Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot and the Daily Dose! Today, we are pleased to present the work of D.B. Jackson/David Coe–the Thieftaker Chronicles. One of my favorite things about this series, aside from the brilliant characters, is Jackson’s use of history. I am a historian myself, and work at a medical museum–disease stalks our past like no other villain. (Of course, disease isn’t the only villain in the Thieftaker’s Boston!) Let’s hear about striking “research gold”–Welcome D.B.!
My newest novel, A Plunder of Souls, is the third installment in my Thieftaker Chronicles, a series of historical urban fantasies. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the writing of these books, all of them set in pre-Revolutionary Boston, has required extensive research. I have consulted historical monographs and biographies, old newspaper articles and a host of other sources, some of them utterly predictable, and others as surprising as one can imagine. (One such document was an architectural plan written up by a firm that specializes in historical restorations. It included the results of bore samples from the walls of King’s Chapel, which told me what color the chapel’s interior was painted in the 1760s. Pure gold.)
For A Plunder of Souls, I relied on one source in particular that provided a bonanza of information and details, many of which found their way into my narrative. More on this shortly . . .
The first Thieftaker novel, Thieftaker (Tor Books, 2012), follows a murder investigation that coincides with the Stamp Act riots of August 1765. The second, Thieves’ Quarry (Tor Books 2013), is set against the backdrop of the occupation of Boston by British troops, which began in the autumn of 1768. In both cases, the challenge of writing the stories, and the joy of it, lay in interweaving my plot lines with actual historical events. The timelines associated with what truly took place in Boston during the periods, and those timelines that I created for my novels, had to mesh perfectly. This allowed me to build my fictional tension while at the same time tapping into the drama of historical developments. The results, I believe, have been two exciting, readable books that carry with them an element of verisimilitude, even as they add magic and imagined murders to those real happenings.
A Plunder of Souls, is a different sort of Thieftaker novel. First, it doesn’t revolve around a murder (at least not at first . . .), focusing instead on a series of grave robberies and their implications for my thieftaking, conjuring hero, Ethan Kaille. This third novel, also doesn’t use a political event as its backdrop. Rather, it takes place during the summer of 1769, as Boston faces what turned out to be a relatively minor but nevertheless deadly outbreak of smallpox. The distemper hangs over the entire narrative, a pestilent, menacing cloud. It’s hard to convey just how frightened of the disease people were at that time. It was highly contagious, horribly disfiguring, and often fatal. It might have been the MERS or SARS of its time, if either of those diseases left its victims with terrible scars on their faces and bodies.
By the middle part of the 18th century, the practice of inoculating the healthy with the smallpox pathogen in order to slow the spread of the disease had gained some general acceptance among physicians. The idea had first been broached in the American colonies by no less personage than the preacher Cotten Mather, but it remained controversial even in the late 1760s. Not only was it dangerous, it was also terribly expensive and thus an option only for the wealthiest of Boston’s residents. The safest course of action upon hearing reports of a smallpox outbreak was to flee the city for the countryside. But this, too, was a solution most available to those with means. The vast majority of the town’s residents had little choice but to avoid close contact with strangers and pray to whatever God they worshipped that they remained healthy.
The city government took precautions as well, and we are fortunate to have a full record of exactly what those precautions were, in the form of the minutes of meetings held by Boston’s Selectmen in 1769. Sounds dry, right? Not even a little. Now, I should probably mention here that I have a Ph.D. in history, and so I’m a bit of a history geek. But I think that anyone would find these documents interesting. For those wondering how an 18th century society dealt with this deadly disease, it is a treasure trove.
The first mention of smallpox in the minutes for the year in question comes on April 18. The selectmen are petitioned by a ship’s captain who wishes to dock in the city, but reports that one of his men “broke out with the smallpox and deceased on the 11th [of April], whom they threw over board with his Bed and Bedding, and that there remain one of his men liable to have the Distemper. [Sic]” The Selectmen order the captain to smoke and cleanse the ship as thoroughly as possible, making it clear that “the Vessel [will] not be suffered to come up to Town untill [sic] you have our orders.”
Despite these efforts, by June there are reports of isolated smallpox outbreaks within the city, and by July, as the first deaths from the disease are reported to the Selectmen, fears of a new epidemic have spread throughout Boston. For those who consent to be moved to the hospital in Boston’s West End, the so-called Pest House, treatment is available. But many refuse to leave their homes. And so those houses are quarantined, marked with red houses, and provided with guards, hired by the selectmen at a wage of three shillings, four pence per day, who are to keep away the curious and the unsuspecting.
When the first death is reported, the Selectmen lay out a procedure for dealing with the bodies:
Our orders are that you get the Corps into a Tarred Sheet & Coffin as soon as may be, and that you bury the same this Night between the Hours of 12 & 1 O’Clock. Let a Man go before the Corps [sic] at some distance to give notice to any one that may be passing — those who carry the Corps or enter the House to receive the same must not fail shifting & cleansing themselves — the Guards must still be kept up at the House, and you must direct those within not to burn anything that is Infectious, and if Mr. Tyler [whose wife has died] consents let the Bed, Bedding, etc. used by Mrs. Tyler be carried up to the Hospital at New Boston after the funeral in order to be cleansed and air’d.
As a historical document, the letter containing these instructions (which was entered into the Selectmen’s minutes) is fascinating. For this author, it was invaluable. Building this description of the precautions into my narrative enabled me to convey the terror that smallpox evoked, while at the same time creating a chilling night scene that added both realism and tension to my story. I found other sources, most of them secondary, that described some of these details, but the Selectmen’s minutes provided tone, language, and certain tidbits of information (like the guards’ wages) that I could not have found anywhere else. Without them, many key passages in A Plunder of Souls would not have had the same level of authenticity.
I know that for some, research is tedious, a task to be endured before the fun part — writing — begins. For others, it’s a delicious trap, something so absorbing it overwhelms the urge to write and becomes a time sink. For me, it falls somewhere between those two extremes: I don’t dread it, but neither do I have any desire to do lose myself in sources for days at a time. Research is a tool without which my books could not possibly be as successful. Yes, there is tedium. But there are also moments of sheer excitement and satisfaction: the discovery of that architectural plan, a moment when I happened upon a portrait of a historical character I had been trying for days to describe, and the hours I spent combing over the Selectmen’s minutes from 1769. In those moments I am every bit the investigator my lead character is meant to be, discovering clues, piecing together disparate bits of information, and, at last, coming up with a rich, coherent narrative that, I hope, captures the truth of my historical setting, even as I infuse it with fictional elements.
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, has recently been released in hardcover. 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.
Thank you, D.B.! AND if you would like to read my Huffington Post review of Jackson’s novel, see here.