Saturday, January 24, 2015

Race to Tibet: Meet the Characters

RACE TO TIBET is an exciting historical adventure about a group of intrepid explorers headed by Gabriel Bonvalot, who attempt to become the first living Europeans to reach Lhasa, the mysterious capital of Tibet. Along the way they are besieged by ferocious winds, freezing cold, sandstorms, hostile Tibetans, but they are resolved to beat the odds and reach the legendary Potala Palace, the seat of the famed Dalai Lama.

Gabriel Bonvalot is a rugged French explorer who has accomplished many daring expeditions throughout Central Asia on horseback, especially one harrowing journey over the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains at the height of winter. After the death of Nikolai Prejevaksly, his Russian rival, he comes up with the daring plan to reach Lhasa, the forbidden capital of Tibet by trekking overland from Paris to Tonkin and veering off into Tibet. The dangers were real: the Tibetan authorities are known for putting to death any stranger caught infiltrating their holy city. For a man like Bonvalot, the challenge is irresistible.

Prince Henri d'Orleans is a pompous, incorrigible aristocrat who can't keep his name out of the gutter press. When he goes too far, his father, the Duke of Chartres, comes up with an audacious plan to get ride of him. He offers to finance Bonvalot's next expedition to Tibet on condition he takes along the wayward prince. After many scrapes and near-death experiences, Bonvalot must muster every ounce of self-control to not take the young prince to task.

Father Constant de Deken is a Belgian Missionary with an unusual dossier. He speaks fluent Chinese and knows every trick on getting under the skin of the Qing authorities. Bonvalot persuades de Deken to accompany him on his journey to Tibet and soon the fearless missionary is an invaluable member of the team. It doesn't hurt that he shoots with impeccable accuracy and rides like a cavalry officer.

Camille Dancourt is the beautiful, strong-willed wife of a French surveyor who went missing inside Tibet. At the outset, she is determined to join Bonvalot's caravan to search for her husband, but Bonvalot refuses, citing the danger. Instead of giving up, Camille comes up with another plan for infiltrating Tibet and soon their paths meet again…

Rachmed is Bonvalot's trusted Uzbek caravan leader. Rachmed is a giant of a man, as strong as Goliath and the veteran of many rough scrapes and near-death experiences; he even spent a month spent in the Mehtar of Chitral's dungeon. But when Rachmed goes missing on the Tibetan Chang Tang for 3 days straight during a blinding blizzard, Bonvalot faces the prospect of losing his companion forever…

Princess Pema is a beautiful Tibetan noblewoman who is literally running for her life. After escaping from the Chinese Ambans, she is desperately trying to make her way back to Lhasa and sees Bonvalot as the answer to her prayers. She joins his caravan, and when they discover her secret, they realize all their lives are in danger. And when Prince Henri falls head over heels in love with the Buddhist princess, sparks fly!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The curious case of Hezekiah Smith: The last Danish prisoner from the West Indies

The Danish West Indies was a Danish Colony in the Caribbean from 1670 until 1917, when the islands were transferred to the U.S. While I was growing up in St. Thomas, I always dreamed of writing my own historical novel that would bring the Danish period to life. During 5 years of research, I came across many strange stories, but none stranger than the curious case of Hezekiah Smith, who hailed from a somewhat notorious family and came very close to losing his head.
Danish history is a live and well in the Virgin Islands.

The story began in December of 1904, when a young female laborer from the St. Croix plantation known as Betty's Hope was found murdered. A search party was sent out and came back a short while later dragging a certain Hezekiah Smith, alias William Smith, alias Queen Mary’s son before Judge Anders Jensen Langkjær in Frederiksted's Ekstra Kriminalret (Special Criminal Court) to face charges of murder. After Smith was found guilty, he received the standard sentence for murderers in the Danish West Indies since the time of King Christian V of 1683: "to lose his neck and have his head mounted on a stake”.
Photo of Hezekiah Smith in court courtesy of Royal Danish Archives, Danish West Indies collection.

Fort Frederick is now a national park with its very own beach.
Luckily for Smith, the Danish West Indies had long ago stopped beheading murderers. Instead, Hezekiah petitioned the King to reduce his punishment to a life sentence. Instead of waiting for the pardon to arrive, he picked the lock of his cell door at Fort Frederick (pictured above) with a nail and climbed over a fence to freedom. A warrant for his arrest was immediately issued but Hezekiah was nowhere to be found – even with the promise of a reward of 20 dollars.
A criminal carried to prison St. Croix.
Hezekiah stole a rowboat and went to sea with a bottle of water and six coconuts. Nine days later he reached Puerto Rico where he found work as a day laborer on the docks. After some time, Hezekiah signed on an American schooner bound for Baltimore where he went ashore and found a new girlfriend. 

This relationship was not perfect either. In January 1908, Hezekiah was arrested and accused of murdering his new girlfriend, Minnie Smith. When the prison authorities recognized Hezekiah as the notorious murderer from St. Croix, he was extradited to Horsens State Penitentiary in Denmark.

During Hezekiah's first years in prison he was a restless prisoner. On several occasions he had to be punished. But after several years of good behavior, the warden recommended him for a pardon. By now (1919) the Danish West Indies had been transferred to the U.S., and the American authorities would not take Hezekiah back under any circumstances. And since Hezekiah had not requested to keep his Danish citizenship, he was now stateless. This cost him an additional four years in Horsens.
The Danish West Indies, consisting of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John, were transferred to the United States in 1917.
Finally, on September 5th, 1923, King Christian X pardoned Hezekiah and the prison authorities came up with a creative solution for getting rid of him when they put Hezekiah on a Polish schooner bound for Trinidad. He was never heard from again.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Enter to win a free copy of Race to Tibet on Goodreads

Contest ends January 27th, 2015. Good luck!!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Race to Tibet by Sophie Schiller

Race to Tibet

by Sophie Schiller

Giveaway ends January 27, 2015.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cover Reveal: Race to Tibet

Hello friends!
I'm very excited to share the cover of my new novel which is a historical thriller called Race to Tibet. It is the story of Gabriel Bonvalot, one of France's greatest explorers, who teams up with Prince Henri d'Orleans, a jaded, ill-mannered aristocrat, in an all-out effort to be the first living Europeans to reach Lhasa. The story occurs during the Great Game, the period of great strategic conflict and rivalry between Great Britain and Russia (1813-1907) for political and military control of Central Asia, including Tibet. Many explorers of Central Asia were really intelligence agents sent to gather information about troop movements and trade routes, which could be used for advancing armies. Race to Tibet focuses on these two adventurous Frenchmen, who are caught up in the Great Game when they are taken for Russian interlopers by Chinese Ambans (officials of the Qing Emperor who enforced the laws of Peking) who had never heard of France, and were determined to stop at all foreigners from entering Lhasa at any cost.

Tibet had long been the stuff of dreams. Buttressed by the Himalayas, and lying at an altitude of about three miles, Tibet was dubbed 'The Roof of the World' by Victorian travelers. Lying at 12,000 feet, Lhasa, is the world's highest capital and those with elevated blood pressures are urged to stay away. In fact, Lhasa had been closed to foreigners for so long, it was called 'The Forbidden City'. So little was known about Tibet that for many years it appeared as a huge white blank on official British maps, as if the entire area was covered with snow. Slowly over time the English in India devised a way to collect intelligence about Tibet by sending 'pundits', or Hindu technicians disguised as Buddhist pilgrims, to explore it and map it. These pundits would enter Tibet clandestinely, calculating distances by using measured footsteps which they recorded by means of specially-designed rosaries, as well as measuring altitudes by means of boiling water and recording the temperatures with a thermometer. Without a doubt, the fascinating adventures of the pundits whetted the appetites of Victorian explorers and before long, an international race to Lhasa was underway.

The Potala Palace has been luring explorers since time immemorial.

My novel, Race to Tibet, focuses on the journey of Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri d'Orléans, a mismatched duo who attempted to reach Lhasa for different reasons. For his part, Bonvalot was already a celebrated French explorer, having crossed the Pamirs to reach India during the middle of winter, for which he was awarded the gold medal of the Société de Géographie in 1888.  Bonvalot was motivated by the desire to be first to reach Lhasa, to have his name go down in history, and to sell out lecture halls and travel books. On the other hand, Prince Henri turned to exploration as a means to escape a bad reputation he had earned in Europe as a brutal, ill-tempered dueler, a drinker, and a gambler.

Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri d'Orleans: these guys hated each other in real life.

There's lots of drama and intrigue in the story, which I wove together from various sources. I spent close to three years researching this story, which I studied within the context of the Great Game. I brought to life real-life characters, including all the major players in Bonvalot's expedition, as well as invented some fictional characters, incluiding Princess Pema, a Tibetan Buddhist princess who I modeled on Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, the real life daughter of the Panchen Lama (a religious figurehead in Tibet similar to the Dalai Lama) who is known as the 'Princess of Tibet' and is considered an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan-Chinese politics, and is the only known offspring in the 620 years of history of either the Panchen or Dalai Lama reincarnation lineages.

Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, the princess of Tibet.

I also added mystical elements of Buddhism, as well as romance to give the novel more drama, mystery, and intrigue. In many ways, Race to Tibet fits into the Lost World genre of novels like "King Solomon's Mines" by H. Rider Haggard and "The Lost World" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story is replete with danger, suspense, and intrigue as the explorers inch closer to Lhasa. So join Bonvalot and Prince Henri on their expedition to the Roof of the World. In the pages of this novel, you will encounter an entire new world waiting to be discovered!

Yak at Yundrok Yumtso Lake the yak is perfectly suited to life at high altitudes.
Gabriel Bonvalot and Prince Henri and Father Constant de Deken were the first Europeans to reach Lake Namtso, due north of Lhasa.

Race to Tibet is scheduled to be released on January 26th. Currently you can pre-order the ebook for only $3.99 on by clicking on this link:  

Monday, September 15, 2014

More about Spy Island

In honor of Spy Island's virtual book tour, I decided to give a little more information about the story behind the story. So without further ado, I present:  

Where did the idea of the book come from?

Spy Island blends real life events with fictional elements. It started out from an inspirational idea that I could weave an adventure story around the fact that the U.S. acquired the Danish West Indies in 1917. A little-known fact was that the island of St. Thomas had a well-entrenched German spy ring operating out in the open. Using this detail, I wove a narrative about an island girl who rescues a German U-boat deserter who is later blackmailed by the leader of this spy ring into committing sabotage and murder. The result is an old-fashioned spy thriller with an exotic Caribbean setting.

Charlotte Amalie: the site of an important WWI German Ettapendienst base.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Abigail Maduro:    Odeya Rush
Erich Seibold:        Daniel Brühl
Nana Jane:             Alfre Woodard
Cooky Betty:         Octavia Spencer
Judge Henrik Neergaard:   Bernard Hill
Herr Dreyer/Langsdorff:     Christoph Walz
Jens Jørgensen:      Max von Sydow

Odeya Rush: Does she make the perfect Abby?
Alfre Woodard is an extraordinary actress and would make a splendid Nana Jane.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your novel:

During WWI on the island of St. Thomas, a beautiful Sephardic Jewish girl helps a German war deserter and becomes embroiled in a German spy's plot to take over the Danish West Indies.

German actor Daniel Bruhl: would he play a convincing Erich?

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Three years.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Ever since I was a child growing up in Charlotte Amalie, I longed to know what life was like back during Danish times. When I grew up, I turned my obsession into a full-time job when I began researching and writing Spy Island, (which is called "Transfer Day" in the Virgin Islands). In the book, the reader will be transported back in time to a tropical Danish sugar colony in the West Indies at the height of the Great War when German spies operated throughout the Caribbean and Latin America under the noses of the authorities.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

"Spy Island" is historical fiction with espionage and romance elements, comparable to "Circle of Spies" or "Ring of Secrets" by Roseanna White, or "Spy of Richmond" by Jocelyn Green.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Readers who love the Edwardian period through WWI will love "Spy Island" because it immerses the reader in that era. The period dancing and music, horse carriages, steamship travel, victrolas playing in the background…
"Spy Island" also boasts an international cast of quirky characters that range from a witty Irish sailor to Old World Danish characters, German spy characters, colorful West Indian characters and a spirited heroine who will capture your heart. So pour yourself a rum & coke, add a twist of lime, and let yourself be transported back to the old West Indies. You'll be in for an exciting adventure!

The Danish West Indies is a location rarely used in novels, movies, and plays.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A preview of my forthcoming historical thriller: Race to Tibet

I couldn't resist posting some pictures of my new novel Race to Tibet, a novel that explores the Victorian era's fascination with exploring the Roof of the World.

Let's start with some of the characters:

Nikolai Prejevalsky (1839-1888) was your classic Great Game heavyweight. He was the Tsar's go-to guy for bringing back vital intelligence about British activity along her Central Asian borders, exploring previously-unknown regions and mountain ranges, as well as bringing back zoological and ornithological samples. He even discovered a previously-unknown wild species of horse that was named after him.
His greatest dream was to reach Lhasa, but fate intervened and he came down with a whopping case of typhus and an unpaid hospital bill in the Russian military hospital in Karakol (in present-day Kyrgyzstan) where his body was laid to rest.

The death of Prejevalsky in 1888 opened up new doors for other explorers, namely Gabriel Bonvalot, a gutsy French explorer whose specialty was sneaking up on foreign countries unannounced, a sort of geographical party-crasher. Bonvalot had guns, muscles, and oodles of chutzpa, but not much money, so when the Duke of Chartres offered to finance his expedition to Tibet, he said, "Oui" and "Quand partons-nous?" (When do we leave?) The only caveat being that Bonvalot had to take along the Duke's wayward son, Prince Henri d'Orleans, an aristocratic poltroon with a penchant for gambling, drinking, and getting on everyone's nerves. Thankfully, nothing that a good fist fight couldn't fix. You can read all about their harrowing journey in my forthcoming thriller "Race to Tibet". 

For more pictures about their extraordinary journey to Tibet, please click on the Pinterest link. Please follow me on Pinterest for updates.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Evolution of a Book Cover

I started writing Transfer Day, an historical novel set in the Danish West Indies during WWI, in December of 2008 to fulfill a childhood promise to write a novel that would capture the unique history and beauty of St. Thomas, the island of my youth. Very few people know that for 300 years Denmark had a sugar colony in the West Indies, but no novels existed that were set in this unique location.

My novel centers on a 16-year old girl who becomes embroiled in a German spy's plot to invade and take over the islands after she rescues a deserter from a German U-boat. After years of writing and polishing several drafts, I was ready to start designing a book cover.

 In the Spring of 2011, I hired a professional designer and described my vision for the cover, which included blazing cannons, Danish soldiers and U-boat medallions. Here are the results:

I liked the covers, and I have no doubt I would have used one of them had it not been for a certain beta reader—a gentleman who owns a book store—who pointed out that the majority of book buyers are women, and for a book cover to work, it should reflect that fact.

This added a significant wrinkle to my situation. Since one of my main characters was a U-boat officer, I naturally thought that guys would be more interested in reading Transfer Day. I knew that to successfully market my book to women, I would have to change the girl's age, change several key scenes, and create a richer romantic subtext to the story.

I went back to the drawing board and hired a new book designer to create a new cover that reflected this new image. The new cover we conjured up was definitely designed to appeal more to females. Gone were the smoking cannons, the unfurled flags, the shiny medallions. Instead, we inserted a beautiful girl superimposed over an idyllic image of Charlotte Amalie. This is the result:

I launched "Transfer Day" in June of 2012, never realizing that my journey was just beginning. As a thank you for sharing his expertise, I sent a paperback copy of "Transfer Day" to my European military consultant (who is also an avid reader) who promptly declared upon completing it that the book was a spy thriller. A spy thriller? I could feel my brow wrinkling. "That's impossible!" I argued. "This book is historical fiction. Look at the historical setting, the island vignettes, the international cast of characters." "No, no," he answered firmly. "Transfer Day is a spy thriller."

I accepted his assertion, but if "Transfer Day" was a spy thriller, then it would need new title and a new cover to reflect its new genre. I pondered this dilemma for hours, but I remained stumped. I couldn't think of a new title. And then, right out of the blue, it hit me:  "Spy Island". Spy Island was the perfect title for my book. After more intensive research, I designed a new cover to reflect this new image:

I was pleased with the results. But two months later, I got a big surprise. I had entered "Spy Island" in a giveaway sponsored by a popular YA blog (since I was trying to break into the YA market) and to my dismay, the reaction was lukewarm. The new cover didn't seem to excite much interest. I was shocked because I thought the title and cover would appeal to lovers of historical fiction and action/adventure novels. But I was off the mark. Back to the drawing board.

This time, I delved deeper into the study of YA book covers. Many book blogs contain in depth analyses about current trends in YA book covers, and I studied these blogs for hours on end, analyzing hundreds of covers, studying which images worked best to attract readers. After more research and investigation, this is the new image I came up with:

While the new cover captured the essence of my main character and the tropical setting of the novel, the historical aspect was missing. After subjecting the cover to a focus group, the conclusion I came up with was that most people felt the cover projected a contemporary romantic look, not the sweeping historical espionage thriller I had written. I heaved a sigh and went back to the drawing board.

Late one night after everyone had gone to bed, I was browsing through Shutterstock, looking for the right image. Then it hit me. I found a picture of a beautiful Croatian model with a turn-of-the-century hairdo that was just perfect. I knew I had found my Abby. But what about the background? After more consideration, I decided to go back to my original background, the one that accurately captures the look of the island that I had used for the original Transfer Day cover. My cover artist put the cover together and for the first time in years, I had a feeling of total satisfaction. After all those hours of work, I finally achieved the desired results. The cover is attractive and intriguing, and conveys the historical feel of the novel. My job was finally finished.

After two years of hard work, I learned that designing a book cover is a complex subject best left to professionals. But if a writer is compelled to do it, you should be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them, as it is only through those failures that you'll learn to grow, adapt and change. The hardest lesson of all was accepting that what pleased me was not necessarily what the market wanted. I had to let go of my preconceived notions about what entailed a successful book cover and embrace the market's needs. Now that I've reached this new plateau, I feel like I've passed a crucial test. But when I look back on the journey, I'm grateful for all the help I received along the way. Mostly I'm grateful that I listened to the messages I received, and that I had the flexibility to act on them.