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, March 31, 2012

Writing about Thermopylae: Part II

Last week I talked about my initial reluctance to write about Thermopylae and the reasons for it. Today I want to focus on one particular aspect: the literary challenge.
 
The way I see it, if I were writing about Henry V of England, the historical record might be my guide, but Shakespeare would be my competition. And nothing about the real Battle of Agincourt would be so challenging as Shakespeare’s magnificent depiction of it. Never mind that the words he put into Henry’s mouth were never said by him – indeed, were probably based on the speech Edward of Woodstock made before Poitiers as recorded by Chandos’ Herald. Shakespeare remains the benchmark for any book of fiction about Henry V. Fortunately, I’m not writing about Henry V!

However, Thermopylae too appears in a number of works of fiction, and these have shaped our understanding of it and laid down the literary hurdles that any new book on the subject must successfully clear. I was personally introduced to Thermopylae – and indeed Ancient Sparta – by Caroline Dale Snedeker’s novel The Spartan. I read this book as a teenager, and it impressed me so much that I retained a life-long, if initially latent, interest in Sparta. I remembered it as a book about Thermopylae. But when I purchased and read it in preparation for my own description, I discovered that of the two hundred pages, only thirty-five were devoted to the battle, of which ten were the march north. Even the remaining twenty-five pages shy away from the issue in that they describe the fate of Aristodemos, the hero of the novel, and one of the two Spartiates who survived Thermopylae. Aristodemos, Herodotus tells us, was blind and behind the lines and did not actually fight, at least not on the last day. Snedeker’s account skirts around Thermopylae more than it describes it.
 
The opposite is true of Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. Pressfield’s book starts and ends at Thermopylae and everything in between is more or less a device for making us identify with and understand what happened there. Rather like Shakespeare, Pressfield is a better story-teller than historian. It was reading Gates of Fire that reawakened the latent interest in Sparta that Snedeker had sparked in me decades earlier, and after reading Gates of Fire, I started doing research on ancient Sparta.  Being a historian, I read history books. My research slowly and painstakingly produced a vision of Sparta markedly different from Pressfield’s. Yet his story-telling is compelling, as the success of his novel proves. Pressfield is therefore the modern bench-mark for any fictional account of Thermopylae.
 
Before attempting my own account, therefore, I re-read Gates of Fire. The issue was not if or how historically accurate his account was, but rather how did he deploy his characters and evoke emotion? How did he make his story-telling so effective? Was there any point in going “toe-to-toe” with an internationally best-selling author? Or should I, like Snedeker, find a way of evading the issue? Most important, was there anything that I could say about Thermopylae that hadn’t already been said?
 
Astonishingly, when I re-read Gates of Fire, I came away feeling that Pressfield had done a magnificant job of describing male bonding on a battlefield and that his Thermopylae was very much about blood and guts and heroes. It uses the language of modern fighting men. It speaks to modern fighting men. It is a tribute to fighting men of all nations and ages.

But is that all that Thermopylae was and is that all it means to us?

Pressfield’s heroes are already crippled by the end of the first day of fighting, yet continue to perform feats of super-human strength and endurance, heedless of pain and physics for another two days. Pressfields heroes are demi-gods – like Achilles and Hektor.

But Leonidas was a real human being, a historical, not a mythical figure. So were the other 300 Spartans and 700 Thespeians. They all had real names, real (not divine) parents, and they felt real pain. They had only the strength of real men. Shouldn’t we honor them for what they were, rather than turn them into supermen?
 
Many people want supermen, cartoon-heroes, supernatural heroes. For them, there are lots of “Leonidases” on the market from films and cartoons to PC-games.
 
But it seems to me there are too few portrayals of Leonidas as a complex, human being, and this, I realized, could be my contribution to the literature on Thermopylae. My Thermopylae, I decided, would be about human beings doing exceptional, but not super-human things. And so at last, I sat down and wrote about Thermopylae.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Writing about Thermopylae: Part I

I’ve been working on the Leonidas Trilogy for a number of years now, and – obviously – from the very start I have known that the book would end at Thermopylae.

OK, I admit, there were some days when I thought: “Do you really have to do that? Hasn’t everything already been said? Wouldn’t it be enough to end the book as Leonidas marches north?”

But reality always set in relatively quickly. People read about Leonidas because of Thermopylae. They want to read about Thermopylae. If I didn’t write about Leonidas at Thermopylae, my readers would feel cheated. It doesn’t matter that my declared objective is to write about his life, not his death. So, I accepted my fate. I would have to write about Thermopylae – but first I had all the rest of the book(s) to write….

It was wonderful. With each chapter I came to know – and like – Leonidas better. I met his friends. Watched Gorgo grow up, become an alluring woman and partner for Leonidas. The project grew and evolved. There was so much to tell! But with each completed chapter, I was a step closer to Thermopylae.

At some indefinable point I started to unconsciously slow down. Oh, I had lots of good excuses. I had guests. I had work. I had to work on many weekends. I was even Acting Consul General for a while. But in reality I was procrastinating. I didn’t want to face Thermopylae.

Why?

Well, frankly, I don’t like killing people. Certainly not people I like. And I like Leonidas – and Alkander and Prokles and Maron and…. You get the picture.

The far greater problem, however, was the competition. Precisely because so many people from Herodotus onward have already written about Thermopylae, my readers have expectations. Unlike most fiction, where the author’s only burden is to carry an inert reader along, fiction describing a familiar incident means dragging the reader in directions they may not expect to go. In the first case, your reader is on a raft and you are the current of the river. In the second case, the reader is in a power boat trying to go in the direction he wants based on the charts provided by descriptions familiar to him.

The direction of the river, of course, is set by history. I can’t change that. (Well, some novelists do, but I’m a historian.) I can’t have Leonidas escape alive – and I wouldn’t want to. So the first thing I did was sit down and read as many accounts of Thermopylae as I could readily get my hands on. I make no pretense of reading everything, but I believe my reading covered a sufficient spectrum to be called comprehensive, starting with Herodotus, Bradford, Fields, and Holland. I also visited the physical site and walked around the battlefield myself.

The combination of research and personal inspection gave me the skeleton for the story. I knew the geography, climate, and the bare facts. That was the easy part.

The greater challenge, however, was confronting the literary aspects of the story. But enough for today, I’ll talk about the literary challenges next week.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hitler's Demons -- Love in Nazi Germany

The following is an excerpt from Hitler's Demons, Chapter 13:

"Alexandra, this sounds serious."  In all the years they had known each other, Alexandra had only fallen in love once -- and that had ended in catastrophe.  Thereafter, she dated only occasionally, and nothing seemed to really "take off." Lotte knew that Alexandra was still a virgin.  In consequence, Lotte felt Alexandra was terribly inexperienced when it came to men, and was instantly protective. "Is he married?"

"Lotte! You know I wouldn't go out with a married man."

"But I thought all officers married when they were lieutenants or captains or whatever? At least that's what you told me not three months ago," Lotte reminded her. Lotte, like Alix's mother, had immediately assumed that [Alix's job at General Staff HQ] would be an ideal place for Alix to meet a suitable young man, but Alexandra had dismissed the idea on the grounds that the officers with whom she had to deal were too senior not to be married already.

"Most do," Alexandra admitted.

"So what's wrong with your major? What did you say his name was?"

"Feldburg, Philip Freiherr von Feldburg."

Lotte whistled and sat back in her chair, her attention focused intently on her friend. "Go on."

"What do you mean?"

"Tell me more. For example, how long has this been going on?"

"There's nothing going on, Lotte. Major v. Feldburg joined the AHA about two months ago. Over the last six weeks, he's asked me out every weekend except the one when he was Duty Officer."

"That sounds good."

Alexandra sighed. "I know, but it isn't what it sounds like. He still used the formal form, and he's never touched more than my elbow -- to help me in or out of a taxi or across a street or whatever."

Lotte frowned. She didn't like the sound of this. Alexandra was an attractive young woman, and it was clear to her that a serious suitor should have been more ardent. Then again, Alexandra's good looks might intimidate an ugly man. "What does he look like?"

"Dark hair, dark-grey eyes, fine classical face, glasses."

"Attractive?"

"Very."

"I supposed he might just prefer boys. There are men --"

Alexandra was so indignant in her denials that Lotte instantly knew Alexandra's heart was lost -- even if she didn't know it herself yet. She sipped her champagne thoughtfully and listened carefully as Alexandra finally started to pour her heart out. Alix was always like that. She needed to be encouraged at first, but when she'd overcome her inhibitions, she would speak with feeling and openness.

"I honestly don't know what ot make of him, Lotte. He's everything I thought I hated when I was at university." She gestured vaguely to the room around her to refer to that stage of her life. "He's not only an aristocratic land-owner, he's a General Staff officer and he's Catholic. There are times when he's so formal that it drives me mad! But there's nothing haughty about him -- or even arrogant. Nor is he the list bit bigoted. I swear, Lotte, he's given more thought to a wider range of topics than most students or even professors. He's amazingly well-read, despite his lack of university education, and what's more, he tries to analyze and understand concepts -- like the key elements of education, the essence of leadership, the relevance of religion in warfare, etc. etc."

Lotte laughed, and Alexandra stopped talking, offended.

Lotte reached out and patted her arm. "I'm not laughing at you, Alix. I just find it amazing how different we are! Can you picture me raving about some man who wanted to talk about religion and leadership?" Alexandra had to giggle at the thought. Lotte nodded and insisted seriously. "Go on. Tell me what it is you like best about your young man."

Alexandra hesitated, took her time considering her answer, and then decided, "It's that he has no patent answers and seems genuinely interested in my opinions. He doesn't lecture to me, Lotte. He really listens to what I have to say." Alexandra sounded amazed by this, and Lotte knew it was the old wound. Alexandra was continuing, however, unable to restrict Philip's virtues to a single point. "He's reliable. He's trustworthy. He has a strong sense of responsibility, and even if we disagree about this or that on the surface, our basic values are the same."

"So what's wrong with him?" Lotte challenged.

Alexandra shrugged, sighed and played with the empty Sekt glass.  "He still calls me 'Frl. v. Mollwitz' and at times -- despite his rank, title and decorations -- he seems outright diffident."

"Alexandra," Lotte leaned forward, placed her elbows flat on the table, and folded her hands together. "I want an honest answer: Have you ever done anything to encourage him?"

"What do you mean? I've always accepted his invitations."

"Well, does he see you home?"

"Of course."

"To your apartment?"

"Yes."

"And do you invite him up for coffee or a glass of wine?"

"Of course not! He might get the wrong idea! I'm not like you, Lotte; I couldn't deal with having one affair after another. I couldn't go through an abortion to save my life, and being an unwed mother would be even worse." Alix was not so much angry as agitated. Part of her felt that she ought to be more like Lotte. She was 28 years old and with every day she got older and less "eligible." Her mother had almost despaired, blaming Alix's education. She told Alix she was "too outspoken," adding that men didn't like "clever" women. Alix had started to believe her -- until she met Philip.  Philip was everything she had ever dreamed of in a husband -- except that he was a reactionary Junker. But if he wasn't seriously interested in her, she supposed she ought to at least enjoy an affair with him. The problem was that she simply couldn't imagine sleeping with a man just for the "fun" of it, without any prospects of permanency.

Lotte was making calming gestures. "Relax, Alix. I'm not suggesting you sleep with him. But, you see, men don't like being rejected any more than we do. Maybe he's afraid you'll you'll reject him, if he goes too far too fast?"

"Lotte! He's a rich baron with an Iron Cross. What has he got to be afraid of?"

"You."

"Me? I'm an old maid --"

"Nonsense! Besides, there must be some reason he isn't married at his age. Maybe he was rejected by the woman of his dreams and hasn't recovered?  Or maybe he was just too busy getting his rank and those General Staff stripes and the medals to have time for women? Maybe he's completely inexerienced?"

"I can't imagine that," Alexandra asserted, thinking that Philip was simply too good-looking and charming not to have had lots of experience with women. She combed her hair out of her face wtih her hand. "You don't really think that's possible, do you?" she tensely asked her experienced friend.

Lotte shrugged. "I admit it's  hard to imagine -- if he's even half as charming as you make him sound. Maybe he's just too conservative. Don't Catholic aristocrats usually marry modest maidens straight out of convent schools?  -- preferably someone they're related to."

"Yes, and that's what I'm afraid of," Alexandra admitted candidly. "I'm afraid that he sees me as a pleasant way to fill his free time until he finds an immature maiden wth the right bloodlines."

"And that's not enough for you?" Lotte pressed her. "I know girls who'd sell their souls for just one evening at Kempinski's on the arm of a young, decorated baron. But being taken out to expensive restaurants and concerts and films all without any obligations isn't enough for you?" The question wasn't unkind, just very penetrating.

Alexandra paused, her hand still in her hair. Their eyes met. Alexandra shook her head. "No, Lotte. It's ironic, but this reactionary Junker is everything I though an open-minded, socialist intellectual would be -- and wasn't. He's the first man in my whole life who has ever really taken me seriously. He's so much better than Martin was -- and he would still be, without his rank, his title or his wealth. I'm not saying I'm in love with him," she hastened to stress to Lotte (who smiled knowingly). "It's just that there's nothing I'd like more in the world right now than to get to know him better. I want to know about his personal opinions, not just his public ones. I want to know more about what he feels, not just what he thinks."

Lotte leaned forward and put her hand on Alexandra's wrist. "Then don't let him slip away, Alix. Take a chance."

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hitler's Demons: The Eastern Front December 1941

The following is an excerpt from Hitler's Demons Chapter 17:

In the HQ building, a former school, the destruction was less serious than might have been expected.  From the look of things, the room facing the street had not been defended. Apparently, the staff had taken refuge in the stairwell beyond, which had no windows. The door leading to the stairwell was splintered with bullet holes, and just beyond the door were heavy bloodstains. The banister had been ripped or otherwise broken off from the stairway, and again there was blood on and beside the stairs.

As Philip stood and surveyed the scene, Major v. Krosigk came up behind him and stood silently for a moment. Finally Philip turned to face him and hardly recognized him; he had gone grey.

"This is where Intendanturrat Lambrecht died." He indicated the blood stain on the wooden floor.  "He tried to delay them as they broke in, so the others would have time to get upstairs. But even so, Stabszahlmeister Dr. Domkirche and Heeresjustizinspector Schemmer didn't make it. You see," he pointed to the shattered banister. "They shot Schemmer in the back and he fell off the stairs, taking the banister with him.  Look, there are his glasses." Krosigk went forward and lifted a pair of wire-framed glasses off the floor near the shattered banister. One of the two lenses was broken, but the other was intact despite the twisted frame. Philip remembered the officious-looking inspector who had stared at him in amazement on the day of his arrival.

"Where is the rest of your staff?" Philip asked the IVa a little harshly.

Krosigk was snapped out of his contemplation of the glasses. He looked up and gestured vaguely, "Major Kellermann has them doing various things."

"Where is Major Kellermann?" As the Second General Staff Officer, Philip thought that Kellermann ought to have been more in evidence. He seemed to have played no role in the "engagement" at all.

Philip's disapproval must have been evident, because Krosigk answered by saying, "Dear Feldburg, you must understand, Major Kellermann is a genius at organization. Anything the division needs he'll somehow manage to find and provide, but he's not a combat commander." Krosigk's gaze strayed to Philip's Iron Crosses. "It's something you and the Herr General will have to remember; all the men here are basically civilians -- regardless of what uniform you dress them up in. Kriegsgerichtsrat Dr. Niesse is 48 years old! Oberzahlmeister Ebling has a heart problem. Inspektor Benecke has a stomach ulcer. These are middle-aged men with children and grandchildren. They belong in some provincial town working in offices -- not fighting Communist cavalry in the middle of nowhere at night." Although Krosigk said "they," Philip had no doubt he meant "we."

Philip was not without sympahty, but he didn't have the time or words to give comfort. Furthermore, it was clear to him that Germany had started this war, and if all the Krosigks and Beneckes and Eblings now regretted it, it was too late. Like every professional soldier, Philip felt a certain contempt for amateurs, who from the safety of their pubs were always more jingoistic and militant than the professionals who had to pay the price. Hadn't these Sunday soldiers cheered and applauded when Hitler promised them "living space" in the East?

"Major v. Krosigk, we have a division that is still -- at this very moment -- engaged against a much superior enemy. That division requires the support that this HQ is supposed to provide. You had better collect your staff at once and get to work becoming operational again."

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hitler's Demons -- An Introduction to Christian

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of Hitler's Demons:

Christian realized he was running only when he was halfway there. The smell of burning fuel hit him in the face. He kept running, blinking to wet his eyes as dust from the careening plane filled them. He was beside the cockpit before the ambulance or fire truck, Dieter and the others just a few strides behind him.

For an instant, Christian thought all the occupants of the Heinkel were dead. There didn't seem to be any movement inside the cockpit. The windshield was shattered, nothing but fragments of crumbling white glass clinging to the bent metal frame. Lying just beyond the ruptured windows Christian could see the pilot, one half of his face swathed in bandages. He was just sitting there motionless. Then something moved inside the cockpit, and Christian realized that the observer/commander was getting up and learning over the pilot, trying to help him.

Christian made a move to help as well, but the ambulance had arrived and the medic irritably pulled him out of the way. Christian found himself with the other fighter pilots in a useless gorup off to one side, while the ambulance crew with serious efficiency extricated the three living crewmen and brought out the dead gunner's body.

The pilot, a very young-looking Unteroffizier, was laid on a stretcher. Blood was soaking through the bandage over his left eye and running down his face, but he was still conscious. His observer, a Feldwebel, was holding a shattered arm as if only subconsciusly aware of the wound. He limped beside the stretcher, looking down with an unreadable expression at the pilot who had saved his life.

Just as the ambulance crew went to lift the stretcher into the waiting vehicle, the pilot caught sight of the cluster of fighter pilots still in their flying gear. His good eye widened and he reached out an arm to them. The stretcher-bearers hesitated and glanced over their shoulders.

"Why did you leave us like that?" the young bomber pilot asked collectively of the fighter pilots. "There were English all over the place."  His tone was uncomprehending, hurt. "They kept coming and coming, and not one bloody Messerschmitt in the whole God-damned sky! One gunner dead over England and the whole Channel to cross, with swarms of Spitfires eating us alive like maggots on a carcass. How --" He broke off, overcome by his own emotion or the pain. He sobbed or gasped, a dry, wrenching intake of breath. His observer signaled for the stretcher-bearers to load him into the waiting ambulance and climbed in after the stretcher, turning his back on the fighter pilots without so much as a glance.

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