Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 7: Agents

This is the seventh part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

In my last entry I mentioned that many commercial publishers nowadays will not accept manuscripts directly from authors. Instead they require manuscript submissions to come through literary agents. As a rule, there are more publishers of non-fiction books that do not require representation, while publishers of fiction almost always do.

Agents, like publishers, generally have specialties and preferences. Therefore, an author should very carefully research literary agents and approach only those with an interest in representing the kind of fiction they write. The best way to select potential agents is to consult one of the many reference books about the publishing industry such as the annual “Writer’s Market: Where and How to Sell What You Write” or Jeff Herman’s “Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agens” which is also updated regularly.

However, keep in mind that it is almost as difficult to get an agent as a publisher. Maybe harder. The most recent statistic I heard is that literary agents receive between 70 and 80 manuscripts per week. That makes for roughly 3,750 manuscripts a year. No agent reads all submissions. In fact, as a rule agents read parts of maybe one tenth of the manuscripts they receive. Most submitssion are rejected based on the letter of inquiry alone. "Thanks very much but we are not taking any new clients at this time...." Or "thank you for your submission but we see no market for a book of this kind...." etc. etc.

Even if you get past the first cut (which may be made by an intern or very junior employee), agents still rarely read an entire manuscript. They will read a couple of chapters at most and rapidly make a decision about whether they like the book enough to want to represent it or not. On average, a literary agent will sign on 1-2 new customers per year. Many refuse to take new customers at all, feeling they have enough work with the clients they already have. In short, you’re probably going to have to write to a lot of agents before you find representation. Once you have an agent, they – at least in theory – should be able to open doors to publishers, but they make no guarantees.

My own experience with agents is not very good. Let me explain. After I did my research in the above references and carefully selected only those agents who specifically stated an interest in the subject and genre of my book and indicated they were still accepting clients, I approached 18 different agents. I carefully followed the individual guidelines about whether I should submit electronically or in hard copy, whether to send a synopsis or first chapter etc. etc., and followed instructions about a short introductory letter meticulously. Yet all eighteen agents rejected the manuscript (unseen) because there was “no market” for the book. Since I’d already written book, however, and this was a piece of non-fiction, I decided to approach publishers directly. I found six publishers that specialized in the genre (aviation history) and wrote letters of inquiry to them. Three (50%!) showed interest, and I rapidly signed a contract with one of them. What is more, I have since sold the TV rights to this book.  In short, there was a comparably hot market for the very book that all 18 literary agents specializing in the genre claimed there was no market for. This suggested to me that not one of them knew the very market they purported to be experts about very well.

After this experience, I felt there was very little point wasting time, effort and emotion on intermediaries who appeared to be more a hindrance to success than agents of it. I have never written to a literary agent since, but that is a personal choice and many of you may find agents receptive and helpful. Certainly, as stated above, they are the “door keepers” to the larger, commercial publishers. As I outlined earlier, there are advantages to publishing with “the majors," so if they are your target an agent may be an necessary evil. However, the other option is self-publishing, a topic I will discuss in a later blog entry.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Birth of a Book 6: Commercial Publishers

This is the sixth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

I have published four of my books with commercial or trade publishers and the rest have been self-published. Both forms of publication have their advantages and disadvantages. This week I will address the advantages and disadvantages of commercial publishers.

The first thing aspiring novelists should know about major publishers is that on average they accept only 1% of all books submitted to them in any one year.

Second, the major publishers don’t really want “niche” books. Just like the big pharmaceutical firms, they want every book they publish to be a “block buster.” After all, they have large staffs and fancy, expensive New York or London offices to finance. In fact, the overheads are so high that despite being very picky about which books the publish (see above), they still lose money on 9 out of 10 books. In short, books have to have the potential make a lot of money before a major publisher can afford to invest in them. Books most likely to make "big bucks" are books by celebrities – or already successful authors. I recently heard that publishers won’t even look at a book from an author who doesn’t have 2,000 twitter followers. It’s not easy to have that number of followers, if you aren’t already famous.

Last but not least, because the majors want books with “universal” appeal, very, very few accept “unsolicited” manuscripts. This means that in most cases you will need an agent in order to even approach a commercial publisher with a manuscript. (Next week I will discuss agents.)

The greatest advantages commercial publishers offer are well established and extensive distribution networks, marketing expertise and large marketing budgets. If a commercial publisher decides to invest in a book, they can - and do - spend hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars doing so. They can buy bookstore window space, space in airport bookstores, ads in important publications, TV-spots, radio-spots, etc. etc. etc. They have the relationships to editors and talk-show hosts that will increase the probability that your book will be prominently reviewed, that you will get invited to appear on TV or give radio interviews – all those things you see successful writers doing.

But every aspiring author should understand that publishers can’t afford to do that for every book they publish. Big as the marketing budgets appear to be, they are nevertheless finite and far too small to market all titles equally. Publishers need to allocate resources carefully. What this means is that they invest the bulk of their marketing resources in only a tiny percentage of their titles. Furthermore, they tend to invest where they expect the greatest return on investment. In plain language: the more famous you are, the more marketing support you can expect. If you are already a celebrity (rock star, national politician, popular athlete), your book will be given the lion’s share of the marketing budget. If you are the new kid on the block, the first-time author, you are going to get the scraps. These can be so meager you may hardly notice anything.

Despite the comparative success of my four non-fiction books, I have found self-publishing more satisfying for my novels. I’ll discuss why in future entries.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Results of Last Week's Survey

Dear Followers,

Thanks for participating in last weeks' survey on a new title for Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy. Participation and feedback was high, and I especially appreciated hearing from some of you directly with your own suggestions.  In fact, one suggestion was so good that after consulting with my publisher, cover designer, editor and other professionals, I have selected it.  Everyone's input was important, however, because the results showed a clear preference for a sleek title.

The results were as follows:
  • 56% voted for Leonidas: A Spartan King
  • Equal numbers (18%) voted for Leonidas of Sparta: An Extraordinary King or Leonidas: Sparta's Quintessential King.
  • Only 8 % chose Leonidas: Sparta's Indomitable King
The selected title reflects the majority preference for a direct -- well, Laconic -- title. Clear text. The third book in the trilogy will be titled:

Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King.

The first draft cover has also been designed, so all is still on track with this book.  I'll resume the series on "Birth of a Book" next week with a post about commercial publishers.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Help Select a Title for Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy

Dear Followers,

I'd like your feedback on the title for Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy, so I'm interrupting my series on "Birth of a Book" to conduct a survey.

Regards Leonidas, the third book in the trilogy following Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge, and Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer describes the last 12 years of Leonidas' life. It focuses on how Leonidas became king of Sparta, on his reign, the conflict with Persia and, of course, his death at Thermopylae. 

When I originally conceived of the Trilogy, I tentatively titled the last book "A Dispensable King" because I thought this provocative title might arrouse curiousity and so attract readers.  However, I am increasingly uncomfortable with this title. First and foremost, it does not describe Leonidas or his importance to Sparta and History.  Thus while the title might be witty and provocative, it is still inadequate. I've come up with some alternatives and would greatly appreciate you taking the time to vote in my survey.

Feel free to send me your own suggestions as well -- either as a comment or an email. Keep in mind, however, that both "Leonidas" and "Sparta" (or a form there of) must be included in the title and a close parallel to the titles of the first two books in the trilogy is also important.

Thank you!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 5: Editing

This is the fifth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

Most aspiring but unpublished writers I have met believe that editing is something the publisher does. This is a misconception. Publishers employ editors and publishers can do (usually for a fee) some more in-depth editing if necessary, but the bulk of a book’s editing is up to the author. The bottom line in today’s competitive market is: a poorly edited book doesn’t get accepted by an agent or commercial publisher, while if you’re self-publishing, a poorly edited book is simply a disgrace and embarrassment.

In short, every author should expect and plan to take responsibility for editing their book. This can take two forms: you can do it yourself or you can hire a professional to do it for you. I personally find that a combination of these two forms of editing works best.

Because an author – particularly after two or three re-writes – knows exactly what he/she intends to say, it is virtually impossible to see even glaring errors. I can’t say how many times I have turned over a manuscript I think is “perfect” to a reader, only to have them find screaming mistakes on the first page. As soon as these are pointed out to me, I ask myself “how could I miss that?” The mistake, once pointed out, jumps out at me snarling and howling like a vicious dog, but there it is: I had read and re-read and read again that very page and never seen the error -- until someone else pointed it out to me. For this reason I have learned to send my manuscripts to a professional, freelance editor as soon as I feel it is finished in form and structure. This is also a good opportunity to get a little distance and perspective on the project so that when I look at it again, I too have a “fresh” eye.

When the editor returns the manuscript after a first round of cleaning up typos, spelling and grammar, I go through the manuscript again. The objective this time is not to change content but to polish style. This is not about whether the characters are doing and saying the things they need to do to move the story forward, reveal their true nature or convey the themes, but about whether phraseology is awkward or anachronistic, words are used too repetitively, sentence structure is clear and effective and the like. I find this kind of editing can only be done in small doses. It is better to look at the manuscript only one scene at a time and really take time to edit. Efforts to rush this stage usually backfire. When I take time with each scene, however, I am usually amazed by how much the language itself can be tightened and fine-tuned to produce a clearer, crisper image that allows the characters to stand out against a more vivid backdrop while keeping action and suspense alive.

Once I have finished going through each and every scene looking for ways to make the writing more effective, I send the whole manuscript back to the professional editor again. This is both to eliminate the typos, spelling and punctuation errors that have crept into the manuscript as a result of the latest re-write and also to give the editor the opportunity to look at everything again or give a new editor the opportunity to comb the manuscript for errors.

Only now is the manuscript ready for a publisher.



Friday, November 11, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 4: The Re-Write

This is the fourth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

If writing the first draft of a novel is like eating dessert, the re-write is like eating the main-course. The pleasure is less intense and ecstatic, but it is nevertheless satisfying and sustaining.

In my experience, no novel – or scene for that matter – is perfect at its inception. If nothing else, when writing at a fast pace to get the raw idea/inspiration translated into coherent words, it is normal to make typographical if not spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. Such corrections fall more properly under editing which I’ll discuss later. Today I want to focus on something more fundamental.

Even if a novelist writes one brilliant chapter after another, with each scene therein a masterpiece, the novel as whole will probably still need re-writing. This is because a novel evolves during the writing process, particularly if it takes, as it often does, years to write. By the time the last scene of a novel is written, when the ending is final and the author knows this is “it,” there are likely many aspects or parts of the early portions that no longer fit properly. Essentially, because a novelist rarely knows how individual characters will evolve and because in the course of a novel important sub-plots and ancillary themes evolve, the beginning usually needs to be re-examined after the end is certain.

The first re-write is, therefore, a matter of going back to page one and re-reading each scene again with the final form of the novel in mind. This is not merely a matter of removing extraneous or superfluous material, it usually entails adding things as well. For example, if in the latter portion of a novel a particular character or theme have become more important, it may be necessary to provide more information about the character earlier or foreshadow thematic developments. This may require the drafting of completely new scenes or even chapters. In the extreme, it may require a completely new beginning to the novel.

Once the structure of a novel stands, i.e. the beginning and end are set and the episodes of the novel are complete and lined up in the correct order, I personally find it useful to let a novel sit for a year or two. Ideally, I am already at work on the next novel, and set the finished one aside without further thought to concentrate on the new project. Alternatively, if I am anxious to get a book to print, then I like to get the opinion of others while I take a break from the book of at least two months.

During this phase, the rough draft of the novel is sent to several people for candid but constructive feedback. Based on the suggestions of these readers, I undertake a new re-write. Again, this may include cutting or adding entire scenes. More often it entails massaging existing scenes to make them sharper and more effective, or it may entail providing additional background information about characters and developments. This is the stage in which I test how effectively I have communicated my message. I see the re-write as an opportunity to adjust the method of telling the story to make it more successful.

There is no set number of re-writes that a novel must undergo, but experience certainly helps reduce the number. My first novels (such as An Obsolete Honor) underwent at least a dozen re-writes.  More recent novels, like my Leonidas Trilogy, are not taking more than two to three. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 3: First Draft

This is the third part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

In the past I have compared writing the first draft of a novel episode to eating Tiramasu – or any other sweet that one absolutely adores. This is because, at least for me, writing a fictional scene for the very first time always produces a rush of satisfaction similar to a heavy dose of sugar/chocolate.

The most delicious aspect of writing anything for the first time is the excitement of not really knowing what the end product will look like. Even though I always know what I intend to write, I can never be sure where the creative process will actually lead me. A finished first draft is always full of surprises: unexpected developments, witty repartee from my characters or maybe just an unexpectedly vivid image.

Obviously, there are bad days when these unexpected plot changes or a head strong character lead straight to a dead end. I have been known to write a large chunk of novel only to be brought to an abrupt halt by the realization that I am not where I want to be. Curiously, sometimes I have fun writing even these scenes, but usually when I wander too far off course, it is like getting lost -- or eating too much of a particularly heavy desert! --and I end up feeling frustrated or angry with myself.

Fortunately, such misadventures are comparatively rare. It is far more common to find myself on a delightful journey into a new and wonderful place. As the story unfolds, I feel I am as much an observer as a creator. At one level, of course, the novelist is the person recording the story and translating the ideas/images/emotions etc. into a form that can be transmitted to others. On another level, however, the novelist is just a tool of a greater creative force, the servant of the idea that is the novelist’s inspiration.

Thus, when I plunge into writing an episode or scene for the first time, I have the pleasure of anticipation; I know I’m about to experience something new. The writing itself sweeps me up and absorbs me completely. The images and emotions I am describing envelop me. The words flow onto the page with little conscious thought. And then I sit back with a sense of being full and satisfied – just like when one finishes a piece of hot apple pie.







Saturday, October 29, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 2: Research

This is the second part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

Last week I wrote about the role of inspiration in the creation of a novel. While inspiration is critical to the ultimate success of a novel, it can land an author in a difficult situation. Lucky is the novelist whose inspiration is for a novel set in a familiar place and time. If that is the case, it’s easy to get started right away. This is one reason why many teachers of creative writing recommend their students “write about things they know” and the reason why many successful “novels” are thinly disguised autobiography.

However, if the inspiration is a call to write about an environment with which the author is not already intimately familiar, then a great deal of research is required before the actual writing begins. As a historian, I am particularly fanatical about this point, but it applies to books set in different countries, classes, generations and work-places as well as books set in different time periods. For example, if you want to write a book about a contemporary police officer, pilot, or professional athlete but have never done the work of a policeman/pilot/athlete, you need to do some serious research before you even start. The same goes for a novel set in a different country – even if your characters have your own nationality. No novel, no matter how inspired the plot-line or sympathetic the characters will succeed if the environment in which the action occurs is flat, vague or blatantly inaccurate. Remember, if your book is set in modern times, it is far easier for readers familiar with the milieu you describe to spot errors, inconsistencies or lack of depth -- and complain loudly in reviews.

Good research is therefore almost always part of the writing process and it has four very important benefits. First, good research will enable the novelist to produce a vivid environment – an effective and colorful stage on which the characters can act. In other words, research will yield up details about places, professions, customs, contemporary culture, technology and fashion – all things which will enable the novelist to evoke the scenery, surroundings and life-style of the protagonists in the novel.

Second, research may impact the shape of the novel itself. I have often found that the shadowy outline of the book that emerged from the initial idea starts to take on clear contours and may even change shape significantly as research progresses. Research may in the extreme reveal that an original idea was implausible, but usually also suggests an alternative that works better than the original.

Third, research can help give the characters clearer features and defining traits. The more one knows about the environment in which the characters need to operate, the easier it is to understand them – how they think, why they act certain ways, what they are likely to feel in certain situations. Research will help you visualize the kind of dreams they are likely to have, and help you understand the fears and inhibitions they will have absorbed from the society around them. Learning about the culture, social structures, educational and judicial systems of a novel’s proposed setting enables a novelist to give the ghostly figures of early inspiration flesh, blood, and depth of character – not to mention the right clothes and personal habits.

Finally, research usually uncovers so many intriguing new facts about an unfamiliar place, time, or milieu that inspiration follows. Long before I’ve finished with the research for one novel, I usual have several ideas for other novels set in the same environment. Thus research is rather like investment, returning far more than one spends on it in terms of quality products and new ideas.









Saturday, October 22, 2011

Birth of A Book, Part 1: The Idea

This is the first of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

In my experience, the origin of a novel distinguishes itself from the origin of a work of non-fiction by the role of inspiration. I have written and published four non-fiction works, and each of these came into being as the result of a rational process. In each case, I considered a variety of topics that might meet my objectives for the book, did market research on what books were already available on these and similar topics, adjusted the focus as appropriate and then got to work.

Selecting the topic for a novel, in contrast, is not a rational process. Ultimately, people don’t read or like novels for rational reasons either. Novels by their nature must appeal to the heart more than the head. Novels are like human beings. Each is unique – even if they tell a familiar story – and each needs a spark of inspiration if they are to succeed.

I have been told that some novelists can write novels based on a formula. Perhaps this is even a useful way of writing crime fiction or dime-store romance. I have no experience with this kind of writing, however, and question whether something that is uninspired can ever read as if it were. I have also listened to aspiring novelists agonize about not knowing what to write. There is a very simple answer to this common dilemma: If you don’t know what to write, don’t.

To create is to imitate the Creator of us all, and creation always has a spark of divinity in it. That spark manifests itself as inspiration.

The origin of each of my works of fiction has been a spark of inspiration.

Next week: Part II will look at the importance of research for a novel. 

Meanwhile, the first reviews of Where Eagles Never Flew our out:



Great story with superb flying accounts, October 15, 2011
5.0 out of 5 stars
By Hawgheater
This review is from: Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel (Kindle Edition)

As a retired US Air Force fighter pilot, I just finished reading "Where Eagles Never Flew"...for the 2nd time! As my bread and butter, I found the flying scenes to be most accurate, but I also really enjoyed how the four main characters were all interconnected as the book continued on. I found the book to be very readable...hard to put down...and perfect for a follow-on Hollywood cinema production.

A wonderful complement to non fiction Battle of Britain books, October 17, 2011
5.0 out of 5 stars
By Roy Crawford (Whitesburg, KY)
This review is from: Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel (Kindle Edition)

I must begin with a disclosure: I reviewed the manuscript of this book for technical and historical accuracy. I am a forensic engineer and serious amateur historian of the Battle of Britain. Among other things, I have read dozens of books about it and sat in the chairs Rex Harrison and Winston Churchill sat in at RAF Uxbridge on Eagle Day.

Since one of my favorite ways to take in history is to read fictional stories woven into historical events, I loved Where Eagles Never Flew and very highly recommend it for everyone. The major differences between it and straight history books is that it allows the reader to get inside the everyday lives of airmen, both inside the cockpit and out, including their romances, on both sides of the Channel. Battle of Britain Wing Commander Bob Doe wrote that Eagles is the best book he's ever read on that piece of history, adding that authoress Schrader got it "smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots." High praise indeed. You'll get details you wouldn't elsewhere, and you'll feel as if you're right there in the thick of wartime life rather than just observing from the future and the outside.

One of my first thoughts upon finishing this book was that it should be a movie. The ending is particularly stunning.











Sunday, October 16, 2011

News and Reviews

Readers of this blog might be interested in a event sponsored by English Heritage. Novelist Laura Wilson will conduct a workshop offering advice on writing historical fiction covering everything from conducting research to character development and negotiating matters of historical licence. The workshop will be held in Wellington Arch, London, on Nov. 29 from 6-9 pm. For more information go to: www.english-heritage.org.uk/events

I will be holding a similar event here in Leipzig on November 18. More on that in later blogs.

First, here are the most recent reviews of Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer.




Excellent description of difficult period...

by Brenda Miller (North Carolina), September 30, 2011
4.0 out of 5 stars

Helena Schrader has done it again, amazingly. In this, her second volume in the Leonidas trilogy, she has brought an admittedly difficult period in Leonidas' life to a level of sustained reader interest. The earlier volume covering the agoge period had an easily identifiable theme and historical framework, and the last volume, which will emphasize Thermopylae, also has an identifiable historical framework to build on. It is this interim period, about which very little is actually known, where Ms Schrader shows her skills as an historical novelist. It bears repeating here that Ms Schrader does and has done, her "homework" on ancient Sparta in this period. Her research is beyond reproach and although she embellishes (as she must),she does not make up her own facts. Although my own field of Greek historical interest is a much earlier period, I know enough about 5th Century Sparta to recognize the accuracy of her descriptions. I can also state that based on my 23 years as an Infantry officer in the US Army, Ms Schrader has clearly done a significant amount of research on armies, soldiers, and what motivates them and makes them cohesive winners.

As she states in her prefaces, Ms Schrader aims to correct general opinion of Sparta as being some sort of brutal producer of robot-like ironmen. She succeeds, to the point where I and I suspect other, at least male, readers, might say that she has gone a bit too far in describing Sparta as a "touchy-feely", sensitive, place where a straight-arrow, incorruptible, nice guy, like Leonidas could even survive, much less become a King and army commander. But there is no arguing with Ms Schrader's research and if such is the Sparta she has uncovered, then so be it.My only disappointment is that I have to wait now for a seemingly interminable period for the final volume of this trilogy!

Ms Schrader has done a superb job here putting flesh on the few historical bones that we have of Leonidas. She has written an absolutely excellent historical novel which should have widespread appeal and which, with the other two volumes, would make a fascinating movie. I would not hesitate to buy the completed trilogy as a gift for members of my own family of very different ages.

AND

 
An extremely readable historical/biography
by M. Lignor (New York, NY), October 7, 2011 4.0 out of 5 stars


A good start for a review concerning Sparta might be for the layman to know just where Sparta is located. Sparta is on a plain, completely surrounded by mountain ranges. It was a Greek city/state but not fortified as most of the cities of Greece were at that time. Sparta was a collection of small villages built over a large rural area and six very low hills. The highest served as the acropolis and location of the Temple of Athena. Sadly, there's not much of it left to see.

Now on to Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer. The Administrators of the Spartan government tried to get the King of Sparta to set aside his wife and take another as she had not produced a child. The King refused and in an attempt to get an heir, the Administrators agreed to allow the King to take a second wife without putting aside his first. The new wife soon had a son, Cleomenes.

A year after the birth of Cleomenes, the King's first wife gave birth to a son, Dorieus, followed by twin sons, Leonidas and Cleombrotus. As Leonidas was considered to be her third son, he didn't have a chance to become King so he had to go to the agoge (a public school that all Spartan sons had to complete in order to qualify for citizenship).

King Cleomenes has to deal with a co-monarch, King Demaratus, and this King is a fighter while Cleomenes is more interested in sticking his nose into the affairs of Athens. Demaratus is against this move and soon the kings are at odds. Trading on this conflict, the Corinthians are challenging the Spartan's control of the area. At the same time, other Greek cities are asking for aid from Sparta in a rebellion against Persia.

Leonidas, if you remember, is the youngest half-brother of Cleomenes and is not really interested in politics. He has just obtained his citizenship from the school and doesn't think that this revolt by his countrymen will affect him in the slightest. He is an ordinary soldier in the Spartan army and a lot more interested in taking care of his own life. His biggest concerns are to find people to take care of his ruined estate and looking around for a suitable woman to become his bride.

He sets his cap for Gorgo; she is intelligent and tough - qualities that were not the norm for marriageable women in Ancient Sparta. They get married, and they are a good team. Gorgo is extremely clever and this helps Leonidas to take care of his people and the pair become very well thought of monarchs. But, that is for the next book in this very readable series to cover. This book is book two in the Leonidas saga. The first volume: Leonidas of Sparta, A Boy of the Agoge, deals with Leonidas' birth, growing up in Sparta and his schooling at the Agoge. This second volume is about his citizenship before he became ruler, his marriage, the battles (which were frequent) that he fought, and the politics that he learned to handle.

Readers will enjoy this book even if they have not read the first in the series. A Peerless Peer will definitely stand alone and is also a good lead-in to the final book in the series. When readers finish this story they will be anxious to see what happens to Leonidas and Gorgo when his fortunes change for the better.

The author is a superb writer of Historical/Fiction/Biography. The story was very readable and Ancient History buffs will be able to put themselves in the middle of these great battles and the politics that brought them to the attention of the author.

Next week I will be starting a ten part series on the "Birth of a Novel" from Idea to Marketing.















Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing Historical Biography: Dialogues with Ghosts

In an earlier entry, I described the challenges of writing biographical fiction. This week I want to focus on the more personal complications of the genre. In normal historical fiction, as I have described elsewhere, characters often take on a life of their own, even pulling the novel in unexpected directions. My experience with headstrong characters has been overwhelmingly positive. A good character has a better feel for the direction a book should go than I do. Most of my books have benefited from this fact and evolved differently from the original concept. In one case, a secondary character completely took over the book and the initially conceived story has not been written at all.

But with biographical fiction, such course changes are unacceptable. The true biography of the central character lays down the route that must be followed. The author is free to decide which stations along the way will be described in greatest detail, maybe the author can add an embellishment here and there, but in the end the road-map must be respected. There can be no happy end where there was none in history.

Another challenge of biographical fiction is, of course, the fact that a historical figure does not “belong” to the novelist alone. A historical figure is a public figure, and that means that anyone else can choose to write about this person too. Unlike fictional characters, the novelist of a biographical novel has to “share” their central characters with others – and often compete with or confront existing interpretations. When I, for example, describe the German assassin Claus Count Stauffenberg, my interpretation of Stauffenberg will clash in many minds with the hero of the same name created by Tom Cruise. It makes no difference whether my research is better and my interpretation is more plausible. Tom Cruise’s Stauffenberg is more familiar to my reader than my historical sources and it has already occupied their consciousness. Altering readers’ perceptions of historical figures is far more difficult than creating new characters.

Finally, there is the difficultly of living with the ghosts of dead. A good biographical novelist will spend a great deal of time with the characters of his/her book and this means spending time with the dead. Depending on one’s sensibility, that can be quite unnerving. I have spent many a sleepless night, plagued by images of historical figures dissatisfied with my portrayal of them. They can be angry or simply disappointed, but they are unrelentingly hard task-masters, who demand an even higher standard of writing than their fictional colleagues.

Obviously, on the evidence of some historical novels that liberally apply the names of historical figures to characters with no resemblance to the personage carrying the same name in history, some authors do not take their responsibilities to the dead very seriously. I wonder that they are not haunted by furious ghosts. Perhaps they are and I just don’t know about it – or the ghosts consider them so insubstantial they can’t be bothered.








Saturday, October 1, 2011

Where Eagles Never Flew - Excerpt 3

This Excerpt from Where Eagles Never Flew focuses on the leading female character, the pacifist and Salvation Army volunteer Emily Pryce.

Emily was doing the washing-up after dinner with the radio playing softly in the kitchen. The walls of the terraced cottage were so thin that the music could e heard throughout the house. Fortunately, she was listening to classical music, which not disturb her parents as they sat together in the parlour. Mr. Pryce was reading Pravda, his Russian dictionary beside him for reference, and his wife was correcting exams, as it was end of term.

The telephon rang.
 
Mrs. Pryce was nearest to the door. She scowled and then, remarking indignantly, “Just who can be calling at this time of night?” she went into the hall to answer it. She was even more annoyed when a strange male voice asked for Emily and there were clearly pub noises in the background. She stepped into the kitchen doorway and said sharply, “Emily! Some man is calling you from a pub. You certainly will not meet him there.”

“No, of course not, Mum. Who is it?” Emily was not “seeing” anyone. Once or twice one of the sales representatives at the insurance company hinted about “doing something together sometime,” but he never carried through with an actual invitation. Might he have finally found the courage? Or could it be Michael? Maybe he was in the area for some reason? A little breathless with hope and apprehension she said, “Hello?”

“Miss Pryce?”
 
“Yes.” She still didn’t recognize the voice.
 
“Robin Priestman. We met about a month ago at the Salvation Army Mission.” He sounded as if he wasn’t sure she’d remember, but Emily remembered very vividly. In Fact, she’d agonized over the encounter countless hours since then, trying both to understand her feelings and dissect her behavior so there would be no repeat of her incredible faux pas. The voice in the receiver was continuing, “Look, I’m flying an old Spit down to the Supermarine works near Southampton for factory re-fit tomorrow, and don’t have to get back here until late. I thought maybe we could do something together. Dinner perhaps?”

“Dinner?” Emily was blind-sided. She had never expected to see this young man again. She had certainly never expected him to ask her out. And dinner with a young man she hardly knew was also something she had never actually done before. She had always assumed that anyone she actually with out with would be someone she knew well from University or work or the Mission….

“Yes, why not?” The young man was replying lightly. “Although, actually, I want to take off before dark, so it would be better if we could meet earlier.” The pub noises in the background were very loud – evidently young men in high spirits. Robin raised his voice to be heard over it all. “More high-tea, really Is that all right?”

'Yes, of course,” Emily stammered.

“Four o’clock, then? Where can I collect you?”

Emily registered that she would be at work at that time, and she would have to take time off if she wanted to go early, but she would worry about that tomorrow. She just managed to give Robin her work address before his coins ran out, and the loud buzzing of the telephone cut them off.

Dazed, Emily drifted intot he parlour where her parents looked at her expectantly, her father over his reading glasses and her mother very rigidly from her desk chair. “And just who was that and what did he want?” Mrs. Pryce demanded.

Emily perched on the edge of the nearest chair, the dishcloth still in her hands, and said in a dazed voice. “It was a man I met at the Seaman’s Mission.”

“A sailor?!” Her parents said in horrified unison.
 
“No, he’s Major Fitzsimmon’s nephew. He’s a pilot in the RAF.”
 
“Not much better!” Mrs. Pryce concluded. “One hears they drink like fish.”
 
“Well, I expect that’s a little exaggerated,” Mr. Pryce conceded. “I don’t see how they could be fighting off the Luftwaffe, if they all drank too much all of the time.”
 
“And what did he want with you?” Mrs. Pryce ignored her husband.
 
“He asked me out to tea tomorrow.”

"And you accepted?” Her mother sounded shocked.

Emily looked up and straight at her mother, and suddenly she was no longer uncertain and confused. She was 24 years old and earning her own living. She was tired of being treated like she was still a schoolgirl. “Yes, Mum. I accepted, and I’m going to go to tea with him whether you like it or not.” Then Emily stood and went back into the kitchen to finish the drying up, leaving her started parents gazing at one another baffled.
 
One thing was very clear to Emily: she was attracted to this young man as she had been only once before, to Michael. But after finding out he was in the military, she was intimidated by him, too. The military was an alien and rather frightening world. She wasn’t at all sure she could handle it, but she was determined to at least get to know Robin Priestman better. Surely nothing that came out of the friendship could be worse than spending the rest of her life here in ths horrible house with her heartless parents, doing nothing of any significance.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Where Eagles Never Flew - Excerpt 2

The following excerpt from Chapter 2 of Chasing the Wind/Where Eagles Never Flew introduces two of the German protagonists in the book.


The dining room of the mess was far less sterile than the bedrooms. It had gracious dimensions and was decorated with Art Nouveau, including elegant chandeliers. The tables were set with white linen, silver and crystal -- as was standard for the Luftwaffe. There were fresh flowers on every table and the mess stewards, Geuke noted, wore white jackets rather than field grey, as if it were peacetime or they were in the Reich. Geuke was take to the head table, at which the Gruppenkommandeur and his three Staffelkapitaene, including Hauptman Bartels, stat.

Bartels was tall, blond, tanned and fit -- a German officer straight out of a UFA film. He wore the Iron Cross First and Second Class on his tailored uniform, and smoked long cigarettes. He considered Geuke wiht a mixture of disbelief and annoyance. Geuke could hear him thinking, "Have we really sunk so low that we have to take officers like this?"

Geuke wriggled uncomfortably in his brand-new uniform. The collar seemed much too tight. He wished he could have loosened his tie a bit, but instead had to stand at attention, trying to cut a military figure.

Bartels seemed to overcome his disappointment and with sigh, he announced, "Find yourself a free place to sit and have a meal. We're flying at 09:00 -- weather permitting. What do you think, Harmann," he turned to one of the other officers, 'Can we trust Feldburg with a Rotte?" Then answering his own question, he remarked with obvious disgust, "I don't suppose we have much choice. He's at least seen some combat." Then turnign back to Geuke he said, "You'll be flying wingman to Christian Freiherr von Feldburg. I'll send him over after dinner."

The only table with a vanct place wasone occupied by non-flying officers: the intelligence officer, signals officer, paymaster, quartermaster, doctor and chaplain of the Gruppe. These men made Geuke welcome at their table perfunctorily, and then continued their discussion about the relative merits of the British and German early warning systems. Gueke tried to listen, but he knew afr too little about either system to make any kind of intelligent contribution to the debate. He was relieved when the Gurppenkommandeur retired tot he bar.

But Geuke's sense of relief was short-lived. In the bar, the officers clustered together in familiar gorups, and Geuke was more an outsider than in the dining room. Here men could shoulder him aside or turn their backs without being rude. Geuke hisitantly went to the bar and after everyone else had been served, he timidly asked the Luftwaffe bartender for a beer.

"Account number, Herr Leutnant?" the bartender demande without even looking at him.

"Put it on my account," A voice said from behyind hm, and Geuke jumped and turned around.

The officer behind him smiled and heldo ut his hand. "Feldburg. The COG just told me the good news that you will be flyiing wingman to me tomorrow. I think that calls for more than beer, don't you? May I make that beer a glass of Sekt?"

Geuke was so taken aback he heardly knew what to say. This officer was another one of the propaganda-poster-types, and the hand he extended had the distinctive heavy gold ring with the inset stone on which his coat-of-arms must be embossed. Geuke heard the Staffelkapitaen's words rining in his ears, "You'll be flying wingman to Freiherr von Feldburg." The plumber's son did not believe he had ever shaken hands with a baron before. True, he'd encountered the odd Junker at training, but none with this exalted a title.

"Ah, Herr -- Freiherr --"

"Christian," interrupted the other man. "And let's go straight to 'Du.' As a Rotte we have to work together like brothers, after all. No room for formality. What's your first name?"

"Ernst," Geuke croaked out, wtill in a bit of a daze.

They shook hands again, and Christian insisted, "Champagne?"

Saturday, September 17, 2011

First Reviews of Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer

Just ten days after the release of Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer two reviews have already been posted on amazon.com. That's exciting -- especially when both are from people I do not know and to whom I did not send review copies. I hope this is a good omen and the book will continue to attract positive attention.

5.0 out of 5 stars
So Good It Will Make You Stay Up Past Your Bedtime..., September 8, 2011
By
Kathleen Ann Langley "Lucky 7 Tattoo Kings Beach" (Lake Tahoe, California)
(REAL NAME), Amazon Verified Purchase

This review is for: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer (Paperback)

Yes, once again Ms Schrader has kept me up WAY past my bedtime for "just one more chapter." Rarely in historical fiction does this happen for me. I will hit a boring spot in a book and easily put it down until next time. Not so with the second book of this Leonidas trilogy "Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer." She had a tough job to outshine herself after the first part of this 3 part series, " A Boy of the Agoge" yet the author met the challenge with gusto.

All the main players of ancient Sparta are back, and some new ones add to the story without becoming confusing. Gorgo comes into her teenage years with timeless problems we can relate to. Leonidas becomes a man we would all desire to have in our lives as the ultimate compassionate alpha male. And the folks who surround these 2 ancient royal players have their own stories told too. Not a boring one in the bunch either. It's like a soap opera set in antiquity!

Now that I have plowed my way through this second book I once again cannot wait until the 3rd and final book comes out next year! If you even have a vague interest in what life may have been like for Leonidas, or the Spartan people at this time and place in history, you will dig this book.

AND
5.0 out of 5 stars
Thin rations, September 4, 2011,
BY
Jessica Allan Schmidt (People's Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States)
(REAL NAME)

This review is for: Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer (Paperback)

William Styron, author of The Confessions of Nat Turner once commented that a historical novelist did best when given "thin rations". This book takes those scant rations available from the historical record and extrapolates them, using common sense as well as classical sources, to construct what life may have been like for Leonidas I. There are some interesting inconsistencies with the historical records -- for instance, it is not known if Cleombrotus was Leonidas' twin or younger brother, yet the series paints him quite convincingly as Leonidas' elder twin -- but on the whole, it provides a very interesting look at the dynamics of an unusual society.

Sparta is often treated by modern scholars as a nation of simple brutes, but records do not hold with this -- if the training of youths was simply a matter of testing them until they broke, Greek leaders from all over the peninsula would not have competed to send their sons to the agoge for whatever periods they could. Like military schools of today, Sparta's educational programme was much more clearly devoted to military *and* practical learning, but the relative dearth of universal military training during this period means that its military nature is over-emphasised. Moreover, the fact that attendance at the Spartan agoge meant for some préstige among other Greeks strongly implies that it was seen as a specialist school that was a great honour for youths inclined to eventually rise to rôles of command in their own city-state's military.

The examination of what Spartan adult life was like is an interesting view of comparison and contrast. In the era before supertankers and jet aircraft, military engagements were by necessity no more than half the year, before mud and rain made it impossible to manoeuvre effectively, and, even more importantly, avoid disease decimating the ranks (a killer that was more likely than death by battle wound up through the Second World War), and therefore, even though Spartans were certainly careful to keep themselves in training year round and maintain constant operational readiness, they also had personal, civilian lives that were just as important to them, if not more so. As any tactician can tell you, the most motivated fighter is one who fights to defend a society he feels is integral to his life. Were Sparta a brutal place dedicated to warfare and only warfare, there would be no society to defend.

In this book, it is interesting to see the evolution of Queen Gorgo from girlhood to womanhood, even though most of it is conjecture based on what *is* known of the training of Spartan women. This book is also surprisingly engaging for the middle part of a trilogy, traditionally a time when *any* storytelling lags. The agoge is notorious, and Leonidas' death is equally well-known, but this period could have been fairly dull, yet it is as engaging as the first book in this series. I recommend it strongly.













Saturday, September 10, 2011

Where Eagles Never Flew: Excerpt 1

Dear Followers,

To whet your appetite for Where Eagles Never Flew I will be posting here excerpts from "Eagles" for the next several weeks.

Priestman unhooked his oxygen mask and shoved the hood back before he landed, gulping in the fresh air. When he set down on three points, he thought he had never in his life been so glad to have ground under him.  He was aware of a pulsing headache and his eyes felt swollen in their sockets. He taxied absently to the side of the field, too tired to notice if someone was signalling him someplace else. He cut the engine, pulled off his helmet, and ran his hand through his hair -- it was wet and sticky.

He heard someone pant up beside him. "Robin?"

He glanced over; it was Roger Ibbotsholm.

"Aye, aye." Robin was having trouble unclipping his straps for some reason.  Roger was on the wing and bent over to help him.

"Are we glad to see you! We thought you'd bought it!"

"They did rather catch us out -- again. Is everyone else back?"

"The CO's gone for six. Flamed out and went straight in from 10,000. Guy had to hit the silk over Seclin.  Driver swears he saw a parachute land just beside the field so he's almost certainly a POW. Shakespeare says Spotty didn't make it either -- crate flamed before he could get out."

O'Brian and Sellers reached Priestman. They too were panting, having run over from the far side of the field. "Are you all right, sir?"

"I've got a terrible headache, actually," Robin admitted, rubbing his frehead.

"There's a ruddy big hole in the back of your seat, sir!"

"Oh, that. Yes. Good thing about the armor plating."

"You can say that again, sir! Look!"

A crowd was gathering. This Hurricane didn't look nearly as tattered as his old one, but the one neat puncture it did have indicated a cannon shell had lodged deep in the armour plating behind his seat.  The others scrambled up the off wing and peered into his Hurricane. There were a lot of admiring whistles and excited comments. Priestman left the others to it and slid to the ground, leaning back against the trailing edge of the wing.

Only once before had he been so conscious of divine protection -- after capsizing a small boat in a Force Five gale in the Solent. Then he had been a foolish 15-year-old boy who over-estimated his abilities, and for whom a benign deity had no doubt felt pity. Today, with so many others dead, it was hard to understand why he should have been one of the lucky ones.

An airman appeared around the tail and offered him a cup of cocoa. It was almost cold, but Priestman sipped it graefully.

Priestman noticed Yardly approaching but didn't think anything of it -- until the Flight Lieutenant opened his mouth and said: "I'm acting CO now, if you're wondering." Robin hadn't gotten that far, actually, but he didn't like the sound of this. Priestman had never really warmed to Sharp, but he was a first-rate pilot and a conscientious commmander. Priestman had trusted him. Yardly was something else agian. From the day he joined the squadron, Yardly had seemed to resent him. In short, this was not a good development.

Yardly, meanwhile, was remarking, "I see you were lucky a second time, Priestman."

"Yes, sir." It obviously did not occur to the senior officer that maybe this pilot was particularly skilled or a talented dog-fighter.

"And the Blenheims got slaughtered again." The Flight Lieutenant made it sound as if it was Priestman's fault alone. Priestman kept his mouth shut. He might do stupid things when he got backed into a bad enough corner, but he wasn't inherently insubordinate or stupid.

Yaredly was compelled to continue his lecture without new fuel. "Our job is to protect our bombers, not go rushing off on our own. Don't forget it! I'm not going to put up with your nonsense the way Sharp did."

What nonsense? Priestman asked himself. He'd been behaving himself like a damned goody-two-shoes since he'd joined the Squadron!

(This excerpt is from Chapter 1 of Chasing the Wind, soon to be released in Kindle format under the new title Where Eagles Never Flew.)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thank You! and now "A Peerless Peer..."

Dear Followers,

Thank you for participating in my three surveys on the title, subtitle and cover image for the Kindle Edition of Chasing the Wind. There was considerable concensus that the best title is "Where Eagles Never Flew" -- although one or two of you confided in me well-founded reservations. After consulting with the publisher, however, the decision was made to go ahead with Where Eagles Never Flew as the title for the Kindle book.

Although the largest number of readers preferred the longest suggested subtitle, the publisher and cover designer vetoed this for practical reasons. The cover of a Kindle book never appears as anything more than a "thumbnail" and space is therefore at a premium. The publisher felt that we couldn't afford to spend so much "real estate" on the sub-title -- which would probably be almost illegible on a thumbnail anyway. So we opted for the shortest of all sub-titles: "A Battle of Britain Novel."

The cover was also a close call, with a slight plurality in favor of Cover 1. I have asked the designer to look at ways of combining the key features of these two covers and come up with a new design that meets the publisher's preferences but includes some of the features of Cover 1 that (from talking to some of you) was the main appeal of this design. 

Otherwise, all is on track for the release of Where Eagles Never Flew in about 3 weeks time. I will be sure to post information about the release on this blog. 

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless PeerMeanwhile, the second book in the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer is available for purchase on amazon.com in both trade paperback and Kindle formats. For more information about the Leonidas Trilogy you can also go to the dedicated website: http://sparta-leonidas-gorgo.com/


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Help Me Select a Cover

OK. Thanks everyone for your contributions with respect to the title and subtitle!

It looks like "Where Eagles Never Flew" has won hands down for the title, but the sub-title is still undecided. If you have not yet voted, please take a moment to let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, I have three cover designs in contention, and I'd appreciate your views. Please vote for one only in this survery.

Thank you!

Helena

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Help Me Choose a Subtitle!



Last week I asked your help in finding a new title for Chasing the Wind, my Battle of Britain novel, which will soon be released in Kindle format. So far Where Eagles Never Flew is leading by a wide margin. Meanwhile, I want to focus on the subtitle.

Chasing the Wind: A Story of British and German Pilots in the Battle of Britain

A subtitle is particularly important for a book being released in Kindle format because the subtitle provides the key words that will be fed to the search engines. My publisher and I agree that the phrase "Battle of Britain" MUST appear in the subtitle -- as this is the most frequently used search phrase likely to draw prospective readers to the novel.

Another consideration when selecting a subtitle is that it has to fit on the cover. A subtitle that is too long runs the risk of cluttering the cover and detracting from the over all image and so attractiveness.

You may have noted that the two considerations conflict. For the first, more words is better, for the second, less is more.

But that is why I want your help!

Please take a moment to particpate in my survey. Note that for subtitle you may vote more than once.

Thank you!

Helena