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, 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!