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[GUEST POST] D.B. Jackson on The History Behind The Historical Fiction Behind the THIEFTAKER CHRONICLES

D. B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, will be released in hardcover on July 8. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. 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. You can follow D.B. Jackson via his website, Facebook, on Twitter (as @DBJacksonAuthor), and GoodReads.

The History Behind My Historical Fiction

by D. B. Jackson

Boston, July 1769: The city of Boston, Massachusetts — which is really little more than a town by modern standards (a population of approximately 15,000) — is in the midst of a hot and humid summer, not unlike those that still settle over Southern New England every July and August. There is no air conditioning, of course; a fan is something to be held in hand and waved to and fro. Food cannot be refrigerated, much less frozen. Social mores with regard to fashion dictate that despite the heat, men should wear full-length breeches and long-sleeve shirts, often with waistcoats or jackets. Women are to wear full-length dresses complete with stomachers and petticoats. Oh, and there is no internal plumbing, so no showers.

This is merely the most superficial way of conveying a basic truth: Boston in the pre-Revolutionary Era, the setting for the books of my Thieftaker Chronicles, bore little resemblance to the technology-laden world in which we live today. This is hardly an earth-shattering observation. But it becomes more significant when one considers that in creating my characters for the Thieftaker books such superficial differences were the least of my concerns. The third Thieftaker novel, A Plunder of Souls is to be released on July 8. (It follows the publication in 2012 of Thieftaker, and in 2013 of Thieves’ Quarry.) The book is set during that sweltering summer I mention above, but my lead character, Ethan Kaille, and those characters with whom he interacts, take in stride the discomforts of heat and humid air. In that respect the summer of 1769 is little different from every other summer they have known.

More to the point, their thoughts are consumed with two other, far more momentous circumstances: Boston is under military occupation. And cases of smallpox have been reported throughout the city.

The occupation of Boston by British troops began in the autumn of 1768, and actually provides the historical backdrop for Thieves’ Quarry. (In fact, if you haven’t read that book, you probably should go and buy it now. We’ll wait. [Musical interlude.] Ah! You’re back. Good. Let’s carry on.) But while the story told in that book coincides with the arrival of the troops, it ends before the full reality of the occupation and its implications for everyday life in the city become apparent. Now, some nine months later, the occupation is well established, with no end in sight. Resentments of the uniformed regulars run deep. Because the soldiers are poorly paid, many have deserted, fleeing into the Massachusetts countryside. Others have taken to thieving. Nearly all of them eat and drink in Boston’s many “publick houses,” paying not a shilling for their fare and incurring the sullen anger of innkeepers. They are quartered in barracks in the middle of the city, in close proximity to Faneuil Hall, the hub of commerce. The men and women of the city cannot go about their daily lives without encountering soldiers armed with muskets and bayonets.

For their part, the uniformed regulars are accosted in the streets of Boston on an almost-daily basis by young men who hurl insults and obscenities, and who often assail the soldiers with rocks or pieces of garbage. The threat of deadly violence hangs over every confrontation, and though no citizen has yet died at the hands of a regular, several have incurred wounds. More, not all Bostonians oppose the occupation or Parliament’s continuing authority over the colony. For every conflict between a colonist and a soldier, there are several among the colonists themselves. The occupation is more than a threat to the safety and liberty of Boston’s citizenry; it is a mindset that creeps into every interaction.

Yet in 1769, once the first case of smallpox is made public, fear of armed conflict pales beside the terror elicited by the “distemper.” Eventually, more than two centuries later, smallpox will be eradicated thanks to a successful vaccination program. In the United States, the disease is all but eliminated by end of the nineteenth century. But in the 1760s, there is no known cure, and the inoculation campaign championed by some physicians is both controversial and prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest families. An outbreak of the disease in 1764 killed hundreds and left countless others permanently scarred. With the return of smallpox in 1769, come memories of that tragedy and a wave of panic. According to the minutes of Selectmen’s meetings in June and July, all who are thought to have the disease, and who are willing to abandon their homes, are relocated to the Pest House — the hospital in Boston’s West End. Those who refuse to relocate must fly red flags outside their homes indicating that the distemper has struck there. Guards are posted in front of these homes — at the city’s expense; three shillings, four pence per day — and none but physicians are allowed to enter or leave. When victims die, their belongings are smoked, as are their houses, and the quarantines are maintained for a full week. Their bodies are wrapped in tarred sheets and carted through the streets to burying grounds in the middle of the night, when the risk of encountering healthy innocents is lowest. Such is the fear of this scourge.

A population in the midst of an occupation and a smallpox outbreak: most people would take pity on them. But I’m not most people; I’m a writer. And so in A Plunder of Souls I torture them further by introducing a horde of ghosts controlled by a psychotic conjurer bent on revenge. It seemed like the least I could do…[Cue maniacal laughter and frenzied rubbing together of hands.]

In all seriousness (not that I was kidding about the ghosts and unhinged conjurer), part of what I love about writing the Thieftaker novels is the opportunity to weave historical facts together with my fictional narratives. A ghost story involving a crazed sorcerer is going to be fun to write no matter what. But drop such a tale into a historical setting — mix in the political and social tensions of a burgeoning rebellion shaking off the constraints of a colonial empire, and the abject fear engendered by the outbreak of a disfiguring and potentially fatal disease — and the result is a story that careens from crisis to crisis, from confrontation to confrontation.

The challenge lies in blending true historical circumstance with my fictional elements in a way that leaves the seam between the two virtually invisible. And so my magic system resembles contemporary descriptions of witchcraft, and my conjurers, less than a century removed form the executions of so-called witches in Salem, Massachusetts, live in constant fear of being hanged as witches. My villain seeks ghosts for his spirit army, and finds a rich harvest in Boston at a time of year when some dreaded disease is more than likely to run rampant. (Summer was a deadly season in most of North America’s colonial cities. If they weren’t facing smallpox outbreaks, they were dealing with yellow fever or one of several illnesses — including scarlet fever and diphtheria — that were referred to collectively as throat distemper.) The conflicts among my lead characters are made all the more dramatic by the heightened tensions brought on by the military occupation. And yes, even the heat, and the inability to escape it, makes matters worse.

For my historical fiction to work, the history needs to be more than a backdrop. It must creep into every narrative element, blending with my story lines to create a tale that might not be real — after all, it includes ghosts and conjurers and characters who were born of my imagination — but that carries enough truth to be convincing. Whether you call it historical fantasy, or alternate history, or even Tricorn Punk (Trademark, baby!) the point is to make plot and setting and character come alive, so that my readers are left wishing that my Colonial Boston was the real one.

7 Comments on [GUEST POST] D.B. Jackson on The History Behind The Historical Fiction Behind the THIEFTAKER CHRONICLES

  1. When historical fantasy becomes alternate history is an interesting borderland, in my view.

    To me, if a Historical fantasy doesn’t really change history significantly…I don’t think it IS a alternate history. If all the events that Ethan and company go through don’t in the end change a significant event with descendant changes, its not alternate history…even if there are supernatural elements running around.

    Make sense?

  2. I agree with you, Paul. I generally prefer to call my books historical fantasy, historical urban fantasy, or, of course, Tricorn Punk. I don’t consider it alternate history for exactly the reasons you mention. But others still think it falls under that heading.

  3. I’ve been meaning to read Thieftaker for some time and finally did. Enjoyed it immensely, especially the seamless meld (is that the right word?) of historical context and engaging fantasy. Well done! I look forward to more!

  4. Thank you so much, Deborah. Glad you enjoyed the first boo. I hope you like books two and three as well. And yes, meld is the perfect word, particularly here at the home of the mind-meld!

    • And here I thought I was being discreetly clever! Btw, the friend who recommended your books was Sherwood Smith.

      I’ve done a bit of historical fantasy, mostly at shorter lengths, so I appreciate the research involved and the thought that goes into making the disparate elements fit within the same world. My epic fantasy trilogy (The Seven-Petaled Shield, from DAW) was based loosely on the conflict between the Romans and Scythians. I had such fun researching nomadic horse peoples of Central Asia.

      • I LOVE Sherwood Smith. One of the nicest people I’ve ever met in this biz, and a wonderful, wonderful writer. Please tell her I say hello. And your trilogy sounds fascinating. Going on the TBR pile!

        • Sherwood is my husband’s best friend (actually, she introduced us) and was bestperson at our wedding. I love her writing, and she’s one of the nicest people I know.

          Hope you enjoy my trilogy!

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