“Making Historical Fantasy Lasagna,” by D.B. Jackson
There were no thieftakers in Boston in the 1760s. There were no conjurers in Boston at that time, either.
Which means that from the outset, my historical fantasy series, the Thieftaker Chronicles, is based not on historical fact, but rather on huge fallacies. Yet, as I have written each book in the series, starting with Thieftaker (Tor Books 2012), and continuing with Thieves’ Quarry (Tor Books, 2013) and my latest release, A Plunder of Souls, which is to be released tomorrow (yay!), I have gone to great lengths to get my historical facts right. Why would I do that? Why strive for accuracy when the books are founded on two conceits that overwhelm every other fact I might find?
Because those fictional elements, and the historical details that act as counterweight to them, are both crucial ingredients in what has been a successful series. Let me explain.
The concept of the series isn’t terribly complicated. Ethan Kaille, my hero, is a thieftaker — a sort of eighteenth century private detective — and a conjurer. Each book in the series revolves around a crime he must solve and a related historical event leading to the Revolutionary War. That’s it. I mean, obviously there is more to each book — character relationships, the twists and turns one would expect from a good mystery, knife fights and magical battles, and walk-ons by several key historical figures from the period. But at a conceptual level, the series is fairly simple. That’s part of what I love about writing these books.
My challenge as the author of the thieftaker novels, is to blend my fictional and factual elements in such a way that my readers cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. I have to make Ethan and his fellow characters seem like natural citizens of 1760s Boston. Their speech can’t be completely of that time, because if it was they would be barely comprehensible to a twenty-first century audience. But I can put in rhetorical flourishes and conversational quirks that will identify the spoken word as being of that period in our history. And I can offer details about clothing, food, weaponry, tools, transportation, etc. that place the stories firmly in the late-colonial period.
But still I am left with those two conceits: thieftakers and conjurers.
Thieftaking was an actual profession, although it was far more prevalent in Europe, making only a brief appearance in early nineteenth century America. But thieftakers tended to find work in the absence of established professional law-enforcement. And in the 1760s, Boston had no police force to speak of. The city did have a sheriff — Stephen Greenleaf, who is a recurring character in the Thieftaker novels and stories — but he commanded no police officers and only had under his authority a small cadre of night watchmen who were mostly incompetent and as likely as not to be corrupt. Boston in the 1760s was a fairly lawless town. In other words, while the city had no thieftakers, conditions there were ripe for the profession to arise.
As for conjurers, I am not going to get into a debate here as to whether there is historical precedent here or elsewhere. Rather, I will keep my discussion limited to people’s beliefs, and as evidenced by the tragic executions in 1692 of twenty so-called “witches” in Salem, Massachusetts and surrounding communities, the people of the Province of Massachusetts Bay certainly believed in witchcraft and black magick. So when I developed my magic system for the thieftaker books, I came up with something that would involve the drawing of blood in a form of sacrifice, communing with spirits (Ethan and other conjurers have spirit guides who help them access their power), and speaking in tongues, in this case Latin incantations. The conjurers in the Thieftaker universe live in constant fear of being hanged as witches, and as a result their magic feels like something that could be endemic to that time and place.
With respect to both thieftaking and conjuring, I sought to use historical circumstance to mitigate my historical inaccuracies. Put another way, while I knew I wasn’t recreating a Boston that actually was, I tried to create a Boston that could have been.
And that brings us to the lasagna. Yeah, you knew we’d get there eventually. My friend, Faith Hunter, one of my co-founders (along with Misty Massey) of the Magical Words blog site (http://magicalwords.net) likes to compare writing a novel to making lasagna. As she points out, when you make lasagna, you don’t put all the cheese in one area, and all the onions and garlic in another, and all the pasta in yet another. That would be pretty awful. Instead, we blend it all together to make something that is delicious throughout. In the same way, we don’t offer our readers blocks of characterization and then blocks of plotting and then blocks of worldbuilding. We interweave all of our narrative elements to create a novel that flows smoothly and that tells a complete tale from beginning to end.
Adding the historical element to the analogy, I wouldn’t want to isolate my historical ingredients any more than I would one of the other ingredients. But more to the point, just as we build a lasagna in layers, I try to write the Thieftaker books the same way, sprinkling the fictional on top of the historical, on top of the fictional, on top of the historical, and so on. The result is something so completely integrated that separating what is “true” from what is “made up” becomes all but impossible. It’s not just that the flavors and textures are blended, but also that they are transformed into a whole that is both different from and more than its component parts.
As with any metaphor, the lasagna-as-book analogy isn’t perfect. But it does get at an essential truth of writing: As with cooking, the ingredients and process are equally important in determining the ultimate success or failure of the final result. Poor quality elements will doom a project, as will slipshod execution. Which is why we strive for excellence in both.
And now, all this talk of lasagna has made me hungry. Buon appetito!
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.
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