Monday, February 15, 2010

Harold Lamb

If you want to learn how to write short stories, you should read Harold Lamb. Never heard of him? He was one of the top pulp magazine writers of the 1920s and he went on to be well known for his historical novels, biographies and volumes of history. He also became an accomplished screen writer for Hollywood.
But at the moment I'm talking about Lamb's skill as a writer of short fiction. He's probably best known for his Cossack stories. Those are the ones everyone seems to remember, but Lamb also wrote a ton of stories about the Crusades. I've been reading a volume of his Crusader tales, Swords From the West, collected and edited by my pal Howard Andrew Jones. This hefty book contains everything from novellas to short stories that are barely ten pages long. Reading through I've been amazed at Lamb's ability to get just enough detail into a short to make it work, without feeling overburdened by historical information and at his skill at plotting quick paced adventures.
But what really makes these stories work 90 or so years later is Lamb's skill at characterization. If you read a lot of short stories, and particularly if you write them, you know how difficult it can be to get the reader to feel for the characters in a short. It's much easier in a novel, where you have time to paint a portrait of a character in words. In a short, all you have time for is a quick sketch, and if you don't capture the character in a few strokes the reader isn't likely to care about him or her. Lamb was a master at this. I'll use his story Lionheart, a favorite from Swords From the West as an example.
The story begins in the point of view of a priest named Brother Clement. Within a paragraph you have a quick sketch of the priest. His worries and fears. A few sentences later you learn a bit more about his care for his flock as the young serf girl Marie hurries by on her way to meet her lover. A quick conversation shows Clement's affection and concern for the girl who has 'The White Death'. (Tuberculosis)
Just as you're warming to Clement, Lamb switches to Marie's pov and you quickly learn a bit about the girl. Despite her sickness she is full of life and spirit and she is wildly in love with her boyfriend, Peter. To calm Brother Clement, Marie says a prayer for her aunt and family and Peter and as an afterthought she adds, "and make me well -amen!" Within a few sentences, Lamb has made the reader care about and perhaps even admire Marie. Later, when things go bad, you'll care what happens to her.
The rest of the characters(Including Richard the Lionhearted himself)in the story are just as well drawn. Explained like this, it sounds easy, but trust me, it's not, and Lamb does this very same bit of magic in story after story. He makes you see his characters and believe in them. If you've read many pulp magazines you know that this level of characterization wasn't the norm. It's one of the things that put Lamb at the head of the pack. Thing is, though, this never gets in the way of the action and adventure. Lamb was a favorite of Robert E. Howard's and I think most REH fans would enjoy his work. I know many already do.
The amazing thing is, as good as Lamb is, most of these stories haven't been reprinted since their original publications. Kudos to Howard Andrew Jones for getting Harold Lamb back into print for those of us who love adventure and a well told tale.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Oh sweet! I am really struggling with a short story right now so I'd decided it was time to go out and read some good ones to help me with structure (the story just keeps getting longer and longer and I really want it to be about 7500 words). These sound like something I'll really enjoy even while getting some good examples.