Spinning sleepless nights into writing career

By: 
Jen Kocher

Jen Kocher

NLJ Correspondent

 

A few years ago, Judy King was sitting around a table with a group of fellow authors at her publisher’s office in New York. The conversation revolved around their books and why they wrote and self-published. The reasons were varied – fame, money and the need to share their experiences. When it came to King’s turn, her answer was firm and resolute: It’s a good book and she wants everyone to read it.

King’s response was just as ironclad on Friday as she set up her table at the Weston County Library. Piles of her new book, “Yellow Star and the Yellowstone,” were neatly splayed in rows beside her first book, “Yellow Star,” which prompted the sequel that she was at the library to sign. She and her daughter Deb Patterson conferred over the arrangement on the table and both agreed that they love the cover of the new book and its bright, fiery fall golds and oranges.

“The colors just reach right out and slap you in the face,” King said. “You don’t stand a chance of just walking by.”

As if on cue, a friend approached the table and expressed her surprise that King was a writer. She had no idea her friend was holed up at home, busily scribing away.

“That’s my life,” King said, laughing as she threw up her hands in a what-can-you-do gesture.

Little did her friend know that her astonishment at King’s hidden writing talent mirrored King’s own. In a million years, King said she’d never imagined being a writer. Having always drawn pencil sketches and portraits while she bartended on the side, King was used to telling her stories through pictures. Until her hand gave out and she needed a new outlet, she said.

Writing seemed out of the question, due to her almost crippling inability to spell and pronounce words. For years, she had called her mother and daughter to ask about certain words, and when she couldn’t reach them, she spent hours digging through dictionaries as she attempted to sound out all the possible variations of the word. Sometimes she even called the operator with questions, but the last time she did that, the operator told her she needed to check the dictionary herself. King smiled.

“That was the last time I called her,” she said. 

Luckily, personal computers were within financial reach, King said, so she got a desktop PC with a good word search program that became her “best friend.”

Her insomnia further fueled her writing, and when she couldn’t sleep, she visualized stories. It began with the image of a young woman trying to make her way across the open prairie in the 1860s. This woman named “Promise” became the heroine of her last two books. 

King is not sure what prompted that image in the first place, but once in her mind, she said, she knew she needed to figure out a way to get her across the prairie safely. Many adventures ensued. 

“I just kept picturing her standing there, and I wondered what she would have to do to survive,” she said. 

This is where research came in – hours upon hours of it, as her home office filled with documents, files and loose maps as she tried to match fiction with fact. 

King’s stories are also littered with references to her own life, primarily her three dogs, who make cameo appearances under pseudo names. King admits she has trouble keeping those names straight. 

Her heroine Promise is a troublemaker who shares the same stubbornness as her daughter, on which the character is loosely based, King said. 

“She didn’t know that until just now,” she said, glancing over at Patterson, who had taken a chair behind the table where her mother stood waiting to sign books.

King talked about her characters with the loving frustration of a family member. She rattled off plot lines and the many ways that Promise finds to get herself in trouble, from kidnappings to close calls with wild animals to interactions with Native Americans who more or less adopt her as one of their own. Of course, Promise falls in love, though King is not so sure she approves of her choice. 

King shook her head.

“Promise is always getting herself into trouble,” she said. “Once I got so mad, I told her, ‘You got yourself into this mess, and now you need to get yourself out!’”

It’s a good story, King said, as a new batch of passersby wandered over to her table. 

A couple of years ago, a film producer approached King after getting a copy of her book from Tate, her publisher. He told her he loved the story and wanted to turn it into a film. There were a couple of stipulations, though, to which King said she could not abide. He wanted to remove the first page and cut the bear scene to the recent film “The Revenant,” which  would render it obsolete.

“No way,” King said she told him. “Not on your life.”

She’d spent a lot of time making that scene work and couldn’t bear to part with it at any price, she said. There was the timing aspect too. When she’d heard it would take six to eight years to make the film, the 76-year-old King told him she’d probably be dead by then.

Patterson smiled at her spunky mother.

“The film producer was pretty taken back,” she said.

After 11 years of working on the sequel, King said she was happy to finally see this last book come into print. She’d begun her writing career with “Crocuses,” her first novel, which is a story about her mother’s life on a farm near Four Corners. 

For now, she’s ready to take a break, though she admitted that she might see another story brewing on the horizon of her sleepless nights.

Maybe Promise and Green Raven will have a daughter, she mused, whose name will be Izzie. What might her life be like? Perhaps there’s a story there.

King’s three books are available on at the News Letter Journal and on Amazon.

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