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.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

My Responsibility as a Writer: Realistic, Human Characters

Nothing is more important to a novel than good characters. The theme may be visionary, the descriptions exquisite and the plot breath-taking, but without good characters it “ain’t good fiction.” Period.

The hero of my "Leonidas Trilogy": Leonidas of Sparta

Nor can we, writers, really create characters – not good ones. We can create cartoons that stiffly toddle across the pages of our book, or we can cut-and-paste from other works, or even use pre-fab creations that everyone instantly recognizes: the beautiful seductress, the clever detective, the sensitive misunderstood child, the evil step-mother etc. etc. But the author who relies on these will never write good fiction.

Brad Pitt's Achilles transformed the Greek hero from a comic figure to a human.

Good fiction requires good characters and good characters are as complex as human beings. Of course, only God can create humans, and writers are not God. We are at best disciples and prophets, interpreting God’s word, describing his creations – inadequately.  But the better we are at understanding humans, the better we will be at describing them. And the better we describe them as unique individuals, the better will be our novel. 



The hero of my Jerusalem trilogy is a baron of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: Balian d'Ibelin

And just as humans grow-up, make mistakes, learn from their mistakes (or fail to do so), good characters are neither perfect nor stagnant. Good characters have flaws, and good characters change in the course of a novel. Only ancillary characters should be essentially the same at the end of a novel as they were at the beginning. While this is most pronounced in novels spanning a longer period of time (like my biographical novels), it should be true even of a novel covering only a few months, days or hours – because those few months/weeks/days/hours must represent a significant event for the central characters or the novel has no credible plot. My Battle of Britain novel, for example, only covers the months of May to September 1940, but for the characters it a pivotal period. Another novel could describe no more than the day September 11, 2001 – but it would only be a good novel about that day, if the key characters are different in a significant way at the end of it.

The pilots on the cover are "B" Flight 85 Squadron -- some of the real heroes of the Battle of Britain
And good characters – really good characters – will never leave you in complete control of the plot. They will take the bit in their teeth now and again, and run away with you. When your characters do that, when they start shaping the novel for you, you know you have a good cast of characters. From then on, your job becomes one of directing and coaching rather than dictating. It is always a wonderful moment! 

Three key characters of the book are on this cover: Richard the Lionheart (left), Saladin (right) and Balian d'Ibelin in the center.
Today's blog is part of a Rave Review Book Club event featuring different author's ideas of their role as an author. If you are interested in joining this fun and supportive network of authors please check out our website at: Rave Review Book Club.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Love

Whereas prowess has been a manly virtue since the start of time, the idea that loving (as opposed to abducting, mastering, humiliating, controlling, abusing, subjugating etc.) a woman was a manly virtue that increased a man's stature among men is arguably the most remarkable aspect of chivalry altogether.  Indeed, love for a lady became a central -- if not the central -- concept of chivalry in literature.

Significantly, the chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides.  The troubadours of the Age of Chivalry put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own -- but only provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult. Yet, in the tradition of chivalry, love could also occur between husband and wife. In fact, some of the most influential romances such as Erec et Enide by Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple.

Balian's relationship with his wife Maria Comnena is one of the features of his life that attracted me to him as a worthy subject of a novel. Maria Comnena came from the most exalted royal family in Christendom, the Imperial family of the Eastern (Greek or Byzantine) Roman Empire. As such, she had been deemed fit to marry the King of Jerusalem himself, and came to Jerusalem as a bride of 12 or 13 years old. She was anointed Queen of Jerusalem at the time of her marriage to King Amalric. 

She was no more than 22 or 23 years old at the time of his death, and received the immensely wealthy and strategically important barony of Nablus as her dower portion. That is, she held Nablus for as long as she lived but it reverted to the crown at her death; she could not pass it on to heirs or bequeath it at will. Nablus was a center of manufacturing, known for its perfumes and soaps. It also owed 80 knights to the feudal army. It was, in short, more than sufficient to support a woman in luxury and security. Maria Comnena had no need to remarry and the customs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem did not permit a widow to be coerced into a second marriage. Officially, the king was supposed to "suggest" three candidates and the widow was supposed to choose between them, but the law was consistently ignored from Antioch to Kerak. In short, Maria Comnena had no need to remarry and if she did, she did so voluntarily to the man of her choice. She chose Balian d'Ibelin.

At the time of their marriage, Balian was the younger son of a crusader, who had slowly worked his way up through loyal service to the rank of baron and then married an heiress, Helvis of Ramla (Balian's mother). Balian's elder brother had inherited the paternal and maternal lands and titles, and held three fiefs: Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel. Of these, the joint barony of Ramla and Mirabel was the significantly more significant and lucrative. In short, Balian was a landless knight. 

For a Dowager Queen and Byzantine Princess to choose a landless knight as her second husband was nothing short of scandalous -- if not unprecedented. Constance, Princess of Antioch had chosen the adventurer Reynald de Chatillon, and Sibylla, Princess of Jerusalem, would later choose the landless Guy de Lusignan. Nevertheless, as in the other two cases, the choice of a landless man underscores the fact that the lady was not marrying for wealth and status (both of which she already had) but rather from love. 

Obviously, Balian's motives may well have been far more material -- at last at the time of the wedding. He certainly has left us no record of what he felt towards her, and none of his contemporaries commented on it either. Nevertheless, whether he loved her from the start or not, there is considerable evidence that he came to love her deeply.
First, although their own four children hardly count given the pressure to produce heirs, the fact that Balian is credited with having a powerful influence on Maria’s child by her first marriage, Isabella, is significant.  Since Isabella was a princess and of higher rank (i.e. she had no need not take any note of him0, her respect for him suggests he had been a good surrogate father to her – something that is unlikely if he had not been close to Maria. The family was furthermore a close-knit family, in which all the children supported one another closely -- again something indicative of a good marriage, which provides children with a living example of love.   

Second, and more dramatically, Balian did not abandon his wife to her fate (as most of his contemporaries did) after the defeat at Hattin. Instead, he took the unprecedented step of requesting a safe-conduct from Saladin to remove her from Jerusalem before the impending siege could begin. Such a step took an unusual kind of courage and commitment since the defenses of the kingdom were shattered and Saladin held all the cards. It was also very risky: first going to Saladin, and then crossing Saracen-held territory unarmed.  

Third, after the surrender of Jerusalem, Balian rejoined his wife and they worked together to regain some of what had been lost -- so much so that hostile chroniclers describe them as a team, alike to one another. They certainly are described working together to secure an annulment of Isabella's marriage to Humphrey of Toron. Cooperative work is, in my eyes, likewise a mark of a good marriage.

Last but not least, it seems unlikely that Maria, who had a choice, would have remained so loyal to a man beneath her station, if she had not felt loved. It is one thing to marry in infatuated haste, but had Balian proved an indifferent much less an unpleasant spouse as the years went by, Maria could have withdraw to her estates or all the way to Constantinople.  She did not. Instead, she stayed with Balian through the worst years of defeat and desperation.

Maria and Balian are the central characters, and their loving relationship a key feature, of all three novels of the Jerusalem Trilogy:

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Prowess

Prowess or physical courage is probably the most ancient of all manly virtues; one need only think of Achilles and Hector. It was admired in men long before and long after the Age of Chivalry, and it is deemed the prime adornment and most important asset of men in nearly every culture from the native American indians to Japan and from the Norsemen to the highlands of Ethiopia. The romances of the age could be summarized as tales of "brave knights and fair ladies."

Balian’s courage is one of the few chivalrous virtues for which we have ample evidence. Even the Arab sources mention his military prowess, starting with the Battle of Montgisard. He is also credited with fighting his way out of the encirclement at Hattin – according to some interpretations with Raymond of Tripoli, according to others breaking out in the other direction. At all events, he fought his way out after hours of being in the thick of the grueling engagement.  When he took command of the defenses of Jerusalem, he did not remain behind the walls, but first conducted dangerous foraging sorties into the surrounding area controlled by the enemy in order to capture necessary food supplies. After the siege began, he led a nearly suicidal assault on the Saracen camp.  Balian d’Ibelin had physical (as well as moral) courage in abundance.

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