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.