19 May 2013

Guest Blog: Sophie Schiller

This week, we're welcoming author Sophie Schiller with her latest title, The Spy Island. The author will offer a free copy of the book to a lucky blog visitor. Here's the blurb:

At the height of the Great War, Abby Maduro is an adventurous orphan who saves the life of a stranded sailor who has washed ashore on her Caribbean island. In spite of the danger and consequences she faces, Abby shelters Erich Seibold in the basement of her house and friendship and love blossom between the unlikely pair. In time, Abby learns that the erudite stranger is a deserter from a German U-boat. When the island's German Consul, Lothar Langsdorff, also discovers Erich's true identity, he blackmails him into joining his spy ring by committing sabotage and murder. After a tumult involving the Danish governor, Erich is hunted down and thrown into prison, forcing Abigail to risk everything to save him. But with Langsdorff and his spy ring still on the loose, Abigail relies on wits, bravery and a little island magic to save her tranquil island from a dangerous German spy. Spy Island is a historical spy thriller for the adventure-lover in you. Prepare to be carried away to an exotic tropical island with its potent mixture of action, suspense, romance, and delightful island characters who will cast their spell over you. 

**Q&A with Sophie Schiller**

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?

I've developed a workable approach over the years. I accumulate a large amount of books and memoirs on the topic I'm writing about. Then I systematically read them, highlighting the parts that are relevant, or else writing notes in a legal-sized notebook, jotting down important facts such as vocabulary, weaponry, gadgets people used, relevant brand names, monetary value of everyday items, attitudes, how they entertained themselves, what techniques they used to get out of difficult situations, speech patterns, how they played jokes on each other, how they handled social snubs, what issues were important to them. Some of the most telling details, however, are the ones they tried to hide or gloss over.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? 

My biggest influences were Ken Follett, Leon Uris, and Jeffrey Archer. Even when they were writing about ordinary people, they set the action against a larger historical backdrop, putting you right in the middle of the action, so to speak. In the sphere of non-fiction, Dava Sobel is an especially brilliant writer who is able to humanize her characters and make the reader care about them, she does this extraordinarily well in "Longitude" and "Galileo's Daughter".

What ingredients do you think make for a favorite historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing?

When a writer can set aside his own attitudes and beliefs and let the characters be true to themselves, then you have a chance to recreate history in an entertaining fashion. But when a writer interjects his own cultural beliefs and attitudes onto his characters, then he puts his audience on guard and risks making them feel manipulated. The classic cliché in this regard is the 18th century lady with feminist ideals, or the First Class passenger on the Titanic who wants to experience Third Class travel because he feels more enlightened and egalitarian than his close-minded peers. That is not to suggest that such people didn't exist, but they would have been labeled eccentric.

Another important ingredient for a historical fiction writer is to humanize his characters, especially his villains. Ken Follett is particularly good at this. Don't just show the Nazi sympathizer as a violent Sociopath; show how devoted he is to his wife (Hornet Flight). All people are multi-dimensional. Or in the case of a novel with no human villains, show how society's prevailing attitudes toward class, ethnicity, or country of origin can take on the role of villain, causing people to needlessly suffer and die. (Paths of Glory, Archer; Tales of the South Pacific, Michener; Hawaii, Michener)

How do you select new stories to tell?

When I feel a pressing need to tell a character's story, that's when I look into the feasibility of writing about them. But desire is not enough. Sometimes you love a character and desperately want to tell their story, but the details of their life are locked up in a Royal Archives. Not every country has the "Freedom of Information" Act and it makes you appreciate America's fairly easy access to first-hand research material.

What techniques do you employ to write productively? 

I try to stay focused and stay in character. Sometimes I work on a scene for months until I get it right.

What do you do to connect with readers?  

I'm on Facebook and I have a blog. Anyone who writes to me will definitely get a response!

Learn more about author Sophie Schiller:

Sophie Schiller Blog: http://sophieschiller.blogspot.com/
Twitter: @SophieSchiller