Kay Bratt is the author of The Palest Ink, a saga of two families during China’s Cultural Revolution. She is also a child advocate and author of the series Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters and the acclaimed memoir of the years she spent working in a Chinese orphanage, Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. Today, Kay talks about her experience writing historical fiction.
As a reader, historical fiction has always captivated me. Stories inspired by real people facing life and death challenges—what could be more compelling?
Until last year I had only briefly dabbled in writing historical fiction. However, my novels are set in modern day China and explore family life within the Chinese culture, so I’ve done a fair amount of research into their history. In the first book of my series, The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters, the main character is an impoverished elderly man who walked away from life as the coveted son of a prestigious family. As I developed the character through the novels, I put myself in his place to determine what experiences could’ve molded him into the self-reliant and compassionate—yet cautious—man he eventually became.
In the first book, I alluded briefly to his past during the Cultural Revolution when he was a late teen on the brink of adulthood. By the fourth book, with requests from many readers to know more about that time, I decided to write a novel completely set within the 1960’s in China.
And so my first historical fiction title, The Palest Ink, was born.
The premise (and title) for the story came to me after reading an ancient Chinese proverb that says the palest ink is better than the best memory. As I continued to dig into what little there was to find online about the Cultural Revolution, I learned that because Chairman Mao didn’t want the world to know what was really happening under his reign, he manipulated the media and forbid news reports, stories, or photographs to be published without his approval. Witnesses later confirmed that most announcements via the media at that time were twisted to fit the delusions of success and power that Mao clung to before his death.
It is now well known that as the Cultural Revolution raged on in China, most of the world was completely unaware that behind their wall of secrecy, millions were being persecuted and even murdered. It was a new revelation to me as well, and the shocking reports I found in my research made it even more important for me to tell the story of those who were abused, or who perished under the heavy ruling hand of Chairman Mao.
To take on such a powerful story and do it justice, I knew I needed to seize the readers’ attention and hold it. To do that, I researched and found many survivor accounts. Respectfully, I wove these authentic details into the lives of my characters. Then I chose from the many pivotal moments in history that made the Revolution so famous and wrote around them, putting the lives of my characters and their families at stake. When it all comes together, the characters in The Palest Ink will be faced with the choice of loyalty to family or country, taking the reader on an emotional journey that will resonate even more because it is inspired by real people who lived through one of China’s most tumultuous times in history.
Many thanks for being on the blog, Kay. I’m sure your novel will open many eyes to that momentous time in China’s history.
What if all your life you lived with the belief that you were special, then suddenly someone or something came and took it from you?
Like a figure in the shrouded mist of your imagination, your normal is yanked out from under you and in its place comes a new reality of fear, confusion, and oppression. When the terror and ravaging subsides, could you return to being the same person you were? I think not. More concisely, I know not. For just such a wrong was done to me, leaving me forever changed.
Now, it’s time to tell the story. Not just any story, but my story, written down because as an ancient Chinese proverb says, the palest ink is better than the best memory.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.