A bonus for all you story-behind-the-story fans: I invited David B. Coe, author of several stories published in IGMS, to talk a little bit about the creation of his latest novel, Thieftaker, especially the role short stories played in the shaping of the larger work, and boy did he deliver.
A week from today, my newest novel, THIEFTAKER, book one in the Thieftaker Chronicles, will be released by Tor Books. Though this will be my first published book under the name D.B. Jackson, it is my thirteenth published novel overall. (I’m not superstitious. Not at all. But after typing that, I turned around three times, threw salt over my right shoulder, and drank water from the opposite side of a cup. I’m not sure that will save me from bad luck, but my hiccups have gone away . . .) With all those novels under my belt, you might think that I develop one project pretty much the way I’ve developed all the others. But THIEFTAKER, a historical urban fantasy, has been different in a number of ways, not least among them the role that short fiction has played in my conception of the series.
The historical element of the Thieftaker Chronicles lies at the very core of each volume. The books are set in Colonial Boston in the mid and late 1760s, as the North American colonies are beginning to chafe at British rule. Each book is a stand-alone mystery interwoven with a particular historical event. So, for instance, THIEFTAKER, the first volume, begins with the murder of a young woman, which coincides with the Stamp Act riots that swept through Boston in the summer of 1765. With the second book, THIEVES’ QUARRY (Tor Books 2013), I blend another murder mystery with the British occupation of Boston, which began in September 1768. For both books, the historical setting provides far more than a mere backdrop for the action; it informs nearly every aspect of my plotting and character development.
Thieftaker and its sequels also differ from my previous books in that they are far more dependent on the voice of a single character. Ethan Kaille, my protagonist, is the sole point of view character for the series. My readers experience every event and revelation through Ethan; his perceptions, emotions, and senses suffuse the narrative. I have sought to make his voice both as authentic and as sympathetic as possible. This has demanded a fine balance. I want Ethan to be clearly a man of the eighteenth century. But I also want my twenty-first century readers to relate to him as fully as they would any contemporary character.
Predictably, creating a believable setting and an engaging protagonist has required a great deal of research and background work. It has also required what I would call, for want of a better word, “practice.” And by practice, I mean the writing of short fiction.
I should pause here to say that I love writing and reading short stories, and don’t view them merely as something we writers do to pave the way for our novels. Far from it. Some of the best work being done in the genre right now is in the short form. But I would be lying if I didn’t also say that writing short stories is a terrific way for novelists to lay the creative groundwork for longer projects. In fact, I would argue that working on shorter pieces offers (at least) five distinct benefits for novelists.
-- First, crafting short fiction helps us establish a writing style for the larger work, both in terms of setting a tone for the narrative and honing the voice of our point of view character (or characters). The more we write in a world, and the more we use a certain character’s perspective, the more comfortable we grow with those narrative tools.
-- Second, these shorter works give us an opportunity to experiment with story lines to see which ones have the potential to develop into novel-length works. Sometimes a short story is meant to be just that; sometimes, however, as we dive into a story line, we find that there is more to the tale than we ever imagined, or than a short work can contain.
-- Third, short stories allow us to explore in detail episodes from our characters’ pasts that might be crucial to understanding their personalities, their circumstances, and their emotional reactions to all the terrible things we do to them in the novel. The details we discover with such stories might never find their way into the book, but they give us more to work with as we develop character.
-- Fourth, writing in the short form teaches us concision and forces us to be more precise with our wording. The short form by its very nature demands a leanness and directness of style that can make all of us better writers.
-- And finally, short stories give us something to market as we’re writing the longer work. While lots of writers publish novels before they sell their first short stories, it remains true that having a short story sale to one’s credit can facilitate finding an agent and securing that first book contract.
I had already signed contracts for the first two Thieftaker books before I sold a short story in the Thieftaker universe, but in every other respect I have used short fiction in the ways I just outlined. I have improved the narrative voice of the books, learned a great deal about my main character, experimented with plot lines that I intend to work into future volumes, and honed my craft, all while managing to sell several stories.
I won’t mention all of the stories here, but I will point you to a few of them. One, “A Memory of Freedom,” appeared in the March issue of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. It tells the story of how my lead character first became a thieftaker. Another, “A Spell of Vengeance,” has just been published at Tor.com. It introduces a villain named Nate Ramsey, who I expect will be appearing in future Thieftaker books. And a third, “The Witch of Dedham,” can be read for free at the D.B. Jackson website (http://www.dbjackson-author.com). This one is a character sketch more than anything else, but it was great fun to write and allowed me to further refine Ethan’s voice.
Writing these stories has been its own reward. I love the way all of them came out, and take a good deal of pride in the sales I’ve made. But my point is that even if I had never sold any of them, the Thieftaker books would be richer for my having written them. This will seem self-evident, but writing makes us better writers. And because of the particular demands of the short form -- the need to construct tighter story arcs, the emphasis on brevity and economy, the close focus on character -- writing these particular pieces can’t help but improve our skills. Even after fifteen years and thirteen novels (turn, throw, drink . . .) I still find that I learn something new from each short that I write. I have no doubt that the next Thieftaker book will be even better because of the stories I’ve written this spring.
--David B. Coe