I am delighted to have Judy Alter as my guest today. I "met" Judy through a mystery Writers' listserve we both belong to and was fascinated to learn that in a creative sense, Judy and I have traded places. Judy grew up with an English father and now writes mysteries set in the American West. I grew up riding horses with my western father and write mysteries set in England.
Just as Judy mentions below, I have often wondered about the whys and wherefores of this and I hope, as Judy's friend says, bringing a fresh viewpoint to the setting is helpful. And, again, like Judy, I am immensely grateful to my English friends for helping me when I go wrong.
Now, over to Judy:
I have long envied native Texans who speak and write in a language I can only imitate. Once, driving to speak at a meeting, a good friend and Texas author said something about the perspective I, as an outsider, brought to Texas fiction. I am continually surprised to think that after nearly fifty years in the state writing about its history and people, I'm still an outsider.
I was born in Chicago, Illinois, where my father was a physician and college president. He was a very British man who grew roses in his free time. That's a far cry from the kind of closeness to the land that we talk about in Texas. If my father ever rode a horse, I don't know about it. And when Texas girls were riding horses, I was riding a bike to the Chicago public library. I rode a horse as a child once, in a stable in Chicago, and hated it. I've not been on a horse again to this day, and truthfully, I’m a little nervous around them. Nor was I ever a tomboy—I was the kid who sat on the front porch and read while others played outdoor games.
And yet, for many years I wrote about tomboys and cowgirls, girls who could ride a wild horse the men couldn’t tame, women who could control runaway horses on the plains, a woman who could rope several horses at one time, and yes, a woman who helped rob trains and banks—on horseback. My interest in the American West began in graduate school days. My husband was a resident in surgery when I was a graduate student, and we were dirt poor, so we did what was free--and we frequently went to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth to study the paintings and sculpture of Charles M. Russell and Frederick Remington. Today I trace my interest in things western to that exposure to art.
My first novel, a y/a novel, After Pa Was Shot, was set in East Texas around the turn of the century. I'd only driven through East Texas, never stopped. So as I wrote I called friends who had grown up there. I'd ask, "If you were a child in East Texas in 1904, what would you do to kill idle time?" One of the answers was, "Chunk rocks in the stock tank," so Ellsbeth, the central figure, spends a lot of time chunking rocks. Another question was, "If you were going to a funeral in 1904, what food would you take?" The answer was dried fruit pies.
When I made mistakes, my friends rescued me. In So Far From Paradise, a novel commissioned by the Fort Worth Star Telegram as a Sesquicentennial project, I wanted to have the central figure take a shotgun from a desperate and dangerous man. The time was late in the Civil War in North Central Texas, when there were hangings of so-called northern sympathizers by frustrated southerners. I had planned to have the central figure slam the shotgun against a wooden stockade-like wall, but a friend explained that the shotgun probably would have fired, and I would have lost my central figure right there. He suggested breaking it over the knee.
When I wanted to write a novel about Lucille Mulhall--the first real cowgirl in the show ring—I learned all about roping, and I can give you a detailed lecture on care of a trick rope, kinds of rope and so on. When I was about a third through the novel, someone said, “Okay, enough about roping. Get on with the story.”
Beyond my early fascination with the Amon Carter Museum, I can't exactly tell you why my voice is western and for so long was set back in time. I don't think living in Texas is the whole answer, because if it were I might write like Carolyn Osborn or Shelby Hearon or Beverly Lowry, all of my generation who wrote about slick, bright, slightly detached and dissatisfied contemporary women. But I knew that I was at my best as a writer when I put myself inside the head of a western woman of the past and told her story in the first person. I could show, but not tell, the strength of these women and the drama in their lives.
Some southwestern authors never find their voice or subject. I read manuscripts in which authors tried too hard to explain the Southwest--the result was an awkwardness that belies true familiarity with the land. I once read a description of Comanches riding across the prairie, the women's squash blossom necklaces bouncing gently against their chests. Putting Navajo jewelry on a Comanche is a pretty blatant example. And it's not always outsiders who fall into this error. Those who write about the Southwest with authenticity--and I fervently hope I was one of them--are those who have assimilated themselves into the land and the life. Their muses speak with a true voice.
Today I write cozy mysteries, still from a woman’s point of view and still set in Texas, but they are contemporary. But my western writing years are a crucial part of my work, and I’m proud of those books.
Some of Judy Alter’s western works are now available as ebooks on Amazon and other
(Elizabeth Bacon Custer), Cherokee Rose
(based on Lucille Mulhall’s life), Ssundance, Butch, and Me
(Etta Place and the Hole in the Wall Gang), Ballad for Sallie
(a street child
in Fort Worth in the late nineteenth century), Mattie
(a woman physician on the prairies of western Nebraska in the late nineteenth century), and Sue Ellen Learns to Dance
(short stories about women of the American West, from the nineteenth-century to the present). See her Amazon author page at http://www.amazon.com/Judy-Alter/e/B001H6KPU6/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1394737102&sr=1-2-ent
or her web page at http://www.judyalter.com
or follow her blogs: Judy’s Stew and Potluck with Judy.
Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of forty-some books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. She is the author of The Monastery Murders series; The Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime series; The Elizabeth & Richard literary mysteries, GLASTONBURY,A Novel of the Holy Grail and more.