Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

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.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Getting Technology to Tick in Historical Fiction

One of the main reasons historical fiction remains entertaining is the fact that fundamental human emotions have not changed over time. Whether in ancient Greece or medieval England, greed, ambition, jealousy, pity, love, hate, passion and compassion have motivated people. It is because of these shared emotions that we can identify with people from a different age. But the technology which surrounds us has changed, and when writing a historical novel this simple reality cannot be ignored.

The problem of technology is two-fold.

On the one hand, the technology of other periods is often unknown or at least unfamiliar to us as novelists. We may literally not know exactly how a fire was lit, a wheel mounted, or a door secured in a particular period of time, and because we don’t know, we can make errors that scream out our ignorance and so shatter the harmony of the picture created. Imagine, for example, reading a book in which a medieval shop-keeper picks up a phone to dial 9-1-1 when he sees a robbery taking place? Suddenly, the world carefully constructed by the novelist collapses, leaving nothing but laughter and scorn.

On the other hand, readers really do not want to read a user’s manual on lock design each time a character opens a door or read a lecture on the operation of each rope on a full-rigged ship when a character’s vessel changes course. Indeed, most readers don’t want to learn about the technology of a different age at all, they simply want to be able to better picture the world in which the story is taking place. This means the characters must interact naturally with the technology of their age.

Used discretely and strategically, descriptions of technology can greatly enhance the authenticity of a historical novel. They can make a blurry picture more precise, add an extra dimension to the plot, or even tell the reader more about the characters by the way they relate to the technology.

Here’s an example from Chasing the Wind:

Chasing the Wind: A Story of British and German Pilots in the Battle of BritainRobin started talking again, in a rush. His coins were probably about to run out – as usual. “Look, you don’t have to give me an answer right now. You can think about it. But I’d rather like to know before I report at Tangmere; then I can see about housing and such right away. I probably need someone’s permission. Station Commander, I suppose. My coins are out. Will you be at the Queens?”

She didn’t even have time to shout “yes” before the beepers started. She shouted “yes” anyway, and hoped he’d heard. Then she sat there trying to make sense of it.

Here, an RAF officer calling his girlfriend in wartime Britain uses a pay phone to propose to her. Because he’s running out of coins he’s in a rush. The “peeps,” indicating his credit is used up, cut him off before she can give an answer.

In the next scene, the technology itself becomes a factor influencing the relationship. This example is from The Lady in the Spitfire.

Kathy would never, never have offered to drive. That would have been beneath her dignity, and she would have looked down on him for not being ‘man’ enough to do ‘what was right.’

The Lady in the SpitfireEmily, seeing only his hesitation, thought she had offended his masculinity and cajoled gently. “It really does make more sense for me to get us both safely where we want to go, than for you to get us both killed. We’ve tried that once already, after all.”

“We sure have, Ma’am.” Jay opened his door and jumped out, walked around the front of the jeep while Emily walked around the back. She got in and quickly ascertained her feet couldn’t reach the pedals.

Jay leaned forward to help her adjust the seat, but she was still reaching. “No problem. Just stuff my parachute pack behind my back,” Emily ordered, and Jay obliged. Then she familiarized herself with the jeep as if she were in a cockpit. “Let’s see. Headlights? High lights? Windscreen wipers? Turn indicators? Horn?”

Jay responded to each question as if they were doing the cockpit checklist before take-off. They both fell into the roles without thinking about it, and yet, all the while Jay felt his admiration growing. He liked the competent way she went about it. Some girls, Barb for example, would have just roared off to show they were as good as any man – and cracked up at the next corner because they hit the wipers rather than the lights.

Here two pilots, an American B-17 pilot and a British Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, are on their first date. American jeeps, like American aircraft, were built to be driven/flown by tall men and Emily is comparatively small; describing her using a parachute pack to be able to reach the pedals is accurate and more evocative than simply stating the fact. More important, as the reader by now knows, Emily’s job requires her to fly unfamiliar aircraft just by going through a check-list so she is only doing what is natural, but Jay’s experience is with women who relate to technology differently and Emily does well by comparison, impacting their relationship.

In this third example, I use technology to make a point but consciously avoid boring the reader with the details. This example is also from The Lady in the Spitfire.

They reached the maintenance hanger, and J.B. introduced Barb around to all the ground crews. She was offered coffee, cokes, sandwiches and chips from dozens of oil-stained, eager hands, but she bowled them all over when she started asking technical questions about the engines. J.B. laughed aloud at the dumb-founded expressions that greeted her. Fuentes angrily told her he had better things to do than answer a lot of “dumb questions” and stormed off. Most of the other mechanics were not so bigoted, however, and eagerly started explaining everything to her.

In my last example, technology is a catalyst for the entire novel, and it is particularly important that the description does not disrupt the plot. This example is from The Olympic Charioteer.

The Olympic CharioteerA gigantic crane with a block of marble hanging from its hook was being swung slowly to the right by two slaves controlling the drum around which the rope was wound. Antyllus slowed his fractious horses to a walk as the slaves at the crane slowly started to slack away, hand-over-hand, lowering the giant stone gently toward a waiting wagon. Antyllus watched warily, because he knew this manoeuvre required both strength and control.

The near-naked slaves operating the crane shone with sweat, and their muscles stood out sharply – or should have. One of the slaves, however, had little muscle left. Even as Antyllus watched, this living skeleton was seized with a coughing fit. At once the other slave called out in alarm. The sick slave was losing his grip on the ropes as he crumpled onto the ground. The second slave, although a powerfully built Ethiopian, could not take the strain alone. He shouted in alarm again as he was dragged forward. Any second he would either have to let go or his hands would be pulled right onto the drum and crushed. Shouting with terror and pain, he started to let the rope slide through his sweating hands.

The stone slid downwards, no longer fully controlled.

The reader needs to be told how cranes were worked in ancient Greece in order to understand what is happening, but the description of the technology is intended to enhance, not disrupt, the suspense.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Food Glorious Food

Eating is essential to survival, so characters in any novel, including historical ones, will spend a good deal of their time thinking about, preparing, and consuming food. Furthermore, dining has been a social occasion in most societies since the age of the Iliad, and in consequence many key interactions between characters are likely to occur during a meal, whether it is a seductive dinner for two or a medieval feast for a thousand guests.

Obviously, over time eating customs have varied significantly. Fastfood and junkfood don’t fit in the Middle Ages, gourmet feasts are anachronistic in wartime Britain, and a dinner featuring Asian food shatters the authenticity of a novel set in Nazi Germany. Thus knowing what people ate in the period and setting of a novel is essential to creating a realistic atmosphere in an historical novel.

Furthermore, even within a fixed period, differences in diet tell us a great deal about the status and financial condition of an individual. While the lord of the manor feasts on game in heavily spiced sauces with fine white bread and flakey pastry, the peasant would have no meat and eat bread in which sand is mixed with the course-ground flour. Thus providing details about what is being eaten and how can be very useful in helping the reader understand and visualize a specific society.

On the other hand, some historical novelists take it to the other extreme. Cookbooks being some of the most successful best-sellers, they think they too have to provide recipes and lengthy cooking instructions every time one of their characters sits down for a meal. Yet unless the meal itself plays a significant role (e.g. Babbette’s Feast), too much talk about how a meal is prepared interrupts the flow of the narrative and probably doesn’t interest the reader at that particular moment. If he/she is looking for a recipe, they will find a cookbook!

I try to use descriptions of food as a means of saying something about the characters or society. Here’s an example from The Lady in the Spitfire in which food is a device for describing a character’s background and state of mind.

     His grandfather clapped him heartily on the back in approval, while his mother just shook her head and turned away, retreating into the kitchen. Then, in a gesture of reconciliation, she called, “I’ve got some fresh-baked cookies in here, Jay.”
The Lady in the Spitfire    J.B. followed her into the kitchen. “Where are the girls?” J.B. asked, referring to his sisters, as he settled himself at the kitchen table.
    “Sally’s got a job now, you know,” his mother answered, setting a pottery cookie-jar in front of him on the kitchen table. “Can I get you some milk?”
     “Sure,” J.B. agreed, thinking how bizarre it was that he was falling back into the patterns of childhood. He’d spent the last three months learning how to fly bombing runs to blow Hitler off the map, and here he was eating cookies with milk at the kitchen table as if he’d just come home from grade school.

In the following excerpt from Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge the objective is simply making a distant, very different society seem less strange by reminding the reader of common experiences like a stand-up snack.

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the AgogeSoon the smells of the street-side kitchens and stands overpowered them. Many cookhouses opened their windows on to the street and sold to passers-by. The smell of warm bread, grilled goat and lamb, fried onions, coriander, rosemary and cumin made their mouths water, and they could not resist stopping to eat. They had been given coins by Lysandridas, and they eagerly bought chunks of grilled lamb, onions and cooked carrots all folded into a thin pocket of fresh bread.

In the final two examples below, food is a means of telling the reader about life in Nazi Germany. Both are from An Obsolete Honor.

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerTrude dried her hands on her apron and pulled a folded slip of paper torn from a woman’s magazine out of her skirt pocket. Beside the recipe was an appetizing picture of the finished dish, and the text admonished: “German Housewives! Remember! Although your only weapon is the kitchen spoon, by preparing wholesome and economical meals to nourish your families, you too contribute to VICTORY! Prepare this casserole to delight your menfolk and give the money you save to the Winter Help!”

Also from An Obsolete Honor:

Their coffee and cake arrived, heavily laden with whipped cream. Marianne exclaimed in surprise: you needed extra ration cards for cream of any kind. Kessler looked a little embarrassed, but admitted, “We could never have it as children; I just can’t get enough now that I can afford it.”

In this short paragraph, the reader learns that ration cards were needed even at restaurants for certain items, that whipped cream was considered a luxury in pre-war Germany, and that the character, Herr Kessler, comes from a family that could not afford such luxuries. A very effective use of less than 50 words!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Clothes make the man - and woman

The importance of wearing the right thing appears to be as old and clothing itself, and so it is always important for a novelist to keep the reader informed about what characters are wearing. When writing historical fiction, however, the problem becomes complicated by the fact that the reader may not be able to visualize a certain item simply by referring to it -- and by the fact that the reader may not be familiar with the social implications of one kind of clothing vs another. For example, in a novel set in the present it is enough to say “he was wearing a three-piece, pin-striped suit” to conjure up not only an image but convey something about the social status of the character. In a historical novel that may not be so obvious.

Accessories and grooming fall into the same category as dress. In a modern novel, whether a woman is wearing cheap “fashion” jewelry, an antique ring or a flashy diamond has significance that the reader instantly understands. A hairstyle can be described with a word or two – a crew cut, a ponytail, an afro. The significance of a man with a shaved head or a woman whose hair has been cut may not be so obvious to the reader of a historical novel.

This makes descriptions of clothing, accessories and grooming all the more important in a historical novel. Let me site a few examples from my own novels.

My first example comes from An Obsolete Honor. It not only introduces a key character, but tells a bit about the historical context to help the reader relate to later descriptions of women.

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerThe receptionist for the Commander of the AHA was a particularly pleasant surprise. She was not objectively prettier than half a dozen other young women working in the building, but whereas the others competed with one another within the narrow confines of Third Reich ideology on feminine beauty, Philip hadn’t seen a young lady like this since he’d left Paris. She wore long, dangling earrings, for a start, something one almost never saw in Nazi Germany. Even more unusual, she wore makeup – not heavy makeup (Philip wouldn’t have liked that) – just enough not to look tired and bland. Although she wore a simple silk blouse, it had that indefinable extra elegance that could only have come from a Paris designer. Most distinctively, rather than wearing her hair long in back, but pulled or coiled away from her face, she had cut it very short and severe at the base of her neck while leaving it long in front. It fell forward, blond and delightfully casual – when she didn’t negligently tuck it behind her ears.

The next example, from The Lady in the Spitfire, contrasts styles of the period.

Jay changed into his dress uniform and Emily appeared in a stunning evening gown – like nothing Jay had ever seen. No off-the-shoulder-low-décolleté-and-puffy skirt affair as Kathy would have worn. It was a modest yet elegant, burgundy gown with one bare arm and one arm encased in sheer silk.

The Lady in the SpitfireThe paragraph above is quite short because the fashions of the Second World War are still familiar to most readers today from films, documentaries, and history books with photos. Likewise, when writing about the Second World War it is enough to refer, for example, to a “navy uniform,” a “flight jacket” or “dress blues” without actually describing them. When writing about ancient Greece, however, the situation is very different and much more challenging. The issue is to create an image the reader can visualize, provide information about status and character – and all without boring the reader with a lecture or a fashion lesson.

In this example from Are They Singing in Sparta? The primary objective of this particular scene was to tell the reader about how women of the period groomed and dressed so that thereafter in the novel lengthy descriptions would not be necessary. The hope was that after this one scene, the reader would be able to visual items based on short references.

Are They Singing in Sparta?Naked, she poured the water into the laver that stood in the adjoining nursery. She also poured from a pottery vial extract of rosemary. With a sponge she wiped herself with this warm, fresh-smelling water and dabbed off the dampness with a linen towel. Already Sybil was waiting with her breast-bind and she held out her arms, so Sybil could pass the bands around her expertly, confining and supporting her breasts firmly.

“I have decided to apologize to the Supreme Polemarch personally for what Sandy did,” she announced as Sybil went to the clothes trunk to fetch her something to wear.

Sybil dug deeper into the trunk and pulled out a full-length, long-sleeved chiton. “You’ll be wanting this then,” she said simply. “It’s warmer anyway.”

The chiton was of soft, dark green wool and was shirred along the seams from neck to wrist. Along this seam bronze balls had been sewn at intervals, and there were two bands of embroidery in gold thread, one at knee height and one at the hem itself. Alethea donned the chiton, while Sybil selected a himation to go with it. “The purple himation, Mistress?”

“No, not that!” Alethea rejected her best himation sharply. The last time she’d worn it had been so unlucky.

“But you’ll want to wear your amethyst collar, surely? Athenian wives always laden themselves with jewels.”

“No,” Alethea answered firmly. “My chain of gold rosettes and the rosette earrings will be fine. And I’ll wear the dark blue himation… and the lion-head pin to hold the himation at the shoulder, but first help me put up my hair.”

“Yes, mistress.”

Alethea seated herself upon a low stool before her dressing table, and Sybil took up the carved ivory comb. Alethea’s curly hair snarled easily, which was shy she wore it bound at night. Sybil released the hair from its bonds, and set about combing it expertly. “You still have such lovely, thick hair, Mistress,” Sybil assured her without jealousy, although her own hair was so thin and sparse that she kept her head covered with a snood at all times.

Alethea did not respond. Sybil was always making her compliments, insinuating that she was still an attractive – marriageable – woman. She had let Sybil’s flattery go to her head and paid dearly for it. She told herself to stop listening.

Sybil expertly bound up Alethea’s thick hair in a ribbon that held the curls bunched at the back of her head. On her forehead she set a gold diadem. Then she teased a few curls back to hang in front of her ears. She gave Alethea a polished bronze mirror in which to inspect her work with a smile of pride and the remark, “no one would think you were a day over 30.”

Alethea looked at herself critically…Her eyelids were starting to sag and her neck was wrinkled. She was 38. What could ever have induced her to think a young man would find her attractive enough to be interested in her? She had made an absolute fool of herself! She put the mirror face-down on the dresser and with a sigh got to her feet.

Sybil expertly doubled the himation over so that it hung in two, unequal layers. She wrapped it around Alethea so that the longer layer hung to mid-calf. This left just a foot of the chiton with its border exposed, while the shorter, upper layer of the himation fell to just below her hip. For inside, it was draped from under her left arm to over right shoulder, where it was pinned, leaving both arms free to move. But when she went outside, she could pull the upper flap up over her head and encase her left arm for added warmth.

By weaving Alethea’s thoughts and worries into scene of her dressing, I have broken up the pure description of what a wealthy Spartan lady of this period (the archaic, before Spartan customs restricted women’s freedom to adorn themselves) would have worn.

In the excerpt below from The Olympic Charioteer the description of a stranger and his dress is sufficient to tell the protagonist he is dealing with a wealthy man, and so the reader is also taught what to look for.

The Olympic CharioteerHe was a handsome blond man with an aquiline nose and penetrating blue eyes. He wore a long white chiton over which he had wrapped a maroon himation with casual elegance around his waist and then over his shoulders. He had good sandals on his feet and smelled of bay leaves.

In contrast, a few pages later the protagonist is at pains to prevent a misconception that could also be caused by Spartan dress.

“No—that is, he is my driver, but he is no slave! He’s a Spartan eirene, if you know what that is.” Teleklos was over-reacting to the slight, but he did not want any mistake about Nikandros’ status. Because eirenes were not yet citizens, they did not yet have the right to wear Spartan scarlet. They wore unbleached chitons and coarse black himations. There were many slaves of rich masters who went about better dressed, and this made it all the more imperative to clarify things.

I’d like to close with a description of men’s dress in ancient Sparta that contrasts three men. The excerpt is taken from Spartan Slave, Spartan Queen.
Spartan Slave, Spartan Queen: A Tale of Four Women in SpartaA tall man in plain armor and a black-crested helmet emerged into the atrium flanked by two younger men. One of these was in the most splendid armor, while the other was in worn leather armor and holding a torch, apparently low born….

Here, without going into detail, I inform the reader that a man’s status could be seen from his armor and that the poorest could not necessarily afford bronze, useful information that can be referred back to in the rest of the novel.



Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Roof Over Their Heads

We all need a roof over our heads, and this applies to the characters in historical novels no less than living people. Describing where characters live is usually one of the very best ways to set the scene and help readers visualize the events that take place in a novel. Furthermore, buildings are one aspect of the past about which we have considerable information. Many significant architectural monuments from pyramids of Egypt and the Parthenon of Athens to medieval townhouses, castles and manors, cathedrals and monasteries can still be visited today.

In addition, archaeology has combined with art history to provide us with very extensive knowledge about the lay-out of buildings both public and private. We now know a great deal about ancient and medieval construction materials and techniques. We have discovered examples of furnishings from periods as distant as the age of the pharaohs, and archeologists have discovered a wealth of knowledge about even the plumbing and heating systems of dwellings, public buildings and entire cities from the past. Some of the most exciting work done in the last quarter century has been the application of computer modelling to archaeology and the resulting visual reconstructions of how now ruined buildings looked when in use.

In short, we know a great deal particularly about the public, religious and otherwise monumental buildings of the past. While we know less about the work-a-day and humble structures for the poor, with a little research, a novelist today can usually collect sufficient information to be able to describe in adequate detail the way the characters living in almost any period would have lived, worked, and worshiped.

A historical novelist should make maximum use of this knowledge because describing a person’s environment is a useful means of drawing a reader into a novel. I like to set the scene before plunging into the action and/or dialogue, because a person in real life likewise usually takes in his/her surroundings - even if only subconsciously, and our environment effects our actions and words.

For my novels set in the distant past, furthermore, I have to assume that the average reader does not know a great deal about how people lived. It is therefore vital to provide this information to enable readers to visualize what is happening.

In the first four examples, all taken from my novel "Are They Singing in Sparta?" the descriptions of dwellings in Sparta serve the dual purpose of enabling the reader to visualize life-style and underlining the impact of status and wealth on that lifestyle. All three examples are from Are They Singing in Sparta? starting from poorest to the finest of the dwellings.

The hut was always damp, mosquito infested in the summer, and plagued with rats year-round. More than once it had been swept away in the spring or autumn floods, and they’d had to build it again, tearing up the reeds with their bare hands until they blistered and bled. But still the winters had been the worst. The wind had whistled as it blew in between the cracks, and often there were thin sheets of ice on the floor when he woke in the morning.


This simple helot cottage was the kind of ‘real house’ their mother had always dreamed about. It had only a packed-dirt floor, but the walls were baked mud and whitewashed so it was completely free of drafts and leaks. There was a wooden frame on which the thatch had been secured in thick layers, and there were no less than four windows all with wooden shutters that could be closed in winter against the cold and rain and snow. Best of all, there was a large hearth, kept burning day and night to provide light and warmth and comfort without pause.


The sheer white walls soared above his head to a ceiling with massive beams holding up a flat, white, plastered ceiling. It was frightening because he could not understand how the beams or the plaster could stay up there. Beneath his feet were real, terracotta tiles so flat and smooth and cool that it was awkward to walk on them...And there was a bed with pristine white linens stretched across it and two round, white bolsters.


The floor was a magnificent mosaic such as he had never seen in a private house before. Like the walkways around the peristyle, it was black and white tiles, but here the colors had been reserves, a white background with a pattern in black. It must have cost a fortune. But no less than the couches they were all reclining on – 12 in total. The andron was large enough to hold an entire syssitia! And each couch was of some dark wood with delicate inlays and bronze feet. The tables matched of course. The pottery they were served upon was red with black figures painted on it – not just designs and patterns but people and animals so lifelike it was possible to recognize them. Agesandros had a kylix with a four-horse chariot in the bowel. He looked in vain for a crack or chip upon it. The walls of the chamber were just as perfect: plastered and white-washed so it was impossible to see even the cracks of the stone beneath. The ceiling beams were painted and from them hung oil lamps, all burning. To keep this large andron lit like this for an hour, he estimated, they would burn more oil than his mother used in a month. So this was how the aristocracy had lived while he fought with the rats for garbage.

When describing a more familiar age, less detail is generally needed because a few words will remind the reader of something they know. Thus, for example, when describing the male protagonist’s home at the start of The Lady in the Spitfire, only a single sentence is need:

He looked around, taking in the neat rows of aluminium-sided trailers on their cinder blocks, the latter half-hidden by the piles of dirty snow from the last snowstom.

Americans familiar with a trailer park need no more. On the other hand, when describing Germany in the 1940s, I felt it would be useful to provide greater details, particularly for venues that were going to be used repeatedly in the course of the novel. By giving rather lengthy descriptions at the start of the novel, I could later with just a brief reference conjure up the complete image. Here is an example from "An Obsolete Honor."

The Feldburg’s Berlin apartment was located in one of the apartment houses on the canal...The central entrance was a very ornate doorway at the head of a short walkway flanked by a narrow, well-tended garden. The heavy wooden door with bevelled glass opened into a cool, tall entry hall. The floor, walls and curving stairway were all Italian marble. To the left and right, elaborately framed mirrors hung over decorative fireplaces with polished brass grates. The underside of the stairway, as it curved back overhead, had gilded mouldings, which framed a romantic hunting scene done in oil on canvas...The apartment [itself] occupied the entire first floor with grand representational rooms across the front of the house and living rooms stretching back in two wings around the central courtyard. The kitchen, pantry, wash-room and servant quarters occupied the rooms across the back of the house beyond the courtyard.

For a house which will not be the scene of multiple events, in contrast, I try to evoke the age and society without detail that might slow-down the pace of the book. Again from "An Obsolete Honor:"

The walls of the Halle’s apartment were covered with striped wallpaper and hung with painting and photographs in elaborate frames. The heavy, dark furniture was draped with lace of indecipherable purpose and then laden with things: vases, clocks that didn’t work, paperweights, porcelain figurines, photo albums and much, much more.

Next week I will look at how “Clothes Make the Man – Or Woman.”