Cheryl Sawyer welcomes readers to her historical novels, blogs about discoveries in writing and research, and shares her experiences in the world of creative fiction. Cheryl has had a long career in book publishing, which she left in 2014, to write full-time. Her first historical novel was published by Random House in 1998 and her American debut in 2005 was acclaimed by Booklist as 'a grand and glorious delight'. More novels have been released in several languages by Penguin US, Bertelsmann, Mir Knigi, Via Magna, Domino, Reader's Digest and Endeavour Press UK. Cheryl Sawyer's work has been longlisted for awards by the Historical Novel Society and the American Library in Paris. She has recently completed an English Civil War trilogy with The Winter Prince, Farewell, Cavaliers and The King's Shadow. Peter James calls her work ‘historical fiction writing at its very best’.
Inspiration: Cirey or the sound of the sea?
August was a huge writing month for me: I wrote a dramatic piece that I've been wanting to put together for SIX YEARS--and I'd never found a way in. The trip to Europe in July helped because we revisited an important site: Cirey in the Champagne region of France. Since we returned I'm back walking on the ocean beach every morning, relishing the sound of the waves as the characters finally began to get down to the res in their dialogues with one another. So was it Cirey or this beach at dawn that unlocked the gates to my best work?
Cirey chosen for SE
Here is the evocative title spread for the Reader's Digest Select Editions release of Murder at Cirey. The art (copyright to RD) is by graphic designer Mark Thacker, whose work I have long admired. The condensed version appears in Select Editions in October this year, in volume 339. Did you know Reader's Digest condensed books have been published since the 1950s? In Australia they're created by the talented editorial team of Lu Sierra, Alison Fraser and Peter Dockrill.
Our hotel in Berlin was near Checkpoint Charlie. Here I am standing in a streetscape created by the extraordinary artist, Yadegar Asisi, whose panorama places the visitor next to the Berlin Wall on an autumn day in the 1980s. Born into a family of Persian refugees, Asisi was educated in East Germany. Fascinated by both genesis and decay, in nature and in human endeavour, Asisi creates astonishing historical panoramas where the onlooker ‘becomes her own director’. A painful but illuminating experience.
Blücher and Wellington
Speaking further of General Blücher, who appears in my novel The Chase, we happened upon this painting by Adolph Menzel in the Alte National Galerie in Berlin today. Menzel excelled in many styles, not least the depiction of major political and military events. I did not previously know his work and had never seen this picture of Waterloo. It shows Wellington and Blücher meeting at Belle Alliance after it was taken from Napoleon and the battle was over.
The King's Shadow: latest review
I appreciate the new review of THE KING'S SHADOW by Yvonne of A Darn Good Read, here. A quote: 'Cheryl Sawyer's excellent research skills, combined with her interpretation of the political situation of the day and her ability to write a good story, bring to life a very interesting period in history. Simply told, it is informative as well as entertaining. Her easy to read style moves the plot along at a smart pace. The dialogue flows naturally and the characters, whether historical or fictional, are well developed.'
Entering the elegant opera house for La Traviata during the Munich Festival was a highlight of our trip. It’s many years since I reviewed opera professionally, but humour me as I give you a glimpse of this production (July 15, 18). Rolando Villazón and Sonya Yoncheva would no doubt have transformed it, had they not both cancelled. Instead it was left in the brave, frenetic hands of Ermonela Jaho, who almost managed to rescue it—on her birthday, as it turned out. In total control of her sumptuous voice, Jaho as Violetta was haunted from the first moments—I have never heard any soprano sing the key word ‘Gioia!’ with such anguish.
This is a woman’s story and Jaho told it on a tide of nervous energy. The production, however, had flaws. The conductor and orchestra played as though they were bored with Verdi, and to be bored with Verdi is to be bored with life. Pavol Breslik as Alfredo was no match for Jaho’s dramatic intensity. Like the excellent Simon Keenlyside (Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father), Breslik also struggled with absurdities of direction, which provided constant upstaging along with rearrangements of clothing.
In Munich. We've been travelling through the Schwarzwald--the picturesque Black Forest--and across Swabia and Bavaria to get here. Meanwhile The King's Shadow has been published by Endeavour Press. It's been heralded by 5-star reviews on Amazon, and independent reviewers like Nicki J Markus have already begun to respond: Nicki's review is here and on Goodreads.
In the middle of the 18th century in France, thinkers, writers and natural philosophers like Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire proposed the development of a tolerant and egalitarian society based on freedom of speech and belief, and true justice for all. An enthusiastic amateur painted this mural at some stage on a building in full view of the local administration of Lunéville, near the palace of the Dukes of the Lorraine, where Voltaire and Émilie spent a great deal of time as guests of King Stanislas of Poland. My kind of graffiti—and it has lasted in pride of place! The château currently houses an exhibition, ‘Château of the Enlightenment’. France, cradle of freedom, how tragic that in our time so many of your sons and daughters are losing their lives to hate-filled murderers.
Happy 14 juillet. In memory of the brilliant, the funny, the beloved, the inimitable Russell Haley, who died this month in Whangarei, New Zealand. I always find Marc Chagall's work both tender and joyful. Russell would have loved Chagall's stained glass in Reims Cathedral.
Au revoir Alfredo
I am heartbroken. I have come halfway around the globe to hear Rolando Villazón sing Alfredo in La Traviata in Munich next week and he has cancelled due to ill health. But that's international opera for you. After eight years as an opera reviewer in Australia I should be au fait. Above is a shot of the National Opera of the Lorraine, taken yesterday in Nancy. Am I lucky or what? On balance, yes. Soignez-vous bien, M. Villazón, j'admire toujours votre voix magnifique.
Mysterious corners of France
My next novel in the Victor Constant Investigations series is Death in Champagne, set in and around Joinville in the Haute Marne. Revisiting the area is rewarding. Places I've already chosen for crucial scenes in the book yield rich possibilities that I never suspected when I combed the surroundings from memory. An example is this abandoned house just visible as you enter the tiny village of Rupt, not far from Joinville. A hidden gem that I'm grateful to have stumbled across.
Rubbing shoulders with Lafayette
Metz. Lunching in El Theatris restaurant, next to the magnificent theatre, looking towards the cathedral on the opposite bank of the Moselle. I ask the waitress about the military barracks in Metz where the young Lafayette did his army training, long before he became a hero of the American Revolution, and then the great defender of France in Europe. She tells me his bureau was IN THE NEXT ROOM from the one where we're eating. Lafayette is one of the heroes of my novel Rebel here. She shows me the room and I confirm later--the building was indeed the officers' quarters when Lafayette was France's general, fighting to preserve the country against the European monarchies. Wonderful coincidence. I'm tempted to use the word awesome. Will settle for merveilleux. His bureau window is behind the white flowers.
Cirey with new eyes
Having set Murder at Cirey at and around this château in the Haute Marne that was once the home of Madame du Châtelet, I'm back in a beautiful summer evening for more research in the area. Here the attractive building (added to in the 19th century) is seen from the farm, which in Emilie du Châtelet and Voltaire's day provided all the essentials and many of the luxuries they required for their privileged style of life.
Breteuil -- home of Mme du Châtelet's family
What a pleasure it was the other day to revisit the Château de Breteuil and spend some time with a member of the family whom I used to look after when she was a little girl. Our moments at Breteuil have always been both warm and fascinating. Madame du Châtelet, whom I have researched in depth for my work, was born into this brilliant and famous lineage.
Un petit mot de Meaux
On our way to the Champagne country to research the second novel after Murder at Cirey. Meaux with its magnificent cathedral and art gallery is on the banks of the Marne River, seen here from our hotel window. A police car with klaxon screeching just went by under the window. I'm reminded of Eric Morecambe (of Morecambe and Wise) who remarked in the same situation, 'He won't sell any ice cream at that speed!'
Speeding back through the centuries
The Musée de la Gendarmerie Nationale in Melun, France, opened its doors in October last year, with spectacular displays of the history of the military police force from 900 AD to the present day. Who knew that French gendarmes were once equipped with sporty cars that could accelerate from 0 to 100km in six seconds?
I was there yesterday to see their exhibits on the Maréchaussée in France, the precursors of the Gendarmerie. Murder at Cirey features a cavalier in the 18th-century Maréchaussée, who solves a difficult case of conspiracy and murder in the Champagne region. Museum staff were super helpful and I could have spent twice the time amongst their superbly organised displays. Definitely worth another exciting visit back in time.
Bookshops on the Bords de Seine
Staying in the Latin Quarter for a while is heavenly, despite grey weather. Among the eternal attractions are the bookstores, totally dedicated to the physical book as an ever-open door to the life of the mind and the sensibilities. Lodged in a back street, a boulevard or, like Shakespeare & Company, gazing tranquilly across at Notre-Dame, they beckon readers to the riverside.
Victims of civil war
John and Bernard Stuart were brothers of James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox, who is one of the main characters in my novel The Winter Prince, set during England's tragic civil wars. Both these gentlemen lost their lives fighting for Charles I, as did their older brother George. I was familiar with this magnificent double portrait by Van Dyck but had never seen it--until I viewed works from Van Dyck's personal collection, currently exhibited as part of Painters' Paintings, a brilliant show at the National Gallery in London. It was touching to see it, as I could not help becoming fond of James Stuart when writing The Winter Prince.
Celebrated midsummer by going to the Globe Theatre for A Midsummer Night's Dream. One of the visual themes was that of a Hindu wedding. Best described as an eclectic romp, this performance struck a chord with the audience--it was the first weekend of the Brexit debacle, and Londoners seemed desperate for Shakespeare to make them laugh and forget their woes for an hour or so: job done. On the road I've been reading James Shapiro's The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606--fascinating on London in a time of crisis.
Horseferry Road 1660
Took a stroll down Horseferry Road in Westminster today, then walked across Lambert Bridge to visit a friend south of the river. In 1660 Mark Denton in my novel The King's Shadow makes the crossing in reverse, by ferry from Lambeth Palace, the former archbishops' residence and park, then in the hands of Parliament. In a tavern called The Drunken Pony, he pauses to take stock of the momentous election to replace the Rump Parliament. I didn't find any drunken ponies today in Horseferry Road but I did come across The White Horse and Bower, where people were reeling from the Brexit referendum.
On stopover in Japan, I wandered through a replica village of old Edo, with dwellings, stores and workshops--some of them in lively action today. Boso-no-mura (in Narita) provides an authentic setting for many samurai films and TV series. For me it recalls the Sano Ichiro novels by the gifted Laura Joh Rowland, who writes detective novels set in Edo in the early 16th century. The first novel is Shinju. Today I was able to imagine this street thronged with Rowland's characters.
A Palace in the Air
Setting off on a trip that's part research, part musical and a large part, dare I say it, pleasure. First stop London and I'm reflecting that there are famous places that you can really only visit in the imagination, such as the Palace of Whitehall. Sure you can see the Banqueting House but so much of the rest is gone. That's why I love poring over old plans, which I had to do in order to send my heroine up the royals' Privy Stairs to the Prince's Lodgings in The King's Shadow.
Rupert without Mary
Maureen Mulvihill, Princeton scholar, who is an expert on Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox here, has just drawn my attention to this Restoration portrait by Peter Lely of Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I and one of his finest commanders. Rupert and Mary are the protagonists of The Winter Prince, the first novel in my Civil War trilogy, Terror & Awe: England’s Revolution, the third of which, The King’s Shadow, is planned by Endeavour Press for August. Next week in London I meet the publishers for the first time.
General George Monck on the march
While writing The King’s Shadow (to be published soon by Endeavour Press) I contemplated using poems as epigraphs to my chapters—but the copious verse written in 1660, for or against General George Monck and his army as they marched to London, was so lamentable that I gave up the idea. Lamentable and occasionally scurrilous: one versifier put John Lambert’s wife in bed with Monck, seducing him into republicanism! Historians disagree about Monck’s true intentions but the author of the pamphlet below was clearly convinced that the people would be on Monck’s side if he could persuade parliament to bring back Charles II. Read The King’s Shadow to find out if they were!
Now George for England, that brave Warrior bold,
That would not be by Lambert's force controul'd;
But did endeavour for the good o'th'Nation,
We hope to work a blessed Reformation,
And settle Kingly Power in this Dominion,
And then thou shalt be great in the Opinion
Of all good people that do fear the Lord,
And then no doubt they will with thee accord,
And say, Long live brave George in Wealth and Peace,
Bless thee with Honors, Plenty and Increase.
Advance review of The King's Shadow
The fanatical republican, Major-General John Lambert (above), fiercely opposed the restoration of Charles II in 1660. No one wanted to fight him, not even the powerful General Monck—but the King’s Shadow took him on!
Many thanks to the reviewers who are reading advance copies of The King’s Shadow. If other readers would like a free pdf to review, contact me here. The first advance review is in from Mandy, who says in part: ‘The King’s Shadow is the perfect ending to the trilogy … It is another excellent portrayal of 17th-century life, and the uncertainty of General Monck's intentions on his march to London is vividly portrayed.’
Check out Mandy’s full review when The King’s Shadow appears on Amazon. I’ll give you the date as soon as I know it. I should make it clear that I don't know Mandy and I don't even know what country she lives in. She is one of those amazing people who reads advance copies of novels and comments frankly and dispassionately on sites like Goodreads and Amazon. If you're one of them, feel free to message me from my contact page.
Madame du Châtelet country
In 2007 I stood at the top of the slope down which Voltaire reluctantly led military policeman Victor Constant in 1735. They were on horseback, riding along the little river Blaise to view the body of a murder victim, in Victor’s very first investigation in the Champagne region.
My historical crime novel, Murder at Cirey, was the result of my research that year at Cirey, the château in which Madame du Châtelet sheltered the notorious free-thinker Voltaire. This year I’m returning to her countryside to gather inspiration for the next Victor Constant investigation, Death in Champagne. Watch this space for further pictorial evidence!
The King's Shadow
This gentleman is the enigmatic hero of my latest novel, to be published by Endeavour Press later this year. Want to give it a frank review? Email me today for a free pdf copy here.
Charles. The name of a king not yet on the throne. Until New Year’s Day 1660, few believe he ever will be. But on this icy morning, an army sets out from Coldstream to march on London. Is it marching to bring back the king?
Mark Denton, colonel of cavalry in that army, is the most rigorous parliamentarian in York, the scourge of royalist conspirators across the North. He must find out what his commander, General George Monck, intends to achieve in London.