The Big Idea: D.B. Jackson

You may have heard the phrase, “you have to know what the rules are before you can break them.” Well, that basic concept comes into play when one is researching history in order to throw a little magic into it. Author D.B. Jackson explains why, and how learning history mattered before breaking it in his new novel Thieftaker.


Who would spend literally months doing research for a historical fantasy novel, taking every care to get right even the smallest details, and then turn around and base the entire concept for the book and series on two complete historical fallacies?

Well, if you must know, I would.

My latest book, Thieftaker, book I in the Thieftaker Chronicles, is a murder mystery set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. On the night of the Stamp Act riots in 1765, a young woman is murdered. Officials of the Crown wish to blame the rioters, but of course our hero, Ethan Kaille, conjurer and thieftaker, has other ideas and soon finds himself enmeshed in a web of magic and politics. Hi-jinx ensue…

I have a Ph.D. in history. I take the idea of historical authenticity seriously, and so when I started working on Thieftaker, I made every effort to create a physical backdrop for my story that is as accurate, rich, and compelling as possible. I read biographical essays and books on the various historical figures who interact with my fictional characters, in the hope that I would make the two sets of personalities — fictional and historical — blend together seamlessly. I took great pains to portray correctly the subtleties and intricacies of pre-Revolutionary politics.

And having done all that, I inserted these historical elements into a novel whose two key concepts are completely ahistorical. Sort of.

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 make for fun reading and what I like to think are some truly exciting plot twists, but they are about as historically inauthentic as any literary device could be. This is fantasy after all, and so I didn’t hesitate to insert 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: Ethan, and his nemesis, the lovely and dangerous Sephira Pryce, who is modeled loosely on London’s most notorious thieftaker, Jonathan Wild. But, of course, in my book, the Wild character is a woman, another historical conceit.

What makes my historical inaccuracies work, however, is that both of them address, albeit indirectly, true circumstances. There might not have been conjurers in 18th century New England, but there were witch scares going back nearly a hundred years. In Salem, not far from Boston, well over one hundred men and women were jailed as witches in the spring of 1692. Twenty were executed. And during the 18th century, fear of witches persisted 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; 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 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 to enforce it. So, though there were no thieftakers in Boston, it is easy to imagine how, under existing circumstances, thieftakers could have thrived.

And for me, this is the big idea. Crucial parts of my story are at odds with historical fact, but I have tried to fit the fictional elements of my worldbuilding into actual historical conditions. My goal in writing historical fantasy is not 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 my research, my first allegiances as a novelist have to be to character and narrative, rather than to historical exactitude. But while I am not set on recreating a Boston that was, I do strive to create a Boston that could have been, that is as believable and nuanced and alive to the senses as the real thing.

To my mind, history is another tool, like character, plot, setting, and voice. It has to enhance the story, and bring elements to it that would not otherwise be there. As soon as concerns about accuracy 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. Now 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. Because with historical fiction, as with all fiction, everything comes back to the two words that make all big ideas possible: “What if?” My version of 1765 Boston might not match what we see in textbooks, but it is a realistic portrayal of what the city would have been like with conjurers and thieftakers. And as it turns out, that’s a pretty cool place in which to set a novel.


Thieftaker: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.


31 Comments on “The Big Idea: D.B. Jackson”

  1. I got this last week. Read “A Spell of Vengeance” also, and enjoyed it. I thought the writing was familiar, then I found out who you wrote as before, and became even more excited about the start of your new series. I enjoyed the hell out of all your previous books, and “Thieftaker” is wonderful.

  2. You know, I’ve been using the old complaint against fantasy for a long time that most of it is simply derivative of Tolkien: set in a European medieval setting with dragons, elves and wizards etc.. It’s good to see someone actually deviating significantly from that model.

    I’m interested and will at least be downloading the sample.

  3. Sounds great. Alas, there’s no UK ebook – is there one on the way, or should I import a hard copy? :-)

  4. actually as a historian, social activist, science fiction critic soon to be writer, cryptozoologist and ex radio personality our popular school history has been grosely skewed by biasness of the material chosen. i look forward to reading Thieftaker, i believe it will be quite refreshing from the hum drum of alternate universes with airships.

  5. This is cool. I’m embarrassed to admit I had never heard of a “thief-taker” or of Jonathan Wild until this Big Idea piece. I did a little googling and was fascinated by the story of the rise of salaried law enforcement in England. Thanks for writing the novel, and for posting your piece here.

    And as usual, thanks to Scalzi for facilitating the interaction!

  6. Thanks, Carole. Hope you’ll check out the book.

    Ed, there are some great guest posts on this site. Glad you liked mine; you should check out the others, too.

    Andrew, to be honest I don’t know what Tor has in mind re. UK e-versions. Might want to get a hard copy. Sorry I can’t be of more help.

    Robert, thanks. One of the things I have enjoyed about writing Thieftaker is how different it is from my own older work. I hope that it reads as something fresh to others, as well.

    Nick, thanks for the comment. Wild is a totally fascinating character; more like something from a Dickens novel than from real like. Hope you enjoy the book.

  7. I love history, absolutely adore it! When it can be successfully mixed with a bit of superstition or successfully mingled with a bit of sorcery I quickly find myself falling quite head over heels. I have high hopes, thank you. :)

  8. What can I say, you had me as soon as I read the word “thief-taker” (historian here…) — looking forward to this one!

  9. Tizz, missed your comment. Thanks. There are historical conceits in the book, of course. It’s fiction, after all, but I hope you enjoy it and find enough authentic history to make it fun for you.

  10. Every time I read one of these posts I go straight to Amazon and order the book. Then I tell myself that I’m buying faster than I’m reading, so no matter what I won’t buy the next one. Sigh. Off to Amazon.

  11. “no conjurers in 18th century Boston, or anywhere else in the colonies for that matter.” Darn. That undercuts my short story “George Washington and the Magic Snuff Box of Arbroath”…

  12. You know, I was wondering over the 4th of July if there existed any historical fantasy set in Colonial America… This sound excellent and exactly the kind of book I was looking for.

  13. “… George Washington treasured a snuff box that he had been given made from a piece of wood cut from the tree where William Wallace hid from the English at Falkirk.

    This draws the bright line from Robert the Bruce to the father of The United States of America.

    George turned it over and over in his hands….”

  14. I love this, Jonathan — get to work and write it!

    Amergina, thanks. And if you’re looking for more Colonial Era fantasy, check out C.C. Finlay’s wonderful Traitor to the Crown series (The Patriot Witch, A Spell for Revolution, and The Demon Redcoat).

  15. Thank you, davidbcoe. My notes say: “George Washington and the Magic Snuff Box of Arbroath”, final draft 2.1, 17 pp., 4400 words. To Clarkesworld 27 Nov 2010; To Fantasy Magazine, online submission, 8 Dec 2010; rejected 9 Dec 2010; Asimov’s, online sub’n #540476, 12 Dec 2010; rejected 12 Dec 2010; Analog, 18 July 2011, rejected 1 Sep 2011, received 10 Sep 2011; Beneath Ceasless Skies, 15 Feb 2012… Many of my stories bounce half a dozen times before being bought by a major market magazine or anthology. Inventory Management is as important as talent, it see,s. Mr. Scalzi has both, needless to say.

  16. That’s true for all of us, Jonathan — the bouncing I mean. Even us long-time pros get rejected and have to submit stories a few times before finding homes for them. Best of luck.

  17. I’m not trying to hijack this thread, but davidbcoe is SO very right. One of my sales in 2011 was written in the 1960s. One of my sales to Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics was written half a century earlier. I stopped counting rejection slips and rejection letters when they hit 5,000 (by which time I had 500 publications). My estimate is, thus, that my roughly 4,400 publications, presentations, and broadcasts to date took 40,000 rejections.

  18. Finished Theiftaker a couple of days ago. While it was occasionally tough reading about the damage done to Ethan, I found the book captivating and very satisfying. It was a neat take on pre-revolutionary America and I look forward to the rest.

  19. Reading it, enjoying it!

    Just a qualifier from the interview: preachers didn’t rail against witches in order to frighten their congregations. When they preached about witchcraft, they railed against witches because -they actually believed in witches-. Conscious hypocrisy is actually a fairly rare phenomenon.

    To be specific, they believed in witchcraft in the sense the word was used at the time: witches were in league with Satan (or other fallen angels) to wreak harm by magic powers granted them by demons. Up until the late 17th century, generally speaking people in the Western world believed in witches the way we believe in atoms. Other cultures invariably had analogous beliefs. Given the (false) premise, the terror of witchcraft and the drastic actions against its practitioners were perfectly logical. People are afraid of radiation poisoning now, often to the point of hysteria, after all.

    Puritan New England had some witch scares, but far fewer than contemporary Europe — under Massachusetts law it was a serious crime to make an accusation of witchcraft if you couldn’t convince the magistrates it was justified, and most people who -did- make such accusations -didn’t- convince the magistrates. There were more legal punishments meted out for false accusations than for witchcraft.

    In the late 17th and early 18th century, belief in malignant witchcraft more or less collapsed among the educated classes in Western culture, though as a folk belief lower down the social scale it persisted strongly and might lead to mobbing or other attacks well into Victorian times. Disbelief spread outward from those circles, taking a good deal of time to penetrate to the more benighted corners.

    By no coincidence at all, actual witchcraft trials ceased in the core areas of Western civilization about the same period, simply because the elites (who controlled the judicial system) stopped believing they were justified.

    Granted, if magic had -actually- existed, belief might well have persisted longer.

  20. Law enforcement: I’ve read an account of New Orleans by a visitor from New York in the 1830’s. He saw a fight break out on the docks — nothing strange there. But then people started shouting “Guards! Guards!” and uniformed armed men ran up and broke up the fight.

    -That- was strange; it seemed creepy and alien and European. New Orleans at the time had a “Civic Guard”, based on French models. It was the first large American city to do so, mainly because it wasn’t a very American city. The legal system there was based on that of France.

    Until roughly that period, there weren’t any uniformed “preventative” police in the English-speaking world, charged with suppressing crime. Ireland was the first part to get them, by no coincidence.

    It wasn’t that the -concept- was unknown; many European countries had regular police forces (and detectives).

    It wasn’t done in Britain or its offshoots because, basically, people didn’t want it, for the same reason that standing armies housed in barracks were regarded with profound suspicion. Police were associated with absolute monarchy and other forms of tyranny. People simply didn’t trust the authorities that much. As a secondary matter they were convinced that an organized police would swiftly become corrupt, used for political patronage and probably in alliance with criminal gangs.

    (These fears were well-grounded at the time.)

  21. I will want to read this book. Also Jonathan vos Post’s story. And I am inspired to hurry up and finish what I am currently just calling “the Frankenstein story”, a murder mystery set in New York during the depression of 1837 — in a world where Victor Frankenstein published his research.

  22. Just finished your book and am recommending it to others! I picked it because the title caught my eye. I loved David Liss’ “A Conspiracy of Paper” (Wow! Just saw it came out over 10 years ago). Anyway it was my introduction to thief-takers, including Jonathan Wild. Will be watching out for Ethan’s next adventure…

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