Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The last barbarian

This coming Saturday, January 22, marks the one-hundred and fifth anniversary of the birth of my fellow Texan Robert E. Howard.  Howard, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age thirty, invented sword and sorcery fantasy almost single-handedly with characters such as Conan the Barbarian (more properly, the Cimmerian).  Even J.R.R. Tolkien, who had little sympathy for most of his contemporary writers, is rumored to have admitted that he “rather liked the Conan stories.”

During Howard’s lifetime, his neighbors in the West Texas town of Cross Plains considered him more of an eccentric than an innovator, looking askance at him for acting and when possible, dressing, in the style of his protagonists.  My favorite anecdote is of Howard and a friend who, eager to experience sword-fighting but finding fencing masters in short supply in small Texas towns during the Depression, bought a couple of U.S. Army surplus cavalry sabers.  The two young men started bashing away at each other, and in the encounter, the taller and heavier Howard slightly wounded his friend.  Also notable for his sensitivity to the pain and injuries of others, Howard threw down his saber and never touched one again.

Perhaps you don’t want to channel your inner barbarian by attacking your friends with edged weapons.  But have you considered using Howard’s other methods to get inside your characters’ heads?  I find the book Inner Drives by Pamela Jaye Smith (yet another Texan) useful for providing styles of speech, physical actions, clothing, foibles and even appropriate foods for many character archetypes.  Smith’s clients are often filmmakers, but anyone striving to portray character and motivation will find it helpful.  Robert E. Howard, I’m sure, would have loved it.

If this gives you any ideas for characters and stories to display them in, join my writing prompt contest.  Just list items in the comments section that you would like to include in a short story of any genre.  I’ll pick three – adding some of my own if needed – and post them on the January 26 blog, adding rules for a story contest using the prompts.  Winning prompts will be credited to their creators.  They’re your choice, but keep the sex and violence to about what you’d see in a PG-13 movie.

(For more information about Smith and her character theories, see her website, )


  1. It's wonderful to see an anecdote about Robert E. Howard that's actually taken from his real life, as opposed to the dozens of myths and misconceptions running about the man. Howard's life was interesting enough without having to mythologize him.

    Even J.R.R. Tolkien, who had little sympathy for most of his contemporary writers, is rumored to have admitted that he “rather liked the Conan stories.”

    There is substantial circumstantial evidence that Tolkien did read and enjoy Conan in addition to de Camp's statement: Tolkien had a copy of a collection containing a Conan story with handwritten notes, and Tom Shippey has said that Christopher Tolkien told him that he did indeed enjoy Robert E. Howard.

  2. Taranaich -- Thanks for the reference. I read things & then can't remember where I found them.

  3. We should not overlook Conan's Pizza on 29th Street in Austin. The place has wonderful pies, and it's fun to inspect the walls and tables that are a tribute to Conan the Barbarian.

  4. Robin -- A tour of all places REHish would be interesting.