An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of several fictional biographies of women of the American West. In The Gilded Cage she has turned her attention to the late nineteenth century in her home town, Chicago, to tell the story of the lives of Potter and Cissy Palmer, a high society couple with differing views on philanthropy and workers’ right. She is also the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series. With the 2014 publication of The Perfect Coed, she introduced the Oak Grove Mysteries.
Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame.
When The Color of Fear launched, a fan wrote me, by email, wondering why it is so cheap. I replied that it was a novella, short. “Yeah,” she wrote, “I noticed it was short. How come?” Quick and obvious answer is because that’s all the space it took to tell the story I was telling.
If that fan needed education on the novella as a form, maybe others need to know more about this literary stepchild. A novella is too short for a novel, too long for a short story. Sometimes it’s just the right length. The name is derived from the Italian for “little novelty.” There is no set length, though the anthology for which I intend The Color of Fear would accept anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words. Some sources push the upper limit to 60,000 words which, to me, is a short novel.
One of the advantages of the novella in these harried times is that you can read it carefully and thoroughly and still finish it in a couple of days. An author can develop more material than in a short story, but a novella usually doesn’t have the intricate plotting and subplots of a full novel. Rather than a parade of characters, the novella centers around one or two. Still, modern publishers are reluctant to take on novellas because they are historically hard to sell, a reputation that may be changing as readers find themselves with less time to get lost in lengthy fiction.
I wrote The Color of Fear for one very practical reason: I had an invitation to contribute to an eBook anthology of novellas. The first book in my Kelly O’Connell Mystery series, Skeleton in a Dead Space, was included in Sleuthing Women: 10 First-in-Series Mysteries. Editor Lois Winston saw the concept as a way to introduce readers to series they might not otherwise encounter. The anthology sold well, and Lois decided to follow it in September 2017 with Sleuthing Women II: 10 Mystery Novellas. The Color of Fear is the seventh entry in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries.
But there was more to my decision to write a novella. I was just coming back to life after a year out with severe (dare I say excruciating?) pain followed by complicated hip surgery and exacerbated by several unrelated smaller problems like adult-onset (elderly-onset?) lactose intolerance. I hadn’t written fiction in over a year. Could I still do it? It seemed wise to me to start slow—or short. My primary beta reader put his stamp of approval on The Color of Fear, and I was reassured that I could still write.
It had been almost two years since I’d written about Kelly O’Connell, her adventures, family, and friends. I wanted to bring her back onstage, with her trusty, semi-psychic office manager, Keisha. To bring new life to the series—six is a lot of books and I didn’t want the series to fall into a repetitive pattern —I decided to let Keisha narrate the story of the kidnapping threat to Kelly’s new baby. It worked well, I think, but one reader complained of a failure to get to know Kelly. I suggested she read the earlier books, which are narrated by Kelly. And I ended this one with the suggestion that the rest of Kelly’s gang is waiting in the wings. A reader wrote, “I’m glad we’re going to have more of Kelly O’Connell.”
Will I try this again? Not in the foreseeable future. I am almost finished editing the second book in my Oak Grove Mysteries, featuring Susan Hogan of The Perfect Coed, and I have copious notes on a fourth entry in my Blue Plate Café series. Then it’s on to that next Kelly O’Connell. But I remain a fan of the novella. I read a lot of cozies, and sometimes I wish the one I’m reading was a novella instead of being spun out to a full novel.