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.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Humility

The ideal knight was not a braggart. Medieval society as a whole, after all, was dominated by a religion in which the Savior himself was a humble man who preached that "the meek shall inherit the earth." The Church condemned both pride and displays of wealth and consumption. Indeed, pride was one of the seven deadly sins. That medieval knights often did not live up to this ideal goes without saying: chivalry was always the ideal, not reality. There would not have been so much preaching against excessive consumption and  extravagant dress and pageantry if knights and noblemen had not commonly been guilty of engaging in all of it.

Balian’s humility can best be judged by the fact that despite being viewed by Arab chroniclers as “like a king” after Hattin, Christian accounts singularly fail to describe a man who was "lording it" over his fellows. Indeed, even the chronicles that detest him, such as the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, attack him for other failings. They call him cruel, fickle and faithless -- all because he did not do Richard of England's bidding, but pursued his own policies.  Yet they notably fail to allege that the man who was "like a king" (and step-father of the legitimate queen of Jerusalem) was excessively proud or haughty.

Obviously, the absence of allegations of pride does not prove humility either. Yet when one considers the fact that Ibelin was seen as virtually the only nobleman in the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem with stature and authority, it is remarkable that he never himself laid claim to a position of per-eminence. Conrad of Montferrat, for example, who put up a spirited and successful defense of Tyre, almost at once laid claim to a lordship he had not inherited, and later laid claim to the crown itself. He has also gone down in history as grasping, intriguing, selfish and excessively ambitious, as a man willing to cut almost any deal with Saladin for the sake of becoming King of Jerusalem. 

Balian d'Ibelin in contrast acted consistently in cooperation with his fellow surviving barons, usually through the High Court, or at a minimum with prominent nobles such as Reginald de Sidon, the Tiberias brothers, and Pagan of Haifa. Given the fact that his eldest son later fought an entire war to defend the institution of the High Court of Jerusalem (i.e. the barons sitting collectively), it is fair to presume that Balian raised his son to respect this body and collective leadership instead of asserting one's individual rights. In the medieval context, that is a remarkable mark of humility.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Piety

Chivalry was from its inception closely allied to Christianity. It emerged in the 12th century, in a period of the crusades and monasticism, and it lost its hold on people with the Reformation. Some historians go so far as to postulate that chivalry was intentionally developed/encouraged by the Church as a means to "tame" or "direct" the violence of fighting men. While that seems far fetched for such a secular ideal (that tolerated a great deal of illicit love!), throughout the Age of Chivalry the Catholic Church reigned unchallenged in the spiritual realm, and chivalry paid respect to her. Thus by the 13th century a vigil in a church or the dedication of a sword at the altar had become a common (though not essential) part of the knighting ceremony. 

It can hardly surprise, therefore, that piety was a knightly ideal. The "perfect" knight, was a devout Christian who gave alms to the Church. Indeed, the most fundamental duty of a knight was to protect "the helpless" and "the Church." Because churchmen were not supposed to bear arms or draw blood, priests and monks, like women, children and invalids were considered the "helpless" people that knights vowed to protect.

Balian's piety is documented. In early 1187, when he was part of a delegation sent by King Guy to Count Raymond of Tripoli to try to reconcile the two. The other military members of that delegation were lured into a lop-sided battle which resulted in a massacre of the Christian knights.  Balian, however, missed this debacle at the Springs of Cresson. The reason: he had stopped to hear mass and was late for the rendezvous.

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Courtesy and Cleanliness

These are two of my favorite knightly virtues because people so often ignore them. 

Courtesy, however, was essential in a culture that placed a high value on mutual love and earning the favor of a lady (as opposed to just abducting or buying her). Furthermore, courtesy in the High Middle Ages was also expected of young people when addressing their elders and of people of lower rank when addressing their superiors. Indeed, courtesy as an ideal was supposed to regulate communications between all people of "worth" in the Age of Chivalry, and a mastery of courtesy was demanded of children and admired in adults.

As for cleanliness, many people nowadays still imagine that people in the Middle Ages did not place a value on cleanliness and even abhorred it. The fact that people did not bathe frequently in the 18th century is extrapolated backwards, and I’ve read far too many books set in the crusades that portray the Muslims as clean and the Christians as filthy and stinking. Not true.

Bathing was much more difficult when water did not come running hot and cold out of a tap, but that if anything made it more valued.  It was an important ritual of knighthood itself, and is frequently portrayed in medieval manuscripts. The rich had private baths, and the poor went to bath houses.  In the hotter climate of southern Europe, from Spain to Greece, where the Romans had built large bath houses, the tradition continued particularly strong, and in the crusader kingdoms baths were built in the Turkish tradition  – by Christians. 

In fact, many pilgrims who came to the crusader kingdoms, were initially shocked by the extent to which the local population “indulged” in the pleasures of these bathhouses. The objection, however, was not to the concept of cleanliness but rather to the associated pleasures of massages and scented oils and the ambiance.  

As a renowned diplomat, capable of intermediating between Tripoli and Lusignan and negotiating on multiple occasions with Saladin, Balian would have had to have at the least a diplomatic manner and a courteous tongue. Admittedly, diplomacy isn't all about nice words, but it has been defined as "the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip."  I think we can assume, therefore, that Balian had mastered the virtue of courtesy to a high degree.  As for cleanliness, since Balian was one of the “local” lords, born in the Holy Land, we can assume he was a frequent visitor to bath houses. He, more than most knights in the west at this time, would have fulfilled the knightly virtue of “cleanliness.”

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin: Preserverance and Diligence

It is unlikely that the words "preserverance" or "diligence" spring readily to mind when one thinks of chivalry -- which is why I find them so insightful additions to the list of knightly virtues. Of course, if one looks at the romances of the Age of Chivalry, these virtues are represented in abudance. The heroes of chivalry were on a quest for greater glory, honor or love and they usually encounter many difficulties along the way. Without perserverance and diligence, success would be impossible. 

Real life in the High Middle Ages also required a great deal of preserverance and diligence. Knights were not born: they were made by years and years of service and training as pages and squires. Few men were knighted before they had endured many falls in the tiltyard, endless banquets requiring an understanding of protocol and manners, and hours of classroom instruction learning reading, writing, accounting and more.

Balian d'Ibelin must have had more than his fair share of both of these virtues. As younger son he probably had to work harder to make his way in the world as a young man. Which may explain why he was so tenacious as an older man. What is certain is that having lost his entire inheritance in 1187, he diligently rebuilt his fortunes -- step by step and marriage by marriage -- until the once obscure and insignificant family had become the most powerful in the Latin east. The House of Ibelin was so predominant and so influential, in fact, that Ibelins more than once challenged ruling monarchs, including the Holy Roman Emperor. They served as regents and constables, and their daughters married kings.

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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Interview with Char Newcomb - Author of "For King and Country"

This week I interrupt my series on chivalry and Balian d'Ibelin to bring you a special treat: an interview with Charlene Newcomb, Author of For King and Country, Book II in the Battle Scars Series

Char, welcome back to Schrader’s Historical Fiction Blog. As I said last time, we have a lot in common, and it’s a pleasure to have you with me again for an interview about your latest release For King and Country  -- especially now that it has received a B.R.A.G. Medallion and, as an HNS “Editor’s Choice,” is long-listed for the Historical Novel Society 2017 Indie Award!

Let’s jump right in by starting with a question I asked last time as well, but as a means to refresh readers’ memory.

1.    What inspired you to write this particular series of books?
There is that commonality we share: both us influenced by film or television. Where your Balian d’Ibelin series was inspired by the film, Kingdom of Heaven, my inspiration came from a BBC Robin Hood series. That Robin had served Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade and my knowledge of the man and that particular event was minimal, but I was intrigued. I dove online and discovered works of contemporary chroniclers’ fully translated. Richard the Lionheart’s story has been told many times in fiction and non-fiction, so I created a story of fictional knights who served him, showing how war, politics, and love impacted a naïve young man and a seasoned veteran.

2.    Book I in the series, Men of the Cross, covers the entire Third Crusade. That’s roughly two years of action packed history that is one of the most well-documented two years in the entire 12th century. For the Third Crusade you had a number of excellent primary sources, English, French and Saracen. This book in contrast, covers a sliver of time, a little less than a year, if I’m calculating correctly, and the events are not historical but invented, albeit against a background of a real period in history. What made you change your pace? And how did you evolve this particular plot?

Though actual events of the Third Crusade feature prominently in Men of the Cross, the focus of the Battle Scars series has always been on the men who served the Lionheart. Henry de Grey, a young knight, has been profoundly impacted by what he has seen and done in God’s name. He is disillusioned by the war and, by the end of Book I, has accepted and welcomed his feelings for fellow knight Stephan l’Aigle. One theme of Book II shows the trials of their relationship as the knights return to England. Their secret love must remain hidden, though Henry knows his father expects him to marry and provide an heir. While Henry tries to avoid Edward de Grey’s matchmaking, Stephan, and Sir Robin have been tasked by the queen to identify King Richard’s enemies in England. King Richard is being held prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor and his brother John plots with Philip of France to usurp the throne. John has supporters in England and Henry is now defending the king against other Englishmen. Politics and treachery threaten their own families and friends. Indeed, their own families may have ties to John.  
Another theme of For King and Country is delving deeper into the building of a new Robin Hood origins story, what I have referred to as the ‘seeds’ of the  legend. Robin, Allan, and Little John were introduced in Book I. Their story arcs, and the introduction of Marian, Much, Tuck, and Will, allowed me to build on that in Book II.

The novel does end with an actual major event, the Siege of Nottingham. Richard has been released from captivity, returns to England, and is reunited with my fictional characters who served him in the Holy Land.

3.    Since you didn’t have the same wealth of sources for this slice of history, what were your principle research tools?

Interestingly, one of the shortest chapters of the book England Without Richard, 1189-1199, deals with the year 1193. For King and Country focuses on John’s efforts to fortify his English castles, but John’s whereabouts in the contemporary chronicles and biographies - with a couple of exceptions - are not well documented. That freed me up to fill in gaps, to place John and also his mother, Queen Eleanor, in a few crucial scenes. The chronicles did briefly cover the Siege of Nottingham, but Trevor Foulds’ excellent article on that event was a fantastic resource. In addition to biographies of Richard, John, and Eleanor, my principle research tools were books on medieval Nottingham, Lincolnshire and York, resources about culture, housing, life, and society in medieval times.

4.    You gave a wonderful interview to Catherine Curzon on her blog “A Covent Garden Gilflirt’s Guide to Life.” (http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2016/05/an-american-in-nottingham-writing-robin.html) Here you described your disappointment when first visiting Nottingham Castle to discover it was dominated by post-1500 additions — a phenomenon that has frequently plagued my research as well! (Try finding anything crusader in modern Israel….) You were fortunate to find a written resource that provided details. But let’s return to your trip to England. What impact did it have on your writing? Was it all a disappointment? Or did visiting the scenes of your novel enable you to learn things you would not have been able to find in written sources? If so, what? Were there aspects of the novel that you changed because of travel to England?

It was a matter of location and fate that led me to Nottingham in 2010 and had nothing to do with research for my novel, but rather research for my sabbatical project. I was traveling to the United Kingdom to do site visits at university libraries. As I reached out to UK colleagues and plotted my visits, I realized that Nottingham, which I knew little about except what I’d seen in Robin Hood movies and television, was centrally located. I rented a flat there for three weeks, and managed to get to Nottingham Castle as a tourist. At that time, I wasn’t even thinking about writing a novel based in medieval Nottingham. I hadn’t even started writing Men of the Cross, which centered on the Third Crusade. But by 2013, as I was working on Men, I realized I wanted to – or perhaps was compelled to – follow my fictional characters back to England for a sequel. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to return to Nottingham for a look as a researcher, so my visits were virtual through my own photos from 2010 and others online, and through what I read, including the book Nottingham Castle: A Place Full Royal by Christopher Drage. I did get to Nottingham just a few weeks ago and find I appreciate the Castle and The Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem even more now that I have better grasp of their histories.

5.    You had lots of fun writing this book. What scene did you like writing most? What scene is your favorite (which may or may not be same thing, of course….)?

I did have fun, which is one reason I like to call this series an historical adventure. There are many serious themes running through both novels – war, treason, PTSD, forbidden love, family loyalties tested – but life is sprinkled with humorous moments and I wanted to find places within all that emotion to make the reader smile. Without giving too much away, I loved writing the earthquake scene (which got added in my last month of final edits!) and the scene of Robin telling family and friends how he met Queen Eleanor. As for my favorite scene, that is tough because I have at least three, if not more, and they all involve spoilers. Let me tell you that one involves main character Henry, Queen Eleanor, Little John, and a new female character named Elle.

6.    Tell us more about the series Battle Scars as a whole. How many books will there be and what period will it cover?

I am currently writing Book III, Swords of the King, which takes place during the last few years of King Richard I’s reign. All three Battle Scars books include the origins of the men who one day turn outlaw and become that band of Merry Men. I am fairly certain there will be 4th book in the series that turns the focus to the Robin Hood legend during King John’s reign. That particular novel is just a tiny acorn at the moment, but as I write Book III, I think it will firmly grasp my imagination and take root. With luck, Swords of the King will be published in 2018.

7.    Tell us a little more about your readers? Who did you set out to reach with this series? Men? Women? Young people? Professionals? Why should they be interested in these books? What can they get out of them?
I thought laying the foundations of a new Robin Hood origins story might attract readers, though Robin and his “Merry Men” are not the focus of novels at this point. A few people did find Men of the Cross because of the Robin connection. Others appeared to love stories about the crusades, including a few readers, like you, from academic backgrounds with degrees in history or political science with extensive knowledge of medieval history. There may be more women reading than men—one female reader told me her husband was interested when he saw the book cover of Men, but when he heard there was a romance element, he said “no thank you.” It wouldn’t have mattered if it was romance of the male/female variety or male/male (m/m). Either way, it wasn’t for him. Other male readers (both straight and gay) have loved both the action and the gay romance, and as one female reader (who had not read a m/m work before) emailed me: “Love is universal…and if the characters are well-drawn, you want to see them together." 
I would love to think that fans of great writers Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick would find my books as many of their novels cover the same time period and feature Richard the Lionheart, John Lackland (the future evil King John) and Eleanor of Aquitaine. A few have. I am still learning to write great battle scenes like Bernard Cornwell (and Penman and Chadwick have their share, too). Readers who enjoy tales of adventure against the backdrop of war—sometimes brutal and bloody—and political intrigue with romance and a bit of humor, may find Battle Scars right up their alley. Join me in the 12th century and I think you will feel I have transported you back to medieval times.

Thank you for taking time to answer my questions, Char. It’s been fun talking to you — even if only virtually. Good luck with sales!

Thank you, Helena! 

Find Char online at :