Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Why I Write 7: To Reach (a Wider Audience)

All the reasons for writing that I have listed up to now apply equally to non-fiction and fiction. The primary reason that I prefer fiction as a medium, however, is that it opens the potential audience to a greater segment of the population.

I'm perfectly aware that I do not write books for the "general public" (whatever that is!). My books are not relevant to everyone and do not interest everyone. I do not expect "everyone" -- not even my closest friends and family -- to take an interest in, for example, Ancient Sparta or 13th century Cyprus. Why should they share these arcane interests simply because they happen to have been born in the same family or have worked with me somewhere in the world? My friends and family like me for the things we share, not necessarily the things I write about.

But there are thousands, even tens of thousands of people around the world who do share my interest in Sparta or the crusader states. They have studied these topics academically or as a hobby. They read every book they can get their hands on about these topics of interest -- fiction and non-fiction, film or documentary.  Through my writing, I connect with them, and they are my loyal readers and fans. They follow my blog and facebook entries on the historical background of my novels. They recommend other sources and novels. We belong to the same little club.

And then there are readers who aren't particularly interested in the subjects of my novels and would never pick up a non-fiction book about them to learn more, but are interested in  "a good read." These are people who wouldn't read a book "because it's set in 12th century Cyprus," but might read a book "full of lessons we'd be foolish to forget." (Chanticleer Review, The Last Crusader Kingdom) They may not be interested in the Third Crusade, but want to read "the Best Biography of 2017." (Envoy of Jerusalem) Readers who couldn't care less about Emperor Frederick II may yet be intrigued by a hero described by Kirkus Reviews as "like Shakespeare's portrayal of the young prince Hal." (Kirkus, Rebels against Tyranny)

In short, because fiction is about characters (people) as much (if not more) than about historical events, it appeals to a wider audience. I will never forget that when working on my dissertation about the German Resistance to Hitler, I had a conversation with Graefin Yorck, the widow of Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg. She confessed to me that "all she ever knew" about the American Civil War she had learned from Gone with the Wind. The same is true for millions of people who accept Shakespeare's Richard III as history or have learned about Thomas Cromwell from Hilary Mantel.

It is my hope that readers will come to share my interest in ancient Sparta and the crusader states through my books, but, if not, they will nevertheless enjoy the stories for themselves and want to read more from my pen.

Novels make great Christmas presents,and it's not too late to order!

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Friday, December 7, 2018

Why I Write 6 - To Critique

In reflecting on why I write, I have to confess that I use my books to express social criticism of the world as I see it. Indeed, I have often argued that all historical fiction says more (whether consciously or not) about the time in which it was written than the time it allegedly describes.

We can see this clearly in art and film. Here are some examples.

Compare, for example, these two depictions of Richard the Lionheart. 

To the left. an contemporary 12th century manuscript illustration.

To the right a painting by Henry Justice Ford, from the end of the 19th century.

Below two Hollywood versions. 

To the left, Richard and Eleanor in "The Lion in Winter" (1968) - which depicts Richard as homosexual.

To the right, Richard in Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood," (2010), where he is a bloodthirsty fool. 

Likewise, although all my novels are firmly grounded in historical fact and describe historical events and characters as authentically as possible, the choice of subject and my interpretation of events and characters is a result of my experience with the modern world. Just as critics of totalitarian systems from the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany often disguised their critique as science fiction, I use my historical novels to render commentary on events, trends, attitudes and behavior I see around me.

One example of this is my treatment of the Greek Orthodox opposition to Lusignan rule on the island of Cyprus at the end of the 12th century. The opposition is entirely understandable and justified, but like so many rebellions (including the one I was witnessing while writing the book in Ethiopia), the rebel actions often hurt innocent people -- indeed the most vulnerable and least powerful of people, rending their actions far less heroic than the cause would suggest. The Last Crusader Kingdom is a commentary not only on a 12th century event but also on rebellions, insurgency, and good governance generally.

Another example is A Boy of the Agoge. While this book describes year by year the activities of Spartan youth in the Spartan upbringing, in doing so it analyzes human nature and the things that motivate and de-motivate, it looks at group dynamics, leadership and the eternal process of "growing up."

I firmly believe in my motto that we learn about ourselves as human beings by studying the past. When I write about the past I explicitly examine issues and patterns of behavior that I have seen in my own life. Sometimes those are positive experiences that restore my faith in mankind. Sometimes, however, I feel it is important to highlight negative characteristics or behaviors that, unfortunately, keep repeating themselves through the ages. 

I am always delighted when my readers recognize the parallels to modern personalities and events! Don't forget it's only ten days to Christmas and books make great gifts!

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Friday, November 30, 2018

Why I Write 5: To Share

Sharing is akin to teaching, but I wanted to handle it separately in this series on "Why I Write" because I wanted to underline that not all an artist shares with the reader is knowledge. 

When writing non-fiction only the fact and analysis count, but when writing fiction emotions, intuition, and dreams count too. An novelist shares with the reader a wide spectrum of precious, personal feelings -- feelings about people, ideas and things.  

All my novels reflect my personal experience with life. This isn't about facts but about world-view -- my understanding of human nature, of politics, of marketing and parenting, of love and hate etc. etc. 

These subjective components are largely what make it possible for two authors to write about an identical subject and produce startlingly different works. Schiller's Joan of Arc is different from George Bernard Shaw's. Which one you like best will largely depend on your world view, which of the writers strikes a cord with your soul, not your mind. 

Teaching is all about passing on facts and knowledge, whereas sharing is about opening one's heart to the readers and showing them how how you see the world. Looked at another way, the information that is taught belongs in the realm of plot and setting; the philosophy and worldview that is shared belongs to the realm of theme and character development.  

Let me take an example from my most recent publication, Rebels against Tyranny. It is a fact that Emperor Frederick II held two of the Lord of Beirut's sons hostage for their father's good behavior. Beirut seized two royal castles anyway and used these to bargain a truce with the Emperor. When the Emperor released the hostages, including Beirut's sons, the latter had been evidently been badly mishandled. Those are the facts of the case, but there many -- all justifiable and plausible interpretations -- of what the characters felt about the events. Was Beirut callous and indifferent to what might befall his sons? Did they blame him -- or the Emperor for their maltreatment? And just how did two youths raised in luxury and privilege respond to abruptly being prisoners, and mishandled ones at that? I postulate, based not on evidence but intuition, that the experience would have had a profound impact on their character. 

Or another example, we know that the Lusignan's invited Franks who had lost their lands and livelihoods in the wake of the disaster at Hattin to re-settle on the Island of Cyprus. The historical record says nothing about how these immigrants were received by the native population.  My descriptions are based not on evidence and facts but on my experience of waves of immigration by peoples with a different faith (or race, ethnicity etc) in today's world. The discussions in The Last Crusader Kingdom about how to ease tensions between the groups are not founded in learned facts but in my personal exposure to contemporary events.  

Books make great Christmas presents! Share with someone you love new perspectives and worlds full of adventure by giving a book for Christmas.


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Friday, November 23, 2018

Why I Write 4 - To Educate

In the fourth in my series on "Why I Write," I reflect on my desire to teach.

In my experience, it is human nature to want pass on knowledge that we have gained. Certainly, when my research uncovers something particularly unexpected or significant, the first thing I want to do is tell others what I have learned. Since I like to research topics that are either controversial or less familiar to people, I often find myself turning up unexpected pieces of information. From the amount of complaints about historical novelist who bore readers by cramming into to many facts and details, I am not alone in my passion for teaching what I've learned!

The challenge, therefore, is to teach in a way that doesn't bore, irritate or distract the reader.  Since each reader's level of knowledge and tolerance for education in a fiction book differs, there is no single answer. What I attempt to do, however, is to replicate my own experience in that I create a context for learning that makes discovery of new facts a force that moves the story forward.

An excellent example of this is my first novel about ancient Sparta, The Olympic Charioteer.  Because this was my first novel about this topic, I had learned so much. Indeed, almost all that I knew about Sparta I had just learned and wanted to share. Rather than doing a data-dump, however, I chose to make my narrator a stranger coming to Sparta for the first time in his life and being shocked and confused by one thing after another.

The ability to step back and look at things from the outside is critical to teaching properly. No one who is completely familiar with a culture or period is able to see what makes it unusual. Here's an example. A very well-educated African, who traveled over-seas for the first time as an adult was amazed to discover that toilets did not need to smell. He had assumed that since shit smells, toilets had to smell, and it was a revelation to discover that if properly cleaned and flushed they need not do so. In short, no one who has grown up in the advanced industrial world is likely to comment on toilets that don't stink, while no one from Africa would comment on those that do.

The historical recorded is consistently distorted by this phenomenon, by the way. For example, because all boys who went to school in ancient Greece learned to read and write, none of the foreigners who described the Spartan school mentioned that the boys learned to read and write. That was obvious and didn't need to be said. Instead, they commented at length on the things that were unique about the Spartan educational system, e.g. the boys could be flogged, or elected their own leaders etc. Modern readers, not seeing reference to Spartan boys learning to read, often mistake this for proof the boys didn't learn when in fact it is only proof that the observer didn't think it was worthy of mention.

When teaching about the environment in which my novels are set I often find it useful, as in the case of The Olympic Charioteer, to step outside the perspective of my principle characters. This enables me to describe aspects of the setting that the principle characters would not naturally comment upon. In the latter Middle Ages, knights and nobles knew heraldry inside out, but if they described it as they would have done (or, a cross pate gules, for example), it is meaningless to us. Yet a peasant could describe the shield in terms we understand -- a yellow backdrop with a flared, red cross on it. 

The utility of changing perspectives from time to time in order to teach better (and incidentally add depth of perspective) is one of the reasons I abhor the modern fashion for writing everything, exclusively in the first person. There is truly nothing wrong with the prose of John Steinbeck or Leo Tolstoy. The obsession with not changing points of view is a modern fad that will hopefully die a natural death -- soon. 

Writers should be free to share their knowledge in whatever way is most effective and entertaining because it is only if the teaching is effective that readers will truly learn. 

Discover topics you've always been interested in through my novels -- and don't forget that books make great Christmas presents!

Visit http://www.helenapschrader.com/books.html to find the perfect gift for someone you know loves learning!


Why I Write 3 - To Question

This is the third installment in my series on why I write. 
Today I look an my desire to question.

Readers familiar with my portfolio of publications will probably have noticed that I am attracted to moderately controversial topics. What I mean is that I like writing about subjects that have a negative popular image. This is because, as a historian, I have often discovered a serious gap between scholarly evidence and popular perception.

When I see disharmony of this nature, I'm inspired to challenge the conventional views by presenting readers with alternative explanations and interpretations of events. My goal is to provoke my reader into questioning common cliches and conventional wisdom along with me.

It all started with the German Resistance to Hitler. Raised by my Danish mother on tales of the heroic Danish Resistance to Hitler it came as a shock to learn, while in graduate school, that there had been a German Resistance too. After all, the Danes (and French and Poles and Russians) had all been fighting an evil invader, a brutal and monstrous outsider. The German Resistance to Hitler, on the other hand, was fighting their own government, their own institutions and ultimately their fellow-citizens. Unlike the other resistance movements, the German resistance was not nationalist but moral in character. 

That got me thinking -- and questioning -- the common assumptions about Nazi Germany and the Germans of this period. This led me to nearly twenty years of research, a move to Germany and ultimately a PhD from the University of Hamburg. My dissertation was based on previously untapped primary sources and enabled me to reconstruct the role of one of the leading members of the conspiracy against Hitler. It was a ground-breaking biography which received first-rate reviews in every major German newspaper and sold out within three months. 

And all because I had started questioning what was being said not only by students but what was in the history books as well.

But after so many years focused on one of the most inhumane, corrupt, brutal and cynical periods of human history -- not to mention the dreadful fates of those few who futilely  attempted to oppose the forces of evil, I literally never wanted to see another book, film or article about the Nazi period. I needed a completely new focus for my research and writing.
I found my new "cause" in Ancient Sparta. Again, I discovered (more by chance than choice) that Spartan women enjoyed education and economic power at a time when Athenian (and most other Greek) women were treated like the women of the Taliban. What? How? Why was that? I asked. 

My questioning led me to discover a Sparta radically at odds with the common image fed us daily by Hollywood and even pseudo-history sources like The History Channel and Wikipedia. I was off again - questioning, learning and exploring. My travels took me to Sparta, and that encounter with a fertile, rich and beautiful place made my questions all the more incessant and pointed. I've shared the results of my questions in my website: http://spartareconsidered.com and my blog: http://spartareconsidered.blogspot.com and, of course, in my novels set in Ancient Sparta. 
More recently, as a result of my encounters with Islam, I started to question the politically correct version of the crusades. Nigeria in the age of Boko Haram, the systematic assaults on moderate Imams in Ethiopia, developments in Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and, yes, Afghanistan make the politically correct and popular portrayal of the Medieval Muslim world as a place of tolerance, benevolence and non-violence hard to fathom. I started questioning what I had learned at home and in school, and I came to my own conclusions -- based very much on the recorded facts and the writings of contemporaries, both Christian and Muslim. 
History is never black and white, it is always full of shades of grey. Humans are by nature complex and fallible. Good people sometimes make bad decisions or do unpleasant things; even predominantly bad people usually have redeeming features. Indisputable facts are rare because the historical record is almost always subjective, biased or just plain incomplete.  Narratives can be interpreted in conflicting, even contradictory ways. People, all people, have friends and enemies, and how we see them hundreds of years later will depend on whether the former or the later wrote the documents we discover. Precisely because history is so complex and nuanced, questioning is never wrong. 
That desire to question the conventional and familiar view of things is one of my driving reasons for writing historical fiction. I hope my books will make you question your views too -- and don't forget that books make great Christmas presents!
Many reviewers commented that my books on Leonidas have indeed made them "revolutionized" or "completely changed" their view and understanding of Sparta. 


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My biographical novel about Balian d'Ibelin in three parts won numerous literary awards, including "Best Biography 2017. 

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Why I Write 2 - To Explore

This is the second installment in my series on why I write. 
Today I look an my desire to explore.

Last week I argued that learning is an essential part of my writing, so essential that I choose to write in part out of a desire to learn more about something that attracts my curiosity. But writing fiction is not just about writing down what we learn, it is also about using imagination to go beyond the known -- to explore the unknown. 

Some of that exploration can be physical. Working on a creative-writing project is a great excuse to travel to places I've never been before.  I love travel, so this is an extra bonus. No sooner had I started my Jerusalem Trilogy than I announced to my husband that it was "essential" that we travel (at last!) to Jerusalem.

It helped that we were living in Ethiopia, just a four hour flight from Tel Aviv, and that there were daily pilgrimage flights. The trip enabled me to explore many sites important to my novels -- Jerusalem itself, Bethlehem, Ascalon, Jaffa, Acre, and Caesaria, Ibelin (modern Yavne), and the Battlefield of Hattin. The visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher alone, however, would have justified the trip, and enabled me to write a more authentic and convincing book.  I always wince when I read descriptions of the Holy Land, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, that have clearly been written by authors who have never been. 

Yet even more important than this physical exploration of places is the mental exploration of attitudes, emotions, motives and more. Research may reveal a simple fact such as, for example, the daughter of Baldwin d'Ibelin, Baron of Ramla and Mirabel, married the brother of Guy de Lusignan. History also tells us that Baldwin hated Guy so much that he preferred to surrender his entire inheritance and abandon his wife and son to go into exile in Antioch rather than do homage to Guy de Lusignan. But what about his daughter? How did she feel? Did she sympathize with her father? or her brother-in-law? Did her husband blame her for her father's dramatic and public condemnation of his brother? Was there marital strife and tension? As a novelist, it is my job to explore possibilities. To try them out and find the explanation that seems to ring most consistent with known facts -- and human nature.

Or to take another example,  the Knights Templar were driven from the island of Cyprus by outraged, Orthodox inhabitants. Richard the Lionheart then sold the island to the deposed and discredited Guy de Lusignan. Within two years he was dead. Yet just five years after Guy's arrival on Cyprus, a stable dynasty complete with a Latin clergy had been established on the island. How? 

Again, exploring historical possibilities by examining contemporary developments, analyzing personalities, identifying options, and developing a plausible theory is not only legitimate, it is great fun! There is nothing wrong with it -- as long as the results do not contradict known facts but rather build upon and extrapolate from them. 

For more on the thesis I developed regarding Cyprus see: https://schradershistoricalfiction.blogspot.com/2017/07/an-empty-island-waiting-to-welcome.html, -- or better yet read the novel that resulted from my "exploration!

And don't forget! -- books make great Christmas presents!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Why I Write Part I - To Learn

By the end of this year I will have retired from the U.S. Department of State and will be able to devote myself full-time to the business of writing. I thought that was a good moment to reflect on why I write -- and to share those thoughts with my loyal fans and followers. In this seven part series, I will explore the seven most important motivations that I feel: 1) to learn, 2) to explore, 3) to question, 4) to educate, 5) to share, 6) to critique, and 7) to reach a larger audience.

It would probably surprise no one if I said that I read in order to learn, but writing to learn likely strikes many as putting the cart before the horse. Surely one doesn't write about something unless they already know about it?

True. But that is precisely the point. 

If I am intrigued by a topic (period, culture, event etc.) enough to want to write about it, then I am setting myself on a course of study. In order to be able to write about this topic, I will have to do my research.

I'm not someone who can just dash off a short-story based on a casual thought or a snippet of information I've stumbled across. I envy those who can write like that! But I'm at heart a historian and I can't write even a short story without knowing about things like how people dressed, kept warm, what they ate, how they traveled, what their religious beliefs were likely to be etc. etc. 

If I'm going to write, I'm going to have to research all those things, so there's no point getting started unless I'm 1) willing to invest that effort and 2) going to use what I learn for more than one project. In other words, I may read a book simply because someone recommends it to me and I will be the richer for reading, but if I want to write about something I need to learn more. It is not enough to know about the events or even the people described, I must also understand the environment in which the events unfold. That requires learning about, for example, climate, geography, and contemporary architecture. I also need to describe, as I noted earlier, what people were likely to have eaten, how they dressed, the kind of entertainment they would have been able to enjoy, and the means of transport at their disposal. I need to understand social structures, legal norms, religious beliefs and the economics of the time. 

In other words, by choosing to write about a topic, I ensure that I thoroughly learn about it in much greater detail than would be the case if I simply read about it. 

You may also remember your parents or teachers saying that "to teach once is to learn twice." Writing is much the same. What I have read but not written about, I am far more likely to forget. What I have written about I learn with an intensity that stays with me for many years.

My current learning adventure is a deep-dive into the colorful and exiting world of 13th century Outremer. You can discover it with and through me in the first of my latest series. Don't forget, books make great Christmas presents!