Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Guest Judy Alter asks: Should I write a sequel?

I'm delighted to have the illustrious, award-winning author, Judy Alter, as my guest today. I loved Saving Irene and know I'll vote on her dilemma. This book reads, in part, like a love story to Chicago, a place where I once lived and miss just as much as she obviously does. 

Here's part of her impressive bio:

I am a past president of Western Writers of America and have been inducted into their Literary Hall of Fame. I have had awards from the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, the Texas Institute of Letters, and Western Writers of America, Inc., including their Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement, and I was inducted into the Hall of Fame in June 2015. I belong to Sisters in Crime, the Guppies subgroup of Sisters in Crime, and the Texas Institute of Letters and I am a member of Women Writing the West. The Fort Worth Public Library elected me to their Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

And now, her discussion on the sequel!

My newest mystery, Saving Irene, began as an impulse. I have no idea where the idea of a Chicago TV chef came from, but one day I saw the opening scene so clearly in my mind that I sat down and wrote. Being a pantser, I just kept on writing and some twenty thousand words later, there they were: Henny (Henrietta) James, the chef’s assistant who tells the story; Irene Foxglove, the faux French chef with pretensions; and Patrick, the gay guy next door. Fictional characters with lives of their own.


Long before I wrote mysteries, I had developed a career writing about women in the American West. So, when contracts for two unrelated projects, set in Texas, came along, I left Henny, Irene, and Patrick in limbo for almost two years. But when COVID-19 and quarantine hit us, the publisher of my western works went on hiatus, leaving one manuscript and one proposal stranded on her desk and me with no viable project. I pulled out Irene’s story, read it again, and thought, “Hey, this isn’t bad. I like the voice.” I began writing, and the story seemed to flow more easily than any other mystery I’ve written (this is number fifteen). Long story short, I wrote from March to June and spent the summer on publishing details—editing, proofing, formatting, etc. Saving Irene launched on September 16.

All along I intended it as a stand-alone. I was going to get back to those unfinished western projects. But the editor, though back at work, hasn’t gotten to my part of the backlog on her desk, and I began to get nice comments about Irene’s story from readers. One wrote: “This reads like a stand-alone novel, but there's certainly room for a sequel (hint, hint) should the author be so inclined. Meanwhile, I'll be checking out [Alter’s] earlier titles.” Another, “I hope there will be more books about Henny and Patrick as her career and love life move on.” Still more: “This book is Judy Alter at her best: a fast-moving pace; fascinating new characters in what one could only hope will become a series.” And, finally, “I have read all of Judy's … mysteries and this is the best one by far! I love Henny and Patrick! I hope there is a sequel to it!”

So there’s my dilemma. In a way, it boils down to Texas vs. Chicago. I have written about Texas all my long career, and I am deeply invested in the state’s history. But I grew up in Chicago’s historic Hyde Park neighborhood and writing about it was like visiting with an old friend, a nostalgia trip. Perhaps age calls us all back to the scenes of our childhood, but I loved sending Henny to the church I grew up in or on a picnic to Promontory Point where I spent so many happy weekends.

In truth, I’ll probably try to do it all. Yes, I have ideas for Irene in Danger rattling around in my head, but I put a lot of time and work into the other manuscript, which is under contract, so sooner or later I’ll have to deal with it. And the proposal I submitted combines food and history in a nonfiction but very Texan approach.

Hint: I am really proud of the cover of Saving Irene. I found free images of a chef and the background of Chicago-style buildings and gave them to a designer with the request that she age the chef, which she did. Strangely enough, one interviewer thought the chef looks like me (we’ve never met, so she’s only seen pictures) and a reader who knew my mom thought that was who was the model. Neither is true. But I can already envision the cover of Irene in Danger, a sign to me that the sequel was meant to be. I’m just having trouble with that opening scene.

I’m curious how other authors handle this. Do you deliberately write the a book as the first of a series or do you decide later it could be? Is it a flexible decision?


  1. I haven't made this decision with novels. All of mine were intended as series. But I have had short story characters stick with me enough to write more stories with them. (Thanks for being here today!)

  2. I love that cover, Judy. As for a sequel, I always say do what interests you most and what you love. In this case it seems like both do, so why not?

  3. Thanks for having me, Kaye, and letting me put my wandering thoughts in print.
    Susan, there's a funny story about the cover. Kaye thought it was me, and she's not the only one. Others, who knew my mom before she died, thought that was who it was. Last night I got an email asking if it was a well known--and litigious minded--restauranteur. I'd never do that. Now I'm thinking Irene should be on the cover of any following novels with the background appropriately changed. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Congratulations on your book, Judy. As someone who has written both a series and standalones, all I can tell you is that readers love the familiarity of series characters. When they like those character, the series sells. If you have more to say by the characters in this book, then by all means, write a second. Best of luck.

  5. Loved this interview, Judy! I decided to write a trilogy (not a series, LOL) because it was hard giving all three of my main characters equal time. And I do think the chef on the cover looks like you (with lipstick.)

  6. Thanks, Polly. I agree reader like to sink into a familiar world, especially is as in cozies it's a safe world. I also think they like feeling comfortable with the characters.

  7. Linda, good luck on your trilogy. I recently read a novel where the lives of three women were wove together, and I sometimes got lost. I think you made the right decision.

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