An Interview of Me on Helena P. Schrader’s Blog!

Novelist and historian Helena Schrader, author of Knight of Jerusalem, interviews yours truly. I hope you’ll check it out.



My novel, Men of the Cross, was designated a B.R.A.G. medallion honoree in November 2014. It is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon sites worldwide, for Nook via Barnes  Noble, and via Smashwords in multiple formats.  

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Medieval man, sex, and mortal sin in Men of the Cross

A friend recently asked, “Why did you choose to write this story?” It’s a common question for writers. Many writers pen what they’d like to read. There is something inside our brains that drives an idea that we must bring to life.

Of course, I knew what my friend really meant: Why did I decide to write a novel about two men – Henry de Grey and Stephan l’Aigle – who find friendship, and ultimately love, when homosexuality in the 12th century was considered a mortal sin?

In an upcoming interview I tell novelist and historian Helena Schrader:

The story relates the human angle, recognizing homosexuality as part of the human condition. Certainly, “forbidden” love provides tremendous conflict… Men of the Cross lets me dive into Henry’s inner turmoil as he questions his beliefs. Stephan readily admits his preference for men, but has never known or expected love. It is self-discovery for both men as their friendship deepens.

Let me be clear – Men of the Cross is not erotica. As one reviewer wrote, “there isn’t much sex in this book. If that’s all you are looking for, find another book.” Men of the Cross is about the relationship, not the sex. Like many novels, there is sexual tension and attraction. Yes, there are a few sex scenes. I’d call them emotionally charged. A friend called one “steamy.” There are tender and passionate touches and kisses without being too graphic. There are naked bodies – barely (no pun intended). I’m a big believer in “fade-to-black.” The readers’ imagination can fill in the details.

I don’t want readers to lose sight of other aspects of Men of the Cross. It is more than a romance. It is about the horrors of war. It deals with war’s impact on a young knight – post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

Sex in the Middle Ages
It is important to remember that any sex outside of marriage was sinful: adultery, homosexuality, rape, incest, bestiality – all were mortal sins, whether of the male/female, male/male, or female/female varieties. Given the number of illegitimate children born to the nobility and to the clergy there was plenty of sinning going on! One step further: certain sexual acts inside marriage were mortal sins. According to the Church, sex was strictly for procreation and only sin-free if done in the missionary position. The Church had a running list of what days or times of year sex was permissible. One scholar noted that averaged about 4 days per month (Berkowitz, 2012). Any sex that violated these “rules” would damn your soul unless you were absolved.

Absolution for sodomy (as homosexuality was called in the Middle Ages) varied from place to place and was usually dictated by local attitudes. In many instances prior to 1300, the penance was no more severe than for any other sexual sins. It might be prayer or fasting for a specified time or a small fine when, under secular law, being convicted of killing a deer in the king’s Forest often meant certain death (Brown, 2012). It is true that capital punishment for homosexuality existed in some countries well before the 12th century.  Secular laws in England against homosexual behavior did not appear until the second half of the 13th century (Boswell, 1981).¹ By 1300, secular laws against this “crime” existed almost universally (Berkowitz, 2012).

As for Church laws, Boswell notes “the approach to sexuality adopted by twelfth century theologians effectively ‘decriminalized’ homosexual relations altogether.”² Penitentials – the guidelines priests used to assign penances for specific sins – are telling. In the 8th century, a penance of 1 year was designated for male homosexuals, but for a priest going hunting it was 3 years. At the turn of the 12th century, ecclesiastical legislation was introduced by the Council of London set to inform the general public of the “impropriety of such acts and insisted… ‘sodomy’ be confessed as a sin” (Boswell, 1981). However, the decree was not officially adopted, though priests continued to remind the Faithful to resist temptation and to confess so their mortal souls were not damned. One impetus of the proposed legislation of 1102 had been to admonish the clergy themselves after complaints were brought forth from within the Church about illicit behaviors. In ensuing centuries, the accusation of sodomy oftentimes was a political move to “blacken the name of an enemy” (Karras, 2005). One example of that: Philip IV of France, deeply indebted to the Knights Templar, used it against them in the 14th century.

Same-sex unions
Scholars Boswell, Berkowitz, and others write that same-sex relationships were tolerated or ignored. Same-sex unions – blessed in religious ceremonies – are recorded in many countries well into the 14th century. There is evidence in the historical record showing these unions were performed by the clergy (McGinnes, 2012).

There are numerous cited incidences of actual or rumored male/male relationships in the Middle Ages. Many involved people high in the Church or who attained sainthood (e.g., the abbot Aelred of Rievaulx’s erotic writings of deep friendships with fellow monks; St. Sergius and St. Bacchus) or men of noble blood (e.g., William Rufus; Edward II). A Welsh chronicler named Gerald noted sanctioned unions in 12th and 13th century Ireland. Other “marriages” were reported in a number of European countries (Karras, 2012; Boswell, 1981).

Was King Richard I gay?
I was familiar with 20th century historians’ arguments that Richard the Lionheart was a homosexual. And as much as I love the incredible film The Lion in Winter, its writers may have cemented that idea in many individuals’ minds. More recent scholarship has refuted the interpretation of the evidence:

  1. On Richard lying with Philip Capet (the king of France): “at night their beds did not separate them.”
    – Men often shared beds in medieval times, but if these kings were intimate, would there not be more reports of their activities?
  2. Richard and his wife Berengaria of Navarre had no children
    – Richard had an illegitimate son
  3. A hermit visits Richard and tells him to “be mindful of the destruction of Sodom and abstain from what is unlawful.”
    – What is unlawful, also referred to as unnatural acts by the Church, could have referred to adulterous behavior. There is ample proof in the historical record of Richard’s sex life with women, but none about encounters with men. (And the lives of the famous were reported on, then, as now.)
    – When Richard was afflicted by illness, he confessed “the guiltiness of his life.” He received absolution, took back his wife, “and putting away all illicit intercourse, he remained constant to his wife.” Again, this may refer to his adulterous behavior.
    – The Biblical Sodom was a place of excess, gluttony, and sloth, not just sexual sins, so interpreting the hermit’s words must be done in the context of the times and with an understanding of events in Sodom.

(Items in quotes above are from de Hoveden.)

Medieval attitudes
Karras does agree a variety and complexity of medieval attitudes about sexuality existed. For every citation regarding toleration or overlooking of homosexual behavior in the Middle Ages, there are dozens more pointing to inhumane punishment dating back centuries earlier. However, she notes:

“The most striking feature of male same-sex relationships during the Middle Ages seems to have been that medieval society celebrated a type of deep, passionate friendship between men that modern society does not have. Men today who expressed their feelings for each other in the same way medieval men did would be universally believed to be sexually involved with each other. Medieval people either did not believe they were, or did not think it noteworthy if they were, because there is no comment about it.”

Back to Men of the Cross

Spoilers ahead…
Beyond the battles of the Third Crusade, conflict in Men of the Cross is centered on the characters’ inner turmoil rather than conflict directly with the Church. I did not need a priest to remind Henry what was considered “right” vs. “wrong.” He beat himself up with that dogma throughout a good part of the novel. That did not mean he (or other knights) looked down on men like Stephan, which appears to fit with Boswell’s and Karras’ description of society’s views. Henry and the knights with whom he served judged fellow soldiers on their loyalty and skills, not on their sexual preferences. And while Stephan is straightforward with Henry about his feelings on the Church and about who he is, he realizes very early on that Henry will not be amongst his “conquests.” (I use “conquests” in quotes – it is obvious in the novel that Stephan has been involved in consensual relationships.) Stephan begins to see how alone he has been, how he has covered those feelings behind lustful adventures and the blood-boiling effects of combat. He sees Henry’s naivete of battle and becomes concerned as a friend. And if friendship is all he can have with the younger knight, then so be it. Of course, life doesn’t always follow the road one expects.

“Forbidden” love
Did I ever consider other “forbidden” love for Henry? Why not a story where Henry fell in love with a Muslim, a princess, a laundress, or a whore?

These ideas seemed more like “fiction” than “reality” based on what I knew of Richard I’s army and the crusade. There may have been camp whores during the siege of Acre, but the army headed south within weeks of the siege’s end. Henry wouldn’t have had much opportunity to fall in love with one of them. The crusade chroniclers report that laundresses were the only women allowed by King Richard to accompany the army on the march towards Jerusalem. A laundress, like a prostitute, would have been below Henry’s class. Certainly that might happen in real life. A Muslim love? Again, this could have happened while Henry was in Acre and would have been frowned upon, though Richard did offer his sister’s hand to Saladin’s brother – an offer that was rejected by the way. And though Henry and Richard’s sister, Queen Joanna, develop a sweet, lovely friendship, I knew what history had in store for Joanna and chose not to invent a tryst. Sorry. Those ideas didn’t speak to me. Henry falling in love with a woman just wasn’t in the cards.

Arranged marriages
A further complication in the novel is the tradition of arranged marriages. Henry is the son of a minor baron – he needs a legitimate heir, hence marriage is a given. Henry accepts this (early on), but he is not enthused about arranged marriages. He is betrothed, but the girl back home does not stir him. He is no stranger to sex, and he doesn’t deny he enjoyed a tumble with one of the servant girls back home, but the feelings he begins to develop for Stephan confuse him.

Male bonding
Men at war engage in male bonding. For most that means a strong friendship:  they must rely on each other and share the common experiences of battle. “The bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience. Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together” (Padre Steve, 2009). What I depict in Men of the Cross is a growing deep, abiding trust and friendship between Henry and Stephan. Both men try to deny their feelings, but over time, they realize love is possible. Theirs is not a lustful or casual encounter (as Stephan’s earlier sex life was), but a loving, caring relationship. The “celebration” described by Karras was my intent in writing the knights’ story (though I didn’t discover Karras’ work until late last year). Henry and Stephan’s feelings and actions are not overt. In an army of 15,000-20,000 men, only their closest friends know.

It is not unrealistic to imagine that amongst 15,000-20,000 soldiers some may have preferred male companionship of a sexual nature. That men did love each other. They are human after all.

“How can loving another person be a sin?”
–Stephan l’Aigle to Henry de Grey,
Men of the Cross

quote from Men of the Cross

¹ Update: After seeing a post (and listening to the reading & translation) about AEthelberht’s Code, a law code written about 600 in Anglo-Saxon England, I was curious about whether my statement about secular laws in England was correct. I contacted scholar and academic research consultant Dr. Christopher Monk and he confirmed that neither the “Code nor any other Anglo-Saxon secular law contain a direct reference to same-sex acts. The Anglo-Saxon penitentials on the other hand have numerous references to various same-sex acts, both male and female. Boswell, quite frankly, is very misleading in his evaluation of homosexuality in the early medieval period. The Church in England did not tolerate it.” (You can read our back and forth comments on the linked post.)

² Boswell’s interpretation may relate to priests being told not to tread very lightly when discussing this “unnatural behavior.” They shouldn’t be putting ideas in young men’s minds, so the subject was often avoided in the confessional.


Berkowitz, E. Sex and punishment: four thousand years of judging desire. Berkeley, CA : Counterpoint, 2012.

Berkowitz, E. “When a medieval knight could marry another medieval knight.” The Awl. 2012.

Boswell, J. Christianity, social tolerance, and homosexuality: gay people in Western Europe from the beginning of the Christian era to the fourteenth century. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Brown, D. “Monarchy – The Normans, William Rufus and Henry I.” on English Historical Fiction Authors. 2012. 

De Hoveden, R.  The annals of Roger de Hoveden, comprising the history of England and of other countries of Europe from A. D. 732 to A. D. 1201. (Henry T. Riley, Trans.). London: H. G. Bohn, 1853. Original work published 1201?

Karras, R.M. Sexuality in Medieval Europe. New York: Routledge, 2005.

McGinnes, J. “Civil partnership, medieval style: in the days when same-sex marriage was a Christian rite.” 2012.

Monk, C. “A heavy price for light fingers.” The Anglo-Saxon Monk. 2014.

“Same-Sex Relations in the Middle Ages.”  2011. (This is a bibiliography of works on the topic.)



My novel, Men of the Cross, was designated a B.R.A.G. medallion honoree in November 2014. It is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon sites worldwide, for Nook via Barnes  Noble, and via Smashwords in multiple formats.  

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Interview with author E.M. Powell

E.M. Powell’s novels have been described as “car chases with chainmail.” With that tagline, you know you’ll be in for a wild ride. I am delighted to welcome E.M. to my blog today. She writes historical fiction with a mystery/thriller twist. Her current series is set in 12th century England.

E.M., congratulations on the upcoming release of The Blood of the Fifth Knight. Can you tell us a bit about the new book? Is it a sequel to The Fifth Knight, or a stand-alone?

Thank you, Char! The Blood of The Fifth Knight is indeed the sequel to The Fifth Knight. It’s set in England in 1176. King Henry II has imprisoned his rebellious Queen for attempting to overthrow him. But with her conspirators still at large and a failed assassination attempt on his beautiful mistress, Rosamund Clifford, the King must take action to preserve his reign. Desperate, Henry turns to the only man he trusts: a man whose skills have saved him once before. 6751904Yes, it’s the return of Sir Benedict Palmer!

Sir Benedict is a great character – a mercenary with a conscience. You put him through the ringer in The Fifth Knight. When you penned the opening of  that book, did you know you’d be writing a sequel? If not, when did you figure that out?

Not at all! I intended it to be a standalone book. But when I was signed by my amazing agent, Josh Getzler, he encouraged me to think about one. He was right!

What was the most surprising thing you learned while doing the research for your books?

There are so many things that are so surprising about the medieval world, which you of course will understand, Char. Probably my favourite discovery when researching The Blood of The Fifth Knight was that of an earlier menagerie kept by the king than the one kept at the Tower of London. The collection of animals at the Tower of course was the foundation for London Zoo. But Henry I had established the very first menagerie at Woodstock, his hunting lodge. It included camels, lions, lynxes, a leopard and a porcupine. I certainly did not expect to find that in 12th century England! But such finds are gold to a novelist.

So true, E.M. Those ‘nuggets’ bring the people and the times to life. Do you have a favorite scene from one of your books? Which one & why?

Most of my favourites would be spoilers so I can’t mention those! But I have a particular fondness for those I write from the point of view of my villains. That would be Sir Reginald Fitzurse, leader of the knights who murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket in The Fifth Knight. In The Blood of The Fifth Knight, it’s Raoul de Faye, uncle of Eleanor of Aquitaine. And I just love his name – perfect for a villain, though he was a real person.

What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What has been the most challenging?

I (weirdly) love editing. I love it because the story and the plot is all there. Editing means I can really dig into the writing and make it the very best it can be.

Tell us a little bit about your life. When did you first start writing?

I wrote my first novel in 2002 and was convinced it would be an instant bestseller. I had an awful, awful lot to learn. But learn I did! Ten years on, I got my agent and a publishing deal.

Which historical person would you want to meet and why?

Archbishop Thomas Becket, canonized after his murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. I would want to ask him why he refused to run from the murderers and how he remained so brave when he knew his life was about to end. I’d also ask him what he thought of Henry II, king and his one-time friend.

Do you belong to any writing organizations? If so, which ones? Why do you stay with them?

Romance Writers of America, the Historical Novel Society, International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. I stay with them because they are an invaluable source of advice and support. Without RWA, for instance, I would never have learned my craft and it would have taken me even longer to understand the industry. With the HNS, I have gained friends as well, both in person and online. We all like our chainmail!

How do you handle reviews (good and/or bad)?

With good reviews, I want to meet that reviewer and shake them by the hand and thank them personally. They mean so, so much! With the bad, I read them to see if the reviewer is making a legitimate point about a historical fact or perhaps a plot issue. If it’s purely an ‘I hate this book’ review, then fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Do you have a particular time of day for writing? A special writing place?

I try and get in the writing seat by 9 a.m. and pack up at 7 p.m. Of course there’s tons of interruptions and life generally getting in the way. When I had a day job, I used to write between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. I loved that slot. I’m a real owl and it’s so much quieter then. Place is my laptop!

Are there certain types of scenes you find harder to write than others?

The hardest ones are always the ones where you want to release some information to the reader but still keep your twists hidden. Doing a spoiler on my own plot is one of my nightmares. Action scenes are by far the easiest for me and always have been. And they’re still hard!

What book are you reading now?

I’m a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and get all sorts of wonderful books through that route. I’m currently reading Dan Jones’s magnificent The Hollow Crown, which is his non-fiction work on the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudors.

On the fiction front, I have the late Ariana Franklin’s Winter Siege. She was a writer of wonderful historical thrillers and sadly passed away before finishing this book. her daughter, Samantha Norman, completed it. I can think of no more wonderful tribute to her mother.

What do you do when you aren’t writing?


What are you working on now? Will we see a sequel to The Blood of the Fifth Knight?

The next book in The Fifth Knight series – working title is The Fifth Knight: Lord of Ireland. It’s based on John’s (youngest son of Henry II who will one day become the despised King John) disastrous campaign in (yes, you guessed it!) Ireland in 1185. Palmer is sent by Henry to keep watch on the impetuous John. But Palmer uncovers a plot by John to make his mark on the Lordship of Ireland by appalling means. John has to be stopped at all costs, with only Palmer standing in his way…

Sir Benedict against John – *rubs hands together* – I am already intrigued! Thank you for stopping by to chat, E.M. 

Thanks so much for hosting me, Char. I look forward to returning the favour!


E.M. Powell is the author of medieval thriller The Fifth Knight, which was a #1 Amazon Bestseller. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in the northwest of England with her husband and daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. Learn more about E.M. Powell on her website. She is a regular blogger on English Historical Fiction Authors and a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. The Blood of The Fifth Knight will be published by Thomas & Mercer on 01.01. 2015. Find The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight on Amazon, Amazon UK, and Amazon CA.

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Men of the Cross – a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree!

MEN-OF-THE-CROSSI am thrilled to share this exciting news with you! Men of the Cross has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion! Can you say ‘awesome’? When the email arrived from indieBRAG president Geri Clouston I stared at the subject line “The B.R.A.G. Medallion.” My heart went through the roof. I had to read the email 5 times before I believed it.

“I am pleased to inform you…”

Let me tell you why this is such a tremendous honor. Did you know that over 70,000 new ebooks have been published on Amazon in the last 30 days? That is insane! I thought it was bad when the number was 30,000! Being ‘discovered’ is especially difficult for indie, or self-published, authors.

indieBRAG – the Book Readers Appreciation Group – has a two-fold mission: “to discover new talented self-published authors”; and to “provide an independent, broad-based and reader-centric source to advise the public which indie book merit the investment of their time and money.” How do they do this? There is a selective review process: 50% of books submitted for review do not make it past an initial screening where indieBRAG looks forregistered- 800 minimum standards of quality and content. If a book passes phase 1, it is read by a several individuals who look at plot, writing style, characters, copy editing, dialogue, and cover/interior layout. Forty percent (40%) of books are rejected. Ultimately, only 10% are awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion. WOW! I can’t tell you how great it makes me feel to be with that 10%!

Learn more about indieBRAG on their website. Medallion honoree Alison Morton has a great interview on her site with President Geri Clouston.

Indie authors need your support.
Check out all the honorees (by genre).
I bet you might find a new book to love.
And while you’re there, go find Men of the Cross in the Historical Fiction section.
Order through the Amazon or B&N links on indieBrag to help
indieBRAG get credit for the sale.


Get swept away to the 12th century
Men of the Cross, is available in print and for Kindle & Nook, and via Smashwords in multiple formats.

Posted in announcements, Battle Scars, book reviews, marketing | Tagged , | 16 Comments

When life gets busy…

I give you pictures! Enjoy the sights along the cog railway headed up to
Pike’s Peak, Colorado. What an incredible ride.

near Pike's Peak

The kids and I took this ride up the summit
at 14,110 feet. I remember feeling a bit light-headed at the top.
Youngest son J got an awful headache – altitude sickness -
not something you want to fool with.


Once you’re past the tree line, it’s like being on another planet.
Daughter J remembers there were fantastic
cheeseburgers at the restaurant at the summit
(which she confirmed again on a recent trip).
Somehow, the only picture I took inside the
restaurant/giftshop was this:

Got oxygen?

Oldest son J may have had the video camera
going, but heck if I can find those old tapes.

Have a great week!

summit of Pike's Peak

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talking about the book: Devil’s Brood

9636659Title: Devil’s Brood
Author: Sharon Kay Penman

A tidbit about the author
One-time tax lawyer. An animal rights enthusiast. Supporter of gay rights. Penman is a best-selling novelist known for her meticulous research. She has written 13 books. Her first, The Sunne in Splendour, published in 1982, is a novel of Richard III (whose bones, you’ll recall, were unearthed in a car park in Leicester in 2012). Penman’s most recent book, A King’s Ransom, describes Richard the Lionheart’s captivity and imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor following the Third Crusade, up to his death in 1199.

The story
Devil’s Brood,
published in 2008, is the 3rd in Penman’s Plantagenet series. This is the story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons from 1172 – 1189. Over the course of the novel, the three oldest – Hal, Geoffrey, and Richard (and four if you count John turning against Henry in 1189) – unite in rebellion with Eleanor against their father, and at various times with the French king. When the royal offspring aren’t fighting Henry, they scheme against each other. Eleanor is captured and spends 15 years under house arrest. If you are a fan of the film The Lion in Winter, it takes place during this tumultuous time. The movie is fabulous, but it stretches the truth a bit. (Why Hollywood chose to fabricate fiction is unfathomable considering all the real-life drama of this clan.) This is the only book of the 3 in the series that I’ve read (so far). It deals with the time period leading up to the era I write about: the Third Crusade.

The scene that made you laugh out loud or cheer
Before Eleanor had been imprisoned for her role in her sons’ rebellion against Henry, there is a scene where Henry has dismissed his barber. Eleanor – with scissors in hand – clips his hair. The thought of her with scissors at Henry’s neck brings a smile to my face.

It is hard to find places to cheer in the book because this family puts itself through hell. You keep turning pages thinking ‘surely, no, they’ll come to their senses!’ And you keep turning pages. There is a scene – Christmas time at Chinon in 1172 –  where Henry & Eleanor have a daytime tryst. They’ve not seen each other in two  years, and though Eleanor knows he has bedded numerous women (including the famous Rosamund), their conversation is amiable. They enjoy each others’ bodies and have fond memories. The banter between them is wonderful. If you didn’t know the history, you might let your guard down, only to be surprised a few pages later when Henry’s scheming riles Eleanor.

The place where you wanted to throw the book across the room
By the 3rd, 4th, or 5th time Henry fails to understand that withholding true power from his sons would create division that could tear the Angevin empire apart, I was in a state of disbelief. Surely the man was bright enough to see this. Pure fiction, for the drama? Not at all. Time and again, it truly played out as Penman writes. Henry’s stubbornness gets tiring. If you’ve read this book, did you want to slap his royal you-know-what?

A memorable line (or two)
“If lust could kill, Harry, you’d have been dead years ago.”

And if Henry spun webs to make a spider proud, Eleanor could entangle archangels in her snares. Roger suspected that she intrigued even in her sleep.

His thoughts were as skittish as unbroken horses, darting hither and yon as if he no longer had control of his own brain.

My verdict
Impeccable research. A vivid sense of time and place. Oh the politics! So incredible that you have to stop and remember THIS IS HISTORY! Penman isn’t making up the machinations of Henry II, Eleanor, their sons, or Philip of France. Penman brings them to life – you almost feel like you’re a casual observer in their lives.


Get swept away to the 12th century



My novel, Men of the Cross, is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon sites worldwide, for Nook via Barnes & Noble, and via Smashwords in multiple formats.



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Interview with Author Helena P. Schrader

HPS-sculpture (2)

Balian, the landless son of a local baron, goes to Jerusalem to seek his fortune. Instead, he finds himself trapped into serving the young prince suffering from leprosy, an apparent sentence to obscurity and death. But the unexpected death of King Amalric makes the leper boy King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, and Balian’s prospects begin to improve…
–Knight of Jerusalem by Helena P. Schrader.

It is a privilege to have Helena P. Schrader visit my blog today.

CS: Wow, Helena! To the general audience, Knight of Jerusalem sounds like incredible fiction: the third son with no prospects for land, title, or wealth, a leper king, and events leading up to the Third Crusade. The plot possibilities are endless. But what makes this story so intriguing is that it is a biographical novel. Balian d’Ibelin was a real person whose history might sound more fiction than fact. So let’s get down to your research and writing… 

Knight of Jerusalem centers on an era that is close to my heart and my own writing. Tell us about your book series. What inspired you to write Balian d’Ibelin’s fascinating story?

HS: The Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” starring Orlando Bloom. Knight of JerusalemAlthough it was a beautiful piece of cinematography, as a historian I was immediately suspicious that most of it was pure “Hollywood.” I did a quick check on “Balian d’Ibelin” — only to discover (to my amazement!) that some of the most unlikely parts of the film were historical fact. Furthermore, I learned that the historical Balian had a far more interesting story than the Hollywood Balian. The more I read about the real Balian, the more fascinated I became. I was soon hooked. I started out to write a single book and within nine months knew the story was too complex to handle in a single volume, hence the biography in three parts.

CN: It has been years since I have seen “The Kingdom of Heaven.”  I wasn’t a student of crusades history at the time, so the ‘fiction’ vs. historical fact likely blew right over my head. Was there one thing in particular that you couldn’t believe was true until you did the research? 

HS: Yes, the mass knighting. In the film, when Balian is organizing the defense of Jerusalem and Heraclius tells him they have no knights, Balian tells all the fighting men to kneel and proceeds to knight them all. That seemed pretty far-fetched to me, but it does have a basis in truth. In reality it was only 80 youths “of good birth” – the younger brothers and sons of the men killed or captured at Hattin who had taken refuge in Jerusalem for the most part – that Balian knighted, but he did have a mass knighting because he was the only knight in Jerusalem when he arrived. In my novel, I’m going to have him include men-at-arms he knows and trusts as well (as battlefield knightings of men of lesser birth were not at all unheard of.)

The negotiations with Saladin are almost verbatim what the Arab sources report, but that rang true even when I saw the film for the first time, so I suspected that was accurate.

The stupidist part of the film is how Balian alone survives a shipwreck with a horse who is equally uninjured and then he fights an important emir and wins in a “fair fight.” In reality, of course, Balian was born and raised in Outremer and never had to travel by sea to get there. Nor was he a blacksmith or illegitimate. But his brother had an affair with Sibylla before she married Lusignan and Balian himself married a former queen of Jeruslaem, so even the love affair with Sibylla had an indirect and tenuous relationship to reality.

CN: You weren’t always a novelist. How has your background and education played into writing fiction? 

HS: Well, I was almost always a novelist, I wrote my first novel in 2nd grade, but you are right to speculate that my background and education played a critical role in turning me into a novelist at a very early age. My father was a professor who went to Japan on an exchange program when I was just two years old. Two years later, we returned via Hong Kong, Bangkok, Karachi, New Delphi, Athens, Rome, and then by car up to Denmark before flying to London and from there home. Now, to keep a four-year-old amused on such a long trip my father deployed the simple device of simplifying the explanations of everything we visited into terms of interest to a four year old. Thus, in the Colosseum in Rome he explained succinctly: “This is where they fed the Christians to the lions.” Now that interests a four year old! I started looking about the ruins trying to figure out where they’d kept the lions and where they’d kept the Christians and trying to imagine how I would have escaped. I’ve been imagining what life was like in a different times and circumstances ever since. Living in England in my teens was hugely inspiring, feeding my imagination with stories – and then there were the trips to “Cathar Country” in the South of France, and Cyprus, and. . .you get the picture.

CN: What a life! Though I haven’t traveled that extensively, I am a firm believer in the benefits of visiting other places and experiencing other cultures. What about the locations that feature in your novel – have you visited them? 

HS: Usually the visit precedes the novel. I am somewhere, read a plaque or a guide book describing events that happened there, and my imagination starts to run wild. But the plots of novels often lead me to places I have not yet been. I then do everything in my power to get there, because I find a visit to a location makes a huge difference to my understanding of it. For example, I accepted the usual drivel about Sparta being a poor and barren place (see descriptions of it in “Gates of Fire” or “Isle of Stone”) until I came around the bend of the road from road from modern Tripoli to modern Sparti and saw the valley of the Eurotas (the heartland of ancient Sparta) spread out before me. It was one of the most stunningly beautiful – and fertile – places I had ever seen. The contrast between reality and legend was so great it started me down a road of investigation that soon turned up the fact that ancient commentators on Sparta described it as much richer and more fertile than Attica. After I’d revised my understanding of the physical Sparta, I started questioning all the cliches about Spartans being uneducated thugs, thoughtless automatons, etc. etc. I soon discovered that Sparta was a far more liberal and intellectual place than popular literature and TV make it – indeed, arguably more liberal and literate than Athens. (For those interested in the topic, they can visit my website Sparta Reconsidered or my blog:

But I’ve drifted off topic. Yes, I usually try to get to the places I write about but it’s not always possible. For example, the castle and medieval down of Ibelin has been completely obliterated over the centuries. Even the palace and tombs of the Kings of Jerusalem are gone. I couldn’t risk going to Nablus in the Palestinian territories and Kerak lies in Jordan, which I have also been unable to visit as yet. So, I do what I can, but it isn’t always as much as I’d like. For this book, I did, at least, get to the Old City in Jerusalem, to Hattin, Jaffa, Ascalon, Ramla, and Lydda.

CN: With all the traveling you’ve done, do you have a favorite place to visit?

HS: Yes, I’ve travelled a great deal and I’ve lived in Japan, Brazil, England, Germany, Nigeria, and now Ethiopia. The place I’ve chosen for my retirement, however, is an island off the coast of the Peloponnese (once part of Lacedaemon, i.e. the hinterland of Sparta). My husband and I are building a house there with a view across the Maleas Straits to the snow-capped mountains behind Sparta.

CN: That sounds absolutely gorgeous. A perfect writer’s retreat. Speaking of writing, what has been the most challenging part of novel writing for you?

HS: The most difficult challenge for me as a historian (I have a PhD in history) is giving precedence to literary cohesion over historical accuracy. I have a tendency to want to be 100% accurate in every aspect of a novel, but the best works of historical literature are not always 100% correct. Shakespeare’s “histories” are notoriously inaccurate! A great piece of literature captures the spirit and essence of a period, but it may condense events to make them more dramatic or combine characters to keep the book from being overwhelmed with personalities. I’m not saying a novelist can take any amount of license, but sometimes license is justified, and knowing when it is right and good to do so is for me often difficult sometimes.

CN: Do you do a detailed plot and outline?

HS: Because this is a biographical novel, my plot/outline is the historical record. I work from both a chronology and an outline. The chronology contains all the relevant historical facts of the history of the Crusader States (not just Balian’s own life, but also the political, religious, economic events that shaped his lifetime) from the estimated date of Balian’s birth to a couple decades after his presumed death. Based on the historical facts, including the known biographical facts about Balian, his brother, wife, sons, niece etc. I developed an outline identifying which facts I wanted to present in what context and then added the fictional bits around this skeleton.

CN: In the introduction to Knight of Jerusalem, you write, “A biographical novel…is a medium that can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex, and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable.” It’s been my experience that many historians look down on genre fiction. How can we convince them of the value of books like yours?

HS: Most historians are put-off, not to say nauseated, by the number of books out there that call themselves “historical” and then have time travellers, dragons, vampires and I-don’t-know-what- all in them. Nearly as bad are “historical” novels with characters who behave, think, and have the attitudes of modern people, or books that change basic, well-known, important historical facts for no purpose. Honestly, there is so much trash out there masquerading as “historical” fiction that it can be very, very depressing. At the same time, some of the greatest pieces of literature are historical fiction. What else, after all, was the Iliad? Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur? or Tolstoy’s War and Peace? In fact, in my experience, historians readily admit that good historical fiction can make a very valuable contribution to our understanding of history, and many teachers of history relish a good, accurate historical novel as a means of awaking interest and evoking history for often reluctant students. In short, historians are some of my best fans precisely because they appreciate the accuracy and authenticity of my works.

CN: When writing a novel based on an existing historical figure, we often need to extrapolate beyond what our research uncovers in the official written record. Did you ever have the need to bend the truth and get more creative to make the story work?

HS: Absolutely, but “extrapolate” is the operative word here. It isn’t about just making things up, its about looking at the historical record and trying to develop a logical explanation of why a historical figure might have acted one way rather than another. The more famous that person is, the more defensible and logical that extrapolation better be! It’s about understanding human nature and being able to put yourself in someone else’s skin and see the world through his/her eyes. It also means that there are multiple, alternative interpretations, all of which are equally legitimate — just like different actors can interpret the same character in a play very differently without altering a single line.

CN: How long did it take you to write Knight of Jerusalem?

HS: It took about nine months for the first, rough draft. Then I did a re-write, sent it to test readers and re-wrote again based on their comments, before it went to the editor. Altogether from the first scene to publication about 15 months.

CN: Did you plot out the sequels as you were writing the first book, or are those processes completely separate? 

HS: As this is a biographical novel, the skeleton of the book existed before I even started to write. But when I started, I thought it would be just one book only to soon realize that to do justice to Balian and the wider topic, I needed to include more characters and historical events and that it wouldn’t work as one book. Ideally, I should have finished the entire work before releasing Book I because ultimately things will come up in the later books that impact Book I, but for marketing/sales reasons it is better to release the books sequentially. I don’t know if that answers your question, really. Maybe it would be easier to say the rough outline is pre-determined by history and Balian’s biography; the detailed outline is worked out in ever finer detail as I get closer to writing that particular section, and ultimately during writing itself.

CN: Are there certain types of scenes you find harder to write than others?

HS: If I’m having trouble writing a scene then something’s not right about it. In which case, I have to step back and consider a different approach – maybe a different point of view, or skipping over the scene altogether in favor of something else and only referring to the events of the skipped scene in retrospect. There are lots of devices for telling key events/components of a story. It can be fun playing around with a variety of approaches to see what works best.

That said, if there is a historical character I simply do not understand, then I cannot write a scene from their perspective. Keep in mind, fictional characters are your own creation and if you didn’t understand them, they wouldn’t be there. But biographical fiction inevitably requires certain other characters to appear and sometimes I don’t have any particular insight into what made them do the things recorded in history. This is what has happened to me with Sibylla of Jerusalem. I simply do not understand what made her tick. I can’t get into her head and so I cannot do any scene from her perspective. One of my test readers considered this a serious flaw, saying that given her importance in history I had to explain her actions. Well, that’s a good point, but I can’t do that. It’s a flaw.

CN: I like your tips about various approaches to scenes. I know I’ve experimented, scratched out numerous scenarios, to find what will move the plot forward. Speaking of scenes, do you have a favorite one from Knight of Jerusalem? Which one & why? 

HS: Do you mean the scene I think was most effective? or the one that captivated me most? The sack of Ibelin while Balian’s sister-in-law and niece were trapped in the castle was something I wrote about several times because I became totally absorbed in what it must have been like for a woman with a young child in such a predicament — but then I ended up cutting the scene altogether because it didn’t work in the overall flow. I think the most effective scenes in the book are those with Baldwin IV, particularly when he realizes the leprosy is spreading again.

CN: Did you uncover any surprising historical persons, places, events or things in your research?

HS: So many! Balian himself, Maria Comnena, Reynald de Chatillon, of course, and the Leper King. I find the entire cast of characters fascinating at some level, and the historical events equally so.

CN: What writers have inspired you? Any favorite books? Are there any you’ve read multiple times, or that you would give as a gift?

HS: Joseph Conrad was an early favourte, Katherine by Anya Seaton and The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman are books I own and have read more than once, but also Under an English Heaven by Robert Radcliffe, and Champion by Christian Balling.

CN: When can we look forward to book 2 in your series? Does it have a title yet?

HS: I’d like to release the second book in the series, Defender of Jerusalem in September of 2015, one year after the release of Knight of Jerusalem. The goal is to release the third and final book, tentatively titled Envoy of Jerusalem in September 2016.

CN: What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t working or writing? Favorite past time?

HS: Riding. I have an Arab-Ethiopian stallion here, who is (I confess) too hot for me, but he’s got so much character I can’t give him up for one of the duller horses.

CN:  Helena, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to your posts on Defending the Crusader Kingdom, and hope that others will add Knight of Jerusalem to their to-read lists! 


Read more about Helena on her blog, In addition to the Sparta site she mentions above, follow her posts on the crusader kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem at Defending the Crusader Kingdom,

Helena has published numerous works of fiction about the Middle Ages and Sparta and works of non-fiction.

You will also find Helena on social media on Goodreads, Facebook, and YouTube.

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