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.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Why Write? The Theme or Message: Final Reflection of Ten on Creative Writing

  When asked "why" I write, I sometimes try to explain that I am "compelled" and "inspired" Or I might say that I cannot stop, or that I am only happy when I'm working on a book.  Sometimes I try to explain that I have stories inside me that need to be told. Yet such answers ultimately boil down to a single thing: I write because I have something I want to share with others. In other words, I think I have something to say, something that is of interest - if not importance - to others beyond myself and my immediate circle, namely the theme or message of my works.



If I did not feel the compulsion to share my insights and inspiration with others, there would be no need to write them down, much less publish them. Yet for me personally, such a compulsion goes beyond the desire "to entertain." Entertainment is wonderful. We all enjoy it. It distracts us from our problems, cheers us up when we are glum, and chases away boredom. It is or should be pleasurable -- and is also mostly forgettable. "Mere" entertainment that distracts and amuses us before being superseded by the business of life -- or the next distraction.

When I write, I strive for more than entertainment. My ambition -- justified or not -- is to write books that are not forgotten the moment the last page is turned. My goal is to write books that will stay with a reader for the rest of their lives either by teaching them something or altering their attitudes and perspectives in some way. My hope is that my books can provoke thought, doubt, questions, and provide insight, new perspectives and even inspiration. In short, I want to share the things that move, agitate, concern or motivate me with others. 

I have drawn my inspiration from other humans -- from human actions through the course of history. Humans are so diverse and so complex that I have never felt the need to invent fantastical beings to supplement much less replace them. Humans have the capacity to create great works of art and technology. They have the capacity to do both immense good and devastating evil. They provide infinite inspiration.

In my travels and studies, I occasionally encountered individuals of particular courage, creativity or compassion. Some of these inspired me to write about them. In doing so, I strove to include as much biographical and historical fact as possible, while exploring psychological and spiritual components outside the historical record. My goal has always been to depict the humanity my heroes, making them more accessible to ordinary people, while highlighting their exceptional qualities as an inspiration to us. Let me give just three examples. 

Leonidas of Sparta hardly needs an introduction. He made the decision to defend the Pass at Thermopylae with his body guard of 300 Spartiates and 700 volunteers from Thespeia in order to enable the bulk of the Greek forces to withdraw and live to fight another day. Because of his sacrifice, the Greek coalition was able to field an army the following spring that definitively defeated the Persian invasion.

Yet while everyone knows about Leonidas' death, few know anything about his life. Leonidas is the subject of a three part biography, which seeks to explore what kind of man he might have been and what events (based on the historical record) combined to make him willing and able to make that heroic sacrifice. The trilogy consists of: A Boy of the Agoge, A Peerless Peer, and A Heroic King.

Balian d'Ibelin is less familiar to most, yet he was an important historical figure. Having defended Jerusalem against a vastly superior army with a garrison so denuded that there were 50 women and children for each fighting man, Ibelin negotiated a surrender that enabled the inhabitants to escape with their lives and freedom, but Saladin terms required a "ransom" payment for each person who walked free. Knowing that many people in the city were refugees, who had already lost everything, Ibelin also negotiated a lump sum payment for an estimated 8,000 paupers. When the day of payment came, however, there were 15,000 more paupers than had been covered with the lump sum (paid, incidentally, by the Hospitallers). So Ibelin offered up his own person to Saladin, surrendering his freedom until enough money could be raised from God-knew-where to pay for the poor. Saladin turned him down, but that does not detract from the profound compassion Ibelin had demonstrated.

Balian is the subject of four books that seek to reconstruct his development from a landless knight to the man Arab chroniclers describe as "like a king." The series includes his role at the Battles of Montgisard and Hattin as well as his  defense of Jerusalem in 1187 and his role as Richard the Lionheart's envoy during the Third Crusade. The final volume speculates about his life after the Third Crusade. The novels devoted to Balian are: Balian d'Ibelin: Knight of Jerusalem, Defender of Jerusalem, Envoy of Jerusalem and The Last Crusader Kingdom.

In June 1940, the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance. Nazi Germany had defeated and overrun Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France. In the United States, Congress and public opinion vehemently opposed "European entanglements." Great Britain stood alone and many in the British government advocated a negotiated deal that would have left Hitler in control of the continent of Europe for decades to come. That it did not come to that is thanks to just a few hundred RAF fighter pilots -- supported magnificently by ground crews and led brilliantly by some of the least-appreciated strategists of WWII. Yet the average age of these men was 20. Most were not old enough to vote. Many did not have a drivers' license. In their youth and naivety lay an irrepressible enthusiasm for life and as yet untarnished idealism. They could at times be remarkably juvenile, immature and irresponsible, yet they demonstrated mind-boggling selflessness -- again and again. Such heroes deserve tribute.

Which explains why there are many books and films about the Battle of Britain already! However, it noticed that the vast majority of novels about the Battle of Britain focus on a single pilot and his girl — or at most a single squadron. That is rather like trying to see a panorama through a keyhole. I chose to write a novel that widens the perspective by consciously opting for a large cast of characters and interweaving a range of plot-lines into the book. Thus, Where Eagles Never Flew isn’t just about RAF pilots on the front line, but also ground crews, controllers, the training establishment, British civilians, and Germans. RAF Battle of Britain Ace Wing Commander Bob Doe called it "the best book" he had ever seen about the Battle, adding that the book got it "smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots." 




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