Confessions of a History Geek: Blending History and Fantasy
Written by D. B. Jackson
Writing historical urban fantasy presents interesting challenges, particularly for someone like me. I’m a refugee from academia with a Ph.D. in history, which means that I’m a nerd with a nearly obsessive desire to keep my history accurate. So, when I was writing Thieves’ Quarry, the second book in my Thieftaker Chronicles, I faced something of a conundrum.
A little background: Thieves’ Quarry begins on September 28, 1768. Citizens in the Colonial city of Boston, which has seen rioting and political unrest throughout the summer and early fall, cast a wary eye toward the waters of Boston Harbor, where more than a dozen British war ships lay anchored. Aboard the ships are soldiers, a thousand strong, who stand ready to begin their occupation of the city.
My hero, Ethan Kaille, a conjurer and thieftaker, was once a sailor in the British navy, and he remains a Tory — a Crown loyalist — although recent events have tested his faith in those serving His Majesty, King George III. He is also an ex-convict who was once imprisoned for mutiny, and who is rumored to be a “witch,” as people of the time called those who wield magic.
My idea is to use the presence of the fleet and the impending occupation as backdrops for a mystery. And I need a crime so cruel and brazen that it will force the Crown authorities to turn to a man of Ethan’s dubious background. I also need for this event to draw the notice of Samuel Adams and others who oppose Parliament, as well as the notice of Ethan’s rival in thieftaking, the lovely and dangerous Sephira Pryce. Finally, I do not want this event to alter drastically the true history as it unfolded in those clear New England autumn days.
In the end, what I have done is both simple and bold. I have added a ship to the fleet: HMS Graystone, out of Bristol. She is a fourteen-gun sloop of war, carrying a complement of nearly one hundred men, including soldiers and army officers, naval officers and the Graystone’s crew.
And after establishing her history and her role in the coming garrisoning of the city, I have killed every man on the ship with a powerful burst of magic that Ethan senses but cannot explain.
To some this may seem like a good deal of unnecessary effort. There were plenty of “real” ships in the harbor at that time, including several sloops. I could have aimed the killing spell at any of them without significantly altering the background history of the book. But this is where that obsessive nerdy thing that I mentioned earlier comes in. I wanted to be able to describe the landing of the occupation force in as much detail as possible and with absolute confidence that I had it right. I didn’t want to account for missing soldiers or ships, nor did I wish to create potential problems by making the initial occupying force smaller and therefore potentially less effective than it really was.
By adding the Graystone and then immediately subtracting it, I maintain the historical integrity of the events as they unfold, while at the same time creating a compelling mystery for Ethan to solve.
This is, in essence, the way I approach all of the challenges I face when blending history and fantasy in the Thieftaker books. The historian in me strives for accuracy. The novelist in me seeks the most exciting and intriguing narratives possible. Balancing those exigencies demands both an understanding of historical forces and a willingness at key moments to stray — sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes by killing a shipload of soldiers — from strict historical fact.
With Thieves’ Quarry, just as with, Thieftaker, the first book in the series, I want the resulting story to grab my readers by the collar and refuse to let go. But even more, I want the narrative, setting, and characters to transport readers to a Colonial Boston that is accurate and intriguing, a Boston that may not have existed exactly in this form, but that could have been.
From the Tor/Forge July 8th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.
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