I’ve finished the
crap draft rough draft of my historical fiction set in feudal Korea (the Joseon Dynasty, 1800). I haven’t felt so enchanted and so lost in a world for quite some time, as I’ve spent years working on Night Flower, which has come to feel more like an essay I really enjoy revising.
Also, because it’s been a while since I fell ‘head over heels’ in love with a story since Night Flower, at first I was worried this story wouldn’t work out like the two other novels I attempted to write (the first one I finished drafting but didn’t like. The second one I couldn’t get past the outlining stage). But with this WIP, my gut is telling me that I’ve found The Story. The positive signs:
- I finished the draft and still feel good about it.
- I am in love with the history. And this is so crucial for me. Research is what inspires much of my plot and character development.
- I wake up in the middle of the night with new plot ideas.
- I have an ending for this story that I like.
- I have a
thesistheme for this story that I want to further explore.
- I can’t stop talking about this story.
Now that I have the bare, bare bones of the story set in place, it’s time to return to the first chapter and actually make this story readable. The challenges I’ve faced so far while writing this (and will continue to face) is the lack of resources. I mean, there’s tons of great books on Joseon Korea at my university libraries. But it’s not much compared to the massive resource available if I were to write another novel set in England. Also, certain materials I need for my novel (i.e. primary sources) have yet to be translated into English, so a good deal of my time is spent translating the Korean into English. It’s laborious, but it’s paying off.
Ugh, I’m just having so much fun with this story.
Anyway, I wanted to share an excerpt from chapter one. But before I do, here’s a brief summary of the story (which, if you follow me on facebook, you’ve already read):
Seol, a servant who assists police investigators, must choose between her love for the Regent Queen, who has banned Catholicism, declaring it an evil learning punishable by death, and the rebellious noblewoman Mistress Kang, who teaches Seol to read and write for the first time. Seol’s loyalty is tested when the Queen’s men are sent on a bloody hunt to find the man hiding in Mistress Kang’s home–the last remaining priest in the Joseon Dynasty.
The dirt road outside the Eastern Palace usually clamored with life: women crowding the fish stalls, farmers carrying their produce, scholars with their silk robes, monks and traveling merchants. And there would always be a mob of children, faces burnt and glistening in the sticky heat, chasing after their rivals. But for the past few days the capital lay still under the heavy pall of silence. The markets were closed, and would remain so for a five-day period; the entire kingdom was mourning the King’s death.
“Feels like a ghost village.” My voice resounded, then silence returned, intensified by the rain pitter-pattering against black tiled roofs. I lowered the satgat over my face, a straw hat pointed at the top and wide at the brims, allowing the rain to dribble off. “What a strange and eerie day.”
“And the days will become stranger yet,” Officer Sukhyun said. “They say that when the King died, an astonishing phenomena occurred.”
“The rays of sunlight collided and burst into sparks, like fireworks. Then there came a terrible noise of weeping from Mount Samgak. It was a bad omen.” He warily eyed our grey surrounding as he adjusted his sash belt, worn around his black robe. “The old order has passed, and the new will come with an ocean of blood. From what I hear,” his voice lowered into a whisper, “the king was assassinated.”
The hair on my skin rose. “Assassinated?”
“By fatal poisoning.”
“Not from an illness?”
“Perhaps from an illness. But others say Sim Hwan-Ji poisoned the king.”
A sharp laugh escaped him. “You don’t know? Everyone knows. How can you not!” His thick, youthful brows rose and fell, then he heaved out a sigh. “He’s the prime minister, the leader of the Noron’s Byeokpa faction.”
Noron’s Byeokpa… There were four major factional groupings, usually referred to as the four colors, but after the murder of the Crown Prince Sado in 1762, the established party lines had further split into sub-factions. Biting my lower lip, I frowned then offered a guess. “They’re the King’s rival faction, aren’t they?”
He snorted but remained silent, so I assumed that I was right. “So why would they—” I lowered my voice “—poison the king? If the rumor is true, that is. What does the prime minister want?”
“Such a child you are. What’s the one thing everyone in the palace wants? To stabilize their shaky power.” He clucked his tongue and waved me away. “What use is it for a slave to know such things? And I’ve told you many times, a woman shouldn’t talk so much.”
Obediently, I retreated and followed in his shadow. He was right, of course. Among the seven sins a woman could commit, one was talking excessively. A man could even divorce his wife because of her chattiness. I blamed my father for this sin of mine, this longing to understand the world, to fish out as much information as I could from the learned.
At the call of my name, I looked up. Chief Inspector Han stood in the near distance, watching me from beneath the wide brim of his hat, the string of beads that strapped his chin trembling in the gust of rain. Behind him were two officers, the medical specialist, and the clerks. As for the police artist, he was busily sketching something.
Hurrying forward, I offered the Inspector a deep bow. On the first day of our acquaintance months ago, he had been chasing a criminal, and ever since I’d come to think of him as the great spotted leopard from my village: the speedy and well-muscled hunter who excelled at climbing and jumping, and in slipping silently through the grass with scarcely a ripple.
Drawing myself up again, I continued to keep my eyes lowered. I must never meet the gaze of my superior. To this day, I still didn’t know the color of Inspector Han’s eyes. Was it light or dark brown? Any specks of hazel or gold?
“You called for me, nauri,” I said, addressing the inspector by his honorific.
“Have a look at her.”
I peeked up to see him gesturing at a lump a few paces away. I walked towards the shadow of the weather-beaten fortress wall that enclosed Hanyang, the capital of the Joseon Kingdom, then clenched my teeth, my stomach turning to water. It was a woman. She lay sprawled, her face on the ground. A noblewoman by her dress and jacket, made of a closely-woven ramie cloth, beautifully patterned.
“Flip her around,” the Inspector ordered. “We have yet to see her wound.”
I stepped over the corpse, crouched, and grabbed her shoulder. This was why the Capital Police Bureau kept female slaves like me: I was an extension of police-officers, my hands used by them to arrest female criminals and to examine female victims. For Confucian directive forbid men from touching women who were not directly related to them.
As I flipped the corpse around, her voluminous skirt hushed and I almost jumped back when her hand flopped onto my lap. Holding in a yelp, I closed my eyes, my heart pounding against my chest. I sucked in a deep breath and picked up her hand, moving it aside. Then forced my gaze down again. Blood stained her white collar. A gash with puckered edges stretched across her milky white throat. Her eyes were rolled back, showing the whites.
“Stabbed in the neck.” Inspector Han remained standing as he observed the wound. “The jewel pin is still in her hair…It doesn’t look to be a robbery. What is that under her left shoulder?”
I lifted the shoulder and found a small bloody knife. “Suicide?”
The inspector gathered his hands behind his back and frowned. “We won’t know if it is murder or suicide until she is examined. Look for her hopae.” By law, everyone in Joseon had to carry an identification tag.
I patted the corpse, buried my hand into her skirt and discovered a yellow tag of poplar wood. As for the Chinese characters engraved onto the wood, it likely indicated the bearer’s name, place of birth, status and residence—but I couldn’t say for sure. I didn’t know how to read. Dropping the tag into the Inspector’s outstretched hand, I watched him study the engraving.
“She belongs to Mr. Lee Gidong’s household.”
A murmur arose from among the officers. “I know her family,” one officer said. “Her husband is the son of a cabinet minister.”
Inspector Han turned to Senior Officer Shim. “Have the close relatives of the deceased questioned.” Then to Sukhyun, “Search for any witnesses.”
I continued to stare at the identification tag in the inspector’s hand. Being illiterate was like being shut away in darkness; words were plastered all over the capital, brushstrokes that had no meaning, though they had great meaning to others. Words were codes that I was not permitted to understand.