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, July 31, 2016

Sneak Preview 6: An Excerpt from "Envoy of Jerusalem"

The fate of the Christian captives enduring slavery is an important theme of "Envoy of Jerusalem." In this scene, we catch a glimpse of what is happening to the daughter of Balian's knight Sir Bartholomew in Aleppo. 

Beatrice prayed God for forgiveness as she brought the filthy linens to the laundry for the umpteenth time. Some part of her Christian soul knew that she ought to feel pity for the 14-year-old struggling to bring her baby into the world, but Fatima had been too heartless and selfish a mistress for Beatrice to feel anything but satisfaction. Imad ad-Din’s others wives were all older women, women he had married in his youth, women who had born him several children each and were in their own way not only weary but wise. Not one of them had been kind to Beatrice, but they had not be cruel either. They recognized that she was a slave because of misfortune beyond her control. For them it was simply the will of Allah that she had to accept no less than they did.

Fatima, on the other hand, came to the household after the death of Imad ad-Din’s second wife. At 13 she was still very young, but she had rapidly recognized that her 60-something husband was smitten with her. He had lavished gifts on her, seemed unable to deny her any wish, and neglected his other wives in his eagerness to savor her charms. The knowledge that she was the master’s favorite rapidly went to her head. She relished showing the other wives that she could get whatever she wanted, while they were rebuked for their “greed” and “covetousness,” if they asked for the smallest thing. She ate in front of them the ice and figs they had been denied, and she laughed and stuck out her tongue when the First Wife tried to rebuke her.

To the slaves she had been even worse, of course. No one ever pleased her, and she threw temper tantrums that included not only throwing things at whoever offended her but also scratching their skin with her excessively long nails or spitting on them. She had taken particular pleasure in mocking Beatrice, calling her “my lady slut” and “my lady whore,” asking how many men it had been the night of her capture. Was it three or four or maybe even a dozen or a score? What had it been like having so many different men inside you, one after the other? Had she been able to climax for them all? Her questions had been so shocking that the First Wife had intervened, chiding Fatima for immodesty and sending Beatrice away to spare her further indignity. But Fatima had pursued the game again when the others were out of hearing.

Beatrice straightened and put her hands to the small of her aching back. “Christ forgive me,” she muttered, “but I hope she dies and her little Muslim brat with her!” With a sigh, she reached for the clean linens, stacked neatly on shelves outside the laundry. She had stacked them there herself after taking them down from the line this morning and folding them exactly as instructed. (When she first came, she had often been slapped or kicked for doing things the Frankish way.) As she took the clean sheets, she was reminded of the effort that went into making them so — something she had not appreciated in her former life. Clean linens had simply been her right as a lady, and laundresses were an almost unseen part of the household. They were generally widows and other poor women, who were allowed to sleep in a dormitory and eat at the bottom of the table in exchange for keeping clean the underclothes, bedclothes and tablecloths of their lord, his family and retainers.  

But just this morning she had stood for hours over a cauldron full of boiling water, stirring the clothes as the steam drenched her in sweat and scalded her hands. The lye soap stank and stung, and the smell of it up close almost chocked her. The skin of her hands was permanently red and rough from the exposure to the damp heat and lye steam. She avoided looking at them now because they made her sad. Once, she had loved her long fingered-hands adorned with rings….

She entered the long, dingy corridor between the laundry courtyard and the haram, and was startled when the delivery door suddenly crashed open and people poured inside. They were chattering Arabic much too fast for her to understand it (although she now understood most orders and many ordinary conversations). An elderly woman was removing her veils, now that she was inside, and handing them off to the woman behind her, as she questioned the eunuch leading her toward the haram. She was dressed in very rich robes decorated with strands of gold, Beatrice noted with wistful envy. Most notable, her tone of voice was commanding; she was obviously a First Wife in some important man’s household, Beatrice concluded. 

The next instant, she was distracted by the realization that the woman trailing her, who had now removed her veils as well, was blond! More than that, she looked familiar. “Jesus God and all his Saints! Constance!” She called out in utter amazement.

The woman spun about startled, and then let out a cry of recognition so piercing it stopped her mistress and the eunuch in their tracks. They turned back angrily and saw the two Christian slaves fall into each other arms. A moment later they chattering in French, oblivious — and utterly indifferent — to the disapproval of the others. 

“Beatrice! Beatrice!” the new-comer gasped, clinging to her. “I never thought I would see you again! Oh, sister! What of your children?”

Beatrice clung to her younger sister as tears streamed down her face. “Don’t ask. Let us be thankful for this moment instead.”

Constance was suddenly crying too. Her heartrending wails came from the depths of her heart as she folded her head upon her sister’s breast and sobbed like a little child. She did not see the look of astonishment on her mistress’ face, much less hear the sharp question from the eunuch demanding an explanation.

“She is my sister,” Beatrice told him, meeting his glare firmly. “You may flog me till I die, if you like, or kick me ‘till my guts spill out my mouth, but you will not stop me from holding my own sister!”

“Leave them!” Constance’s mistress snapped. “We have more important things to do!” She swept on to see to her sister-in-law, leaving the Christian slaves alone in the hall.

My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life." 

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Interview with Scott Amis

Scott Amis is the author of a novel set in the late 11th century, To Shine with Honor. This is the first in a series of books, which will follow a French family on the First Crusade.  To Shine with Honor sets the scene for the crusade itself, essentially ending with the decision of key characters to take the cross. 

Scott, before we get down to discussing your book, would you mind introducing yourself to my readers? Tell us a little about who you are and how you got interested in writing historical fiction set in Middle Ages.

Helena, I want to first say I'm greatly honored to be your guest. About myself, I'm not an academic historian; my degree is in architecture and I practiced that profession for 30 years before retiring in 2004. Rather than seeing this as the end of my working life, I began to seriously pursue a longstanding interest in the Middle Ages, particularly a borderline-obsessive fascination with the Crusades.

After finding that an advanced degree wasn't practical at the time, I chose to attempt writing a well-researched work exploring all aspects of the First Crusade. As a lifelong reader of historical fiction, this was the course that came most naturally, and, after beginning "To Shine With Honor" in 2008, I had a completed 900-page first manuscript two years later! Of course, this was only the beginning. After six more years of hard work, that involved dividing the first manuscript into three volumes, as well as many tough critiques and major revisions along the way, the first volume of "To Shine With Honor" has become a reality.

Great. So lets turn to your book, "To Shine with Honor." This is the first in a series of novels that will follow your characters through the First Crusade and beyond. What sparked your interest in this period?

A desire to explore the religious/spiritual atmosphere of European Christendom in the Early and High Middle Ages and to understand the backgrounds and motives of the First Crusaders. 

2This book essentially ends with the famous appeal for an expedition to rescue the Holy Land issued by Pope Urban II at Clermont in 1195  — well before the Crusade actually gets underway. Why did you choose to start your book so much earlier?

I wanted to create a fictional ‘micro-environment’, with characters and events that would show the lives of ordinary people in late 11th century France, and allow readers to become invested in them prior to their participation in the First Crusade.

3The characters of your book are predominantly fictional. Why did you choose to create characters rather than follow the known historical figures?

Fictionalization of historical persons, to a more-or-lesser degree, requires following a script. I wanted the freedom to create characters who accurately represent the times and places, yet have unique life stories and points of view. The historical persons depicted in "To Shine with Honor" are seen exclusively from the points of view of the fictional characters; in later volumes, as the story progresses to times, places, and events more populated by historical figures, some might well take on lives of their own.

4What aspect of the book did you find most difficult to research?

I found none of the research difficult; it’s more a question of what was neglected due to initial over-enthusiasm. In retrospect, the first manuscript should have been put aside after I had a working story, and much more upfront time devoted to researching details of everyday life.

5What aspect of the book did you find most difficult to render/write?

As a beginning writer and a male, at first, I found it most difficult to ‘get into the skins’ of female characters. Happily, I can now comfortably create characters of both sexes, including variations thereupon.

6I really love the fact that your book doesn’t focus only on the knightly class but also on merchants, monks and architects. Can you say more about the setting for your book, the overall context and why you chose it?

The central event in the series is the First Crusade, and the first requirement a setting close enough to the town of Clermont for the characters to see, hear, and react to Pope Urban’s famous address firsthand. The second was a typical ongoing conflict between two relatively minor feudal lords as a background element as well as a major plot device; thus the fictional County of Saint-Lille and Barony of Mirefleurs, and the fifty-year land feud between their leaders and noblemen.

Monasteries and the Church were all-important elements of medieval life. To have the main character, Galien de Coudre, closely experience them is not only a plot device but also shows the religious environment and the monks, priests, and bishops by whom it was populated.

The architect Joseph of Reims and his work on a fictional Cathedral of Troyes represent elements seldom seen in this genre, but are an essential part of Galien’s journey, and are somewhat ‘fantasy-autobiographical’.

In the late 11th century, cities were seeing a significant increase in population, and growing importance as centers of trade and commerce as well as religious life. Hopefully, Galien de Coudre’s sojourn in Troyes will give readers a memorable glimpse of medieval city life and people of various occupations and social classes.

7Central to the book is a family and much of the power of the book comes from the realistic and complex relationships between members of that family. Can you tell us a little more about the cast of characters?

Henri de Coudre is characterized as a minor nobleman landholder, locally renowned knight of relatively ‘old-fashioned’ values experiencing the difficulties of guiding young adult offspring of widely differing temperaments into suitable occupations and marriages. Eldest son Thierré is first shown as a capable young knight who is yet an immature bully, hard drinker, and womanizer who will grow up via hard lessons ahead. Second son Martin is more in his father’s image: conservative and cautious, courageous, and conspicuously honorable; also possessing his own unique ability to see and seize opportunities and raise himself to wealth and high position. Third son Galien is an educated young man with his feet and mind in two worlds: one, of the pious scholar/artist; the other, of the knight of adventurous spirit and disregard for ‘normality’ - in the latter, he’s very much like Thierré. Daughter Alisende is most similar to Martin, but growing up with three brothers gave her a tough ‘tomboy’ side which balances the more sheltered aspects of her young noblewoman’s life. As she enters adolescence - young adulthood in the times - she becomes a woman determined to make her own way and choices. 

8What are the key themes that you set out to address in this series?
  • Faith, spirituality, and the Church; their influence on and importance in all aspects of life in this period of the Middle Ages
  • Honorable and dishonorable characteristics and behavior; their importance in this period of the Middle Ages
  • Knighthood, chivalry, holy war, and the ethic of the Christian warrior: status and development before and during the First Crusade; influence of the First Crusade on their continuing evolution
  • Bonds and characteristics of family and friendship; relationships, love, and marriage; influence of the feudal system on these
  • Social stratification and mobility; interaction among classes
  • Violence and that anticipated as facts of everyday life. The effects of violent conflicts between minor noblemen in late 11th century France.
  • Wise use and abuse of power; justice and injustice

9 What about this particular book? What do you want your readers to come away with?

A vivid image of everyday life and prevalent tensions in France on the eve of the First Crusade, a desire to continue exploring medieval history and the Crusades, and, of course, overwhelming eagerness to read the next volume in the series!

1What would you like to achieve with this series of books?

Accomplishment of the writer’s goal of a superior and memorable reading experience, and the historian’s goal of leaving readers with an accurate and comprehensive image of the times, places, and events explored.

 Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Scott. We clearly share many of the same interests and goals, which makes it particularly fun to talk to you. 


Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Seven Deadly Sins – And What They Say About Medieval Society

The other day, a friend and I were trying to list the seven deadly sins. We couldn’t, so we went and looked them up. The list surprised me for including “sins” that seem odd in modern society and that got me thinking about how the definition of “deadly sins” reflected the ills of Medieval Society.  Essentially, the Church was trying to discourage certain types of behavior thought to be detrimental to a functioning, Christian society by proclaiming them “deadly” sins – sins so egregious that they brought the sinner “spiritual death” – if the sinner did not repent, do penance and receive absolution.

Now some of the deadly sins still strike us as reprehensible behavior. Wrath, for example, is something no one would recommend and most people would agree brings harm – usually not only to the intended target. Likewise lust is a sin whose negative impact is widely recognized to this day. No matter how tolerant modern society may be of sexual freedom for consenting adults, lust remains a dangerous emotional force behind many modern crimes from child abuse and rape to trafficking in persons. Finally, envy is still seen as undesirable. 

But greed has more recently been praised as “good” – some people in modern society equating it with ambition and the driving force behind capitalism and free private enterprise. Even more striking, “pride” is something we hold up as a virtue, not a sin. We are proud of our country, proud of our armed forces, proud to be who we are – or at least we strive to be. And who nowadays would put “gluttony” or “sloth” right up there beside lust, wrath and envy?

Upon reflection, however, I concluded that the deadly sins tell us a great deal about what behavior Medieval Society particularly feared.

In a society where hunger was never far from the poor and famines occurred regularly enough to scar the psyche of contemporaries, excessive consumption of food was not about getting fat it was about denying others.  Because there were always poor who did not have enough to eat just around the corner, someone who indulged in gluttony rather than sharing excess food was clearly violating the most fundamental of Christian principles. Nothing could be more essential to the concept of Christian charity than giving food to the hungry, and a person who not only kept what he/she needed for himself but engaged in excess eating was therefore especially sinful.

"Charity" by Edmund Leighton
Sloth is the other side of the same coin.  In a society without machines, automation or robots, the production of all food, shelter and clothing depended on manual labor. Labor was the basis of survival, and survival was often endangered. Medieval society could not afford for any member to be idle. Even the rich were not idle! Medieval queens, countesses and ladies no less than their maids spun, wove and did other needlework – when they weren’t running the estates of their husbands. The great magnates of the realm were the equivalent of modern corporate executives, managing vast estates and ensuring both production and distribution of food-stuffs. The gentry provided not just farm management but the services now provided by police, lawyers and court officials. In medieval society every man and woman had their place – and their job. Whether the job was to work the land or to pray for the dead, it was a job that the individual was expected to fulfill diligently and energetically. Sloth was a dangerous threat to a well-functioning society.

"Sewing" by Edmund Leighton
My most recent work is a biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts. Here, as always I strive for an accurate portrayal of medieval society.

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