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

Helena is represented by Laurie Blum Guest at the Re-Naissance Agency.

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.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

DISSECTION A NOVEL - THE PURPOSE FOR WRITING: THE MESSAGE

 For me, the ultimate purpose of writing is to communicate. A book can be entertaining. It can offer an escape from reality. And it can be educational. Yet the best books do more than that. They make their readers think, reflect and maybe even change their minds about things. In all my books, I strive to both educate and inspire. If I don't have something I want to say about a topic, I don't write. Period.

 

John Dering Nettleton VC, 1917 - 1943
 
Moral Fiber is intended as a tribute to the aircrew of Bomber Command 1939 -1945. Men like John Nettleton pictured above, who died at the age of 26 leaving no wife and children behind. He earned the VC for his outstanding dedication to duty, but has since been completely forgotten, even -- or possibly especially -- in his homeland of South Africa, where a white man fighting for Britain is no longer politically correct.
 
Yet all the men who flew with Bomber Command lie under a shadow cast by post-war doubts about the efficacy and the morality of their mission: a strategic bombing offensive against an entire nation. As I have written elsewhere, many people are uncomfortable with the use of bombing, particularly the imprecise "area" bombing conducted by the RAF in the Second World War. It is inconvenient, therefore, to remember the roughly 55,000 men who gave their lives conducting that war. 
 
With Moral Fibre I seek to push readers off their "high horse" of moral rectitude and challenge their smug assumptions of superiority. I want them to put themselves in the shoes of young men and young women in Britain in 1944. I do not attempt to give answers about what is right and wrong, I simply want a deeper understanding of what was involved for participants. 
 
My principal characters are devout Christians and they each struggle in their own way to understand what God intents for them and what they owe to Him and to others. Yet, as my character Reverend Reddings reminds his daughter, all human understanding of God is incomplete. Reddings tells her: "It is hubris to think we can understand God's will and plan for us." 
 
Yet I hope that readers can identify with the issues and the feelings that my characters encounter. I hope that by suffering through their crises and triumphs along side them, they will come to a closer understanding of their own spiritual challenges.


Riding the icy, moonlit sky— They took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one Lancaster skipper, his crew,and the woman he loved.

It is intended as a tribute to them all. 

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 Flying Officer Kit Moran has earned his pilot’s wings, but the greatest challenges still lie ahead: crewing up and returning to operations. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that while still a flight engineer, he was posted LMF (Lacking in Moral Fibre) for refusing to fly after a raid on Berlin that killed his best friend and skipper. Nor does it help that he is in love with his dead friend’s fiancé, who is not yet ready to become romantically involved again.



 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

DISSECTION OF A NOVEL - When Characters Speak: The Challenges of Dialogue in Historical Fiction

 Every author has their own, unique voice which develops naturally in the course of writing, but when characters speak -- particularly characters in a historical setting -- they should not sound like the author but like themselves. What this means is that characters in a historical novel must use language that is appropriate to their age, education level, family background and profession -- and of course the time period in which they lived.

 

Dialogue poses a number of challenges to a writer of historical fiction. If writing about a period and culture which used a completely foreign language (e.g. ancient Greek or medieval French) I advocate the use of "standard English" purged of modern jargon and informal buzz words (even relatively mainstream expressions such as "OK," "gottcha," or "for real"). If a book is "in translation" anyway, there is little point in trying to capture the cadence and idiom, so its just a matter of avoiding screaming anachronisms that jolt a reader out of the "time warp" you are trying to create.

The greater challenge is when writing, as with Moral Fibre, a book set in a modern -- but not contemporary -- English-speaking environment. No, people in the Second World War did not ask "what's up?" They didn't say "awesome" to express approval or "I hear you" to mean they sympathize. They certainly didn't fill their sentences with "like" every fourth word. They had a variety of other expressions which were popular. And that's the trick.

It is much easier avoiding something inappropriate than becoming sufficiently comfortable with language we no longer use to employ it fluently and without making the characters sound stilted. The RAF was notorious for using jargon that even their contemporaries found nearly incomprehensible. They used phrases like "buying it" and "going for six" to mean getting shot down. "Brassed off" and "cheesed off" referred to being fed up with something. A "gong" was a medal, a "fruit salad" a lot of medals, a Mae West a life vest and a "prang" an accident.  Smashed, sozzled, pie-eyed, pissed, and pickled were all ways of saying drunk, while "corkers," "crumpets," "streamlined piece," and "bird" were all other words for "popsie" or woman/girl.  To "pancake" was to land, to "bind" was to complain, to "get the drift" was to understand, to "hold the can" was to be responsible, to "kip" was to sleep, to "shoot a line" was to brag or boast. Fortunately, there are dictionaries of RAFese available to the interested historian! I have included one at the back of Moral Fibre.

I was also fortunate to have access to a large number of primary sources written during or shortly after the war. These still employed the contemporary idiom. Accounts written by RAF personnel use their jargon unpretentiously and in context. After reading enough, the language of the period became not only comprehensible but seeped into my own vocabulary and I felt "fluent" in it. 

Here's an example of a character speaking RAFese that I wrote without having to think about it.

“It was sheer chaos and confusion from the moment I pancaked in London. You remember the letter. I thought I was meeting up with a very streamlined piece of nice called Cynthia, but she showed up with her friend Julia, and of course I didn’t want to be rude. So, I called a friend of mine to see if he wanted to join us. We went to school together, but he’s flying a desk with the Admiralty after being wounded in the Med. He graciously agreed to join us — only to start charming Cynthia clear out of her knickers. All right, I don’t know if he got that far, but I was more than a little browned off! But there was Julia, and while she isn’t the corker Cynthia is, she wasn’t entirely humid. In fact, she was a terrific dancer, one thing led to another, and…” Adrian downed the whisky in a single swig and announced he needed another, looking around for an orderly.

“Don’t leave me in suspense! And what?”

“I think I got myself engaged.”

An issue that I found particularly challenging and never fully solved, on the other hand, was the correct use of expletives. Words that are now used casually by men (and even women) were much more taboo eighty years ago. To put these words in my character's mouths would have degraded them -- and yet, using the language of the time does not convey to modern readers the emotion behind such swear words. I did my best but I'm not sure I succeeded. Here's an example.

 “I’m not fighting for no British Empire!” Nigel countered angrily. “I don’t give a tinker’s damn about the flaming British Empire. And if we’re fighting for democracy, then we need more of it right here in England! But I won’t never forgive the effing Nazis for what they’ve already done neither!”

Next week I will explore the message or theme of the novel.

Riding the icy, moonlit sky— They took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one Lancaster skipper, his crew,and the woman he loved.

It is intended as a tribute to them all. 

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 Flying Officer Kit Moran has earned his pilot’s wings, but the greatest challenges still lie ahead: crewing up and returning to operations. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that while still a flight engineer, he was posted LMF (Lacking in Moral Fibre) for refusing to fly after a raid on Berlin that killed his best friend and skipper. Nor does it help that he is in love with his dead friend’s fiancé, who is not yet ready to become romantically involved again.



 

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

DISSECTION OF A NOVEL - DESCRIPTION

Description is the mortar that holds a book together. 

Without it characters would exist in an empty, featureless world and action would take place in black hole. The best plot and the most appealing characters can be lost in bad descriptions -- or the complete absence of them.


Before an author can describe anything, of course, they have to be able to picture it themselves! So the first step to getting a description right is learning about the environment of the novel. That is one of the reasons I make an effort to visit the principle venues of my books -- from Jerusalem to Sparta. 
 
Yet while travel is good for getting the physical environment right -- the climate, the vegetation, the landscape etc., many components necessary for setting the stage of a novel are ephemeral and transient. This is most obvious in the case of novels set in the distant past where everything from the domestic architecture to the clothes and music have been lost. Yet, to a lesser extent, it is true even when writing about the more recent past. 
 
The Second World War may not seen all that long ago (at least to those in my generation), yet a tremendous amount has changed since it ended. Fortunately, one of my test readers is older than I am and tipped me off that I had not succeeded in capturing the atmosphere of wartime Britain in my first draft. I went back and did more research. This entailed reading diaries, memoirs, letters and good social history stuffed with examples, photos, and statistics.
 
Once immersed in an era and comfortable with what I want to describe, the challenge becomes highlighting those aspects of a scene that can help the reader visualize the world of the novel -- without boring him. As always, getting the facts straight is not enough to evoke an image for the reader. Indeed, a meticulous listing of essential facts is far more likely to bore the reader and make their eyes cross than help them to see something. Here's what I mean. 
 
I could say:  
 
The Lancaster was a 69 feet 4 inches long, 20 feet 6 inches high and had a wingspan of 102 feet for a wing area of 1,297 feet. It weighed 36,900 lbs and could carry a bomb load of 12,000 lbs without modification. It had four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines with 1,280 hp each.
 or
The Lancaster sat nose-in-the-air with its double-finned tail low to the ground and its hundred-feet wingspan stretching grandly to either side. The fighters were toys compared to this. Kit liked to think of the Lancaster as a four-horse chariot from which they hurled death like a modern-day Hector battling the arrogant, invading Achilles.
 
 Or here's another example. 

The aircraft took off after dark. All were painted a mat-black and the flare path was dim so it was hard to see. The Lancasters lined up on the taxiway, then turned one after another onto the runway. Kit stood with the other spectators and watched. When an aircraft was cleared for take-off, the caravan beside the runway flashed a green light. The aircraft at the head accelerated, passed the crowd of people watching, and gained speed until it had sufficient lift for take off. Once airborne, it climbed slowly because they were very heavy.

Or:

A-Able turned onto the runway. The rotating blades of the four propellers caught the light from the flare path and formed ethereal silver disks in the darkness. Otherwise, the aircraft blended into the night. Painted a mat black, the hulking dark shape hung suspended between a pair of navigation lights, one on the tip of each nearly invisible wing. A tiny greenhouse lit by eerie bluish lights floated above yet astride the barely perceptible fuselage. Inside this tiny glass structure, dark shapes moved.

To Kit's left a green light appeared. The earth beneath his feet started to vibrate as the engines changed their tone from a low growl to a high-pitched roar. The black thing started rolling towards them; the eerie lighting grew larger and the shapes inside became human heads. 

The massive machine rushed toward the cluster of spectators, gaining speed. Then the great winged monster whisked past and raced away into the darkness stretching to the left. The glass bubble of the mid-upper turret crouched upon its long, black back like a jockey on a massive charger. The flare path lights flashed off the Perspex of the rear turret.

A-Able’s nose lifted and seemed to drag the great bulk of the aircraft after it. It hung faintly silhouetted against the night sky. The wheels folded into the body, like a bird tucking in its feet. Abruptly the navigation lights darkened. The next aircraft, U-Uncle, turned onto the head of the runway. 

Finally, a last example of a more domestic setting:

The WAAF officer was five feet four tall and weighed 120 lbs. She was 26 years old. She had dark eyes and hair, which she wore rolled into a hair net to keep it off her neck. She wore red lipstick and nail polish, although neither was allowed in the WAAF.

 or:

A moment later a WAAF officer walked into the parlour, tearing off her cap and hair net in a single motion. She shook her head to let her long dark hair fall lose. Georgina confronted a strikingly beautiful young woman with a full but graceful figure and straight dark eyebrows over large, dark eyes. Her lipstick was perfect, and her nail polish red. Georgina thought she’d heard that WAAF weren’t supposed to wear either, but as this young woman came across the room with her hand extended, Georgina sensed she was the kind of woman used to privileges.

Next week I will explore the challenge of dialogue in a unique culture -- the RAF.

Riding the icy, moonlit sky— They took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one Lancaster skipper, his crew,and the woman he loved.

It is intended as a tribute to them all. 

Order Now!

 Flying Officer Kit Moran has earned his pilot’s wings, but the greatest challenges still lie ahead: crewing up and returning to operations. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that while still a flight engineer, he was posted LMF (Lacking in Moral Fibre) for refusing to fly after a raid on Berlin that killed his best friend and skipper. Nor does it help that he is in love with his dead friend’s fiancé, who is not yet ready to become romantically involved again.