Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Why I Write 2 - To Explore

This is the second installment in my series on why I write. 
Today I look an my desire to explore.

Last week I argued that learning is an essential part of my writing, so essential that I choose to write in part out of a desire to learn more about something that attracts my curiosity. But writing fiction is not just about writing down what we learn, it is also about using imagination to go beyond the known -- to explore the unknown. 

Some of that exploration can be physical. Working on a creative-writing project is a great excuse to travel to places I've never been before.  I love travel, so this is an extra bonus. No sooner had I started my Jerusalem Trilogy than I announced to my husband that it was "essential" that we travel (at last!) to Jerusalem.

It helped that we were living in Ethiopia, just a four hour flight from Tel Aviv, and that there were daily pilgrimage flights. The trip enabled me to explore many sites important to my novels -- Jerusalem itself, Bethlehem, Ascalon, Jaffa, Acre, and Caesaria, Ibelin (modern Yavne), and the Battlefield of Hattin. The visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher alone, however, would have justified the trip, and enabled me to write a more authentic and convincing book.  I always wince when I read descriptions of the Holy Land, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, that have clearly been written by authors who have never been. 

Yet even more important than this physical exploration of places is the mental exploration of attitudes, emotions, motives and more. Research may reveal a simple fact such as, for example, the daughter of Baldwin d'Ibelin, Baron of Ramla and Mirabel, married the brother of Guy de Lusignan. History also tells us that Baldwin hated Guy so much that he preferred to surrender his entire inheritance and abandon his wife and son to go into exile in Antioch rather than do homage to Guy de Lusignan. But what about his daughter? How did she feel? Did she sympathize with her father? or her brother-in-law? Did her husband blame her for her father's dramatic and public condemnation of his brother? Was there marital strife and tension? As a novelist, it is my job to explore possibilities. To try them out and find the explanation that seems to ring most consistent with known facts -- and human nature.

Or to take another example,  the Knights Templar were driven from the island of Cyprus by outraged, Orthodox inhabitants. Richard the Lionheart then sold the island to the deposed and discredited Guy de Lusignan. Within two years he was dead. Yet just five years after Guy's arrival on Cyprus, a stable dynasty complete with a Latin clergy had been established on the island. How? 

Again, exploring historical possibilities by examining contemporary developments, analyzing personalities, identifying options, and developing a plausible theory is not only legitimate, it is great fun! There is nothing wrong with it -- as long as the results do not contradict known facts but rather build upon and extrapolate from them. 

For more on the thesis I developed regarding Cyprus see: https://schradershistoricalfiction.blogspot.com/2017/07/an-empty-island-waiting-to-welcome.html, -- or better yet read the novel that resulted from my "exploration!

And don't forget! -- books make great Christmas presents!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Why I Write Part I - To Learn

By the end of this year I will have retired from the U.S. Department of State and will be able to devote myself full-time to the business of writing. I thought that was a good moment to reflect on why I write -- and to share those thoughts with my loyal fans and followers. In this seven part series, I will explore the seven most important motivations that I feel: 1) to learn, 2) to explore, 3) to question, 4) to educate, 5) to share, 6) to critique, and 7) to reach a larger audience.

It would probably surprise no one if I said that I read in order to learn, but writing to learn likely strikes many as putting the cart before the horse. Surely one doesn't write about something unless they already know about it?

True. But that is precisely the point. 

If I am intrigued by a topic (period, culture, event etc.) enough to want to write about it, then I am setting myself on a course of study. In order to be able to write about this topic, I will have to do my research.

I'm not someone who can just dash off a short-story based on a casual thought or a snippet of information I've stumbled across. I envy those who can write like that! But I'm at heart a historian and I can't write even a short story without knowing about things like how people dressed, kept warm, what they ate, how they traveled, what their religious beliefs were likely to be etc. etc. 

If I'm going to write, I'm going to have to research all those things, so there's no point getting started unless I'm 1) willing to invest that effort and 2) going to use what I learn for more than one project. In other words, I may read a book simply because someone recommends it to me and I will be the richer for reading, but if I want to write about something I need to learn more. It is not enough to know about the events or even the people described, I must also understand the environment in which the events unfold. That requires learning about, for example, climate, geography, and contemporary architecture. I also need to describe, as I noted earlier, what people were likely to have eaten, how they dressed, the kind of entertainment they would have been able to enjoy, and the means of transport at their disposal. I need to understand social structures, legal norms, religious beliefs and the economics of the time. 

In other words, by choosing to write about a topic, I ensure that I thoroughly learn about it in much greater detail than would be the case if I simply read about it. 

You may also remember your parents or teachers saying that "to teach once is to learn twice." Writing is much the same. What I have read but not written about, I am far more likely to forget. What I have written about I learn with an intensity that stays with me for many years.

My current learning adventure is a deep-dive into the colorful and exiting world of 13th century Outremer. You can discover it with and through me in the first of my latest series. Don't forget, books make great Christmas presents!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Difficult Choices - An Excerpt from Rebels against Tyranny -

One of the apparent paradoxes in Novare's account of events in 1229 is that although he claims Beirut's sons were abused while held as hostages, he also claims that Balian "willingly" and "gladly" agreed to serve in the Emperor's household. Historian Peter Edbury suggests that there was nothing "voluntary" about Balian's service to the Emperor and that both he and his younger brother John were being kept "under surveillance" to ensure their father's good behavior. In this scene, I suggest a possible alternative explanation of what happened. It is true that Frederick took Henry of Cyprus with him on "crusade" -- although Henry was just eleven years old -- and I think that Henry was the real hostage.

Beirut rode back to his camp with his freed sons beside him, but they did not speak. Nor was the mood one of rejoicing, as he had expected. Although Baldwin smiled at him more than once, Balian had withdrawn within himself. He appeared to be brooding.

At last, they reached the camp. At the sight of Beirut flanked by his sons, the knights, soldiers, and archers began to cheer—until they got a better look at the two hostages. Then the cheers died on their lips and they looked at one another and started shaking their heads and muttering.

Hugh and Johnny came spurring forward to greet their brothers, but their welcomes turned into exclamations of “Oh, my God!” and “Jesus! What did he do to you?”

“Later!” Their father told them, and they dutifully fell silent as they turned their horses to fall in beside their brothers, sobered.

At Beirut’s large tent, they drew up and started to dismount. Balian hesitated, staring at the ground for a long time while Rob, his father, brothers, and Novare waited. Finally, he took a deep breath and swung his right leg forward over the pommel to drop down on the ground. As he landed, he gasped in pain and his legs gave way under him. He went down on his knees, and at once a dozen hands reached out to help. He took one without looking at who it was and grasped it so hard to pull himself upright that Johnny whelped in pain before turning to stare at his father in horror.

Beirut bade Novare bring the physician to his tent at once.

Novare agreed readily, turning his horse over to his squire as he hastened to find the Ibelin’s physician Joscelyn d’Auber.

Meanwhile, Beirut gently pushed his younger sons aside and put his arm around Balian and guided him to the tent. Balian paused to find Karpas in the crowd behind his father. “Thank you, Sir Anseau. I don’t know what I would have done without your horse.”

“Your horse now, Balian,” Karpas told him without a moment’s hesitation. “He’s called Damon, and he doesn’t like me much. He remembers me trying to kill his rider in the judicial combat and holds it against me, but I’m sure you’ll be able to win him over.”

“But—thank you!” Balian appeared almost overwhelmed. “I owe you a great deal, my lord,” he continued, and his father had the impression he was about to break down as he stammered. “I—”

“Don’t worry!” Karpas cut him off with a grin. “I’ll keep track and charge interest!” His quip and laugh dissipated the awkwardness and drew a weak but grateful smile from Balian.

Beirut gave Karpas a nod of thanks too, then asked the others of his party, all of whom were still staring in shock, to give him time alone with his sons. They withdrew with a murmur of well-wishes, while Beirut guided his eldest son into his tent, and Baldwin held open the flap for both of them.

Beirut led Balian to his own cushioned chair and had him sit down.

“I’m sorry, Father,” Balian whispered. 

Beirut just put a hand on his shoulder, then looked over his own. “Hugh, Johnny, bring us all wine.”

The younger youths sprang to obey as Beirut directed his attention to Baldwin next. “Are you alright? Come. Sit down.” He gestured to the only other chair in the room.

Baldwin accepted the invitation to sit, but insisted, “I’m fine, Father. They treated me better than Balian from the start.” He cast a glance at his older brother, and Balian answered with a look that Beirut intercepted. He had the strong feeling Balian had just wordlessly asked Baldwin not to tell something.

Beirut immediately announced, “I want to know everything — everything — they did to you from the moment I abandoned you in the great hall. And then I want to know why you just volunteered not only yourself but Johnny to serve in that—” Beirut bit his tongue but then said it anyway “— that monster’s household.”

Balian took a deep breath and put his hand on his father’s arm. When Beirut looked at him, he said slowly and deliberately, “Because, Father, he has the King.”

“What do you mean?” Beirut asked irritated.

“I mean he has taken King Henry with him on this expedition, in his own ship, watched day and night by his minions.”

Beirut stared at his son in disbelief. “That can’t be! King Henry’s only eleven years old!”

“I know. And the only way we can try to help him—and possibly remind him that we are not his enemies—is if one or the other of us are in the imperial household. Johnny is closest in age to Henry, and as a squire of the body might even be able to worm his way into a position where he can share Henry’s chamber and meals. As for me, if I’m in the household, I’ll at least have some idea of what is happening. I can try to protect them both—assuming I can regain enough strength to wield a sword ever again,” he added with a surge of bitterness.

Beirut spun about to look at Johnny, who was bringing four brass goblets from one of the carved chests.

“What is it?” Johnny asked.

“The Emperor offered you a place in his household, as his squire, and your brother accepted for you—without my consent, so it is not yet decided. I will make my excuses to the Emperor and bear the consequences. I am not inclined to put any son of mine at his non-existent mercy ever again.”

“Father, listen to me,” Balian interceded. Beirut had sworn on the night of the infamous banquet that he would never again disregard anything Balian told him. Against his instincts, he bit his tongue and waited for his son to continue. “If not for King Henry, I am not sure I would be alive today.” Balian paused to let the words sink in before explaining, “The Emperor threatened to throw us, bound hand and foot, to the sharks—after watching you hang.”

“He’s not exaggerating, Father,” Baldwin hastened to support his brother. “The Emperor argued that your rebellion gave him the right to execute us. Although he promised to keep us alive long enough to watch you hang, I’m not sure Balian would have lasted. He was without water for almost two days. If King Henry hadn’t gone to the Hospitaller Master and insisted on visiting us, it might have been longer. Master de Montaigu was appalled to discover the condition we were in and personally took us under the protection of the Hospital. He ensured that Balian was taken to the Hospital infirmary and received treatment there.”

Beirut absorbed this with no visible display of emotion on his face—only fingers that could not stay still. First, they went to cover his mouth and chin, then fell to his chest and clasped his cross. He looked from his eldest to his second son uneasily.

Behind him, Hugh spoke up for the first time. “It was Rob who went to the Hospital and found out from the lay-brothers that you were being kept apart from the other hostages. He was the one who guessed you were being mistreated.”

Beirut at once smiled over his shoulder at his third son and agreed. “Yes, that’s true. While the rest of us withdrew immediately to Nicosia, Rob stayed behind to find out what had happened to you. I don’t know how he got an audience with the King, but he must have gotten a message to him somehow.” Beirut paused and added, “I never, never thought a Christian monarch could treat innocent hostages like criminals. Please forgive me for being so... naïve.”

Balian almost laughed at that, and he reached out to his father. “I was never prouder of you than when you stood up to him and walked out, taking most of the Cypriot barons and knights with you.” Then he added in a voice smoldering with hatred, “I would rather die, than watch you grovel at his feet.”

“Balian speaks for me as well, Father,” Baldwin joined in earnestly. Beirut looked from one to the other, noting that the Lord had brought good even out of this terrible situation because the brothers had clearly buried their differences and found the love and respect for one another they should have as brothers. Still, he shook his head and asked, “How did it come to this? That we are subjects of a man without honor or Christian charity?”

“That fool Brienne was too damn eager for his daughter to wear an imperial crown, that’s how! He’s certainly lived to regret it,” Baldwin retorted. Balian nodded agreement, adding, “But the way I see it, our real king is Henry, and he is now in acute danger. Not that the Emperor wants to humiliate him as he did us, but he does want to rob him of his inheritance by turning him into a puppet. He will certainly try to turn him against us. The fact that King Henry interceded on our behalf proves that the Emperor has not yet succeeded, but how much longer can we expect an eleven-year-old to hold out? Especially now that he is cut off from his own household?”

Beirut shook his head to indicate he did not know what to think, then turned to look at his son Johnny. “What do you think? Would you be willing to serve as a squire to the Holy Roman Emperor after what he did to your brothers?”

Johnny looked from Balian to Baldwin and then faced his father with his chin at an impudent angle as he declared, “I’m an Ibelin too, you know? If Balian and Baldwin can survive as the Emperor’s prisoners, I’m sure I can survive as his squire.”

Baldwin grinned at him and declared, “Well said, Johnny!”

“I will protect him with my life, Father,” Balian swore, but the very solemnity with which he said it and the dark circles around his eyes made his father shudder.

“I don’t doubt that you would try, Balian, but the sight of you does not inspire me with confidence! Rather, the Emperor might manage to kill you both!”

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.