People often ask why a city girl, from Chicago, became so interested in the American West, its history and its literature. I am, of course, an outsider, even though I’ve lived in Texas nearly fifty years. If you weren’t born here, you’re an outsider. A friend who is a fifth generation Texan used to do a program with me in which she extolled the virtues of being a native Texan; my portion of the program was called “Notes from an Outsider.”
My interest in the American West began in what was then called the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, because of its large collection of works by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, along with a wide variety of other western artists primarily from the nineteenth century. My then-husband was a surgical resident; I was a graduate student. Which is another way to say we had no money, and we did free things—like museums. He fancied himself a sculptor, and we studied the bronzes of Remington and Russell. I became fascinated by the stories behind the paintings and sculptures, what I gradually came to recognize as The Myth of the American West.
I took a course in western literature—turned out to be one of my favorites, and the professor is a good friend to this day, forty years later. Eventually I wrote my dissertation on the way art and literature combined to create the myth. But it’s a fair leap from writing a dissertation to writing fiction about women of the American West.
The turning point came when a friend gave me her mother’s memoir. The mother was born about 1900 in a small East Texas town where her father served as deputy sheriff. When she was four, her father arrested a man for public drunkenness; released from jail the next day, the man shot and killed the girl’s father for embarrassing him. That incident stuck with me, as did the entire memoir which had charming details of life in small-town East Texas—a tornado, a wedding celebration, a funeral, the arrival of the first Jewish family. But of course I didn’t know what to do with it: I was academically trained, taught to research, criticize, defend but never give in to my imagination. Fiction was over there on another shelf.
I happened to read several young-adult novels about that time, and it suddenly dawned on me that I could make the girl fourteen, instead of four, so she could deal with the emotions, and write a novel. After Pa Was Shot (my title was A Year with No Summer but marketing won out!) was published by William Morrow in 1978. It did two things: stereotyped me as a young-adult author and cemented my interest in women of the American West.
These days I’m concentrating on contemporary cozy mysteries, but the women of the nineteenth-century American West remain dear to my heart. And who knows? One whose story I don’t know may pop up—and I’ll be back to the 1800s in the West.
Before turning her attention to mystery, Judy wrote fiction and nonfiction, mostly about women of the American West, for adults and young-adult readers. Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame at the Fort Worth Public Library.
Follow Judy at http://www.judyalter.com or her two blogs at http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com or http://potluckwithjudy.blogspot.com. Or look for her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Judy-Alter-Author/366948676705857?fref=ts or on Twitter where she is @judyalter.
Judy’s newest mystery, Murder at Tremont House, is the second Blue Plate Mystery following the successful Murder at the Blue Plate Café. Judy is also the author of four books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, and Danger Comes Home. With the Blue Plate Murder series, she moves from inner city Fort Worth to small-town East Texas to create a new set of characters in a setting modeled after a restaurant that was for years one of her family’s favorites. So she’s still writing about women in the American West—just a different focus and time frame.