In writing THIEFTAKER, my new historical fantasy (which comes out today from Tor Books!) I had to recreate 1760s Boston. Or rather, I needed to create a possible version of that Boston that would be both historically satisfying and accessible for my twenty-first century readers.
Notice, I didn’t say “historically accurate.” There is a reason for that. While I researched Colonial Boston for months — reading about its physical layout, its people, its architecture, its economy, its religious and political institutions, and just about every other aspect of the city you might imagine — I also recognized that any version of Boston I created for my book could only be authentic to a certain point. A twenty-first century author, writing for twenty-first century readers, can only get so close to eighteenth century realism.
Let me pause here to say that I am not one to take history lightly or sacrifice historical precision for expediency. I have a Ph.D. in history; I devoted six years of my life to earning my degree. But in that time I learned that even historians have trouble agreeing on what is “true” and what is not. “Truth,” “accuracy,” “authenticity” — these can be slippery concepts.
This is especially true when we combine history with fiction and, as is the case with my book, fantasy. Any blending of this sort is bound to have its share of historical conceits, and my version of pre-Revolutionary Boston begins with a couple of whoppers. First, my lead character is just one of several conjurers living in the city — I’m pretty sure there were no conjurers in the real Boston. And second, my lead character is a thieftaker, kind of the eighteenth century equivalent of a private investigator. While there were thieftakers in England in the 1700s and a few in North America in the early 1800s, there were none of record in Boston in the 1760s.
In spite of this, I still feel that I have created a setting for my book that captures the spirit and ambiance of the period and the city. I did this by concentrating
on three main goals as I did my preliminary research and then wrote my novel.
First, I focused on getting a few key details right. Researching a novel is a balancing act. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Boston in 1765, but I knew that I could not pour all that I learned into the book without swamping my narrative with superfluous information and, thus, boring my readers to tears. Instead, I offered just enough detail to make the streets of the city come alive, to make tavern life sound, taste, and smell real, to offer a glimpse of the politics that were boiling over into the beginnings of rebellion. Put another way, I researched the minutia, but I used only a fraction of what I learned, and I often conveyed information in broad strokes that gave my readers an impression of the place and time, rather than a collection of facts.
Second, I built my story around a key historical event: the Stamp Act riots that shook the city in late August 1765. This allowed me to place my plot in a larger factual context and tie to something real all that happened to my fictional characters. By weaving my story together with a historical narrative, I constantly reminded my readers of where (and when) they were. Clearly, it’s not always possible to do this to the extent I did, but if you can make even the smallest connections between your story and actual events, it will help to provide some real world grounding for the novel.
And third, I allowed my characters to do much of the work for me. By this, I mean that I made my characters talk, dress, eat, and, as much as possible, think like eighteenth century Bostonians. This probably sounds rudimentary, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I made a particular effort to keep my dialogue as close to the vernacular of the day as possible. I couldn’t have my characters speak fully like men and women of the 1760s, because that would have rendered their dialogue almost indecipherable to modern readers. But while using modern spellings (for instance “access” instead of “acceff”), I could make their phrasing and syntax sound authentic. And I could certainly avoid anachronistic words and verbal mannerisms that might have pulled my readers out of the story and back into the present day.
I would never claim that recreating
historical settings for any work of fiction — be it mystery, romance, or fantasy — is easy. Researching THIEFTAKER took months; getting the setting right demanded revision after revision. I labored over some descriptive passages and polished and re-polished my dialogue until I was finally satisfied. But I wound up with a backdrop for my book that conveyed the period, the mood, the essence of the city in all of its sensual wonder, without having to resort to a history lesson. And that, of course, is our goal as writers. We want our readers to be transported, to feel for just a short while that they have stepped out of their modern lives into another time and place. And, ideally, we want them to be able to navigate that “new” old world without having to refer to a history