Today I’m delighted to welcome Cathie Dunn to the blog, with a fascinating post about her new book, The Shadows of Versailles.
Your book, The Shadows of Versailles, sounds fantastic. As a historian first and foremost (I studied Louis XIV for my A Levels), and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories.
Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring your historical landscape to life?
Thank you very much for hosting me today. I’m thrilled to be here, and to chat about research. And I’m particularly delighted that we share a common interest – the Sun King!
Although normally a medievalist, I’ve been fascinated by 17th century France since I was young. I’m originally from Heidelberg, where Louis’ sister-in-law, Elisabeth Charlotte, hailed from, and our castle was repeatedly attacked by Louis’ forces in the 1680s and 1690s as he sought to claim the Palatinate for himself.
We’ve since forgiven the French for destroying our once magnificent castle (which is now a magnificent, and hugely popular, ruin), and my hometown is now twinned with Montpellier, only an hour’s drive away from where I live now, in Carcassonne, in the south of France. I do love how history tends to come full circle.
But let me get back to the 17th century. As a teenager, I loved reading The Three Musketeers and Anne Golon’s Angelique novels, and watching their incarnations on screen. But only when I read Judith Merkle Riley’s brilliant novel, The Oracle Glass, did I really discover the Affair of the Poisons.
The Affair of the Poisons was an event that stretched over several years. In fact, it really began in the 1660s when the first suspicious deaths were recorded – yet they were not investigated. Over time, a network of fortune-tellers, alchemists, and midwives turned into poisoners, a hugely lucrative business. Having previously sold harmless potions (to gain someone’s love or a coveted position in court, for example), people became more ambitious, and devious. Soon, it wasn’t enough to use a potion; that person had to die!
Authorities slowly began to take notice, but only after the king’s own life deemed under threat did investigations finally get under way. But to the horror of the king, the trail led straight to his own bedroom door – to his mistress of many years, Madame de Montespan.
And whilst the Affair of the Poisons has always intrigued me, my writing first took me in other directions: Scotland, England, Normandy, and here to Carcassonne. I explored different eras: the early Middle Ages here on the Mediterranean as Charlemagne expanded the Kingdom of the Franks southwards; the high Middle Ages during the Anarchy; and Jacobite Scotland. All utterly fascinating times and places.
But then, after reading Kate Braithwaite’s gripping novel, Charlatan, the Affair of the Poisons called me, and I couldn’t resist any longer.
Soon, the idea of a series of loosely interlinking novels took shape, and The Shadows of Versailles was the first to emerge. I’m currently working on the second title, The Alchemist’s Daughter. Both books are very different in tone and setting. This is intentional, as I want the series to be not only about ladies at court, and not only about the scheming poisoners in Paris, but how both worlds intertwined.
In August 2019, I met with relatives in Paris, and we visited Versailles; my first visit since the late 1980s. It was very crowded, and I couldn’t really relish the time inside the palace. I also didn’t have a chance to see all the rooms, so my photos are more of the 18th century chambers where Marie Antoinette whiled away her days. But I brought a wonderful catalogue back home, with great details inside.
In the 1670s, Versailles was still a building site. The former hunting lodge had already been extended, but rooms like the Hall of Mirrors were not in place yet. Online, I found old maps of the palace construction and the gardens – also still not quite finished – which was wonderful as I was careful not to include features that arrived later. These maps were great in helping me to visualise the place through my protagonists’ eyes, including muddy grounds where construction was still ongoing!
Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing)?
As regards books, I’ve long had a copy of Anne Somerset’s book about The Affair of the Poisons, and she is still an eminent authority on the subject. I often dive into the pages to retrieve details about some of the persons involved. But apart from hers, there weren’t many sources published in English.
Images. Françoise de Rochechouart, Marquise de Montespan, public domain, Wikimedia Commons. Other images by Cathie Dunn.
The published letters of Madame de Sévigné, a lady whose letters to her married daughter showed intriguing glimpses into life at court, the scandals and rumours, and the king’s business, are a wonderful source for tidbits to use in a novel. Her tone is very much of the times, which gives you a truly authentic view of life in the late 17th century.
Visiting local bookshops, I discovered books in French, some rather fictionalised accounts, and others strictly non-fiction, which have helped me create a fuller picture. I read about life in Paris under Louis XIV – it was pretty tough for ordinary people. With people flocking to the city from the partly war-ravaged countryside, there wasn’t enough work going round. Starvation was rife, as were crime and prostitution. In contrast, life at Versailles was a glittering ball of luxuries, but often maintained through loans and pretence. It was easy to fall from grace…
I’m also signed up to educational resources, where you can find copies of theses exploring various aspects of Louis’ reign, his policies and wars. These, whilst rather dry, are useful additions to my research hub.
In my approach to a new novel, I conduct some basic research in advance – about the timing and general state of play. Then, as I write, do bits of research about the aspects relevant by chapter. That could be checking for dates of when the king was in Versailles, which he started to use as a base during the 1670s, moving away from the Louvre (and Paris), and when he was with his troops in the north or east, for example.
Although Louis doesn’t (yet) feature much in my novels, I know there’s an abundance of sources out there showing his movements, so I’m careful not to invent too much. At the end of the day, I write fiction, but I want to be as accurate as possible in my setting.
I love researching. There’s never a dull moment. I could spend hours looking up certain events or reading about people’s lives. Louis’ courtiers are as fascinating as he was, especially those linked to the Affair of the Poisons. And I enjoy bringing them, with all their ambitions and scheming, to life.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my foray into historical research. Thank you again for hosting me on your fabulous blog.
Thank you so much for such a fascinating post. Good luck with the book.
Here’s the blurb:
Dazzled by Versailles. Broken by tragedy. Consumed by revenge.
When Fleur de La Fontaine attends the court of King Louis XIV for the first time, she is soon besotted with handsome courtier, Philippe de Mortain. She dreams of married life away from her uncaring mother, but Philippe keeps a secret from her.
Nine months later, after the boy she has given birth to in a convent is whisked away, she flees to Paris where she mends gowns in the brothel of Madame Claudette, a woman who helps ‘fallen’ girls back on their feet.
Jacques de Montagnac investigates a spate of abducted children when his path crosses Fleur’s. He searches for her son, but the trail leads to a dead end – and a dreadful realisation.
Her boy’s suspected fate too much to bear, Fleur decides to avenge him. She visits the famous midwife, La Voisin, but it’s not the woman’s skills in childbirth that Fleur seeks.
La Voisin dabbles in poisons.
Will Fleur see her plan through? Or can she save herself from a tragic fate?
Delve into The Shadows of Versailles and enter the sinister world of potions, poisoners and black masses during the Affairs of the Poisons, a real event that stunned the court of the Sun King!
The Shadows of Versailles is available with Kindle Unlimited.
Meet the Author
Cathie Dunn writes historical fiction, mystery, and romance.
Cathie has been writing for over twenty years. She studied Creative Writing, with a focus on novel writing, which she now teaches in the south of France. She loves researching for her novels, delving into history books, and visiting castles and historic sites.
Her stories have garnered awards and praise from reviewers and readers for their authentic description of the past.
Cathie is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Alliance of Independent Authors.
After nearly two decades in Scotland, she now lives in the historic city of Carcassonne in the south of France with her husband, two cats and a rescue dog.
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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Shadows of Versailles blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club.