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 clich├ęs 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, April 14, 2012

Killer Covers

While a good title can help a book, a bad title is rarely fatal. Covers, on the other hand, can kill. The best title and best content in the world will fail to attract readers if the cover is repulsive. Even a merely bland, neutral title is a murderer of a different kind. With nearly 500,000 new titles appearing every year, a book needs an outstanding, attractive and appropriate cover in order to survive.

What constitutes an “outstanding, attractive and appropriate” cover is, of course, a matter of opinion. Nothing about publication is quite so subjective as cover design. And there are fashions in covers as well as clothes. Colors come in and go out of favor. Bold replaces impressionistic – or vice versa. Victorian art yields to abstract designs or the opposite. Even the professionals will admit (if they are feeling candid or have had a glass or two) that they often fail to anticipate reader reactions to covers. Fortunes are made and lost on Madison Avenue because of the art of attracting buyers to a product (in this case a book) is not a science but an art -- and even masters can make mistakes.

I am a writer, not a graphic designer. I do not pretend to understand visual arts. So when I started publishing, I was delighted to think the publisher with an entire staff of graphic designers would develop my cover design for me. Five years later, I am sorry to report that my experience with out-sourcing cover design to “professionals” has varied from brilliant to disastrous.
Starting with the positive examples, Pen and Sword developed the cover of “Sisters in Arms” without any in-put from me and the cover is without doubt one of the best for any of my books:

There are also times when the professionals really do “know best” – whether we like it or not. When I published my biography of General Friedrich Olbricht in Germany, the publisher put a picture of Olbricht on the cover and chose a color scheme that avoided “brown” to stress that Olbricht was not Nazi. I liked the cover very much. When working on the English biography of Olbricht, however, I had to accept the fact that “Hitler sells” and putting a picture of a German general on the cover of the book – even if it was “coded” green rather than brown – would not sell books. With inner reluctance, I approved putting the picture of Hitler showing the bomb damage from the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944 to Mussolini on the cover. To add insult to injury, the English publisher tinted the entire cover brown.

Because the image is so familiar and distinctive, the cover immediately told the English/American audience that the book was about the plot to kill Hitler. As such it attracted readers interested in the topic. Sales of this book have been the best of all my books so far.

In light of this success and in connection with the title change for “An Obsolete Honor” in to “Hitler’s Demons,” Wheatmark developed a brilliant cover. This cover capitalizes on the “name recognition” that Hitler has, yet gives the Resistance a face since the individual photos are of Resistance figures.

Unfortunately, my experience with professional cover designs was not always so good. For my novel about the fall of Acre and the Knights Templar in the late 13th Century, my publisher submitted a cover showing a knight from the 16th century. I asked for three changes and finally had to make do with a very mediocre cover. Or another example: for the cover of my novel “The Lady in the Spitfire” the publisher submitted a cover image showing a modern, corporate jet. That just wouldn’t fly! Even after I sent images of a Spitfire and stressed how distinctive the profile is and how anyone familiar with the period would recognize it, the designs that came back were completely inappropriate for a book set in WWII. I hired an independent designer to develop a design based on my specifications with materials provided and came up with a cover I liked.

Whether this is an effective design, however, is questionable. This is my worst selling book.
Likewise, the covers for my recent Sparta books have been designed not by the “professionals” at publishing houses, but by independent graphic designers working on instructions from me. While they avoid the pitfalls of inappropriate designs – the first two aren’t killers -- they would probably have benefited from the extra creativity of a designer who, unlike me, thinks in terms of images.


The third cover is, I think the best:

But will it sell books?
So the quest continues for the perfect cover continues … and will never end.

NOTE: I will be on holiday on Kythera until the end of the month and the next entry will be posted in early May.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Meaning of Easter - An Excerpt from my Templar Trilogy

Sir Jean of Acre, the second novel in my Templar Trilogy, is set in the late 13th Century and much of the action takes place during the last  years of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. The follow excerpt from that novel seemed a good way to remember Easter in this blog.

Easter Sunday, 1290 AD

Madeleine felt the heat and became aware of her thirst. That was the one thing she had not learned to master. The trader could always get her to eat in the end by denying her water until she had consumed the food he put before her. She licked her lips and tasted the layer of dust upon them with revulsion.

A shadow fell across her, abruptly blocking out the sun. At once her body cramped as she registered it could only be a customer. He had stopped directly before her and she could feel his eyes studying her, boring into her. She closed her eyes more tightly and tried not to move, to not even breathe. Surely any man would be repulsed by what he saw: the hair dyed the color of straw a month ago and -- she presumed -- already growing out its natural hazelnut color at the roots, the sallow skin prematurely aged by the Syrian sun, the lips painted on larger than life with a fatty red cream.

The man -- she could tell it was a man by the smell of horse sweat and leather -- did not move, and nervously her eyes fluttered just enough to peep through her lashes. She saw two chain mailed feet and a shudder went through her. Only soldiers wore chain mail -- though she could not remember seeing a Muslim in chain mail leggings. Her eyes cautiously ran up to the leather garters buckled just below the knee. Her heart was thundering in her chest; no Muslim dressed like this.

Her eyes flew open and she gasped in terror. Looming over her was a militant angel -- white surcoat over glittering mail and a head of golden hair framed by a halo. "Gabriel!" She gasped in wonder. She had died.

And then the man dropped down on to his heels and the sun remained high over his head and he was not an angel after all.

Madeleine swallowed and her eyes fixed upon the red cross on his breast. Though he was dressed like a Templar, she had seen with her own eyes the heads of all the garrison and relief on stakes before Tripoli.  And since he could not be a Templar, he could only be an apparition sent to admonish her for her loss of faith.

"What did you say?" he asked her, and she was startled by the gentleness of his voice.  Her eyes were released from the cross and sought his face. It was a handsome face: tanned and weathered with deep lines creasing his cheeks and crows' feet about his grey eyes yet retaining a youthfulness and a kindness. The eyes searched her face prying into every crevice, registering the cracks on her lips and the infection in her eye, seeing the dust and the sweat.

Madeleine started to tremble with shame. She felt as if she were naked before him. But this was a different nakedness from the matter-of-fact disrobing of a slave girl. It was as if his eyes could read her very soul. "What are you?" she asked the apparition.

"I am Commander Sir Jean de Preuthune of the Knights Templar at Acre," came the answer.

"Acre too has fallen?" she asked in alarm. "You are enslaved?" But then she realized how absurd the question was. A Templar commander did not allow himself to be taken alive -- and if he did, the Muslims killed him because the Temple forbade ransom.  "You are a spirit!" she concluded.

"No," he told her calmly, and she saw pity in his eyes, which made her want to cry. "I am very much alive and free." Seeing the disbelief and confusion, he explained. "We still have the right of pilgrimage to Nazareth."

"Nazareth?" she repeated, lifting her head and staring about her. "Are we in Nazareth?"


"Nazareth?" She repeated again, and suddenly it was too much for her and she dropped her face in her hands. Squatting in the dirt He had trodden, she had not even known she was in His city. She had not felt His presence here where He had lived....

"Who are you?" he asked her gently. "Your accent sounds almost as if you were from the Languedoc...."

"Poitou. From Poitou." She lifted her face and looked at him again. "From Lys-St-Georges. My father is the lord of Lys-St-Georges. My name is Madeleine.

The village was obscure and Jean did not know Poitou, but he nodded and smiled. "And you came on pilgrimage?" he asked cautiously. "You were captured en route? Your father was killed?"

"No... I came... I was a sister at the Convent of St Helena in Tripoli--"

"You want this woman?" The trader had at last returned from his midday meal and, seeing Jean conversing with Madeleine, he hurried over. "You have an eye for a bargain! Skinny as she is now, I'll let you have her for a mere twelve dinhars! But she'll soon fatten up if you treat her right." He smiled lecherously.

Jean turned on the trader and would have made a sharp retort if Paul had not suddenly grasped him on the arm. "Commander! Come quick! It's my brother! I've found him!"

"A Templar?" Jean asked eagerly, as he let Paul pull him away from the female to the male slaves.


Having reached his stallion, he unbuckled his saddlebag and removed his mantle.  With this in his hand, he returned to Madeleine, who still crouched under the awning unaware that she had been bought and paid for in the transaction regarding Paul's brother.

"Come," Jean addressed her. "I'll deliver you to the Hospice of the Annunciation where you'll be fed, bathed and given clean clothes. You may have to wait until you reach Acre for a proper  habit. From Acre you can return to a Cistercian convent on Cyprus or in France."

Madeleine gazed up at him in a kind of dazed uncertainty. It was less a matter of disbelief than a new fear: how could she return to a Christian world after what she had become? How could she enter a church again without remembering the Mameluke smashing her maidenhead to the words "Allah is great"? How could she mix again with women who were pure and self-contained as she had been before? How could she face a mother superior or a confessor, knowing that her heart was empty of faith? Could she go through the rituals, recite the prayers, sing the hymns and kiss the cross in a perpetual routine of deception?

Jean bent and severed the rope that tied her to her fat neighbor.  Then he held out his hand to her, and she -- ashamed to take it -- tried to scramble to her feet without help.  But she went dizzy from trying to stand too abruptly, and almost lost her balance.  Jean had to reach out a hand to steady her.  His hand was warm but gentle -- not like a man's hand, for it sought neither to dominate nor humiliate her. It offered her support.

She seemed so fragile to Jean as she swayed on her stick-like legs that he was afraid to hold her firmly. Her very bones seemed to have shrunk until they felt as though they would break in two if he closed his fist upon them. He released her and swung his mantle over her shoulders. She staggered under the weight of the wool.

Madeleine gasped and looked up at him with hug, shocked eyes. "I can't wear this! The white is for purity, the cross...."

"Christ died for our sins, Sister. For yours as well as mine." He took her hand....