Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to 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.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Next Year in Jerusalem....

Last week I spoke about my current project, a biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin.

Balian, the Baron (or Lord) of Ibelin, played an important role in the politics of the crusader kingdoms in Palestine throughout the reigns of Baldwin IV and Guy de Lusignan and during the Third Crusade. He is most famous for defending the city of Jerusalem against Salah ad-Din (Saladin) in 1187. He spent the bulk of his life in what is now Israel and southern Lebanon, but was then the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
If I am going to write about Balian -- as I am! -- I need to go to places were he was born, grew up, fought, and played a role in history. So next year, 2014, is the year of my pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
It is exciting to follow in the footsteps of other pilgrims -- and also be in the company of other pilgrims, because Ethiopia is a Christian country with a long tradition of ties to Jerusalem. Indeed, there were Ethiopian churches and an Ethiopian community in Jerusalem when Balian defended it. The fall of Jerusalem so distressed the Ethiopian king at that time, that he built a New Jerusalem here in Ethiopia, in a place now named for him: Lalibella. There churches were carved out of bedrock in amazing demonstration of technical know-how and the place is still quite magical. But it can't replace the historical Jerusalem, so nowadays Ethiopian Airlines offers daily flights to Tel Aviv to accommodate the Ethiopian pilgrims to Jerusalem.
I look forward to being among them -- and then following in Balian's (as well as Christ's!) footsteps as I visit the key sites. Wish me well!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Reflections on the Year 2013

Dear Followers and Friends,
This past year has been dominated by transition.
The early months were focused on preparing my departure from Leipzig, completing projects and tasks I had set myself, winding down operations that could not be continued, preparing the way for my successor, and, of course, preparing for our move.  Mentally and then physically dividing up our goods into those that should be stored in our house in Greece, and those that we would take with us to Ethiopia took a great deal of mental and emotional energy.
Then came the move in stages. The pack-out of our best things for transport to Greece, the pack-out of our things for Addis, the farewells and departure from friends and places in Germany.  Training in Washington followed before the month of home leave in Maine.
But even in Maine it was a period of transition as I faced the sad fact Herbert and I were getting too old to manage the sailboat that has been so much a part of my life for almost 40 years. In addition to selling The Flying Dragon, we had to plan on making major renovations in our 200 year old farm house.
And then came Africa -- the long flight, the re-fuelling in Khartum and finally the arrival in Addis Ababa. Since then, every day has been a day of discovery in this land so rich in history and culture, yet growing and developing at a dramatic rate as well.
All of the above has left me less time for writing that I would like, and must admit that in the first half of the year the inspiration was missing as well. The Leonidas Trilogy had been such an important part of my life for so long that it left a vacuum in its wake.
I filled that vacuum by re-working older manuscripts that I had set aside more than a decade ago as "unpublishable." In the age of ebooks and KDP, where I can be my own publisher, however, I saw no reason not to release these books -- to the extent that they are good stories, simply not books with a huge potential market.

Herbert created for me the website: www.talesofchivlary.com to market the total of nine books set in the Age of Chivalry that I had written over the years. These are three Tales from the Languedoc (A Widow's Crusade, The Disinherited, and The Devils Knight - not yet released); The Templar Tales (St. Louis' Knight, The Templar of St. John, --neither of which have been released yet -- and The English Templar), and The Lion of Karpas Trilogy, a long ways from release, but one of my best novels.
Abruptly, sometime during the stay in Maine, I felt the stirrings of a new idea. Suddenly it wasn't nine "tales of chivalry" that I wanted to publish, but ten. The tenth tale is a biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin, the defender of Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187. He is a fascinating historical figure (and uncle of the hero of the Lion of Karpas Trilogy) and the more I learn about him the more excited I have become about this novel. Indeed, I can't remember being this inspired and absorbed by a novel since the early days of Leonidas. I've started a Facebook page dedicated to the book where I will be posting regular updates based on my research and about my progress, Balian d'Ibelin - Defender of Jerusalem , for any of you interested in following my work on this new biographical novel.
So as the year closes I have settled into a new, challenging job, in a fascinating new country and have an exciting new writing project to work on in 2014. That seems a good way to end the year!
I wish you all a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and success, health and many good times with good friends in 2014.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Authenticity vs Accuracy - The Historical Novelist's Dilemma

Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” is a text-book example of how it is possible to be authentic without being accurate. Scott’s film, depicting the crusader kingdom during the last years of the reign of Baldwin IV and the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1186, is far from accurate, yet it succeeds brilliantly in evoking an age and a society.  While it is possible to question if all his changes to history were necessary, there is no question that on the whole his film delivers historical insight to an often misunderstood age.
As a historian, I tend to be very fussy about getting the facts right. In my own works of historical fiction I try to get all the known facts scrupulously correct and take liberties only with the interpretation of motives, mood, and non-historical supporting cast.  Scott is much bolder – and yet he succeeds in conveying the essential facts in a way that captures the imagination.
For example, the historical Balian d’Ibelin, who defended and surrendered Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, was the legitimate son of “Barisan” (sometimes also known as Balian the Elder), the Constable of Jaffa, and not an illegitimate son of a childless man as in the film. Nevertheless, the real Barisan was of “obscure” origins, and most probably a younger son of a European noblemen, and Barisan was granted the lordship of Ibelin by the King of Jerusalem.  Thus, the character of Scott’s “Godfrey” d’Ibelin reflects reality and articulates a key aspect of the crusades and the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem: the ability of men of (comparatively) obscure origins to become powerful and rich in Outremer.  
Scott’s Sibylla is also more fiction than fact, and yet she epitomizes the powerful – and colorful – role played by women in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. They were at once pawns for forging alliances and gaining power, and yet far from powerless, often decisive, notoriously outspoken and anything but prudish.  In fact, the real Princess Sibylla probably had an affair with the real Balian d’Ibelin’s elder brother.  More important, she forced her brother King Baldwin IV to accept Guy de Lusignan as her second husband, despite the king’s (very justified) objections about Lusignan’s suitability, by having an affair with him.  In effect, Scott condensed the stories of several prominent women in the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem into his fictional Sibylla, and film benefits from Balian being involved with her.  
On the other hand, the portrayal of Saladin in the film is, as far as I know, on the whole accurate, as are the role of Reynald de Chatillon, Guy de Lusignan, and the Templars in this period.  The catastrophe at Hattin, including the scene in Saladin’s tent following the battle and the siege and surrender of Jerusalem, are all for the most part correct, aside from being slightly condensed.  In short, Scott has carefully mixed fact with fiction to produce a great work of art.
Furthermore, with the resources at his disposal, Scott produced images that are magnificent and powerful – truly worth a thousand words!   Indeed, “Kingdom of Heaven” is in many ways an excellent example of the advantages film has over the written word when dealing with unfamiliar environments. It would take pages of meticulous description (that no reader wants to wade through!) to describe the armor of a late 12th century knight, or the decoration of a Saracen palace, or the cramped and crowded streets of Jerusalem.  In a film with a director of Scott’s quality, who brings together the best costume artists and set designers, all those details are simply spread out in color before the viewer’s eyes.  With a single camera sweep, the landscape is laid out in painstaking – and breathtaking – detail. It is when I see a film like this that I wish my novels could be filmed!
Then again, the plot and characters would probably be changed beyond recognition, and I’m not sure I’d want that! Instead, I’ll be content if readers see Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” before reading my biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin so they have all those vivid images of the Holy Land in their head when they start to read about a man whose real life was more interesting and real character more admirable than the hero of Scott's film.

Friday, December 6, 2013

St. Louis and the 7th Crusade -- Two Reviews

Last week I described the 7th Crusade; this week I'd like to talk about two books that deal with it.

Chronicles of the Crusades by Jean de Joinville and Geoffroy de Villehardouin
This is a rare book which offers us two contemporary accounts of the crusades through the eyes of participants -- and not just monkish chroniclers but fighting men.
Although the two accounts are by different authors (Geoffroy de Villehardouin for the Fourth Crusade and Jean de Joinville for the Seventh), they both offer stark, un-romanticized and often critical reports. These men are describing military campaigns not creating works of art. They are both soldiers and statesmen, intimates of the leaders of the respective campaigns, offering an analysis of events rather than poets trying to inspire. The clear, unembellished style is in part attributable to an outstanding modern translation of the medieval French by M.R.B. Shaw, but the descriptions of appalling conditions, fear, brutality, and betrayal are all the work of the original authors.

To be sure, Joinville's stated intention is to pay tribute to his beloved late King and to justify King Louis' reputation for saintliness. Joinville's handling of Louis is, in this sense, unabashedly biased. But this in no way detracts from the authenticity of his account of the Seventh Crusade. On the contrary, Joinville's Louis can only shine if he shows how very dark the surroundings were. I was particularly struck by Joinville's willingness to admit and describe his own fears, uncertainties and mistakes.

These accounts are also invaluable to historians because the narrators explain events in terms they consider self-evident -- but which are often alien to us, reminding us of the great differences in social attitudes between then and now.  Thus, while human emotions, motives and behavior is strikingly similar to today, other aspects of society are strikingly different. Likewise, details like how horses were loaded on ships or how provisions were pre-positioned and stored for the king of France are described lucidly, providing the novelist and historian with invaluable details of medieval military operations.
I highly recommend these accounts -- just don't expect them to be tales of brave knights and fair ladies. These are the accounts of real men about real wars.
Everything is Light by Robert Shea
This is a surprisingly well written tale, with an excellent portrayal of King Louis IX of France. Although the book starts with the fall of the last Cathar fortress of Montsegur in 1244, it provides a historically sound, comprehensible and (again) un-romaticized introduction to the key issues involved in the Albigensian crusades. It avoids the use of magic and mystery, far too common in modern writing about the Cathars, and instead presents complex, believable characters deserving of sympathy but flawed and inconsistent -- as we all are. This is without doubt the best book I have read on this fascinating episode in history.