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THE BLUE ROSE: the first flash of inspiration

Sunday, August 06, 2017

I have began a new novel!

It has a working title of 'The Blue Rose' and is is set in the late 18th entry, moving between France during the Terror of the French Revolution and Imperial China. It draws upon a fairy-tale set in China about a quest for an impossible rose. 

I first got the idea for it about eighteen months ago when I was reading 'Chasing the Rose' by Andrea di Robilant, which was one of my Best Books of 2015

In one passage he wrote:

'In 1792, Gilbert Slater, a nurseryman from Knotts Green, Leyton, introduced a dark, rich crimson rose known in China as Yue Yue Hong, or 'Monthly Crimson'. Europeans had never seen a rose of that colour (called pigeon's blood). The cultivar, which became known as 'Slater's Crimson China', quickly spread to France ... It became the ancestor of many of the red roses we have today ...'

How fascinating, I thought. Surely Europe had red roses before 1792?

And then, I thought ... 1792. That was right at the beginning of the French Revolution. That was when the Tuileries was stormed and Princesse de Lamballe's head was paraded around on a pike. 

Andrea di Robilant went upon to say:

'Around that time ... Sir George Staunton, a young diplomat and enthusiastic gardener, travelled to China as secretary to Lord Macartney. Taking time off from his embassy, he went looking for roses and found a lovely re-flowering silvery pink specimen in a Canton nursery, which he shipped to Sir Jospeh Banks, the powerful director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.'

I had read about the Macartney Embassy before. Britain wished to open up trade with China, which was still very closed to the West. Britain was importing tea and silk and Chinese porcelain in great quantities, but China was buying nothing in return. So in 1793 Lord Macartney and his entourage travelled to Peking to meet with the Emperor. At that time, it was Chinese custom to kowtow before the Emperor, a ritual obeisance that involved prostrating oneself on the floor and knocking one's forehead to the ground three times, then repeating the gesture another two times (i.e.e three acts of prostration, nine knockings of the head).  

Lord Macartney, as a representative of King George III, refused to kowtow. The Emperor refused to open trade. 

I knew about this failed ambassadorial journey because it was one of the things which led to the Opium Wars between Britain and China in the 19th century. I did not know, however, that the British had brought roses back with them.

I was so interested by this that I went browsing amongst the many books on roses I have on my shelves (I've always been a rose fancier.) I discovered that the introduction of the China roses to the West at the end of the eighteenth century revolutionised rose cultivation.

For the first time roses could be grown that had more than one flush of blossoms. And for the first time Europeans could grow a rose that was truly red, long considered the symbol of passionate love.

I know a good story when I see one. I knew I had to write a novel inspired by this epic journey to China and the discovery of the first blood-red rose. I was, however, deep in the writing of a novel about the Pre-Raphaelites and ‘Sleeping Beauty’. I scribbled down a few notes, all the while wondering if I could find some clever way to weave a fairy-tale into the narrative.  

Quite some time later, I was reading about Victorian literary fairy tales and I found a story called 'The Blue Rose', written Maurice Baring, an English diplomat and man of letters. It is set in China, and tells the story of the Emperor's daughter who will only marry the man who can bring her a blue rose. Once again I felt that shudder of joyous recognition. I had my fairy-tale.

The months passed, as I researched and wrote and rewrote and edited Beauty in Thorns, my reimagining of 'Sleeping Beauty' set among the passions, scandals and tragedies of the Pre-Raphaelites.  Then the novel was launched, and I embarked on a whirlwind tour, talking and teaching and telling stories.  

The weeks galloped past.

Always so much work to do! Blogs to write and emails to answer and books to sign. I could spend all day every day doing nothing else.

So I found the date of the next new moon, and I wrote in my diary, ‘Start new novel!’

It’s a small and pleasing ritual of mine, this idea of always beginning a new project at the time of the new moon.  It gives me a set date to work towards, and I like to imagine I harness some kind of natural lunar magic. Once I knew my starting date, I could scramble to get all my other jobs done so my desk and calendar was free. I also bought myself a beautiful new notebook, another ritual of mine.

For this novel I chose a notebook with a blue roses & peacocks on a red background - 'Enchanted Evenings' by Paperblanks - it's perfect!

An empty notebook is a prospect of infinite possibilities

And so, on the evening of Sunday 23rd July, when the new moon first rose, I settled down to work, typing up my first ideas, drafting rough timelines, printing out maps and drawings of 18th century fashion, and sticking it all into my new notebook along with all my little scraps of notes where I had scribbled down ideas in the preceding months. 

In the two weeks since, I have begun my research, established the time frame for my story, created rough character sketches, found a thematic structure for the novel, drafted up my first plan and written my first line.

I love beginning a new novel!   

And I hope you have loved this blog post. You will be able to follow my journey from the first flash of inspiration to the final proofreading check, before 'The Blue Rose' is published in mid-2019. 

Please feel free to leave a comment - I always love to know what you think. 

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