My guest today is award-winning author - of both historical fiction and contemporary mystery - Judy Alter, who describes the origins of her interest in writing stories about women of the American West.
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.
I went on to write several more young-adult books, fiction and nonfiction, and five novels, mostly fictional biographies, for adults, along with a short story collection, all focusing on women of the West. Several of the adult works are available as e-books on various platforms: Libbie (Elizabeth Bacon Custer), Cherokee Rose, (an early Wild West cowgirl), Sundance, Butch and Me (Etta Place), Ballad for Sallie, Mattie, and Sue Ellen Learns to Dance and Other Stories.
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.
We watched a survivalist show recently where a fellow was dropped off in the Utah desert with minimal supplies. He was tasked with finding his way to civilization. At one point he resorted to drinking muddy water from a dog food can, including water he’d wrung out of his socks. He boiled it first, so it’s all good.
We visited the Utah desert in February. The television scenario seemed plausible to us. Of course, our friends only threatened to cover our heads with black hoods so we couldn’t see where they were taking us. And we were on established roads and trails, although the GPS refused to acknowledge the existence of the dirt road. We each carried packs with food, water, clothing, flashlights, fire starter gear, knives, and compasses. Happily, the only survival situation we faced was when I stepped into ankle deep mud, and our tall friend whacked his noggin on a low rock.
Utah never fails to take my breath away. You want to see wide open spaces? There are miles and miles of uninhabited land. Do you prefer that closed in feeling? Endless canyons split the desert into impossible mazes.
While in Moab, I visited Lin Ottinger’s Moab Rock Shop and gave Donna Ottinger a copy of Stone Cold Dead – A Rock Shop Mystery. I had to buy rocks while I was there, of course. I was delighted to find some nice ammonites. You might be able to find a copy of my novel at Back of Beyond Books. They sell anything related to the region, including obscure books you can’t find elsewhere. If you’re in Moab, be sure to stop at both shops and mention my book.
We spent the long weekend hiking in wonderfully perfect weather. One highlight was viewing petroglyphs and pictographs.
· Petroglyphs - rock engravings; images carved into stone
· Pictographs – painted images
If you want to see LOTS of photos, continue to the end of this post.
For more information about ancient rock art in the Moab, Utah area go to - http://www.discovermoab.com/rockart.htm
Survivalist TV program - http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/dude-youre-screwed
Lin Ottinger's Moab Rock Shop - http://www.moabrockshop.com/
Back of Beyond Book Store - http://www.backofbeyondbooks.com/
I learned amazing facts about Social Life in Western Mining Camps at a lecture last month. Did you know that miners often brought their wives with them to coal mining camps? What was the life expectancy of a Colorado coal miner in 1913? Did children living in mining camps go to school? What was the Colorado Coalfield War about? Join me March 12 as I guest post on award-winning author Judy Alter's blog.
I ran across a great quote in the article The Bean Acre by Jennifer Loyd, in the Colorado Gardener newsletter, Education Issue 2014.
“Although he [Josh Olsen] has been happy each year with his harvest, like a true farmer, he is never satisfied… Tomato yield ‘makes or breaks how you feel about the season’.”
I heartily agree. Last summer did not turn out as I’d hoped, based primarily on my 2013 tomato yield. One factor was the weather. I anticipated another summer of drought, and believing they would conserve water, left season-extending teepees around my plants well past our last frost date. Foiled by nature, we had a bounty of rain. The tomatoes caught a fungus, and the peppers failed to thrive.
Another factor was the terrible Black Forest fire. Smoke blanketed the city. Then forest fires south of us were followed by smoke from California fires. Is there anything left to burn? I was sidelined for a chunk of the summer with asthma.
The salad greens did better than the tomatoes. For one month, I was eating salad entirely from my garden. People in more garden-friendly climates may be puzzled by this, but it is an accomplishment in the arid (normally), high-elevation Colorado foothills. Beans in both non-green varieties and the standard green thrived. I grew one wonderful Minnesota Midget cantaloupe. The corn was fun, but took up more space than I’m willing to sacrifice.
Snow is falling right now. I planned to clean up some raised beds this weekend. That’s not going to happen. So I set up my indoor shelves and grow lights, and started broccoli and spinach seeds.
Why try, when we Colorado gardeners face such adversity? If you’re a gardener, I don’t have to explain. The smell of damp soil, the feel of dirt under your fingernails, the vision of seedlings pushing their way out of the dirt, are intoxicating. Seed catalogs arriving mid-winter are more exciting than any trip to the mall. Something will grow, even if it's just a radish or zucchini. It’s worth all the effort for the taste of that first home-grown vegetable.
Last year, the eggplants failed me entirely. First my seedlings, then the store-bought starts, they died one by one. I do a considerable amount of container gardening on our deck. One eggplant, started from seed, was late to begin a growing spurt. Before the first freeze, I brought the tenacious little plant inside.
The eggplant loves its spot beside the houseplants. I never dreamed it would survive the winter indoors. You never know with home gardening. The reliable outcomes you expect end in disaster, and then some little miracle like a winter eggplant happens.
Subscribe to this blog: