Why Do We Bother?: The Quest for Accuracy

I posted something on Facebook the other day about some of the research I’ve been doing as I prepare to write the third Thieftaker book (under the name D.B. Jackson), City of Shades, which I’ve recently contracted with Tor.  (Yay!)  I’ve been trying to figure out the locations of the barracks for the various British regiments that were occupying Boston in the summer of 1769, when the book takes place.  It’s a small matter, one that will inform, at most, a few sentences in a book that will probably run 100,000 words or more.

A friend — a fellow SFNovelists author, actually:  the wonderful and talented Glenda Larke — pointed out that most of my readers probably will not notice these details and will certainly not check to make sure that I got them right.  And, of course, she’s right.  If anything she’s understating the degree to which these tidbits of information don’t matter.  Even if some readers DID want to check on my research, finding sources for this has been so hard that they would probably give up long before they found anything that undercut what I’ve discovered.

All of which begs the question, why do I bother?  Why do any of us who do research for our stories and novels — historical, scientific, biographical, etc. — spend so much time on the minute details that serve only to enhance our narratives?  Surely we can get away with fudging a few things here and there.  This is fiction after all.  The Thieftaker books are founded on historical fallacies, even as my publisher and I market them as historical fantasy.  There were no thieftakers in Boston in the 1760s, and there were no conjurers either.  So why sweat the little things?

To which I can only answer, because as small as these things are, they matter to me.  I don’t expect that anyone will use Thieftaker and its sequels as historical texts.  I’d actually be horrified if someone did.  (Did I mention that there were no thieftakers or conjurers . . . ?)  And as I said, I don’t expect that anyone will checking up on my work.  But I have a Ph.D. in U.S. history, and I suppose that in a small way, I still think of of myself as a historian.  I cannot bring myself to cut corners when it comes to doing my research.  I can almost feel my dissertation advisers hovering at my shoulder as I write, pointing to one detail or another and asking, “You sure about that?”

But there is more to it even than that, and I don’t mean to sound like some holier-than-thou stickler for accuracy.  The truth is, the fun of writing Thieftaker lies in taking my alternate colonial Boston, with its thieftakers and spellmakers, and trying to make it as close to the “real” Boston as possible.  Getting the research right isn’t so much about keeping the history buffs from coming at me with proof that I got something wrong, or even satisfying my own internal history professor.  It’s about figuring out what that time in Boston was actually like, and then blending it with my “Boston-that-could-have-been” to create something new, a place that is both authentic and magical.

I find that this impulse (perhaps compulsion is the better word) is not limited to my historical fiction.  When I am worldbuilding for a new alternate world fantasy, I carry my prep work well beyond what is probably necessary for the writing of my novels or stories.  I come up with maps, histories, religions, economies, etc. that are deeply detailed.  I routinely gather far more information than I will ever reveal to my readers.  Again, the goal is to be as realistic as possible and also to piece together a world that is not only convincing to those who read my books, but also to me and to my characters.  As with the historical details, I think of this as a challenge, as something that I do because it makes the creative process more fun and more fulfilling.

So why do I bother?  At the risk of engaging in circular reasoning, because this is what I do.  My job is to create settings, characters, and narratives that excite the imagination while also seeming as real and convincing as possible.  The more I know about where my novel takes place, the more effective I can be as an author.  Even if I don’t tell my readers everything that I know about colonial Boston, I believe that the weight of that hidden information can be conveyed with a few well-placed details and descriptions.  That, too, is part of the challenge, and part of the fun.

And so now I need to get back to work.  Because while I’ve figured out where most of the barracks were located, I now need to figure out where the guard stations were . . .

David B. Coe


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  1. 1. Mindy Klasky

    ::grin:: Your historical research is, of course, a subset of *worldbuilding*, “just” building a world that is based on reality.

    I personally vacillate between hunting up details about specific, real-world things (healing herbs and crystals, anyone? Anyone?) and saying “Hey, I’m making this up, and I only need to know what *this* god’s godhouse looks like right now, so I’m not going to bother designing the other eleven until I get to them.

    Maybe that has more to do with my immediate procrastination needs, than anything else :-) Thanks for the insights into your creative process!

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, Mindy. There are times when I’ll take the same approach, and just do at a given time whatever NEEDS to be done just then. I prefer to be thorough, but time doesn’t always allow it.

  3. 3. Mary

    Of course the problem is that it seems that every book has one reader who knows the details already. And since readers can have expertise in every conceivable area, it can be the oddest sort of detail.

    And worst, some of them know things that just ain’t so, so there’s no way to get it all right in all readers’ eyes.

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    So true, Mary, particularly that last point!

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



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