The Seam Between Fiction and History

Guest Blogger: D.B. Jackson

My newest novel, THIEVES’ QUARRY, the second book in my Thieftaker Chronicles, is to be released today, July 2.  Like the first book in the series, THIEFTAKER, this latest installment is a historical urban fantasy set in Colonial Boston, against the backdrop of actual historical events leading to the American Revolution.

I have a Ph.D. in U.S. History.  Writing under a different name (David B. Coe) I have published a dozen fantasy novels.  With the Thieftaker books, I am trying to reconcile two seemingly disparate threads in my professional life.  On the one hand, as a confirmed history geek, I have what some might consider an obsessive need to get my facts right, to keep the historical elements of my story as accurate as possible.  At the same time, though, I am a fantasist.  Making stuff up is what I do.  Moreover, as a fiction author, I have to be most concerned with telling a good story and entertaining my readers. And so in the end my work is fated to be inaccurate.

The Thieftaker series is a case in point.  I will be happy to discuss at length all the work I do to ensure a certain level of historical authenticity in these books.  But I need to begin by pointing out the historical conceits, because they are significant.  My lead character, Ethan Kaille is a thieftaker — the eighteenth century equivalent of a private detective.  He is also a conjurer.  The thing is, there were no thieftakers in the New World in the 1760s and 1770s, when my books take place.  There were thieftakers in London and some other European cities at this time, and the profession would make a brief historical cameo in the United States in the early 1800s, but the fact remains that Ethan’s job, and his rivalry with fellow thieftaker Sephira Pryce is a gross anachronism. And Ethan’s access to magic is pure fantasy.

What makes these fictions work is that while they are inaccurate, they happen to fit in nicely with real historical circumstances.  There may have been no conjurers in Colonial Boston, but there were witch scares. By making my magic system resemble in certain ways eighteenth century beliefs about how witchcraft worked, and by making fear of magic synonymous with fear of witches, I give some real world context to my fiction and make it seem that Ethan’s spells belong in this version of 1760s Boston.

Similarly, while Boston had no thieftakers in the 1760s, conditions in the city make it easy to imagine that some form of private law enforcement could thrive.  Boston had a sheriff — a formidable man named Stephen Greenleaf — but he had no constabulary at his disposal.  Many men of Boston’s night watch were incompetent, and the rest were as likely to break the law as to enforce it.  In other words, I have been able to take advantage of Boston’s lawlessness and lack of an established police force to make the existence of thieftakers in my fictional Boston appear plausible.

If I can convince my readers to believe that thieftakers and conjurers belong in my version of Boston, the rest of my job as a writer of historical fiction becomes much easier.  Introducing the fictional plotlines for my books demands of my readers far shorter leaps of faith.  For instance, THIEVES’ QUARRY begins in late September of 1768, with Boston on the verge of being occupied by British troops.  A small fleet of British warships lays anchored in Boston Harbor, bearing a thousand regulars who had been stationed at Halifax.  This is all true — the fleet’s deployment and the occupation of the city happened just as I describe in the book.  Except that I add one ship to the fleet — the HMS Graystone.  And then I use a powerful conjuring to kill every man aboard the ship and leave it to Ethan to figure out what has happened and who is responsible.

The historical details I use are as accurate as I can make them.  Again, in part this is a function of my own geekish need to get this stuff right.  But it is also part of my narrative strategy.  The verisimilitude that I get from those details serve as cover, in a way, for the fictional elements. If my descriptions of historical figures and events ring true, and if all the stuff I make up blends in well with the history, then the seams between what’s accurate and what’s imagined become too subtle to see.

And that, of course, is the point.  My readers don’t necessarily need or want to know which details are real and which are not.  They want to be transported to another time and place.  They want to be presented with a tale that entertains and coheres and satisfies.  The first time Ethan casts a spell, they’re going to figure out that this is not the 1760s Boston they know from history books.  But so long as they believe this is a Boston that could have been, a Boston they want to visit for a time, I’m fine with that.

What do you look for in historical fiction?  Is it fair for an author to play with certain “facts” so long as she or he makes a concerted effort to get most things right?

*****

D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasy, THIEFTAKER, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, came out in 2012 and is now available in paperback. The second volume, THIEVES’ QUARRY, has just been released by Tor Books. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

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One Comment:

  1. Pingback: It’s Release Day for Thieves’ Quarry and the Paperback of Thieftaker! | An Exchange of Words: David B. Coe's Weblog

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