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 clichés 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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve, 1212 - A Excerpt from "A Widow's Crusade"

The Kingdom of Jerusalem, Christmas Eve, 1212

       Lord Hughes, his wife and his father, accompanied by an escort left for Acre shortly after dawn broke on a clear, crisp Christmas Eve. The remaining household worked hard to finish decorating the hall with greens and to get the giant Yule log, imported all the way from the forests of Byzantium, in to the hearth. At dinner Abelard, Blanche, and Father Claude were alone at the high table. Blanche noted that Abelard was dressed again in his elegant burgundy wool gown and elaborate Saracen belt, but he remained reticent, joining in the conversation only sparingly.
       Father Claude expressed his envy for the journey they would make. “If I did not have to hold Mass for the remaining household,” he insisted, “I would come with you. It would not surprise me if you saw angels. You must promise to report all you see and hear!”
       “Gladly,” Blanche assured the enthusiastic young priest. Father Claude had come out to Palestine as a pilgrim, only to discover he never wanted to leave, and he had looked for employment instead.
       “You must dress warmly, my lady,” Abelard warned her. “It is far colder in the upper pastures than here.”
       Blanche looked over to him, but he looked down at his dinner and would not meet her eye.
      After dinner, Claire helped Blanche change and prepare for her night in the pastures. For the last time, Claire tried to talk Blanche out of it. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
       “Yes, I am,” Blanche answered definitively as she pulled her heaviest wool shift on over her head. As her head emerged, she looked straight at Claire and saw the worried look in the older woman’s eyes. “Claire, I want the truth―no nonsense about lions and hyenas and the untrustworthiness of Jews. Why don’t you think I should spend the night up in the pastures?”
        Claire sighed and fussed with the wool stockings she was preparing to help Blanche into. “If you’d been there … He was so angry―so suddenly angry. It frightened me.”
      Blanche knew what her maid was referring to. The day Abelard had been found delirious with fever, Claire had come to Blanche with a guilty conscience. She didn’t quite know how, but she sensed that his illness had something to do with the confronta­tion they had had, so she had confessed to Blanche what had passed between them.
       Blanche had assured her repentant friend that she was not to blame for Abelard’s illness, but one thing was clear to her: Abelard had said he was not the man he’d been before, not the youth she’d loved, and then had gone out to do a slave’s work in the pouring rain. Blanche’s intuition said that he was ashamed of what he’d become and considered himself inferior to her, as he had never been when her father scorned him. She had mentally reviewed all that he had said and done since her arrival, and concluded that his actions might have been motivated as much by shame as by scorn. But she had no intention of admitting her suspicions to Claire, just in case she was wrong.
         “He comes from a family of hot-tempered men, Claire. Don’t you remember how his father once struck Abbot Beranger in some dispute over lands? His brother is said to have broken his own son’s arm in an argument. It is hardly fair to expect Abelard to be without his family’s temper.”
        “But when you were young and gave him so many reasons to be angry with you, he never lost control,” Claire pointed out. “Here he threw something―I think it was a stool―after me! It crashed against the door just after I left.” Her face was pale, and her fingers fussed nervously with the wool stockings.
        Blanche considered her for a moment, unsettled in spite of herself by such profound concern. Claire had always championed Abelard in the past, and her change of attitude made Blanche question herself. Was she trying to find excuses for Abelard only because she wanted to believe he did not hate her? Yet he had requested “Ahi, Amours”! To say he loved her even if they were separated? Or to say his love of God took precedence still? But he had not taken a monk’s vows, and since their return from the pilgrimage, he had not once been overtly rude. On the contrary, he had shown her a dozen little courtesies when he thought no one would notice.
         “What are you afraid he’ll do to me, Claire?”
         “I don’t know,” Claire admitted in a whine of despair. “I don’t know. But he was so angry! He said to tell you he was dead. And then he went out and tried to kill himself, didn’t he?”
         Blanche had not thought of it that way. Had he tried to kill himself? If they had not found him, might he not have died? “And you think he now plans to kill us both?” she queried incredulously. This might be the kind of thing that happened in ballads, but she could not quite picture it happening in real life. Claire looked a little sheepish. “No, nothing so dramatic, but what if he strikes you or―or …”
         “Rapes me?”
      “It has happened before!” Claire pointed out defensively, before Blanche could dismiss this as an old woman’s fantasy. “Maybe he wants revenge for being rejected. Or maybe, when he said he wasn’t the man he was before, he meant he wasn’t as honorable as he had been as a young man.” Claire looked up at Blanche with a pleading expression. She knew that Blanche was cleverer than she, and she was afraid that Blanche would not listen to her because she could not argue well. But her fear was genuine all the same.
         Blanche was too mistrustful of her own feelings when it came to Abelard to dismiss Claire’s fears out of hand. Instead she mentally reviewed the past two weeks, searching for some indication that would give credence to Claire’s suspicions. But no matter how hard she tried, she found none. “Claire, do you honestly think Lord Hughes would entrust me to someone he did not trust entirely?”
        “No,” Claire admitted, aware that it was impossible to explain something one did not understand. “But what did he mean, then, about being different?”
         Blanche took her time answering. Sitting down and offering her legs to Claire for the stockings, she reviewed all she had observed since her return from the pilgrimage trip. In this past week she had watched Abelard very closely. She had observed the diligence with which he served Lord Hughes and Lady Emilie. “Claire, remember when we were young? Abelard was a bachelor knight with no duties to anyone. He had not yet taken service with a lord and had been his own master, free to ride from tournament to tournament in search of fame and fortune. It made him seem more exotic than the others, who were all attached to one household or another. And it was part of what made him exciting. But you and I know that knight-errancy is fine for litera­ture but is quite correctly viewed with disapproval by society. It was as much his free-lancing as his status as a younger son that made my father mistrust him. And my father felt more kindly toward him the moment the Count of Poitou took him into his service.”
         “That’s true,” Claire agreed, though she could not see what Blanche was getting at. Now that the stockings were tightly bound with garters, both women stood, and Claire brought Blanche’s gown.
        “But don’t you see, Claire? He’s not like that now. Now he’s a sober and responsible official. He spends more time reading accounts than tilting, and his hands are stained with ink rather than chain-mail oil.”
        “But that’s nothing to be angry about!” Claire pointed out.
      “I know,” Blanche answered simply. What had made Abelard more glamorous and romantic to the maiden of sixteen had no appeal for the widow. On the contrary, Blanche had had enough trouble with dishonest and incompetent stewards in her lifetime to know how valuable a good seneschal was. Hughes and Emilie sang Abelard’s praises, and everywhere Blanche looked she saw evidence of the meticu­lous care Abelard took of whatever was entrusted to his keep­ing. “But he may not know I know.”
       Claire stopped in the midst of lifting a heavy, quilted surcoat. What Blanche said made sense, but it could not ease her fears. She had heard in Abelard’s anger something more violent and more primeval than a mere concern that he was no longer the carefree hero of their youth. Because she could not explain her fears, however, she could only sigh in resignation and finish helping Blanche prepare for her night out alone with Abelard.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Knight of Jerusalem: A Review by Andrew Latham

Andrew Latham published the following review of Knight of Jerusalem on Goodreads and amazon.com:

Knight of Jerusalem is an historical biography set in the Holy Land in the fateful decades before the Battle of the Horns of Hattin (1187). It is the latest work of historical fiction from Helena Schrader, who has published novels such as St. Louis’ Knight, The Disinherited and The English Templar and who maintains the wonderful blog Defending the Crusader Kingdoms 

The plot revolves around Balian d’Ibelin, third son of Barisan d’Ibelin, an adventurer from Western Europe, who rose in the mid-twelfth century to become Constable of Jaffa and later a baron in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It traces the rise of the younger d’Ibelin from an obscure and landless knight in 1171 to one of the heroes of the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 to landed and fabulously wealthy baron in his own right and member of the royal family by marriage by 1178. In the course of this meteoric rise, it chronicles Balian’s martial exploits, his diplomatic successes, his romantic entanglement with the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, and his evolving friendship the leper king, Baldwin IV.

This could easily have been a novel as bad in its own way as Ridley Scott’s stylish but ultimately fatuous film The Kingdom of Heaven. Faced with the inevitable trade-offs between historical accuracy and dramatic license, Scott’s film almost invariably opted for the latter, twisting and wrenching characters and events to fit a story that in the end was faithful neither to the historical facts nor the deeper historical truths regarding the world inhabited by those like Balian d’Ibelin in twelfth century Outremer. 

Happily for those of us who like our historical fiction to be faithful to history while still telling a cracking tale, Helena Schrader has struck an altogether different balance. To be sure, she does take some dramatic license. Her version of the story of Balian’s rise, for example, hinges largely on his close relationship with King Baldwin, despite the fact that there is no direct historical evidence that such a relationship ever existed. When she does so, however, it is for all the right reasons: because there are gaps in the historical record that she can flesh out without interfering with recorded history; because there are hints in the historical record that she can build upon; or because doing so enhances dramatic punch without unduly distorting the historical truth. In the end, Helena herself puts it best in her Historical Note: “Given these gaps and contradictions, this novel has opted for a lucid story line that is not inconsistent with key known facts and in no way violates the historical record, but condenses or simplifies some events to make the story more coherent and dramatically effective.” That she is an historian as well as a novelist probably has much to do with the fact that ultimately she strikes a much more appealing balance between history and drama than either Scott’s film or many other fictionalizations of historical events or characters circulating in the popular culture.

Lest I have left you with the wrong impression, though, I want to be clear: Knight of Jerusalem is not simply an academic work of history dressed up as fiction – it is a well-plotted, tightly written tale that vividly depicts the life and times of an intrinsically interesting historical figure. The characterization is well done, particularly in the case of the protagonist, but also notably in connection with some of the minor characters. The prose is smooth, the dialogue believable, the attention to historical detail (especially around matters equine) flawless, and both the martial and marital dimensions of the story are convincingly developed (which is not always the case in historical fiction). Finally, I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable on the subject of the Third Crusade and the decades leading up to it, but the breadth and depth of Helena’s grasp of this era leaves me in awe. As far as I can tell, the story is marred by not a single mistake related to the complex and interwoven genealogies that are both an important element of this story and of life among the nobility Outremer.

Any downsides? Not really. The only misstep, and it is so minor a misstep that I hesitate even to mention it, is the use of the diminutive Barry to refer to Baldwin d’Ibelin. I understand why Helena has done this – to differentiate that Baldwin from King Baldwin. Still, I think restricting herself to the use of the name Barisan (which she also uses in connection with Baldwin d’Ibelin) would have been a better move.

At the end of the day, though, this is a truly minor quibble. Knight of Jerusalem is an entertaining and well-written tale that kept me engaged even in the midst of a busy university semester when I had plenty of non-fiction reading to do to stay ahead of my students. If you’re in the market for a thoroughly enjoyable work of historical fiction, I enthusiastically recommend this wonderful book.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Setting the Stage: Architecture and Furnishings in Historical Fiction

While few readers of historical fiction want pages of tedious and meticulous description, the setting of a novel is nevertheless critical to its ability to evoke an age and essential to its authenticity. Like anachronistic costumes or inappropriate language, an unrealistic setting can kill an otherwise brilliant book. 

The problem is two-fold. First, authors of historical fiction need to do comprehensive research on the architecture, furnishings and domestic art of the period of their works in order to accurately depict the domestic and public settings of the action of their novels. Second, the prejudices and misconceptions of readers about many time-period's need to be over-come and gently corrected. 

Let me give you an example. A contemporary visitor described a mansion in which the windows opened on either the sea or "delicious gardens." It had walls panelled with plaques of polychrome marble. It had vaulted ceilings painted to resemble the night sky. It had a great salon with a central fountain surrounded by mosaics depicting the waves of the sea.

Where and in what century do you think this palace was built?

A) 4th Century Byzantium
B) 13th Century Jerusalem
C) 15th Century Italy
D) 17th Century Britain

The correct answer is B -- and an early 13th century at that! The description dates from 1212, and the palace itself would therefore have been built several years earlier, veritably on the start of the 13th century. The palace, incidentally, was not even a royal one, but the residence of the Lord of Beirut, John d'Ibelin.

Yet I have read many a book (not to mention seen many films) set in this time period where the lords and kings are depicted huddling around fires in dark, gloomy and smokey castles of rough-hewn stone surrounded by fowl and dogs scratching in the straw on the floor. Now some of that may be attributable to location (i.e. the more "civilized" East described above compared to the cold outer edges of Europe such as Scotland and Scandinavia), but far too many of these books portraying the nobility of the 13th century living practically in caves are set in the heart of Europe -- France, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain.

Correcting the misconceptions created by generations of earlier writers is a great challenge.  As an academic, it is tempting to site sources. Or, with ebooks, its tempting to include photographs of contemporary art (to the extent these exist.) But ultimately, I think it all comes down to credibility. If an author does a good enough job of describing the world of the novel in other aspects -- dress, weapons, technology, social attitudes and customs -- the reader will, maybe reluctantly at first, begin to believe the descriptions of the setting as well. I hope....

Friday, December 5, 2014

Balian's Wife: The Controversial (and much maligned) Maria Comnena

Historically, Balian d'Ibelin married the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Comnena, who English chroniclers called "scheming" and modern historians and novelists alike have vilified. I think unjustly. 

In Bernard Hamilton’s essay “Women in the Crusader States: Queens of Jerusalem 1000 - 1190” published in Medieval Women (ed. Derek Baker, Basel Blackwell, Oxford, 1978), Hamilton argues that it was Agnes de Courtney’s “misfortune” to have “bad relations to the press.”  He notes that “all contemporary sources are hostile to her”, but argues that that “her influence was not as baneful as the Ibelins and the Archbishop of Tyre would like posterity to presume.” He then goes on to describe Agnes’ rival, Maria Comnena, as “a ruthless and scheming woman.” Now Bernard Hamilton is a noted historian, but my father taught me to judge a person by his/her deeds — not by what others said about them.

So let us look at the record, not the reputation, of the wives of Amalric I of Jerusalem: Agnes de Courtney and Maria Comnena.

Medieval King and Queen

Agnes de Courtney was, according to Malcolm Barber, betrothed to Hugh d’Ibelin, but instead married Prince (later King) Amalric of Jerusalem. Whether she did this voluntarily is not recorded. She might have been seduced or abducted, but she might also have been very happy to give up the comparatively obscure and unimportant Hugh in favor of the heir apparent to the throne.  Whatever her motives at the time of her marriage, when Baldwin III died childless, the High Court of Jerusalem had such strong objections to Agnes that they refused to acknowledge Amalric as King of Jerusalem unless he set Agnes aside. Why, we do not know. There was the issue of being married within the prohibited degrees on consanguinity, and the issue of the pre-contract with Hugh d’Ibelin, both of which were canonical grounds for divorce.  However, the objections of the High Court are not likely to have been legalistic in view of the fact that the High Court explicitly recognized Amalric’s children by Agnes as legitimate.  This strongly suggests that the High Court was not uneasy about the legality of Amalric’s marriage but about the character of his wife. Perhaps it was simply the fact that she was a powerful woman, or a notoriously grasping one, or perhaps, as the Chronicle of Ernoul suggests, she was seen as insufficiently virtuous for such an elevated position as queen in the Holy City. Such speculation is beside the point; the naked fact is that Agnes was found unsuitable for a crown by the majority of the High Court. That’s a pretty damning sentence even without knowing the reason, and that’s not just a matter of “bad press.”

A King receiving the advice of his Vassals

Agnes then married (or returned to) her betrothed, Hugh d’Ibelin, and, when he died, married yet a third time. Until the death of King Amalric, she had no contact with her children by him, and even after Amalric’s death, during her son Baldwin’s minority, she appears to have been excluded from the court. Then in 1176, Baldwin IV took the reins of government for himself and invited his mother to his court. Within a few short years, Agnes de Courtney had succeeded in foisting her candidates for Seneschal, Patriarch and Constable upon her young and dying son. These were respectively: 1) her utterly underwhelming brother, Joceyln of Edessa, 2) the controversial figure Heraclius, who may not have been as bad as his rival William of Tyre claims and may not have been Agnes lover as the Chronicle of Ernoul claim, but hardly distinguished himself either, and finally an obscure Frenchmen, also alleged to have been Agnes’ lover, Aimery de Lusignan. Not a terribly impressive record for “wise” appointments – even if Aimery de Lusignan eventually proved to be an able man.

Hamilton next applauds Agnes “cleverness” in marrying both heirs to the throne, her daughter Sibylla and her step-daughter Isabella (Maria Comnena’s daughter), to “men of her choosing.” We are talking here about Guy de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron respectively. The latter was a man of “learning,” who distinguished himself by cravenly vowing allegiance to the former after Guy seized power in a coup d’etat that completely ignored the constitutional right of the High Court of Jerusalem to select the monarch, and then promptly got himself captured at Hattin. Although he lived a comparatively long life and held an important barony, he apparently never played a positive role in the history of the kingdom. Not exactly a brilliant match or a wise choice for the future Queen of Jerusalem.

Agnes’ other choice, the man she chose for her own daughter according to Hamilton, was even more disastrous. At best, Guy de Lusignan was freshly come from France, young, inexperienced and utterly ignorant about the situation in the crusader kingdoms.  At worst he was not only ignorant but arrogant and a murderer as well: he allegedly stabbed the unarmed and unarmoured Earl of Salisbury in the back, while the latter was escorting Queen Eleanor of England across her French territories. He certainly alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV within a short space of time, and he never enjoyed the confidence of the barons of Jerusalem. This is not a matter of “hostile sources” just the historical record that tells us the dying king preferred to drag his decaying body around in a litter -- and his barons preferred to follow a leper – than trust Guy de Lusignan with command of the army.

Nor was this mistrust of the baronage in Lusignan misplaced. When Sibylla crowned her husband king and all the barons but Tripoli grudgingly accepted him, he led them to the avoidable disaster at Hattin. In short, Agnes de Courtney’s interference in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led directly to the loss of the entire Kingdom.

A medieval depiction of the disastrous Battle of Hattin

In contrast, there is only one known instance of Maria Comnena actively intervening in the affairs of the Kingdom. This was when she pressured (or “browbeat” according to Hamilton) her daughter Isabella into assenting to the annulment of her marriage with Humphrey de Toron and accepting Conrad de Montferrat as her husband. Hamilton portrays this as an act of unbridled, sinister power-seeking on the part of Maria.  Why Agnes’ five appointments should be “clever” (despite the disastrous consequences) but Maria’s effort to rescue the kingdom from the appalling and patently destructive leadership of King Guy should be seen as “power-hunger” on the part of Maria is baffling. It is certainly not an objective assessment of the behavior of the two women.

True, Isabella appears to have become fond of Humphrey de Toron, but she was the heir to the throne and princesses do not marry for the sake of their own pleasure but rather for the sake of the kingdom. To an objective observer, forcing an eight year old girl to marry a total stranger is considerably more manipulative and inhumane then for the a mother of a 17 year old princess to put pressure on her daughter to put the interests of the kingdom ahead of her personal preferences. 

To make matters worse, Hamilton reports – with apparent approval! – that Agnes prevented the child Isabella from visiting her mother, effectively imprisoning her in her castle at Kerak from the age of 8 to the age of 11, a period in which, incidentally, Kerak was twice besieged by Saladin. In short, Agnes was hardly keeping Isabella “safe” – she may even have been courting her capture and death to ensure there was no rival to her own daughter for the throne.  But as that is speculation, I will leave motives aside and focus on the fact that she keep a little girl imprisoned in an exposed castle, denying her the right to even visit her mother.

Medieval Mothers were not less fond of their children than mothers today!

In short, Hamilton suggests it is legitimate – indeed clever -- to separate an eight year old from her mother and step-father and expose her to danger, but it is devious and self-serving when the mother of a seventeen year old persuades her to set aside the husband forced on her as a child. That’s a warped view of affairs in my opinion.

The English chroniclers and Hamilton attribute to Maria evil motives and accuse her of “scheming” and deviousness without bringing forth a single example to support these allegations – aside from the above instance of pressuring her daughter into an unwanted divorce. In her one recorded act of “interference” she induced her daughter to marry not some adventurer, who would lose the kingdom, but the only man the barons of Jerusalem were willing to rally around after the disaster of Hattin. Her choice for her daughter was a proven military commander, who had just rescued Tyre from falling to Saladin. So even if her “interference” was as selfish and self-seeking as Hamilton implies, it was considerably wiser than Agnes’ choice of Guy de Lusignan.

Medieval Depiction of Isabella's Marriage to Humphrey de Toron -- but as she was only 11 at the time, it's more likely a picture of her marriage to Henry of Champagne, sponsored as the depicted, by King Richard I

After this one act, although her daughter was queen of Jerusalem from 1192 to 1205 and Maria herself did not die until 1217, there is not a single instance of her “interfering” in the affairs of the Kingdom again – very odd behavior for Hamilton’s unscrupulous, devious and power-hungry woman.  In short, not a single fact supports his allegations against her.

Even taking into account how historians love revisionism, an objective observer ought to recognize that the contemporary sources favorable to Maria may indeed have had justification and just as much reason to condemn Agnes de Courtney. It’s time modern historians stopped slandering Maria Comnena just for the sake of re-writing history.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Cover Sketches for Book II -- Defender of Jerusalem

It may seem early, but I'm determined to get Book II of Balian's biography to the publisher in good time to ensure the highest quality product. That means getting an early start on covers. Here are three sketches submitted by my cover designer for Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin. Please take a moment to vote for the one you like best, but first a little more information about Book II.

Defender of Jerusalem covers the critical nine years 1178 to 1187. This was a period in which Saladin led no less than three full scale invasions of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as laying siege to the castle of Kerak twice and city of Nablus once.  It was the period in which Sibylla married the highly unpopular Guy de Lusignan and in which Balian's step-daughter was forcefully taken away from her mother at the age of eight and married by her brother and guardian to a man chosen by her mother's worst enemy. It was the period in which Baldwin IV died, and in which Guy de Lusignan seized the throne in a coup d'etat. It is the period in which Guy led the Christian army to an avoidable and devastating defeat on the field of Hattin. It was after this that Balian saved the lives and freedom of tens of thousands of Christians by his effective defense and negotiations at Jerusalem.

The cover should therefore reflect the fact that this book describes the desperate last years of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the struggle to protect it against a determined foreign force set on jihad. It should also reflect the fact that this is a biography and so the story of one man's struggle to defend everything that is dear to him: his family, his home and his faith.

The tentative cover text for the book is:

The Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem is under siege. The charismatic,Kurdish leader Salah ad-Din has not only succeeded in uniting Shiite Egypt with Sunni Syria, he has declared jihad against the Christian kingdom.  While King Baldwin IV struggles to defend his kingdom from the external threat despite the increasing ravages of leprosy, the struggle for the succession threatens to tear the kingdom apart from the inside. In the high-stakes game, one man stands out for his loyalty to the dying king, the kingdom and Christianity itself. That man is Balian d’Ibelin. 

The keynote is:
A divided kingdom, a united enemy, and the struggle for Jerusalem.

Please vote for the cover of your choice using the poll to the right. (Sorry I couldn't manage to get them the same size. They were delivered in different formats from the artist!) 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Interview with Charlene Newcomb

Charlene Newcomb and I have a lot in common when it comes to writing -- both what interests us and what gives us a thrill and sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, Char was recently named a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree for Men of the Cross http://www.bragmedallion.com/medallion-honorees/2014-brag-medallion-books/men-of-the-cross-battle-scars  So, I'm very pleased to have her answer some questions about herself and her latest book, Men of the Cross, set in the Third Crusade.

Did you want to be an author when you were younger?

My creative energies focused on music when I was young - piano, guitar, rock band. I had casts of characters and story ideas in my head but only committed anything to paper when demanded by English classes. One of those was an alternative historical where the Confederacy had won the Civil War. I didn’t pick up the pen seriously until many years later when I had a number of short stories published in the Star Wars Adventure Journal, a role-playing game magazine licensed by Lucasfilm, Ltd.

I know you have a degree in US History, but you didn’t go to college immediately after graduating from high school. What prompted you to join the Navy? Did your time in military service influence your writing?

I convinced my father to take me to the recruiters office when I was in the 9th grade (around age 14 for your international readers). I’m certain my parents and the recruiters thought it was passing fancy. I wanted a break from school and studies. I loved travel, was interested in learning other languages, and had a patriotic streak. (Shades of my main character Henry de Grey from Men of the Cross? Probably!) “Join the Navy and see the world” sounded like an excellent way to fulfill those dreams. I took the oath at 18 and shipped out to Florida for boot camp. Unfortunately, the “world” wasn’t part of my Naval career. All my training and jobs were stateside, but my experience as a communications technician/voice language analyst did infiltrate my earliest science fiction short stories, which were filled with spies and underground freedom fighters.

With that US History degree, why aren’t you writing historicals set in the United States?
A story set during the Revolutionary War has been on my “to-write” list for as long as I’ve been writing. I’ve mapped out significant plots points, have names for two main characters, and know the opening scenes, but my history degree barely touches on the depth of information I’ll need to write that novel. Life and research for my current book series take most of my time right now.

What prompted you to write a novel about the Third Crusade?

My interest in the Third Crusade was piqued by episodes of the BBC television series Robin Hood that featured Richard the Lionheart. The show may have been filled with historical anachronisms, but the images of war’s impact on young men - what we would call PTSD - and the characters’ loyalty to the king and to each other were powerful. Ever since childhood, I’ve been driven to learn more about subjects that interest me. I dove into translations of primary sources of the crusade and books on the life and times of Richard I. I have the perfect day job to fill that curiosity and research need: I work in a large university library.

You are working on Book 2 of Battle Scars. How long did it take you to write Men of the Cross, and how is progress on the second book coming along?

Men of the Cross began its life as a short story I penned in 2009. I intrigued my critique partners in those ten pages with two knights recently returned from serving Richard the Lionheart in Outremer. How did these men end up defending the Kentish coast in early 1193? Because I was working on another book, I didn’t start writing Men of the Cross until early 2012. The short story became the ending of the novel. While awaiting final editorial comments on Book 1, I completed a rough draft of Book 2, For King and Country. I am revising the last few chapters now. With luck, I’ll begin begin round two of edits by January and then ship the manuscript to beta readers.

Did you uncover any surprising historical persons, places, events or things in your research?

Contemporary chroniclers brought events to life. There were times I felt like I was reading fiction rather than an historical diary of everyday events in the lives of the men marching towards Jerusalem. The conditions of the march, the weather, how these men survived (or not). The tapestry of their lives and times fills me with incredible respect, and downright awe. On a lighter note, I learned that it can snow in Jerusalem. I guess it is like Kansas - until you’ve been here, you only have a perception in your mind of what it is like based on television, movies, or the news. Everyone remembers flat farmland and tornadoes from Wizard of Oz, when in reality, the northeast part of the state has beautiful rolling hills and gorgeous prairie. I can imagine wagon trains and buffalo as I drive along the I-70 corridor towards Kansas City. And though I haven’t traveled to Israel, I did experience it with King Richard’s army through the chroniclers.

Why should we read this book?  
Men of the Cross is a story of loyalty, friendship and love during wartime. It is the human drama against actual historical events as seen through the eyes of two knights. One is a young, naive, and devout Christian: Henry is gung-ho, ready to take up arms in the name of God. Stephan is only two years older, but he has been fighting at Richard’s side for five years. Stephan’s loyalty to Richard is what drives him. He follows his king on crusade and has little regard for the Church. If you like a bit of adventure and humor with your historical fiction this may be the book for you.

What are some of the complications in the book?
The harsh brutalities of war - moving armies thousands of miles - the politics of Richard, Philip of France, Leopold of Austria, the Holy Roman Emperor - Saladin’s tactics - questioning beliefs taught about the Church, about life, about love - post-traumatic stress syndrome - same-sex relationships.

In your author’s note, you write: “Though one of the underlying themes of Battle Scars is the relationship between Henry and Stephan, I do not refer to the question of King Richard’s homosexuality.” When I saw blurbs about your book my question was simply: Why did you choose homosexual heroes in an age where homosexuality was viewed as far more damning (literally) than fornication and adultery etc.? It certainly was not "accepted" and viewed as normal! Particularly, why the homosexual angle now that historians have debunked inference, popular 50 years ago, about Richard I being homosexual?

Let me start with your last question first. I’d read many articles, primary sources, and biographies of Richard, and agree that evidence cited previously was circumspect. Because Men of the Cross features a gay main character, I mentioned the accusations about Richard to show I’d done my research and because some readers may only have a movie like The Lion in Winter for reference.

Numerous scholars note that attitudes about and punishment for homosexuality varied tremendously despite the stance of the Church in the 12th century. (I provide more background on the topic in a recent post here: http://wp.me/p22qZn-Nx.) The two main themes of Men of the Cross are the effects of war on a young knight and the comraderie and friendship, and ultimately love, that develops between two men. The story relates the human angle, recognizing homosexuality as part of the human condition. Certainly, “forbidden” love provides tremendous conflict. I could have written about a “forbidden” male/female relationship - any sex outside of marriage would have been a mortal sin. (And there was plenty of sinning going on given the number of illegimate children born to the nobility and the clergy!) But that story didn’t speak to me. Men of the Cross lets me dive into Henry’s inner turmoil as he questions his beliefs. Stephan readily admits his preference for men, but has never known or expected love. It is self-discovery for both men as their friendship deepens.

Does the book have any homo-erotic scenes?

The novel is not erotica. Men of the Cross is about the relationship, not about the sex. Like many novels, there is sexual tension and attraction. Yes, there are a few sex scenes. I'd call them emotionally charged. A friend called one “steamy.” There are tender and sometimes passionate touches, kisses, and a sense of intimacy and sensuality without being too graphic. I am a big believer in fade-to-black. The readers’ imagination can fill in the details.

Do you have a favorite scene from Men of the Cross? Which one & why?

Henry is profoundly affected when he witnesses the execution of 2,700 prisoners in Acre, one of the ugly blemishes of Richard the Lionheart’s history. After the crusaders fight off Saladin’s troops, Henry disappears. Stephan finds him bruised and bloodied at the waterfront. The scene shows Henry’s frailty and Stephan’s compassion, and to me, it is one of the most emotional scenes in the novel. Henry’s innocence lost. Stephan's helplessness.

Your book blurb mentions the ‘seeds of a new Robin Hood legend.’ Seeds?

Men of the Cross includes an origin story for Robin Hood - barely. I introduce a knight named Robin who is extraordinarily skilled with bow, and who left a girl back home named Marian. Allan and Little John are minor characters, young teenaged camp-followers, who are taken under the knights’ wings. I hope the reader sees how their lives and actions move them towards that ‘rob from the rich, give to the poor’ attitude, especially as their story arcs are developed further in Book 2. But don’t expect to see them outlawed and living in the greenwood at the end of Book 2.

What part of novel writing do you enjoy the most?

I love to imagine being in far away places and times, trying to visualize what my characters see, think, and feel. I love when a character surprises me, and takes me down a path I wasn’t expecting. Seeing words added to the blank page (or screen) is an exhilarating feeling, but hearing a chuckle or seeing that I tugged a heartstring when I share my work with my writing group and other readers is priceless.


Find Char on her website, http://charlenenewcomb.com, on Facebook, and Twitter. Men of the Cross, is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon sites worldwide, for Nook via Barnes & Noble, and on Smashwords.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Historical Balian d'Ibelin

My most recent novel, "Knight of Jerusalem," is a three-part biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin. So just who was Balian d'Ibelin? Here's some background information:

The Kingdom of Heaven, a film directed by Ridley Scott and released by 20th Century Fox in 2005, was based — very loosely — on the story of Balian d’Ibelin, a historical figure. Although Scott’s film was a brilliant piece of cinematography, the story of the real Balian d’Ibelin was not only different but arguably more fascinating than that of the Hollywood hero.

The Hollywood Balian: Orlando Bloom

Balian d’Ibelin was the younger son of Barisan d’Ibelin, an adventurer from Western Europe, who first emerged in history when he was made Constable of Jaffa and then later granted a fief in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-1140s.  Barisan than did what every self-respecting adventurer did: he married an heiress, the heiress of Ramla and Mirabel. On his death, his eldest son Hugh, evidently by an earlier marriage, inherited the paternal title of Ibelin, while Barisan’s eldest son by his second and richer wife inherited Ramla and Mirabel. The youngest son, Balian, was left empty-handed — a phenomenon unknown in earlier ages but increasingly a problem by the 12th century.

Despite this handicap, Balian rose to such prominence in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that Arab sources describe him as “like a king.” Unusually, and in sharp contrast to his elder brother, he was not merely an outstanding fighting man and knight, effective on the battlefield in offense and defense, but he was a diplomat and peacemaker. Balian played a decisive mediating role between factions within the Kingdom of Jerusalem and between the Kingdom and its external enemies, including negotiations with Saladin himself on two known occasions.

Salah-ad-Din from the film "Kingdom of Heaven"

Almost equally astonishing for a younger son, he made a brilliant marriage that catapulted him into the royal family, and, indeed, his descendants would repeatedly intermarry into the royal houses of both Jerusalem and Cyprus. Furthermore, this marriage was as close to a love-match as one could come among the nobility in the 12th century.

A 19th Century Painting of a Byzantine Queen

Such a man, it seemed to me, deserved a biography — a biography based on all the known facts, not just those that fit into Ridley Scott’s film concept. But while there are many intriguing known facts about Balian, there are many more things we do not know, making a traditional biography impossible — just as is the case with Leonidas of Sparta. A biographical novel, on the other hand, is a media that can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable.

That is my objective with a novel in three parts: to tell Balian’s story and to describe the fateful historical events surrounding the collapse of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the 12th century. The historical record is the skeleton of this biographical novel, but the flesh and blood, faces, emotions, dreams and fears are extrapolated from those known facts.  I hope I have created a tale that my readers will find as fascinating, exiting and engaging as I do.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Leper King

My most recent novel, Knight of Jerusalem, is set in the lifetime and reign of Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. It therefore seemed only fair to introduce my readers to the historical Baldwin IV -- most commonly known as the "The Leper King." 

Balian d'Ibelin and Baldwin IV as depicted in Ridley Scott's Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Baldwin was born in 1161, the second child of Amalric of Jerusalem and Amalric's first wife, Agnes de Courtney. At the time of his birth, his father was the younger brother and heir apparent to King Baldwin III of Jerusalem. Two years latter, his uncle died and his father ascended the throne -- but only on the condition that he set aside Agnes de Courtney. Agnes was duly disposed of, but Baldwin with his sister Sibylla remained at court with their father, recognized as his heirs. In 1167, Amalric remarried, this time to the Byzantine Princess Maria Comnena.  

At about this same time, Baldwin was diagnosed with leprosy by his tutor William, later Archbishop of Tyre. According to Tyre, the leprosy first manifested itself as a lack of feeling in Baldwin’s right hand. Yet there was no discoloration much less ulcers.  Accounts also stress that he was at his time an agile rider. 

In 1174, Baldwin's father died unexpectedly of dysentery on his way back from a campaign against Nur ad-Din, the Sultan of Damascus. Baldwin, despite his handicap, was elected King by the High Court of Jerusalem, despite the fact that other crown vassals afflicted with leprosy were required to join the Knights of St. Lazarus.  Being still a minor (13) at the time of his father's death, the Kingdom was placed in the care of a regent, Count Raymond of Tripoli, himself a descendent of Baldwin II and one of the most powerful barons. Notably, at this time Baldwin could still move and above a ride without apparent impediment.

Hawking was a popular sport at his time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem

In the summer of 1176, Baldwin turned 15 and so attained his majority. He clearly took the reins of government for himself and signalled this by calling his mother back to court and placing his maternal uncle into the powerful position of Seneschal of Jerusalem. Tripoi appears to have been sidelined, but not in anyway humiliated. 

Given his own illness and the certainty that he would not sire a successor, the most pressing business of the Kingdom was the marriage of Baldwin's older sister Sibylla as she was de facto his heir. In fact, Tripoli had already arranged a marriage for her with William de Montferrat, a man from a powerful north Italian family. Unfortunately, William died in the summer of 1177, leaving Sibylla pregnant at 17. 

Meanwhile, the enemies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were getting stronger. The Kurdish general Salah-ad-Din had first murdered the Vizier in Cairo and then, on the death of the Fatimid Caliph, declared Egypt Sunni. The death of the Sultan of Damascus in 1174 opened the way for Salah-ad-Din to seize control of Damascus as well, with Nur-ad-Din's legal heir fleeing to Aleppo. Although Salah-ad-Din would need almost ten more years to consolidate his position and eliminate all his rivals, he had effectively united Shiia Egypt and Sunni Syria under his rule by 1177 -- and to bolster his own legitimacy he had declared jihad against the Christian states in the Holy Land. 

Saladin in "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Baldwin IV sought to counter the rise of Salah-ad-Din by following his father's policy of alliance with the Byzantine Empire and attacking Cairo. Baldwin hoped to capitalize on disaffection among Salah-ad-Din's Shiia/Arab subjects for the Sunni/Kurdish usurper. Unfortunately, the Count of Flanders, who had arrived from the West with a large contingent of knights, thought he should be made King of Egypt if he helped conquer it, and the coalition fell apart. The Byzantine fleet withdrew and the Count of Flanders went off to campaign against Syria, taking many of the barons and knights of Jerusalem with him. 

Salah-ad-Din had assembled his forces to meet the expected invasion and suddenly saw the Kingdom of Jerusalem open and practically defenseless before him. He invaded, sacking and plundering as he advanced north, leaving well defended positions like the Templar castle at Gaza untouched until he came to Ascalon. Ascalon has been in Egyptian hands until 1153 and was considered a key strategic position for the defense of Egypt -- or the attack on Jerusalem. Saladin prepared to besiege the city.

In a dramatic move, Baldwin IV rode to the rescue of Ascalon with only 367 knights, reaching the city just before the Sultan's army enveloped it. But now Baldwin was trapped inside and Jerusalem was more defenseless than ever, so Salah-ad-Din decided to strike for the greatest prize of all: Jerusalem. Leaving maybe a third of his forces around Ascalon to keep Baldwin in the trap, Salah-ad-Din moved the bulk of his army north. Salah-ad-Din had such overwhelming superiority of force and so little respect for a leper youth of 16 that he allowed his troops to continue plundering along the way rather than concentrating on his goal.

He had miscalculated. Baldwin sallied out of Ascalon, called up the feudal levies and fell on Salah-ad-Din from the rear, winning a stunning and complete victory at Montgisard on November 25, 1177. (Watch for my entry on or near that date.) 

A Modern Depiction of Montgisard, Copyright Talento

But the consequences for Baldwin personally were also devastating. Based on the historical descriptions of Baldwin’s initial illness, which state he had lost the feeling in his arm but that there were no other symptoms such as discoloration or ulcers, modern experts in the disease believe that Baldwin IV initially had primary polyneuritic tuberculoid leprosy, which deteriorated into lepromatous leprosy during puberty. There was, according to Piers D. Mitchell ("An Evaluation of the Leprosy of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in the Context of the Medieval World," in Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000), nothing inevitable about this deterioration.  However, puberty itself can induce the deterioration as can untended wounds (that go unnoticed due to loss of feeling) which cause ulcers to break out. 

When Baldwin led his daring campaign against Salah-ad-Din that led to the surprise victory at Montgisard he was in puberty, just 16 years old. It is probable that it was in part because of this campaign — which required camping out in the field and going without the usual bathing of his feet and hands — that caused Baldwin's leprosy to take a turn for the worse. According to Mitchell, children who develop lepromatous leprosy are likely to die prematurely, and so once Baldwin’s leprosy had become lepromatous it inevitably led took its course through the gruesome stages of increasing incapacitation to a an early death.

But Baldwin wasn't dead yet. In 1180, he allowed his sister Sibylla to marry a young adventurer from the West, Guy de Lusignan. According to one contemporary chronicler, Sibylla was seduced by Guy (and she would not have been the first princess in Outremer to be seduced by a young adventurer), and Baldwin first threatened to hang Guy for "debauching" an princess, but then gave in to his sister and mother's pleadings to let his sister marry "the man she loved." Other sources suggest that Baldwin feared the Count of Tripoli was planning to depose him by arranging a marriage between Sibylla and Baldwin d'Ibelin, the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Whatever the reason, with Sibylla's marriage to Guy the succession appeared secure again.

A Royal Wedding in Jerusalem

The succession might have been secure, but the Kingdom was not. Salah-ad-Din had invaded a second time in 1179 and Baldwin had been unhorsed in the engagement, an indication of his deteriorating condition. When Salah-ad-Din invaded a third time in 1182, Baldwin could no longer ride and commanded his army from a litter -- but still fought the Saracens to a stand-still, forcing them to withdraw. The following year, however, he was seized with fever and believing he was on his death-bed designated his brother-in-law Guy de Lusignan regent. Thus when Salah-ad-Din invaded a fourth time in 1183, it was Guy de Lusignan who led the Christian armies to face him.

The results were not good. While the Saracens eventually withdrew, they had managed to do considerable damage and the barons of Jerusalem returned in a rebellious mood. The news that the key castle of Kerak was under siege (with both Princesses of Jerusalem, the Queen Mother and the Dowager Queen all trapped inside for a wedding) should have triggered the immediate dispatch of a major relief force. Instead, the entire High Court (allegedly unanimously) refused to follow Guy de Lusignan anywhere. He was dismissed as regent, and Baldwin IV had to drag is disintegrating body halfway across the kingdom at the head of his army. The mere approach of the Leper King, however, was enough to convince Salah-ad-Din to withdraw. 

By now Baldwin IV knew he did not have much time left to him. He had his nephew, Sibylla's son by her first husband William de Montferrat crowned as a co-monarch, and asked his bishops to find a way to dissolve Sibylla's marriage to Guy in the hope that another husband, more congenial to his barons, could be found for her. In the latter he failed, and hence when he died just short of his 24th birthday in the spring of 1185, he was succeeded by his nephew Baldwin V, and -- at the boy's death a year latter -- by Guy de Lusignan.

Baldwin IV ruled for less than ten years and throughout his reign he was handicapped by a progressively debilitating and disfiguring disease. Yet he retained the loyalty of his subjects to the very end and on no less than five occasions prevented Salah-ad-Din's vastly superior forces from over-running his fragile kingdom. For that he should be revered and respected.

Baldwin IV plays a major role in the first two volumes of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

Book I: Knight of Jerusalem was released in September 2014.

A landless knight,

                     a leper king,
                                 and the struggle for Jerusalem.

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!