Born on September 9, 1927, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the son of Norman Duncan (an attorney) and Eva Pearl (Hall) Duncan, Robert Lipscomb Duncan was married to Wanda Scott, a writer, on April 12, 1949. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1950 and his master of arts degree in 1972, both from the University of Oklahoma. While attending school he began his career as a writer, but he also worked as a lecturer in television writing at the University of California, Irvine, between 1967 and 1968; a coordinator of a seminar in business aspects of the arts from 1969 to 1970; and a writer-in-residence at Chapman College in Orange, California. Teaching professional writing part-time at various universities gave Duncan the satisfaction of passing on practical advice about the craft and about marketing, though he decided that writing per se and a love of language and order cannot be taught. From 1972 to 1980, he was an associate professor of journalism at the University of Oklahoma School of Professional Writing.
Duncan said that he knew he wanted to be a novelist and nothing else when he read Ellery Queen at the age of twelve and that realizing that dream allowed him to indulge his curiosity about the world and to travel extensively. He went on book promotion tours in New Zealand and Australia, visited the South Pacific, and did research in Denpasar, Bali; Jakarta; Bangkok; and Moscow. He thought of himself as more an “international writer than an American” and used his writings “as a way of affirming the conviction that individual belief, translated into action, can be effective in solving some of the problems of the world which, on first glance, seem beyond solution.” His method was first to engage in travel and research, then to allow a gestation period for sorting out his impressions. He found that, given a bit of time, characters and situations begin to form; he got glimpses of scenes and flashes of dialogue until these nebulous elements finally coalesced into a solid story. Sometimes he toyed with an idea for more than forty years, as he did with China Dawn (1988).