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.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Interview with J. Stephen Roberts


J., it’s a great pleasure to welcome you to my blog, and fun to be reversing roles after being your guest on Real Crusades History so often in the past. For my readers, who may not be familiar with you and Real Crusades History, let’s start off with a brief introduction. Would you mind telling my readers who you are, how you became interested in the crusades and what Real Crusades History is all about?

Thanks Helena! I have loved having you on RCH so many times and look forward to having you on many more times in the future. My name is Joseph Stephen Roberts, and I’ve been studying the Crusades for around 15 years.

During one of my early semesters in college I took a course on the history of Spain on a whim.  Learning about the Crusades in Spain really struck me – this titantic struggle of the Christians to reconquer their country from the invading Moors. There was an epic quality to this cause, which came to define medieval Iberians, moving them on a spiritual as well as a martial level. That led me to an interest in the Crusades waged in other venues, such as the Holy Land, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Real Crusades History is a multimedia platform dedicated to Crusades history. We release regular youtube videos on the Crusades, run facebook groups on the Crusades, and also release a podcast on Crusades history every 1st and 15th of the month.

Great, now, turning to Why Does the Heathen Rage, let’s jump right in by starting with a question I like to ask all my fellow novelists.

What inspired you to write this particular book? Your work with Real Crusades History has given you a fantastic overview of a fascinating period in human history stretching from the end of the 11th to the beginning of the 14th century and geographically from Spain to Syria. Why did you pick this particular sliver of that history for your book?

I’ve always loved the first few decades of the Kingdom of Jerusalem – the so-called “pioneering” period from 1099-1130. This was a time when the Kingdom was expanding rapidly and winning many military victories despite enormous challenges. Baldwin II of Jerusalem is the classic warrior-king, and his adventures during this period seem almost like something out of a movie – from marrying a beautiful eastern princess, to being captured and escaping from a Turkish prison, to winning a sweeping victory in the field of battle. This is a period that’s often neglected as well, with the First Crusade, the reign of Baldwin IV, and the Kingdom’s fall in 1187 usually coming up in novels and stories. I wanted to give this era its well-deserved attention.

Why a novel? Real Crusades History is a site devoted to history — not fantasy, myth, politics or polemics. You’ve done an outstanding job there of striking a balance between accuracy and accessibility. Real Crusades History is factual without being academic, but it is very much a site for facts not fiction. So why fiction now?

Thanks for the kind words! What has always frustrated me most about the medieval era is its remoteness. The chronicles rarely give us the human details that we crave. I want a time machine so that I can travel back and experience what it all felt like, but since that’s impossible historical fiction seems like the best alternative. We don’t have access to the inner lives of Baldwin II of Jerusalem or his daughter Melisende, but through historical fiction we can make reasonable inferences about how they would have felt, what the intimate details would have looked like, and thereby travel back in time in some sense. My drive to do straight history is satisfied by making videos and podcasts, historical fiction gives me an outlet to present these famous historical personalities as real people, to make the struggles they endured vivid.

Tell us a little more about your readers? Who did you set out to reach with this book? Men? Women? Young people? Professionals? Why should they be interested in this book?

My intended audience for this book has always been, for the most part, people who follow Real Crusades History. Running RCH has given me the opportunity to interact with all sorts of people who love history and find the Crusades inspiring, and that seems to be a pretty broad cross-section, from young people, to older people, men, women, people from all over the world, college students, lawyers, clergy, business people, the retired, the list really goes on. I’m often amazed by the scope. Most of my readers have been RCH fans so far, and it’s been nice to give them something to hold in their hands after all these years of them following through the youtube channel. But I also hope really anyone who loves the Crusades and wants to get closer to the time and place of the events will pick up the book and give it a try.

When researching this book, what were your greatest challenges? I know I would have been frustrated by the inability to personally visit some of the most important settings of the novel — Kharput, Edessa, Antioch, Shaizar. Did you at least manage to get to Tyre and Jerusalem?

Yes, Israel is the only location featured in the novel I have visited, although I have been to the western part of Turkey (the site of medieval Edessa is today in eastern Turkey, I believe).  Writing this novel was a huge undertaking, and there were plenty of false starts and rewrites. Finding a way to integrate all the sources I wanted to include was a challenge. Also, just reading all the sources I wanted to use and taking notes from them was a massive undertaking. To this day I have a huge database of notes dealing with this period that will certainly serve me well if I want to make any videos on events covered in the novel.

Did the research for the novel uncover anything you hadn’t already known through your work on Real Crusades History? Were there any surprises? Things that made you change your mind about historical people or events? If so, what?

Usama ibn-Munqidh’s chronicle was a major source for my book (indeed, Usama is himself a prominent character in the story), and there were things in that book that I found fascinating. For example, his pet cheetah (which made it into the novel), and the rather thorough details of hunts he provided. I pretty much used an account of one of his hunts as the firm basis for the hunting scene in the book. Baldwin’s queen, Morphia of Melitene, is a striking figure, and her enlistment of Armenian mercenaries to rescue her husband again seems almost too romantic for fiction, and yet it happened. I was really amazed that Baldwin II chose not to depart Kharput when he had the chance, but instead decided to stay and help the Armenians hold it. I suppose a cynical motivation for this might have been to hold on to another castle, but that seems a little insane considering the remoteness of his position. Why did he do it? Maybe out of a sense of honor, to stand with his rescuers who could not have all escaped.
Now, what about the writing itself? What was the most difficult aspect of actually writing the novel after you’d done the research and had defined the storyline, characters etc?

Fiction is tough because you’re trying to capture emotion. You’re trying to make the feelings real in every scene, and that isn’t easy. Making your characters grow and change is a challenge, but absolutely necessary. One thing you learn writing novels early on (after you’ve thrown a few away) is that a progression of events and people doing stuff doesn’t make a story. The people have to have relationships with one another, otherwise who cares about them interacting? The events happening have to matter to them, and to have an emotional impact on them – if your character is bored by what’s going on, your reader will be too. Balancing all of that isn’t easy. 

Unless I’m mistaken, the real William de Burres, who was Constable of Jerusalem during the reign of Baldwin II, died childless. So the Robert de Burres of your novel is fictional. What made you decide to insert a fictional character into the real events rather than use a historical figure?

Melisende had a real life childhood friend who everyone suspected was more than a friend, but he wasn’t much of a hero and I didn’t find him very inspiring, so I decided to come up with my own. I tried to imagine what a first generation knight born in the Kingdom would have been like, especially if he’d grown up in the wild, peripheral County of Edessa. Since Melisende was born there, it made sense that she might have known such a knight. William Burres was a rough and ready sort of a guy, a pioneering figure who did a lot to establish the fledgling Crusader states, so I liked the idea of giving him a son who shared his traits. Indeed, he never had a son in real life, which perhaps made it easier to give him one (real offspring might have gotten in my way!). Most historical fiction involves invented characters who interact alongside the historically real ones, so I didn’t feel bad about inserting a few of my own inventions. Dharr, the servant of Balak, also was an invented character.

You certainly don't have to apologize for either invented character! We all do it all the time and both of these are believable and plausible, moving the story forward without altering history.

 Now, another of my favorite questions: What scene is your favorite? (You’re allowed three! I can never pick just one scene either….)

One of my favorite scenes is when the Crusaders enter Tyre after the conquest. I liked the feel of them stepping into this new portion of the Kingdom for the first time, riding through the streets knowing that now this was theirs. I also really enjoy the scene where Baldwin II and his companions are busted out of the dungeon by Morphia’s gang of Armenians – that is just such an epic moment, it would be great in a movie! For my third, I’ll pick Robert and Melisende’s visit to the Holy Sepulcher, an emotionally powerful moment for them which melds a lot of their devotions, loves, struggles, and anxieties.

 What would you like your readers to take away from this book? What do you want them to remember or learn?

I want readers to get a feel for what the project of the conquest of the Holy Sepulcher meant to twelfth century Latin Europeans. A deep piety lay at the heart of this enterprise, combined with a righteous anger over the idea that Christ’s tomb would be controlled by heathens. Wrongly, many moderns believe the Crusades were a cynical exercise in greed – which says more about our own culture than the medieval era. What I wanted to show was that the Holy Sepulcher was an enormous motivation for people like Baldwin II, Melisende, and my fictional Robert. They suffered for this, but they thought that it was worth it. They were willing to endure enormous trials for this cause.

1Do you plan any more novels? If so, will they follow Robert de Burres to new adventures? Or do you plan to choose a completely different piece of crusades history? (I hope I’m not be presumptuous to suggest it will be crusades history…..)

I’m working on notes right now for a novel about the Third Crusade, which is another hugely emotional and powerful episode that I think works brilliantly in a novel format. Unlike my first book, this is a Crusades topic that’s probably been done more than any other in fiction, but I still want to do it because the feelings I want to emphasize and bring out I have not seen elsewhere. The character of Richard the Lionheart has become vivid to me in studying him for all these years, and I want to capture him in a narrative as I see him. Many of his good qualities simply do not come through in most novelizations of the Third Crusade. 

I have done a couple of short stories centered around the "Why Does the Heathen Rage?" period and characters, and I’m currently writing a short story about the Crusade of Las Navas de Tolosa. I may end up putting out a collection of short stories – Tales of the Crusades - before my Third Crusade novel sees the light of day.

Thank you for taking time to answer my questions. I'll be interested to hear what you think of my Richard the Lionheart in Envoy of Jerusalem, which also covers the Third Crusade.  I promise he's neither a baffoon, a brute nor an idiot! It’s been fun talking to you — even if only virtually. Good luck with sales!

Thanks so much for your questions Helena, they were very enjoyable! Looking forward to all your future endeavours!

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  1. What an interesting interview. Thank you, Helena and J.Stephen. I will look up the Real Crusades History.

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