Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Helena P. Schrader, author of
Rebels Against Tyranny: Civil War in the Crusader States.
FQ: Your works of fiction and non-fiction over the last 15+ years have been incredible. Can you speak to readers about what first led you down the path to focusing on the crusader states?
SCHRADER: Thank you! I work very hard on my writing, devoting the bulk of my “free” time to researching, writing and now marketing my books. So it is very rewarding to hear you think my works are “incredible.” Thank you again.
As to what led me to the crusader states was literally my first trip to Cyprus. I came expecting ancient Greek ruins and modern tourism and stumbled (almost literally) over this piece of history about which I’d known nothing. I had lived in the U.K. Like so many Americans had learned a lot about British history. I knew my Plantagenets forwards and backwards, so-to-speak, and then suddenly I’m on a sun-soaked, Mediterranean island with enchanting vistas and weather and discovered that Richard the Lionheart had not only been there and married there but conquered the entire island. Furthermore, the island had remained in “Western” hands for the next four hundred years. That truly fascinated me – the mixture of cultures and influences, the dramatic castles, the exotic landscapes, everything.
FQ: Is there one historical icon you have yet to place on paper that you wish to bring to life in the future?
SCHRADER: Oh, yes. I plan to write a biographical novel about Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine, more commonly known as the Black Prince and his wife, Joan of Kent. There is a lot of misinformation about them both out there, and I think it is time for some “revisionist” interpretations of them and their relationship.
FQ: Your resume is so long and vivid, there was a time when you served as an American diplomat in Africa and Europe. Can you share a unique memory from this time, and/or person you met who served to inspire you in your writing?
SCHRADER: I just spent five years in Ethiopia and the tumultuous events leading to the rise of a dynamic, young, reforming Prime Minister are the inspiration for my novel The Last Crusader Kingdom. Yes, the book is set in 12thcentury Cyprus, and, yes, it follows the known historical facts, but human nature is such that an understanding of current affairs will provide us with insights into the factors at play in the past – and vice versa.
To be more specific, Ethiopian youth viewed the government of the ruling EPRDF party as oppressive and corrupt. They became rebellious but rather than attacking the police and military which could shoot back and arrest them, they started attacking and burning down factories and farms owned by people they believed supported the government. The argument was that by attacking the economic base of the country, they would weaken the government. Well and good, but it also destroyed jobs and often the charitable institutions supported by these factories and farms, too. I took an instance I had witness and included it in The Last Crusader Kingdom to show how the angry Greek population might have attempted to bring down the unpopular Lusignan regime. Balian’s frustrating attempt at negotiating with one of the rebel leaders is also based on my experience in talking to some opposition figures. I could give you many other examples as well.
FQ: Has the study of history always been a passion of yours? And when did you write your first book?
SCHRADER: I had the good fortune to travel to Europe when I was just four years old. I remember visiting the Colosseum in Rome and my father told me “this is where they fed the Christians to the lions.” Now that sparked a four-year-old’s imagination! I have been interested in history every since – particularly the history of places I have been, seen, touched….
My first book was written in second grade. It was not great.
FQ: With so much knowledge, you must be a fantastic mentor to others who seek to bring history back to life. What would be a piece of advice on what to do and what to avoid that you would give to new authors trying to make it in the industry?
SCHRADER: I would like to be a mentor to aspiring historical novelists. That is something I want to explore in my retirement (Dec. 2018!). Since each individual writer has different strengths and weaknesses, it’s hard to choose one thing that applies to all.
Maybe, don’t research just the facts of history. You can write non-fiction with the facts. Fiction, however, requires much more research. You also need to know about the architecture, the fashion, the cuisine, the climate and vegetation, the flora and fauna, the means of transportation and rates of travel, the legal structures, educational norms etc. etc. etc.
Another very important point which every academic understands but far too few novelists seem to grasp is that it isn’t enough to read one book on any subject. You need to read three or four to start understanding the different perspectives of historians and what aspects of a specific age or event are controversial.
FQ: Because branding is such a large part of publishing today, can you speak about your position on social media? Is this a large part of your own agenda when it comes to bringing your works to the public?
SCHRADER: Let’s put it this way, I have four blogs, four websites, a google + account, a Facebook page, and I try to contribute to about a dozen other google + and Facebook groups every week. I’m not sure if that’s enough – or too much. There is a very real risk of becoming so fragmented and so busy on social media that we can’t do serious research. I haven’t found the perfect balance yet.
FQ: Give us a bird’s eye view into your work area, if you could. Such as, is there a certain schedule you keep when writing? Do you set aside a certain number of hours per week or on a daily basis where writing is done, or do you write when the passion hits? Is there one thing you need to have while writing that perhaps relaxes you or takes you to these locations when you’re at the keyboard?
SCHRADER: During my working life I did research in the evenings after work, and wrote on the weekends, usually 6 to 8 hours each weekend day. In retirement my plan is to research and work on my non-fiction book in the week, and work on my novel on the weekends, essentially the same pattern, just with the non-fiction book replacing my paying job.
I like to write in a peaceful, well-lit setting from a desk looking out a window. In retirement, I will have a study with views to the Aegean from one window and my garden and orchard from the other. I also have a door onto an external stair that opens from the study, so I can go in and out, catching fresh air and breathing in the scents of the Mediterranean whenever I need a little break.
Getting exercise and a full night’s sleep is also important to working well.
FQ: Please give readers a head’s up on what to expect when it comes to upcoming Helena P. Schrader’s titles that are currently in the works.
SCHRADER: Rebels against Tyranny: Civil War in the Crusader States is the first book in a series. I’m currently working on the second book, The Emperor Strikes Back. I hope to release it next September. After that comes With Pen and Sword, which would tentatively be published in 2020. Meanwhile, I’ll also be working on my non-fiction book Beyond the Seas: The Story of the Crusader States and hopefully release that in 2020 or 2021.
Other projects are ebooks of my early books on Sparta, and audio books of my Jerusalem Trilogy.
I am not going to be bored in retirement.