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, August 25, 2012

The Importance of Leonidas


The final book in my trilogy on the life and death of Leonidas is now only weeks away from publication, causing me to reflect on the purpose of the project. Why did I write and why should anyone read a biography, in novel form or otherwise, of King Leonidas of Sparta?

As a historian, of course, I think history matters because of what it teaches us about human nature. Furthermore, history shapes and influences us – even when we don’t know it. While ancient Sparta probably seems obscure and irrelevant to many modern readers, anyone familiar with ancient sources rapidly recognizes that ancient Greece was remarkably “modern.” Accounts of debates, intrigues and scandals in ancient Athens sound astonishingly similar to what goes on in modern legislatures. The fact that the monuments we see on the Acropolis today were paid for by Athens “Allies” should have been a warning to the EU….

As for Sparta, it was the role of women in Sparta that first awoke my interest – and preference—for Sparta, but I soon realized that Sparta shared far more with modern Western society than just the treatment of women. For example, Sparta was the only ancient Greek city to introduce public education for all future citizens, just as we have in Western countries today. Sparta sought to ensure a minimum standard of living for all citizens by giving each citizen an estate large enough to support him and his family -- rather the same way that welfare payments and other forms of subsidies for the poor are intended to prevent abject poverty in modern Social Democracies. Despite its overwhelming military might, Sparta had only one vote in the defensive alliance it founded and headed – a situation comparable to that of the U.S. in NATO today. Spartan artistic and architectural style was minimalist and functional rather than highly decorative – something evocative of Scandinavian design today. All these factors convinced me that writing about Sparta would underline the degree to which humans have shared values across millennia.

But Leonidas is more than just a Spartan – even if he is arguably the quintessential Spartan.  And Leonidas was more than a Spartan king – even if he is Sparta’s most famous king.  Leonidas is important not as a historical personality but as a moral figure.  Leonidas fascinates us not because he was a Spartan king, but because he was prepared to defy impossible odds for the sake of freedom. And because he was prepared to die that others might live.

Critical to the appeal of Leonidas is that he died fighting a defensive – not an aggressive – battle.  Equally important is the fact that he faced death consciously; Leonidas knew he was going to die, but that did not deter or even dishearten him.  Most important of all, Leonidas did not die, like Achilles, for the sake of his own glory and even for honor, but for the lives and freedom of others.

Leonidas’ conscious decision to die in order to save Sparta from destruction was proto-Christian. His example is morally up-lifting, and his story inspirational. These, not a fascination with Ancient Sparta or Leonidas’ historical role, are the factors that make his story worth telling and make his story worth reading.

The five years of my life spent researching and writing about Leonidas have been well spent. They have opened my eyes to many aspects of human nature and enriched my understanding of the human condition. And most of all, they have inspired me to keep writing and keep searching for my own destiny.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Of Novels and Children


My novels are my children.  They are the product of the conscious desire to bring them into the world, but they are not really mine.  I have a degree of influence upon them, particularly in the beginning, but they go their own way as they mature.  I can to imprison them perpetually on my computer and never let them see the light of day (publication) or even kill them by deleting them. But I do not really have control of them.  Do you control your children?

My novels go their own way because the characters in them decide their own fate. I can provide guidance and suggestions, just like any good parent, but ultimately my characters have free will and defy attempts to force them to do things they do not want.  Characters prefer to commit suicide than be misused, so there really is no alternative to letting them go their own way.

But, of course, that is the greatest pleasure of parenting and writing: not knowing where you are going to end up when you start out upon the journey!  You start off with some good intentions and pointed in a certain direction, but you cannot see far enough to know where you will end.   Along the way, children (and novels) will surprise you with their unexpected behavior. They will make you re-think your own values, test your patience and your temper, but ultimately reward you by teaching you things about yourself and life, and human nature. They will show you things you could not have done or imagined on your own.

No child and no novel are ever perfect. They all have flaws, weaknesses, quirks and blemishes. Some will be more popular than others. Some will have virtues that too few others (outsiders) recognize. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we have our favorites – but we love them all, the good and the not so good. 

This is the principal reason I find it so very difficult to sell my children.  How can I put a price on my children’s heads? How can I praise them like a “product?” How can I expose them to the criticism of heartless reviewers? Or compare them to others? Obviously, I must – just as a parent must encourage their children to face real-life competition for employment and affection. I must trust them, have faith in them, and stand by them even if they experience set-backs and rejection.

They are my children.

(This comment was first published on "Blogging Authors" July 25.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Book Review of "An Obsolete Honor"



Last week I published and excerpt from my novel An Obsolete Honor (published in Kindle as Hitler's Demons). This week I'd like to share a review by Simon Barrett that appeared shortly after the release of An Obsolete Honor in December 2008.

There are two very clear types of Historical Fiction, those that are merely set against a historical backdrop and the historical events are mere bit players recessed into the color commentary. The second type of book is a much different beast, take a historical event, place it in center stage and weave your tale around it using a combination of factual and fictional characters and events. This type of book is far harder to construct, extreme care to detail must be used, particularly if the historical event is well documented. History buffs will have your head if you get the slightest detail wrong!


"An Obsolete Honor" most certainly falls into the second category. The events of July, 20 1944 in Berlin are well documented. Known as the Valkyrie Plot and subject of a brand new movie staring Tom Cruise, this attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life has been the subject of many history books. Few stones have been left unturned. The facts are well known, yet the forces that drove the plot are much less well understood.

Helana Schrader has done a great job of accomplishing two things in this book. On one level she walks us through the development of the plot to kill Hitler by using her two main fictitious characters Baron Philip von Feldburg, initially an aide de camp to the very factual General Friedrich Olbricht, a very central figure to the Valkyrie plot, and her other main character is Alexandra von Mollwitz, Phillips future wife, and secretary to General Olbricht. Through these two characters and their family and friends a wide canvas is painted.

The author could have stopped at that point, and I am sure it would have made for an interesting story, instead though, she has opted to look at the assassination attempt in a wider context. Portraying Germany as a country that was becoming rapidly polarized as the war progressed. The early elation of victories in Poland and France, soon give way to frustration on the Russian front, and frustration at home as it becomes harder and harder to maintain any sort of normalcy. Goods are in ever increasing short supply, able bodied men are conscripted and sent to almost certain death under Hitler’s stand and fight doctrine, Germany is winning elsewhere, but rapidly losing at home.

The emergence of the SS as the Nazi’s homeland thugs, and the ‘resettlement’ of the Jews all weigh heavily on the professional soldiers and concerned citizens alike. Of course there were others who saw opportunities in this environment.

Helana Schrader explores both sides of the coin, greed versus grief, fortune versus famine, hope versus hell. One aspect that is touched upon, and is a sore subject still, is how did this entire situation unfold, why did the Germans support the maniacal Hitler? Simple, the terms of the Versailles Treaty following World War One opened the door. Through her use of factual events and fictional characters the reader is treated not only to a riveting novel but also a great history lesson into one of the most unfortunate and painful periods in the history of mankind. An enterprising teacher could certainly use this book as a core for teaching a fascinating course, literature, history and social studies all  rolled into one.

At 550 pages and small print "An Obsolete Honor" is hardly a quick, light read. It is however a hugely enjoyable and thought provoking book. It is clear that the author has a great understanding of this story, and the social environment of this area in the early and mid 1940’s. A quick Google of Helana Schrader reveals that she has a PhD in history, and has indeed spent a good deal of time in Germany, so you should not be surprised by the high quality of both the writing and the content. It is rare indeed that I can find only one minor typo in 550 pages of a book, and that mistake likely would be missed by 99% of readers, they use of the word ‘that’ when she meant ‘they’.

You can pick up your copy of this very excellent book from Amazon.