Historical Fiction, Please Critique
I'm in the editing phase of my book, and I'm trying to fix weak writing. I feel like I lack knowledge of technical writing (like passive vs. active sentences, clutter words, etc.) and I want to improve the pace. Please judge the flow of this excerpt and tell me if I've violated any of the big dos and don'ts of writing. Don't pull any punches; I want to get this published so I'm willing to put myself out there and get torn apart. You don't need to read the entire chapter to reply, but I included it because hopefully if there are any mistakes I'm making consistently, there should be examples within this segment.
Also, if anyone has a link to a site I can refer to for technical writing tips, I'd be grateful. When I search for writing tips it's hard to find advice that applies to stringing together words rather than the story-forming process.
Note: There are some words (mainly titles) which I have written in Korean. I'm considering using their English equivalents, but a huge part of me wants to keep them the way they are. I may include a glossary in my book, but here are the meanings of the words used in the below excerpt:
Naeuri - Lord/Sir
Manim - Lady/Ma'am
Daegam - Your Excellency
Kisaeng - courtesan, like a geisha
(I think that's all of them, but I just did it from memory)
1840 6th Year of King Heonjong's Reign
Good news brought delight in the Song household. In the courtyard of the manor a dignified young woman sat holding her squiriming one-year-old son. The infant sank within the folds of his bright, silk clothes. His mother teased him by squeezing his foot with her fingers and watching him pull his leg and kick. A beaming father observed the pair, and the proud sight so enraptured him that he neglected his destination.
"Lord Song," beckoned the voice of an approaching visitor. The official snapped out of his euphoria and extended a hand to the slim nobleman.
"Professor Moon," the host responded. He led the man indoors to where they could talk in comfort over a bottle of soju.
Professor Moon laughed and scratched his bearded chin. "There are few men who find themselves as blessed as you are now.” The host nodded as he poured another drink for his friend. "Your wife gave you one healthy son. I extend my congratulations for your upcoming second child."
The man of the house sighed and continued to bob his head as though it rested on a hinge. "Yes, Professor Moon. I feel fortunate every day."
"Since you already have a son, would you like a daughter now?"
Lord Song laughed and shook his head hastily. "Oh, no, no, no. I fear my wife would probably like to have a daughter, but I would rather have another son. Girls are too troublesome to keep an eye on. If I have two boys I will make great men of both of them."
"Why stop at two?" asked the professor, and the men laughed together in an inebriated haze.
The host, with red cheeks, confessed to his comrade, "I have already decided on the name if it is a boy. I told my wife that he will be named 'Jae Hwan.'" The man raised another celebratory cup to his lips.
"Jae Soon and Jae Hwan. They sound like good brothers," the guest decided.
The expecting father leaned forward and his smile nearly split his face. "Don't they?" he prodded, bursting with snickers.
Professor Moon joined him in his drunken, impulsive laughter, and they shared their high spirits. Finally the professor returned them to conversation as he held out the bottle to pour another drink for the eager father. The two began to discuss other subjects they could drink to until the sun set and Professor Moon stumbled to his litter where his men waited to take him home. The host bid his farewells to another in a long line of men that came to share their congratulations and a drink with the fortunate man.
Though wobbling on his feet, the young father made his way back to his office. A servant announced himself at the door and the lord gave a grunt to permit him entrance. Involuntary chuckles made their way out of the nobleman's slack mouth.
The servant entered with a lowered head and kept himself bowed as he greeted the nobleman. "Naeuri," muttered the servant.
"Eh?" the official replied as his thick fingers fumbled with the strings of his hat where they were tied beneath his chin.
"Naeuri, as you know, the doctor visited the lady today," the servant reminded him.
Lord Song nodded and removed his stifling hat. He waited for the relevance of the servant's statement, but it wasn't vocalized. The lord inspected the servant's sober face. "What is it, Wan Soo? Is something wrong with the pregnancy?"
"No, no, Naeuri," The man opened his mouth to continue but grimaced and closed it one more time before he shared, "The doctor estimates the lady's time of conception to be two months ago."
The official continued to remove his extra layers and bobbed his head. "Okay," he said, and waved one limp wrist to dismiss the servant. Wan Soo stuck to his spot and regained Lord Song's attention. The nobleman examined his pained servant and recalled for himself the news which he had already so soon let himself forget. "Two months ago," he mumbled to himself, and the servant lowered his head. "But that's... that can't be right." Wan Soo would not correct himself, so the Lord reminded him, "I wasn't back from Great Qing then." The bearer of the news licked his lips anxiously and the lord exhaled another unprovoked laugh then felt the desperate need to sit down and ease his dizzy head.
Lord Song connected with the floor with a grunt and rested one arm on his low desk; his outer-robes hung off his shoulders. His eyes glazed over, pointed toward where the floor met the wall and swept from side to side in his head. His lips bumbled against each other. He raised one heavy arm in the direction of the servant. "Bring me the doctor," he instructed. The man who bore the responsibility of bringing the nobleman such news was flustered until Lord Song bellowed, "Now!" in a roar that disturbed his wife and maids in their distant corners of the home and confused them for its brevity.
In the middle of the night the doctor ran through the streets from his home – where he was previously sleeping – to the residence of the pregnant noblelady he'd attended earlier that day. He carried in one hand a bag prepared for emergencies, and he hustled behind the frightened and anxious servant that fetched him. Rather than provide an explanation, the servant led the doctor to Lord Song's office where the official redressed and sat himself behind his desk. The gray-bearded doctor scanned the room for the ailing lady but the lord and the servant were the only occupants. The doctor, out of breath, had no words.
This was compensated for by the fact that the expecting father had enough to say. "When did you estimate my wife's conception to be?" he asked for the sake of clarification.
"Um," stuttered the old doctor. "Tw- two months," he answered. The lord closed his eyes in frustration.
"You must be wrong," he insisted. "Think again, how long ago did my wife conceive?"
The doctor reviewed the examination from earlier that day in his head. His eyes fluttered before settling on the lord in front of him again. "Based on my examination she is definitely two months into her pregnancy, Naeuri."
"Two months ago I was in Qing!" barked the lord, and the doctor fell to the floor as the weight of his own conclusion impacted him. The man bowed to the unfortunate and powerful official.
"Please forgive me," begged the doctor.
Lord Song narrowed his eyes. "Were you mistaken?"
The doctor trembled. He wheezed as he struggled to find the courage to vocalize. "N-n-nnno, Naeuri," he answered, and though he regretted his decision he continued, "There is no doubt in my mind that your wife conceived t-two months ago, in mid... mid-winterherr." He ended his sentence with a whimper as he awaited the lord's rage coming down upon his head.
Behind his desk the father's hands clenched into fists and his eyes closed. He stretched his neck and instructed the doctor, "Leave. You will never speak of this day as long as you live. Do not share with anyone else what you shared with me today." The doctor swore on his life as he was escorted by the servant from the office to the front gate of the Song residence.
Lord Song couldn't be moved from his position in his office. Day and night he sat behind his desk and neglected his duties. He refused visitors and would not look upon his own infant Jae Soon or his precious wife. Hour after hour the lord sat slumped against the wall or leaned over his desk. His eyes turned red and his face and hair grew unkempt.
"Wan Soo," the haggard man grumbled and his servant joined him in the office. From where Wan Soo placed himself near the door he found himself enveloped in a musty smell. "I need to ask something of you." Though the man addressed his servant, the only part of his body he moved was his jaw and his heavy chest. His sunken eyes did not budge. "You will follow my wife. Find out who she has been meeting. You absolutely must bring me the name of the man who is responsible for this," he ordered. Wan Soo bowed to the gaunt nobleman in wrinkled, sullied silk. As the servant began to go Lord Song added, "Do not let her find out," as though it needed to be said.
The official only ventured from his cave when he received an invitation from Grand Prince Yi Yangsan. Though the lord changed his robes for the sake of his lifelong friend he did not shave his face and a faint, stubborn trace of his stench remained on him. When the two met in a private room at their favorite kisaeng house Lord Song emptied bottles of soju. The grand prince refilled his desperate friend's cup and, with a troubled look, watched him drink.
"Your family is worried about you. They say you haven't been yourself for over a week. What's troubling you, Lord Song? Did you receive bad news?"
The ruined father stared sorrowfully at his cup. "The worst kind of news, Daegam" he responded. The grand prince lowered his own cup.
"Is it about the pregnancy? Is she unwell?"
"No," the man answered, beginning to tilt to his left as he spoke. "She is doing perfectly well."
"Then what is it? What's gotten you so miserable?"
The lord placed his cup out in front of his friend expectantly and the grand prince obliged. The wallowing man didn't answer until he emptied this new cup. "Daegam, I am not the child's father."
The clatter of the grand prince's cup dropping to the table punctuated the official's confession. A full cup of soju spilled onto the royal man's robes, but Grand Prince Yangsan took his friend by the shoulders. "What?" he demanded of his disoriented friend. "How can you be sure?"
Lord Song brushed his friend's hands from his shoulders because when being shaken like that it made it very hard to drink. He filled his own cup again and brought it to his lips as the grand prince impatiently waited. The broken-hearted man's hand swayed one way as his head swayed another until they both found each other and he took another drink. The Grand Prince had both his hands clasped to his own knees. "I was in Qing... when the child was conceived. Tell me, can I father a child from the other side of the sea? Eh? Is it possible, that from way over there, I..." Lord Song tried to point toward Qing, but he lost his balance and landed on his opposite elbow.
The Grand Prince watched his stumbling friend and his eyebrows came together in sympathy. He scrunched up his face while he observed his crumbling friend. The lord tried to pour himself another drink, but he fell over the table and the contents of the bottle spilled on the table and formed a puddle. The eyes of his royal friend were moist and stung. What a pitiful man. What a poor, poor, unfortunate man.
"Come, friend," Grand Prince Yangsan said, picking up the bottle. The puddle breached the edges of the table and dripped on to both men's robes, but he poured what remained into each man's cup. "I'll drink with you tonight."
After Lord Song had been returned to his room to sleep off his stupor, Lady Kim ventured out into the courtyard. She followed her personal servant lady to the front gate where a messenger waited. The man, shrouded in dark clothes, stood outside the gate and presented a roll of paper to the young mother.
"My apologies for bringing you out; I was instructed to give this to Lady Kim only."
The woman accepted the letter and tucked it into the folds on her robe. "Thank you.” The man nodded and departed while Lady Kim and her servant crossed the courtyard to the house. Wan Soo spied them from behind one of the house's corners.
In the quiet morning Lady Kim's door slid open. Wan Soo closed it behind himself, taking every precaution not to cause undue nosie. He crept across the light wood floor to the lady's desk and checked over his shoulder to the door to ensure that he was alone. He opened one drawer then another and searched them both but turned up nothing of interest. The next drawer contained papers but no recent letters. He crawled to the row of drawers and cabinets that lined the nearest wall. He spent time keeping everything the way he had found it. Another drawer held reams of fabric but a small, folded piece of paper stuck out from beneath one corner.
Before his fingertips touched the note Wan Soo heard footsteps in the hall. Lady Kim's skirts swept the floor as she approached her own room and extended a hand toward the door. Wan Soo recoiled but had nowhere to go. He sucked in his gut as though he might be less visible crouching alongside her wall.
"Lady Kim!" called a young housemaid. The noblelady's hand stopped in front of the door. "Lady Kim, Jae Soon fell and hurt himself in the yard. He's calling for you." The mother whirled away from the door and two pairs of footsteps grew distant. Wan Soo released his breath with relief and snatched the note from the drawer. He left the lady's room without incident and reported to his lord.
“Lady Kim received this letter last night, Naeuri," he stated, allowing the Daegan to read the contents for himself.
'My dearest love, I write to you with urgency because I have dire news to tell you. It involves your safety and indeed that of our unborn child. We must meet at once. Join me tomorrow night.'
The husband finished the brief note's damning contents quickly. He crushed the paper within his fist and let it drop to the floor. As his last hopes of discovering a misunderstanding withered, he found within him a surge of strength. “Wan Soo, keep a close eye on Lady Kim tonight. Alert me when she is getting ready to depart. I'll catch this rat tonight.” He swept from the room to groom himself. Wan Soo bowed while the lord passed. The servant scooped up the crumpled ball of paper and pocketed it.
When the lady's quarters began to stir in the night Wan Soo returned to Lord Song's unlit office. The grave man was poised with his legs folded and a hand resting on each knee. His eyes were closed but his head remained upright. When the servant arrived to inform him that Lady Kim would be sneaking out soon, the lord inhaled and his chest expanded. He opened his eyes, rose to his feet and snatched up a sheathed sword waiting beside him. His fingers gripped the cool, polished sheath and took to the door. “Do not follow me.”
The night air of the early spring was crisp and when the wind bit the lord's face when it blew. On the dirt road he stalked a woman who shrouded herself with a dark purple cloak. She held the cloth over her face with both hands and shuffled along the empty roads. The lord followed her to a park thick with trees and bushes. He took cover behind a tree as his wife halted at the bank of a pond. She was the first of the pair to arrive, and in the time before she reunited with her lover she stared at the moon's reflection in the rippling water and fiddled with her collar. Lord Song breathed calm, steady breaths.
Lady Kim noticed the approaching man first, and when she spun and lifted her head to greet him, the lord followed her gaze. From where he crouched behind the foliage, the leaves hid the identity of the new arrival. The thick, low canopy of leaves obscured him from the waist up, but as he strode toward his love he neared the border of his shield. Lady Kim took several steps in her lover's direction and when they met he took her hands in his. The lord peered through the dark night at the nobleman in extravagant robes. A few scarce leaves obstructed the newcomer's face, so Lord Song shifted his weight and stretched his neck to the side.
"Are you well?" Grand Prince Yangsan asked Lady Kim.
The woman nodded. "Yes, Daegam." The grand prince stroked her forehead.
In the bushes Lord Song's blood surged through his veins. His own pulse reverberated in his head. His knuckles turned white as he gripped the sheath of his sword with might that threatened to crack the polished maple wood. The grand prince, brother of the King, friend for life and colleagueembraces Lady Kim Kyung Mi. She buried her face in his neck and he clasped the back of her head with his hand.
"Why did you call me out tonight, Daegam?" Lady Kim asked.
The young grand prince put a hand on each of her shoulders and faced her. "He knows, Kyung Mi. Lord Song knows that he isn't the father of your child."
At that moment Lord Song's rage boiled over, and he bellowed an aggravated scream marked by flecks of spit. He tore from his hiding place in the bushes, drew his sword, and held it over his head as a shriek eminated from the gaping mouth in his purple face. He sprinted across the grassy distance between himself and the two lovers.
The grand prince pushed Lady Kim away from him and she fell into the shallow water and mud of the pond's bank. Grand Prince Yangsan's arm swung back to his waist to retrieve his sword but grasped only fabric. In the last seconds before Lord Song reached him his eyes swiveled to his waist to confirm that there was no sword at his side, and he was defenseless. His eyes landed on the face of his long-time friend, and the weapon came down upon him, split his skin, and carved a gash from his shoulder to the bottom of his ribcage.
The body of the King's brother convulsed, and he fell to the soft, dewey grass beside the pond. His eyelids remained open, and the blood that leaked from his chest began to soak into the dirt and run into the water of the pond as a dark imprint on the shadowy surface. Lord Song stood at his feet, his chest heaved from jagged breaths, and his eyes bulged with the unsated vengence and hate that bubbled within him. He twisted his neck to see Lady Kim sitting in the edge of the pond. She landed on her rear with her arms elbow-deep in the water. She stared at her lover's crumpled corpse. Her eyes welled up, and in her bitter shock she met her husband's eyes. He had not unsheathed his sword, nor had his anger subsided.
"N-Naeuri," Lady Kim gasped. "Naeuri, p-please," she added when he didn't respond. The man looked at his trembling wife as she splashed in the mud and water. She knelt in front of him and her knees sank in the dirty bank. The dirt found new parts of her clothes to stain. Tremors siezed the pregnant woman while fear and coldness squeezed her chest.
Lord Song's breath slowed and he lowered his bloody sword. Unnerved by the prolonged silence, Lady Kim stole nervous glances at his face. "Jae Soon," the lord said aloud. "Is he my son?"
"Y-y-yes, Naeuri. Jae Soon is your son, I swear. I swear on my life." The woman bowed so low her forehead dipped into the surface of the water.
The husband turned away from his wife and the body of his friend. "Once the baby is born you will leave my house and you will never show yourself in front of me again." The man, thinking himself too soft-hearted for his own good, left the woman to weep in the pond near the body of her murdered lover. The blood of the grand prince's body now heavily tainted the lake and crept toward where Lady Kim sat and cried.
The woman dragged herself with heavy steps back up the road to her home. Her clothes clung to her laden with pondwater and dirt. Her servant, Min Jeong, had been waiting for the lady to return and paced the courtyard. When the gate opened and Lady Kim stepped through drenched, weary and pale her servant rushed to her side. She assisted Lady Kim to her room and changed her. The lady sat at her table. Her eyes would not close and her body could not recline in her bed. She fell across the table and wept with Min Jeong fidgeting beside her.
News of the murder of the grand prince reached every corner of the capital city before the afternoon was over. Rumors abound, many concerned with why the grand prince was out so late in the middle of the night. The many visitors that Lord Song had been receiving to congratulate him on his expected child now transitioned to mutual friends and colleagues coming to lament the sudden and tragic death together. They still imbibed great quantities of alcohol.
Representatives from the Royal Investigation Bureau also visited Lord Song as he was such a close friend to the grand prince since they were children. They asked whether the grand prince earned any enemies, or whether he seemed nervous about anything. The woeful lord told them no, he wasn't aware of any such changes in his departed friend's life.
Not more than two days after Grand Prince Yangsan's murder, Lord Song appealed to the king to be transferred from the capital to a distant province – any distant province. The king granted him the position of governor in the southern province of Jeonju.
In their new home Lady Kim was without connections or solace. Every month her belly grew and the day she would be banished from her husband and firstborn son came nearer. Governor Song would not look upon his wife, nor would he let her see their child. The woman harboured so much resentment, guilt, and grief that it churned within her and she sometimes feared it would make her baby sick.
Near the end of the pregnancy the lady's body lost its integrity. She was pale, bedridden and her face was thin. The servants whispered that her loneliness from her husband's sudden and unfounded rejection of her caused consumption. Throughout the lady's pregnancy the servant Min Jeong stuck to her lady's side and served as her hands and arms.
Min Jeong brought a meal of porridge to her lady. "Manim, I've brought food for you." The woman waved an indifferent hand at Min Jeong. The servant knelt next to the lady's silk bed on the floor. "Manim, you must eat for your baby's sake."
"Hn," Lady Kim whimpered. At Min Jeong's cajoling she sat up and took the spoon in her hand. Min Jeong observed the weak mother struggling to find the will to live in a world without the grand prince.
"Min Jeong," the noblewoman whispered with the spoon in front of her lips.
Lady Kim put her spoon back in the porridge and pointed at a drawer by the wall. "There, I have an eunjangdo in that drawer." The servant complied and retrieved a hand-length cylinder of ebony wood plated with engraved silver. Lady Kim took the treasure in her hands and separated the two halves of the cylinder to reveal the small blade hidden within. Min Jeong stared at the knife in the hands of the troubled woman and the servant's throat grew so tense she nearly asphyxiated. The noblewoman set the knife and sheath aside and withdrew a piece of parchment and an inkstone from her desk. She leaned over the paper and composed a letter.
Min Jeong tried to glimpse a hint at the contents of the letter. In a shaky voice she pried, “What are you doing, Manim?”
Lady Kim smiled, and without halting she intimated, “I'm writing a letter to my baby.” Min Jeong waited and judged how quickly she might be able to snatch the exposed knife from the table when need be. As the pregnant woman finished her letter she said, “Give this letter to Jae Hwan when he is mature enough. I want him to know the truth about his father.” Lady Kim picked up the eunjangdo.
“You can't!” Min Jeong shrieked as she missed her opportunity to steal the weapon away. Lady Kim held the knife in her hands and eyed her panicked servant. Her fingers traced the hilt of dagger until she found a seam and popped it open. The hilt of the knife was a hollow compartment within the ebony wood. The lady let her servant watch as she rolled up the note and stuck it inside the hidden container. She resheathed the blade and held it out for the stunned servant.
“I will have my beloved's baby,” she promised Min Jeong. “However, I can't be sure that I will be here to raise him. I want you to promise me that when I'm gone you will take care of him and protect him for me. Stay by his side and help him grow up to be a strong and virtuous man. Will you do this for me?” The servant observed her lady's gaunt face and the woman's clarity on the situation struck her. Lady Kim was a woman stalked by death.
“Y-yes, Manim,” Min Jeong promised.
“Do you swear you will keep him safe?”
“I swear, Manim,” the woman vowed.
Lady Kim went into labor at night. A local midwife, Min Jeong, and another servantlady tended to her. By the time the sun rose her baby's cries sounded from her small room. Governor Song stood outside the building with his hands behind his back. He didn't pace like a nervous father; he stared through narrow eyes and waited with growing impatience. His own selflessness had been causing increasing frustration as he waited for Grand Prince Yangsan's son to be born, and he would let his wife find another place to recuperate from the birth.
The door opened and Min Jeong exited with a bundle wrapped in her arms. She walked up to Governor Song and brought his wife's child to meet the man. The governor turned his nose.
"Tell Lady Kim that if she cannot walk I will have a litter take her wherever she is going.”
"Naeuri, Lady Kim is dead.” Min Jeong's teared up. She cradled the newborn orphan in her arms and looked from the infant to the governor with expectant eyes. The governor, too, looked at the baby boy, brushed past Min Jeong and pushed the door open wide. He stood in the doorway where his wife's body lay. Her face was pale and blood drained from her birth canal into a red sea on the floor. A large pile of towels had been used in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding and they were crumpled and saturated in a corner. The other servantlady cried, and the midwife wiped sweat from her forehead, panting from all the effort she spent trying to save her patient. She stood when she saw the governor.
"I'm sorry, Naeuri. I failed to save her. She was too weak to survive the birth." Governor Song's nails scratched the wood of the doorframe, and his arms shook with a confusing type of anger. He turned around and Min Jeong confronted him with the orphan boy lost within a swaddle of fabric. He snorted and stormed past the needy pair.
The governor spent the rest of the day tapping his fingers on his desk in irritation. He rubbed his forehead with such fervor he might wear away the skin and reach bone. He assured himself that by sparing Lady Kim's life when she was pregnant he cleared any debt he owed the newborn boy. The man lay his head in his hand and searched for any option, whether appealing or unpalatable, to rid his home of the boy.
Min Jeong kept the parentless boy by her side as she promised his mother. The servant created a small, flat mound of fabric for the infant to sleep on that night. Governor Song entered without disturbing either party and remove the infant from the room. He carried the boy out of the house, down the street, to the bridge that spanned Jeonju's river. Atop the bridge, where not a soul was around to see him, he held the infant over the water. The baby boy slumbered, tired from a long day of being born. Not even a day had passed since his mother went into labor and now he sat at the precipice of his life.
Governor Song started to examine the boy's gentle features. He looked much like Jae Soon had when he was as young. The governor brought him back from the edge for a closer look and removed some of the swaddling from the boy's face. The moonlight showered the boy in light until the governor wrapped him up in the safety of the cloth. He turned and left the bridge with the boy in his arms. The governor grimaced for the duration of the walk home while Jae Hwan slept.
I appreciate you taking your time to read this. Thank you. I'd like to hear your responses and any advice you have available. If you can't think of anything to say (I know I'm a lousy critic) but would still like to say a word of support it will help fuel me during the tedious editing process.