“A New Artistic Challenge”
by D.B. Jackson/David B. Coe
Today marks the release of my first short fiction collection.
Tales of the Thieftaker brings together eleven short pieces I have written over the past several years in the “universe” of my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston (Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and Dead Man’s Reach, all from Tor Books). The collection includes some previously released work, as well as pieces that have never before been published.
Among the stories in the latter category is “The Ruby Blade,” a full-length novella that serves as the centerpiece of the book.
Those familiar with the series will recognize that title: The Ruby Blade was the privateering ship on which Ethan Kaille, my thieftaking, conjuring protagonist once served. A mutiny aboard the vessel in 1745 resulted in his court-martial and imprisonment. He served fourteen years at hard labor on a sugar plantation in Barbados, a living hell that left him broken, both physically and emotionally.
Beginning with the first novel of the series, the mutiny was a touchstone of Ethan’s backstory, something referenced in the books again and again, but never fully described. For years, fans of the Thieftaker Chronicles have asked me about the Ruby Blade, wondering when I would get around to writing that episode of Ethan’s life. So, when I decided to publish Tales of the Thieftaker, I knew I would have to include this particular story. I also knew, though, that I didn’t simply want to write that old tale and slot it into the collection. Instead, I found a way to blend it with a new mystery, and to set it in the days after the end of the final book in the series.
I should pause here to say that while I consider myself a novelist, and am best known for my longer work, I love writing and reading short stories. I enjoy the challenge of shaping a complete tale in a limited number of words. I often learn something new about my craft when reading short work from my colleagues and seeing how they approach this task. And more than any other series I’ve written, the Thieftaker Chronicles has lent itself to short fiction.
But in the case of “The Ruby Blade,” I faced some unique challenges, and that is always good for an artist. For one thing, I was writing Ethan’s “origin story,” which I found daunting. I had been asked about this episode in Ethan’s background for so long, and my readers had expressed such eagerness to read it, that I felt more pressure than I have for perhaps any other work in my career. Beyond that, I knew that the story would be an odd length. Each Thieftaker novel comes in at about 100,000 words. Most short stories come in at about 6,000 words. The former would have been far too long for the story I wanted to tell; the latter far too limiting.
A novella, by definition, falls in between the two lengths–according to most definitions, a novella is any story between 17,000 and 40,000 words. Three bits of trivia: 1) At 7,500-17,499 words, a novelette falls in between a novella and short story. Who knew? 2) This particular novella, “The Ruby Blade,” came in a hair longer than 40,000. Technically, it’s a really, really short novel. Shhh. Don’t tell. And 3) Before this, I had never written a novella.
That last piece of trivia proved to be the greatest of the challenges I encountered. A novel tends to have a certain rhythm, defined in a sense by chapters. Write twenty books or so, and you kinda get a feel for how they ought to flow. By the same token, the pacing of a short story is distinctive as well. You can’t be nearly as leisurely spinning a yarn in a short piece as you can in a full-length book. I’d had plenty of experience with this, as well. But in this instance, I was writing neither a novel nor a short story, and so had to discover a new cadence for my storytelling.
The method I chose for telling this tale, facilitated the development of that unique rhythm. As I said before, “The Ruby Blade” is, in essence, two stories in one. Courtesy of Ethan’s long-time nemesis and rival in thieftaking, Sephira Pryce, he is presented with a new mystery in the winter of 1771. But in order for them to solve this case together, he must first relate to her the events of 1745 that led to the mutiny. The story shifts between the two time periods, and those transitions provide cadence and tension that make both strands of the plot work.
I find writing any sort of story akin to piecing together a puzzle. The shape and size of the puzzle may change with each new work, but usually the process remains much the same. Tackling this novella proved different. Everything felt new again, and that made the writing especially exciting. This story forced me to rethink my process a bit, to adjust my strategy for shaping narrative and character arc. And the truth is, having written one novella, I can’t wait to try my hand at another.
David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of nineteen fantasy novels and as many short stories. As David B. Coe, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books consisting of Spell Blind, His Father’s Eyes, and Shadow’s Blade. As D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and Dead Man’s Reach. Tales of the Thieftaker, his first short fiction collection, has just been released by Lore Seekers Press.
David is also the author of the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle, which he has recently reissued, as well as the critically acclaimed Winds of the Forelands quintet and Blood of the Southlands trilogy. He wrote the novelization of Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. He is currently at work on several new projects including more short fiction, a media tie-in, and a time travel/epic fantasy trilogy. David’s books have been translated into a dozen languages.
He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two 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.