Historical accuracy can be a tricky subject for writers, particularly when it comes time to choose between what’s historically accurate and what makes the story better. D.B. Jackson, author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, wrote an insightful article for A Dribble of Ink on his own approach to historical accuracy in his work. Jackson holds a Ph.D in American History. His most recent novel is A Plunder of Souls, the third book in the Thieftaker Chronicles, out this week from Tor Books. (He’s also the author a dozen fantasy novels under the name David B. Coe.)
The Thieftaker Chronicles is a historical urban fantasy set in pre-revolutionary Boston. The main character is Ethan Kaille, a “conjuring thieftaker (sort of an eighteenth century private investigator).”
Jackson has a lot of interesting things to say about when to keep the historically accurate and when to throw it out. In general, his tactic seems to be one of common sense: keep things as historically accurate as you can without letting the story suffer for it. After all, he’s writing fiction, here, and fantasy at that:
I’ve done my best to portray accurately the real-life events from the 1760s that coincide with my fictional narratives. I have taken care in my portrayal of historical figures, and I have made every effort to create a Boston that is true to its purported time while also being accessible to twenty-first century readers.
That last phrase, though — “accessible to twenty-first century readers” — is where all of this gets a little tricky. What exactly does that mean? In some respects, it’s merely a stylistic decision that I have to make in my writing. My point of view character is a man of the eighteenth century, as are all of the people with whom he interacts. I could have Ethan and my other characters talk and think in precisely the vernacular used in the 1700s — that would be the historically accurate thing to do. But doing so would render my books all but incomprehensible to today’s readers. This was a period during which word meanings and rules of common syntax bore little resemblance to our own, and when even spelling was different from what we’re used to today. (For example, “s” was often written as “f.”) Historical authenticity is fine, but I want people to read my work; it’s hard for me to make a living if they can’t.
My approach to dealing with this has been to write the books in a way that nods toward the historical period without going overboard. Or, put another way . . . My solution has been to compose the books in a manner that harkens to the period in question, without producing a result so at odds with the customs of our own time that it becomes indecipherable. (See what I did there?)
There are a lot of good lessons here for writers new and old, particularly those trying to incorporate a serious level of historical accuracy into their work. Jackson wisely strayed from it when it came to including female characters, for instance, who might otherwise be excluded from much of society (and thus the story) due to the laws and customs of the time.
Our own beloved Managing Editor, P.J. Fox, has a degree in Medieval History, which informed her novel The Demon of Darkling Reach. The world of Demon is a reimagined England during the High Middle Ages, a setting that makes the fact that the main character is a woman all the more interesting. It’s also a good counterpoint to Jackson’s work: whereas he chose to break away from certain historical truths for the purposes of his story–such as the fact that a woman wouldn’t be working as a rival thieftaker in 1760s Boston–Fox stays true to the societal constraints on women in the Middle Ages. The novel only flourishes for it; Isla Cavendish as a character is all the more interesting for how she deals with the oppression of her age and the unorthodox way in which she escapes it.
Ultimately, the setting must serve the story, not the other way around. When in doubt, remember that.