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, March 5, 2024

Why I Write Historical Fiction - A Guest Blogpost from Tessa Floreano

 Tessa Floreano is an author and community historian who lives near Seattle, but considers Vancouver and Venice her second homes. She writes historical tales about Italians, with a gallon of mystery and a pint of romance thrown in for good measure. Her stories are set mainly in the Pacific Northwest and Europe, though a few are in New York City and San Francisco, just because she has a strong pull to the Italians in both those cities, too. Coming Winter 2024 is a romantic mystery set in 1899 in Italy at Christmas involving murder, matrimony, and mayhem, oh my!

In palmistry, a square atop Jupiter's mount signifies a teacher's box. Unlike my husband, no such pronounced formation exists on my palm. If it did, I imagine it might provide the impetus to teach historical fiction—a genre to which I am intensely and increasingly drawn. Rather than a classroom as my teaching box, I use the power of the pen to scribe stories, both real and imagined. Some kind readers have even insisted that I am teaching, though perhaps in a less structured way. Hopefully, more entertaining, too. And why do I prefer to write words about history rather than speak them? Read on, fair reader.


As an impressionable youngster, I devoured historical fiction. Betwixt the pages of fairy tales and fantastic yarns of yore, my imagination soared unobstructed. I had never visited a Saxon fortress, worn a Roman toga, or witnessed a Saharan sandstorm, reading about medieval knights, ancient senators, or whirling dervishes in faraway places allowed me to dream and put myself in someone else's shoes; or rather, smack in the middle of their adventures and misadventures.


Growing up, I did not come across stories about girls like me whose parents were immigrants, spoke with a funny accent, and whose customs and traditions did not fit the mainstream. Thus, I escaped into what was available, like The Borrowers, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew. Eventually, these near-contemporary stories fell short. To ease the ache for something more enticing, I glommed onto the classics set in foreign lands, like The Count of Monte Cristo, Anna Karenina, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. 

As I got older, and soon after my father died, I delved headlong into our family's past. There were many questions I did not get to ask my father, so I dug into our family tree and that is when the stories started to pop. Though my genealogy is incomplete, I turned to stories about other Italians. Some reflected my own northern Italian heritage that surrounded me in my Canadian hometown of Vancouver. Some were based on southern Italian ancestry, by far the largest group I encountered when I emigrated to the Seattle area.

Fast forward to today where I write through a lens colored by a variety of Italian history, herstory, and heritage—some fictionalized, some not. Through these tales, I share what I know, love, and am curious about. Always, they include an imaginative reconstruction of historical events and Italian personages that I find fascinating and yearn to learn more about. My curiosity drives my research and storytelling. Both mundane and obscure items can start me off. I satiate my curiosity when I fall deeper down the rabbit hole after finding a gem or two that I know I can develop further.


To educate myself and ensure I am getting as accurate a picture as I can of people, places, events, and the vernacular of the time, I draw on primary and secondary sources to give depth and nuance. Primary sources include documents and artifacts—personal letters, oral interviews, diaries, carte de visites, calling cards, photographs, newspapers, advertisements, maps, and government documents. Secondary sources include scholarly articles, illuminated manuscripts, black and white movies, and old books with wonderful and strange bon mots in the margins. I seek out that which supports my story, though occasionally the words and objects I find completely change the trajectory I had planned, be it for the plot, characters, or theme.


Throughout my story, I weave one or more themes—love, hate, betrayal, loyalty, bravery, cowardice, survival, power, secrets—making sure my protagonists and antagonists drive the problems and solutions. My characters are not automatons, and they experience things in different ways and filter them through their own ideas, prejudices, understandings, and misunderstandings, specific to their time. When I begin to tell my tale, I make a choice about what historical words to use, what to emphasize, what to leave out, and so on. I might imagine a situation where one of my newly arrived Italian immigrants witnesses a brawl. An English-speaking American who understands what everyone is saying—from the victim to the first responders to the perpetrator—might offer a vastly different view than a foreigner who does not understand the language or the law. Therefore, I have to factor that in to how the scene unfolds and the characters behave, and that is where the opportunities and challenges lie.


I enjoy juxtaposing political, social, cultural, and religious views and biases of yesterday without imposing those of today onto my characters. If I do my job well, I can use my stories to not only show readers what happened in the past, but how it has shaped the present. And I have to do it intentionally. For example, I have a great idea for a dual timeline story. You can bet that my characters will—at some point—say that they must not change the annals when jumping chronology, regardless of how tempting, especially if there's danger afoot. I have to respect that because historical fiction has some rules, most of which I adhere to (wink wink).


I am careful when I bring in historical events and how I manage them. Here is an example: Let's say that in my interwar series, Roosevelt announces the New Deal with great fanfare. Rather than having a character read about it in a newspaper, I can use a conversation between characters to help my readers understand the implications for Italians of the programs and public works projects that took place in that era. I could show how the first Italian Republican congresswoman in her state, who did not want the New Deal, reacts to it. Conversely, I might show how a Dust Bowl farmer benefited eventually from the President’s reforms and the life changes he and his Italian family experience because of the impact on their finances.


Actually, I would not be able to use the first example because the first Italian American woman to serve in Congress did not happen until 1970, many decades after the Depression, which is the time period of my series. You might have thought I digressed there for a moment, but double-checking my facts is a big part of why I love writing about history.


Sometimes, a fact just will not work within the timeline I chose, and I either have to leave it out, or include a mention of my fabricated use of it in my Author's Note, and why it is plausible. Critics, ahem, sticklers for one hundred percent factual historical detail, will bemoan that I use the Author's Note as a crutch. They will argue that it is how I justify why I wrote certain events out of context or included details about real personages that were not real. They might even write off my story because of it.


I do not argue with people who feel that way, however, I reserve the right to use such a device to inform, and yes, even teach my readers. It is a space I hold sacrosanct. It is where I exhale and reveal my raw side, including my sources, inspiration, methods, and hope for the book's place in the world. I use the Author's Note like an informal letter to my readers—to give deeper meaning to my story, some accountability, and a more objective understanding of the history. If I change facts to suit the story's timeline, I owe it to my readers to be transparent about why, and I believe they will respect me for it.


Most readers love that intimate connection that my Author's Note provides because they know I spent the time speaking directly to them. Usually, I include extra information that adds a new dimension to the story they just read and I am tickled when they embrace it. Some readers have shared that it leads them down their own rabbit holes of history, and that makes the effort of writing about what I am learning all the more satisfying.


To write is to learn, and this is true for me, especially as it relates to historical fiction. It has staying power in my writing (and teaching) life, even if I am short of one geometric square imprinted on my skin.


Find out more about Tessa’s books on her website https://tessafloreano.com and by signing up for her newsletter


Blog Host Helena P. Schrader is the author of 25 historical fiction and non-fiction books, eleven of which have one one or more awards. You can find out more about her, her books and her awards at: https://helenapschrader.com 

Her most recent release, Cold Peace, was runner-up for the Historical Fiction Company BOOK OF THE YEAR 2023 Award, as well as winning awards from Maincrest Media and Readers' Favorites. Find out more at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/cold-peace.html



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