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 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.