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.

Friday, September 26, 2014

If Only Jewels Could Make A Woman Happy - Excerpt 2

Royal Palace of Jerusalem, March 1171

If only jewels could make a woman happy, Maria Zoë Comnena thought as her ladies prepared her for yet another state dinner. Her great-uncle, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, had sent her as a bride to the King of Jerusalem, laden with jewels as a way to demonstrate his wealth.

Maria Zoë remembered all too vividly what it had been like when she arrived in Jerusalem at the age of thirteen. The marriage had been celebrated just two days after her arrival, before she had had any chance to recover from the arduous journey. Although she had been given French lessons to prepare her for her marriage to Jerusalem, at the time of her wedding she still needed to concentrate very hard to understand rapidly spoken French. She had been utterly exhausted, from the constant use of a strange tongue and from wearing the heavy, jewel-encrusted gown, long before her husband consummated the marriage.
he next morning she was presented to the court again, this time as a married woman, and she had been so tired she could hardly keep her eyes open―which sparked much jocularity and teasing, and the King had beamed with pride. Amalric had been proud of his little Byzantine bride. She was as pretty as a doll, with curly black hair, big amber eyes, a nubile white body, and the riches of Byzantium draped upon her.

That was five years ago. Now Amalric was also proud of her learning, particularly the fact that she could read and write in Greek, Latin, and French. The King had even been known to brag about the fact that she had read Aristotle and Plato. But such bragging was because he felt her learning, like her bloodlines and her beauty, reflected well on him. These things did not fundamentally alter his attitude towards her. Except in bed, he treated Maria Zoë with the greatest of courtesy, and her authority was never publicly undermined, but he never sought her advice or interacted with her on an intellectual level. She was his Queen, not his companion or friend.

As his Queen, he expected her to be immaculately dressed, coifed, and made up whenever she appeared in public. This started with a daily bath in rose water, followed by skin creams. Her fingernails and toenails were manicured. Then she was dressed in silk undergarments, over which came silk gowns and surcoats embroidered with bright silk, gold, and silver threads. Last but not least, she was laden with jewels: hairpins with pearl or rolled amber heads, earrings that dangled almost to her shoulders, necklaces with multiple strands of gold or beads of precious stones, bracelets as wide as an archer’s leather brace, and rings on every finger. A Syrian Christian had been employed for the sole purpose of outlining her eyes, rouging her cheeks and lips, coloring her eyelids, and styling her hair, which was never entirely concealed under the sheer silk veils that she wore.

The result was dazzling to the observer, and utterly stifling to Maria Zoë. She could not move naturally in her clothing, nor sit comfortably, nor relax even for a moment. She was transformed into a doll, her thoughts and feelings completely buried behind the façade.

Amalric of Jerusalem had once been a handsome man. Now, although he was only thirty-five years old, his once powerful body had become flabby to the point of obesity, and his once fine, blond hair was receding. His hazel eyes, however, were hawkish, and they lit up at the sight of his wife. He smiled as he came forward to kiss her on each cheek. “You look lovely, my dear! Absolutely lovely! You’ll have all the bachelors swooning at your feet—and my barons as well.”

Didn’t it ever occur to him that I don’t care about that? Maria Zoë wondered. What good are hollow conquests based on attraction to a façade?

The King took her hand through his elbow to lead her out of the chamber. “I swear, my dear, you become more beautiful with each day,” he assured her. Evidently he thinks women care only about being beautiful, Maria Zoë concluded with inner resentment.

Because she did not respond with blushing delight at his compliment, Amalric asked hopefully, “Is something the matter, my dear? Are you indisposed?” He associated indisposition with pregnancy.

“No, my lord. I am only anxious that the Assassins might take advantage of this gathering of all the important men in the Kingdom.”

Amalric’s face darkened instantly. He had recently concluded a treaty with the Shiite sect based in the Syrian mountains, who were famous for sending out assassins to eliminate their enemies. The treaty had been a significant coup for King Amalric, but the Knights Templar had shown their contempt for the King of Jerusalem by striking down the sect’s ambassadors during their return journey. The diplomatic consequences were still unforeseeable, but the impudence of the Templars had provoked a domestic crisis. Maria Zoë knew that her husband had tried to seize the Templars responsible for the murders and punish them, but the Templars had met the officers of the King with open defiance, insisting they were subordinate to the Pope alone. In a rage, Amalric had sworn to teach the Templars a lesson. He had even threatened a military confrontation with the mighty Order. In the end, however, cooler heads had prevailed. He had been talked into sending a letter to the Pope demanding that the Templars responsible for the murder of the ambassadors be punished—and demanding that the Order as a whole be chastised and disciplined. Maria Zoë knew all that—but not from her husband.

Her attempt to provoke her husband into discussing the issue, however, failed flatly. Despite his scowl at the mere mention of the incident, he patted her hand and urged her not to “worry her pretty head” about the Assassins. “I promise you, we have everything under control.”

Maria Zoë gave up. This was not the time or venue for a renewed attempt to get her husband to view her as a mind, not just a body.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

A Landless Knight - Excerpt 1 from "Knight of Jerusalem"

Ibelin Castle, Kingdom of Jerusalem, March 1171

Barry snorted. “And what about you? What are your plans now?”

Balian shrugged. “Hugh suggested I go to Jerusalem.”

“Don’t tell me you still have romantic notions about winning fame and fortune by great deeds?” he asked with contempt. Then he added condescendingly, “It’s time you grew up, Balian, and recognized that earning honor with great deeds is for the romances and the songs of troubadours, but not relevant in today’s world. Face it,” he continued: “nowadays kingdoms and baronies are inherited rather than won by the sword. Look what happened to Reynald de Châtillon when he tried to seize Cyprus by force.”

Balian bristled at the suggestion that he was a man like Reynald de Châtillon, a brutal adventurer with no respect for the Church or his feudal overlord. “I have no desire to imitate Reynald de Châtillon!” he snapped at his elder brother.

Barry laughed, and too late Balian realized his brother had been baiting him. “Even in our father’s day, winning a fortune by the sword took longer than the alternatives.”
When Balian refused to answer, Barry continued, “Your problem, Balian, is that you’re not acquisitive enough. You need to be greedier if you’re ever going to make something of yourself.”

“Greed is a deadly sin, Barry,” Balian answered, echoing what he had said to Henri only a few hours earlier, and adding before Barry could make any snide remarks, “I think I’ll go to Jerusalem as Hugh suggested.”

“Jerusalem,” Barisan countered, “is full of younger sons from every noble house in France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire. You don’t have a chance of standing out in that crowd. You should go to Antioch. Prince Bohemond is still young and hasn’t been in power very long. He will be in need of men to support him―and the competition isn’t as stiff in Antioch.”

Balian smiled crookedly. “Thank you for your faith in my abilities, Barry.”

“Oh, don’t be so thin-skinned! You know I didn’t mean it that way. I just want you to be successful. After all, the more successful you are, the more successful we are as a family.”

“I’ll try my luck with Jerusalem.”

Barisan shrugged. “As you wish, but don’t come crawling to me if things don’t go according to plan.”

“No, Barry. Never.”

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Reading About Things We Know -- Another Book about Anne Boleyn....

As a novelist, I have always favored something novel. I strive to be original in both my style and my subject matter. As a historical novelist, I am drawn to the "untold stories" of history. I like to "discover" historical events that have been forgotten or neglected, and bring to life historical figures who have been locked away in dry and dusty history books but not handled in literature. 

This may explain why my success to date is so modest.

Readers much perfer to read about someone they "know" than someone they've never heard about. It's the natural tendency of all people to be more interested in gossip about their neighbors than in strangers. If you don't "know" someone, why should you care about them?  In the same way, an audience prefers a familiar tune to a new one. Even if we don't particularly like a melody, we'll still find ourselves tapping our feet or nodding our head in time to the tune; we'll hum or whistle or sing along. But if we've never heard a song before, we can't do any of that and so it's more likely to be ignored or switched off altogether as mere noise. Performing artists understand the need to mix new songs in among older songs to get their audience to listen until the new becomes familiar.

With books the interest is more cerebral than instinctive. Just as we go to see a new production of Shakespeare's Hamlet because we want to see how the director and actors interpret the familiar plot and dialogue, we read books about familiar historical events and people in order to she how the author has portrayed them. Thus reviewers often compare authors/books about similar subject matter. "This book makes character x much weaker than author y did in his book z...."

The result, as publishers well know, is that readers are more likely to buy the 101,000th book about Anne Boleyn than the first book about - say - Anne of Bohemia. The more famous the historical person, the more successful a book will be. Richard the Lionheart trumps Ethelred the Unready every time. It also explains why readers perfer to read about their cultural heretage: English history is much more popular to English-speaking readers all across the world than Chinese or Ethiopian history. 

From the point of view of novelty and "discovering" the "untold stories" of history, Ethiopia has much more to offer than England, but since I want people to read what I write, so I'm not going to go there. Unfortunately, I'm bored to death by Anne Boleyn and even Richard III at this point so I'm not able to write a single word about them. Instead, I float on the less familiar (but hopefully a little familiar) fringes of Western European history, with my up-coming biographical novels of Balian d'Ibelin and, later, Edward the Black Prince. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Write About Things You Know – Not About Yourself

English teachers and other instructors of creative writing classes 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. Do you go out and buy autobiographies of people who have never done anything exceptional or heroic? Do you read books about people who have not achieved fame or fortune?  And 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 to try and 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.