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.

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

Friday, April 25, 2014

Daughter of a Cathar Heretic: Excerpt 4 from "St Louis' Knight"

Eleanor leaned her head back against the padded rim of the tub and closed her eyes, her hands clasped together between her breasts. Returning, Rosalyn nodded her approval, then stepped beside the tub to pour just a thimbleful of the precious essence into the steaming water. A moment later the smell of lavender wafted up on the steam, and tears started streaming down Eleanor’s face.
No one noticed. Lady Rosalyn had turned away to return her vial to her own chamber, and the maids were collecting the buckets to go fetch more water, leaving Eleanor alone in the now cozy chamber.
Eleanor put her hands over her face and held them there, trying to calm herself. She felt as if she had been tortured all day, and then this sudden vivid memory of home – the lavender fields in the sunshine. It was too much!
“Hush, child!” The voice came from the timber roof above her head and wafted down to settle upon her like petals shaken from a dying rose. “Relax, little one. There’s nothing to be afraid of any more.”
Nothing? Eleanor asked, opening her eyes. Nothing?
“You’re with good people now,” her mother assured her. “Good people, who mean you no harm.”
Was that possible?
“And you, Mother?” Eleanor asked the voice, with all the pent-up fury of half a dozen years. “Did you mean me no harm when you abandoned me at fourteen? Preferring your sick religion to your own child!” Eleanor was so agitated that she sat upright, looking for her mother in the darkness of the rafters, sloshing water over the edge of the tub. She turned to look over her shoulder first in one direction, then the other.
“Child, child!” her mother protested in an anguished voice. “I never thought they’d harm a little girl, a child as innocent as you!”
“Never thought they’d harm a child?” Eleanor mocked back. “Never thought they’d harm a child?” she raged. “Hadn’t they slaughtered children at Beziers? At Minerve and Lavour? What else did you expect, Mother? They put it in their very edicts ― that the parents and children of heretics were to be persecuted and punished. You must have known what they would do to me!”
To Eleanor’s distress, her mother did not protest. Instead, her voice fell to an almost inaudible murmur and pleaded, “You’re right. I should have known. I ― I deceived myself. Please forgive me, Nel.”
Eleanor didn’t want to forgive. It was easier to rage than to forgive. She shook her head. For a moment it seemed as if this negative answer had banished her mother, but then her mother spoke from so near at hand that Eleanor thought she felt her breath on her cheek.
“At least try to understand. I was a known heretic. All I would have achieved by abjuring my faith would have been to be branded on the forehead and forced to live as beggar ― a beggar that Christians were forbidden to support. Worse, I would have endangered the good people who followed Christ’s commandments and showed me Christian charity. I would have died of hunger and cold eventually, but my soul would have been condemned to hell. And you ― you would still have fallen into their hands.”
Eleanor shook her head again and brought her hands out of the water to stare at the palms. On the left hand, beneath the broken blisters from today’s ride, was a hideous, puckered scar. A single flame had caused it, and she had screamed loud enough to wake the dead. She had been unable to endure the flame for more than a second, but her mother had let them burn her alive ….
“You were never there when I needed you,” Eleanor told her mother bitterly.
“How could I be?” her mother answered, already farther away. “They encircled you with their evil. I couldn’t break through, not until today ….” Eleanor had to strain to hear her mother’s voice. The sound of Lady Rosalyn’s footsteps returning were obliterating her mother’s voice. “You’re with …” thump, thump, “trust …” thump, thump, “Sir Geoffrey ….”
“Are you feeling better now, My Lady?” the cheerful voice of Lady Rosalyn asked as she re-entered the chamber.
Eleanor lifted her head and smiled at her. “Thank you. I am feeling much better. I never knew ― that riding could ― be so exhausting. But then I’m so out of practice ….”
“Of course you are. I’m sure you haven’t been on a horse since your accident.” Lady Rosalyn settled herself in the armed chair on the other side of the fireplace. “And you mustn’t think of continuing tomorrow. You need to rest and regain your strength. You can stay here as long as you please. I’d be glad of the company.”
“That’s very kind,” Eleanor answered, overwhelmed by a sense of safety. She hadn’t felt this safe in half a decade – except for that moment in Sir Geoffrey’s arms ….
“Do you mind telling me where you were headed in such a storm?” Lady Rosalyn continued, curious more than reproachful.
“A pilgrimage,” Eleanor answered defensively, knowing now how very foolish she had been and how easily her escapade could have ended in disaster. “My guardian, the Comte de Poitiers, was taken captive with his brother, King Louis of France. I wanted to pray for his safe return.”
“Yes,” Lady Rosalyn replied, crossing herself. “May God hear our prayers!” Rosalyn’s cheerful face was instantly clouded with worry, and Eleanor realized she was thinking of her son. Eleanor felt a surge of sympathy for the older woman and reached out a hand to her, promising, “I will pray for your son, too, Madame.” For him more than for the Comte de Poitiers, she added mentally.
 Lady Rosalyn was too distressed to speak, but she took Eleanor’s hand and clasped it, nodding in thanks, thinking that she would ask Geoffrey to pray for her son as well. Geoffrey was practically a monk, after all, and a crusader. God would surely hear his prayers ….

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Meet My Main (Female) Character

Welcome to today's installment of the "Meet My Main Character" Blog-Hop! 

Last week I introduced the main character of my recently released novel, St. Louis' Knight, Sir Geoffrey de PreuthuneThis week I want to introduce the the female lead, who is as much a "main" character as Geoffrey, even if she didn't make it into the title.

Now to the introductions!

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she a fictional or historical person?
Eleanor de Najac is a fictional character, born from holidays in "Cathar Country" (the Languedoc) and particularly visits to the spectacular village and castle of Najac.

2) When and where is the story set?
The novel is set in the Seventh Crusade, 1250 AD, in the Holy Land. The Seventh Crusade was led by King Louis IX of France and ended in a terrible debacle, with the King of France and virtually all of his nobles, knights and troops captured.  While the common troops were slaughtered if they refused to convert to Islam, and enslaved if they did, King Louis and his knights and nobles were held for ransom. It is also just six years after the final erradication of the last Cathar stronghold at Montsegur.

3) What should I know about him/her?
Eleanor is the last child of the Sire de Najac, born late in his life.  After his death, her mother joins the Cathar faith and one of her brothers joins the struggle of the independence of Toulouse against the French crown. When the forces of the French King finally seize Montsegur, her mother chooses to be burned at the stake rather than abjure her Cathar faith, and one brother is executed while the other is arrested -- along with Eleanor. Although only 14 years old, as the daughter of a heretic, she is turned over to the Inquisition.  After her brother's death in prison, however, she becomes the hieress to Najac.  Her feudal overlord, the Count of Poitiers and Toulouse, does not want to see her convicted of heresy since then her property would fall to the Church.  He therefore sends for her to join his wife's household as she follows him on crusade.  Her ship wrecks on the coast of Cyprus and her leg shattered when fisherman take her off the wreck. She is left lame and alone on a strange island among strangers.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes her life up.
Eleanor's life has been shattered three-fold, first by the brutal repression of Toulousan independence that has cost her the lives of her mother and brothers, by the hounding of the Inquisition after her own arrest, and by the ship-wreck that has left her a semi-cripple. At the start of the novel she is physically alive, but only her hatred of the Inquisition and the King of France spark her spirit.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?
Eleanor has survived by her wits and an inner strength that defies reason. Her determination to outwit her tormentors, not hope for a better a future is what has enabled her to escape the Inquisition.  At the opening of the novel, it is joy at the defeat of her worst enemy, the King of France, that gives her new spirit and courage. She ventures out of her defensive, emotional cacoon and starts to tentatively spread her wings.

6) Is there a working title? Where can I find out more?
The title is final: St. Louis' Knight. It is the first of a three part series titled The Templar Tales. You can find out more on this blog, or on my website: http://talesofchivalry.com.

7) When will the book be published?
The book was released March 31, 2014 and can be purchased on amazon.com here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Meet My Main Character

Welcome to today's installment of the "Meet My Main Character" Blog-Hop! I'm delighted to be in such distinguished company!

It's my pleasure to introduce to the main character of my recently released novel, St. Louis' Knight. To find out more about St. Louis' Knight you only need to scroll down to the previous three entries on this blog which includ excerpts and a little background about the book. To buy the book, just click on the link in the add to your right.

Now to the introductions!

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she a fictional or historical person?
Geoffrey de Preuthune. He's a fictional character but based on a family legend.

2) When and where is the story set?
The novel is set in the Seventh Crusade, 1250 AD, in the Holy Land. The Seventh Crusade was led by King Louis IX of France and ended in a terrible debacle, with the King of France and virtually all of his nobles, knights and troops captured.  While the common troops were slaughtered if they refused to convert to Islam, and enslaved if they did, King Louis and his knights and nobles were held for ransom.

3) What should I know about him/her?
Geoffrey is the younger son of minor Cypriot nobleman. As a younger son, Geoffrey is destined for the Church, but at age 14 his feeble father is killed by robbers because he is unable to defend him (not having any training at arms). This trauma makes him determined to join the Knights Templar, so he can be both a monk and a fighting man. The local commander agrees to take him on as a squire with the understanding that if he can learn the skills of knighthood to meet Templar standards, he will be knighted and accepted into the Order.  As a squire he accompanies a troop of Templars on the Seventh Crusade, only to watch all his brothers slaughtered at the Battle of Mansourah. In the aftermath of this defeat, the wounded Grand Master wants to knight the squire Geoffrey and take him into the Order, but Geoffrey knows that the initiation ceremony requires him to say the Lord's Pray. Only he can't say "Thy Will be Done" after what he has just witnessed. 

4) What is the main conflict? 
Geoffrey has lost his faith in God and by denying the divinity of Christ to the Grand Master of the Temple in a fit of outrage, he has abruptly ended his own chosen career. He now has to find a new place for himself in the world that he no longer understands.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?
At the start of the novel, his goal is to understand God's Will so he can re-apply for admission to the Knight's Templar, but, of course, life isn't that simple. His quest takes him to an Orthodox prophet in the mountains of Cyprus, to the Old Man of the Mountain (leader of the Assassins) in Syria and to the court of King Louis of France in Acre, where the King is trying to raise the ransom for his knights still in captivity. In a chance encounter, he also meets the Damsel Eleanor de Najac, the daughter of a condemned Cathar heretic, and now a ward of the King of France. 

6) Is there a working title? Where can I find out more?
The title is final: St. Louis' Knight. It is the first of a three part series titled The Templar Tales. You can find out more on this blog, or on my website: http://talesofchivalry.com.

7) When will the book be published?
The book was released March 31, 2014 and can be purchased on amazon.com here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Grand Master's Squire: Excerpt from "St Louis' Knight" 3

Geoffrey was seeing it again in his head. The confusion in a darkness lit only by the unsteady light of smoking torches. Wounded men and horses seemed to be staggering about everywhere, and the moans and cries of man and beast punctuated the night. Other men wandered about asking after one friend or another. Abandoned Saracen equipment, clothing, and weapons still littered the ground, tripping the unwary, while those with the strength left in them were trying to erect tents. The stench of open latrines and foul water combined in Geoffrey’s mind with the constant beating of the enemy drums as they shouted “Allah is Great!” from the ramparts of Mansourah. They must have lit huge bonfires, because the city appeared aglow from the inside; the men on the walls shaking their swords and bows triumphantly were silhouetted against that orange light.
Geoffrey had been dazed, unable to grasp what had happened in such a short space of time. All his brothers from Limassol ― knights, squires, and sergeants ― were dead. They had been one hundred strong when they sailed for Egypt, a significant contingent of the Templar force, and they were no more. Geoffrey had lost the one man who gave him a chance when all others spoke against accepting him into the Temple. He’d lost the men who’d taught him fighting and the ethos of the Temple. He’d lost his best friends ― and there would not even be a Mass for their souls, because their bodies were all in the hands of the heathens shouting “Allah is Great!”
Suddenly someone was tugging at his sleeve and saying he must come to the surgeon’s tent. The Grand Master had regained consciousness. He had followed numbly, without a will of his own. Sonnac, a bandage covering the gaping hole in the right side of his face where his eye had been, was struggling to sit up. “Geoff!” he called out in a rasping, ruined voice at the sight of the young man. “Geoff, come kneel and put your hands in mine that I may take you into the Order at last.”
Sonnac knew how much that meant to his squire. Sonnac knew that, unlike other squires, Geoffrey wanted to be a Templar. He understood that Geoffrey wanted to be knighted, not for itself, but because it was the prerequisite for joining the Order.
That night in the camp before Mansourah, Geoffrey knew that Master de Sonnac wanted to reward him with that which meant most to him, but he also knew that the vows involved saying the Lord’s Prayer. He knew that the Knights Templar said the Lord’s Prayer in place of Mass when circumstances made it impossible to hear Mass. The Lord’s Prayer was central to their devotion. But what had, until that day, seemed self-evident, had abruptly been transformed into a demon standing between Geoffrey and what he wanted most in the world.
As Geoffrey stood in the tent staring at the wounded Grand Master, he became conscious of the blood drying on the links of his chain mail, his surcoat shredded and soiled, but between him and the Master crowded the ghastly ghosts of his dead brothers: some headless, some limbless, some gushing blood from wounds to their heads, others clutching their gutted stomachs or clinging to their disemboweled intestines.
Suddenly Geoffrey thought: if this is God’s Will, then I cannot say “Thy Will be done!” I cannot say it!
Sonnac, seeing him hesitate, tried to smile encouragingly. “Come, Geoff. If this is the last thing I do, let me make you a Templar.”
“No!” Geoffrey screamed back at him. “No! I don’t want to be servant to a senseless God! If this is God’s Will, than he is a monster! And Christ ― Christ died on a cross in Jerusalem, but he was not God’s son, and was not our Savior!”
Still full of fury, Geoffrey had spun about and fled, leaving the astonished Grand Master struggling to rise. He heard the exclamation of horrified priests and surgeons, and he was shocked by his own words as much as anyone. But there was no place to go in the crusader camp. There was no escape except out into the desert to be killed by the Bedouins.
Geoffrey could not remember what he’d done next. He’d stumbled about in the dark until he’d found himself at the horse lines. There he sank down in misery beside the remnants of a once-great cavalry, and begged forgiveness from his stallion. The tall, dark gray had not only carried him and his armor all the way here, to the middle of nowhere; he had today taken the burden of two fully armored knights, and with the strength of an angel, he had jumped over a barricade to bring both Geoffrey and the wounded Grand Master to safety. But now he stood with hanging head and swollen fetlocks, covered in cuts and probably bruises, too. We can’t even give you a decent meal, Geoffrey thought. What right have we, he asked himself, to take these gentle, loyal creatures into so much misery and almost certain death?

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