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 clichés 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, April 10, 2015

A New Novel about the Templars -- As They Really Were

Andrew Latham is the author of the recently released novel “Holy Lance.” Latham has built a great war-story similar in structure to “Saving Private Ryan” about a small band of men on a dangerous mission with a guide of uncertain trustworthiness and unexpected enemies in their own ranks. “Holy Lance” follows a single Templar troop on a fictional but completely plausible mission to try to recover from deep inside enemy-held territory a controversial relic found during the First Crusade, the “Holy Lance,” i.e the lance that pierced Christ’s side before the crucifixion. As I said in my review, Andrew Latham has with this comparatively short, action-packed book done the much-maligned Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem a worthy service by pulling them out of the realm of mystery and romance and putting back into a historical context and perspective.

Below is a brief interview with Andrew about Holy Lance.

Andrew, let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to write this book?

Well to be honest, until about three years ago I never dreamed I’d write a work of historical fiction.  I’d always loved reading historical military adventures, but it simply never occurred to me that I might write one someday.  Scholarly books, yes – that’s what scholars do.  But a novel?  I have to confess that the thought never even crossed my mind.

All that changed, though, as I was nearing completion of my most recent non-fiction book Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics.  In preparation for writing that book, I’d been reading pretty widely about war and political violence in later medieval Europe and had just begun to get handle on the crusades.  Then one day I encountered the Templar knights.  Like most people, I thought I knew what these guys were all about: either odious religious fanatics or cynical secular thugs using religion to camouflage their all-too-worldly motives.  Like most people, though, I was wrong.  Turns out, there was much more to these warrior-monks than I had initially thought or than is commonly supposed.  The more I read, the more I became fascinated by these “new knights”, the Templars in particular – not by the caricature of them that is so prevalent in contemporary popular culture, but by the historical reality of them.

Being a scholar by both training and inclination, my first thought was to make sense of this weird phenomenon by writing a non-fiction book on the topic.  The more I thought about what I wanted to achieve, however, the more it seemed that non-fiction would not be the best tool.  I was interested in the Templars, not because of their supposed secrets or mysteries, or their fabulous wealth and influence, or even their marital exploits, but because of what they were: warrior-monks.  Think about it for a moment.  On the one hand, Templars, like all medieval knights, were warriors, bred to be brutal and merciless killers.  On the other, they were pious monks, committed to a life of prayer and works of charity.  How was that possible?  How did they reconcile these two personas? How, as it were, did they manage to sustain the hyphen between the words “warrior” and “monk”?  Answering these questions, it seemed to me, required reconstructing the imaginative world of these self-styled “knights of Christ”.  And the best medium for that sort of project, it seemed to me, has always been fiction.  Thus was born the idea of The Holy Lance.

That being said, however, this novel is not simply an academic work dressed up as fiction.  I grew up reading the classics in historical military adventure: series like C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, Alexander Kent’s Bolitho, and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe.  And in more recent years I have enjoyed the novels of Ben Kane, Anthony Riches, Steven A. McKay, Angus Donald, Si Turney, and, of course, Helena Schrader.  These novels taught me what good historical fiction looks like.  My goal in writing The Holy Lance was to apply everything I learned from these great writers to provide an insightful yet entertaining account of the Templars and the Third Crusade. 

And where did you get the idea for the plot? I kept feeling like this was a medieval version of a number of books and movies I’ve read or seen that were set in WWII.

Once I’d committed myself to writing a work of fiction about the realities of Templar life, I asked myself what sort of plot-structure would provide the best vehicle for revealing those realities.  I did a bit of research (the scholar instinct kicking in again) and toyed with a number of ideas, but ultimately decided on that most enduring of plot devices – the quest.  Why a quest?  Two basic reasons, I suppose.  First, the quest format allowed me to tell an entertaining story. The typical quest involves travel, heroic exertions on the part of the protagonist, danger, battles, romance, and escapades of all sorts – in short, all the basic ingredients of an enjoyable read.  Second, and in some ways more importantly, the quest format allowed me to really probe the Templar ideal.  The key element of any quest story, of course, is neither the journey, nor the material object of the journey, nor even the exertions of the protagonist while on the journey.  Rather, it is the transformation of the protagonist into a true hero as a result of his or her  journey along a “trail of trials.”  Think The Odyssey and Le Morte d’Arthur, or, more recently, Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan (this is the World War II angle you mentioned in your question).  In all of these stories, the challenges encountered while pursuing some valued object transform the protagonist into a more perfect version of an ideal.  What better way, I thought, to explore and highlight the true Templar ideal than to have my protagonist embark on a quest for a religious relic and along the way have him grow into a more perfect embodiment of the Templar ideal – that is, a more perfect synthesis of the ferocious warrior and pious monk?

There’s a lot of rubbish out there about the Templars — they are portrayed as secret Jews, secret atheists, as heretics of every shape, color and odor. You said in your first answer that you intentionally set out to counter some of that nonsense. Do you want to expand on that a little?  What have others gotten wrong and how do your Templar’s differ?

 A lot of rubbish, indeed!  As I see it, there are three basic types of “misrepresentation” of the Poor Knights of the Temple in film and literature: they are portrayed either as heretics, atheists or (my personal favorite) late modern secular-humanists; or they are depicted as cynical thugs concealing their all-too-worldly motives beneath a thin mantle of religiosity; or they are made out to be murderous religious fanatics, cut from the same cloth as ISIS fighters in the contemporary world, and every bit as evil and loathsome.  While these depictions might provide grist for interesting or entertaining stories, they are not accurate.  Indeed, I would argue that they belong in the realm of what I’ll call “historical fantasy” rather than historical fiction. 

So, yes, I did intentionally set out to counter some of the more “fantastic” portrayals of the Templars.  And the first step in this process was to take seriously the real, historical religious convictions and motivations of the typical Templar knight.  My point of departure was not to assume that these guys were all saints – they weren’t.  Rather, it was to accept that the people of this era understood the world in terms of religious (Christian, to be precise) categories and concepts.  For them, Christian religious belief was neither a form of mental illness nor a cynical ideology concealing their real material motives (the pursuit of power, wealth, glory or sensual pleasure).  Instead, rather like the laws of physics do for us, these beliefs provided the fundamental imaginative matrix through which they made sense of the world around them.  And if this was true of the average medieval person, it was true in spades for consecrated religious like the Templars.  As I see it, only by restoring orthodox medieval Christianity to the heart of the Templar story are we able to leave the realm of historical fantasy and reenter the realm of historical fiction proper.

What made you give Sergeants and Turcopoles such a prominent role? I love it, as I think they are given far too little attention in most fiction, but I’d like to know more about your reasoning?

In addition to wanting to get the spiritual dimension of the Templar story right, I also wanted to get the material dimension correct.  At one level, this involved some pretty obvious things like making sure the uniforms were correct and accurately depicting their weapons and battle tactics.  But it also involved getting their organizational structure right.  And that structure was stratified.  The order was dominated by a relatively small number of high-status knights (drawn from Europe’s warrior nobility), and these have become iconic of the order as a whole.  But below the knights were two other classes of Templar – classes that comprised the vast majority of the Order’s members.  These were the sergeants, whose job was to support the knights, both on the battlefield (as warriors) and off (as craftsmen and labourers) and the turcopoles – lightly armed auxiliaries recruited from among the non-noble Christian inhabitants of the Latin East.   Early on, I decided that if I really was going to accurately portray Templar life, I would have to find a way to build these two under-represented groups into my story.  Thus was born the roles of William Turcault, the commander of the turcopoles, and Brother Enyon, the Welsh sergeant with the extraordinary archery skills.

When doing research for this novel, were you able to visit the Holy Land and some of the places described?

Although I like to think that I have exhaustively researched this novel, I did not visit the region where it is set.  The reason for that is probably obvious: most of the places where my story unfolds are in Syria and Lebanon – not particularly safe places at the moment (the great Hospitaller fort Krak des Chevaliers, for example, has been badly damaged as a result of the conflict in Syria).  I will say, however, that once upon a time in the not-too-distant past I participated in a month-long tour of Canadian Army peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and so had the opportunity to travel to southern Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, and the Sinai.  As a result, I do have a pretty good first-hand feel for the climate, topography, military architecture (I visited Belvoir Fortress, among others), Jerusalem and its approaches, and so on.  Not quite the same as visiting with the purpose of writing historical fiction in mind, but not a bad second-best option, I think.

What were your most important sources for doing research on this novel? You seem particularly well versed in medieval weapons and armor. Do you recommend any particular sources here?

I read widely in preparation for writing this novel, but broadly speaking I’d say my research was organized into three files: the history of the Templars; the politics and geopolitics of the Third Crusade; and the military technology and techniques of the Latin East (and to a lesser extent of Saladin’s host).  Each of these files is filled with notes distilled from a great many academic and popular works, and it would be difficult to say which were most important (other than to say that anything written by Malcolm Barber is invaluable).  When it comes specifically to medieval weapons and armour, however, I would definitely recommend relevant works from Osprey Publishing’s Warrior and Men-at-Arms series.  Particularly helpful to me were Knight Templar, 1120-1312; Knight of Outremer, 1187-1344; and Saladin and the Saracens.  These three books were written by knowledgeable historians and illustrated by talented artists. They had a huge impact on my portrayal of the fighting men of the Third Crusade. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

As a reader, I had a sense that you really enjoyed writing this book, but there must have been challenges too. What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?

I absolutely loved writing this novel.  Not every minute of every day, of course.  The writing process (or rather, my writing process) is just not like that.  But overall, it was a joyful experience –  the research, the   character development, the plotting,  the drafting, right through to the revising and editing (well, maybe not the final line-editing). Very different from academic writing, which can be very fulfilling and professionally satisfying, but seldom induces feelings of joy (for either writer or reader).

I suppose the most obvious challenge was finding the time to actually write.  Like many writers, I have a full-time day job and young kids and between the two of them every hour of every day seems to get chewed up.  On the other hand, the nature of my job as a university professor means that I have big chunks of time in January and over the summer when I can write full time, so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much.

Beyond that, the really big challenge for me was to shift gears from writing like a scholar to writing like a novelist.  I’ve been writing like an academic my whole adult life and it is really hard to resist the temptation to support every claim with a footnote or to explain every move in excruciating detail.  But perhaps even more challenging than switching off my inner scholar was switching on my inner novelist.  Before this novel, the last piece of fiction I can recall writing was a short story I did in elementary school.  So, in addition to all the historical research I did in preparation for the novel, I also had to research the craft of writing fiction.  Thankfully, most (though not all) of that research involved re-reading great works of historical fiction with an eye to reverse engineering them – that is, with an eye to seeing how the master’s worked their literary magic – so it wasn’t as painful or difficult as it might have been.

The only scene in the book that I really didn’t like was when Fitz Alan tortures the Arab slavers to confess to crimes Christian women have already attested to. I seemed completely gratuitous. I would expect Templars to take the word of a Christian Abbess as sufficient proof, and to then just dispatch the offenders. In short: kill them, yes, but why torture them first? Within 120 years the Templars themselves would be tortured mercilessly to confess crimes they did not commit. Were you in some why trying to establish that the torture they would later suffer was justified by crimes like these? If not, why doesn’t Fitz Alan suffer any pangs of conscience about this completely unnecessary torture? You seem to have missed an opportunity to build up to his later decision not to kill the hostages. Here he lets his blood-lust get the better of him, and so fails in his personal mission; later he successfully overcomes his blood-lust.

I think your last sentence quite effectively captures what I was trying to accomplish in this scene.  It is an important element his evolution into something more closely approximating the Templar ideal that Fitz Alan is periodically tested.  Sometimes he fails one of these tests by being too much the brutal knight; other times, by being too much the pious monk.  In the process, though, he learns to synthesize the two, to become the ideal Templar warrior-monk.  What I wanted to achieve in this scene was exactly what you have suggested at the end of your question: to portray an early failure to overcome his bloodlust in order to demonstrate his evolution when later on in the story he is better able to control his more brutal impulses.

In this book, your principal protagonist, Michael Fitz Alan, has a very poor opinion of Richard of England — but then he seems to have a poor opinion of just about everyone. You imply this is because of things he saw Richard do — or things they did together — in the past. Although I don’t mind you not revealing those things in this book, I’d be curious if you ever intend to tell us about them or if they will remain shrouded in secrecy to the very end of the series?

I chose the Third Crusade because I could see great possibilities in contrasting the world’s premier worldly knight, England’s Richard the Lionheart, with my Fitz Alan – a heroic figure who embodies Saint Bernard’s ideal of the “New Knighthood.”  Beyond that, though, there is also a backstory here.  I will reveal more in the next novel, but suffice it to say there is bad blood between Richard and Fitz Alan. Richard has used Fitz Alan before and, given the Templar’s martial prowess, is happy to do so again.  Fitz Alan, on the other hand, knows he has been burned by the king in the past and has vowed never again to get caught up in his schemes.  He only accepts the king’s commission to recover the Holy Lance in this novel because of the high stakes and the fact that the Templar Grand Master pretty much ordered him to do so.

How many books do you envisage in this series?  Do you know what the ending of the series will be? Or are you still searching for it?

Not quite sure.  This past January I was able to sketch out a pretty detailed outline for the next installment of what is currently conceived as a trilogy but which may evolve into a longer series.  And, once it’s officially summer break, I will begin drafting.  The goal is to complete the sequel to The Holy Lance before September and write the final installment in January/summer of 2016.  Whatever happens, I promise Michael Fitz Alan will definitely see the Third Crusade through to its bitter end.

After that, and providing people actually read what I write, I’ll continue writing historical fiction (can’t see myself venturing beyond that genre, but one never knows).  I may keep on with the English Templars – I already have many, many more stories half-developed for this “band of brothers” ready to go – but I may also branch out a bit.  The Hundred Years War appeals a very great deal, as does the First World War (I’ve written or taught about both in recent years).  We’ll just have to wait and see.

You’ll have one reader right here! I look forward to reading more about Fitz-Alan and his companions — particularly the Turcopoles and sergeants, while the Hundred Years War is also a period that fascinates me. In fact, a biographical novel of Edward of Woodstock (more commonly known as the Black Prince) is one of the tasks I have set myself before I depart this life.

For now, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

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