SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Fantasist D.B. Jackson (aka David B. Coe)

D.B. Jackson, a.k.a. David B. Coe, was born the youngest of four children who all grew up to be writers. His novels include Children of Amarid, volume one of The LonTobyn Chronicle. Which is one of my favorite fantasy series. In 1999, The Lon Tobyn Chronicles was awarded the William L. Crawford Memorial Fantasy Award by the (IAFA). Thereafter followed the critically acclaimed Winds of the Forelands, five volumes, and Blood of the Southlands set in the same world. He’s also written Robin Hood, a tie-in novelization for the Russell Crowe film and is a founding member and proud contributor to the Magical Words blogsite, dedicated to the craft and business of writing. The Magical Words crew collaborated on How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion from BellaRosa Books. His first urban historical fantasy, Thieftaker, released from TOR last year, and the sequel, Thieve’s Quarry, is out now. Both are fantasies set in the Revolutionary War period and absolutely blasts to read. David can be found online via Facebook, Twitter as @DavidBCoe and @DBJacksonAuthor or via his website dbjackson-author.com .


SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?

DB Jackson: Reading. Started reading Tolkien, then McCaffrey, Donaldson, and Kay.  Guy Kay is probably my favorite and the writer I most want to emulate.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to pursue writing? And did you study formally in school, learn as you went, etc.?

DBJ: Wrote my first “novel” when I was six. Studied a bit in college, but then pursued history… But when I started writing professionally, it was mostly learn as you go.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write before making your first sale? Did you start with shorts or novels?

DBJ: This is a little embarrassing. My first sale came with my first submission: Children Of Amarid… So I started with novels, and sold my first short story in 1999.

SFFWRTCHT: Lucky bastard. Oh sorry. Did I say that aloud? You’re primarily known for fantasy. What drew you to fantasy? And what are key elements of good fantasy for you?

DBJ: I love magic and playing with magic systems. But to me, good fantasy like all fiction comes down to good character and plotting.

SFFWRTCHT: So why the change from sword and sorcery to historical fantasy?

DBJ: My early work as David B. Coe sort of is sword and sorcery, and I’d like to go back to it someday. But I’d written eleven sword and sorcery books and wanted to do something different. Thieftaker allowed me to use my history background and to try writing urban fantasy which I’ve always wanted to do.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you usually start with characters or plot?

DBJ: Where I start varies from story to story and from series to series. Thieftaker started with a character… Winds of the Forelands started with a plot point.

SFFWRTCHT: Thieftaker has Ethan Kaille hired to investigate the disappearance of a woman and uncovering a secret dark conjurer at work. In Thieve’s Quarry, he winds up hired by the Crown as Boston is invaded by British to solve the murders of 100 men aboard a ship. I know you’ve done short stories with the protagonist Ethan Kaille. Who is Ethan and what’s a Thieftaker?

DBJ: A thieftaker is an 18th century private detective, hired to retrieve stolen goods… Ethan is a former sailor in the British navy, a mutineer, an ex-convict, and a sorcerer… He’s probably the most complex and compelling character I’ve ever created.

SFFWRTCHT: To give us an idea of how you visualize the character, what actor would you cast to play Ethan in a movie?

DBJ: Joseph Fiennes is a good choice. I’ve thought of Mark Wahlberg (my daughter approves).

SFFWRTCHT: While Ethan is a great character, I really like Sephira Pryce, his rival. Where did she come from?

DBJ: She is based in a historical figure named Jonathan Wild who was London’s most infamous thieftaker…I made her a woman because it added sexual tension to their rivalry. Which makes it that much more fun.

SFFWRTCHT: How much research did you do and how do you approach research? Do you do the bulk in advance or just as you need it.

DBJ: Before writing, I start with a series of questions, specific things I need to know before I can write the book… That list grows and changes as I do more and more research. But when I’ve answered the bulk of the questions, I begin to write…As I write, invariably I encounter more questions and answer those as I go.

SFFWRTCHT: You chose Boston as your setting. Obviously it was a center of revolutionary activity in colonial days. But why Boston?

DBJ: Love the city, love the historical period, lots of important events and people.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you outline or pants it? (I suppose this would affect the approach to research as well)

DBJ: I outline, although my initial outlines are usually obsolete by chapter 10… So I do a second outline which is obsolete by chapter 20, but usually my third outing gets me to the end of the book.

SFFWRTCHT: So first you outline, then you pants it. Kind of keeps the organic feel, I’d imagine.

DBJ: That’s exactly right. My outlines are vague enough to maintain that organic quality.

SFFWRTCHT: Awesome! I think that organic quality very important in stories. Sticking too close to outline can leave it dry. Tell us a bit about conjuring/the magic system. How does it work? Did you base it on any particular rules?

DBJ: I designed a magic system that would look like what people thought of as witchcraft in the 18th century… So Ethan draws blood, uses incantations, and communes with a ghost who helps him access power… Each of these things could be equated with witchcraft and thus could get him hanged as a witch, and that fear of persecution is a central tension in all of the THIEFTAKER books and stories.

SFFWRTCHT: Is it harder or easier for world-building to use an existing historical setting?

DBJ: The short answer is both. With a historical setting, I worry about accuracy at every turn… With a created world, I have to worry about all of it holding together and seeming coherent… Each presents unique challenges and opportunities.  The greatest challenge is finding the right sources, and I was fortunate to have a friend who teaches history to help me… The second challenge is knowing which sources to trust, and that was a matter of trial and error… I used a combination of written and online sources.

SFFWRTCHT: Obviously you made some changes to history but how do you decide what to change and what to keep?
DBJ: I changed as little as possible, and only altered details that were totally at odds with my plotting… Most of the time though, I was able to fit my stories into history without having to change historical details.

SFFWRTCHT: What other historical periods might draw your attention and keyboard?

DBJ: I’m not sure. The Thieftaker books will all be in the same period. I could see writing in the 1920s, or the war era… But I have no immediate plans for other historicals right now.

SFFWRTCHT: How much do you think an author needs to do ‘boots on the ground’ research when doing a historical novel?

DBJ: The closer you can get to your setting and to primary sources, the more authentic your history is going to be…But I benefited from several history texts that were informative and gave me a feel for the city.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novels take to write? What did you struggle with most and least in writing these books?

DBJ: Including research, each novel takes about six months. I struggled the most with getting the history just right… And creating interesting, believable mysteries. I struggled the least with my characters who just seemed to come alive.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use Scrivener or other “writing software tools”? Write to music? Any rituals?

DBJ: I use Scrivener to keep track of research and characters. My word processor of choice is Nisus Writer Pro. Nisus Writer Pro is a Mac program that what is very similar to my old, beloved Word Perfect.  I listen to instrumental jazz and bluegrass, but aside from my AM workout, I have no rituals.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like-specific block? Write til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

DBJ: I write every day for most of the work day, and I try to write 2,500 words per day… If I don’t make it a routine and treat it like a job, I’d never get anything done.

SFFWRTCHT: I also would be remiss not to ask a bit about Magical Words and how it came about?

DBJ: Magical Words was born when I met Faith Hunter at a writers’ workshop in 2007… We immediately became best friends and wanted to work together on something. We made a site designed for aspiring writers…  The site specializes in the writing craft and publishing business issues.

SFFWRTCHT: What benefits, besides friendships with your partners, have come from reaching out to help fellow authors?

DBJ: Writing about craft has forced me to think more about my own writing technique, and to break down my process in ways that have been enormously helpful to me. In teaching writing, I’m learning new things about writing.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

DBJ: The best writing advice I ever got was “Keep moving forward, don’t retreat into rewrites.” The worst came from a book that said “Writing fiction is like telling lies,” which just seems stupid to me.

SFFWRTCHT: Heh well, both lies and fiction can be inventive, I suppose…What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

DBJ: I have two contemporary urban fantasies underway that my agent and I are trying to place… And I have an idea for a new epic fantasy.

SFFWRTCHT: Good. I was wondering if any David B. Coe projects were in the works.

DBJ: I’m not sure which name any of these projects will be under…D.B.’s sales are pretty good, so we might stick with him.