7 March 2017

Places for the Imagination

my guest today:

Helen P. Schrader

Most of my novels were inspired by people. My historical biographies and biographical fiction, obviously, were inspired by real historical personalities, whose stories fascinate me ― General Friedrich Olbricht, Leonidas of Sparta, Balian d’Ibelin. Other stories, were inspired more by the “footnotes” to history ― a passing reference to an individual act of courage or compassion, a grave in a half-forgotten church, a local legend of dubious veracity that nevertheless captures the imagination….

Yet almost as important as people, places too inspire the imagination.  I firmly believe that my interest in history and historical fiction started at the age of four when my father took me to the Coliseum in Rome. While my mother and older sisters took the guided tour, my father (wisely) decided a four year old would be bored by so much information. So he led me through the Coliseum providing his own tour and confining himself to the essentials. “This,” he told me, “is where the Romans fed the Christians to the Lions.” Now that was fascinating to a four year old.

I spent the rest of the afternoon (or however long the official tour took) trying to imagine where they had kept the lions? The Christians? Was there no way to escape? What if a lion got loose among the spectators? You see how rapidly this can become a novel?
Of course, at four, no novel evolved, but the process of thinking about the places I visited as the site of historical events and the stage set for personal drama had started. It was helpful that Rome was only the start of a tour that took us to Florence and Venice, then up the Rhine and finally to Denmark and England, where we had family. Two years later we were in Brazil, and my imagination was ignited by a visit to the decaying city of Manaus on the Amazon to write a tale about an Indian boy following the Amazon to the sea. (Any resemblance to childhood books about travelling down the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi are pure coincidence, of course….) I was in second grade.

At fifteen, the family returned to England. By now I loved to read as much as I loved to eat and breathe. I had not stopped writing since that book about the Amazon, but now I was living in the midst of history. We lived in Portsmouth, and Nelson’s flagship the Victory was within walking distance of our Victorian townhouse. The view out our front bay window was of the Solent, the Isle of Wight, the Royal Navy patrolling the grey, white-capped waves….
Although I never wrote that novel about the Royal Navy in the age of sail, I soon became fascinated with Britain in WWII. I visited the Imperial War Museum and touched the wings of Spitfires. I went to Tangmere, so close to Portsmouth, and gazed out across the peaceful, grass field, while imagining the gentle peace shattered by the call to “scramble,” the roar of Merlin engines and the distant thud of the falling bombs. It took almost two decades and various false starts, but when Chasing the Wind was published in 2007 it was praised by one of the few surviving RAF fighter aces of that war, Wing Commander Bob Doe, as “the best book” he had ever read about the Battle of Britain. Wing Commander Doe wrote to me in a hand-written letter I treasure to this day. In it he said I “got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots.”

No amount of sales is a higher accolade for a historical novelist than for someone who lived through the time and events described in their novel to say the book got it right. That is why, to this day, I consider Chasing the Wind (Kindle title: Where Eagles Never Flew) my best novel.



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Helena P. Schrader has published non-fiction works on women in aviation in WWII, the Berlin Airlift and the German Resistance to Hitler. Her fiction books are set in WWII, Ancient Sparta and the crusades. Her most recent publication is a three-part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 and was the hero of the (historically inaccurate) movie “The Kingdom of Heaven.” All three books of the Jerusalem Trilogy (“Knight of Jerusalem, “Defender of Jerusalem” and “Envoy of Jerusalem”) earned the B.R.A.G. medallion, and the series has won a total of 9 literary accolades to date, including the Pinnacle Book Award 2016 for Biographical Fiction and the Feathered Quill Book Award 2017 for Spiritual/Religious Fiction.

To find out more visit http://helenapschrader.com 
or follow Helena’s blog at: http://schradershistoricalfiction.blogspot.com.


1 comment:

  1. Always interesting to "listen" to your insights and imaginative thought processes, Professor.

    ReplyDelete

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