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 clich├ęs 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.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Cast of Characters: Alys

Today my series on the fictional characters in my Balian trilogy continues with Alys. 

Like Godwin Olafsen, Alys was an unintended character. I never intended to write about her, but once she had sung her first notes in Envoy of Jerusalem it was impossible to ignore her. When Alys steps into the tavern in Tyre to sing for her supper to avoid selling her body, she has a song to sing, but defeat and poverty have robbed her of her dreams -- indeed of her ability to dream at all.  She is tottering on a precipice. A innocent victim of defeat and poverty. 

No, I had not envisaged Alys when I wrote the outline for Envoy of Jerusalem because she isn't part of "history." How can the daughter of an obscure (and dead) saddler compete with the likes of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin? But Alys does have a song to sing -- for all her sisters trapped in a hopeless situation after a lost war. Alys sings for the Syrian refugees, and those from the South Sudan and Somalia, as well. She represents the millions of women who have lost their homes, their families, their livelihoods, and have nothing left to sell but a song -- or their bodies. 

Envoy of Jerusalem is as much about Alys as it is about Richard the Lionheart because a central theme is the role of women in society. In powerful women like Maria Comnena, the Queens Sibylla and Isabella the novel examines the various ways in which women were active and influential even in a world at war, but it must also expose the helplessness and vulnerabilities of those women without status, titles and wealth. Envoy of Jerusalem seeks to show the strengths and determination of "ordinary" women -- and that is Alys' role. Altogether, the novel seeks to encourage the reader to think about how women shape society itself and what the position of women tells us about the society in which they live.

In Envoy of Jerusalem, a queen and a prostitute sit side-by-side in a church and find common ground. 

Oh, and Alys gives us the best love story of this novel.... 

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Cast of Characters: Sister Adela

Introducing the Fictional Characters of my Balian d'Ibelin Trilogy:

My fictional character Sister Adela is woven into the latter two books of the Balian trilogy, rarely playing a prominent role but often voicing an important perspective. Like Mariam, she is an independent woman with considerable power in her own sphere. Through Sister Adela the reader learns about the fate of orphans, the conditions in hospitals, and is reminded of the extensive network of charitable institutions run by various religious houses that were such an important part of medieval society. Sister Adela also personifies the greater authority and respect accorded women by the Knights Hospitaller as opposed to the Knights Templar--that never had associated sisters or convents.

Sister Adela is another character who deserves a book of her own, but she prefers (as is befitting a self-effacing nun) to remain in the background and rejects center stage. I feel I have to respect her wishes on this, but I hope my readers will recognize her many merits in her cameo appearances in the latter too books of the Balian trilogy.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Cast of Characters: Haakon Magnussen


Introducing the fictional characters in my Balian d'Ibelin Trilogy:

Because of the importance of naval and amphibious warfare in the period covered by Envoy of Jerusalem, I wanted to include a "nautical" character. A Pisan or Genoese sea captain would have been more representative of the age, but the Italian city-states came to the Holy Land as much (if not more) for commercial advantages as for religious reasons, and I didn't want to get into that can of worms. I was intrigued, however, by the fact that the Norwegians sent a large contingent of crusaders at this time. I also liked the idea of reminding my readers that the Norsemen had been Christianized (for the most part) by this time. It also seemed appropriate to have a Norse ship's captain as a character in order to describe the kind of vessel Richard the Lionheart chose as his flagship -- a snecka -- which was essentially a Viking warship that had been adapted over the centuries. Besides, I've lived in Norway and my mother's family was Danish, so I grew up loving Viking ships and Viking myths. So Haakon Magnussen was born -- full-grown and out of the foam of a stormy sea.

Haakon himself represents the "independent" crusader. Although we tend to think of the crusades as organized events led by kings and nobles, the majority of "crusaders" were individuals who made an armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land to fulfill a vow, atone for a sin, or simply contribute to the defense/restoration of Christian rule. They might join up with others, sign on with a local lord, travel in the train of an organized crusade, or they might, if they had the means, just come out on their own. Who could better represent that independent spirit than an Norseman?

In the novel, Haakon is also a device to get Balian out to sea and a means of moving him in an environment where the Saracens controlled most of the hinterland behind the few Christian coastal strongholds. He also has a voice and perspective of his own, generally irreverent. One of my test readers liked him best of all the fictional characters, and I strongly suspect he deserves a novel all his own....

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Cast of Characters: Mariam, the Syrian Femme Sole

Introducing the fictional characters of the Balian d'Ibelin Trilogy: 

Mariam, the Syrian Femme Sole, doesn't make her appearance in the Balian d'Ibelin trilogy series until the third book. I wish I'd thought of her sooner, though, as I would have loved to include her in the earlier books as well!

Mariam came to me in all her robust and hearty maturity in the middle of the night just after I'd finished writing Defender of Jerusalem. I was disturbed by poor Godwin Olafsen and his horrible fate. Yes, Balian had bought his freedom at the last minute, but he was still penniless with a crippled son. I didn't like leaving him like that. And then I had the image of Mariam, heard her scolding me in a cheerful voice, and I knew she was the answer. 

Mariam also has the important role of representing the Syrian population in the crusader states AND the many empowered women in the middle ages who were businesswomen and master craftswomen. Mariam is a native, Orthodox Christian, an ethnic group that made up a substantial minority in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. She is also an astute and successful businesswoman as was quite common across Europe in this period -- contrary to common myths about women being "mere chattels." Her role may be comparatively small, but I hope my readers enjoy Mariam's brief appearances.

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Cast of Characters: Godwin Olafsen

Continuing my series on the fictional characters in my Balian d'Ibelin trilogy, today I want to introduce Godwin Olafsen.

Godwin makes his appearance only at the end of Defender of Jerusalem, and I will confess he came to me rather spontaneously. He wasn't really planned, but when writing about the siege of Jerusalem it was important to show it from more perspectives than the exalted one of Balian himself. Balian was a nobleman and the commander. His perspective is critical to history and the novel, but Jerusalem was filled with 60,000 refugees and 20,000 inhabitants. I needed to take the reader out of the palaces of kings and down to the ordinary "man-on-the-street." So I developed several different scenes that shed light on different segments of the population -- the Syrian Christians, for example, nuns, and, the working class.

Once I decided on a scene from the point of view of the Latin working class, I wanted the character to exemplify a common pattern of settlement, namely, a man and wife coming to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and then not returning whence they'd come but rather settling in the crusader state. This is what led me to the idea that Godwin would have a crippled son that he and his wife had brought to Jerusalem hoping for a miracle--which doesn't happen. So, destitute and disappointed, the couple remains in Jerusalem. Up to this point, my brain created Godwin.

Then I started writing and Godwin took over. Suddenly I understood about his embittered wife, and his lack of business acumen. It became equally "obvious" that Godwin had to make Balian's sword. (The terms of Balian's safe-conduct from Saladin required him to go to Jerusalem without a sword.) 

When I was writing the final scene describing the people who were unable to pay their ransom, I knew it would be more effective if at least one of the "paupers" in the crowd was someone the reader already knew and could identify with. Godwin was the perfect choice because he had impoverished himself in the service of Jerusalem, and now was paying an unjust price. That made him worthy of sympathy, and at the same time he was also a distinctive figure with a child on his shoulders that made it plausible that Balian would see and -- because he'd given him his sword -- would also recognize him. Thus Godwin plays a pivotal role in illustrating Balian's position, and inspires the final line in Defender of Jerusalem

After that ending, he had to play a role in Envoy of Jerusalem too. Here he again represents the working-class settlers that made up roughly 20% of the population of the kingdom. His story line is secondary, but important as a reminder that there were 140,000 settlers in the crusader state, and many were men like Godwin who were skilled craftsmen working in urban areas. 

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