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.

Monday, April 28, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

I have been tagged in the My writing process blog tour by author A.H. Gray (http://ahgray.worldpress.com). The idea of this particular blog hop is to let readers know a few things about the own creative world of a variety of authors. 
So here are the questions:

1) What am I working on? 
My current work-in-progress is a biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187. Many of you may have encountered him in Ridley Scott's film "The Kingdom of Heaven." While I loved the film, Scott took a lot of literary license (to put it mildly) and I think the real Balian's life was even more interesting than the film version. My novel is based on the known facts about Balian, his wife the Byzantine Princess and Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena, and, of course, the other key historical characters in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the 12th century such as the "Leper King" Baldwin IV, Guy de Lusignan, Richard I of England etc.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
All serious historical novelists strive to be true to history while still writing a compelling and engaging story. Only our readers can judge if we succeed or not. Maybe, because I have a PhD in history, I"m somewhat more fanatical about accuracy, but I would not want to suggest that others are necessarily sloppy.  I've noticed, however, that many historical novelists get too wrapped up in superficial details -- clothing, weapons, diet and transport -- but completely ignore far more fundamental aspects of past societies such as the legal system (including inheritance laws), economic developments and their impact, or religious trends.  Understanding the socio-economic, legal and religious environment in which characters operate is 10 times as important as the way a cross-bow was loaded or whether waistlines were high or low at a particular moment in time!
3) Why do I write what I do? 
That is a question I have often been asked -- or worse "why don't you write about....?" For me, inspiration is not a rational process. I cannot tell you why one period, character, story catches my attention more than another. History is full of countless fascinating people and events that could form the basis of fantastic novels, but only some of those stories capture my imagination enough to make me start delving into the history and turning the raw facts into a full-blown novel. I do tend to get attracted to "misunderstood" or commonly distorted periods, and I like writing "revisionist" works -- things that challenge common misconceptions. For example, most people still think the Spartans were illiterate brutes who lived in the wild and stole to survive and all that nonsense. My books about Sparta deliberately disassembles these cliches -- based on solid historical and archaeological evidence.  Likewise, my biography of Balian will challenge the still common notion that the crusaders were brutal barbarians, who massacred the peace-loving, more culturally advanced native Muslims. I like "setting the record straight" based on solid research and -- sometimes more important -- common sense and an understanding of human nature.
 4) How does my writing process work?
I've written whole seminars on this topic.  Essentially it is a multi-phase process. First, there is that irrational, inexplicable flash of inspiration that makes me get all excited about a person or event and start researching until I start to have a vague idea for a novel. Then I start writing, knowing that this first outpouring of inspiration will not be the final book because the very process of writing leads me in new directions. Good characters have a will of their own, and they will take control of the book and reshape it. 
Once I have a first draft, I then start all over again, removing scenes that in retrospect have become redundant or fleshing out characters and events that have become more important than initially thought. This is the phase when test readers are most helpful. You have raw material, but you need outside opinions on what is working/not working, what needs more explanation, what is unnecessarily repetitive. The more critical these readers are, the better. This is when you still have time to make radical changes -- add or remove characters, change the ending altogether (unless this is a historical biography) and the like. I have had too many "beta readers" who just said nice things; they do me not good at all. I like really incisive critique at this stage -- provided it is constructive, consistent and well argued.
After the first major re-write, the book goes to an editor to clean up the typos, spelling errors, and stylistic weaknesses etc.. Ideally, I should then let the book sit in a drawer for a year or two, because if I do that and come back to it with a fresh eye I see many more weakness. But I'm rarely that patient. So after the second re-write the novel goes back to the editor and after she's finished to a second editor, and then on to the publisher.
The next author on this blog hop is:
Harold Titus, 

author of Crossing the River 

Born in New York State, raised in Southern California, Harold Titus graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in history.  He taught intermediate school English and American history in Orinda, California, for thirty-one years.  He coached many of the school’s boys and girls sports teams during those years.  He retired in 1991.  He and his wife live on the central Oregon coast.

Read about his writing process next Monday, May 5 at: http://authorharoldtitus.blogspot.com

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