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A Single, Fickle Spark

August 30th, 2012

by D. B. Jackson

“Where do you get the ideas for your novels?”

THIEFTAKER

I am asked that question more than I am any other. And always I give the same basic answer: Everywhere, and anywhere. Every book idea comes to me differently. Sometimes it comes in the form of a character; other times as a plot idea or an element of worldbuilding. Occasionally a book concept has begun with the basics of a magic system. Inspiration, it turns out, is fickle and unpredictable. My newest book, Thieftaker, the first book in a historical urban fantasy series called The Thieftaker Chronicles, is a case in point.

Thieftaker is set in Colonial Boston in 1765, as colonists in the New World are beginning to grow restive under British colonial rule. On the night of the Stamp Act riots, as a mob of protesters rampage through the streets, destroying property and threatening the lives of representatives of the Crown, a young woman is murdered. Our hero, Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker and conjurer of some notoriety, is hired to investigate the murder and soon finds himself caught up in an intrigue of politics and magic.

Boston Stamp Act Riots

The Boston Stamp Act Riots from The Youths’ History of the United States by Edward S. Ellis.

That’s the basic set-up for this first book in the series. Future volumes will also tie fictional murder mysteries to actual historical events. But while the series concept is fairly simple, the creative process that led me to Thieftaker was more complicated.

Several years back, my wife and I packed up our family and moved to Australia for a year. My wife, a biology professor, was on sabbatical and there was a biologist in Wollongong with whom she wanted to work. As we prepared to leave for our year Down Under, we read Robert Hughes’ marvelous history of Australia The Fatal Shore. (This really is relevant—stick with me.)

Australia, of course, began as a penal colony, and so the early chapters of the book spent a lot of time discussing British law enforcement. And one particular footnote (yes, I am a geek; I read footnotes—a vestigial habit from when I was a history graduate student getting my Ph.D.) caught my eye.

Jonathan Wild

Illustration of Jonathan Wild from An Authentic Narrative of the Life & Actions of Jonathan Wild (Citizen and Thief-Taker of London), 1725.

The footnote went on at some length about the career of one Jonathan Wild, London’s most famous thieftaker. Wild was little more than a criminal himself. He had several ruffians in his employ who were responsible for much of the thieving that occurred in early 18th-century London. They would bring the stolen goods to Wild who would sell the most valuable items and return the rest to their rightful owners—for a fee, of course—as if he had recovered them from the thieves. Not only did he build an empire for himself out of the profits he made, but he became a hero of sorts among London’s elite, who fancied him a bulwark against rampant criminal behavior.

Upon reading this, my immediate thought was “I want to write a book about thieftakers!” My idea was to create a dynamic in which my hero, an honest thieftaker, would be constantly harassed and thwarted by his nemesis, a Wild-like character who would be corrupt, powerful, canny, and in every way a formidable rival. In the past I have had ideas for books come to me first in the form of a character, but every time that character has been my protagonist. This was the first time that an idea for a book began with my hero’s main antagonist.

My “Jonathan Wild” character began as a man named Sefton Pryce, but as I worked my way through my first draft of the novel, I found that his rivalry with Ethan felt a little flat. So after thinking about the character a bit, I decided to make her into a woman named Sephira Pryce. As soon as I did, her relationship with Ethan was transformed. Their dynamic became electric, filled with hostility and resentment, but also with a crackling sexual tension that brings new energy to every Thieftaker book and story. Sephira is beautiful, cruel, brilliant, violent, and sexy as hell. She runs in pre-Revolutionary Boston the same sort of criminal empire Jonathan Wild maintained in London, but in other ways she is very much her own person.

All this by way of saying that the original moment of inspiration is in no way a creative straightjacket. When I read the Hughes footnote back in 2005, I had no idea where that spark would take me. I knew only that it would take me somewhere, and that I needed to pursue the idea as far as I could. As I allowed the idea to percolate, more and more ideas came to me, and eventually I wound up with Ethan and Sephira, with a historical setting in Colonial Boston of all places, and a series of books and stories that I hope will guide my career for years to come. I guess my point is this: Inspiration may happen in a single instant, but its ultimate meaning derives from a process that can take weeks, months, even years. Inspiration is only the beginning. It is the subsequent pursuit of creativity that defines the artist. A hundred authors could have read that footnote and been as excited by the idea of writing about thieftakers as I was. But, naturally, every one of them would have written a different book, every one of them would have taken that original moment of inspiration in a different direction. That is part of what makes creativity so incredibly exciting. It is different for each of us, and one never knows where a single spark might lead.

About the Guest Author

D.B. Jackson


D.B. Jackson

D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, has just been released by Tor Books. 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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