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.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Why I Write 5: To Share

Sharing is akin to teaching, but I wanted to handle it separately in this series on "Why I Write" because I wanted to underline that not all an artist shares with the reader is knowledge. 

When writing non-fiction only the fact and analysis count, but when writing fiction emotions, intuition, and dreams count too. An novelist shares with the reader a wide spectrum of precious, personal feelings -- feelings about people, ideas and things.  

All my novels reflect my personal experience with life. This isn't about facts but about world-view -- my understanding of human nature, of politics, of marketing and parenting, of love and hate etc. etc. 

These subjective components are largely what make it possible for two authors to write about an identical subject and produce startlingly different works. Schiller's Joan of Arc is different from George Bernard Shaw's. Which one you like best will largely depend on your world view, which of the writers strikes a cord with your soul, not your mind. 

Teaching is all about passing on facts and knowledge, whereas sharing is about opening one's heart to the readers and showing them how how you see the world. Looked at another way, the information that is taught belongs in the realm of plot and setting; the philosophy and worldview that is shared belongs to the realm of theme and character development.  

Let me take an example from my most recent publication, Rebels against Tyranny. It is a fact that Emperor Frederick II held two of the Lord of Beirut's sons hostage for their father's good behavior. Beirut seized two royal castles anyway and used these to bargain a truce with the Emperor. When the Emperor released the hostages, including Beirut's sons, the latter had been evidently been badly mishandled. Those are the facts of the case, but there many -- all justifiable and plausible interpretations -- of what the characters felt about the events. Was Beirut callous and indifferent to what might befall his sons? Did they blame him -- or the Emperor for their maltreatment? And just how did two youths raised in luxury and privilege respond to abruptly being prisoners, and mishandled ones at that? I postulate, based not on evidence but intuition, that the experience would have had a profound impact on their character. 

Or another example, we know that the Lusignan's invited Franks who had lost their lands and livelihoods in the wake of the disaster at Hattin to re-settle on the Island of Cyprus. The historical record says nothing about how these immigrants were received by the native population.  My descriptions are based not on evidence and facts but on my experience of waves of immigration by peoples with a different faith (or race, ethnicity etc) in today's world. The discussions in The Last Crusader Kingdom about how to ease tensions between the groups are not founded in learned facts but in my personal exposure to contemporary events.  

Books make great Christmas presents! Share with someone you love new perspectives and worlds full of adventure by giving a book for Christmas.


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Friday, November 23, 2018

Why I Write 4 - To Educate

In the fourth in my series on "Why I Write," I reflect on my desire to teach.

In my experience, it is human nature to want pass on knowledge that we have gained. Certainly, when my research uncovers something particularly unexpected or significant, the first thing I want to do is tell others what I have learned. Since I like to research topics that are either controversial or less familiar to people, I often find myself turning up unexpected pieces of information. From the amount of complaints about historical novelist who bore readers by cramming into to many facts and details, I am not alone in my passion for teaching what I've learned!

The challenge, therefore, is to teach in a way that doesn't bore, irritate or distract the reader.  Since each reader's level of knowledge and tolerance for education in a fiction book differs, there is no single answer. What I attempt to do, however, is to replicate my own experience in that I create a context for learning that makes discovery of new facts a force that moves the story forward.

An excellent example of this is my first novel about ancient Sparta, The Olympic Charioteer.  Because this was my first novel about this topic, I had learned so much. Indeed, almost all that I knew about Sparta I had just learned and wanted to share. Rather than doing a data-dump, however, I chose to make my narrator a stranger coming to Sparta for the first time in his life and being shocked and confused by one thing after another.

The ability to step back and look at things from the outside is critical to teaching properly. No one who is completely familiar with a culture or period is able to see what makes it unusual. Here's an example. A very well-educated African, who traveled over-seas for the first time as an adult was amazed to discover that toilets did not need to smell. He had assumed that since shit smells, toilets had to smell, and it was a revelation to discover that if properly cleaned and flushed they need not do so. In short, no one who has grown up in the advanced industrial world is likely to comment on toilets that don't stink, while no one from Africa would comment on those that do.

The historical recorded is consistently distorted by this phenomenon, by the way. For example, because all boys who went to school in ancient Greece learned to read and write, none of the foreigners who described the Spartan school mentioned that the boys learned to read and write. That was obvious and didn't need to be said. Instead, they commented at length on the things that were unique about the Spartan educational system, e.g. the boys could be flogged, or elected their own leaders etc. Modern readers, not seeing reference to Spartan boys learning to read, often mistake this for proof the boys didn't learn when in fact it is only proof that the observer didn't think it was worthy of mention.

When teaching about the environment in which my novels are set I often find it useful, as in the case of The Olympic Charioteer, to step outside the perspective of my principle characters. This enables me to describe aspects of the setting that the principle characters would not naturally comment upon. In the latter Middle Ages, knights and nobles knew heraldry inside out, but if they described it as they would have done (or, a cross pate gules, for example), it is meaningless to us. Yet a peasant could describe the shield in terms we understand -- a yellow backdrop with a flared, red cross on it. 

The utility of changing perspectives from time to time in order to teach better (and incidentally add depth of perspective) is one of the reasons I abhor the modern fashion for writing everything, exclusively in the first person. There is truly nothing wrong with the prose of John Steinbeck or Leo Tolstoy. The obsession with not changing points of view is a modern fad that will hopefully die a natural death -- soon. 

Writers should be free to share their knowledge in whatever way is most effective and entertaining because it is only if the teaching is effective that readers will truly learn. 

Discover topics you've always been interested in through my novels -- and don't forget that books make great Christmas presents!

Visit http://www.helenapschrader.com/books.html to find the perfect gift for someone you know loves learning!


Why I Write 3 - To Question

This is the third installment in my series on why I write. 
Today I look an my desire to question.

Readers familiar with my portfolio of publications will probably have noticed that I am attracted to moderately controversial topics. What I mean is that I like writing about subjects that have a negative popular image. This is because, as a historian, I have often discovered a serious gap between scholarly evidence and popular perception.

When I see disharmony of this nature, I'm inspired to challenge the conventional views by presenting readers with alternative explanations and interpretations of events. My goal is to provoke my reader into questioning common cliches and conventional wisdom along with me.

It all started with the German Resistance to Hitler. Raised by my Danish mother on tales of the heroic Danish Resistance to Hitler it came as a shock to learn, while in graduate school, that there had been a German Resistance too. After all, the Danes (and French and Poles and Russians) had all been fighting an evil invader, a brutal and monstrous outsider. The German Resistance to Hitler, on the other hand, was fighting their own government, their own institutions and ultimately their fellow-citizens. Unlike the other resistance movements, the German resistance was not nationalist but moral in character. 

That got me thinking -- and questioning -- the common assumptions about Nazi Germany and the Germans of this period. This led me to nearly twenty years of research, a move to Germany and ultimately a PhD from the University of Hamburg. My dissertation was based on previously untapped primary sources and enabled me to reconstruct the role of one of the leading members of the conspiracy against Hitler. It was a ground-breaking biography which received first-rate reviews in every major German newspaper and sold out within three months. 

And all because I had started questioning what was being said not only by students but what was in the history books as well.

But after so many years focused on one of the most inhumane, corrupt, brutal and cynical periods of human history -- not to mention the dreadful fates of those few who futilely  attempted to oppose the forces of evil, I literally never wanted to see another book, film or article about the Nazi period. I needed a completely new focus for my research and writing.
I found my new "cause" in Ancient Sparta. Again, I discovered (more by chance than choice) that Spartan women enjoyed education and economic power at a time when Athenian (and most other Greek) women were treated like the women of the Taliban. What? How? Why was that? I asked. 

My questioning led me to discover a Sparta radically at odds with the common image fed us daily by Hollywood and even pseudo-history sources like The History Channel and Wikipedia. I was off again - questioning, learning and exploring. My travels took me to Sparta, and that encounter with a fertile, rich and beautiful place made my questions all the more incessant and pointed. I've shared the results of my questions in my website: http://spartareconsidered.com and my blog: http://spartareconsidered.blogspot.com and, of course, in my novels set in Ancient Sparta. 
More recently, as a result of my encounters with Islam, I started to question the politically correct version of the crusades. Nigeria in the age of Boko Haram, the systematic assaults on moderate Imams in Ethiopia, developments in Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and, yes, Afghanistan make the politically correct and popular portrayal of the Medieval Muslim world as a place of tolerance, benevolence and non-violence hard to fathom. I started questioning what I had learned at home and in school, and I came to my own conclusions -- based very much on the recorded facts and the writings of contemporaries, both Christian and Muslim. 
History is never black and white, it is always full of shades of grey. Humans are by nature complex and fallible. Good people sometimes make bad decisions or do unpleasant things; even predominantly bad people usually have redeeming features. Indisputable facts are rare because the historical record is almost always subjective, biased or just plain incomplete.  Narratives can be interpreted in conflicting, even contradictory ways. People, all people, have friends and enemies, and how we see them hundreds of years later will depend on whether the former or the later wrote the documents we discover. Precisely because history is so complex and nuanced, questioning is never wrong. 
That desire to question the conventional and familiar view of things is one of my driving reasons for writing historical fiction. I hope my books will make you question your views too -- and don't forget that books make great Christmas presents!
Many reviewers commented that my books on Leonidas have indeed made them "revolutionized" or "completely changed" their view and understanding of Sparta. 


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My biographical novel about Balian d'Ibelin in three parts won numerous literary awards, including "Best Biography 2017. 

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Why I Write 2 - To Explore

This is the second installment in my series on why I write. 
Today I look an my desire to explore.

Last week I argued that learning is an essential part of my writing, so essential that I choose to write in part out of a desire to learn more about something that attracts my curiosity. But writing fiction is not just about writing down what we learn, it is also about using imagination to go beyond the known -- to explore the unknown. 

Some of that exploration can be physical. Working on a creative-writing project is a great excuse to travel to places I've never been before.  I love travel, so this is an extra bonus. No sooner had I started my Jerusalem Trilogy than I announced to my husband that it was "essential" that we travel (at last!) to Jerusalem.

It helped that we were living in Ethiopia, just a four hour flight from Tel Aviv, and that there were daily pilgrimage flights. The trip enabled me to explore many sites important to my novels -- Jerusalem itself, Bethlehem, Ascalon, Jaffa, Acre, and Caesaria, Ibelin (modern Yavne), and the Battlefield of Hattin. The visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher alone, however, would have justified the trip, and enabled me to write a more authentic and convincing book.  I always wince when I read descriptions of the Holy Land, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, that have clearly been written by authors who have never been. 

Yet even more important than this physical exploration of places is the mental exploration of attitudes, emotions, motives and more. Research may reveal a simple fact such as, for example, the daughter of Baldwin d'Ibelin, Baron of Ramla and Mirabel, married the brother of Guy de Lusignan. History also tells us that Baldwin hated Guy so much that he preferred to surrender his entire inheritance and abandon his wife and son to go into exile in Antioch rather than do homage to Guy de Lusignan. But what about his daughter? How did she feel? Did she sympathize with her father? or her brother-in-law? Did her husband blame her for her father's dramatic and public condemnation of his brother? Was there marital strife and tension? As a novelist, it is my job to explore possibilities. To try them out and find the explanation that seems to ring most consistent with known facts -- and human nature.

Or to take another example,  the Knights Templar were driven from the island of Cyprus by outraged, Orthodox inhabitants. Richard the Lionheart then sold the island to the deposed and discredited Guy de Lusignan. Within two years he was dead. Yet just five years after Guy's arrival on Cyprus, a stable dynasty complete with a Latin clergy had been established on the island. How? 

Again, exploring historical possibilities by examining contemporary developments, analyzing personalities, identifying options, and developing a plausible theory is not only legitimate, it is great fun! There is nothing wrong with it -- as long as the results do not contradict known facts but rather build upon and extrapolate from them. 

For more on the thesis I developed regarding Cyprus see: https://schradershistoricalfiction.blogspot.com/2017/07/an-empty-island-waiting-to-welcome.html, -- or better yet read the novel that resulted from my "exploration!

And don't forget! -- books make great Christmas presents!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Why I Write Part I - To Learn

By the end of this year I will have retired from the U.S. Department of State and will be able to devote myself full-time to the business of writing. I thought that was a good moment to reflect on why I write -- and to share those thoughts with my loyal fans and followers. In this seven part series, I will explore the seven most important motivations that I feel: 1) to learn, 2) to explore, 3) to question, 4) to educate, 5) to share, 6) to critique, and 7) to reach a larger audience.

It would probably surprise no one if I said that I read in order to learn, but writing to learn likely strikes many as putting the cart before the horse. Surely one doesn't write about something unless they already know about it?

True. But that is precisely the point. 

If I am intrigued by a topic (period, culture, event etc.) enough to want to write about it, then I am setting myself on a course of study. In order to be able to write about this topic, I will have to do my research.

I'm not someone who can just dash off a short-story based on a casual thought or a snippet of information I've stumbled across. I envy those who can write like that! But I'm at heart a historian and I can't write even a short story without knowing about things like how people dressed, kept warm, what they ate, how they traveled, what their religious beliefs were likely to be etc. etc. 

If I'm going to write, I'm going to have to research all those things, so there's no point getting started unless I'm 1) willing to invest that effort and 2) going to use what I learn for more than one project. In other words, I may read a book simply because someone recommends it to me and I will be the richer for reading, but if I want to write about something I need to learn more. It is not enough to know about the events or even the people described, I must also understand the environment in which the events unfold. That requires learning about, for example, climate, geography, and contemporary architecture. I also need to describe, as I noted earlier, what people were likely to have eaten, how they dressed, the kind of entertainment they would have been able to enjoy, and the means of transport at their disposal. I need to understand social structures, legal norms, religious beliefs and the economics of the time. 

In other words, by choosing to write about a topic, I ensure that I thoroughly learn about it in much greater detail than would be the case if I simply read about it. 

You may also remember your parents or teachers saying that "to teach once is to learn twice." Writing is much the same. What I have read but not written about, I am far more likely to forget. What I have written about I learn with an intensity that stays with me for many years.

My current learning adventure is a deep-dive into the colorful and exiting world of 13th century Outremer. You can discover it with and through me in the first of my latest series. Don't forget, books make great Christmas presents!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Difficult Choices - An Excerpt from Rebels against Tyranny -

One of the apparent paradoxes in Novare's account of events in 1229 is that although he claims Beirut's sons were abused while held as hostages, he also claims that Balian "willingly" and "gladly" agreed to serve in the Emperor's household. Historian Peter Edbury suggests that there was nothing "voluntary" about Balian's service to the Emperor and that both he and his younger brother John were being kept "under surveillance" to ensure their father's good behavior. In this scene, I suggest a possible alternative explanation of what happened. It is true that Frederick took Henry of Cyprus with him on "crusade" -- although Henry was just eleven years old -- and I think that Henry was the real hostage.

Beirut rode back to his camp with his freed sons beside him, but they did not speak. Nor was the mood one of rejoicing, as he had expected. Although Baldwin smiled at him more than once, Balian had withdrawn within himself. He appeared to be brooding.

At last, they reached the camp. At the sight of Beirut flanked by his sons, the knights, soldiers, and archers began to cheer—until they got a better look at the two hostages. Then the cheers died on their lips and they looked at one another and started shaking their heads and muttering.

Hugh and Johnny came spurring forward to greet their brothers, but their welcomes turned into exclamations of “Oh, my God!” and “Jesus! What did he do to you?”

“Later!” Their father told them, and they dutifully fell silent as they turned their horses to fall in beside their brothers, sobered.

At Beirut’s large tent, they drew up and started to dismount. Balian hesitated, staring at the ground for a long time while Rob, his father, brothers, and Novare waited. Finally, he took a deep breath and swung his right leg forward over the pommel to drop down on the ground. As he landed, he gasped in pain and his legs gave way under him. He went down on his knees, and at once a dozen hands reached out to help. He took one without looking at who it was and grasped it so hard to pull himself upright that Johnny whelped in pain before turning to stare at his father in horror.

Beirut bade Novare bring the physician to his tent at once.

Novare agreed readily, turning his horse over to his squire as he hastened to find the Ibelin’s physician Joscelyn d’Auber.

Meanwhile, Beirut gently pushed his younger sons aside and put his arm around Balian and guided him to the tent. Balian paused to find Karpas in the crowd behind his father. “Thank you, Sir Anseau. I don’t know what I would have done without your horse.”

“Your horse now, Balian,” Karpas told him without a moment’s hesitation. “He’s called Damon, and he doesn’t like me much. He remembers me trying to kill his rider in the judicial combat and holds it against me, but I’m sure you’ll be able to win him over.”

“But—thank you!” Balian appeared almost overwhelmed. “I owe you a great deal, my lord,” he continued, and his father had the impression he was about to break down as he stammered. “I—”

“Don’t worry!” Karpas cut him off with a grin. “I’ll keep track and charge interest!” His quip and laugh dissipated the awkwardness and drew a weak but grateful smile from Balian.

Beirut gave Karpas a nod of thanks too, then asked the others of his party, all of whom were still staring in shock, to give him time alone with his sons. They withdrew with a murmur of well-wishes, while Beirut guided his eldest son into his tent, and Baldwin held open the flap for both of them.

Beirut led Balian to his own cushioned chair and had him sit down.

“I’m sorry, Father,” Balian whispered. 

Beirut just put a hand on his shoulder, then looked over his own. “Hugh, Johnny, bring us all wine.”

The younger youths sprang to obey as Beirut directed his attention to Baldwin next. “Are you alright? Come. Sit down.” He gestured to the only other chair in the room.

Baldwin accepted the invitation to sit, but insisted, “I’m fine, Father. They treated me better than Balian from the start.” He cast a glance at his older brother, and Balian answered with a look that Beirut intercepted. He had the strong feeling Balian had just wordlessly asked Baldwin not to tell something.

Beirut immediately announced, “I want to know everything — everything — they did to you from the moment I abandoned you in the great hall. And then I want to know why you just volunteered not only yourself but Johnny to serve in that—” Beirut bit his tongue but then said it anyway “— that monster’s household.”

Balian took a deep breath and put his hand on his father’s arm. When Beirut looked at him, he said slowly and deliberately, “Because, Father, he has the King.”

“What do you mean?” Beirut asked irritated.

“I mean he has taken King Henry with him on this expedition, in his own ship, watched day and night by his minions.”

Beirut stared at his son in disbelief. “That can’t be! King Henry’s only eleven years old!”

“I know. And the only way we can try to help him—and possibly remind him that we are not his enemies—is if one or the other of us are in the imperial household. Johnny is closest in age to Henry, and as a squire of the body might even be able to worm his way into a position where he can share Henry’s chamber and meals. As for me, if I’m in the household, I’ll at least have some idea of what is happening. I can try to protect them both—assuming I can regain enough strength to wield a sword ever again,” he added with a surge of bitterness.

Beirut spun about to look at Johnny, who was bringing four brass goblets from one of the carved chests.

“What is it?” Johnny asked.

“The Emperor offered you a place in his household, as his squire, and your brother accepted for you—without my consent, so it is not yet decided. I will make my excuses to the Emperor and bear the consequences. I am not inclined to put any son of mine at his non-existent mercy ever again.”

“Father, listen to me,” Balian interceded. Beirut had sworn on the night of the infamous banquet that he would never again disregard anything Balian told him. Against his instincts, he bit his tongue and waited for his son to continue. “If not for King Henry, I am not sure I would be alive today.” Balian paused to let the words sink in before explaining, “The Emperor threatened to throw us, bound hand and foot, to the sharks—after watching you hang.”

“He’s not exaggerating, Father,” Baldwin hastened to support his brother. “The Emperor argued that your rebellion gave him the right to execute us. Although he promised to keep us alive long enough to watch you hang, I’m not sure Balian would have lasted. He was without water for almost two days. If King Henry hadn’t gone to the Hospitaller Master and insisted on visiting us, it might have been longer. Master de Montaigu was appalled to discover the condition we were in and personally took us under the protection of the Hospital. He ensured that Balian was taken to the Hospital infirmary and received treatment there.”

Beirut absorbed this with no visible display of emotion on his face—only fingers that could not stay still. First, they went to cover his mouth and chin, then fell to his chest and clasped his cross. He looked from his eldest to his second son uneasily.

Behind him, Hugh spoke up for the first time. “It was Rob who went to the Hospital and found out from the lay-brothers that you were being kept apart from the other hostages. He was the one who guessed you were being mistreated.”

Beirut at once smiled over his shoulder at his third son and agreed. “Yes, that’s true. While the rest of us withdrew immediately to Nicosia, Rob stayed behind to find out what had happened to you. I don’t know how he got an audience with the King, but he must have gotten a message to him somehow.” Beirut paused and added, “I never, never thought a Christian monarch could treat innocent hostages like criminals. Please forgive me for being so... naïve.”

Balian almost laughed at that, and he reached out to his father. “I was never prouder of you than when you stood up to him and walked out, taking most of the Cypriot barons and knights with you.” Then he added in a voice smoldering with hatred, “I would rather die, than watch you grovel at his feet.”

“Balian speaks for me as well, Father,” Baldwin joined in earnestly. Beirut looked from one to the other, noting that the Lord had brought good even out of this terrible situation because the brothers had clearly buried their differences and found the love and respect for one another they should have as brothers. Still, he shook his head and asked, “How did it come to this? That we are subjects of a man without honor or Christian charity?”

“That fool Brienne was too damn eager for his daughter to wear an imperial crown, that’s how! He’s certainly lived to regret it,” Baldwin retorted. Balian nodded agreement, adding, “But the way I see it, our real king is Henry, and he is now in acute danger. Not that the Emperor wants to humiliate him as he did us, but he does want to rob him of his inheritance by turning him into a puppet. He will certainly try to turn him against us. The fact that King Henry interceded on our behalf proves that the Emperor has not yet succeeded, but how much longer can we expect an eleven-year-old to hold out? Especially now that he is cut off from his own household?”

Beirut shook his head to indicate he did not know what to think, then turned to look at his son Johnny. “What do you think? Would you be willing to serve as a squire to the Holy Roman Emperor after what he did to your brothers?”

Johnny looked from Balian to Baldwin and then faced his father with his chin at an impudent angle as he declared, “I’m an Ibelin too, you know? If Balian and Baldwin can survive as the Emperor’s prisoners, I’m sure I can survive as his squire.”

Baldwin grinned at him and declared, “Well said, Johnny!”

“I will protect him with my life, Father,” Balian swore, but the very solemnity with which he said it and the dark circles around his eyes made his father shudder.

“I don’t doubt that you would try, Balian, but the sight of you does not inspire me with confidence! Rather, the Emperor might manage to kill you both!”

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.