GUEST AUTHOR: D. B. Jackson
D. B. Jackson is the pen name of award-winning author David B. Coe, who has been writing fantasy professionally for over fifteen years. He also has a Ph.D. in U.S. history. His upcoming novel - THIEFTAKER - allows him to combine his passion for fantasy fiction with his love of historical research.
Historical fantasy is a strange hybrid. I did a great deal of research on Colonial Boston, where all the Thieftaker stories take place, in order to create a setting that is as accurate, as rich, and as compelling as possible. I read biographical essays and books on the various historical figures who interact with my fictional characters. I took great pains to portray correctly the subtleties and intricacies of pre-Revolutionary politics.
And then I began to write books that are founded on two complete historical fallacies.
First - and I suppose this comes as no surprise to anyone - there were no conjurers in 18th century Boston, or anywhere else in the colonies for that matter. The spellcrafting abilities of my lead character, Ethan Kaille, make for fun reading and some truly exciting plot twists, but they are about as historical as any literary device could be. This is fantasy after all, and I make no apologies for inserting a magical element into my worldbuilding for the series.
And second, while thieftakers were common in 18th century English cities, and even appeared for a short while in the United States in the early 19th century, there were no thieftakers in any American colonial city. None. In my book, Boston has at least two of them. One of them, Sephira Pryce, is modeled loosely on the life of London's most notorious thieftaker, Jonathan Wild. But, of course, in my book, the Wild character is a woman, another historical conceit.
What makes both of my major historical inaccuracies work, however, is that they address, albeit indirectly, true historical circumstance. As I say, there were no conjurers in 18th century New England. But there were witch scares going back nearly a hundred years. In Salem, not far from Boston, approximately one hundred and fifty people were jailed as witches in the spring of 1692. Twenty women and men were executed. And during the 18th century, fear of witches continued to result in scares throughout the Province of Massachusetts Bay. In THIEFTAKER, conjurers and witches are not the same thing. Witches are the stuff of myth; preachers rail against witchery and black magick in their sermons in order to frighten their congregations. Conjurers, on the other hand, are real. But fear of one is conflated with the other, and so Ethan and other conjurers must keep their abilities secret, lest they be hanged as witches.
Similarly, while Boston had no thieftakers in the 1760s, conditions in the city were certainly ripe for some sort of private law enforcement infrastructure. Boston had a sheriff: Stephen Greenleaf was sheriff of all of Suffolk County. But he had no constabulary force at his disposal. British troops had yet to occupy the city, and those men of Boston's night watch who weren't incompetent were as likely to break the law as enforce it. So, though there were no thieftakers in Boston, it is easy to imagine how, under the existing circumstances, thieftakers could have thrived.
And for me, this is the larger point. My goal in writing historical fantasy is not - cannot be - to create a perfectly accurate portrait of 1760s Boston. This is fiction, after all, and fantasy at that. I want to tell a story, and despite all the research I have done, my first allegiances as a novelist have to be to character and narrative, rather than to historical exactitude. But while I am not necessarily set on recreating a Boston that was, I do strive to create a Boston that could have been, that is believable and as nuanced and sensual - in the truest sense of the word - as the real thing.
For the author of historical fiction, history is another tool, like character, plot, setting, voice. It has to enhance the story, and bring elements to it that would not otherwise be there. As soon as concerns about accuracy and fact begin to get in the way of storytelling, the history is no longer a boon to good writing. It becomes an obstacle, something that will prove to be an annoyance for writer and reader alike.
Don't get me wrong: I would never suggest that we ought to play fast and loose with the facts. Instead, I look for a balance. On the one hand, I draw upon history to bring flavor to my narrative, ambiance to my setting, cultural context to my characters. On the other hand, I also know when to allow my imagination to take over so that I can concentrate on spinning the most exciting and absorbing yarn possible. Hopefully, that's what I've done with THIEFTAKER.
D. B. Jackson lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. When he's not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
THIEFTAKER, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, will be released by Tor Books on July 3. Publishers Weekly calls it "a noteworthy series opener" and Booklist describes it as a "diverting, fast-paced 'what-if' novel."
Interested in reading
more about blending history and fantasy?
Cannibalizing History-Part One: Cookbooks and Floor Plans and Herbs (Oh, My!)
I was a history major in college and I’ve never lost my love of research. At Lunacon 2008, I moderated a panel with such participants as Jacqueline Carey and Chris Cevasco, and we got to share our love of history and the resources we’ve discovered to help bring a story to life. Read more.
Cannibalizing History-Part Two: The Traveling Writer
My love of research has taken me to a tithe barn in England and a sheep-shearing festival on the Hudson; to the palaces of James IV in Scotland and a “black house” on the Isle of Sky (where my friend Robin and I nearly suffocated in the peat smoke). Read more.