After my post on the Art of Pastiche, the other day, I had a discussion with Matt John, freelance author and contributor to Monolith’s Conan board game, about pastiche writing and the flavor text in games. He had a snippet he wanted me to read over, if I had the time, to see if he’d captured the style of Robert E. Howard. He came very close. Here’s an example from his text: “The Commorian’s dying screams reverberated throughout the massive cavern chamber.” Not bad, I thought, but Howard would likely have phrased it as: “The Commorian’s death-scream echoed through the dank chamber.” REH, I’d long noticed, was fond of using constructions made from compounding two words — “death-scream” — almost like a Norse kenning. It speeds up the reading and lends a very “Northern Thing” style to his work. Yet, how much was purposeful and how much was mere instinct, I have no idea.
Matt was complimentary in his reply, and the whole exchange got me thinking. I’m asked, from time to time, how is it that I’m able to come ridiculously close to Howard’s literary voice. How do I do it? What research do I do, and what preparations do I make in order to sound very similar to REH in my pastiche tales and in my original fiction? From my conversation with Matt, I wondered if people might like to see how I do it, the nuts and bolts of how I create pastiche?
The answer on social media was a rather resounding “yes!” And thus, here we are . . .
For this exercise, I’m going to be using portions of my story, “Conan Unconquered”. There are two reasons for this. First: it’s built up from a section of REH’s OWN prose, the Yaralet Fragment; second: it highlights a technique Howard himself made use of — cannibalizing. Cannibalizing is where an author takes elements of unused or unsold stories and repurposes them to the tale at hand. In “Conan Unconquered”, I cannibalized an old, unsold story of mine.
With licensed fiction, the first steps often involve a flurry of emails and phone calls between the author and the IP holder or their representative. In this instance, Cabinet Entertainment asked my agent if I had time for a 3-5K word short story featuring Conan, to be bundled with a then-upcoming video game from Petroglyph Studios/Funcom. He asked me, I said “yessireebob!” (not an exaggeration, either; my agent’s name is Bob); we received the particulars, and I hammered out a plot sketch for the head of Cabinet, Fred Malmberg. I asked for, and received, permission to use the Yaralet Fragment (found in the Del Rey volume, The Coming of Conan of Cimmeria and also used by Lin Carter in the pastiche tale, “The Hand of Nergal”). With all that in hand, I sat down and went to work.
Let me stop a second and remind you, Gentle Reader, this is how I’ve been writing since the early 1980s. I learned at Robert E. Howard’s proverbial knee by typing and retyping his tales and slowly adding my own material. I purposely kept old dictionaries and thesauri so I might have access to more archaic language, and actively engaged in homage — styling my original work after his and including references and in-jokes back to his work. This was old-hat, to me. Difference was, now I had the Official Nod to use Conan, himself.
Before writing a single word, I re-read the Yaralet Fragment, the story “Black Colossus” — which was to serve as a framing story for my tale — and a few of my favorites, such as “Shadows in Zamboula”, “The Devil in Iron”, and “The People of the Black Circle”. I kept these by my side to refer back to, for inspiration and guidance. I added to this the index of names in Conan the Swordsman, The Hyborian Age essay, a copy of the Modiphius Conan RPG map, and two historical texts: Grant’s Guide to the Ancient World and Heckel’s Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander. These latter two provide historical parallels and are sources of names. Close at hand, if needed, I also have years of accumulated texts on weapons and warfare in the Ancient and Medieval worlds, biographies, encyclopedias, and a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus from 1959 or so. I have the Miller/Clark chronology pulled up on the Barbarian Keep website, plenty of tea brewed, and a dish of M&Ms at the ready.
“Conan Unconquered” takes place the night before the Battle of Shamla Pass in “Black Colossus”. Indeed, it is set within Howard’s own third chapter, at the section beginning:
All day the columns marched, through grassy rolling meadowlands, cut by small rivers, the terrain gradually beginning to slope upward. Ahead of them lay a range of low hills, sweeping in an unbroken rampart from east to west. They camped that night on the northern slopes of those hills, and hook-nosed, fiery-eyed men of the hill tribes came in scores to squat about the fires and repeat news that had come up out of the mysterious desert. — “Black Colossus”
I wedged my opening between the second and third sentences of that paragraph:
Darkness fell across the Kothian Hills, and the army of Khoraja stretched like a rough beast upon the nape of the earth. Fires by the hundreds sprang up, ruddy stars in a constellation of war; to them were drawn the fierce men of the hill-clans – sun-blackened rogues with bristling beards and hooked noses, their once-white khalats yellow with the dust of the road. They carried grave news from the deserts bordering Khoraja. — “Conan Unconquered”
Howard, you’ll note, is more succinct regarding the hill-men. He wanted that out of the way to get to the meat of his scene: Conan sitting guard over a frightened Yasmela, visited by an old Shemitish friend, the Thief of Shumir. Whereas the meat of my scene is Conan sitting a moment at a fire with Amalric, general of the mercenaries (and Conan’s former employer); someone asks Conan for a tale . . . he kicks back, tankard of ale in hand, and spins a yarn from his days as a mercenary in Corinthia, some five years previously.
Howard often began his Conan tales with a broad, cinematic opening. He’d set the scene, then narrow his view down to a character. I attempted the same thing, here, though on a smaller scale. I wanted it to fit inside the paragraph of “Black Colossus” and not look out of place. To achieve a Howard-like feel, I chose words and phrases for their poetic imagery, punch, and verve. Such as nape of the earth, ruddy stars in a constellation of war, and sun-blackened rogues. That, to me, is the language of REH: short, powerful, and evocative. Note that my opening paragraph is 73 words long; REH’s is 77 words long. That’s intentional on my part, as I was looking to mimic his pacing. Writing is like music, and the notes correspond to sentence and word length. Long, repetitive sentences are like a numbing dirge. Ideally, a piece should consist of short and long notes, rising and falling, short sentences and long sentences interspersed with singular notes — fragments and punctuation.
I can’t give away the whole story, of course. In Part Two, we’ll skip ahead a few pages and discuss the Yaralet Fragment, literary cannibalism, and how I went about reproducing Conan’s voice.
To be continued . . .