and all are resourceful in one way or another. Many are quite intelligent, or team up with characters who are. Lamb preferred complex plots and to survive them his heroes had to live by their wits.

Barring these similarities, however, his lead characters are very different. Nur Mahal is an aristocratic Moslem woman, Khlit a gruff and elderly warrior, Sir Hugh a stubborn, unimagintive, and uncomprosiming knight; Khalil el Kadr a curious Arab who values a good horse more than his own skin; Abdul Dost a devout Moslem devoted to his country. And there are more, many more. Lamb could write convincingly from the viewpoint of a Christian, Moslem, agnostic, male, female, queen, or peasant without prejudice--or at least with only the prejudices natural to the characters. (Moslems of medieval times not by nature being inclined to care much for Crusaders, for instance.) In a time when racial intolerance was far more accepted and the women's sufferage movement still new, Lamb was perfectly comfortable treating foreigners and women on an equal footing with western white men. This is worth dwelling on for a moment, for pulp fiction is generally dismissed as being completely, unapologetically prejudiced. One has only to read Lamb to realize that this common wisdom is false, and in this he was not alone among Adventure writers.

In some adventure fiction, particularly early efforts, heroes are indestructable. Not so in Lamb's stories--they are wounded, scarred, crippled, and even killed. They suffer privation and loss, and we experience it with them. Only rarely does Lamb descend into melodrama.

Lamb's villains are complex as well. They are never just convenient foils for heroes--they are individuals with their own goals, strengths, and weaknesses. Often times they are not even evil in the standard sense, they merely seek goals that conflict with those of a story's protagonists.



Lamb was quite simply a master plotter. Where other writers tell different versions of the same story over and again, Lamb was constantly inventive. He is seldom predictable, and action and intrigue result naturally from the collision of motivations between heroes and adversaries.

That is not to say that he strove to fool the reader with surprise endings, or that he bent the story's direction to ridiculous lengths to keep the reader guessing--in the end the stories all make sense. A reader cannot know, though, at the start, whether all the heroes will live or die, whether the romance will flower, how the heroes will overcome their impossible circumstances, and so on.


Hand in hand with Lamb's historical accuracy was his penchant for detail. He bothered with little things that many authors take for granted or don't know about. His heroes loose their swords in their scabbards before drawing them. His Cossacks value horses, and so a reader learns what breeds were faster and what sort of maneuvers they might be trained to do. A sense of place and experience pervades his work. When Khalil dons the armor of his friend, Sir John, to help with a ruse in "The Longsword," we are transported there with him.

Khalil peered down uneasily. He did not know how many men might be awake down there in the gloom under the trees, and besides, he could see almost nothing at all because he had Sir John's heavy battle casque on his head. And his left arm was already weary with the weight of Sir John's long kite shield. From side to side he turned his head like an uneasy wolf, seeing only the red glimmer of campfires and the yellow points of stars overhead.

"May Allah confound this steel pot!" he swore.


Lamb is not without his flaws. He is not Shakespeare--while he is not clunky, his prose (until later in his career) hardly overflows with poetic metaphors and similies. He prefers concise descriptions that can occasionaly be vague. Readers may find certain of his stylistic elements old-fashioned, although he is far more approachable than most of his contemporaries. He wrote at a time when sexual conventions were far more stringent, so readers looking for heaving bosums and a lot of tumbling about between the sheets will have to read between the lines.

There are certain plots within Lamb that you will never find--he did write adventure fiction after all, where action and plot movement are paramount.

Adventure Fiction? Nothing Serious?

As for the relative worth of adventure fiction versus other sorts, I always like to remind those looking down their nose that the greatest writer in the English language was writing exciting tales for the common folk. Lamb and Shakespeare share this--they wrote for their work to be enjoyed.




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