Niantic author and historian Jan Schenk Grosskopf has written a number of scholarly works. Her new book, for Mischief done, is her first novel but it's rooted in New London history.
The book is based on the brutal murder of a child in 1786 and the trial of the 11-year-old mulatto girl who was sentenced to death for committing the crime.
The book was released this month by Niantic publishing house Andres & Blanton. You can read excerpts of it that will be printed in installments on Patch. To order a copy of "for Mischief done," go to www.andresblanton.com
Patch: What first drew you to this story?
Jan Schenk Grosskopf: I had the same reaction everyone else has on first hearing about this case: shock and a hundred questions that beg to be answered.
Patch: You have published a number of scholarly historical works, why did you decide to turn this into a historical novel?
Grosskopf: There are so few records of the story and it’s so unusual, historians haven’t known what to make of it. Reading about the characters’ lives in a rich context, however, gives us a fascinating glimpse of an exciting and important historical era. And the case certainly raised a question in the eighteenth century that we face with alarming frequency in the twenty-first: what does a democratic society do with children who commit murder?
Patch: Even though this book is factually-based, how different was your experience in writing this novel compared to writing purely nonfiction? Was it difficult to make the transition from fact to fiction?
Grosskopf: I began writing short stories in grammar school, so making the transition between scholarly writing and fiction wasn’t too difficult. It was difficult to decide how to structure the story. At first, I tied the novel very tightly to the sources. A very good agent read that version and suggested that I flesh out the story – make it more literary. I pretty much threw out the version that he read and wrote another. I still kept to the facts didn’t make characters, but I began to explore the characters’ interior lives.
Patch: This story is set in a very specific time period when attitudes were quite different from those we hold today about race, class, crime, and punishment. What challenges did you face writing this book because of that?
Grosskopf: Keeping the voices historically accurate and distinct from my own. I am always disappointed when I pick up an historical novel and find the heroine or hero sporting modern sensibilities. That type of “good guys versus the bad guys” scenario doesn’t allow for subtle character development or further an understanding of a particular time period. I strove to write about flesh and blood people who, like all humans, struggled – to greater or lesser degrees – with a range of emotions and reactions experienced in an accurate historical setting.
In doing that, I based my interpretation of each character, all of whom were real people, on primary documents. Molly Coit is a perfect example. She really did save the Red Lion from the British, took in refugees after New London burned, and ran the Red Lion after the Revolution. In light of these facts, I used her as a practical voice of both reason and compassion.