Please join me in welcoming New Jersey-based novelist Mally Becker to the blog. She writes historical fiction, an author with Level Best Books, and The Turncoat’s Widow is her debut novel.
Mally has been a publicist, a freelance magazine writer, an attorney and, later, an advocate for children in foster care. She was awarded the Leon B. Burstein/MWA-NY Scholarship for Mystery Writing.
I had the privilege of an early reading of The Turncoat’s Widow. Highly recommended!
Q1. On your web site, you mentioned that reading a letter inspired your debut novel, The Turncoat’s Widow. Tell us a little about that experience.
Ever been arrested just for traveling to New York City? Me, neither.
So it took me aback when I found an indictment for the Revolutionary War-era crime of traveling into New York “without permission or passport” in a collection of letters at the Morristown National Historical Park, where I was volunteering.
If you grew up just outside New York City, like I did, then you probably remember that first trip into the city without your parents. I know I do. It was, and probably still is, a teenage rite of passage, a promise that independence isn’t far off. How could traveling into the city be a crime?
One of the Park’s historians told me that the government made travel from NJ into British-controlled NYC without approval a crime to clamp down on out-of-control levels of spying and smuggling. Historians believe, he said, that fewer than 50% of the residents here in New Jersey supported independence during the War for Independence. And that true for all the colonies south of New England, another historian added.
Spying, smuggling and a divided nation? Suddenly, the late 18th century felt very much like the present moment, and that document became the spark for my story about General Washington’s most reluctant spy, a young widow who races time and traitors to uncover a plot that threatens the new nation.
Q2. Besides writing, you share something in common with Alafair Burke, Meg Gardiner, Leslie Karst, Shannon Kirk, Keenan Powell, and Lisa Scottoline—and to be fair, let’s include two men, Andrew Anselmi and Scott Turow. That’s right, you are (or were) a reformed lawyer. I would think lawyers would be hard readers to please. Tell us, why do you think so many lawyers become writers, and what or whom do you enjoy reading?
In my experience, a lot of litigators are already storytellers. “This is what happened,” trial lawyers tell the judge or a jury, shaping the facts as they go. “And this is why my client should prevail.” It’s not that far a journey from that kind of story based on fact to fiction. Plus having firsthand experience of criminal law and procedure is darn helpful if you’re writing about murder.
I enjoy all the authors you’ve mentioned. Also Lyndsay Faye, Eleanor Kuhns, C.J. Sansom, and Susanna Calkins. And I loved your first Shane Cleary mystery, Dirty Old Town. By the time this blog is posted, I’ll have read your next book in the series. I’m looking forward to that.
Q3.You created a remarkable heroine, Becca Parcell. She is outspoken, modern and yet of her time. What research did you do for her character?
I’m glad you like Becca. Widows were the only women allowed to own property back then, so I made Becca a young widow. That fact alone gives her more independence than most women had in the 18th century. Becca also has a talent for numbers, which would have been unusual but not unheard of.
I dove into online resources and books to help me shape my book’s female characters. Jill Lepore’s excellent Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin made a big impression on me. She tells the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister and about women’s lives in general during this time period.
Q4. One thing I love about historical fiction is that I always learn something new. In The Turncoat’s Wife, I learned that, contrary to what I read about Washington in Valley Forge in 1777, the winter he and his men experienced in Morristown during 1779-80 was the coldest winter in America in the eighteenth century. Is there anything you learned about the era of the Revolutionary War that surprised you and you’d like to share with us?
I didn’t know that the tip of Manhattan – up to a quarter of the buildings in New York City -burned to the ground in September 1776, within days of Washington and his men fleeing from the city and the British taking over. Some residents who remained lived in tents made from sails, leading to the area’s nickname, Canvas Town.
How could I resist? A few scenes of The Turncoat’s Widow are set in the burned ruins of lower Manhattan.
Q5. Describe your writing routine?
In the Before Time, I’d head to the library or a coffee shop after breakfast to write for a few hours. Now, I write at the dining room table, which is the least used room in the house and contains the fewest distractions. And afternoon walks around the neighborhood are where I decide what happens next or figure out how to fix a plot problem. That’s one part of my writing routine that the pandemic hasn’t changed.
Q6. Congratulations again. You’ve completed your first novel. Can we expect more of Becca, or are you onto something else?
It’s exciting to have The Turncoat’s Widow out in the world. I’m writing the next Becca Parcell story, which takes place in Philadelphia. I’m also working on the second draft of a contemporary mystery with a protagonist who’s a female attorney.
Mally Becker at Level Best Books