Never Throw Out a Manuscript by Judy Alter
Back in the day we used to say every author had a stack of unpublished manuscripts in the basement or the closet. Today, those hidden gems are on our computers. I recently reclaimed one from the forgotten files.
In the spring of 2017, I started a culinary mystery about a TV chef, Irene Foxglove, and her assistant or gofer, Henny (Henrietta) James. The story was set in Chicago’s historic Hyde Park, the neighborhood of my childhood. It was fun for me to revisit familiar places, but still I ran out of steam. In spite of the protests of a reader who said she liked it and thought it had promise, I abandoned Irene and Henny.
Other nice things intervened—a contract with Rowman and Littlefield to write The Second Battle of the Alamo led to a working relationship with one of the best editors I’ve ever had. She shepherded through a contract for a second nonfiction manuscript and reprints of five of my historical novels. And she was encouraging about a proposal on a project I had in mind.
But then COVID-19 hit, and editorial work at Rowman and Littlefield went on hiatus. I was left at loose ends. I wrote blogs, I read books, I fiddled. Like much of America, I was anxious about the pandemic, but I had nothing to distract me. Work was always my usual refuge when life got tough, but this time work failed me. I couldn’t come up with a new project with several others hanging fire.
Then one April day, impulsively, I opened the file of the culinary novel and re-read. To my surprise, I thought, “This isn’t half bad.” I liked the voice, and I saw plot possibilities. Being a pantser, I began to write. I wrote almost daily, and the story flowed more easily than some of my others By July, I had a finished manuscript.
Not only was it fun to research the Hyde Park and discover changes since I was last there, the story allowed me to explore food writing, a subject that increasingly interests me. With Henny, I figured out new recipes and spent long hours in the kitchen. I fell into the stereotype and gave Irene a faux French background, enough to add to the mystery. Of course, there was intrigue—Irene was clearly distraught and hiding something. And then there was a murder and a kidnapping. And there was a hint of romance. That too-handsome guy next doior became Henny’s best friend as she recognized, with regret, that he didn’t much like girls.
It all came together with a climactic scene at Chicago’s fabled Palmer House Hotel, another fun bit of research for me.
Today that manuscript is a published book, available in print or digital form. The title is Saving Irene, though, being an old-fashioned hymn singer, I’ve had a hard time to keep from calling it Saving Grace. And one of my fans write that though she’s read all my mysteries, this is the best one ever.
Me? I’m exploring other old back files on my computer.