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 26, 2021

Women of the Past: Part IV of a Ten-Part Reflection on Creative Writing

 Creating credible female characters in a historical setting where they do not enjoy the same freedoms and status as women of the present can be a challenge. Based on the historical fiction I have read, many authors "solve" the problem simply by making their heroines "unusual" or "ahead of their time." That is, making them modern women and explaining them away as "exceptional" because of some circumstance in their childhood. (Usually a mother who died in childbed, no brothers and an indulgent father.) While that approach is easy, it generally detracts from the authenticity of a novel. I've found that making a greater effort to make women conform to their own age is far more rewarding.

The key — as with most things in historical fiction — is understanding the period you are writing about. In depth research, particularly reading first-hand accounts by women of the period or biographies of women from the period, will usually enable a writer to start seeing the world through the eyes of women of the period. This is critical because to write credible characters, male or female, one must not depict them with thoughts, feelings and ambitions dictated by our modern understanding of what is right and wrong, but rather with their own values and expectations.

Research will aid the author in two ways:

First, much of what we think we know about a period of history may be hearsay, oversimplifications, propaganda or based on discredited sources. An excellent example of this is the common misperception that women in the Middle Ages were “mere chattels.” This is utter nonsense easily disproved by any serious (or even fairly superficial) research into the legal status, economic role and biographies of women of the period. Women could be sovereigns, lords, guild masters, and independent businesswomen. They took oaths of fealty, commanded men, inherited and controlled wealth including land, had professional training, were literate and numerate and engaged in professions such as medicine. In short, a novelist writing about women in the Middle Ages might not find them so different from modern women as she thinks before doing her research.

 Second, however, in depth and particularly biographical research should enable a novelist to start to identify with and empathize with her female characters even in those areas and on those topics where their attitudes, values and expectations do differ more radically from our own.  There is no question, for example, that women in WWII with very few exceptions were paid far less than their male counterparts and were restricted in their role. There was nothing like equality of opportunity and socially many customs were patronizing. Yet, when reading the memoirs of women in the Second World War the thing that jumped out at me was the enthusiasm and excitement they felt to be doing so much. While we look at their roles like the pessimist, seeing only what they did not have, they almost universally looked on their new empowerment like the optimist, seeing what they did have.  

My medieval women do not have modern values and attitudes. They would not for a moment consider themselves “equal” to men nor would they want to disrupt the divine order by taking over male roles, yet they are strong, independent, self-confident and take an active role in their own fate. Find out more about my novels set in the Middle Ages at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/crusades.html

Likewise, the heroines of my WWII novels are far from “liberated” or powerful, but they don’t spend their time bemoaning their fate either, preferring to take the opportunities they have and contribute to the great national cause of which they saw themselves a part. Find out more about my WWII novels at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/wwii.html


Friday, November 19, 2021

Of Protagonists and Heroes - Part III of a Ten-Part Reflection on Creative Writing

 As a historical novelist, I am drawn to historical events in which humans — ordinary humans — have done something extraordinary. I suppose one might argue that that is the very definition of “heroes.” Yet, thinking of them in that way can detract from an empathetic and compelling portrayal. 



Let me give you an example. In the Battle of Britain a few hundred RAF pilots changed the course of history by halting Hitler’s aggression. As Winston Churchill famously said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” But those young men were extraordinarily ordinary and not terribly heroic — except in their dogged determination to “do their job” despite the odds against them. I’ve read too many novels that, seeing these young men as “heroes,” transform them into superheroes.  In other words, rather than showing them as immature young men with fears, insecurities, and underdeveloped flying and fighting skills, depict them all as hot-shot “aces.” On their very first combat sortie, they go out and shoot down four or five enemy aircraft. That’s not the way it was. It took time to learn how to dogfight, and most RAF pilots were shot down more than once before they were able to register their first victory — assuming they lived that long. Even top-scoring aces didn’t shoot down more than one or two enemy aircraft in a sortie. Most RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain were insecure when their arrived, all of them experienced fear and terror at times, and the bulk of them were also immature and often terribly irresponsible. They did silly things and they made lots of mistakes. I think that showing them as the immature, fallible, and yet frightened yet enthusiastic and irrepressible young men they were is both more historically accurate and makes better fiction. By making them less heroic as individuals, the reader finds it easier to fully identify and empathize with them. 

 On the other hand, some heroes are not simply “doing their job” but rather behave in a way that is extraordinary. They do something positive that is above and beyond the call of duty or reasonable expectations. Such heroes, I believe, are most effective in fiction if they are not depicted as something other-worldly, supernatural, or inherently different from the rest of us, but humanized instead.  

An example of this is my Balian d’Ibelin. Ibelin was without a doubt an extraordinary man. Although a landless younger son, he married a dowager queen, founded a powerful dynasty, and ultimately earned the respect of both Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. He defended Jerusalem against Saladin’s victorious army with no knights or trained troops, depending on women, boys and priests to man the walls. Yet his moment of greatest heroism, in my opinion, was when he offered himself as a hostage to save 15,000 paupers from slavery. For the reader to fully grasp just what that gesture meant and cost, however, they first have to care about Balian as a husband and a father. He has to be human first — and heroic second.

In both examples, the key is to view and to treat characters as fallible humans who do heroic things rather than as heroes, much less superheroes.

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Friday, November 12, 2021

Characters - Part II of a Ten-Part Reflection on Creative Writing

  For me, characters more than plot define a book and determine its success. As a reader, if I really like a character, the plot can be simple, but if I don't, the best plot in the world cannot capture my interest. As a novelist, I write two kinds of historical fiction, biographical novels and non-biographical novels requiring different types of characters. The biographical novels are based on the lives of historical figures and the major characters are indeed real, historical figures. The non-biographical novels are novels set in a known/documented historical context but using fictional characters to describe and explore the historical era/event. In short, my characters fall into two categories: historical figures and invented people. Yet they are not really as different as one may think. 

First, is important to recognize that any character in a novel, even if based rigidly upon the historical record, is to a degree fictional. Unless we are lucky enough to have memoirs, diaries or letters left behind by a historical character, most of what we know about people in the past is what others have written about them. We are far more likely to know what they did than why they did it.

A novelist writing about a famous figure from the past usually interprets and expands upon the historical record. A novelist will fill in gaps in the historical record by interpolating between two known data points. A novelist usually attempts to explain behavior by imagining possible motives and to make a character more comprehensible by suggesting emotional states-of-mind. A novelist will certainly invent dialogue and may also invent secondary characters to interact with the historical figure in order to make that character more understandable.

While I presume that most of the above is widely known, it may come as a surprise to many readers that I view some of fictional characters as no less — indeed arguably more — “real” than the historical ones. The reason for this is that some of my fictional characters — individuals not found in any historical record — are so vivid and so complete when they form in my imagination that I question that I could have created them.

Yes, there are characters that I create and manipulate at will, but there are others that direct me on what they did and said and thought and felt. I cannot do with them as I please. I cannot make them behave in ways they do not want, nor can I put words into their mouths. On the contrary, they tend to want to take over a novel and push it in the direction they want. They certainly provide much of the key dialogue and the plot.

Working with them is always a delight. For one thing they are full of surprises. They greatly enrich my stories because they have more wit and humor than I.  An example of this kind of character is Robin Priestman in Where Eagles Never Flew

 Another advantage of these characters is that the writing comes easily and is almost always print-ready — but only those scenes seen from their point of view, of course. Since my novels are complex and I prefer portraying historical events from a variety of perspectives because I believe this enriches our understanding of the subject, these scenes written by characters still have to be embedded in the wider context of the novel and that can be hard work when dealing with strong personalities.

Another problem is that I cannot ignore them.  This past year I had wrapped up, completed and edited two novellas that I planned to release under the title Grounded Eagles. I had already turned to my next project, a novel about the Berlin Airlift. I was very happy with this project, going back to research I had done for my non-fiction book The Blockade Breakers. Indeed, I’d written more than 100 pages of this new work with Kit Moran disrupted everything. 

Moran demanded that I include his story about being posted for Lack of Moral Fibre in November 1943 in my (I thought finished) Grounded Eagles. I could not continue my work on Bridge to Berlin. Nor could I release Grounded Eagles on schedule. I needed to set everything aside, write Moran’s story, find appropriate materials for a cover, go back to my editor etc. etc. 

And as if that weren’t enough, having completed Lack of Moral Fibre both as a stand-alone ebook and a component part of Grounded Eagles, Moran insisted that I write about what happened to him after the incident in November 1943. Fortunately, he’s a delightful young man and I don’t mind spending time with him and his Georgina, but he has been disruptive of all my planning!

For more information about both books see: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew



Friday, November 5, 2021

Inspiration - Part I of a Ten-Part Reflection on Creative Writing

 As the year winds down and I take stock of my accomplishments, I find myself reflecting more and more on my principal activity: creative writing. I've decided to share some of my insights about my own, personal process and goals in a ten-part series. Today Is start with the genesis of a book: the inspiration.

Above: my husband and I at the Mena House Hotel, Giza, Egypt. Somehow the pyramids seemed like an appropriate image for reflecting on the source of inspiration.

Since I write historical fiction, the fundamental idea or trigger for a book is almost always an event in history that excites my interest. I usually stumble upon these catalysts quite by accident — e.g. when on holiday somewhere new, or reading about something else. I cannot approach a new novel rationally as I would non-fiction project, by evaluating what topics would be most relevant or popular or valuable. Nor can a second person suggest a topic to me. Unless I am personally inspired to write about an event/era/incident, it is an utter waste of time to try.

Once I start a novel, however, I draw as much upon my own experience with and understanding of mankind as I do upon the historical record and scholarly sources. I novel requires credible and attractive characters, and no matter how they are dressed, where or when they “lived,” they need to behave in ways consistent with human nature as I perceive it today.

One of the best examples of this is probably my depiction of Leonidas of Sparta as a youth going through the infamous agoge. Most readers will be familiar with the horror depicted in the film “300” or more lurid — but popular — allegations of mindless brutality resulting in many deaths and a complete disregard for literacy much less music, art or other subjects. Yet the popular view of the agoge is not supported by contemporary sources. Most legends about the agoge date from the Roman period, more than six hundred years after Leonidas lived and after two major changes in regime.

Having examined the evidence for the agoge in the era in which Leonidas attended, I found that it was viewed by such Ancient Greek intellectuals as Chilon, Socrates and Plato as admirable and progressive. (Would Socrates have approved of children not learning to read? Would Plato have wanted his second most important citizens to be mindless brutes?) I also learned that Sparta in the age of Leonidas was famous for its singing and dancing. (Is that consistent with a society that flogged its youth to death?) I learned that philosophers visited and taught in Sparta. (Taught illiterate youth who were out fighting with the wolves to survive?) I could go on, but you probably see my point.

I threw out the sensationalist (possibly propaganda) reports written by non-Spartans about an institution that existed more than 600 years after Leonidas’ death along with all the modern fantasies constructed on those ancient sources and started creating a Spartan agoge based on contemporary or near contemporary sources. (My newest source was Xenophon, 430-350 BC.)

Furthermore, I knew while Spartan youth were expected to be soldiers-only for ten years, after that, while still subject to military service, they were also expected to be bureaucrats managing a wealthy and diverse state. (See: https://spartareconsidered.blogspot.com/2017/10/public-administration-spartas-hidden.html) Full Spartan citizens needed many skills starting with basic literacy and numeracy and Sparta’s soldiers need to know more than how to march and kill. 

Combining this knowledge, I hypothesized an educational system consistent with what was known about Sparta but based more on educational systems around the world today. E.g. an age-based curriculum designed to give children and youth the skills they would need as adults in the world in which they lived. This in turn enabled me to create a Leonidas with whom most readers can readily identify -- as would not be the case if he was simply a victim of sadistic cruelty for 14 years. The result is a novel,  A Boy of the Agoge which has won wide praise for its authenticity. 

 Find out more at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/boy-of-the-agoge.html