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.

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.