Imagine, if you will, the dark streets of Boston. Trouble is afoot, a revolution against the wealthy and the authorities. Equality and justice are demanded by protesting crowds, some of which get out of hand at times, leading to smoky, dark nights. Add to that ghosts and dark magic at hand, a secret sorcerer working his will in the midst of the chaos. Sounds like a pretty good urban fantasy, right?
Now imagine all this is occurring during the Stamp Act uprising in the 18th Century. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, the original Tea Party, the Colonists stirring against the British Crown.
D.B. Jackson’s debut alternate history novel is the tale of a thieftaker, one who hunts down stolen property for a fee and returns it to its rightful owners. What separates him from his competition, however, is Ethan’s gift for conjuring. He was born with the gift, inherited from his mother, and now Ethan Kaille is called upon to investigate the theft of a brooch off the neck of a murdered daughter of one of Boston’s wealthy merchants. Murders are not the sorts of crimes men like Ethan typically get involved with, but the girl’s cause of death is undetermined and some believe conjuring was involved, and so Ethan promises to find the stolen brooch and return it, revealing what he also discovers about the murderer in the process.
But once he gets involved, finding himself haunted by ghosts and voices of not just the dead daughter but others who’ve died in similar fashion, attacked by his main rival, Sephira Pryce, a thieftaker who rules the city in ways less honorable than Ethan and many of her trade, and hunted by the authorities. Drawn into an unfolding mystery by his compulsion to understand and his desire to set things right, Ethan uncovers a dark conspiracy that brings him into encounters with the British leadership, upper crust merchants, and even Samuel Adams himself.
Jackson is the nom de plume of a well respected fantasy writer with numerous fantasies under his belt. And his skill at prose, worldbuilding, and character development shine through on every page. Add to this his degree in history and passion for that, and you have a book that drips with authenticity, despite the fantastical elements wove into the historical narrative. Colonial Boston really comes alive here, and the story draws you in quickly, compelling you to read onward with every page.
Alternate history is as tricky as working in a contemporary setting because so much documentation and knowledge exists that one has to study hard and tread carefully in order to use history both responsibly, meaningfully and fairly in weaving a fictional tale around and within it, while still crafting elements which would appeal to the genre fans for whom the book will be primarily targeted. But my opinion is that any fan of history, particularly Revolutionary War America, would love Thieftaker. And I think it’s a not to be missed start of a new not to be missed series.
Jackson is scheduled to follow next year with Thieve’s Quarry and everything from the beautiful cover art to the prose, dialogue and settings works together to bring this charming, authentic, well paced tale to life. It’s unique and yet familiar. And it’s one of my favorite reads of 2012 so far. Highly recommended!
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
One of the benefits of Cons, without a doubt, is networking. You visit with old friends, discover new ones, and have a lot of fun along the way. One of those new friends from two cons this year, ConStellation Nebraska and ConQuesT, is fellow author Robert Collins. Robert’s published books include Stories Of Feminine Strength, Lisa’s Way, and True Friends. His short stories have appeared in venues like Aiofe’s Kiss from Sams Dot, Golden Visions, Pulp Empire and Tales Of The Talisman. But in addition to his speculative fiction, Robert also writes nonfiction. His works include the books: Ghost Railroads Of Kansas, Pieces of Kansas History, and Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan. So since research can be an area with which we writers struggle–how much to do, how to do it, etc.–I asked Robert if he had any thoughts he could share about research. Here’s what he sent me:
Historical Research & Science Fiction
by Robert Collins
Many Science Fiction authors know the value of researching history for their genre work. Usually they do so because they’re writing a time travel story and need to learn more about the era their characters are visiting. Occasionally, they do the research because they have the idea of, say, “the battle of Trafalgar in space” and want to make certain the plot follows the real event. However, most Science Fiction authors don’t think much about researching local history to get story ideas.
I write Kansas history as well as SF/F. I’ve done a great deal of research into the history of my home state. I’ve used that material to jump-start several of my fictional works.
One example is my biography of the “Bleeding Kansas” leader Senator Jim Lane. I found a newspaper story that claimed that Lane, in the run- up to the reelection for his Senate seat in 1865, had promised a federal post to 17 men. He made these promises to secure their support for him in the Kansas legislature come election time. Sure enough, the men came to Washington demanding Lane keep his promise to them. Lane gathered the men together one night. This is what he said, quoting from my book:
“What I did last winter, I did with the purest motives,” he asserted boldly. “I thought the state of Kansas needed me in the senate, and it was with that idea that I made those promises which I cannot now fulfill. If I have deceived you gentlemen, I believe that heaven will forgive me. But you, gentlemen, who should have voted for me from the purest and highest impulses–you were actuated only by sordid motives. You voted for me for a price and I do not think you are worthy in the sight of heaven of any recognition or consideration.” Lane lowered the boom. “I renounce all of you, and in the interest of the state of Kansas I will select an entirely new man for the position that you all covet, and have him appointed marshal.” With that Lane dismissed the men for the night.
Great, huh? But how to turn that into a story?
I chose to set my fictional version in the universe of my Frigate Victory stories. I’d already established that colony worlds are governed in a similar way to how United States territories were governed during the frontier period. All that I had to do was adjust the anecdote so that it fit into the established background. My research not only led to a story that sold, but helped me fill in details about that universe. Finding such useful material will take some effort, but you’ll can control how much. Start by checking state histories. Look for events or personalities that appear interesting yet aren’t well-known. From there you can either take what you have and build, or dig deeper. If you’re willing to look, and send out inter-library loan (ILL) requests, you should be able to locate biographies on important state figures and histories of state events, periods, and trends.
Statewide sources aren’t the only places where story and character ideas might be hiding. Most towns and counties have histories published. A local library will have their town or county history. Books on other communities can be obtained through ILL. Some states, like Kansas, have a State Library that handles ILL requests. If so that State Library will probably have a searchable website as well.
If you want to go as far as possible, consider historical newspapers. The Library of Congress has a handful of newspapers from each state digitized at their website. A few states like Colorado are doing the same with newspapers in their states. However, for most local papers you’ll have to look at microfilm. Libraries and historical museums are the first places to look for local newspapers on microfilm; state historical societies typically have all that state’s existing newspapers on microfilm.
Keep in mind that this is research for fiction ideas, not nonfiction books. Don’t get bogged down with accuracy or verification. Also remember that, when it comes to local history, there may only be one source.
One last point: there’s always a need for more books on local historical subjects. POD now makes it possible to publish a book without requiring a large print run. If an event, person, or trend interests you, writing a book could allow you to make use of your research, earn back what you spend, and maybe get you a few more readers.
Thanks, Robert, for those helpful tips. For what it’s worth…
Okay it’s time. For two years now, I have amassed a library of classic SFF books but have not managed so far to tear into reading them. To be fair, I read 52 books a year just for SFFWRTCHT. And I do get requests for other interviews now, so I read another 20-40 for those throughout the year. That’s a lot of reading for a guy who takes about 5 days to go through a 350 page novel. That amount of reading will not change. I am still committed, happily, to that and grateful for the way it has allowed me to read a broad spectrum of SFF contemporary works by a wide variety of authors.
But I have this gap in knowledge that keeps coming back to haunt me, and, as time goes on, I fear it only deepens. As I go to Cons and participate in panels, as I talk with other writers about craft, not being familiar with some of the very classic works everyone so often talks about is a handicap and I must overcome it. So I am challenging myself to a Journey Through The Classics. I’m starting with a few core books and will expand as I can. I am going to read these, most of them fortunately much shorter as older novels used to be, and then add more to the list, with the hopes that I can start catching up my knowledge of the SFF field through history. I have also acquired a number of older magazines, some pulp, some 20-year-old issues of magazines like F&SF, Analog and Amazing. I am going to work my way through those as well. But first, I need to get going on these books, so here’s my list, most of which I have not yet read, some of which I may have at some point but don’t remember.
The Dying Earth by Jack Vance The Skylark Of Space by EE Smith To Open The Sky by Robert Silverberg Do Androids Dream Of Electronic Sheep? by Philip K. Dick The Caves Of Steel by Isaac Asimov The Listeners by James Edwin Gunn The Weapon Shops Of Isher by A.E. Van Vogt Nerves by Lester del Rey Necromancer by Gordon R. Dickson The Triumph of Time by James Blish Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber Neuromancer by William Gibson Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinelin Dune by Frank Herbert Doc Savage: The Thousand Headed Man by Kenneth Robeson Stands Of Zanzibar by John Brunner
It should be noted before someone suggests it, I have already read the entirety of Asimov’s Foundation. I realize Van Vogt has more noted books but so far I have not found them so I will read one of the ones I have. The Silverberg and del Rey are personal choices. I have never read del Rey and feel I should since he is an icon. Silverberg is my favorite of all SFF authors and I have not read his early work and want to do that. A friend recommended To Open The Sky as one with faith (not just religious) themes, and since I have done panels on this to great reception I feel it’s time to start reading source material for those so I can only increase their value.
I am also not committing to read these books in any particular order. Honestly, I likely will attempt the shorter ones first, because of my reading time and just to get in a flow. I plan to do reviews/commentary on these as I finish for my own value more than anyone else’s, although I will share that here. These will not be full on reviews but really more my own ponderings and interactions with the texts. They’re classics. What do I have to add that hasn’t been said before by many people? Not much as a reviewer, but as a fan and writer interacting with them, I hope there will be some nuggets of learning and discovery worth sharing.
I certainly reserve the right to update my list at my own discretion. In other words, I will allow you to suggest books but I feel no pressure about which I choose to read and when. I have left A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams off the list because I read half and didn’t care for it. I do need to read it again but I’ll have to get in the right mood. And before the smart alecs show up, I do have a sense of humor. I love comedic books. I just found this one odd, not all the funny. But I do respect its place and regard amongst fandom and I do feel I should give it another chance at some point so I’d expect it to come on the list at some point during this Journey which may last several years because it takes as long as it takes.
For a good list of some of the books I’ve read in the past, including many considered classics, I posted my 70 Most Memorable SFF Books I’ve Readhere.
I hope some of you will engage with me on this journey and perhaps even join me. Who we are today is very much informed by the past. And often whom we become and the strength, value and character of it is determined by our knowledge of the past. After all, we not only learn from our mistakes but those of our forefathers.
I very much look forward to the education of this journey and to your thoughts and my own along the way. For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, the children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and editor of the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. An affiliate SFWA member, he also hosts Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter and is a frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and Hugo nominee SFSignal. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via www.bryanthomasschmidt.net.
This post originally ran on Jamie Todd Rubin’s blog as part of my blog tour for The Worker Prince. Jamie gave me permission to rerun it here so more of you can find it.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt: Well, Jamie, thanks for inviting me to your blog. I am a big fan of Golden Age Science Fiction, as are you, and I enjoy your updates as you take your nostalgic trip back through the pulp zines of old. In particular, I am a huge Leigh Brackett fan, but, of course, I’ve also been influenced by Robert Silverberg, who started out in the pulps, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Henry Kuttner, Edward Hamilton…so many. So much so, in fact, that when I wrote my space opera novel, I wanted to capture some of the magic feel I found in the pulp stories. Good v. evil, with clear cut bad guys, larger than life heroes, sidekicks, interesting aliens, space guns, space fighters, and also that good clean family fun. So many of those stories were meant to be read by fans of any age, and I wanted the same for The Worker Prince. If people can get lost in my world and escape into some fun for a bit, I’d feel very successful with it.
Jamie Todd Rubin: Let’s see, I’ve encountered Brackett, Asimov and Kuttner so far in my Vacation, but of course, I’ve read Silverberg, Blish and Bradbury elsewhere. One of the things that I find interesting is that these writers were, for the most part, at the beginnings of their careers. I’ve read 2 Brackett stories so far, and they haven’t been great, but over time you can actually see the improvement. You talk about stories that are meant to be read by fans of any age, and “good clean family fun.” I’ve often thought that at its heart, science fiction needs to entertain first and foremost, because how else can you expect to do anything else if you aren’t entertaining your reader? I’ve been criticized for this, but I still think it’s true and it sounds like that is what you are going for in The Worker Prince; something that anyone can pick up, start reading, and enjoy. That is not as common today as it was 70 years ago. There are some writers still doing this, but a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers are writing darker pieces, perhaps reflecting the time. I’ve listened to you interviewed and I know that The Worker Prince is more than just entertainment value. I wonder if you see part of it as a reaction to some of the darker fiction being published today?
BTS: It is interesting to see the development of writers like Brackett, Silverberg and others which you most certainly can over the course of their writing. I would say that I am reacting to the darkness of modern fiction, yes. I don’t personally enjoy over the top sex, foul language and violence. For me, it really has to serve the story and so often I think it’s there for shock value or a writer wanting to prove they reject “moral police” or something. It’s not even surprising anymore, that’s how over used it is. But more than that, in a time when we have faced so much darkness in the real world, where’s the inspiration stories of hope? Anti-heroes have, in a sense, become the new heroes. But the old fashioned heroes of old have disappeared. I remember when Captain America was ended because he had no flaws. He was too good for them to continue it. What is that? When did that become an issue? With moral problems in our politicians, celebrities and others being more and more front page news, perhaps our expectations have been forced to lower. But I still believe admirable heroes exist and that kids and adults both need them. Because they are so inspiring. Thirdly, I fell in love with science fiction as a kid and so much of that market today is questionably appropriate for kids below teenage and maybe even young adult. At least, parents should be aware of the content and involved in decision making. Call me old fashioned, I still believe parents screening exposure to some things for their kids is their responsibility and also healthy. I did some studies in college on the effects of content and they do influence people. I doubt that’s changed much twenty years later. So I wanted to write stuff like the pulps that kids and adults could both enjoy, something they could discuss as a family. Nothing preachy, per se, as I’ve mentioned on the podcasts, but something that inspires hope and a belief in heroism like so many Golden Age stories did. You have kids. How much do you monitor the content their exposed to and when would you stop wanting to?
JTR: It seems to me that this “shock value” was mostly (but not entirely) absent from Golden Age fiction in part because writers didn’t have television to compete with. I don’t watch much TV any longer (no time) but it seems to me that with rare exceptions, shows are aiming for shock value over storytelling. That said, there was a reaction to John Campbell’s notions of good fiction–what today we call “new wave” science fiction. But even the new wave stories didn’t seem gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. If anything, they were attempting to follow literary trends outside of science fiction to better legitimize the genre. Your question about suitability for kids is one that I am particularly interested in. I do have kids, but both of them are at this point too young to understand most of what appears in science fiction. I have, however, thought about how I would monitor what my kids were exposed to. I was fortunate. In my own case, my parents got me a library card and let me read whatever I wanted, telling me that if I had questions, I could come and ask them and we could discuss them. I think I’d want to do the same with my own kids. I don’t want to hem them in, but I want them to understand what it is they are reading, and be there for them to address any questions they might have about what they’ve chosen to read. Of course, as a science fiction writer and a big fan, I could certain urge them in the direction of works that I admire. But even this, I’d hesitate to do for the same reason that I try not to overtly make my boy into a New York Yankees fan: I don’t want him to rebel from it just because it is something I like.
It does raise a question in connection with your novel, however. As you’ve said, much Golden Age fiction was read by kids and adults alike. Do you find it difficult to write for such a wide audience? Or perhaps is the story clear enough for anyone? I recall Isaac Asimov writing that he never “talked down” when writing to children. The only change he ever made in his writing style was to take care with his vocabulary when writing for particularly young audiences. How is it that you write something that is accessible to both adults and youngsters?
BTS: My approach was similar to what Asimov described. I didn’t write down but I did watch my vocabulary. And I tried to be clear. I also tried to have a variety of strong characters, besides the leads, to connect with. And I found ways to incorporate elements in my world building which tie well to modern issues so people could recognize commonalities and connect, even kids. I avoided four letter words, sex and graphic violence and focused on descriptions which might stimulate the reader to fill in the gap. If you say “Xalivar cursed,” for example, every reader will fill in their own favorite curse word for you. I don’t have to explicitly state it. And the sophistication of the words will vary by age and other factors, of course. But I think that’s a great way to help readers become a part of the story, to draw them in. And I loved books that did that when I was younger. I can understand where you’re coming from about your kids, and certainly as one with no kids, I have limited experience. But I’ve read a lot of studies on how various contentaffects people and I certainly don’t want to be the one to negatively impact anyone so I tend to feel great responsibility for anything I put out there. And I also would likely want to oversee what my kids read at least to a certain age. I’d also follow your example and try not to push anything but also leave the dialogue open. That’s important. And my effort to write for a broader audience came from a desire to stimulate dialogue. I remember discussing The Hobbit with my dad and other stories as a family and how fun it was, how much I learned. I wanted to create an experience similar to that for readers through my book.
And I agree one hundred percent about the impact of television and movies. I think shock value is a selling point these days. And I think people are so used to more dark or gratuitous content and thus it’s become commonly accepted, even considered normal for good storytelling. But I do find that it often distracts because it can be done poorly in many cases. Not all, by any means. But I find that I work harder when trying to create tension and character and drama without using those shock tactics. I have to be more creative and that makes me a better writer.
JTR: There were some big works that emerged from the Golden Age. There were two Lensman novels by E. E. “Doc” Smith, for instance, published by the end of 1941. Between 1942 and 1950, Isaac Asimov published all of the stories that make up his original Foundation trilogy. Robert Heinlein published most of his Future History. For whatever reason, this established a pattern that lingers even today: science fiction lends itself to continuing story-lines and sequels. Indeed, in today’s market, it seems difficult to sell a standalone novel to a publisher, although often times, I find stand-alone novels enjoyable because there is less of a commitment–or perhaps because there is a deeper commitment to a single work. From the Golden Age, I think of L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout as a fine example of a stand-alone. Today, a book like Robert J. Sawyer’s Rollback comes to mind. What are your plans with regard to The Worker Prince? Do you see this as a stand-alone novel, or is this a world that you want to revisit? Either way, where do you go next?
BTS: Well, I wrote The Worker Prince to feel like a standalone, although certainly strands remain which can obviously be explored further. The antagonist is still alive. And as I finished it I realized that there was more I could do, so it became a trilogy and I began to mentally map that out. I am almost finished with Book 2. Another polish pass and work on the ending. It’s called The Returning. Then Book 3, The Exodus will wrap things up. But if there’s demand, I’d love to do a prequel YA series of the adventures of Davi Rhii and his friends in their younger years. And then, after that, as is the trend, I’ll go back and change stuff I don’t like in the original trilogy to make them better, of course. (Just kidding).
I’m with you on standalones. Especially with the Chihuahua killing size of so many books these days. It’s just a real investment to ask a reader to make. Being not only a new writer but one who’s had that experience, I worked hard to keep my novel a smaller size and the sequels will follow that pattern. I also have an epic fantasy series which should be shorter than average and an urban fantasy series as well. I have a standalone steampunk book and a future steampunk book in the works as well. So much to write, so little time.
Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Apex Magazine, and Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, and most recently through 40K Books. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column on science fiction for SF Signal, as well as the Vacation in the Golden Age column on his website. Jamie attended James Gunn’s online fiction writing workshop in 2008. He is a member of the Young Gunn’s writers group, the Codex writers group, and the Arlington Writers Group. He is an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novelThe Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.
The Worker Prince is the story of a prince who discovers he was born a slave. When he raises objections about the abusive treatment of slaves, he finds himself in conflict with both friends and families. After a tragic accident, involving the death of a fellow soldier, Davi Rhii winds up on the run. He then joins the worker’s fight for freedom and finds a new identity and new love. Capturing the feel of the original Star Wars, packed with action, intrigue and interweaving storylines, The Worker Prince is a space opera with a Golden Aged Feel.