Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hitler's Demons -- An Introduction to Alexandra

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of Hitler's Demons:

Albrecht v. Rantzow was a tall, distinguished-looking man with greying side-burns and a cultivated English appearance. Colleagues jokingly claimed that he could easily be mistaken for Chamberlain himself -- something that he only pretended to dislike.  He kissed his wife, gave his stepdaughter his cheek, and then asked the ladies if they wished to join him in an aperitif. Alix and her mother asked for sherry, while he poured himself a cognac.

"Did you have a nice day, dear?" his wife asked.


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"As good as can be expected," he answered, with a suddenly sour twist to his lips, turning at the waist to give a reproving look to Alix. She surmised he had learned about the impending invasion of the Soviet Union and no doubt blamed "the Generals" (and so Alix) for it. He turned politely back to his wife, "And you, Louisa?"

"I'm afraid Grete brought home some very disappointing grades," Frau von Rantzow broke the news to him gently.

Albrecht v. Rantzow's face clouded over at once. "What's the matter with the girl? There's nothing wrong with her intelligence. Why doesn't she apply herself more? She's just plain lazy!"

Alix did not consider this a fair judgment of Grete and would have liked to speak up on her behalf, but she knew her "interference" would not be appreciated. She had been nearly twelve when her mother remarried in 1925. To this day politeness and distance, rather than warmth and sympathy dominated their relationship. In any case, Alix's mother was quick to defend her younger daughter. "Now, Albrecht! That's not fair. She's just having a hard time adjusting after the five years in Paris."

"We've been back two years now. Plenty of time for her to settle in," Herr v. Rantzow insisted sternly.

"Naja, and would  you really like it if she had adapted as well as Rudi?" his wife asked softly, but with a raised eyebrow.

Albrecht v. Rantzow was instantly silenced. There was nothing he wanted less than to have another Nazi in the house. After a moment of awkward silence, he asked, "Just where is Rudi?"

"Tonight's his soccer night."

Herr v. Rantzow looked at his watch. "It's already 7 o'clock. He should be home by now. He knows we eat punctually."

"It's some sort of special match. Against another Jungvolk troop, I think. He did warn me he might be late."

"Warn you? Since when do little boys warn their mothers? This is absolutely appalling. I won't tolerate it!" After the bad news about Grete, this was too much, and Herr v. Rantzow lost his temper. "It is bad enough that he's gone twice a week at the damn Jungvolk meetings. I will not tolerate him missing dinner a third night in the week. From now on, he'll be home on time on Fridays, or he will not be allowed to play football at all!"

"But, Albrecht -- " Frau v. Rantzow fell silent as Helga appeared in the doorway.

"Dinner is ready, Frau v. Rantzow."

"Thank you, Helga. You may go ahead and start serving. We'll be right out."

Alix went quickly to the downstairs toilet to wash her hands before joining the others on the terrace. As she joined them, she found Grete already energetically defending herself. "But, Papa, you were the one who said the Jews didn't cause the inflation. Don't you remember? I asked you how it was the Jews could make the inflation without hurting themselves since they used the same money as we do, and you siad it was all rubbish about them causing the inflation!"

Herr v. Rantzow looked somewhat embarrassed, while his wife wore the same I-told-you-so look she had used on Alix earlier.

"Grete," her father said sternly, "you are old enough to know that you don't repeat everything you hear at home in school. From now on, in school you repeat exactly what your teachers tell you and forget anything you've heard from your older sister or myself."

"But, Papa, if it isn't true--"

"Don't whine at me like that!"

Grete didn't risk any more defiance, but she clearly felt she was being unfairly handled. She pushed her hands between her knees and sat with hunched shoulders, pouting at her plate.

Alix, who had taken her place at the table, remarked in what she hoped was a casual tone as she removed her napkin from the silver ring, "Don't you think it's asking a lot of a child to expect her on the one hand to be honest and on the other to give answers she knows are false to her teachers?"

"Alix!" Her mother warned, anxious to avoid any confrontation between her eldest daughter and her second husband.

Herr v. Rantzow took the remark surprisingly calmly. "The girl has to learn how to get along in the real world. I'm afraid that the sooner she learns that survival requires a certain amount of hypocrisy, the better. Hypocrisy and apparent conformity with public opinion have become necessary nowadays."

Alix felt her temper rise. Although she didn't want to fight with her stepfather, she just couldn't let this remark stand unchallenged. "Adapt instead of resist, you mean?" she asked acidly.

Her stepfather leveled his steel-grey eyes at her and said firmly: "That is exactly what I mean. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by dramatic gestures of defiance. Least of all from a child. I realize, of course, that at your age, your actions are governed by idealism and emotion, but I can assure you, you will outgrow both. In the meantime, I expect you to scrupulously avoid misleading your impressionable younger sister. Now that is the end of the matter."

"May I ask a question?" Alexandra asked, in a tone that clearly reflected her resentment at being talked down to in this fashion.

Frau v. Rantzow sighed; Herr v. Rantzow waited with raised eyebrows.

"Agreeing with you that it is wrong to incite school-age children to futile gestures of defiance, I would nevertheless be curious to know at what point -- if any -- you consider the refusal to adapt an advisable course for an adult?"

"At that point where one can effect meaningful change and not merely endanger or disadvantage oneself and one's family."

"One more question, if I may?"

Herr v. Rantzow nodded.

"Was it then your conviction that you could not oppose the Regime in any worthwhile manner -- not even at the Embassy in Paris -- that induced you to become a member of the Nazi Civil Servant's Association?"

"Precisely -- and the fact that if I had not joined, my career in the Foreign Ministry would have been terminated. I do, after all, have a family to support.  Your preference for heroics is a mark of your immaturity and irresponsibility. The head of a family cannot afford either. Is that clear?"

"Perfectly," Alexandra assured him, but he remained acutely aware of her disapproval.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Hitler's Demons" Released

My novel on the German Resistance to Hitler, first published in 2008 under the title An Obsolete Honor, has just been released in Kindle format under the new title Hitler's Demons.

An Obsolete Honor was well received, earning good reviews and winning a literary award from Readers Views in the "Global" Category in 2009. Below is the review written by Steve Donoghue for the Historical Novel Society. Since the content is identical, the review applies equally to Hitler's Demons.

Helena Schrader’s new novel An Obsolete Honor [Hitler's Demons] deals with a dilemma of 20th century history that’s often easily forgotten by the general public: the fact that many Germans in the late ‘30s weren’t Nazis, didn’t want to be Nazis, and didn’t at all like the Nazis.

This alone would make Schrader’s novel noteworthy, but it’s got much more to recommend it; this is a meaty, gripping, entirely impressive work of historical fiction, full of observant (and surprisingly wry) prose and dialog that rings true. Schrader has spent a great deal of time in Germany and interviewed many survivors of World War II, and as a result, the book feels effortlessly authentic in its details.

The plot centers on Philip Baron von Feldburg, an officer in the German army who intensely dislikes the changes he sees being ushered in by Nazism. His younger brother Christian is star struck by the Reich’s early military victories, and his sister Theresa confronts the domestic side of National Socialism when she marries an up-and-coming party member. Philip feels isolated in his discontents until he meets Alexandra Mollwitz, a General Staff worker who shares his disillusionment. It’s predictable that the two would fall in love, but it’s handled so winningly that the reader is only pleased.

Alexandra is the most remarkable and memorable character in An Obsolete Honor [Hitler's Demons], especially as she and Philip become involved in various plots to assassinate Hitler and end the madness of the war. Actual historical figures mix with fictional characters in the time-honored way of so many historical novels, and Schrader’s portrayals are uniformly believable, even when she’s writing about full-blown Nazi psychopaths. Readers will, of course, be prepared for several less-than-happy endings, but hope also survives. This novel is enthusiastically recommended.

Steve Donoghue

I hope this review will encourage those of you who don't already have a copy of An Obsolete Honor to buy either it or Hitler's Demons. If you do, don't forget to write your own review on amazon.com when you finish.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What’s in a Name: The Importance of Titles

Titles have always been important. Everyone knows that. The problem is deciding just what constitutes a “good” title – keeping in mind that fashions for titles change at least as frequently as fashion for shoes.
 
Furthermore, a good title must fulfill multiple functions. It must have some relationship to the content of the book it designates. It must be notable. It must be comparatively unique. It must attract the right readers. And, nowadays, it must also work-well for on-line search engines. Fulfilling all these functions can be difficult, to say the least.

Authors of non-fiction rarely have difficulty finding a title that describes the content of their book (“Accounting Fundamentals” or “American Gardening ”) are both good solid titles, for example, that tell the reader what the book is about and will therefore attract the right readers – those interested in accounting or gardening respectively. Such titles also work well for search engines because the key words that a reader would use to search for books about accounting or gardening are built directly into the title.

The problem for non-fiction writers is more often coming up with a title that is comparatively unique and notable. Without even looking it up, I’ll bet there are a lot of books that are called “The Fundamentals of Accounting,” or “Accounting Basics” or “Basic Accounting” etc. The same is true for gardening. To be notable, therefore, non-fiction authors need to look for some means of spicing up their titles, e.g. “Accounting for Dummies” or “Sexy Accounting,” for example. The risk here is the author, who names his/her book “Sexy Accounting” and delivers a very dry book will soon get bad reviews from disappointed readers. Alternatively, a non-fiction author can try to make the topic more unique by being more specific: “Granit Gardening on the Maine Coast,” for example.

An increasingly popular alternative to trying to find the perfect “catchy” but informative title is to use subtitles. Let me use an example from my own books. My comparative study of women pilots in the U.S. and the U.K. during WWII needed a better title than: “Women Pilots in the U.S. and U.K during WWII.” I played with “Winged Auxiliaries” and the publisher chose “Sisters in Arms.” The later titles are short, notable, and “catchy,” but alone they might have attracted the wrong readers. Readers of non-fiction want to know what a book is about before they even pick it up because they are only going to buy it, if it is about a subject that interests them. Thus, my book became: “Sisters in Arms: British and American Women Pilots in World War Two.” Another example is my book on the Berlin Airlift. “The Berlin Airlift” is a short, notable title – that has been used scores of times already. Titling the book “The Blockade Breakers” gave it a unique identity, but on its own would have been insufficiently informative; there have been too many blockades in the course of history to tell a prospective reader what period of history and what part of the globe the book was about. So the title became: “The Blockade Breakers: The Berlin Airlift.”

Fiction, of course, has totally different rules. Traditionally, the titles of fiction books needed to be catchy, intriguing, poetic, or evocative – but not necessarily informative. Nothing about “Gates of Fire” tells us this is a novel set in ancient Greece. Yet not being informative is not the same as having nothing to do with the inside. Anyone who reads “Gates of Fire” quickly learns that Thermopylae means “hot gates” in Greek and understands that “Gate of Fire” refers to the battle at Thermopylae.

For my novel about the German Resistance, I initially chose the title “An Obsolete Honor,” because the main character in the book, a German aristocrat, feels that opposing Hitler is the only way he can retain his personal honor as an honest and upright man, yet also recognizes that his sense of honor is completely obsolete in the 20th Century.

But there is a problem. In 2010 (I don’t have the figures for 2011 yet) roughly 67,500 novels were published in the United States. That’s a lot of titles. To get a reader to take an interest in your particular title and want to read the book is difficult among competition like that. Furthermore, even the best novels are not universally appealing. There are a lot of readers who like mystery novels – and probably just as many who don’t. The same is true for historical fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy and all the other genres. Even “literary” novels that allegedly have a universal appeal do not really appeal to readers who don’t like that kind of “literary junk.” This suggests that a title is more likely to succeed if it can flag something about at least its genre in order to attract readers of that genre. Murder mysteries like to have the word “murder” or “blood” or something that evokes crime and thrills in the title, for example.

And then there is the issue of search engines. People looking online for a book to read are most likely to type in key words having to do with the subject of a book because if they type in “novel” they’re going to get millions of entries – 67,000 from last year plus all the books from previous years! If they type in “historical novel” the field might be reduced to just a couple 100,000 – but that’s still too many. If they type in “historical novel, WWII” the field narrows again etc. etc. If an author wants to increase the probability of his/her title landing on the first page of a search, he/she needs to have a title that puts the book in a searchable category. This is the main reason I decided to change the title of “An Obsolete Honor” to “Hitler’s Demons.” A book with Hitler in the title immediately tells the reader it is about WWII.

Furthermore, because of search engines, it is also becoming increasingly common – though by no means standard – to add subtitles to novels. If nothing else, books often have “A Novel” prominently placed on the cover near the title to help readers know what they are getting. (People like to know if they are getting facts or fiction right from the start.) The subtitle, furthermore, enables an author to retain a catchy, non-specific title while still providing information. For example, based on the poem “High Flight” written by an American Spitfire pilot early in WWII, I selected the title “Chasing the Wind” for my novel about the Battle of Britain, and added the subtitle: “A Novel about British and German Pilots During the Battle of Britain.”

Here, however, I ran into another problem. “Chasing the Wind” was just too good a title. Within just a couple of years my “Chasing the Wind” had been displaced by a half dozen others with topics ranging from sailing around the world to wind power. I needed a new title to move my title up in search engine results, and my publisher and I came up with the title “Where Eagles Never Flew.” Nobody likes this title as much as “Chasing the Wind” but it evokes flying, is based on the same poem (“High Flight”) and with the more concise subtitle “A Battle of Britain Novel” is selling significantly better than its predecessor. We shortened the subtitle, by the way, based on what key words were most commonly used for searching. “Battle of Britain” was such a popular search phrase that the rest of the sub-title was just getting in the way.

By the time I was ready to publish my novels on Leonidas, online sales of my books had become so important that I decided to give the key search engine phrase “Leonidas of Sparta” prominence as the title, and make the individual titles of the three part biographical novel the sub-titles. While somewhat awkward, sales suggest it was the right strategy.

Finding the “right” title for a book is, however, always tricky and I have often considered dozens of possible titles before settling on one. As the examples above illustrate, I have made mistakes and needed to “re-brand” a novel entirely in two cases already. Readers of this blog know that I look for reader in-put as well as I struggle to find titles for new works.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer -- "A Must Read"

Quantico1 published a review of "A Peerless Peer" and awarded it a full five stars! Thanks Quantico1 -- whoever you are! As I've said before, reviews are always a benefit to writers and other readers, so please don't be shy about posting reviews online of any books you read! Now Quantico1's review:

Most novels (and motion pictures) dealing with Sparta dwell mostly on the military aspects of this strange society, and rightly so--Sparta may have arguably produced history's most formidable soldiers. Helena Schrader's "A Peerless Peer" takes a different tack. Schrader's approach is to create a story rich in the detail of relationships, from the inevitable rivalries between the Royal houses to the more mundane lives of the Spartan state serfs known as Helots.

Leonidas, the future king and hero of Thermopylai, is the main character. The novel (second in a trilogy) follows his life after he becomes an adult in the Spartan army. In intricate and at times speculative detail, Schrader builds a very human portrait of this legendary king while contrasting him with his brothers, especially his twin Cleombrotus. Through a myriad of experiences and interactions, Leonidas character is built, layer upon layer, revealing his altruism, courage and personal integrity in a society where virtue was the ultimate measure of a man.

The character of Gorgo, his future wife, is developed as richly as Leonidas. She is precocious, headstrong, intelligent, and a driving force in the story. All the other players of the era are addressed from Cleomenes to Aristogoras, adding a Herodotean authenticity to the novel.

This is a highly recommended "must read" for anyone interested in ancient Sparta.