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.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Crusader Kingdoms and the Elected Kingshiop

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Kings of Jerusalem is the fact that they were elected rather than born. 

The tradition started, of course, with the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. The First Crusade had never had a single leader and there was considerable (often destructive) rivalry between the leading lords that took the cross, notably, Raymond IV Count of Toulouse, Stephan Count of Blois, Robert Count of Flanders, Hugh Count of Vermandois, Bohemond of Taranto and his nephew Tancred, and the brothers Godfrey and Baldwin of Boulogne. 
By the time the crusaders reached Jerusalem, Stephan had abandoned the crusade altogether, Baldwin of Boulogne had struck off on his own and captured Edessa, and Bohemond had remained in Antioch to re-establish a Christian state there.  The remaining lords, however, chose Godfrey of Boulogne to rule over Jerusalem.  Godfrey had won the respect of his fellow crusaders by his leadership, and although Raymond of Toulouse probably expected the honor himself, he accepted the choice.  Godfrey reputedly refused to wear “a crown of gold where Christ had worn a crown of thorn” and took the title of “Defender” or “Protector” or possibly just “Ruler” of Jerusalem.  
Just one year later, however, he was dead without an heir. The nascent kingdom was in a more precarious state than ever, since the majority of the surviving crusaders felt they had fulfilled their vow and returned home. Those noblemen remaining in the Holy Land again (not without controversy) selected a successor from among themselves, in this case, Godfrey’s brother Baldwin.  Baldwin did not share his brother’s qualms about calling himself king, and took the title of King Baldwin I.
Eighteen years later, Baldwin I also died without an heir of his body, and the barons of the crusader kingdoms chose for a third time a leader from among their ranks.  This time their choice fell on Baldwin of Bourcq, who thereby became Baldwin II of Jerusalem.
Three such “elections” (with admittedly limited franchise!) set a legal precedent and the Kings of Jerusalem were henceforth always “elected” by the High Court of Jerusalem, the later composed of the leading lords of the realm.  This is the equivalent of the English House of Lords electing the Kings of England!
As the products of European feudalism with strong ties to the ruling houses of England and France, the members of the High Court showed a strong bias in favor of blood relatives of the last monarch.  Nevertheless, the approval of the High Court was considered a pre-requisite for legitimate rule. Thus every time a king died, there was effectively an interregnum (if not outright crisis) while factions positioned themselves and consensus sought among the members of the High Court.

Perhaps the most serious succession crisis occurred at the critical period when Saladin had united Islam for the first time in a hundred years and declared his intention to wage jihad against the crusader kingdoms until he had pushed them into the sea. The king at the time, Baldwin IV, suffered from leprosy and was dying limb by limb; he had no children.  His closest male relative was his 8 year old nephew, the son of his sister Sibylla.  To prevent Sibylla’s husband, who the dying king detested and mistrusted, from becoming king, Baldwin IV orchestrated the coronation of his nephew as Baldwin V during his lifetime, thereby ensuring the barons had all sworn their oaths as vassals to the boy.  Recognizing, however, that life was fragile in the Holy Land in the 12th century, Baldwin IV also made his vassals swear to  consult with the Kings of England and France and the Pope before a electing a king to succeed his nephew, if boy did not survive into adulthood.
This elaborate attempt to curtail the sovereignty of the High Court of Jerusalem failed.  When Baldwin V died less than a year after his uncle, no one had time for such a lengthy process as sending to London, Paris and Rome for advice.  (The English and French kings could be counted on not to agree on anything anyway, since they were at war with one another.) Instead, while the High Court was meeting in Tiberius, Princess Sibylla and her husband staged a coup: they persuaded the Patriarch to crown and anoint Sibylla queen of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. She  then crowned her husband Guy de Lusignan as her consort.

Without the consent of the High Court, however, Guy de Lusignan was a usurper.  The bulk of the barons were prepared to oppose him by crowning an alternative candidate, namely the husband of Baldwin IV’s other sister, Isabella. With the enemy almost literally at the gates, however, the High Court’s choice for king, Humphrey de Toron, chose not to contest the kingship and took an oath to Guy de Lusignan instead.  While this act made it politically impossible to oppose Guy de Lusignan, Raymond of Tripoli was legally within his rights to refuse to swear allegiance to Guy.
While the High Court was circumvented by Sibylla and Guy’s coup in 1186, the High Court exerted (and revenged) itself effectively six years later when Sibylla and her daughters by Guy died of fever in 1190.  Guy saw himself as an anointed king and sought the support of his father’s overlord, the most powerful monarch in Christendom and only military commander with a chance of restoring the fortunes of the crusader kingdoms: Richard “the Lionheart” of England. Richard unequivocally supported Guy’s claim to the throne of Jerusalem – but the High Court refused to cave in. With Sibylla’s death, Guy’s claim to the kingdom was deemed over.  Since Humphrey of Toron was unwilling or unable to oppose Guy, the High Court pressured a reluctant Isabella, the last surviving child of King Amalric I, to divorce Humphrey and take a new husband, Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad was then recognized by the High Court as the legitimate king of Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was still in Saracen hands, no coronation actually took place, but after two years Richard the Lionheart backed down and conceded that without the consent of the High Court even an anointed king could not rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Of Portraits and Bioprahies

Reflections on the Challenges of Writing Biographical Fiction

Writing historical fiction in which real historical figures play a role creates the obligation for careful research. Biographical fiction requires an even higher standard of research, since the entire book must adhere to the known biographical data. Biographical fiction ought to be a biography -- written in a fashion that is easier and more enjoyable to read.

Yet any biographer can tell you that two completely accurate, non-fictional biographies can produce radically different images of the subject. There are always gaps in the historical record, phases of a person’s life that were not meticulously recorded, or events so controversial that no one version of them exists. Unless the subject of a biography also kept diaries of their thoughts and doings every day of his/her life, there is also the challenge of trying to understand motives for recorded actions. And even if they did keep diaries or write letters, there is the issue of how honest or self-serving such documents are. Biographers, like novelists, fill in the gaps, select which of several competing versions of events seems most plausible and speculate about motives and emotions not recorded. Non-fictional biographers do (or should do) this openly, by discussing various possible explanations and explaining their interpretation of events. Novelists do this by turning their interpretation into a novel.

But whereas the best biography is inherently the image that is most like the subject (most comprehensive and accurate in every detail), the same cannot necessarily be said of the best biographical fiction. A very “good” biography can be long, dry and boring, but biographical fiction strives to be not only a record of history (in this case a historical personality) but also a work of art. This means that biographical fiction must be more than just accurate, it has to also be exciting, evocative, moving, and well-written.

Let me give an example from the world of painting. There is only one known (or surviving) painting of Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile, which was painted during her life time by an artist who met her.  It is not a very good painting; it is stiff and lifeless, dark and, well, almost amateurish. Yet, there are many portrayals of Isabella by artists, who did not know what she looked at all. These later works may not as accurately depict Isabella’s features, yet they may capture her “spirit” in that they make the viewer “see” aspects of Isabella’s known personality – her piety combined with iron will etc. etc.

Or consider sacred art. No one knows what Jesus or his mother looked like, but this does not detract from the magnificent works of art portraying them. We judge sacred art not on whether the image correctly shows Jesus as blond or brown-haired, with a long beard or clean shaven, but rather on whether the depictions of Him move and inspire us. Michelangelo’s pieta is not necessarily more accurate in depicting Christ and Maria’s features, yet it stands out above other works of art on the same subject by virtue of its ability to convey the agony of a grieving mother for her murdered son. 

This explains how different biographical novels about the same subject can be very different, yet equally good. Is Schiller or Shaw’s Joan of Arc better? I cannot say off-hand which historians would choose as more accurate, but I do know that both – regardless of which is more accurate – are great works of biographical fiction.

My goal with my biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin is to create a work of art that stands on its own merits – as well as being a tribute to a fascinating historical personality.  This will require more than accuracy; it will require careful crafting of presentation – and time.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Literature vs Best Sellers

One of my interns last summer was working on a PhD in English Literature. On a long drive back from a meeting, we got to talking about what defined good literature. For someone who has been out of academia for more than two decades it was a useful “reality check” – and highly motivating.
“Character and character development” were the two most important features that this PhD-candidate identified as the basis of great literature. Not suspense or thrills. Not relevance or trendiness. Not utility to the reader. Not originality of delivery. Not creativity or outlandishness. Not even plot. A piece of literature is not about what happens, it is about the human experience.
I found this motivating because it reminded me of why I write. I write to inspire people to go on living. The “telling of good deeds is like alms and charity; it is never lost labor, but always has its reward,” as Chandos’ Herald wrote to explain why he was writing a biography of Edward of Woodstock. So too I write about people, whose experiences overcoming adversity or discovering spiritual strength, can serve as inspiring examples to others.

However, the answer would have been very different if I had asked about what made a “best seller.” Best sellers have to be trendy, have to hit a collective nerve in society, appeal to current tastes, or focus on a current concern. A best seller tells us as much about the society in which it resonated as about the book itself. Today’s best seller is tomorrow’s dud, and few of us would even finish many of the books that were “best sellers” in other generations or cultures.
Every author needs to be clear about his/her objective. If the goal is to write a best seller, then it is very important to understand the market: what do people want to read about, how do they like it delivered, what length sells best, what genre is “in.” On the other hand, if the goal is a work of literature, then one can (perhaps should) ignore current trends and follow one’s inner compass.
Of course it can theoretically happen that one’s inner compass is in sync with current trends and a book written from the heart can also capture a mass audience.  Yet trying to serve two different masters at the same time is usually a formula for disaster. 
Therefore, I have decided that this year, as I write about a truly remarkable character, who I hope will be an inspiration to those few readers who discover him, I will close my hears to the clamor of the market and focus on my inner voice. This year, I want to write a good book, the best book possible – regardless of whether it will sell or not.