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The Historical Novella – Tips from Helena P. Schrader

Rather than one long novel, Helena Schrader is writing a series of ten novellas – Ten Tales of Chivalry, all set in the 13th century. I was interested to know more about the Novella form, so I am delighted to welcome Helena to enlighten us.

Q. Is there an advantage to writing a shorter novel – a novella – and why do you think it suited this particular subject matter? What do you think are the main elements to consider when writing shorter historical fiction?

First, I have to confess that only six of the ten “tales” are shorter works of fiction. Three are a long novel divided up into three parts for digestibility, and the tenth tale, the story of Balian d’Ibelin, will be as long as it has to be to tell his story. That is still in the very early stages of writing and I can’t say what length it will be yet.

Novella cover1

Now to your question, the length of a novel is determined by its subject. If I set out to write a full-length biographical novel, then it’s going to be a full length book because you need space to develop a person’s character from childhood to old age and explain what made that person a historical figure step by step. Alternatively, if I am trying to describe a complex episode in history such as the German Resistance to Hitler or the Battle of Britain, I find it useful to have multiple story lines to be able to cover multiple facets of the historical material. This too takes space and so longer works. In contrast, my tales of chivalry are, with the two exceptions noted above, simple stories focused on one or at most two characters during a single phase of their lives. They describe an important “moment” in the life of the main character, not an entire lifetime or historical event.

When writing shorter fiction, an author must be more disciplined than ever to keep the story focused on the essentials. A larger novel can afford to have sub-plots and secondary characters; a novella should not have sub-plots and secondary characters need to be “cameos” or sketches not fully developed characters. I sometimes think of shorter fiction as a film; things have to be simplified, concentrated, condensed, yet you also need powerful images because you have less time to develop a plot, theme or character. Each scene really has to count.

Q. I am interested that you call your series of novellas, Tales of Chivalry. What do you think Chivalry is and why is it so attractive to read about? Chivalry is often associated with men – are there women’s tales in your collection?

I called my collection of stories “Tales of Chivalry” not because they are about chivalry, but because I was looking for a common denominator, something that would bundle them under a single roof. The obvious fact was that they were all set in the Age of Chivalry, that is, in a period in which chivalry was the dominant ethos of the ruling class. There is also a rich literary tradition from the Middle Ages of writing about heroic deeds and calling them tales of chivalry, so I wanted to link my stories with the literature that would have inspired my characters.

So what was chivalry? It was an ideal code of behavior which knights (and only knights, not the middle classes, peasants or clergy) tried to live up to for nearly five hundred years. Based on the primers prepared for young men (many of which were written by monks!), the biographies of men considered by their contemporaries to be paragons of chivalry (William Marshall, Geoffrey de Charney, Edward of Woodstock) and the literary tradition, it is safe to say that first and foremost a knight was supposed to uphold justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans and the Church.  Knights were also supposed to be on a permanent quest for honor and glory, sometimes translated as “nobility.”  In more practical terms, the virtues of chivalry were defined in various texts as courtesy, diligence, generosity, sobriety, a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, humility, mercy, and — something that might surprise those people who still think of the Middle Ages as an era in which people did not bathe — cleanliness.

You asked about women — and I’m glad you asked! One of the key features of chivalry distinguishing it from earlier traditions of warrior epics and heroic poetry starting with the Iliad was the central and positive role played by women. The West European tradition of chivalry introduced the notion that “a man could become more noble through love,” and love for a lady became a central — if not the central — concept of chivalry in literature. So, yes, in the tradition of the troubadours my tales always include a lady! (In “A Widow’s Crusade” the lady is the central character.) Furthermore, a very important aspect of chivalry — for which women in the West ought to be grateful to this day — is that chivalric love had to be mutual, voluntary and exclusive — on both sides.  It could occur between husband and wife — and many of the romances such as “Erec et Enide” by Chretien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s “Parzival” revolve in part or in whole about the love of a married couple. However, the troubadours put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing — provided the lady returned the sentiment. Hence we get the great classical romances of illicit love such as Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Iseult, among others.

Q.The Languedoc region of France is very beautiful, but also rich in history. How did you go about researching the story and what sources did you use?

These tales were almost all inspired by visits to the Languedoc and/or Cyprus. I was there, I was climbing up to the castles, wandering through the cobblestoned towns, awed by the beauty of the cloisters. At every church, castle and town there are guidebooks and plaques with enticing snippets of information designed to ignite curiosity — and in my case imagination as well. So what usually happened is I returned from a holiday in the South of France or Cyprus full of ideas for stories and then set about doing the necessary historical research to see what would really work. I use the internet to identify serious scholarly works on the topics relevant to my books: the Cathar heresy, the crusades, particularly the Albigensian crusades, France and Cyprus in the 13th century, the Knights Templar but also Medieval legal systems, weapons, literature, etc and chivalry itself, of course. I order the best books I can find on line and keep building up my home library. After working on a particular period of history for some time, I usually have the kind of library where I can do much of my research at home, checking and cross checking facts from the books on hand. If I need more, I go on line and look for more sources. (I just ordered the Chronicles of Ernoul, for example, a contemporary account of the Kingdom of Jerusalem written by a man in the service of Balian d’Ibelin.) One of the advantages of writing historical fiction is that the facts are not constantly changing. New historians may shed more light on a subject or provide alternative interpretations of events, but old history books don’t become worthless.

Q. Would you have considered this type of project before digital publishing or has the advent of simple uploading changed the way you approach your writing?

I wrote most of these tales long before there was digital publishing because when a story is in me, I have to write it down. I was inspired by the places I’d visited and the raw history, and so I wrote these six novellas and the novel, “The Lion of Karpas,” that I’ve divided up into three tales for this collection. But I never tried to sell them to traditional publishers because it just seemed like a waste of time. The conventional wisdom was that works this length (ca. 100 – 200 pages) wouldn’t sell. Besides, how many people are there out there that are interested in medieval Cyprus? Or the Albigensian crusades? Most Americans have never heard of them and couldn’t care less.  But with digital publishing, I can publish for my niche market — no matter how small it is. It has been fun going back and re-discovering these tales, re-writing them, polishing and refining, and now designing covers etc. I always liked these stories, and I can’t help but think others will enjoy them too.

About the book:

Sir Gerard, a mercenary in the service of the King of France, is as godless as he is fearless – until he receives an unexpected summons to the bedside of a dying monk, his father. The encounter sets him on a journey to the castle of his birth and a confrontation with the man who has stolen his family’s lands and titles. Set against the backdrop of the Albigensian crusades, this novel tells the story of a man’s search for peace.  

Many thanks to Helena for sharing her thoughts so generously. You can find out more about Helena at www.helenapschrader.com

Comments are welcome!

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