What a treat to welcome prolific author Judy Alter back to my website. Judy not only talks about her new release and writing journey but shares the best first line she ever wrote—and it’s a doozy!
Below are her responses to my interview questions:
First off, congratulations on the release of IRENE DEEP IN TEXAS TROUBLE, the fourth novel in your Irene in Chicago Culinary Mystery series. Can you tell our readers about the novel and what inspired it?
I’ve thought a lot about where Irene, my faux French chef, and her storyteller, Henny James, came from, and I have no idea. Although this episode is in Fort Worth, where I live, most of their adventures take place in Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up, so that explains setting. And my fascination with all things culinary is a thread woven into these stories. But an actual source for the characters? Irene, the opening episode of the first book, and the title, Saving Irene, were suddenly just there in my mind one day several years ago. So I decided to follow them and see where they go. Irene, a diva to the core, attracts murder and mayhem, and Henny must save her.
In writing a series, there’s a character arc for each novel and an overall character arc for the series. How has Irene changed in the course of the series?
A big change is that she’s reunited with her French billionaire lover of some twenty-plus years earlier and that has mellowed her a bit. She’s still difficult, demanding, and short-tempered but Chance Charpentier can generally settle her. By contrast, as the series develops, Henny grows into her marriage and her career. More to come about that.
I know you grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. How did you go about researching present-day Chicago? And what kind of research did you do regarding Irene’s landing in “Texas trouble”?
The web is a wonderful resource. I could search online for all the places I remember from my childhood and see which ones are still there, which aren’t. The Palmer House Hotel closed and reopened while I was writing the series so far, but I just treated it like it was always open. I found menus, descriptions, etc. online. And I did visit there once and take the historical tour.
I also found new landmarks, mostly restaurants online. Beyond that it was a case of memory—the streets and the institutions, from the museum and the university to the church I attended—are still there.
The Texas scenes were much easier, because they are set in the city where I’ve lived over fifty-five years, and I keep up with the changing landmarks, restaurants, attractions, etc. Most of that came from memory.
You’ve been extraordinarily prolific and productive in your distinguished, award-winning career which has included writing fiction and nonfiction about women of the American West, several mystery series, and even cookbooks. What has helped you become such a productive and accomplished author?
My career stretches over a long number of years, forty-five since the publication of my first novel, so I’ve had time to write a lot. I write fast (though short) which may account for it—there were a few years where I wrote three mysteries a year. But the real factor I think is that I cannot not write—it’s what I do with my days. I have no idea what else I would do—beyond cooking. My children are grown and even my grands are old enough they have their own lives and don’t need me as they did when young. So I write. It makes me happy and gives me the sense of doing something.
In writing fiction, what do you find is the most challenging aspect? And for you, the aspect that comes more easily?
I suppose the most challenging aspect is what Hank Phillippi Ryan calls the “murky middle”—you are telling a story but you get to oh, maybe 35,000 words, and you are overwhelmed at the thought of getting from there to a finished story of at least 65,000 words. I struggle with it every novel, and yet I somehow wade through it.
The easiest aspect? I’d like to say nothing is easy, but I guess voice is the easiest for me. I most often write first person, and I get to know my narrator well enough that I can talk for her. Henny in the Irene series is a perfect example—she’s snarky enough that she says all the things I would never say aloud.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process for your mystery series? Do you tend to start with plot or character development? And are you a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in-between?
I am definitely not a plotter, mostly a pantser, but I do start with rough notes which are nothing more than suggestions of what might happen later on. These notes change drastically as I write and new ideas come to me. The finished book often bears little resemblance to the original notes. I will say though that before I can begin, I have to get that first line in my head. May I share the best first line I ever wrote? “Susan Hogan drove around Oak Grove, Texas, for two days before she realized there was a dead body in the trunk of her car. And it was another three days before she knew that someone was trying to kill her.” It’s from The Perfect Coed.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
I’m afraid a typical day doesn’t begin as early as it used to. Retirement has gotten to me, but I am usually at my desk by nine o’clock. I begin the day with email and Facebook notifications, and then I turn to my writing for the day. I eat lunch—leftovers—at my desk and work until two or two-thirty. Then I take a long nap. After supper I take care of business details, re-read what I’ve written, maybe proof, often end the day with whatever novel I’m currently reading. It’s usually close to midnight before I crawl in bed.
You did your first podcast this past year. What was that experience like?
It wasn’t, I don’t think, either the easiest or most successful thing I’ve done. I have not yet jumped on the podcast bandwagon. I’m visual, and I need something for my eyes to focus on, so I’m not a podcast listener. I get distracted. And because I have no experience with the medium, I don’t think I was a good guest. I had a hard time figuring out where the interviewer was going next.
I know that in addition to your mystery writing, you’ve continued your historical nonfiction writing. What are you currently working on?
I have returned to nonfiction a bit in recent years—a book about the two women who saved the Alamo from destruction, another on the legendary family who until a few years ago owned the Texas ranch that is the largest under one fence. Right now I have a contract to do a study of Helen Corbitt, director of food services at Neiman Marcus for years. She brought great change to Texas food, and I want to look at the way she fit into America’s changing foodways in the fifties and sixties. But I’m struggling—she left lots of recipes and newspaper columns but there’s little that reveals her as a person. It’s easier to write mysteries.
Anything else you’d like to add, or wish I’d asked you that I didn’t?
Maybe an extra word or two about cooking and cookbooks. Cooking is my avocation—I have a tiny kitchen (no stove or cooktop, just an induction hotplate and a toaster oven) and I often feed my family of four. I write a weekly food column, primarily aimed at those with tiny kitchens, and I have written two cookbooks and two food-related books. In another life, I might be a chef. Cooking makes me smile.
About IRENE DEEP IN TEXAS TROUBLE:
Irene and her French entourage come to Fort Worth to spend Christmas with the family of her protégé-turned-competitor, Henny James, who narrates this cozy tale of murder and mayhem.
Henny’s best friend, Charlie, is marrying the love of her life, rich and spoiled Rick Scott, and Henny is to cater the wedding supper two days before Christmas. To Henny’s dismay, Irene steps in as her sous chef. When there’s a sensational murder at the supper, Irene is the prime suspect.
Things are complicated by a wild set of characters and events—a mysterious stranger, threatening notes, a runaway couple and a kidnapping. From the Stockyards to Camp Bowie, Fort Worth landmarks are part of the action—and there’s lots of Texas food as Henny’s mother cooks it.
After an award-winning career writing historical fiction about women of the nineteenth-century American West, Judy Alter turned her attention to contemporary cozy mysteries. Several of her Kelly O’Connell Mysteries and Blue Plate Café Mysteries were published by Turquoise Morning Press and are still available. When her publisher went out of business, she became an indie publisher and barely looked back. Find her and a list of her books at http://www.judyalter.com
Judy is an active member of Sisters in Crime, Guppies, Story Circle Network, Women Writing the West, and the Texas Institute of Letters. When she is not writing, she is busy with seven grandchildren and a lively poodle/border collie cross. Her avocation is cooking, and she is the author of Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books, Gourmet on a Hot Plate, and Texas is Chili Country.
Born in Chicago, she has made her home in Fort Worth for over fifty years. Judy is also a proud Scot, a member of Clan MacBean. One trip to the Highlands convinced her that is where her heart is, and she longs to write a novel set in Scotland.