Note: This first appeared today, Friday February 7, 2020, as a guest post on the Mysteristas blog. It is reprinted with their kind permission.
I was surprised to see Debra Winegarten’s name come up on my phone that morning in the summer of 2018. I knew her but not well, though if you were lucky enough to be Debra’s fiend, it was a binding relationship. We knew each other online through the Story Circle Network Work-in-Progress group, a small and close-knit writing circle. We met only once.
I was drawn to Deb because she was openly and enthusiastically Texan, Jewish, and gay. She had written books about people I knew about—Oveta Culp Hobby and Katherine Stinson, “the flying schoolgirl.” She was a tireless promoter not only of her own work but that of others. She spoke to every group that invited her and invariably sold a lot of books. She taught the rest of us to make “outrageous requests” when negotiating with publishers. She was insanely happy with her partner, poet Cindy Huyser, and their two cats. And she didn’t laugh when I wrote about my fondness of Jewish food, a hangover from a marriage gone wrong. We shared that liking.
When she called, I knew the Debster, only 60 years old, had been hospitalized with what appeared to be bone cancer in both hips, and I knew that months earlier she had developed a strange hoarseness. That morning, in her whispery voice, she asked, “Will you write my book?”
She was under contract with Roman & Littlefield (a subsidiary of Globe Pequot) to write a Two Dot book about the second battle of the Alamo, when two determined women saved the mission from demolition to make way for a hotel and parking lot. I had encouraged Deb to focus on it. She was so energetic and enthusiastic that she was distracted by everything from speaking engagements and school appearances to the memoir she wanted to write about her mother, Ruthe Winegarten, activist, author, and historian.
Asking me if I would write the book was like giving me an immense gift. I had secretly envied her the project, even while applauding. Of course I would do it. By September, when Deb died, her partner had given me two boxes of research and a carton of books on the Alamo. Her editor, Erin Turner, had issued a new contract, and we had worked out the details of the change in authors. My deadline was May 2019. I never spoke to Deb after that first phone call.
I dug into those boxes which I’m sure made sense to Debra but were utter chaos to me. It was a giant puzzle that, once pieced together, told a fascinating story. Together, Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll represent two qualities that Texans prize: heritage and money. Adina, granddaughter of the first vice president of the Republic of Texas, had the passion for historical accuracy; Clara had the money. Theirs was a natural union but hard headedness—sometimes also a Texas trait—turned what was once a friendship into bitter rivalry.
I lost myself in Alamo material and produced a manuscript by March. The Second Battle of the Alamo: How Two Women Saved Texas’ Most Important Landmark shipped January 10, 2020, two months ahead of schedule. The title page reads, “By Judy Alter, based on the research of Debra Winegarten.” It’s still Deb’s book, and our writing circle was sure Deb was doing the happy dance in heaven.
I owe Debra Winegarten an enormous debt. In 2019 I signed contracts with Rowman & Littlefield for another book on Texas history and for reprints of five of my historical novels. Debra opened a whole new career door for me. In turn, I like to think her mind was at ease those last days about a project to which she had dedicated so much time and effort.
For me, this experience has reaffirmed a lesson about writing groups. I never would have written historical fiction about women of the American West if I hadn’t joined Western Writers of America; I never would have written cozy mysteries without joining Sisters in Crime and the Guppy online chapter; and I never would have had my writing take this new direction without the Story Circle Work-in-Program group. It’s what writers do—we support each other.