The Book I Didn’t Write

Thieves’ Quarry, the second book in my Thieftaker Chronicles (which I write under the name D. B. Jackson) will be released by Tor Books a week from today.  I’m excited, of course, and nervous as well.  I think the book is my best thus far, and the reviews have been excellent.  But one never knows in this business, and until we start seeing some solid sales numbers I am going to be on pins and needles.  If you feel so inclined, please feel free to buy a copy.  Or even two; they make excellent gifts . . .

I have been blogging about this book for some time now and intend to keep doing so for the next month or more, so for the purposes of this post, I would like to take a slightly different approach, and talk about the book I didn’t write.

The Thieftaker books (Thieftaker, which came out last year, was the first volume in the series, and there will be at least two more:  A Plunder of Souls, to be published next year, and Dead Man’s Reach, which will come out in 2015) are historical urban fantasy.  They are set in 1760s Boston, and each stand-alone mystery takes place against the backdrop of some historical event leading up to the American Revolution.  Thieves’ Quarry, for instance, takes place during the start of the British occupation of Boston in the fall of 1768.

Originally, though, these books were conceived as alternate world fantasies.  I wrote the entire first book and more than half of Thieves’ Quarry that way before deciding, with some prodding by my editor and agent, to make them historicals.  Now you might think, as I did at the time, that making this sort of change would mean totally reworking everything about the novel — not just the setting, but also the character arcs, the plot points, the magic system.  To my surprise, the transition proved remarkably easy.  The plot of Thieftaker barely changed at all.  I simply took the murder I had been intending to fit into my imaginary world, and instead placed it in the historical context of the Stamp Act Riots of 1765.

I expected, though, that Thieves’ Quarry would prove a much more difficult transition.  Again, to my surprise, it didn’t.  In the original book, I wanted to have a ship of prisoners from a nearby island gaol appear in the harbor of my hero’s home city with every man on board dead, killed by some unknown spell of magic.  So when it came time to switch the book’s setting to 1760s Boston, I had to figure out how to do something similar.

Amazingly, history provided me with an answer.  As I’ve already mentioned, the occupation of Boston began the fall of 1768, on October 1, to be precise.  But in late September, a fleet of British naval vessels bearing that occupying force began to arrive in Boston Harbor.  By this time, of course, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Paul Revere and others were already fomenting resistance to British Colonial rule.  So not only did I have several ships from which to choose as I decided where to direct my villain’s killing spell, I also had a political situation in place that would lend itself to suspects and (perhaps) false leads.

I had to make some changes, of course.  The victims were soldiers rather than prisoners.  The ship in question was not a lone vessel, but rather part of an armada.  And because I was writing in our real world, rather than in an imagined one, I had to alter somewhat the motive for and circumstances of the murders.  I’m not going to claim that any of this was simple.  It wasn’t.  But given how complicated it could have been, it was a surprisingly smooth process.

And, of course, the rewards were considerable.  By setting the books in a real place and time, I believe that I added to the power of the fictional events about which I’ve written.  Don’t misunderstand:  I love alternate-world fantasy.  My first eleven books were set in imagined worlds, and I have it in mind to create a new world for a new set of books sometime very soon.  But it seems to me that the Thieftaker Chronicles were meant to be historicals, even when I was writing them as something else.  The ease with which I was able to recast the entire series, the degree to which my protagonist’s history lent itself to a real-world “resume,” and the fact that as I have developed new ideas for future Thieftaker books they have blended seamlessly with subsequent historical events — all of these things convince me that my hero and his fellow characters belong just where I now have them.

There is a lesson here, I believe.  Nothing about our current projects is etched in stone.  Often we find ourselves struggling with a story or novel, searching for that one fix that will make everything flow.  And sometimes those fixes are relatively minor; we can tweak a plot point or add a new character, or even change the gender of an existing character (yes, I’ve done that more than once), and suddenly we’re no longer stuck.

But at other times it may be that we need to think on a much grander scale.  I recently suggested to a friend that he was thinking about a stuck project the wrong way.  “Your villains just might be your heroes,” I told him.  “And your heroes might actually be your villains.”  He’s not stuck anymore.  So if you’re stuck right now, it might be time to consider some big changes.  Turn a hero into a villain.  Totally rethink your magic system.  Or relocate your alternate world fantasy to a historical setting.  It might be easier than you think.  And it might be just what your manuscript needs.

David B. Coe

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe ( 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 (, 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 (, 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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