Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Hat am I wearing today? by Judy Alter

Skeleton_final_cleanfinish (3)I have many hats—one a cloche with a fan of feathers for when I write mystery (don’t you think it makes me look mysterious?), a sunbonnet for western fiction, a fedora for nonfiction, a gimme cap for young-adult works, and, of course, a toque for cookbooks and other food writing. I used to have a mortarboard for my career in academic publishing, but I’ve turned that in.

Some people ask me how I can wear so many hats, but the answer, to me, is simple. It’s all writing in one form or another, and I am a writer. I cannot do math and probably couldn’t pass high school algebra. But I can work problems out in words—it’s what I do best and what gives me satisfaction. I like to take an idea or subject and figure out how to put it into words so that other people will read about it.

When I wrote historical fiction about women and young girls of the American West, I had to imagine myself in the nineteenth century West, though I doubt Libby Custer or Jessie Benton Frémont ever wore a sunbonnet. Still I had to know what they did wear—like weights in the hem of their skirts to keep them from blowing in the wind. And I had to think about what it would be like for Libby to ride across the plains on a reckless horse, or for Lucille Mulhall, the first Wild West cowgirl, to rope several horses, or for Etta Place to take part in a bank robbery and the hard ride of a getaway. It was a wild and exciting ride for a bookish girl like me who never was comfortable on a horse.

Young adult nonfiction was probably the greatest challenge to working out problems in words. I wrote for several companies that published for school libraries. The company would assign me a topic, and I’d research and write, usually about 5,000 words. I have written books on everything from vaccines and surgery to passenger ships, various state histories, biographies of several presidents. Probably the hardest one I ever did was on international women’s right.

Wearing a toque was no problem. I actually have one that I’ve worn to several book signings, but food writing comes easily to me because I love to cook and to eat new food. I did have to learn the mechanics—the proper presentation of a recipe, for instance. And copyright regulations (ingredients of a recipe cannot be copyrighted but directions can).

Mystery has been the hardest hat to keep on my head—that cloche wanted to slip off. I wrote my first mystery, if you want to call it that, almost 50 years ago. It was a knock-off of Nancy Drew that I wrote in the car while my then-husband drove us across country. It was, quite frankly, awful. Around 2000 I wrote a mystery I thought was pretty good and gave it to an agent—naïf that I was I didn’t realize that it mattered that cozies were not her field. I may go back and revisit that one someday.

I am forever grateful to Susan Wittig Albert for telling me to join Sisters in Crime. Then I joined the Guppies and Agent Quest and soon learned what an insider’s game looking for an agent was and how many people submitted countless queries without success. I was, I discovered, not only a newbie but a small guppie in a very large pond. I read listservs, I read blogs, I took online courses, and I learned so much it’s hard to hold it all in my brain. And members of Sisters in Crime and all its sub-groups are incredibly supportive of newbies.

My goal was to publish a mystery, and after seven or so rewrites and six years, Skeleton in a Dead Space launched from Turquoise Morning Press on August 29. I really like that cloche with a feather and intend to wear it for quite a while.

Thanks so much for guest blogging today, Judy! And for giving me some encouragement about trying new genres!

IMG_2303 (3)Judy Alter of Fort Worth, Texas, is the author of about sixty books for children and adults. Her main interest has been the experiences of women in the American West, and she’s written six adult novels with that theme and seven young-adult novels, as well as countless children's books, mostly done for libraries on the American West and a variety of other subjects.

Judy is also the author of a memoir/cookbook, a collection of short stories, young-adult biographies of figures from Texas history, and two books studying the work of Texas author Elmer Kelton. Recently retired after 30 years with Texas Christian University Press, 20 of them as director, she is now devoting her attention to writing mysteries and, still and forever, writing about Texas. You can find Judy at her blog and website.