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Guest Post: D.B. Jackson on History, Fiction, & Fantasy

Dearly Beloved You Guys: Today I’m proud to welcome a fine writer and gentleman, D.B. Jackson (blog facebook twitter), to describe how he escaped academia to write his new forthcoming historical urban fantasy set in the American Revolution. It’s titled Thieftaker (sample chapters here). I’m pretty thrilled with the post D-Jack kindly submitted below & with the _amazing_ photo of D-Jack in grad school. (Wait for it…Facial hair & pastels. If you know anything about history, you’ll know that is how manliness has been done right through the ages, son.) Me, personally, I’m excited for Thieftaker (though I would have titled it “Kickass American Flintlock Fantasy,” because that’s what it is) and I’ve crossed my fingers that we get an audiobook very soon.

D.B. Jackson

I have a new book coming out a week from today.  It’s called THIEFTAKER, and it’s the first book in my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy series that I’ll be writing under the name D. B. Jackson.  Now, all of my books are special to me; as with my children, I would never want to choose one over another as the one I love best.  With my children, I prefer to put in place a sort of parental tithing system where they pay me in presents and cash in order to “earn” my love and approval.  But while that works with kids, it’s far less effective with books, which, as it turns out, are inanimate.  But I digress.

Though I love all the books I’ve written, the fact is that THIEFTAKER holds a special place in my heart, because it has allowed me to combine my interest in U.S. history with my longtime passion for fantasy.

Confession time:  I am a refugee from academia.  I have a doctorate in U.S. history that I earned a long, long time ago, back when history was known as “news.”  I bring this up because I thought it would be particularly appropriate today, when I’m posting at Blake’s blogsite, to write about what my graduate school background has done for my writing.  If anyone can understand the dual threads of writing fiction and working toward a graduate degree, it’s Blake, who, while quickly establishing himself as one of the rising stars of the fantasy genre, is also working his way toward his medical degree.

1775 map of Boston courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Actually, as Blake can tell you, writing fantasy and being a graduate student have a lot in common.  And I’m not just referring to the pay scale.  They both demand a commitment of years in something akin to an apprenticeship.  Those who enjoy immediate success in their writing careers are the exceptions to the rule.  Usually it takes some time for an author to establish him or herself.  And during that time, the author — like the graduate student — is sustained almost entirely by passion for the work, the fellowship of others following this path, and faith that ultimately the rewards of the career will justify the early struggles.  Of course, Blake is going to be a medical doctor, which means that he can write fantasy AND pay the mortgage.  As a historian I wouldn’t have been able to do that.  Nor would I have been able to prescribe drugs.  Meaning that he’s not only younger and better looking than I am, he’s also smarter.  I hate the guy.

For me, the graduate school path didn’t work out as I had expected.  I managed to get my degree, but by the time I finished my studies, I knew that it wasn’t the right life for me.  I left academia to become a fantasy author, something I had aspired to since high school, but had assumed was beyond my reach.  I got lucky and published a book, which was soon followed by more books.  And for many years I felt that I needed to stay as far from history as I could, as if my mere proximity to the subject might allow the academic world to suck me back in.  Only as I began to map out the Thieftaker books, and realized (with help from my editor, who also happens to be Blake’s editor) that they would work far better as historical fantasy than as alternate-world fantasy, did I begin to admit to myself that in fact I had missed history.  I didn’t miss the academic life, I didn’t regret for a moment my decision to give up a career as a historian.  But I finally allowed that there was a reason I had chosen to go to graduate school in the first place.  And in acknowledging the power of that old love, I came full circle.

The history in the Thieftaker books is more than a backdrop to the stories.  Each novel is a stand-alone mystery built around a key historical event in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  So, for instance, THIEFTAKER opens on the night of the Stamp Act riots.  While a mob rampages through the streets of Boston, a young woman, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, is found murdered.  The royal authorities wish to blame the ruffians abroad in the city, but our hero realizes that she has been killed by a conjuring, and soon he is drawn into an intrigue of politics and magic.  Blah, blah, blah.  The point is, my fictional narrative is interwoven with the actual history of the riots and their aftermath, and with each subsequent book, another story line is tied to another set of historical circumstances.

Real American Men Wear Fusicia.

Writing these books finally allowed me to avail myself of some of what I learned as a history graduate student and to use that knowledge in a fantasy novel.  Obviously, a writer doesn’t need a Ph.D. in history to write historical fantasy, but I do think that my academic background has been incredibly helpful to me as I’ve researched and written THIEFTAKER, its sequel (THIEVES’ QUARRY, due out in 2013), and several related short stories.  My familiarity with historical literature has allowed me to find the sources I need far more quickly than I might have had I not spent so many years in study.

More, I’m certain that working toward my degree gave me the discipline I’ve needed to be a successful writer.  There are lots of writers out there who have as much talent as I do — many have more.  But writing my dissertation, which was far, far less fun than writing my novels, trained me to write on demand, to put my butt in the chair even on those days when I wanted nothing at all to do with writing.  It also trained my mind, teaching me to find narrative in seemingly disparate and unrelated events.  That’s a valuable skill not only for academics, but also for fiction writers, who often have to tie together subplots in innovative and unexpected ways.

Now obviously, aspiring writers do NOT want to go to graduate school for six years in order to make themselves more productive writers.  The mere idea rises to a level of masochism that is utterly breathtaking.  The skills that being a grad student taught me can be learned without doing anything that foolish.  For example, you want to be more disciplined?  Word counts are your friend.  Set a goal for the day — if you’re writing full-time 1,200 words/day is a good place to start; if on a typical day you have only a few hours in which to write, adjust that number accordingly.  (If you find these numbers too easy to reach, push the count higher.)  And then make yourself meet that goal each day.  Only allow yourself to wander from your computer or check your email or surf the web when you reach certain word totals.  Maybe work in 200 word increments.  You get to check email at 200 words.  You get to visit Tumbler at 400.  Need a snack?  You can have one when you reach 600.  And so on, until you meet your goal.

Art for “A Spell for Vengeance,” a D-Jack short, first appearing on Tor.com. Illustration by Chris McGrath.

Looking for innovative ways to tie together your sub plots?  I would suggest that you start with notecards.  Really.  Different colored ones if possible.  Blue for one plot line, yellow for another, white for a third.  And then use those cards to keep track of the characters involved with each, the setting where each takes place, the broader themes and implications of each.  Make a story line of sorts with your cards and look for places where your different plots intersect.  You may find places where you can bring together characters from two different threads, or you may find that you need to introduce a new character or plot twist in order to link one to another.  But using those cards may allow you to see connections, or potential connections, that might not have occurred to you previously.

For all the jokes I’ve made about graduate school, I have to admit that I’m glad I spent those years studying history.  I learned a lot, and I met the woman of my dreams.  If I hadn’t studied history, it might never have occurred to me to write THIEFTAKER, and that truly would have been a shame.  No, I didn’t wind up making a career of academia, and thank goodness for that.  Instead, I found the path I was meant to take, and along the way I gained skills and knowledge that have served me well in my career as a fantasy writer.  It’s hard to call that anything other than a successful grad school experience.

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