Sunday, July 10, 2011

Breaking Out of Pigeonholes-GUEST Judy Alter

            Writers are easily put in pigeonholes, especially genre pigeonholes. My first novel, After Pa Was Shot, was apparently a young-adult novel. I didn’t know that when I wrote it, but that’s how my agent marketed it. And voila! I was a young-adult author. I stayed in that pigeonhole for several books—seven to be exact—because I was comfortable there and that seemed to be what editors expected of me.
But then I wrote a novel, Mattie, which had a few steamy scenes in it and was published by Doubleday in the now-long-defunct DDD Westerns line. I followed it with A Ballad for Sallie, told by a twelve-year-old girl. It’s my contention that not all novels featuring twelve-year-old girls—or boys—are young-adult works, but the editor at the mass market house that reprinted it said Sallie didn’t sell as well because it was a juvenile.
The label “children’s writer” still follows me these days, partly because I’ve written a lot of nonfiction for young adults, everything from a history of Montana to a book explaining vaccines and a biography of Harry S. Truman. But by the 1990s I moved into a new pigeonhole: western writer. I was active in Western Writers of America, even president for a term, and I was writing westerns—no, not “shoot-'em-ups” but four of the books I’m most proud of (though choosing  your favorite of your books is, as a friend of mine has said, like being forced to choose a favorite child). 
I thought Libbie, a fictional account of the life of Mrs. George Armstrong Custer published in 1994, was my big breakthrough (it proved not to be). It got great reviews from all sorts of publication, including lots of romance review magazines—and one scathing review in the Dallas Morning News because the reviewer, who called himself a curmudgeon, dismissed it as a romance.

Jessie, the life of Jessie Benton Frémont and daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, was next. As the wife of and explorer/adventurer/entrepreneur/lifelong failure and the daughter of a forceful senator and proponent of westward expansion, Jessie was in the midst of the national political scene for many years before following her husband about the country and eventually becoming an author.

Cherokee Rose was based on the life of Lucille Mulhall, the first woman trick roper but the publicity for that book was nil—I saw one brief mention in Entertainment Today. The market for women’s western fiction was either dying or moving away from me. I didn’t publish adult fiction again until 2002 when Leisure Books brought out a mass market edition of Sundance, Butch and Me, told, of course, by Etta Place. I always particularly liked that book because it made my well-read son-in-law laugh out loud.
There are still countless western women I could write about. Indeed I wrote a y/a entitled Extraordinary Women of the West, and a friend laughed that I should tell the editors I had about a hundred more women to go. But I saw the handwriting on the wall, busied myself with the non-fiction y/a market and my daytime job, and dreamed of writing mysteries, while reading every cozy I could get my hands on.
 Finally I dipped my toe into the Guppy pond of Sisters in Crime and found myself literally a newbie in a new world. No one knew I had a publishing history, and I certainly didn’t understand the intricate ins and outs of finding an agent and publishing a mystery. In retrospect I wasted a lot of time querying agents and a few of the better known small presses, giving one press an exclusive that stretched out to a year, wasting another year with an agent who decided he couldn’t sell it.
Next I queried a new press, Turquoise Morning. They accepted Skeleton in a Dead Space more quickly than they predicted. It’s launching August 29, give or take, and I’m busy planning marketing, on Facebook and Twitter, writing blogs, and learning all kinds of things that didn’t exist when I last published adult fiction. As we all know, in the old days, your publisher did the marketing; today, we do it.
Now if I can just jump out of the y/a and western pigeonholes into the mystery one—or maybe a bigger one that encompasses all three? Western mysteries sort of intrigue me, but I haven’t come up with a plot yet. And after my recent trip to Scotland, a mystery set in Scotland has my brain whirling with possibilities.
Pigeonholes be darned!
Judy's forthcoming cozy mystery is Skeleton in a Dead Space from Turquoise Morning Press, due in late August or early September.

Her most recent books are Extraordinary Women of Texas and Great Texas Chefs (both TCU Press) and Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books (State House Press).

She is the author of seven published Western Historical novels for adults, nonfiction books for young adults, one collection of short stories, and a critical biography of Texas novelist Elmer Kelton.

Judy's works have won awards from Western Writers of America, Western Heritage Wrangler Award, Texas Institute of Letters, and the Children's Book Council.
Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement – Western Writers of America
Named One of 100 Women, Living and Dead, Who Have Left Their Mark on TexasDallas Morning News
Named Outstanding Woman of Fort Worth in the Arts, 1988, - Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women
Named to Texas Literary Hall of Fame, Fort Worth Public Library

I am a regular blogger-  and   and regular reader of the listservs from the Guppies and Sisters in Crime.

From 1982 until 2009 Judy Alter worked at Texas Christian University Press, five years as editor, and the remaining as director. Using her vast knowledge and university degrees, much of her writing has been about the experiences of women in the American West.

She is the single mother of four now-grown children and the grandparent of seven. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with Scooby, an Australian shepherd, and Wynona, cat that is part Maine Coon.

Thank you for visiting Judy Alter here at Sweethearts of the West. You're welcome to leave a comment for her.
Celia Yeary


  1. Hi Judy,
    Thanks for sharing your publishing history. Congratulations on your writing and best wishes with the new genre.

  2. Judy,

    I admire the matter of fact down to earth way you waded through all the so called 'necessary' steps to publication. The down side of self promotion is that we have to do it ourselves. The up side, we get to promote exactly what our stories entail.

    You are a talented, resourceful lady.

    Best wishes for all your future endeavors.

    Nancy Kay

  3. Good morning, Judy--thanks so much for being our guest today. I wanted our readers to know your history and your great success in writing fiction. You're the only person I know who was editor of a University Press. I find it interesting that you have such varied interests and abilities.
    I'm going to take you up on being a guest on your Potluck With Judy blog one day.

  4. Hi Judy:

    Mystery fans are a different breed. They won’t care what you have written before if they like your mystery. They will want more however.

    Do you read M.C. Beaton? She went from romance to mystery and is now an international best seller.

    BTW: When I was young, my father and grandfather used to always say, “Harry S for nothing Truman”. I just can’t put a period after that S! Did you use a period in your book on Truman?


  5. Judy, what an interesting journey you have had so far. I can relate to some of it as I, too, have had stops and starts and dabbled in several genres. This business is definitely a fluid one and we have to go with the flow to succeed. I wish you much success in your new direction. Linda

  6. Judy, I met you when I worked at TCU for Dr. Saul Sells. Continued success with your career.

  7. Hi Judy,
    What an interesting writing career you've had. I'll be checking your books out, especially Skeleton in the Dead Space--what an awesome title!

  8. What an interesting career path you've forged for yourself. Bravo. I do have to wonder, though, tongue in cheek? "Wynona the cat, part Maine coon." Huh...? :)

  9. So nice to meet you today, Judy. You definitely have had a variety of stories. I like that. My stories aren't exactly westerns, but I was told that because they are set west of the Mississippi River they are considered westerns. Doesn't matter, I live in the west and write about the 1849 gold rush era because I live where it happened. There are so many stories to tell that I've never understood where they happen should matter that much anyway.

    Best of luck with your story coming out in August.

  10. Thanks for sharing your publishing story with us, Judy. So many, me included, write mulitple genres, or are genre-benders, and today's marketing climate is much more kind to people like us than was the case even a few years ago. On the flip side, as you pointed out, we do have to swim through the marketing and promotion waters ourselves, which is sometimes daunting.


  11. Good luck with Torquoise Morning Press. Looks like they've got you on the fast track.

  12. Hey Judy and all the rest of you sweethearts:
    Just wanted to let you know that
    I've started a Western imprint over at Oak Tree Press. We're calling it Wild Oaks and we've got two titles out so far, Two Feet Below from Carol Crigger and Dismal River from John Lindermuth. Looking for more, receiving few manuscripts.

    Our strongest line is mystery and we're trying to build the romance line. If you have anything for us, please contact

  13. Hi Judy,
    I know you from Western Writer of America and have watching with interest as you transform into a mystery writer. I've written straight forward westerns, (I found it hard to crack the boys' network)science fiction/fantasy I'm told has a western slant, and have gone to action driven 1890s female amateur sleuth. Is there a genre for that? No cook books so far. You are an inspiration for all of us and I love your post.

    Carol Crigger

  14. Crimeny! I can't even get the tenses right in my posting...please forgive.

  15. Celia - and Judy - of course I appreciate the strong women of the west! And you are among them. Along with my personal favorites, Clara Driscoll and Adina de Zavala, who rescued the Alamo from certain destruction.

  16. Judy, what a pleasure to read your guest blog. We met many years at in Albuquerque at Western Writers of America. You were so gracious to me, a newbie in the western historical romance (pigenholed for a while) genre.
    I too went to nonfiction for years, but am back into western historical romances again now. And loving it.
    I want to link to your blog, if you don't mind. Thanks for all the good stories.

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  18. I have been a "hardboiled detective" writer for several years. Writing about hard-drinking, wise-cracking private investigators on the mean streets of modern-day America came easily and seemed to be my niche. But then one day, I sat down at the laptop and, right before my eyes, my detective had traded in his '59 Coupe De Ville for a horse and a Colt Peacemaker. And, like that, I was a Western writer. I have been sort of terrified about the transformation, but reading your post about your writing journey has inspired me. We're crossing the same river, only in opposite directions!

  19. Great post - I love to hear about the journey of an author.

  20. Great post - I love to hear about the journey of an author.


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