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, January 29, 2017

Living with Ghosts: Writing Biographical Fiction Part II

"The Shadow" by Edmund Leighton
Last week I described the challenges of writing biographical fiction.  This week I want to focus on the more personal complications of the genre.  In normal historical fiction, as I have described elsewhere, characters often take on a life of their own, even pulling the novel in unexpected directions.  My experience with headstrong characters has been overwhelmingly good. A good character has a better feel for the direction a book should go than I do.  Most of my books have benefited from this fact and evolved differently from the original concept.  In one case, a secondary character completely took over the book and the initially conceived story was not written at all. 


But with biographical fiction, such course changes are unacceptable. The true biography of the central character lays down the route that must be followed. The author is free to decide which stations along the way will be described in greatest detail, maybe the author can add an embellishment here and there, but in the end the road-map must be respected.  There can be no happy end where there was none in history.


Another challenge of biographical fiction is, of course, the fact that a historical figure does not “belong” to the novelist alone. A historical figure is a public figure, and that means that anyone else can choose to write about this person too.  Unlike fictional characters, the novelist of a biographical novel has to “share” their central characters with others – and often compete with or assault existing interpretations. When I, for example, describe Balian d’Ibelin, my interpretation will clash in many minds with the hero of the same name created by Ridley Scott and played by Orlando Blum in the Hollywood film “The Kingdom of Heaven.” It makes no difference whether my research is better and my interpretation is more plausible. Scott’s Balian is more familiar to my reader than my historical sources and it has already occupied their consciousness. Altering readers’ perceptions of historical figures is far more difficult than creating new characters.


Finally, there is the difficultly of living with the ghosts of dead.  A good biographical novelist will spend a great deal of time with the characters of his/her book and this means spending time with the dead.  Depending on one’s sensibility, that can be quite unnerving. I have spent many a sleepless night, plagued by images of historical figures dissatisfied with my portrayal of them.  They can be angry or simply disappointed, but they are unrelentingly hard task-masters, who demand an even higher standard of writing than their fictional colleagues. 


Obviously, on the evidence of some historical novels that liberally apply the names of historical figures to characters with no resemblance to the personage carrying the same name in serious historical sources, some authors do not take their responsibilities to the dead very seriously.  I wonder that they are not haunted by furious ghosts. Perhaps they are and I just don’t know about it – or the ghosts consider them so insubstantial they can’t be bothered. 

Envoy of Jerusalem is the winner of the Pinnacle Award for Biographical Fiction 2016. It also won 1st prize in the 2017 Feathered Quill Book Awards for Spiritual/Religious Fiction.




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Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Art of Writing Biographical Fiction - Part I



This week I start a new series about the challenges of writing novels about real historical figures.


While I have been writing historical fiction all my life, I only started to focus on biographical fiction after earning my PhD with a biography of General Friedrich Olbricht.  Combining the skills of a biographer were those of a novelist is an even greater challenge than combining the skills of an historian with those of a novelist. History provides a context for fictional characters, but leaves the novelist almost infinite freedom to fit their characters into the general historical framework. Biographical fiction requires a higher degree of discipline and forces a novelist to operate within a more rigid structure. The rewards of evolving an internally consistent and legitimate interpretation of a historical figure are, however, almost indescribable.  

The fact is, for most historical figures information about what went on inside their hearts and minds is scarce.  We might have the odd letter or two, or if very lucky a diary, but the farther back in history a person lived, the less likely we are to have authentic, first-hand material.  Most of what we know about historical figures was recorded at best by contemporary chroniclers, and more often by observers who lived decades or even centuries later.  Many historical records come from foreign sources – Athenians writing about Sparta, Christian monks recording the raids of the Vikings, or Frenchmen decrying the atrocities of the English in the Hundred Years War. Even where we have contemporary, domestic sources, these may be hostile to the subject, for example the interrogation records of the Inquisition describing the Cathars or Gestapo memos on the German resistance to Hitler. 

What this means is that the best information we have about historical figures is usually their actions.  My father always told me to judge a man by what he did, not what he said, but this can be very difficult across the distance of 500 years or more.  And, of course, in certain situations we cannot even be sure that deeds attributed to one personality or another were in fact committed by them.  Did Richard III order the murder of his nephews or didn’t he? The sons of Edward IV disappeared while Richard III was king. Bones have been found that appear to match boys their age. Carbon dating suggests a death date within the period of Richard’s short reign. Yet anyone familiar with the Richard III controversy knows there are powerful arguments against Richard’s guilt and a number of other historical figures, who could have committed (or ordered) the murders.

In short, while a novelist writing biographical fiction has to keep to the known facts, he/she still has a great deal of leeway.  In most cases, there is almost unlimited freedom when it comes to describing emotions and attitudes, and these in turn determine the nature of relationships and – ultimately – the character of an individual. With the identical set of facts, two good historical novelists could create equally convincing and yet virtually opposite characters. Sticking to my Richard III example: the bald fact is that Richard married Anne Neville, the widow of his arch-rival, the Lancastrian prince Edward. Depending on how one interprets this fact, he either forced himself on a helpless, grieving widow or he rescued his childhood sweetheart after her father bartered her into a hated first marriage.

It is all about interpretation, a phenomenon that actors will recognize well.  In a play, the same actions, even the same lines, can be transformed by interpretation – and that is what makes writing biographical fiction so much fun.

Envoy of Jerusalem won the Pinnacle Award for Best Biographical Fiction 2016.


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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cast of Characters: Beatrice and Constance


I wanted to end my series on the fictional characters in my Balian d'Ibelin series with the sisters Beatrice and Constance d'Auber, the daughters of Sir Bartholomew, because of their importance to Envoy of Jerusalem. 

Although fictional, these two characters are as important to Envoy of Jerusalem as Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. They were created to give names and faces to the tens of thousands of real women who went into Saracen slavery when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was overrun by Saladin's forces. They also represent -- and are intended to remind us of -- the Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS, the Syrian refugees sold into illegal marriages in Turkey, and indeed every trafficked woman in the world today. 

Beatrice and Constance are the thematic mortar of Envoy of Jerusalem. It is the fate of the captives that haunts Balian from start to finish of the novel. Without Beatrice and Constance and their children, the novel would be gutted of meaning; the reader would not be able to fully understand what Balian does and why. 




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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Cast of Characters: Sir Bartholomew



Introducing the Fictional Characters in the Balian d'Ibelin Trilogy:

Sir Bartholomew is an indispensible character. He is as essential to the novel as vassals and tenants were to feudal society. And like the army of "good vassals" he can get lost in the background, be overlooked or forgotten as flamboyant nobles and imperious princesses take center stage. But Sir Bartholomew is "the salt of the earth" and without him Envoy of Jerusalem would have less heart and less relevance.

On the one hand, Sir Bartholomew represents the "rear vassals" and household knights that were the backbone of army of Jerusalem. There were never more than a couple score of barons in the crusader states, and the feudal levee never fielded more than 1,200 knights -- including the militant orders. The bulk of those 800 or so secular knights were men like Sir Bartholomew, men with a small land-holding from which they earned enough to outfit themselves, a squire, and their horses. (Recent archaeology, by the way, has uncovered a number of "manor houses" for such knights, proving conclusively that the Latin elite did not live exclusively in the urban centers.) The importance of men like Sir Bartholomew was that they gave the Kingdom of Jerusalem a heavy cavalry capable of delivering a crippling blow on Saracen armies many times longer -- provided they were well led and the cavalry charge was properly timed and directed.

More importantly, however, Sir Bartholomew represents all fathers who have lost or have missing children. He embodies the terrible suffering of survivors of a catastrophe, which has carried away loved ones. He gives a voice to the spiritual doubts that all men feel when confronted with loss and grief that goes beyond what they think they can bear. 

Sir Bartholmew's importance to the novel is enormous. He is a constant reminder of the human cost of defeat. 




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