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, September 29, 2012

New Project: 13th Century Romance

With the Leonidas Trilogy complete and on the market, it's time for me to turn to a new project.  For months I've focused on re-writing, editing, publishing, and marketing the Leonidas Trilogy, and that has left me no time, energy or inspiration for writing. Today, however, I start work on a new project.

The project is a complete re-write of the first two books in my Templar Trilogy, originally published more than a decade ago. The Templar trilogy covers the period 1250-1310, and follows three generations of the Preuthune family.  Preuthune was my mother's maiden name, by the way, and family legend claimed that the name derived from a crusading ancestor, knighted for bravery on the battlefield. Ah, family legends....But the family coat of arms does include a pascal lamb, which is associated with crusaders, and the Catherine wheels were also popular in the Holy Land. That's enough to spark the imagination of a novelist!

So, the first book in the series will re-create my ancestor, and explain he came to be Geoffrey de Preuthune. The second book in the series follows his younger son to the Holy Land as a Knight Templar and describes the end of Christian Palestine in the second half of the 13th Century.  The third and final book in the series focuses on the destruction of the Knights Templar by Philip IV of France in the early 14th Century, seen through the eyes of the now aged Sir Geoffrey, his young granddaughter, Felice, and an English Templar they rescue from King Philip's henchmen. While the first two books in the series are now out of print and will be completely re-worked and re-published. The third book is still available for sale: The English Templar.

I will be using this blog to post updates and ask for feed-back -- such as a new title for the first two books in the series. I look forward to the interaction, but first I'll be on Kythera for the next two weekends and incommunicado. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Creative Writing 101: Write About Things You Know!

English teachers and other instructors of creative writing are in the habit of telling aspiring young writers to “write about things you know.” There’s a good reason for this. If they didn’t make this seemingly obvious suggestion, they would have a lot of students coming to them for ideas or failing to write a single sentence because they “didn’t know what to write about.”

The problem with this practical piece of advice is that, while useful in the classroom, it is too often transferred out of that context. “Writing about what you know” is a way to get started. It is a way to practice and exercise, to develop skill and style. It is not – repeat not - the finished product.

A finished product is a piece of writing that you wish to share with a wider public than your teacher, classmates, close friends and relatives. And this is where it is important to make a very important transition.

If you are writing for public consumption – i.e. if you plan to publish in a magazine, on the internet or to publish a book – then you should not confuse “writing about things you know” with writing about yourself. Yes, if you’re already a celebrity, people might be interested in you, but if not the chances are that no one, who doesn’t already know you, is going to be interested in reading about you either. Do you go out and buy autobiographies of people who have never done anything exceptional? Do you read books about people who have attained neither fame nor fortune?  If you do, how many have you bought? Have you read a dozen, a score, a-hundred-thousand? Believe me, the market for autobiographies by John and Jane Doe is very limited indeed. In fact, it is limited to about the number of copies John and Jane Doe are prepared to buy themselves and try to give away.

“Writing about what you know” does not, however, necessarily mean writing about yourself. It can mean writing about a familiar environment, or abstracting from personal experience to more universal experiences. In this sense, “writing about what you know” can indeed be useful component in a finished product. The point is simply that the finished product is unlikely to use this knowledge one-to-one as in autobiography, but as part of a larger, more universally appealing story.

In short, while it is perfectly legitimate to try to learn writing skills without a particular message in mind, no one should aspire to be a writer unless he/she has something to say.  In fact, no one should aspire “to be a writer” at all because being a writer is meaningless; the message is everything. Writing is a means to an end, not an end in itself. In the same way, writing “about what you know” should be a means to an end: either a way to learn writing skills or a way to deliver a more profound and universal message in a convincing manner.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

RELEASED: "A Heroic King"

The third and final book in my Leonidas Trilogy was released yesterday, September 15. It is now available for sale from online retailers.  Here's an excerpt from Chapter 1 to whet your appetite!

 “A bastard?” the Chairman of the Ephors exclaimed in horror. “You’re saying that the ruling Eurypontid King of Sparta is a bastard?”
“I’m saying more than that,” Leotychidas replied coolly. Leotychidas was a tall, lanky man with the large nose typical of the Eurypontids.  He was the ruling king’s closest male relative, albeit only a second cousin, and he was officially his heir because Demaratus, at 49, had yet to produce a son. Leotychidas continued in an aggressive and self-satisfied tone, “I’m saying he does not have a drop of Herakles’ blood in his veins and has no right to sit upon the Eurypontid throne.”
“That's impossible!” A second ephor protested, no less outraged than the first. “He was born to King Ariston’s queen in the royal palace and immediately acknowledged by his father.  He never attended the agoge, and at his father’s death almost seven Olympiads ago he ascended to the throne without question.  He has no brothers. He is the only child King Ariston ever sired.”
“Ariston never sired anyone! He was as sterile as a mule!” Leotychidas sneered. “Have you forgotten he had three wives and the first two, maidens of good stock, gave him no sons, but produced children by their subsequent husbands?”
There was dead silence in the ephorate, the small but venerable building adjacent to the more imposing Council House and backed up against the Temple to Fear.  The five men sitting in the marble, throne-like chairs at the center of the chamber were just ordinary Spartan citizens. They had been elected to a one year term as ephor by the Assembly.  Each man owed his election to a varying combination of a distinguished career in public service, an effective election campaign among his fellow citizens and the endorsements of influential members of Spartan society. Once elected, however, these ordinary citizens collectively became extremely powerful, which was why by law no one could be elected twice. The duties included receiving and dispatching ambassadors, issuing fines to citizens found guilty of breaking the law, and the dismissal of magistrates or commanders accused of wrong-doing. The ephors also served as advisors to the kings and in extreme cases could bring charges against them. 
The men gathered in this room were prepared for these duties. They were not prepared to hear that one of the kings, who had reigned or a quarter century already, was illegitimate. Yet what Leotychidas said was true: Demaratus’ father had had three wives all of whom had had children by subsequent or previous marriages, but only one of whom had ever given Demaratus a child.
Technarchos, the chairman of the five ephors, was a man respected for his hard-work and common sense.  In the army he had risen to the rank of enomotarch, but was passed over for promotion to company commander.  On attaining full citizenship, however, he had been appointed Deputy Head Master of the public school, the agoge, with responsibility for the 20-year old eirenes.  For twenty years he had fulfilled this demanding position with firmness and fairness, but he was not credited with particular subtlety or wit. Recovering first from his shock, he protested simply, “Demaratus was Ariston’s issue by his third wife.”
“Indeed!” Leotychidas agreed eagerly.  “A woman who had been the wife of Agetus, son of Alcides, and borne him children.  There was no question of her fertility, but she produced only one child in her whole, long marriage to Ariston and that son ― Demaratus ― was born too soon to have been sired by the king.  He was the son of Agetus.”
“That cannot be!” One of the other ephors, a man who had benefited from Demaratus’ patronage, insisted frowning. “Why would Ariston raise up the son of another man as his own?”
“Because he was ashamed to admit his impotence, and because he wanted to deny me my rightful place,” Leotychidas retorted sharply, adding in a more reasonable tone, “You need not take my word for it.  I have found a witness, a man who was ephor the year that Demaratus was born and he can bear witness to the fact that King Ariston knew Demaratus was not his son.”
The ephors looked at one another in astonishment.  It was 49 years since the birth of Demaratus. Since the legal minimum age for election to the office of ephor was thirty-one and ephors were usually men in their forties or fifties, any surviving ephor from the year of Demaratus’ birth would now be close to ninety years of age.  None of the men present were aware that such a man still lived.
Leotychidas opened the door leading directly into the Temple of Fear, and called into the darkened temple. He held the door open while a very decrepit old man, bent with age and clutching the arm of a young helot, entered the chamber.
The old man had so little hair left that he could not plait if from the forehead in the Spartan fashion and it was simply combed back over his scalp until it could be bound into a single, thin braid at the back of his neck.  The skin on his face and neck was splotched with age-spots and sagged upon his fleshless bones.  His eyes were grey with cataracts, and his mouth seemed to cave into his toothless mouth.  He shuffled forward until the helot holding him up came to a halt in front of the five city officials. There he just waited.
Techarchnos cleared his throat and asked politely, as was appropriate when faced with a man of such a venerable age, “Who are you, father? And why are you here?”
“I am Lakrates, son of Paidaretos,” he said in a surprisingly firm voice although his words were slurred somewhat for lack of teeth. “I am almost 100 years old, but I am here to be heard.”
“We are listening, father,” Technarchos assured him.
“Then listen well! I was ephor in the reign of King Ariston. On the very day that Demaratus was born, we five ephors were attending upon King Ariston when a messenger burst in upon us to announce the birth of a child to Ariston’s new queen.  Ariston was most astonished and in front of us he counted on his fingers the months since his marriage and ― with an oath ― declared ‘The child cannot be mine.’”
“But he accepted Demaratus! He brought him to the Elders! He doted on the boy!” The ephor who owed his post to Demaratus’ patronage protested with evident alarm.
“That may be,” the old man admitted pressing his lips together so that they completely disappeared into the cavity of his mouth. “But that does not change what he said,” he added stubbornly, and insisted, “He counted on his fingers and declared Demaratus could not be his child!”
“But why did you and the other ephors keep silent about this?” One of the other ephors asked skeptically. Although he owed Demaratus no particular favors, he was a reasonable man and found it hard to credit that such a significant utterance could simply have gone unnoticed for half a century.
“We did not! We told the Gerousia, but they were displeased. They were all Ariston’s men!” The old man spat out bitterly and his foul breath made the ephors recoil involuntarily, but the old man continued passionately. “They said the Eurypontid king had need of an heir and if the Gods had seen fit to give his queen a healthy son, then a month or two did not make any difference.”
Since a man had to be over sixty to be eligible for election to the Gerousia, members of this body at the time of Demaratus’ birth were all long since dead. No one could prove or disprove the accusation of the old man, but there was no denying that there had been a period when the Gerousia was dominated by clients of King Ariston.  They had been elected when the Agiad King Anaxandridas was still too young to have much influence with the citizens.  Only after they died out, was Anaxandridas able to balance out the composition of the Gerousia by getting some his own candidates elected in Assembly.
“I say the Gods have made it perfectly clear that Demaratus was not meant to become king since he too has failed to produce an heir,” Leotychidas took up his appeal. “I, in contrast, have three fine sons. That alone should tell you where the Gods stand in this dispute!”
The ephors looked with varying degrees of alarm and discomfort at their fellow citizen. Although Leotychidas was not without his supporters, he was far from popular and had never distinguished himself either at arms or in other forms of public service.  What he was asking seemed utterly impossible to these five ordinary men, who for more than a quarter century had seen in King Demaratus a descendant of Herakles and representative of the Gods on earth.
The situation was particularly delicate because the ever erratic Agiad King Cleomenes was clearly going mad.  Last year after a decisive victory over Argos, he mindlessly slaughtered captives, burned down a sacred wood and ordered the army to withdraw rather than destroy the city of Argos once and for all. Since no one trusted Cleomenes any more, Demaratus was effectively Sparta’s only king. To suggest that he was not rightfully king, effectively made Sparta kingless ― at least until the issue could be resolved one way or another. Without a king to command it, Sparta’s army could not take the field.
The more he thought about the implications, the more Technarchos felt as if his head was spinning. He was a man with an acute appreciation of his own limitations, and he recognized that this dilemma was beyond him. He resolved to speak privately with the one member of either royal family who had over time repeatedly demonstrated strength of character and leadership capabilities, Leonidas. Out loud, he declared, “We must consult with the Gerousia.”
Leotychidas smiled a crooked, sinister smile and shrugged, as he replied. “But of course. Consult the Gerousia.  But I am the rightful Eurypontid king and when I have been recognized, I will remember who sided with me and who tried to stand in my way ― even after the truth had been revealed.”

Sunday, September 9, 2012

"Leonidas of Sparta -- A Peerless Peer" -- An Excerpt from Chapter 1

Cleombrotus was Leonidas twin brother. The news that Leonidas had killed a wild-boar reached him in his tent, where he was dicing with his seven mess-mates. Hearing that Leonidas had broken an arm in the encounter, Cleombrotus snorted and remarked contemptuously, “Lucky someone was around to rescue him from worse harm!”
When they had been little, Cleombrotus had been significantly bigger and stronger than Leonidas and had used both advantages to bully his brother. In the agoge they had been separated and rarely met, but Cleombrotus continued to excel, particularly at boxing, eventually winning in the youth competitions at Olympia. He had won the honours at the Feast of Artemis Orthea as well, and carried the title and trophy for life. Throughout these early years he had looked down on his smaller twin, sneering at him for failing to be elected herd-leader, for failing to win honours or Olympic laurels. But last year everything had turned upside down and bitter when both youth were 20 year old instructors at the agoge called eirenes. Cleombrotus’ lost his command after a case of unprecedented insubordination by his unit resulted in it being turned over to his twin brother.
 “That’s not what Alkander is saying,” the man who had brought Brotus the news noted.
“Alkander?! That trembler! He p-p-probably shit at the sight of the b-b-boar and didn’t notice what was g-g-going on.” Cleombrotus imitated the stutter that Alkander had had as a boy to the amusement of his companions.
When they stopped laughing, however, the messenger put him right. “You better come see the carcass first, Brotus. It’s huge! It took four men to carry it and the tusks are at least two-feet long. Alkander held it down with his spear, while Leonidas stabbed it with his sword ― they weren’t hunting and didn’t have a proper boar-spear with teeth  ― just their standard-issue war spears, which were still in it when Demaratus got there.”
“Demaratus?! What the hell was Leonidas doing hunting with the Eurypontids?” Cleombrotus made it sound like treason.
No one bothered to answer because everyone knew that Leonidas and Alkander had been friends since boyhood, long before Alkander’s sister married Demaratus. “Come and see for yourself.” Brotus’ comrade suggested sensibly, and they all tumbled out of the tent to have a look.
Torches were forbidden in a Spartan camp no less than in the city of Sparta, but they didn’t have much trouble finding the source of commotion. It was, after all, not yet late and most men had not gone to sleep. The arrival of Demaratus with this immense trophy had brought many men out of their tents, and word had rapidly spread that Leonidas had killed it.
Despite himself, Cleombrotus was impressed. The boar was the largest specimen of the species he had ever seen. Nor could he comfort himself that the beast was old, decrepit or lame. Not a hair was grey and there was not another injury upon its body but the ones sticky with fresh blood. The boar was muscular with bristling black hair and eyes that ― even in death ― were full of power and contempt for lesser creatures. How could Little Leo have vanquished such a beast? For the first time in his life, it occurred to Brotus that Leonidas might have qualities that he had failed to notice up to now. Leonidas, he registered, might be more than he appeared to be.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

"A Boy of the Agoge" - Excerpt from Chapter 1

At age seven, Cleombrotus and Leonidas were enrolled in the agoge. Dido had warned him this would happen, and she had always looked sad when she told him, but she hadn’t been able to tell him very much about it.  She was a helot, after all, and no one in her family had ever been allowed to go to the agoge.  Nor could Leonidas’ father tell him much – if he had dared ask him - because the heir apparent to the throne was exempt from attending the agoge and so King Anaxandridas had never gone.  As for Dorieus, he didn’t waste time talking to his youngest brothers, so neither of the twins had any idea what to expect except that it meant leaving home and living in the agoge barracks with other boys their age.
One day just after the winter solstice, their father came for them dressed in his armour and scarlet cloak. He was already a great age by then, much more than three score. He had white hair that he wore braided in the Spartan fashion, but it was so thin that his plaits were tiny little strings, and his scalp was almost completely bare. The skin of his scalp was flecked with brown. He could no longer stand upright; the weight of his breastplate appeared to be too great for his shoulders and dragged him forward. He kept himself partially upright by using a T-shaped walking stick that he propped under his right armpit.
Without a word he signalled his twin sons, who had been told to be ready for him, and with one on either side of him he walked out of the palace. At once they were caught in the cold wind that blew down off the Taygetos. Leonidas clutched his himation tighter around him, but his father shook his head.  “Better get used to the cold, boy. You’ll not be allowed to keep such a thick himation in the agoge.”
Leonidas gazed up at the old man, who he knew was his father but who was still a stranger to him, and started to become alarmed. 
The king led his sons to an imposing building standing directly on the Agora, opposite the dancing floor and at right angles to the Council House and the Ephorate. Although given the same prominence as these buildings, it lacked the lovely colonnade and elegant portico of the government buildings. Instead, the entrance was supported by three ancient Kouros. All had once been painted but were now naked stone, except for some remnants of colour in the curls of their hair. Boys of various ages with shaved heads and rough, black himations came and went in groups. Leonidas noticed that despite the snow lying in the shadows, the boys were all barefoot. This was going to be terrible, he registered.
They entered an office. An elderly man in Spartan scarlet sat behind a desk. Several middle-aged men stood about discussing things earnestly. At the sight of King Anaxandridas, the others fell silent, and the elderly man behind the desk got to his feet respectfully.
“Here they are,” the king announced simply. “My youngest boys.”
All eyes were drawn to the two boys, whom Anaxandridas now pushed forward.
“You’d never know they were twins!” one of the men exclaimed.
Hardly a brilliant observation, Leonidas thought. Brotus was dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a stubborn set to his jaw and a compact body thatas one of the men immediately observedmade him look a good year older than his twin. Leondias was not blond, just brown, but he was much lighter in colour than his brother and his eyes were hazel. He was also ten pounds lighter and two inches shorter than Cleombrotus.
“Who’s this fine fellow here?” They all focused on Brotus.
“Cleombrotus,” the king said.
“Then this is Leonidas.” The oldest of the men walked around his desk and stepped closer to look intently at Leonidas. Leonidas wanted to step back, but he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. In a vice-like grip it held him in place. Leonidas stared rather terrified up into the headmaster’s face, but Leonidas decided that whatever the man thought of him (and he did not say), he did not seem hostile.
The king took his leave. It was the last time Leonidas ever saw him up close. A little more than a year later he was dead.