Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Dialogue in Action: Example 1

Last week I discussed writing dialogue in fiction. Here is an example from Chasing the Wind (Kindle Edition: Where Eagles Never Flew.)




The phone rang behind him. The WAAF clerk answered, “606 Squadron.” The WAAF sprang to her feet. “Yes, sir! He’s right here, sir. One moment, sir!” She covered the speaker and “whispered” in a loud voice to Allars, “Squadron Leader Allars, sir. It’s Air Vice Marshal Park, sir! He wants to speak with you, sir!”

Allars stamped over to the phone and took it. “Allars here.”

“Park. I’ve just had word that Squadron Leader Jones has been found dead. Apparently his parachute failed – or was shot up. In any case, it didn’t open.” There was a pause.

Allars felt compelled to say dutifully. “I’m very sorry to hear that sir.” Was he? Not at all. He’d long thought Jones wasn’t up to the mark.

“Doug, I’d like an honest answer from you.”

“Of course, sir,” Allars answered, although he was alerted by the use of his first name that this was a special request.

“Wait ‘till you hear the question, Doug.”

“All right.”

“First, is your remaining Flight Lieutenant up to the task of taking command of the squadron?”

Allars didn’t even have to think about that one. “Under no circumstances. If anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have made him a flight commander. He’s an irresponsible, self-satisfied whelp, who thinks that just because his father inherited a coal fortune the whole world ought to dance to his tune. I’m not saying he can’t fly, but he certainly can’t command the respect of men—if you want my honest opinion, Keith.”

“I asked for it. All right, then, is the rest of the squadron a write-off or not?”

Allars hadn’t been prepared for that. It was a dangerous question. “There are still ten other pilots, Keith, and as I said, Tommy can fly well enough. Also, I’ve been told we’ll be back up to twelve aircraft by tomorrow.”

“That’s not what I asked, Doug. The question is: should I pull 606 out of the front line?”

“Pull them out? But we’ve only just had a rest. I mean, other squadrons have been in it longer. I think we can cope.”

To Park on the other end of the line, Allars sounded quite stunned by the possibility, as if it had never occurred to him. But he didn’t sound really confident about their capabilities, either. Park was silent for a moment , unsettled, and then became more explicit. “There are other squadrons that are just plain tired and need a rest, but, when I visited 606 on the 16th, I had the feeling the issue was morale more than exhaustion. The problem is this: almost every squadron we’ve rotated in from the north has been slaughtered within two to three days of arrival in 11 Group – often with hardly anything to show for it. The squadrons that have been here longer have much higher kill-to-loss ratios and have consistently lost fewer pilots. If I pull 606 out, the chances are that the replacement squadron will get badly mauled – maybe lose six or seven pilots – before the week is out. Now tell me if you think 606 needs to be pulled out.”

“In that case, definitely not. There is some good material here.”

“You think a new CO could turn them around?” Park asked explicitly.

“The right CO could.”

“I hope your right, Doug.”

“So do I, Keith – if not, I’m going to have several young men’s lives on my conscience, aren’t I?”

“If you don’t already, Doug, you’re a lucky man.”

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Creative Writing 101 - Dialogue


Dialogue ought to be written by your characters. If you’ve got good characters, they will say what they think and all you really need to do is listen to them and transcribe what they say. Once you’ve got the basic dialogue down, you can polish it up a bit, adding descriptions sparingly and only as necessary to avoid possible confusion.

But keep in mind that a conversation can easily turn in directions you don’t want it to go and in doing so it can take a novel off course. This is where characters are rather like actors. They respond to the other person spontaneously and in character, but there’s nothing wrong with calling “Stop! We’re getting off topic here. Go back. Take it again from ….”

Nor is there anything wrong with knowing what the outcome of a dialogue ought to be. It’s legitimate to start a conversation with the knowledge “this is where x and y clash so violently that they say things they will later regret.” Or “this is where x learns about y’s vulnerabilities.” If you have developed good characters, you will only need put this out there and they will give you the actual lines – absolutely in character.

Characters talking with one another is, furthermore, far more effective that any narrator talking about what characters think or feel.  Letting the characters speak for themselves is much more entertaining, authentic and exciting. After all, dialogue alone make a play, and theater is an older, arguably more effective, art form than novels. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Excerpt from "The English Templar" II


Geoffrey mounted the first two steps of the papal throne and waited. He was separated from the pope by no more than a yard. He could see that the pope wore white powder on his face and a touch of rouge. He smelled of sweet bath water. Geoffrey remembered that this was a man who openly kept a mistress – a noblewoman thirty years younger than himself.

“Monsieur de Preuthune,” the pope opened slowly, “you are a courageous man. You fought against the Saracen for your faith—“

“As did the Knights Templar for nearly two hundred years!” Geoffrey’s fervor, the unexpected hope that he might be able to influence the pope to intervene on behalf of his brothers, made him forget himself.

The pope scowled and lifted his hand in startled reproach. He had not expected the same impudence from this nobleman he had had to suffer from the king and his ministers. Geoffrey bit his tongue. “As we were saying,” the pope continued, “you fought against the Saracen for the sake of your faith, and we know that the Saracens outnumbered the army of Saint Louis many, many times.” Geoffrey nodded, and the pope continued, “But you do not seem to understand the nature of the enemy here.” He paused and looked sharply at Geoffrey.

“I was trained in the Temple, Your Holiness. We were trained never to retreat unless the enemy outnumbered us more than three to one. It was the Templars who were the vanguard of the Seventh Crusade. We attacked at Damietta, we attacked all along the advance, and – although King Louis had ordered restraint – we attacked at Monsourah. Do you think I should fear now?”

“Yes,” Came the blunt reply. “We see you are a man of simple, straightforward faith. As a  man of the sword, you are not used to intrigue and the need for discretion. But you are a subject of the King of France, and if you do not wish to die a criminal, then you would do well to forget your Templar past.” The pope leaned back in his throne and let this sink in.
Geoffrey could not tell if he were being warned or threatened.

The pope leaned forward again and now he whispered, “We too are the king’s prisoner. The king would not hesitate to charge us with the same crimes he has leveled against our predecessor, Pope Boniface VIII. We are powerless against him. Neither excommunication nor any other spiritual sanction impresses him. Do you think we have not tried? Haven’t you noticed how the city swarms with his soldiers?” he demanded.

Geoffrey saw fear in the pope’s eyes and the trembling of his thin hands. This self-indulgent, frightened old man was supposed to be Christ’s vicar? Geoffrey’s disbelief gave way to contempt. This old man cared more for his own survival – his survival, his comfort and the trappings of power than for the duties of his sacred office. He was not willing to fight for the substance of his authority. He was prepared to live a sham.

Ah, I should have known, Geoffrey cursed himself. A pope who keeps a mistress could have no interest in moral authority. He is content as long as his creature comforts are provided and people pretend to respect him.

Geoffrey chose his next words with deliberation. He spoke softly and distinctly, his eyes fixed on the watery, pale eyes of the pontiff. “If you had not allowed the king to arrest all the Knights Templar in the kingdom, you could have called upon an army.”

The pope started. His pointed nose was running and a drop of water hung on the tip between the nostrils. “What—“

“The Templars owed their allegiance to no king, only to you. You could have surrounded yourself with the best knights in Christendom – and then you could have challenged Philip – or any king – to any test of strength you liked. They would have died for you, Your Holiness, with the same elan and devotion with which they died for Jerusalem and Acre. You could have made kings dance to your tune and set them aside – instead of letting them treat you like a pawn.”

The pope had gone pale as he stared at Geoffrey. Hastily, he brushed the drop from his nose with the back of his gloved hand and looked away. He swallowed; Geoffrey could see the Adam’s apple bobbing in his scrawny throat. “With your permission,” Geoffrey said coldly and he backed off the dias.


“Wait!” The pope cried and Geoffrey waited, but it was too late. They both knew it was too late.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reviews of "The English Templar"


Historically intriguing with well developed characters., 26 May 2000
By A Customer
From the very first pages I was intrigued by the wonderful character development by Schrader and the rich historical details that enriched the descriptions of the protagonists as well as their surroundings. It was easy to emotionally connect with Felice and Sir Percy, the two protagonists, through both their admirable traits and their faults. The end came too quickly, I await more from Schrader. A wonderful read, interesting and entertaining.
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Exciting, though-provoking, historically accurate and moving, 3 Sep 1999
By A Customer
This is a profound, thought-provoking and at times disturbing book - but a great read nevertheless! It has just about everything a demanding reader wants in a good novel: excitement but also wisdom, a love story that transcends mere conventional lust and romance, historical accuracy, psychological insight and just plain good prose. For me personally, as someone who has personally known torture victims of Nazi Germany, the author's understanding of the psychological after-effects of torture impressed me particularly. Anyone who enjoys learning the easy way - through good fiction - should read this book.