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Judy Alter

Author

Judy Alter has been writing fiction and nonfiction for young readers for twenty years. She has a Ph.D. in English with a special interest in the history and literature of the American West. Alter is the director of a small academic press, and writes in her spare time. She is the mother of four, and now lives with her dog, her cat, her garden, and her books.

Judy's Books

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Discovering Australia's Land, People, and Wildlife

Discovering Australia's Land, People, and Wildlife

A MyReportLinks.com Book

Judy Alter
In this new edition of the Continents of the World series, author Judy Alter uncovers the land and climate, plant and animal life, scientific discoveries, and history and exploration of Australia. This book offers fun and interesting facts about the planet’s smallest continent...Read More

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Judy's Latest Blog Entries

Feast or famine

 

Egg salad on rye, garnished with heart of palm

Most nights I have company either for happy hour or supper, be it friends, neighbors, or family. Last night was a special treat. Longtime treasured friend Linda came in from Granbury (for non-Texans, it’s maybe forty miles from Fort Worth, so Linda doesn’t just casually drop in). Jordan joined us for a half glass of wine, and then Linda and I were off to meet three other friends for dinner.

The ladies we met, like ourselves, were former wives of osteopathic physicians. Linda and one other are widowed; three of us are divorcees though only one ex-husband survives. (No, I’m not rubbing my hands in glee—they were friends of mine too.) We meet for dinner only occasionally, but quarantine kept us apart longer than usual, and we were glad to share stories of old times, catch up on families (who got Covid and who didn’t), and share our outlooks on life now that the world seems to be opening up again. As usual, I was the only one who enjoyed quarantine, and Linda, who knows me better than the others, snapped, “Of course you did. You’re a nester.” I think she’s right.

It was lovely to have dinner on a patio surrounded by trees, at a table still socially distanced. Caesar salad, veal piccata, and a couple of glasses of wine. We came back to the cottage and sat on the patio with Jordan and Christian until the chill in the air drove us inside. Linda was to meet a friend this morning in the Stockyards district, so she spent the night on my couch rather than drive back to Granbury, and I kept her up later than she’s used to talking and working at my computer. Strange but nice when you’ve lived alone for so long to wake in the night and know there is someone else in the cottage. I have one light in the living area that stays on 24/7, but she turned it off to sleep. So I kept thinking, “Why is it so dark in here?”

This morning we lingered over tea and scones. Then she was off to the North Side, and I was left to play catch up and do some work. Somehow it slipped my mind that I was supposed to be reading page proofs, so I devoted time to that.

But if last night was a feast of company, tonight is a famine. Jordan has gone to Austin to visit older daughter Megan, and the Burton boys—Christian and Jacob—were helping someone move and would eat dinner thereafter. So I was on my own. When you have no inspiration for dinner, what do you fix? Usually with me, it’s tuna, but tonight I made egg salad.

I’ve been making egg salad all my adult life, always the same ordinary way. So I saved a recipe with ideas for variation, principally bacon and cream cheese. But when it came right down to it, I remembered the reason I quit buying Central Market egg salad was I didn’t like the bacon in it, and when I tried to put cream cheese in a dish a few days ago, it was hard to work with and clumped, even though I heated it. I decided on plain old-fashioned egg salad with mayonnaise, mustard, and dill relish. Made a great sandwich.

A thought in passing: Americans do and believe so many things these days that are, to me, beyond belief. But the current one that boggles my mind is all the people who panicked and began to hoard gasoline when the East Cost pipeline was hacked. I saw a couple loading the back of a Suburban with containers of gas. My first thought was that I didn’t want to ride anywhere with them. But looking further, I began to appreciate their use of proper gas containers, because I saw pictures of people putting gas in plastic bags, tying the tops, and putting them in their cars. Are they serious? What level of stupid are they?

Did you read about the man who loaded his Hummer (who knew they were still around) with gas (it did not say what kind of container), got in, and lit a cigarette? Within minutes, his Hummer was ashes. Fortunately, he escaped injury.

A post somewhere on the net skewered these hoarders, saying some people at a party hearing there might not be enough pizza to go around, take three or four pieces, while others, fearing not everybody would get some, limited themselves to one piece. It is, the poster aid, a perfect illustration of Americans today.

Which brought me back to the theme of so many sermons at my church today: do you always think of others first or do you think of yourself? A question that might make a lot of us do some deep introspection.

How to write a mystery

 

Now available in paperback, digital, and audio editions
You're bound to love Henny and laugh at Irene

The other night I started a blog on how to write a mystery, because I’d discovered a new and unorthodox method. Since it seems to be going well, I’ll try again and hope I don’t erase it. I well know that a whole bookstore could be stocked with nothing but “How to write books.” Too many would-be novelists read book after book as a way to dodge getting to the actual writing. But they need to search no more: I have come up with the formula.

The backstory: way before pandemic and quarantine, I idly started a mystery about a second-tier TV chef in Chicago. Just playing with ideas, I told the story from the viewpoint of her assistant or “gofer,” a young transplant from Texas. Chicago is my hometown, and Henny, the narrator, settled in the Hyde Park neighborhood, where I grew up. Lots of fun to revisit the scenes of my childhood, but also fun to research the many changes in the long years since. But after about twenty thousand words, I was distracted by nonfiction assignments that actually came with advance money. I labeled the fragment “Saving Irene,” and put it aside.

Fast forward a year to the middle of quarantine. I had finished my nonfiction assignments and was at loose ends, so I reread “Saving Irene.” To my surprise I liked the tone, the story, the way it was headed. Long story short, it was an indie publication in September 2020 and got really good reader comments.

More nonfiction and then loose ends again. Several people wanted more of Henny and Irene, and I had committed to name a character for someone who contributed to MysteryLovesGeorgia. So I started, “Irene in Danger.” This time, I quit at sixteen thousand words. An early reader liked it, but I wasn’t sure.

During all this for at least a year, I was delving into the life and cooking of Helen Corbitt, leading light of food service at Neiman Marcus stores. Her fascinates me because she came to prominence in the late fifties—after Poppy Cannon advocated for convenience foods but before both Julia Child and Betty Freidan who exerted polar opposite influences on American cooks. I had hoped my nonfiction publisher would be equally enthralled, but the new editor wrote that she didn’t think a cook in an upscale department store was worth a book. Her loss. I have now sent a formal proposal to an academic publisher and been assured they would give it careful consideration. Which means I’m back at loose ends until I hear from them, which may be a while.

I wrote profiles for the Handbook of Texas Online, the most recent of a husband-and-wife team who were instrumental in saving the history of Fort Worth’s Stockyards district from Disney-like commercialization. A light dawned: I could bring Kelly O’Connell, heroine of eight mysteries, back in a Stockyards setting. The first ten pages went well and after that, crickets. Sound familiar?

I went back to “Irene in Danger,” decided l like the tone, the story, the characters. And this time around the dialog flowed naturally. I’m back to writing it. I make no promises, because as you can see I’ve abandoned manuscripts before. But I’m trying my old formula of a thousand words a day. Slow but steady going. Still not quite to twenty thousand. We’ll see what happens.

I have once again been distracted, this time for page proofs of The Most Land, the Best Cattle: The Waggoners of Texas. Due in September.

Retirement is such fun!

 

 

A really dumb mistake

 


No blog tonight. I was almost done with a brilliant (of course) blog on how to write a mystery. No joke—I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and the words flowed. Then I noticed a funny symbol by the second paragraph and tried to delete it—and deleted the entire rest of the blog. Then spent way too long searching for ways to recover it. Finally located the recycle bin, but it wasn’t there. None of Windows’ helpful hints were helpful. If you want my newfound take on how to write a mystery, you’ll have to wait for another night. I will say that in a long career of writing on computers, this is maybe only the second time I have lost copy. I’m really lucky. But now I’m burnt out and too frustrated—or angry with myself—to rewrite it.

I will content myself with some trivia: one is that my oak leaf hydrangea survived the snowmageddon and is flourishing with big, beautiful blooms. But it is another dark and stormy night in North Texas. Thunder rolling, but we are lucky—the hail all around missed us, and we got a nice rain. I’m grateful the hail didn’t batter those new blooms. Jacob moved the deck plants under the roof overhang, just in case. Now we’re sorry they didn’t get the blessing of the rain, but there’s a better chance tomorrow with a 90% chance of rain—a mixed blessing. I will have to get out in the late afternoon for a medical appointment, and it is the day the neighbors come for happy hour. I have said since we’re all well vaccinated, we can move happy hour indoors if need be.

I had planned to go to dinner at a patio restaurant with friends who live perhaps a mile from me, but we cancelled because of the prospect of rain. She emailed to say she was glad we weren’t there in the lightning, but I honestly did not see any lightning tonight. Sophie for sure heard the thunder though, and it didn’t please her.

The other thing is to post a picture of my second-oldest grandchild and her father (my second son). She was ready for her high school prom, and since graduation will be distanced and limited—we won’t get to go—I am grateful she had the prom experience and an all-night after-party that I am assured was well chaperoned. This is Eden, getting a kiss from her dad, Jamie. Needless to say, I love them both a lot.

G’night all. Maybe tomorrow I’ll share my new secret on how to write a mystery. It’s an untried theory at this point anyway, so you’re not missing much.

Mother's Day memories

 

Me, Jordan, Christian's sister Julie, and Christian's mom

Facebook was alive with pictures of mothers today, many of them vintage, taken when the mothers were young. I loved looking at them, but it made me sad that I have few such of my mom, and they are packed away because of my limited space. When she was very young, Mom’s father told her she took such a bad picture the only place he would hang it was in the barn. She avoided the camera the rest of her life, but at midlife, when my best memories are, she was lovely with wavy auburn hair and a quick smile.

That’s the first thing I think of when I recall Mom—laughter. She was always quick to find something to laugh, even giggle about. When we were young, she told my brother and me stories of our fathers (they were roommates) in their medical school days, and the tears would roll down her cheeks. She could recall her own foibles with equal glee, like the time she signed important legal papers Alice P. MacBread (the name was MacBain, but she was making toast).

Once secretary to Robert M. Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago and founder of the Great Books program, she remained intellectually curious most of her life, reading everything from historians Will and Ariel Durant to nutrition theorist Adelle Davis. She was a strict believer in Davis’ theories, and healthy eating was important to her. She was equally comfortable fixing a full dinner each night for my meat-and-potatoes father or entertaining twenty or so friends and Dad’s colleagues. In summers, she carried clothes and groceries on her back in a duffel bag for a mile and fed us from a primitive kitchen that had no electricity, no running water, and only bottled gas. Mom taught me to cook by letting me experiment in the kitchen, and I bless her to this day for that.

She was tough. Born in 1900 (always easy to keep track of her age), she lived through the Spanish Flu and WWI, lost a husband to complications from a war wound, lived through WWII and married my father, saw us through the polio years (one of the stories she didn’t laugh about) and all the ups and downs of life in America until the early 1980s.

I lost Mom in 1987, but I really lost her much before—to dementia caused by a series of small strokes. It broke my heart, and I wanted to shake her and ask where the gracious lady, full of manners and good taste, had gone. As it was, I didn’t handle it well, but I did the best I could. To this day, I talk to her—about people from the past, about cooking, about her grands and greats—she never knew any of the greats though she adored the grands.

One other woman mothered me. In my sixties I met Bobbie Simms, bookseller and former English teacher, some thirteen years older than I. She was half mother, half sister, a great booster of almost anything I did but never shy about telling me when she thought I needed bringing up short, from having on too much perfume (I didn’t—she was sensitive) to being overly ambitious for my writing. She adopted my grown children because she said they still needed a grandmother, and they adored her. “Bobbie tells it like it is,” they used to say. For a few years, we had a grand time doing “literary” things and lunching and shopping. I lost Bobbie in 2000.

The two are buried in Greenwood Cemetery here in Fort Worth, and I used to drive by, wave, and shout, “Hi, ladies! Are you talking about me?”

We had a lovely Mother’s Day lunch today, joined by Christian’s parents, his sister, her husband and two daughters. Much laughter, many stories told, and memories shared. Christian fixed pulled pork sliders, I made potato salad, and Jordan made a huge fruit salad. So good. Julie and Aaron brought rich, rich desserts which did me in, and I had to nap for two hours after dinner. Just barely recovered now, at seven, but it was a wonderful day. And I am blessed.

Mother's Day table


On kitchen duty

 


Today I spent far too long making potato salad for our Mother’s Day lunch. Which really means I spent far too long peeling potatoes. My plan was to use Yukon gold, because I like the texture and because I wouldn’t have to peel them. But when it came to it, I couldn’t put unpeeled potatoes in a salad. I remember Paul Simms, now long gone, who was infuriated when restaurants started serving mashed potatoes without peeling new red potatoes.

We are having Christian’s family—his parents and his sister, her husband, and their two daughters, ages something like eleven and thirteen. Let me tell you that making potato salad for this crew of ten is no simple matter. Two of them—Jacob and his grandfather—do not eat onions. The grandfather is so vehement about it that I’ve never heard what his objection is, but Jacob has said, more gently, its not the taste but the texture. That surprised me, because I turn down few foods because of texture. I can even eat tripe in pepper pot soup, a good tongue sandwich, or the chicken-fried lamb kidneys my mom used to fix. Yet I know texture is a thing—we have family members who will not touch a mushroom.

Christian admits to being a picky eater, and today I replayed the cause. His mom always said she fixed four separate meals for a family of four. I swore I would never do that, but right now there are two single-serving containers of potato salad without onions in my refrigerator.

I was following a recipe from daughter-in-law Lisa, which called for a good bit of pickle relish and then an astounding amount of salt, which I reduced. I also cut back the mayonnaise, but the salad is still soupy. I’m hoping the potatoes will absorb some by tomorrow. There’s a reason you do best making these things ahead.

And then there’s the matter of eggs—the recipe calls for four hard-boiled. Christian doesn’t eat hard-boiled eggs. I’ve left them out, but I’m wondering if that’s not the reason there’s a bit too much dressing for the number of potatoes. I did add celery just to have something besides potatoes to justify the term salad. But truth is neither Jacob nor Christian like celery.

What happened to three bites for politeness? Or even, “Sit there until you eat it or go to bed”? One of my children didn’t like lamb, but he ate everything else in sight, sometimes ravenously. Instead of picky, he was sort of all-embracing, so I respected the one thing he really didn’t like, just as I ask people to respect my aversion to bell peppers.

Making potato salad for ten just wore me out. Maybe it was all the figuring of who eats what. Let’s see, what was I supposed to be doing today? Oh yes, writing a mystery. I did a big 300 words today—at that rate, I’m sure I’ll leave an unfinished novel. Maybe someone will turn it into a posthumous publication for me!

A truth about me: left alone, I would turn into slob. I’m eating dinner alone tonight. Jacob wants to order in, so we just ordered hamburgers from Shake Shack, which he tells me are the best. I shall eat in the pajamas I’ve been in all day. And I sort of haphazardly pulled the covers up on my bed.

Usually, I nap in the afternoon and then make my bed, so when the family comes for supper, it’s neat and I look disciplined. The physical therapist I just worked with was adamant that making your bed is a sign of a disciplined mind—he makes his kids do it every morning. So when he was coming, I made mine in the morning. Several years ago, the same therapist worked with me before I had surgery and when I was having a lot of problems. I remember I felt guilty or inadequate because my bed was always a rumpled mess. I simply didn’t have the energy to make it—just getting through the day took all I had. Somehow the fact that I make my bed every day is an indicator of how far I’ve come from those days. But today I give in to laziness.

It’s good to be lazy every once in a while. Try it. Tomorrow will be a busy, full day. I’m storing energy.

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