Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fact, Fiction, and Literary License in Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction is a unique genre which places additional demands on a serious novelist. In addition to getting the characters, plot and writing right – as a writer must do regardless of genre – an historical novelist must also ensure that the historical setting of the novel is portrayed accurately and the behavior of characters is consistent with the period in which they are supposed to live. A good work of historical fiction is not only a good read that provokes emotions and stimulates thought, it also educates the reader painlessly about the past. A good historical novel can achieve more than a good history book because it can do more than describe and explain what happened at a particular period; it can make the past comprehensible on a human level.

In order to achieve this goal, however, a historical novelist must do a great deal more than just get “the facts” right. Facts such as the dates on which key historical events occurred, the names and titles of significant historical figures, and the political geography of the venue of the novel are at best the historical framework. Alone they do almost nothing to make a historical novel work.

Likewise, costumes alone do not make convincing characters in a historical novel. Costumes without appropriate character behavior and attitude is rather like putting an evening gown on a six-year-old or a police uniform on a football hooligan. You can dress people up any which way, but if they don’t act, talk and (in a novel) think like the person they are dressed up to portray, they will not convince anyone. This is why a good historical novelist will spend at least as much time researching social and intellectual history as learning about contemporary events and technology.

It always surprises me when I read works of historical fiction where the exact shape and operation of a telephone or the mechanisms for cutting and fitting stone in a pre-industrial age are described in eye-crossing detail but the characters swagger around talking and acting like 21st century Americans. In too many books, the exact cut of a dress down to the kind of seams and buttons are meticulously correct, but the woman inside might as well be chewing gum and wearing jeans for all her behavior fits the costume into which she has been squished.

Good historical fiction requires understanding and describing not just a different external environment, but a different internal environment as well. A good historical novel will have characters, who behave in ways consistent with the society in which they are supposed to have lived, and who share the fundamental values and mores of those societies – even or especially when their rebellion against these is the essential point of the novel.

The art of good historical fiction, however, does not end there. Getting it all “right” is not enough, if the reader is not also pulled into the period and engaged by the characters sufficiently to empathize with their fate. What this means in practice, is that the novelist must be careful not to alienate the reader by the use of antiquated or incomprehensible language, or spend so much time describing the historical context that the reader loses interest in the plot.

To maintain the pace, tension and emotional involvement, a novelist may be justified in modest modifications of the historical record. It is perfectly legitimate, for example, to condense events into a shorter space of time, or contrive means by which fictional characters can interact with historical ones. The art is to make only changes that do not violate the overall course of history or shatter the sense of authenticity. Authenticity – not absolute accuracy – is the measure by which an historical novel can best be judged.

In the New Year (2011), I will use this blog to look a series of specific factors that require careful handling when writing historical fiction. Using examples from my own novels I will look at: 1) architecture, 2) dress and grooming, 3) sex and sexual relations, 4) social structures/class, 4) technology, 5) distance, time and transportation, and possible one or two more factors – not necessarily in that order. As always, I welcome your comments and feed-back.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sweet and Savory: Leaning to Enjoy the Re-Writing

Writing the scene of a novel for the first time is like eating chocolate ice cream drenched in Bailey’s. It is sweet and slightly intoxicating. There is excitement at the start, satisfaction as one writes and a sense of being sated and self-satisfied at the end. There are few things in life that are so pleasurable.

But writing a scene for the first time is like starting with desert. The main course and appetizer are still to come. Sometimes I think that the trick to becoming a really good writer is to learn to enjoy these other “courses” as much as the “desert.”

The most substantial “course” in the process of writing a novel is the process of re-working a scene until it says exactly what you want it to say. This is a matter of taking that raw, unrefined resource that gushed out on the page in a rush of inspiration and turning it into a coherent and effective piece of writing.

This entails questioning the beginning and the end. Did it start at the right point in time? With the right voice? From the right perspective? And did it end exactly where you wanted it to? Delivering the message the scene was intended to deliver? Does it leave the reader with a reason to keep on reading?

This stage of the writing process also entails questioning the length, pace, tone, and voice of the scene. Length and pace are often intimately related, but not necessarily. A fast-paced action piece can afford to be longer than something that is slow and reflective and not designed to keep the reader breathless.

Ultimately, this is the stage of writing when the merit of the entire creation must be questioned. The product must be examined for its utility, relevance and contribution to the novel as a whole. Sometimes a rush of inspiration, no matter how “delicious” when writing, just doesn’t contribute anything to the complete novel, i.e. it might be pleasant but irrelevant. In the worst case, a scene that is brilliant in itself might still be poison for a novel as a whole, taking it to a dead-end or corrupting its purpose or integrity.

And finally there is the “appetizer.” This is the state in the writing process in which each individual sentence should be re-examined and polished. In this phase, dialogue needs to be cross-checked for authenticity of voice. If the character is a child, words nor phrases that would not be part of a child’s vocabulary must be replaced by simpler forms of speech. The same goes for a character that is uneducated. If the character is supposed to speak dialect, this is when each utterance must be checked for its authenticity. Finally, the speech of each character must be checked for its internal consistency. If a character is described as reticent and incommunicative, then voluminous flowery speeches are a contradiction and must be rigorously replaced by short, pithy utterances etc. etc.

When that is done it is time to look at the descriptive text. Here the objective is to tighten the text, eliminating repetitious information, words and phrases. In addition, this is when each word can be examined for its utility. Is it really necessary? Is it the right word? Now is the time to consider alternative verbs, adverbs and adjectives, watching particularly for excessive use of passive voice and banal modifiers or the repetitious use of the same words.

Only when the author has personally questioned and evaluated each sentence and word, is a work of fiction ready for an editor. In fact, by now, the work is in desperate need of an editor because no author can work over a manuscript repeatedly and still see it clearly. So when this stage is reached, it is time for an outside expert – and to get some perspective on the entire project by putting it aside and working on something else entirely. The meal, for now, is over, but you will probably have to “snack” on the novel several times again in the course of getting it ready for the publisher. This of this like savoring the left-overs from Thanksgiving dinner weeks after the event….
















Saturday, December 11, 2010

Reader Survey: Help Choose a Cover for "Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer"

As I work on the re-write of the second book in my Leonidas trilogy, I have reached the stage where I am trying to select the best cover design for “A Peerless Peer.”

This book covers Leonidas’ life from the age of 21 to 35, the period in which he was a Spartan citizen but not yet a king. It is the book in which Gorgo first plays a significant role as she grows up from a child of 6 to become a young woman, wife and mother at 20. In this book, Leonidas marries and has children, but he also goes to war more than once.

Compared to the third book in the trilogy that will describe Leonidas’ rise to power, his reign and follow him to Thermopylae, this book is more focused on domestic affairs and domestic policy. Hence I have consciously opted for an image that does not invoke warriors and war. Also, because Gorgo plays such an important part, I wanted the image of a woman on the cover as well.

To the right are two cover designs that fullfill my personal criteria, and I would like your opinon of which you think is best. Which of these covers is more likely to attract readers? Which is most appealing? Please take a moment to take part in the survey and give me your opinion.

A year from now you could then have the fun of holding the finished product in your hands and say “I helped choose this cover.” Or, “I liked the other better - most people must have bad taste!” Either way, I hope you’ll enjoy putting in your two-cents worth and giving me your opinion.

Thank you for your time!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mantiklos, Meander and Maron

Maybe I should be worried that all three of my favorite secondary characters in the Leonidas Trilogy have names beginning with “M.” It is an odd coincidence at some level because each came to me at widely different times in the process of writing the Trilogy. There were many other characters with names starting with other letters that took their place in the novels between the emergences of these three young men. And Mantiklos, Meander and Maron are assuredly very different people. But when I sat down to compose a blog entry on characters, these three young men came immediately to mind because all are excellent examples of minor characters, whose role in the Trilogy, are “marginal” and yet each of whom imposed their will upon me with astonishing strength and clarity.

When writing a biographical novel, an author has certain events that need to be described. The real historical character is known to have done certain things at certain times and there is no way to get around describing these. This simple necessity forces the biographical novelist to “create” characters that play the roles assigned to them by history. I knew from the start, for example, that I could not write about Leonidas without also writing about his three brothers, his wife, and the men he died with.

In practice, this meant that I sometimes had to sit down and focus my conscious thoughts upon what the known historical facts were andwhat were likely inter-relationships were between the characters appearing in the novel. Based on these considerations, I then had to “construct” a character. Let me take as an example Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes. According to Herodotus, Cleomenes had an erratic career of trying, usually unsuccessfully, to interfere in the affairs of other Greek cities. He also bribed the oracle of Delphi in his intrigues against his co-monarch Demaratus, and eventually went so mad that he committed suicide. A colorful character to say the least! But history is entirely silent on his relationship to Leonidas. Leonidas’ elder brother Dorieus bitterly refused to accept Cleomenes as his king, preferring voluntary exile to being a subject of Cleomenes. But Leonidas married Cleomenes’ daughter – and became his successor. I decided, quite consciously, that my Leonidas would not share Dorieus’ hatred of Cleomenes, but have a more “objective” view which would enable me as a writer to show Cleomenes’ historical role from a more-or-less unbiased point of view. Then I had to try to imagine what this highly complex man might have been like on a personal level. I had to work from the facts, and from the facts imagine the character.

But Mantiklos, Meander and Maron are not historical characters. They did not exist, and a biography of Leonidas would not be in any way deficient without them. And yet! My biographical novel would be much, much poorer without them because these three young men have stories so compelling that they forced their way into my narrative by sheer strength of character.

Mantiklos is Messenian. He butted his way into Leonidas’ life with every intention of teaching the young Agiad all about Messenia – from the Messenian perspective. Because of his impudence, Leonidas learns that one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. And he learns that history looks different depending on who tells it. These are important lessons for him – and the reader.

Meander is a disenfranchised Spartiate. Because his father’s marginal estate has become too poor to support his school fees, Meander must leave school and can never become a citizen. To prevent his young brother suffering the same fate, he offers to work for Leonidas as a slave. Meander thus forces Leonidas to face the extent to which poorer Spartiates are being disenfranchised. Because Leonidas finds Meander’s fate unacceptable, Meander becomes the catalyst for Leonidas moving beyond just being a “Peerless Peer” and starting to seek change in Spartan society. Meander sparks Leonidas’ ambition.

Maron is an eirene of limited intelligence but unlimited heart, who is driven to attempt suicide by the injustice of the Headmaster in the agoge. This incident forces Leonidas to move beyond ambition. After the incident with Maron, Leonidas is prepared not only to work for change in Sparta, but determined to fight the reactionary, bigoted forces that threaten his interpretation of Spartan virtues. Maron is the man, who gives Leonidas the ruthlessness he needs to seize power when the time comes.

Thus Mantiklos, Meander and Maron are all vitally important characters in my Leonidas Trilogy and I am grateful to each of them for telling me their story and enabling me to work them into Leonidas’ biography.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Who Does the Talking? The Essense of Dialogue

Dialogue more than any other tool in a writer’s tool chest can bring a character to life. A picture, as we know, is worth a thousand words, but most readers don’t want to read a thousand-word description of a character, not nowadays anyways. Plot can tell us about people, but only in an opaque fashion. When a character does something we know what he/she has done, but – unless we are told more – we do not know why or how they felt about what they did. We can, as writers, tell the reader why a character does something or what they were thinking and feeling, but when we do the talking, we impose ourselves between the reader and the character. We become filters – inevitably distorting and refracting. Dialogue, in contrast, allows the characters to speak for themselves about their motives and emotions and this is why I like to use it as much as possible. Mature characters are much better at speaking for themselves than I am at interpreting them for the reader!

Writing good dialogue, therefore, entails the writer removing himself as far as possible from the entire process – like a stenographer in a courtroom. The way I see it, the writer is there to record what the characters say in a certain situation, not to put words into their mouths. I have always found the best dialogue develops when I simply sit back and listen to the inner voices as I move from one character to the other. I write down what I hear in my inner ear without pause or reflection and write until everything has been said.

An example of this absolutely uncommented and so “pure” dialogue is the dialogue I frequently used in my novel Chasing the Wind when recording the dialogue between fighter pilots. Wing Commander Bob Doe, an RAF fighter pilot and veteran of the Battle of Britain, wrote me that Chasing the Wind was the best book he had ever read about the Battle of Britain. He would never have given me this compliment – the highest accolade a writer of historical fiction can receive – if I had failed to get the tone of conversation right. By leaving the dialogue completely uncommented, as if one was simply hearing it, I recreated the world Wg/Cdr Doe remembered.

Here is an excerpt to illustrate what I mean:

“Dawn Patrol.”
“Isn’t that the name of a flick?”
“With David Niven, I think.”
“I don’t think it had a very good ending.”
“Not for everyone.”

Of course, just like real people, characters sometimes say things they don’t mean or get carried away with the sound of their own voices. They may regret some things they say or simply think of better ways to express themselves. So this is where the re-working and revisions come in. A conversation is not necessarily perfect the first time it is recorded, but it will be much more authentic than if the writer from the start tries to direct it.

In addition, because characters also have facial and vocal expressions and often gesture while they speak (body language), the author must provide contextual descriptions. The same phrase, even a single word, can vary in meaning depending on how it is said. Take a single word like, for example, “great!” That could express enthusiastic praise – or disgust. The same goes for almost everything a character might say. Thus whenever it adds to the understanding of situation, the character, or the exchange between two characters, the author should - sparingly - describe the tone of voice, emotions and atmospherics behind the speech.

Here’s example from The Olympic Charioteer:

“Hypathea says you are well enough for light work. Do you agree?”
The slave shrugged.
“What can you do?”
The slave stared at him with narrowed, resentful, hostile eyes.
“I asked you a question,” Antyllus reminded him in a firm but not sharp voice.
“I can cut and set stone, work a crane, lug and carry and haul.”
“I know. You were a quarry slave. But you weren’t that all your life, were you?” This was stating the obvious. A child is not strong enough to be a quarry slave.
The slave did not bother to answer a question that he evidently considered rhetorical.
Antyllus was forced to put the question another way. “What were you before you became a quarry slave, Philip?” He intentionally made use of the name the slave had been given – presumably by a master prior to the quarries – hoping to remind him a better time.
“I built roads.”
The foreman had mentioned that, Antyllus remembered now. “And before that?”
Silence.
“Before that, Philip?” Antyllus insisted.
“I’m not going to tell you.”
“I could have you flogged.”
“You can kill me, if you like.”
They stared at one another, and Antyllus knew he had been trumped.

Finally, early on in a novel or with secondary and peripheral characters, it may be necessary to provide additional information about the speakers themselves. Here’s another example from Chasing the Wind:

“Excuse me, sir, but is it true that you started your career in the RAF as an apprentice?”
MacLeod started slightly, and then growled back, “That’s right, laddie. I joined at age 14, trained three years at Halton and worked two years as a signaler before I was allowed to start flying training.”
“Would you mind telling me, sir, how I might best go about following in your footsteps, so to speak?”
“You can’t, laddie. Your feet are too small,” MacLeod answered with a contemptuous jerk of his head in the direction of the little rigger’s feet. MacLeod was wearing flying boots, which made his feet all the bigger at the moment.
Appleby wasn’t put off for a moment. You don’t survive growing up in the East End of London if you are thin-skinned, and Appleby’s Dad had abandoned his Mum when Appleby was 7. He’d been the middle child, left very much to himself, and so used to remarks of this kind. He grinned. “You’ve got it backward, sir. I can tread in your prints, but not you in mine.”

A finished dialogue is therefore much more than the raw text provided in the first “stenographic” recording of what the characters want to say, but in no other component of a novel is the character so powerful. I think this is why I tend to like writing dialogue more than description—as my readers probably can tell!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Changing Points of View: the Art of Perspective

A great deal has been written about “voice” and the use of the first person or an omnipotent narrator. Most discussions I have seen focus on the challenges of the first person, but as someone who works exclusively in the third person, I wanted in this essay to delve deeper into the challenge presented by the unlimited freedom this perspective offers.

The fact is, even if you can write a scene from any perspective you choose, not all perspectives are equally effective. This is not to say that there is any right or wrong way of looking at a particular scene, but rather that an author needs to be conscious of the impact perspective has and then be both creative and disciplined in the selection of the point of view selected.

Let me give some examples of what I mean. In Book II of the Leonidas Trilogy, the legendary encounter between Gorgo, Leonidas’ future wife, and the Ionian tyrant Aristagoras will be described. According the ancient historian Herodotus, Aristagoras came to Sparta seeking aid for the Ionian revolt against Persia in ca. 500 BC. He brought with him a map of the world etched in metal. In a private interview with the Spartan King Cleomenes, Aristagoras first stressed that the subjugation of the Ionian Greek cities by Persia was a shame to all Greece and most especially Sparta. Then he told the Spartan king that the Persians had poor weapons and no armor, making them easy to defeat and finally he showed Cleomenes this map and used it to describe the vast riches of the Persian Empire – that he suggested make Cleomenes “as rich as Zeus” if he just took the Spartan army across the Aegean to invade and defeat the Persian Empire. The proposal at first intrigued Cleomenes – until he learned that the Spartan army would have to march for three months from the Aegean coast just to reach the Persian capital. Shocked by this fact, Cleomenes angrily ordered Aristagoras to leave Sparta at once. Aristagoras, however, refused to take no for an answer. He followed Cleomenes with an olive branch, seeing that Cleomenes young daughter Gorgo was with her father, he told Cleomenes to send her away. Cleomenes refused. So Aristagoras was forced to speak in from of her. He now offered Cleomenes ever larger sums of money if the Spartan King would lead Sparta against Persia. As the sums got larger and larger, Gorgo apparently fearing that her father was weakening and tempted, spoke up to say: “Father, you better send this stranger away or he will corrupt you.”

Obviously, this scene is vitally important to any book about Leonidas and Gorgo as it tells the reader a great deal about the impending conflict with Persia, which will ultimately define Leonidas’ place in history. It tells us a great deal about his half-brother, predecessor and future father-in-law, Cleomenes at well, notably that he was thought susceptible to bribery. It tells us the important fact about Spartan society, namely that girl children were allowed to speak in the presence of their parents and even visiting males. And it tells us about Gorgo, her intelligence, courage and incorruptibility.

The scene can be told from four perspectives: Aristagoras’, Cleomenes’, Gorgo’s or from all three sides, switching from one to the other. Switching perspectives weakens the reader’s identification with any one character and makes the entire picture murkier, thus I almost always prefer to have only a single perspective for each discrete scene.

In this scene, Gorgo is the most important character of the three in the book; this means her perspective is most important for the book as a whole. This is, after all, her story, and there is much to be said for seeing this key event in her life from her point of view. However, she comes into the scene late. If I write the scene from her perspective, the reader (like Gorgo) can only come in upon the tail end of the conversation and try to piece together what has gone before. For the sake of showing more about the background of the Ionian revolt, it is desirableto show the entire conversation.

This leaves me with the option of writing the scene from Cleomenes’ point of view or Aristagoras’. Cleomenes is a secondary but important character in the novel as a whole. Indeed, he plays an important part in all three books of the Trilogy. Aristagoras, in contrast, only enters the novel once, in this one scene. Writing the scene from Cleomenes’ point of view therefore has a number of advantages. It enables me to give the reader more insight on this complex character, who is both Leonidas’ brother and Gorgo’s father. His behavior, most importantly his creeping mental illness, has a significant impact on Leonidas’ rise to power. But this scene occurs roughly 20 years before his dramatic suicide – before any signs of his madness were evident to observers. Furthermore, this particular scene offers no insight on his illness, only suggests he might have been corruptible – or not. After all, Gorgo might have spoken up completely unnecessarily.

Writing the scene from the perspective of Aristagoras offers a number of key advantages as well. Because he is a “stranger,” a foreigner, he is unfamiliar with Spartan customs and culture. Seeing the scene through his eyes is an opportunity to make the reader step back and remember how odd Sparta was – particularly with respect to the freedom given to girls. Only from Aristagoras’ perspective is Gorgo’s behavior truly shocking – indeed revolting and repulsive. From her own – or her father’s – perspective, it might have been a bit precocious or cheeky, but not really abhorrent. Furthermore, by seeing the scene from Aristagoras’ perspective, we can learn more about the revolt against Ionia, because he is the only one of the three in this scene, who knows much about it. Thus, despite being a fleeting character in the context of the Trilogy, this scene can be presented most effectively through his eyes.

For each and every scene in a novel, similar decisions must be made. I have often found it useful to write a particular scene from two or more perspectives, to test which works best. When rewriting, the first thing I do when I feel a scene does not work as well as I wanted, is to see if changing the perspective provides the added power I am looking for.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Picking a Topic for a Novel

People often suggest topics for novels to me. They say: “You know, what you should write about next is….” – and then launch into a more or less lengthy description of a plot or a personality or period in history that they find particularly fascinating. A suggestion of this sort is almost always interesting. After all, the topic has caught the attention of a reader. They care enough about it to suggest it me, and they describe their ideas with all the passion and enthusiasm of salesmen selling their product.

When people make such suggestions to me, I usually reply by suggesting they write the book themselves. This is not meant flippantly or as a put-down. Far from it. The point is simply that if they had the idea, then it is their story to tell. Not mine. Thus, no matter how good the idea is or how much I would like to read a book about that subject/person/place or time, I know that because it isn’t mine, because it did not come from within me, I would never be able to do the story justice.

So how do I pick a topic, others ask. The answer is simple: I don’t. Topics pick me. Or rather characters and stories find me. It is quite easy to choose the topic for an academic paper, an article or essay. One can look at what has already been published, find gaps, or under-illuminated aspects of any subject, and contribute to the discussion by providing new information. Alternatively, one can challenge existing views and enter into a debate on a topic by presenting a new interpretation of existing facts or exposing logical flaws and contradictions in previously published material. But novels, in my experience, do not “work” that way.

Novels do not “fill gaps” or “answer questions” or “contribute to the debate” on this or that. They just are. They tell a story about unique individuals in a unique way. It doesn’t matter how many love stories have been written, there is always room for another – just as love is never used up or worn out. Which is not to say, there can’t be “bad” novels about love – or any other topic for that matter. The point is simply that no topic is inherently more appropriate than another. The only thing that matters is that the story-teller understands the material and wants to share it.

Having a story inside won’t necessarily give an author the words, the patience, the discipline or the time to write. Having a good story doesn’t necessarily make a good novelist. But it is the absolutely essential basis for success. If you don’t know what you want to write – then don’t. If you find you have to force yourself to write – don’t bother. If you find yourself copying someone else – you are wasting your time, everyone will know it when they read it.

In short, the story is the genesis of a book and without it there will be no novel worth the name. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient of a great novel. The other aspects of a novel, from pace to perspective, are techniques and skills that anyone can master with enough patience and practice. Finding the right subject for a novel and the characters to populate, however, it is a matter of inspiration rather than skill.

Friday, October 29, 2010

New Review of "Leonidas: A Boy of the Agoge"


Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge
Helena P. Schrader
Wheatmark (2010)
ISBN 9781604944747

Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (10/10)

Helena P. Schrader introduces the reader to a sweeping bold view of a period in Spartan history that has long been a subject of debate, speculation, and misinformation. “Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge” is the first novel in a planned trilogy based on the biography of a legendary hero. The first book describes his childhood in the Spartan agoge. The second will focus on his years as a citizen, and the third will describe his reign and death.

Leonidas and his twin brother, Cleombrotus, were enrolled in the Agoge at age seven. The program designed to prepare Spartan youth for citizenship focuses on endurance through hardship. Although the boys are members of the king’s family they are subjected to the same harsh “upbringing” of ordinary Spartan youth as boys of the Agoge and have to prove themselves worthy of Spartan citizenship. Completion was often difficult for Leonidas; however, his personal goal was to become the “paragon of perfection.”

Schrader is meticulous in her research. She has done a careful analysis of ancient sources and the works of Nigel Kennel to develop her work. Her literary style, superb character development, and creative imagination combine to draw the reader into this compelling story. I especially valued her ability to convey growth in maturity in Leonidas and his friend Alkander as they dealt with the pathos of the death within the family, and the inequity and injustice of politics and society. A third member of this tight group, Prokles, chose to express himself through a spirit of cockiness demonstrated by disrespect, disruptive conduct, and irresponsible verbal attacks.

The elements of surprise, an ongoing cycle of conflict and resolution, and stimulating dialog blend together to move the plot forward. A large cast of characters, historical and fictional, with names unique to the period, as well as references using unfamiliar words to describe common dwelling places, and titles slowed down my reading. However, these elements add to the validity of Schrader’s competency as a writer.

Helena P. Schrader’s writing in “Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge” is informative, entertaining, and enjoyable, leaving the reader eager for more.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fire on Kythera

On my most recent trip to Kythera fire broke out in the mountains behind the airport. My husband and I were on our way to the port to return to the mainland after a very short holiday on the island. As we approached the airport, I noted smoke smearing the cloudless, blue sky. Moments later we rounded a bend in the road and saw the entire hillside aflame.
It was August in Greece, and this was a barren mountainside covered with thorn and other scrub-growth – all of it tinder-dry. A line of orange flames stretched across a hundred yards belching black smoke. It crackled its way forward toward the road, driven by a brisk breeze off the ocean. A handful of abandoned cars cowered beside the road, and two men officiously waved traffic through the smoke sinking onto the road. That was reassuring. The fire had been noticed, and, one presumed, the fire department was already on its way.

My husband accelerated, thinking of the ferry. I thought of the fires that had ravaged Greece three years earlier. Then, flames had overtaken whole families as they tried to flee in their cars. Rescuers found the bodies of grandmothers and infants incinerated in their homes. The fires had threatened the ancient site of Olympia, breathing black ashes upon the white ruins and obliterating the surrounding vegetation. The authorities ordered the evacuation of the suburbs of Athens. When the rains finally came, vast stretches of countryside had been charred. The blackened corpses of entire olive orchards and forests scar the countryside even today.

At the café in front of the ticket office at the port, we watched the smoke billowing up from the far side of the mountain. The ferry arrived on schedule and backed up to the quay. Scores of cars bounced off the ship onto the quay and we clanged our way up the ramp to be directed to a spot on the deck. Only after we’d left the car and taken our seats, did we look again at the mountains. The smoke was thicker and more ominous than ever.

With considerable excitement, the other passengers pointed to an approaching helicopter. A large container was slung below its belly. It dumped the liquid contents of the container onto the flames and then swung out over the bay. Slowly and loudly it settled itself down almost to the surface of the water. The wind from the propellers flattened the sea and sent spume in all directions. The container scooped up sea water and then the helicopter strained to lift it. Water splashed over the sides of giant bucket as the chopper heeled over and turned away in a wide arc. Meanwhile two fixed-wing aircraft joined the fight. Yet the fire raged on unimpressed.

Without warning, the ferry raised its ramps and departed. It nosed out into the Gulf of Laconia. Off our bows all was serene, Mediterranean beauty – bright blue seas occasionally crested by brilliant white, waves. On the opposite shore, white villages nestled in the contours of the distant hills barely discernable through the summer haze. Behind us, the smoke had transformed the entire island into the image of an active volcano: huge clouds of smoke rolled upwards to be torn away by the wind in a long, untidy plume. By the time we reached Neapoli it was impossible to distinguish smoke from haze, and on the evening news it was reported that man and his machines had contained the fire.

But, I wondered, what would it have been like in ancient times? – without the help of machines? If the fires even today can so easily run wild, what terror they must have wrought when there were no pump trucks, no helicopters and no aircraft. The climate was the same and the dried vegetation just as vulnerable to ignition, but there were no mobile phones or radios to get word to the authorities – whoever they were. And if even automobiles cannot outrun these fires when they are running, how could people on foot, cart and horse hope to outrun them? No wonder, fire was one of the four horses of the apocalypse. Something worth noting for future books on this part of the world….

Saturday, October 16, 2010

First Review of Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge

First, I'd like to thank all of you who took part in my pole on titles.  Your cumulative responses have been very helpful.  I hope my future titles will be better, reflecting your collective wisdom. 

Despite your poor rating for  "Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge" as a title, the first review of this first part of the Leonidas Trilogy is quite good. I attach it below and hope it will encourage you to read the book and judge for yourself.

New and provocative look at Sparta, October 9, 2010

By Brenda Miller (North Carolina)
(REAL NAME)

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge (Paperback)

Helena Schrader has in this book fulfilled her introductory promise to look at Spartan life from a completely different position. She clearly has done her research on a relatively little-known but frequently maligned aspect of ancient Sparta; its education system, or "agoge". Instead of the to-be-expected detailed examination of brutality and pedophilia, Ms Schrader describes, through the character of young King Leonidas, what to my mind is a far more likely youth training system. Certainly it was tough and certainly the objective of producing hard and disciplined soldiers for Sparta was never lost sight of (think of a life-long Marine boot camp). But we know that Spartans were in reality far from being a mob of unthinking automatons capable of functioning only under orders and in fear of draconian punishment. There was music, poetry, art, and actual thought in archaic and classic Sparta and Ms Schrader brings all this out beautifully. Desite the difference of some 2500 years, as a former career Army officer I could readily relate to Leonidas' struggles and to the overall training effort as well. Ms Shrader has succeeded with this book and I hope that we will have the opportunity soon to read her works on the rest of Leonidas' life.

I should also add that this work is perfectly suitable for older teen-age readers as well as for adults.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Healing Power of Horses

The positive impact that certain animals can have upon humans is a recognized fact. Go to any “baby zoo” and observe the fascination animals have for toddlers. The fact that people keep pets of any kind is a tribute to the fact that these animals contribute to our mental health. Dogs have long been known as “man’s best friend,” and cats were important enough companions to be mummified in ancient Egypt. Horses too, although traditionally beasts of burden who are often badly abused in places where they are not the treasured toys of the rich but instead means of power and transport to the poor, have the power to heal. Indeed, the therapeutic aspects of letting handicapped children ride, for example, have been increasingly recognized.

Personally, my love of horses started very young, riding with my father on rental hacks in Brazil. As a teenager I worked at a stables in Sussex, while training as a riding instructor, something I then did for a summer in Maine. I hot-walked race horses at Keeneland track in Lexington, Kentucky to earn extra money while in graduate school, and owned my first mare at that time. Later, I kept up my riding skills to the best of my ability with school horses or the horses of friends, until I could again afford a horse of my own while working and living in Berlin. Altogether, I was privileged to own three horses and hope to own at least one more before I am too old to ride competently.

It was this lifetime with horses, particularly the time working at the race track, that inspired an important component of my novel The Olympic Charioteer. The war between Sparta and Tegea interested me because, first, the Spartans were mauled during their initial invasion attempt and many Spartans were enslaved. That contradicts the conventional wisdom about the “invincibility” of the Spartan army and also contradicts the ethos of “never surrender,” “do or die” that is associated with Sparta because of Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae and the commonly quoted admonishment of a (anonymous!) Spartan mother to her son to return with his shield or upon it. I felt, as a historian and novelist, that it would be good to show that Spartan were not as mindless or inflexible as popular literature makes them out to be. Spartan history is littered with defeats, and in more than one recorded incident the response of the Spartan state was not condemnation of those individuals who were involved in the debacle, but rather a revision of Spartan foreign policy. One such incident was the defeat of Sparta at the hands of Tegea in the middle of the 6th Century BC.

So, I knew I wanted to write about this historical incident, specifically about a Spartan enslaved after the defeat of the Spartan army. I knew too that I wanted to show how this defeat induced Sparta to end its policy of aggression toward its neighbor and to instead to pursue hegemony on the Peloponnese through diplomatic means. But it wasn’t until I read that in the ancient Olympics the drivers of the chariots in the prestigious chariot races were often slaves that I had the igniting idea for a novel.

In the ancient games, it was the owner of the chariot, not the driver, who was credited with the victory in the chariot races. The owners were recognized for breeding and training horses, not “merely” driving them. There are several monuments at Olympia dedicated by Spartan victors in the chariot racing, the most famous being the one dedicated by Kynisca, a Spartan woman of royal blood, who boasted she was the first woman to win an Olympic victory. But that was centuries after the conflict with Tegea. On the other hand, while the names of the horses were affectionately listed on some monuments, the names of the drivers were not necessarily mentioned.

The idea for a novel about a charioteer/slave took root and slowly the plot took shape in my mind. A proud young man, enslaved and abused, seeking death at each opportunity, is purchased out of pity by a wealthy Tegean horse breeder. The slave’s work with the gentle (if temperamental) race horses restores his desire to live. While the horses heal the slave’s bitterness, his new owner, a politician as well as a horse breeder, is losing his own sense of purpose as Tegea slides toward tyranny and he finds himself unable to overcome his grief at the loss of his only son. Only when he discovers in his new slave the driver he has been lacking to make his team ready for the competition at Olympia, do the horses start to work their magic on him as well. They bring the two men, master and slave, together in their love of horses and their work toward the common goal of an Olympia victory – a journey that soon sets in train a diplomatic initiative to end the war with Sparta as well.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Trouble with Titles

Titles are almost as troublesome – and important – as covers. I’ve been told that for some readers the title is even more important than the cover. A good title is by definition intriguing, catchy, evocative, memorable and raises more questions than it answers. They don’t, however, at least in theory, have to be all that closely related to the subject of the book. I frequently hear phrases and think, “That would be a great title!” without even a ghost of a story in my head.

For example, when living in Nigeria I travelled with our regional medical officer, Dr. Jan, to visit an island just opposite Lagos and the busy port of Apapa on which, we were told, 50,000 people lived without medical facilities. When anyone on the island was seriously ill either a traditional herbalist was consulted or the patient had to be put in an open boat and transported across to Lagos or Apapa. While this was bad enough, the island was the suspected lair of local pirates that preyed upon the busy shipping lanes into Lagos/Apapa and especially those ships awaiting a berth at anchor off-shore. Since Nigeria is second only to Somalia in terms of the number of piracy incidents and 80% of the armed attacks on ships in Nigerian waters occur in or around Lagos, these pirates had to be taken seriously. The Regional Security Officer was understandably reluctant to let Dr. Jan and I take a small power boat across to the island for our visit with the traditional ruler and his council.

Eventually he approved and we set out with two Nigerian policemen armed with AK47s as escort/protection. We were landed next to a massive, wooden canoe into which we had to clamber and then walk to the bows to jump off onto the sandy, litter-strewn shore (no such thing as a dock or pier in this village). We walked between the one-story, plastered houses with tin or palm roofs and open doors and windows, scattering the chickens and goats. We passed the school where the children sat in open rooms on wooden benches facing greying chalkboards wearing neat, clean uniforms. Finally, at the Traditional Ruler’s house, we left our security escort outside to sit on mismatching old sofas in front of his armchair raised on a wooden pallet and listen to the Traditional Ruler relate the woes of his community with respect to medical care. Then we traipsed back the way we’d come and climbed again over the canoe to our boat to return to modern, bustling Lagos. And what does all this have to do with titles? Well, the name of the island was Tomaro, so we had just literally taken “The Boat to Tomorrow.” The perfect title! In fact, I proposed it as the title for a book about Dr. Jan and all the work she has done in communities like this. She certainly should write about her life, but she is too busy bringing medical care and education to those who need it most to write a book. So the title is just going to waste….

And then there is the whole issue of mindless search engines. Nowadays, so many books are sold on line, that titles really have to be related enough to the topic to enable search engines to find them by subject. If a reader has just read a great book on the American Civil War, example, and wants to find another, he/she is most likely to go to amazon.com and search by topic, typing in phrases such as “Civil War,” “Confederacy,” “War Between the States,” etc. Gone with the Wind would probably never get a hit – if it wasn’t already so famous that someone has manually put in a tag for it.

But tags can be tricky. That’s why publishers now suggest a catchy title followed by a descriptive subtitle, but search engines can be very finicky and I’m not sure the subtitle option works as well as descriptive titles.

To help me understand reader perspectives on titles, I’d like to hear your opinion of my titles. Please rate the titles below on a scale of 1 (bad/dislike) to 10 (super! I’d pick up a book with this title even if I knew nothing else about it). A score of 5 should indicate absolutely no feelings one way or the other. Thanks for your help!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Leonidas Trilogy

Leonidas is arguably the most famous of all Spartans. There have been numerous works of art which depict him. He has been made the hero of a recent, popular film. There is even an entire line of chocolate confectionary named after him! But no serious biography has even been written, and what is best known about him and most often portrayed is his death. Leonidas is remembered for the commanding the Greek forces, which defended the Pass at Thermopylae against an invading Persian army that vastly outnumbered them. Because Persia was then an autocratic empire headed by a King, while the Greek forces at Thermopylae were sent by a coalition of democratic Greek city-states, Leonidas became the incarnation of Freedom fighting Tyranny. Leonidas is particularly remembered for refusing to surrender despite betrayal that made defeat absolutely certain. Thus he also came to symbolize the noblest form of military courage and self-sacrifice. Consequently, the events leading up to the three day battle and the death of Leonidas with 300 other Spartans at Thermopylae have been the focus of historians and artists of all media from Herodotus onward.


But Leonidas had lived perhaps as long as sixty years before that battle took place, and he had reigned for ten. It was those years preceding the final confrontation with Persia that made him the man he would be at Thermopylae. To the extent that we admire his defiant stand, learning more about his early life and tracing the development of his character is important. Arguably, understanding what made Leonidas the hero he was is a useful lesson for future generations.

Yet so very little is actually known about his early life, that historians have been discouraged from attempting a biography. Novelists, fortunately, enjoy more freedom, and what we do know about Leonidas’ early life is enticing. Leonidas was born into the senior of Sparta’s ruling families, but he was born to his mother late in her life and had two elder brothers. As a result, unlike most of Sparta’s kings, he attended the Spartan public school or agoge and underwent the harsh training of ordinary Spartans that has been the subject of so much fascinated – and often appalled - commentary. He married the daughter of his half-brother and predecessor, a sharp – not to say sharp-tongued – woman, who epitomized everything other Greeks abhorred and condemned about Spartan women. Most important, he was elected to lead a coalition of Greek forces against the Persians.

This latter fact has far too often been undervalued by historians. It is usually interpreted simply as a tribute to Sparta’s military reputation or her political position as the leading power of the age. This all too glibly overlooks the fact that Sparta had two kings and his co-monarch Leotychidas could have represented Sparta just as completely. Even more important, it ignores the fact that just two years after Leonidas’ death, the same coalition of forces preferred Athenian leadership to submitting to command by Leonidas’ successor Pausanias – and Pausanias had won the battle of Plataea! Sparta was not less powerful in 478 than she had been in 480, and her reputation at arms had never been greater. If simply being Spartan was all that mattered to the allies, the coalition would have asked Sparta to send King Leotychidas or another Spartan general to replace Pausanias, but they did not. In short, Leonidas was elected to lead the coalition, not simply because he was Spartan but because he enjoyed the trust of the coalition partners.

Combining the few known facts we have about Leonidas and his wife Gorgo, listening to the sayings attributed to them both, and knowing how Leonidas met his destiny at Thermopylae, I have written the Leonidas Trilogy. The three part biographical novel incorporates all that is known about Leonidas and Gorgo and their society. It interprets these facts and then interpolates from these facts to a reasonable hypothesis of what Leonidas and Gorgo’s CVs could have been. The characters that emerge are far greater than the historical input. Leonidas is consciously portrayed as the quintessential Spartan because that is what he has become in legend. Gorgo, likewise, epitomizes that which set Spartan women apart from their contemporaries – without robbing her of individual traits and personality. The two principals are surrounded by a large cast of secondary characters, each of which is unique and complex. The resulting tapestry is a seamless mixture of plot, character development and historical events against the backdrop of a fascinating and unique society.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Night in Sparta

Not long after I started doing research for my novels on ancient Sparta I seized the opportunity to visit that part of Greece that had given birth to Sparta – the province of Laconia in the Peloponnese. The city itself was gone, destroyed by earthquakes, abandoned, ploughed under and washed away over the centuries to the point that even archeologists can find little of note left. But we know where Sparta once stood, and a new city was founded on this site in the mid-nineteenth century and called Sparti.


I flew to Athens and travelled down to modern Sparti by car, crossing the Isthmus of Corinth and stopping to visit the ruins of that powerful ancient mercantile city. Then I continued on the road past the towering mountain crowned with the ruins of Acrocorinth, leaving Agamemnon’s city of Mycenae for a different trip, and scorning to set foot in Sparta’s ancient rival Argos. I crossed the broad plain of modern Tripoli, ancient Tegea, and climbed the low hills to the south heading along the highway toward Sparti/Sparta.

I expected to find on the other side of those hills something, well, Spartan. The word itself connotes sparse, barren, bleak, even harsh. I expected an arid place in which little could grow. I expected a harsh, infertile landscape best suited to producing tough soldiers and citizens who disdained all luxury. Sparta, I assumed, had made a virtue of necessity when it condemned the display of wealth and banned coinage. Sparta, I thought, was surely a poor country in which learning survival – even by theft and conquest – was sheer necessity.

And then I came around the bend in the road and caught my first glimpse of Sparta’s heartland – the Eurotas valley. It defied all expectations and was one of the most fertile, flowering and naturally beautiful places I had seen anywhere in Greece! Instantly, my understanding of Sparta started to undergo revisions. Not only is the Eurotas valley green and fertile, the surrounding mountains, the Paron range to the east and Taygetos to the West, were not barren and covered with scrub growth typical of much of the Mediterranean, but richly forested. In short, Sparta had been exceptionally rich by ancient standards – even before it conquered the vast and agriculturally significant neighboring state of Messenia! No wonder Sparta had never developed significant trade with the rest of the world; it was completely self-sufficient.

I visited what few archeological remains there were, wandering between the olive trees and oleander bushes that cover the Spartan acropolis today to examine the odd wall of stone here and there as the sun went down. I sat on the stone steps of the Roman amphitheatre and gazed toward the western sky, now turned a luminous purple behind the rugged peaks of Taygetos, and listened to the crickets singing in frantic chorus. It was, for a moment, almost if the famous choruses of ancient Sparta, which had once drawn visitors from around the ancient world, were trapped indignantly in the bodies of the insects.

When it was so dark that I had to pick my way with great care across the rumble, I returned to my hotel and ordered wine. Remembering that the Spartans never drank their wine “neat” (unmixed), I ordered sparkling water as well and mixed this with the wine when it arrived. It was wonderfully refreshing and to this day I prefer my wine this way. It struck me that often less is better, that the saying “nothing in excess” originated from a Spartan philosopher and statesman, Chilon the Wise. Was it the very abundance of riches that had taught the Spartans the dangers of excess? Was it possible that it was because they had so much wealth that they were keen to ration it – or at least the display of it? Or had they collectively gorged themselves on their abundant resources at some point in the distant past and woken up with such a hangover that they decreed it should not happen ever again, making laws to not only water wine, and ration food, but to avoid all excessive self-indulgence?

Or was it the fear that differences in wealth – or at least the open display of such differences – would undermine solidarity in the Spartan ranks and so endanger morale in the army, the basis of Spartan power, that induced the Spartans to restrict conspicuous consumption? After all, in other city-states the sons of the rich served in the elite cavalry rather than marching in the dust with the middle class, while the poorest citizens pulled the oars in the bowels of the great triremes – a job so unpleasant and unglamorous that it was more commonly given to slaves. But all Spartans, regardless of wealth, were required to wear the same colors, carry the same arms and serve as heavy infantrymen. Spartans referred to themselves as “Equals,” and it is easier to maintain that sense of equality if no one is obviously much wealthier than his peers, if they had the same profession, ate the same meals in their messes, and were not allowed to hoard silver or gold. Sparta’s laws clearly reinforced the image of equality among its citizen-soldiers while not actually eliminating differences in wealth as many ancient commentators noted.

One thing was clear: the Eurotas valley could easily sustain the citizen population of Sparta, which never exceeded roughly 8,000 men, and here even a small estate could be a garden of plenty. Indeed, in such a beautiful setting, each farm would have been like a little piece of Paradise.

When I retired to my room, I was glad that modern Sparti is a sleepy town in summertime. No hordes of tourists come to see the unremarkable ruins of the Spartan acropolis or visit the tiny museum with its handful of artifacts, while the students of the local university were away on summer break. So the town soon fell silent below my window, just as ancient Sparta would have been with its citizens either dispersed to their estates or in barracks. But the stars were all the more visible, and in the silence, the singing of the crickets could again be heard. It was a cheerful sound. I was beginning to understand that Sparta was not at all the grim place most modern writers make it out to be.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Why write – or read – about Ancient Sparta?

Ancient Sparta probably seems obscure and irrelevant to many modern readers – even those of you who like historical fiction. Not only are we separated from Sparta by two and a half centuries, but Sparta does not live on in any contemporary society. Unlike Athens, Rome or Constantinople, there is not even a modern city that traces its ancestry back through the generations and the architecture to the ancient one.


Yet ancient Sparta was remarkably “modern” – not only compared to other Greek cities but with respect to a variety of characteristics from artistic taste to the role of women. Personally, it was the role of women in Sparta that first attracted my interest in the society as a whole. While women in Athens were treated essentially the way women in Afghanistan are treated under the Taliban today, women in Sparta enjoyed freedom of movement, public education and economic power. The fact that the debates, intrigues and scandals of the Athenian Assembly seemed astonishingly similar to what goes on in modern legislatures had already alerted me to the fact that ancient Greece had more to teach us about human nature than what we learned in school. The status of Athenian women, however, was so alienating that I had never wanted to write about ancient Athens. Sparta’s radically different and more modern attitude to women was attractive enough to make me start to learn more about Sparta.

I soon realized that Sparta shared far more with modern Western society than just the treatment of women. For example, Sparta was the only ancient Greek city to introduce public education for all future citizens, just as we have in Western countries today. Sparta sought to ensure a minimum standard of living for all citizens by giving each citizen an estate large enough to support him and his family, rather the same way that welfare payments and other forms of subsidies for the poor are intended to prevent abject poverty in modern Social Democracies. Despite its overwhelming military might, Sparta had only one vote in the defensive alliance it founded and headed – a situation comparable to that of the U.S. in NATO today. Spartan artistic and architectural style was minimalist and functional rather than highly decorative – something evocative of Scandinavian design today. All these factors convinced me that writing about Sparta would underline the degree to which humans have shared values across millennia.

Yet for all its remarkable similarities with modern Western societies, Sparta was still radically different from the world we know today. Many features of Spartan society such as the life-long, compulsory military service and membership in dining clubs for men, the lack of currency, or the polytheism and slave economy Spartans shared with the rest of the ancient Greek world seem strange if not offensive to us. Thus reading about ancient Sparta entails not only recognizing familiar values and attitudes but learning about strange ones as well.

It was the mix of the familiar and the peculiar that made me decide to write about life in ancient Sparta. In my series of Spartan novels, I explore human nature and analyze universal themes by stretching our vision beyond the familiar and examining human behavior in a strange, often uncomfortable, setting. While I strive for the greatest historical accuracy in all my works, the focus of my novels is not distant historical events but rather the society and people responsible for historical development and above all what they tell us about our own society and mankind generally. My characters are not modern people dressed up in Spartan scarlet and bronze; they are people who, despite being the products of their unique society, share emotions, and some values and behavior patterns with us. I believe my novels reveal the extent to which the characteristics of human nature have remained recognizable despite the passing of millennia and dramatic differences in technology, life-syle and ideology. This is what makes writing – and reading – about ancient Sparta so intriguing.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book Review of the Olympic Charioteer

The following review of the Olympic Charioteer appeared in the blog:
“A Cup of Coffee and A Good Book” on Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book Review: The Olympic Charioteer

Phillip is not just any slave. Not only does he possess a level of pride not typical of someone of his station, as well as a death wish, but when horse breeder and important politician Antyllus purchases him to save him from a horrible fate, he learns just how unusual Phillip is. For one thing, despite his insolence and sarcasm, Phillip has obviously had training in deportment and rhetoric. For another, he has a way with horses that rivals that of all Antyllus’s stable slaves.

Antyllus is training his team of chariot horses in hopes of an Olympic victory, but he needs a skilled driver. He recognizes potential in Phillip and teaches him to drive to assist in training sessions, and when Phillip learns so quickly as to surpass Antyllus in skill, the politician finds that he has found his Olympic charioteer—and that is when he finds out exactly where his mysterious slave came from.

The Olympic Charioteer takes the reader to ancient Greece and into a world of politics and intrigue, painting a picture of social and political life in Tegea and Sparta of the day. Although the story is fictional, Helena P. Schrader’s intense level knowledge of the era brings the story alive in a very authentic way. The story explores the conflicts between the two city-states that eventually led to the series of non-aggression pacts that later formed the Peloponnesian League.

Helena P. Schrader’s The Olympic Charioteer is a brilliant tapestry of Ancient Greece, with brilliant characters and scenery. It is a story for everyone: those interested in history should find this to be a realistic portrayal of what might have happened during this time, while those who enjoy romance will get that fix as well. There are also liberal sprinklings of mystery, drama and action. A fascinating read!

By Jennifer Walker
A Cup of Coffee and a Good Book

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Searching for a Cover

Covers can kill – novels, that is. Nothing, studies have shown, is more influential in enticing a potential buyer browsing in a bookstore to pick up a book than an “attractive” cover – and nothing is more likely to put a potential reader off than a “bad” one. A good cover will attract readers that would never look for the book based on subject, title or author, and a bad cover will make the very people who would love a particular book scorn it. Covers matter!

But being “attractive” isn’t enough. A cover that is “attractive” in the advertising sense of the word may get a browsing bookstore customer to pick up a book and read the cover blurb, but if the picture has nothing to do with the content, they are likely to feel deceived and put the book down again. There is no point having a vampire or a half-naked model on the cover of your book, if the book isn’t about vampires or beautiful women in sexual situations.

The cover has to give some hint of what the book is about so that it attracts not for its own sake, but because it draws the attention of potential readers – in short, people who have at least a latent interest in the subject matter. Because I write historical fiction, there is no point in using obviously modern images on the cover. People who don’t like historical fiction might pick it up because of the cover, but they will seldom buy. Likewise readers of historical fiction will probably skip over a book with a modern image on the cover – in search of something historical. So the cover has to be “topical.”

When I started publishing my novels, I used to let the publisher design the cover, thinking they were the professionals and they would understand the market much better than I. Big mistake. When it comes to historical fiction, it is vitally important to immediately evoke the right time period because you discredit yourself instantly, if you get it wrong. Publishers, however, are not historians. They don’t know the difference between 11th and 16th century armor, or between a Spitfire and a Piper Cub. So I now “design” my own covers, by which I mean I select the overall thematic components, and then hire a professional graphic designer to do the fine work essential to make the cover look as good as anything a major publishing house can produce.

Right now I am working on the cover of the second book in my Leonidas Trilogy. To be consistent with the first book of the Trilogy, I know I will place the image of a fifth century sculpture depicting a Spartan hoplite commonly identified as “Leonidas” on the spine and back cover. This will tell readers the book is about ancient Greece. But a marble statue alone is too “dead” for my novels. The whole point of my novels is to bring the ancient world back to life! To give color and movement, emotion and thought back to the monuments and legend that Leonidas has become.

For this reason, the front cover of the first book in the series, A Boy of the Agoge, is a color photo of the Spartan landscape. Sparta, the city and society may be gone, but the valley that cradled Sparta and the snow-capped mountains that dominated it are older than Sparta itself and as beautiful as ever. The photo I took of an olive orchard against the snow-capped mountains is thus a view that Leonidas too would have enjoyed. The last book in the trilogy will show the Pass at Thermopylae. But what about the second book?

The second book in the Trilogy is about Leonidas’ nearly two decades as an ordinary Spartan ranker – before he becomes king and before the first Persian invasion of Greece. It is the book in which he marries, is widowed and remarries. This is the book in which Leonidas rises through the ranks of the army - and raises a family. I want the cover, therefore, to evoke a domestic environment – the front porch of a house in a Greek landscape, an orchard, flowers on a terrace or outdoor stairway lined with flower-filled terracotta pots.

But finding such a photo-object, simple as it sounds, proved much more challenging than expected. Try taking a picture in Greece today without a paved road, a telephone wire, an electric light or a glazed window in it! I admit, however, it was fun looking! Modern Laconia, the territory that corresponds roughly to the heart of the ancient territory of Sparta’s Lacedaemon, is truly beautiful – mountainous but fertile, with rich green valleys, extensive orchards and well-tended, blooming gardens. I hope I got several shots that are potentially suitable, and as soon as Charlie, my graphic artist, has produced some proposals I will post them here and solicit your opinions. Meanwhile, I welcome any comments you have on covers generally.