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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Why I Write Part 4 - To Educate

 The urge to pass on knowledge to others is probably embedded in our DNA to help the survival of the species. I'm no exception, and since I like to research topics that are either controversial or less familiar to people, I always find myself with plenty of knowledge I want to share. My preferred means of teaching is to write novels that incorporate the information I have gained through my research.


The challenge is to teach readers about unfamiliar places, societies, events and technologies without making them feel they are in school! Key to this is to avoid disrupting the narrative with information and descriptions, aka "data dumps." 

The problem, of course, is that no one who is completely familiar with a culture or period is able to see what makes it unusual. Here's a real-life 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 record is consistently distorted by this phenomenon. 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. 
What this means when writing a novel is that the inhabitants of the world depicted usually know about their society and surroundings and therefore would not comment on them. The author, therefore, must find a way to tell the readers about things that the characters already know and understand.  
One way to deal with the problem is to create a context for learning that makes discovery of new facts a force that moves the story forward. A key device for doing this is to introduce Point-of-View characters who are outsiders or novices because they are themselves learning. For example, because most readers know very little about Ancient Sparta, I chose to open my novel The Olympic Charioteer through the point-of-view of an Athenian, a stranger coming to Sparta for the first time in his life who is shocked and confused by one thing after another. In this way, I was able to describe the unique and unfamiliar environment of my novel not as  "data-dump" but in a series of episodes that moved the plot forward.

Having a foreigner as a major character, however, is not always possible, but there are other devices for making explanations (education) occur more normally and in context. For example, in my novel "Moral Fibre" the device for explaining things was to take the reader through operational training along with the central character. I.E. the reader learns along with the protagonist at each stage of the process. In my novella "Lack of Moral Fibre" the device was a series of discussions between the protagonist a psychiatrist trying to piece together the causes of a temporary break down.
Sometimes, however, rather than building the entire novel around the learning process, I find it useful simply to introduce secondary or tertiary characters who from time to time provide a fresh perspective. This enables me to describe aspects of the setting that the principle characters would not naturally comment upon. For example, 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 would be meaningless to us. A peasant observer, on the other hand, could describe a knight's shield in terms we understand -- a yellow backdrop with a flared, red cross on it. By temporarily describing, say, a joust between two protagonists from the point of view of an apprentice sneaking off for some excitement, it is possible to provide more information without interrupting the narrative or making the characters behave anachronistically.

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 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. 

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

 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 bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

It is intended as a tribute to them all.  

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Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles







"Where Eagles Never Flew" was the the winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

For more information about all my books visit: https://www.helenapschrader.com



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