Transported in Time and Place – by Sophie Schiller

Sophie Schiller returns to the blog today to talk about being transported in time and place while writing her latest novel Island on Fire. Many thanks, Sophie.

When I set out to write ISLAND ON FIRE, a novel set during the last days of St. Pierre, Martinique, I knew I had to “get in the trenches.” I knew I couldn’t rely on research alone to recreate a town besieged by an erupting volcano at the turn of the last century. I was also determined to evoke the unique culture, colors, tastes, sounds, and smells of the French West Indies. To do this right I had to go there myself and walk in the footsteps of my characters. I had to feel the cobblestones beneath my feet, smell the fragrant flowers, and hear their musical Creole dialect. To immerse my readers in Martinique, I had to immerse myself in that world, and fall asleep each night to the sound of the crickets and tree frogs singing their nightly chorus.

Martinique woman in traditional Creole attire circa 1900

The project was high stakes. I wanted to be the first writer to successfully recreate this largely forgotten tale. To this day few people know about this Caribbean Pompeii, and the more I researched it, the more it gripped me. It had all the elements of a spellbinding historical thriller complete with a rumbling volcano, inept bureaucrats, voodoo witch doctors, a deadly smallpox outbreak, and an entire town in denial. The only question was how to bring it all together. And how to make it all real.

On the morning of May 8, 1902, Mt. Pelée shot a blistering avalanche of rock and ash right through the city. The pyroclastic flow rocketed through the streets at 250 mph, leveling buildings, torching ships in the harbor, and killing 30,000 people in a span of minutes. The destruction was so devastating it took decades to rebuild the town. Today, there are still parts of the town that have never been rebuilt. The ruins serve as a memorial to the dead. Between 2015 and 2016 I made two trips down to Martinique to explore the town firsthand and learn a little about this long-forgotten tragedy.

My first stop was to St. Pierre. I spent hours wandering through her streets, exploring the volcanic ruins, locating famous sights, including the theater, the prison, the fort, the Place Bertin, the Hotel Intendance, the psychiatric hospital, the stone bridge over the Rivière Roxelane, and the commercial district with its rows of crumbling brick walls, all that remains of where enormous warehouses used to stand. Coursing through the Rue Victor Hugo, I eventually arrived at the Musée Volcanologique, the town’s volcano museum, which consisted of a single large room at the center of which sits a massive bronze bell that once hung in the destroyed cathedral. During the blast the bell was melted and crushed, as if pressed between a giant’s fingers. On the walls are various photographs of the city when it was known as the “Paris of the West Indies.” The pictures reveal a town full of French colonial grace, carriages crowding the cobblestone streets, rum barrels lining the waterfront, planters in panama hats, and barefoot market women carrying baskets on their heads. Interspersed among these photographs are artifacts, including broken china, a crushed pistol, melted scissors, charred spaghetti, stacks of drinking glasses fused into misshapen columns, and a human skull reportedly from the prison.

The fashionable Rue Victor Hugo in St. Pierre circa 1900

My next stop was Habitation Clement, a sugar plantation that has a restored Creole Great House with gorgeous oil paintings, mahogany and rattan furniture, and an office with old office equipment including an old phone and typewriter. I sat down at the desk and imagined what it would be like to manage a plantation while all around you the world is falling apart. I could hear the screams of the workers, the chaos, the confusion, ash everywhere, and nowhere left to run… Just walking around the plantation gave me a feel for life in a tropical outpost of the French colonial empire. This Great House became the setting for my novel.

Using my research, I created a story about a young woman who is caught up in the drama of St. Pierre when she realizes her fiancé has been unfaithful. Left with no choice she resorts to voodoo to break off her engagement and is slowly pulled into the web of a menacing voodoo witch doctor. After falling in love with an army officer, they are swept up in a whirlwind of intrigue, black magic, and deceit as they attempt to escape the besieged town. I hope ISLAND ON FIRE will transport you back in time to this exciting and terrifying event, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

ISLAND ON FIRE by Sophie Schiller: In the lush, tropical world of Martinique in 1902, a French planter’s daughter and an army officer are swept up in a whirlwind of voodoo, black magic, and intrigue during the Pompeii of the Caribbean.

Sounds like a fascinating story and a unique setting, Sophie. With even these brief glimpses, I’m sure you have a winner.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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7 Responses

    1. Hi Pat, thanks for your comment. The research process was intense, exhausting, and challenging. The heat combined with the humidity and difficulty of travel was formidable. At one point I got stuck in a mountain village 1,500 feet above sea level with no way out. It took a lot of finagling to get back to my hotel. But I enjoyed it immensely and am so glad I took up the challenge. I wrote a short article about my experience:

    1. Thank you Harald! Sometimes in life you have to challenge yourself and I’m so glad I did it. The experience and memory will be with me for a lifetime. As writers we all need to expand our horizons and I learned more about the people of Martinique just sitting and watching them at work and at play. They are endlessly fascinating, warm, and a product of an old and vastly proud culture.

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