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Helena P. Schrader

Interview with

Helena P. Schrader

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

It was in second grade, when I also wrote my first "novel."

How long does it take you to write a book?

That depends on how you define "write"? Do you include the research? The editing? As a rule, I can write a book a year if I'm 1) inspired, 2) already femiliar with the period in which it is set and don't have to do a massive amount of fundamental research, and 3) my editor is not overbooked and can provide timely feedback.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

How powerful characters are. They can take control of a book and alter it from what you plan. They can haunt you. They can alter your entire life by making you spend more time with them, making you investigate things you never planned to look into and by changing your perspective on many aspects of life and history.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

I receive fan mail at least weekly, often more. Some readers have questions (when is the next book coming? Why don't I write about x or y?) Most are simply letting me know that one of my books touched them in some way. I've had readers write to tell me my characters reminded them of their father or other people they knew. Readers have also written to let me know that I described a historical character they personally knew "right." The most important feedback of my life came from Wing Commander Bob Doe, a Battle of Britain ace, who write that my novel on the Battle of Britain was the "best book" he had ever read on the topic and that I'd got it "smack on" the way it was for "us fighter pilots." Praise doesn't get any higher than that for a writer of historical fiction.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Writing energizes me. It keeps me up at night. I rewrite scenes in my head or plan new scenes. When I'm writing I'm happy. When other things get in the way I get grumpy or discouraged and I'm not so nice to live with.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

I haven't a clue what "Kryptonite" is!

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

I can only write what is in me -- which is why I made the decision very early in life NOT to try to make my living as a writer. I had a career and earned my money as a diplomat, not an author.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

Can't think of one.

At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?

When you have something you want to say so badly that you are willing to sacrifice your free time and invest money to write it, edit it and market it. If you aren't willing to make sacrifices for your writing, then it's just a hobby and you aren't a writer.

What do the words “writer’s block” mean to you? 

Nothing. My problem has always been finding enough time to write. I've never had a problem actually writing.

Are there therapeutic benefits to modeling a character after someone you know?

I'm not a psychologist, so I wouldn't risk talking about therapy. I find that it sometimes helps to picture someone I know when describing minor (tertiary) characters, but all my main characters are far too strong and unique to "model" on someone. They have lives and opinions and styles of their own.

What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?

I write historical fiction based on historical facts so the plot is broadly already given to me. My characters drive my books within that framework.

How would you describe your book’s ideal reader?

My readers are mature, well-educated, open-minded, and interested in understanding human nature and the human condition. They like to learn from books and like to reflect on what they are learning. They value realistic plots, plausible characters, and historical accuracy. They are intolerant of fantastical developments, hate flat, cartoon-like characters and cliches. They are not looking for light entertainment or escapism. But they aren't cynical either. They are willing to care about characters, to get involved with them -- to cry and to laugh with them.

How much research did you need to do for your book? 

A lot. I read scores of books about each topic and I try to track down information about even minor details. I'm very focused on both accuracy and authenticity -- which are not the same thing, as the facts can all be right (accurate) but the mood and atmosphere completely wrong (authenticity.) I'd rather sacrifice accuracy than authenticity, by the way. In any case, I do a very great deal of research, including looking at primary sources (if available), visiting locations, studying contemporary fashion, music, and the like.
Yet, I'm always appalled and amazed by how many writers claim to have done "a lot" of research and yet get the most fundamental things so terribly wrong that you feel as though they didn't bother to read the basic wikipedia article on the topic. I rather suspect, all authors say they've done "a lot" of research, but each of us defines it differently.

Tell us more about your book/s?

Well, I've written more than twenty so I can really talk about the individually. Instead, here is the "branding statement" I developed a couple of years ago. I think it does sum up my books.

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.

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