May 5, 2014 in Features

Spokane women find second wind as published authors

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Childhood friends Margaret Albi Verhoef, left, and Rita Gard Seedorf talk in Verhoef’s living room April 28 about the book they wrote together. Their World War II mystery that unfolds in a series of letters has been published by a company that specializes in “cozy mysteries.”
(Full-size photo)

Web resources

• The Community Colleges of Spokane’s ACT 2 catalogue: www.campusce.net/spokane/configuration/spokane/content/SPR14-ACT2-inside.pdf

• North Idaho College Workforce Training and Community Education: http://northidaho.augusoft.net/

• Cozy Cat Press: http://cozycatpress .com

Writing a book was the best medicine Rita Gard Seedorf could find to help her cope with aging and endless trips to the rheumatologist and optometrist.

But like most epic adventures, Seedorf needed a partner. So she roped high school friend Margaret Albi Verhoef into the project. The women hadn’t spent much time together since graduating Holy Names Academy in 1962, rekindling their friendship while planning their 50-year reunion. Now the women are nearly inseparable after spending 18 months crafting 64 letters that are the basis for the World War II mystery.

The fictitious tale unfolds completely in correspondence between cousins from 1937 through 1944. One cousin is a maid in rural England and the other a female doctor in Spokane. The story features mystery of intrigue and espionage, yes. But it’s really a look at how women on the home front coped during the war.

And for local readers, it illustrates how Spokane was impacted by a war so far away.

Now that “Letters From Brackham Wood: A Moira Edwards Mystery” is in a few local bookstores, Amazon and Kindle, and the publisher’s contract demands a series, aging no longer concerns Seedorf.

“That doesn’t cross my mind,” said Seedorf, a retired Eastern Washington University education professor. “I’m reinvented.”

Verhoef, a former elementary school teacher and librarian, said retirement and aging were a challenge and that both friends needed a boost, something more than monthly lunches with their Holy Names classmates.

“We kept our brain going because we didn’t want to become little ol’ ladies,” Verhoef said.

Both women turn 70 this year. They want others, especially those just younger in the baby boom generation, to know that writing is perhaps the key to youth or at least to having a fulfilling hobby.

There are many local writing opportunities for seniors.

The Community Colleges of Spokane’s ACT 2 program offers a variety of writing classes. This spring’s schedule includes a Haiku workshop, playwriting, self-publishing basics and a class on heritage preservation planning and organization that teaches students how to preserve personal stories, family history, photos and videos.

Often the classes are at a local senior center.

“Some are great writers. Some are terrible writers and that’s OK,” said Bonnie McDade, a former journalist, lifelong writer and the executive director of the Southside Senior and Community Center. “It’s great to keep the brain going. I also think a lot more of it has to do with the story that’s in them, that’s trying to get out.”

The North Idaho College Workforce Training Center also offers a variety of writing classes, everything from writing essentials and a beginner’s workshop to a nonfiction workshop for family historians and classes on specific genres from children, self-help books, screenwriting and romance.

There also are local writer groups such as the Inland Northwest Writer’s Guild and Spokane Fiction Writers.

Seedorf has written academic publications, articles and a book on the history of the Jore School, the one-room school that today is known as the Cheney Normal School Heritage Center, which celebrates EWU’s heritage as a teacher preparation school. But Seedorf had never written fiction.

She got the idea for the book because of her interest in World War II history and from a summer stay in London as a young mother when her husband was researching for his British history degree. Her neighbors vividly remembered the war and shared stories.

Verhoef had never written, except letters to friends and family as a wife of a U.S. Army dental officer who moved the family frequently.

Yet their inexperience with fiction and the publishing world didn’t slow the women, although at times they felt as if they were “pawing through the dark.”

The authors researched World War II history, getting help from Seedorf’s husband – a retired EWU British history professor who gave historical lectures and brewed endless pots of coffee for the writers. They perused local newspaper archives and interviewed people who lived in wartime Spokane. The pair knew they wanted to focus on women during the war and the contrast of its impact in England and Spokane.

One passage from the book, set in July 1942, describes rationing in Spokane. “I mentioned the rationing of rubber in a previous letter, but now it also includes mean, coffee, gas, silk, nylon, and fuel oil. Individuals must demonstrate a need to purchase autos, tires, appliances and even typewriters.

“Our block wardens check for compliance during blackouts. They make certain that windows have been covered and lights doused. Many people have painted the top half of their auto’s headlights black.”

As many writers encounter, getting their book published proved more difficult than the writing. The women didn’t want to self-publish, so they sent countless manuscripts to publishers, only to receive rejection letters, or worse, silence. They knew they had little chance of snagging a big-name traditional publisher like Random House or ever making the New York Times Best Sellers list. Yet they wanted to share their story with the public.

Then they found Cozy Cat Press in Aurora, Illinois, which is a niche publisher specializing in “gentle” mysteries with little violence, sex and bloodshed – as the company puts it, “a book your grandmother can read.”

The company was created by Patricia Rockwell, a retired communications professor, who didn’t want to die of old age before she got her cozy mystery published. Her decision coincided with the development of e-books and the rise in independent publishing. Today she has her own “Essie Cobb Senior Sleuth Mystery Series” in addition to publishing more than 30 other authors, including “The Bess Bullock Retirement Home Mysteries” by Allen B. Boyer, Marlo Hollinger’s “Midlife Crisis Mysteries” and Christian Belz’s “Ken Knoll Architectural Mysteries.”

Rockwell assumes most of her authors are in the baby boom age range, but she doesn’t ask, only caring about their writing and that the manuscripts fit the cozy mystery niche.

Rockwell said she liked “Letters From Brackham Wood” because it was different than a lot of historical fiction mysteries.

“I’m a big fan of stories that take place during WWII and I love the letter format Rita and Margaret use,” Rockwell wrote in an email interview.

Seedorf and Verhoef have 100 copies of their book to market and hope to talk with writers groups, book clubs and anyone with an interest. They are also working on a second book. It will involve the cousins after WWII; beyond that, the authors aren’t ready to


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