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.