For Puyallup resident Bonnie King, writing and self-publishing a historical fiction novel was more than just a personal challenge — it was a chance to uncover her family history.
It started with a box of letters.
On a rainy January day in 2015, King sat down with her half-sister, LaReta Curtis, to read through some family letters that King’s father, Webb Bateman, had kept secret for some time. The letters, written between 1936 and 1939 to Bateman by his late wife, Dorothy, told the story of a woman who had to raise her 3-year-old daughter on her own.
That daughter was LaReta Curtis.
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“Once I found the letters I was so excited about them,” said King, 71. “We started reading through them. (Curtis) was glad she did because she found her mother really loved her.”
My dad was a great storyteller. I had in my possession his attempt to write a memoir. I thought, ‘One of these days I could use these.’ I was excited to take the anecdotes my father had written and the letters and figure out a way to weave all of that together.
Dorothy died when Curtis was 3 years old, leaving her in the hands of Bateman, who had been across the country following wherever work was available during the Depression.
Reading the letters was emotionally moving for the sisters, said King, and it was then that a larger story started to form in her mind — one that she wanted to get down on paper. Paired with anecdotes left behind from her father, King pieced together a story using the letters.
“My dad was a great storyteller,” she said. “I had in my possession his attempt to write a memoir. I thought, ‘One of these days I could use these.’ I was excited to take the anecdotes my father had written and the letters and figure out a way to weave all of that together.”
Now, after nearly two years of writing and research and revising, King released her book in September through Amazon.
King’s novel, titled “The Road to LaReta: A Novel Based on a True Story,” tells the story of King’s father, as he travels a three-day journey from Nebraska to North Dakota to attend his wife’s funeral and see his 3-year-old daughter, LaReta.
“During the drive there, there are flashbacks to his youth,” King said. “The question becomes, what is he going to do with his 3-year-old daughter?”
While partly fictional, King said she tried to get into the head of the characters as best as she could — especially her father, who passed away in 1997 at the age of 86.
“The wonderful thing about fiction is that you can dig deeper and get into a person’s innermost thoughts,” King said. “I had to get into these characters’ heads. I thought, ‘Stay true to the character, stay true to the character.’ My dad was a rough and tumbling guy, a party guy. But he also took pride in (his work). It was an adventure getting into his head.”
The wonderful thing about fiction is that you can dig deeper and get into a person’s innermost thoughts. I had to get into these characters’ heads. I thought, stay true to the character, stay true to the character. My dad was a rough and tumbling guy, a party guy. But he also took pride in (his work). It was an adventure getting into his head.
While taking place in the 1930s, the story, King said, is one that women can still relate to today.
“(Dorothy’s) story isn’t unusual, even for today,” King said. “Figuring out as a woman (that) I have to (raise a child) on my own.”
Writing the book opened up not only secrets about her family history, but King says she now better understands herself.
Before retiring in 2008, King worked for the Washington State Department of Health, and read a lot of technical writing. When she decided she wanted to write a book, she had to switch gears.
“That was a huge challenge for me to get into my right brain and write creatively,” she said.
But it was more than just creative writing. King took care to do a lot of research, right down to the temperature of the specific day that Bateman was traveling across the country.
“To get into that day and time and that mindset, it goes back to the calendar — the phase of the moon and what was happening that day,” said King, who had stacks of paper full of research. “What was the topography like that he was driving through? What was the elevation?”
While writing, King shared her work with her critique group and a few beta readers, individuals who provide personalized feedback.
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“Having that view from the outside was very important,” she said. “The beta reads I had were invaluable.”
Publishing the novel was a whole other ball game. She designed the cover using real photographs of Curtis and her father, and formatted the book using an online template.
The story was almost finished when Curtis passed away from bone cancer at 80 years old this past June.
“She knew that I was working on the book,” King said, and keeps in her possession a short story with Curtis’ comments on it. “I read part of the last chapter (at her celebration of life). It was very hard.”
Now, King lives with her husband Scott in Puyallup and “has the bug” to continue writing — this time, a memoir of her own.
“After doing this story about my dad, I can look back and say his influences weren’t great, and you have to give him grace,” King said. “Learn to give yourself grace for the mistakes you’ve made in your life.”
King will be signing copies of her book at 1:30 p.m. Thursday (Nov. 3) at the DuPont History Museum, 207 Barksdale Ave., DuPont. She’ll also be teaching a reading and writing class from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Monday (Nov. 7) at the Puyallup Activity Center, 210 W. Pioneer Ave.
For more information, visit bonniekingauthor.com.
Events with author Bonnie King
What: Book signing
When: 1:30 p.m. Thursday (Nov. 3)
Where: DuPont History Museum, 207 Barksdale Ave., DuPont
What: Reading and Writing Class
When: 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Monday (Nov. 7)
Where: Puyallup Activity Center, 210 W. Pioneer Ave., Puyallup