I blogged last week about D B Jackson and his new historical urban fantasy, Thieftaker
. He very kindly agreed to write a guest post for me about the book and the history behind it (which, as a Briton who hasn't studied any US history earlier than the 1920s) I have to say I find fascinating.Over to David:
In recent weeks, as I have pimped-- er, I mean, promoted my latest book, Thieftaker
, book I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, I have been asked repeatedly how I chose the historical backdrop for the book. Thieftaker
is set in Colonial Boston, several years before the American Revolution, and I believe that much of the curiosity I’ve encountered stems from the fact that I didn’t place the book and its sequels squarely in the war period.
Wars receive a lot of literary attention, and with good reason. War years are almost always fraught with tension, drama, violence, roiled emotions, etc., all of which make for good stories. Indeed, there are already some very good novels set in the Revolutionary War period. But the decade leading up to the American colonies’ split from England saw their share of turmoil and excitement as well. When I was a graduate student, earning my Ph.D. in U.S. history, I found the late Colonial period utterly fascinating. Yet, even when I first began to work on the Thieftaker series, I had no idea that I would wind up setting the books in this period.
The idea for the Thieftaker series was sparked by a footnote that I read in Robert Hughes’ history of Australia, The Fatal Shore
. (Yes, a footnote. In a history book. I admit it: I’m a geek.) The footnote described the life of London’s most famous thieftaker, the notorious Jonathan Wild. Wild was a brute and criminal who was responsible for nearly all the thefts that he “solved” as a thieftaker. He or his henchmen would steal goods, and then those things that Wild couldn’t sell for great profit he would turn around and return for a fee. He made a fortune, and all the while was hailed for his uncanny ability to recover stolen goods.
My first thought upon reading about Wild was “What a great idea for a book character!” I modeled my lead character’s nemesis, Sephira Pryce, after Wild. It might be the first time I have had a book idea present itself to me in the form of an antagonist rather than a protagonist.
But where would I set my story of thieftakers? In its first incarnation, Thieftaker
was actually set in an alternate fantasy world. After discussions with my editor, however, I decided to shift it to a real world historical setting. My editor suggested London, but I have to admit that I was hesitant to set the book there. I know of so many books that have been set in London, and the truth is I really don’t know the city very well. On the other hand, having studied U.S. history, and having lived for a time in New England, I thought that Boston might be the perfect backdrop for the story.
In the 1760s, Boston was somewhat rundown, even seedy. Not long before, it had been the leading city of Colonial North America. But economic troubles had taken away some of its luster. Her sister cities, New York and Pennsylvania, had surpassed her in both population and financial prowess. I liked the idea of setting the Thieftaker books in a city like this. That sense of a town past its prime worked well with the noir feel I was searching for as a I wrote the first book. More, I felt that Boston’s fall from grace created nice parallels with my lead character, Ethan Kaille, a conjurer and thieftaker, who is also past his prime and down on his luck.
More to the point, Boston in the mid-1760s was becoming the hotbed of colonial protests against British authority. This was a place and time fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Most colonists in the 1760s still considered themselves loyal subjects of the British Empire, but they were also starting to perceive that there was something unique about their status as Americans. For a character like Ethan Kaille, the hero of my book, who is trying to find his way in the world after serving nearly fourteen years in prison, this added uncertainty seems a perfect complement to his personal struggles. Nowhere were the ambiguities of colonial status more stridently argued than in Boston.
I begin my book on the night of 26 August 1765. As rioters are abroad in the city streets, protesting Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act by destroying the homes of several representatives of the Crown, a young woman is found murdered. The riots are real, and my description of them is as historical accurate as I could make it. The murder is a fiction of my own creation. Together, the aftermath of the murder and riots form Thieftaker’s
My biggest challenge in using Boston as the story’s setting lay in creating a magic system that would blend as seamlessly as possible with my colonial backdrop. Fortunately, Boston and the surrounding countryside already had a longstanding relationship with the supernatural. The Province of Massachusetts Bay had seen witch scares going back nearly a hundred years, including the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, which saw over one hundred and fifty people jailed and twenty executed. In Thieftaker
, conjurers and witches are not the same thing. Witches are creatures of myth and nightmare; preachers rail against witchery and black magick in their sermons. Conjurers like my hero, on the other hand, are quite real. But while witches don’t actually exist, fear of them is constantly conflated with fear of conjurers. Ethan and others of his kind must keep their abilities secret, lest they be hanged as witches.
By connecting my imaginary magic system with the true historical phenomenon of witch scares, I was able to find that seamless blending of the fantastic and the historical I was after. The paranormal aspects of my story wound up reinforcing the sense of time and place that are so important to the book. And, in return, the historical references to something with which most readers are familiar -- that age-old fear of witches -- made the magic system seem that much more “real.”
In the end, 1760s Boston turned out to be the perfect setting for Thieftaker
and its sequels. The combination of a city in decline, a political system on the verge of implosion, and a belief system that seemed to acknowledge the existence of “magic,” allowed me to weave my characters and my storyline into existing historical phenomena. And, perhaps more to the point, the richness of Boston’s history from that era allowed me to have a tremendous amount of fun.
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, Thieftaker
, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, 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.David's websiteDavid's blogTwitterGoodreadsAnd Amazon