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A Love of Storytelling Launches a Writing Career in Midlife: Adela’s Story

Published on 08/27/2018

Adela Crandell DurkeeWhen Adela’s father asked her to write his life story, little did she know this would be the catalyst for an active writing life, including blogging and publishing two books.

Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in middle Michigan, near Flint, a place no one knew before the Flint Water Crisis. It was where most everybody’s dad worked; mostly in the auto factories, known to us kids as The Shop. My dad worked for Ma Bell, as she was known back then. If there was a telephone company other than Bell Telephone, I knew nothing of it.

My birth, the second of what would be nine children, was, perhaps, more memorable than most of my siblings’. You see, Rose was expecting her first litter at the same time Mom waited for me to make an entrance. My baby pictures are right next to Rose’s first litter of eight pink piglets, Dad standing proudly beside her. Besides working for Bell Telephone, Dad farmed 80 acres.

I often tell people that when I was a little girl, I was never alone. The house I grew up in was first shared with my Uncle Merle and Aunt Lucille’s family—they already had three children, Donald, Linda, and Tom, when I came home from the hospital with Mom—and I had an older sister, Deanna. One, two, three: two more sisters (Bonne and Vickie) and another cousin (Gayle) joined us.

Adela’s older sister, Deanna. One, two, three: two more sisters (Bonne and Vickie) and another cousin (Gayle)

I suppose our drafty old farmhouse got too crowded, because eventually Uncle Merle’s brood moved out and different families moved in and moved on. All the while more siblings entered the picture, with finally a brother added to what Grandpa called the Magpies (I guess we talked a lot). At last, the Crandell kids, six girls and three boys, filled the house to capacity and no more renters moved in.

I always thought I had a typical childhood until I met people who grew up in a less rural area and had more affluent backgrounds. My siblings and I all had chores before and after school. My dad worked a lot of overtime, so I became the girl-in-charge of the barn chores. My cow, Ladybird, was a blue-ribbon heifer in 4-H (Dad, who helped name all the animals, had a wicked political sense of humor, as Lyndon Johnson was the Vice President when I got Ladybird). I learned to cook, knit and sew, groom and judge cattle, raise and train a horse. Thanks to Mom and 4-H, I knew I could do almost anything if I set my mind to it.

Adele with her task grooming and judge cattle, raise and train a horse.

Mom taught me that I could learn anything by opening a book. My earliest memories are of her reading us children’s books, then chapter books. She consulted cookbooks for recipes. A library book taught us how to build a training ring for my foal, Abou’s Pride. The World Book Encyclopedia helped us learn to make papier-mâché. Mom converted hand-me-downs into new clothes, an old coat into a monkey suit for a Halloween costume, and she could fix anything by consulting the manual.

Dad and his six siblings taught me the fun of storytelling. He could make a game out of any work by telling a story. Every Sunday, we visited one family or another. Sometimes, I would crawl under the table and listen to them tell stories while they played Yatzee or Eucre.

By today’s standards, I may have been considered dyslexic. I wrote everything as if looking in a mirror. I loved to read, but if I stumbled over a word I did not know how to spell, I took it to Mom so she could help me. I finally got my “head-on-straight” after Mom sat with me as I signed the backs of 40 Valentine Day cards, writing my name left to right, with all the letters marching in the proper direction.

Although I enjoyed listening to and creating stories from a very early age, science intrigued me even more. I love to tell people that I was first published when I was eight, in The Flint Journal’s “Wide Awake Club.” I dictated the story to Mom, who wrote it in her mysterious short-hand, correcting as I edited. (This is when I first recognized the value of editing.)  That said, I could often be found tucked behind Grandpa’s living room recliner pouring over his Life science books.

I was a cheerleader in high school. Mom made our uniforms.

I was a cheerleader in high school. Mom made our uniforms.

I was right on the cusp of careers opening for women. I remember taking an aptitude test in high school, with the counselor helping me match my interests and aptitude to potential careers. A doctor? No, only boys do that. A scientist? No, that’s for boys. An engineer? Again, for boys. I finally landed on upholsterer. No, girls aren’t strong enough for that. Well, I guess I’ll be a teacher then. With my Michigan Scholarship and Work-Study agreement in hand, off to college I went. My Work-Study program was in the microbiology lab, mixing up media and cleaning petri dishes. If I was quiet enough, I could leave the door open and listen to the lectures. That’s when I fell in love with microbiology and switched my major from teaching to Medical Technology—yes, a career that a girl could do.

One marriage and four kids later, I finally got my degree only to find that the internship required had these caveats: if you were married, your husband had to be interviewed; if you had kids, forget it. Funny how that propelled me into a career in the pharmaceutical industry, a male dominated workplace, which paid much higher than medical technology, with less stress. With incredulity, I told my childhood friend, Dr. Judith Wright, that my name goes in the blank for, “most responsible person.” Judith laughed and said, “You’ve been the most responsible person since you were eight.” Success in Michigan eventually led to the demise of my marriage, brought me to Chicago and further career success, and to my Loved-One, George.

Now my nest is emptied but feathered. My children, Chip, Seth, Cecily, and Coral, live within an hour’s drive. They have blessed me with twelve gifted, intelligent, and caring grandchildren. My youngest child, Coral is cognitively impaired, which requires a bit more than the usual adult-child support.

My children, Chip, Seth, Cecily, and Coral


When did you start to think about making a change?
I always liked storytelling. I told stories to my children to keep them quiet on long car rides. (Much to my amazement, my kids failed to understand that my stories were fiction. Years later, they ask me questions about the friend I had who made a mechanical butterfly. Sorry kids, that was a story.) Some stories I wrote for people as gifts. I wrote stories as a kind of self-therapy. Once in a while, I told stories of my childhood to co-workers. I heard, “You should write a book” more times than I remember. But a book is such a big project. I like writing stories; short stories.

One Christmas, I wrote a story for Dad based on his family’s house fire when he was a child. I knew only some rudimentary facts, so I fictionalized from there. He liked it so much he asked me to write a whole book. In the months to come, doctors discovered Dad had cancer. His request would be one of his last.

I started writing, interviewing people who grew up during the Great Depression, reading like crazy, and studying newspapers, fashion, and catalogs. And of course, Dad’s brothers and sister were wonderful sources. Uncle Gerald put me in touch with one of his teachers, still alive and remembering the Crandell children with great clarity. At one point, my son Seth said, “You’re really getting into this. Your hairstyle is even from the 30s.”  Whoops! That was an unintentional metamorphosis.

A Novel, A Ship of Pearl cover photo

At the same time, I was working on my novel, A Ship of Pearl, I continued to write shorter fiction. I wrote a story for my friend Gordon who decided to leave a partnership with his college friend and venture off on a new career path. That story became The Fable of Little Tzurie.

You could say, I’d been writing all along. My career in science required a great deal of technical writing, as well as persuasive writing. Writing instructions helped me learn to paint a picture transforming sound and sight into words. Still, to write a novel, I knew I needed more. At the age of 57, I went back to school and gained an MS in Written Communications from National Louis University. That gave me the courage and the background to launch my career in a new direction. Perfect timing. Months after I earned my degree, a larger firm bought the company I worked for and I was “retired.”

As part of my graduate work, I started a blog, TheBlackTortoise.com. I really had no idea what a blog was or how it could be a marketing tool. Shortly after that class, I attended my first BlogHer Conference. OMGosh! What an eye-opener! The conference had more sponsors than any pharmaceutical conference I attended. Obviously, there was money to be made here. The conference speakers kept prodding us to find our brand and stick to our brand. I’m interested in so many things. I couldn’t decide what exactly is my brand. I just like to write. Like a bolt of lightning, it hit me, I’m a “Noun Blogger.” I like to write about people, places, and things. My noun blog eventually morphed into Black Tortoise Press, where I promote my writing. I continue to write about people, places, and things, along with a little flash fiction. I promote other authors and provide links to my editor and my book cover designer, Chad Green.

Graduation, with my husband and first grandson

Graduation, with my husband and first grandson


What is your next act?
I started writing as a career change in much the way my life seems to unwind, some of this, a little of that, and a focus on one thing.

I started a blog, OnceALittleGirl.com, as a warm up for my real focus: getting my novel written. Once a Little Girl is what I call a seasonal memoir blog. I capture memories of growing up in mid-Michigan, written from the point of view of the little-girl-me. At the end, I sum everything up with what it means to me now. I thought maybe someday my kids or grandkids would like to read it, but mainly I did it as a warm up. I’ll never forget the first time I got a comment. I sat in bed, checking the views one more time before lights out. Oh my Gosh!  A comment. From someone I never met. I couldn’t sleep. I was that excited.

Little Girl a seasonal memoir blog.

Shortly after my retirement, my daughter sent me an email with the subject line, “This job is for you.” Her local paper needed writers. That got me started in journalism. Before long, I began writing for two newspapers and taking photos, I had two blogs, I managed two websites for non-profit organizations, and I was finishing two books.

Oh my, what do I love most about writing?  First, I love, L-O-V-E, meeting new people and interviewing them about who they are and how they got to where they are right now. I’ve interviewed contestants on American Idol and a middle-aged man who began a filmmaking career after waking from an unforgettable nightmare. I’ve met a man who sculpted a bust of Abraham Lincoln and a lawyer who, as a boy, hid in his uncle’s carpet store because he felt he was unjustly being sent to kindergarten. I interviewed a woman who taught people how to use the first electric range. People are so interesting and everyone is different.

Interviewing people got me expanding Once a Little Girl with my “Little Girls Then and When” series. I interview mothers and their young daughters. Once in a while, I get the chance to interview grandmothers too. People are really open to sharing their experiences and I love that.

I also love the solidarity of writing. The more I write, the more I think of things to write about. There’s something about putting my fingers on the keyboard or pen to paper that helps me crystalize my logic and clarify my thoughts and beliefs.

I love story. Fiction allows the truth to be told when no one is looking. That is what I love most about writing novels and children’s books. I love listening to readers tell me what they liked about the book. One reader told me she bought The Fable of Little Tzurie for her grandchildren and after reading it, she could not give it to them. “It’s too scary,” she said. “Tzurie gets separated from his parents, a child’s worst fear.” Another reader stepped in and said, “You missed the whole point of the story.”  A heated argument ensued. Finally, I stepped between them and told them it’s okay, “You can have different opinions.”

The Fable of Little Tzurie book cover


How hard was it to take the plunge?
I never think of it as hard. When I was in kindergarten, at the end of the hall was a set of steps that led up to the fifth and sixth grade classrooms. That’s where the big kids went; that’s where school got hard; that where life got scary. When I got there, I was the same girl from the inside out; it wasn’t hard; it wasn’t scary. Each grade prepared me for the next.

I got my master’s degree, I went to seminars, I joined writers’ organizations, I networked with other writers, I read a lot of books by authors about writing, and I joined a book club and listened to what people like about reading. I learned things one step at a time. I got my novel well underway, as part of my master’s thesis. My adviser encouraged me to write from a different point of view. Writing first person, present tense, made the novel come alive. I rewrote the whole thing. Since the main character is a 12-year-old boy, I watched a lot of my grandsons’ friends interact at school, on the playground, and at Little League baseball games. I interviewed several men to find out what it felt like to fall in love for the first time. Every man rolled his head from side to side while looking at the ground and muttered something along the lines of, “It’s confusing.” Capturing boys’ physical movement over verbal exchanges took patience.

My grandkids modeling the pajamas or hats that I made them for Christmas. 4-H sewing and knitting pay off.

My grandkids modeling the pajamas or hats that I made them for Christmas. 4-H sewing and knitting pay off.

When everything was written, I got a great editor, Lisa Romeo. She gently but firmly pointed out flaws and strong points. She helped me strengthen dialogue where needed and cut out scenes that didn’t support the story arc.

I submitted to publishers like crazy. Many agents and publishers liked my samples enough to request the full manuscript. Two publishers liked A Ship of Pearl enough to get to their senior editors. I got several encouraging rejection letters. Cynthia Platt at Houghton-Mifflin-Hardcourt like my novel enough to ask for other samples. After weighing the pros and cons of continuing to query or go the self-publishing route, I decided to self-publish. That meant I had to get an illustrator for The Fable of Little Tzurie and I needed a cover designer.

My grandson, Niall Brady, agreed to do the illustrations for The Fable of Little Tzurie. Although 14 years old at the time, he had already sold some of his artwork at local art shows. I asked him to read the fable and provide some simple pencil drawings. I love his work. Even though he’s way too cool for me, he sometimes goes along to book signings with me. He may be one of my best marketing tools.

Not knowing where to start, I did a little crowd-sourcing on Facebook for my cover designer.  After reviewing Chad Green’s work, I knew his style would be just right for A Ship of Pearl. Without seeing any of the manuscript, he asked me to tell him about the book.

“What color is the mood you’d like to convey?” he asked me.
“I don’t know. I’m a word person, not an artist.” We went back and forth and I finally said, “How about I send you a chapter and you decide.”
From that sample, Chad knew exactly what the cover should look like. I absolutely love the simplicity of the cover. The first time I took the novel out of the box, I couldn’t help but give it a loving stroke.

With my grandson, Niall

With my grandson, Niall


How supportive were your family and friends?
Hmmm… that’s a good question. Nobody discouraged me, but I may not have been listening. My husband questioned my ability to write compelling story, given all the technical writing I did. He is the first to tell people how hard I work. He reads everything I write and often tells me how much he likes the newspaper articles. He does not love to read, like I do, so his positive feedback means a lot to me. He helped with the meticulous final edit of A Ship of Pearl. His background as a CPA is perfect for fine tuning what I write.

My two most memorable words of encouragement came from two near strangers. The first one was from the technical support group at my first BlogHer conference. I stopped by to get some help with adding a button to my blog. That was early in my blogging, so I didn’t even know how to ask the question properly. Finally, I said, “Maybe it will make more sense if I just show you.”  I logged on the OnceaLittleGirl.com.

“You’re OnceaLittleGirl?”
“Oh my gosh,” she said, turning to the other tech support people. “This is OnceaLittleGirl. I read everything you write. I love your blog.” Their excitement overwhelmed me.

The second stranger to offer help was sitting next to me in a talk, “Women in Politics Post-Sarah Palin.” I wandered into the discussion on a whim. I was quite surprised to hear the support and love poured out for Sarah Palin and her conservative agenda. I heard a deep sign coming from the woman next to me: “It’s hard to believe this after listening to the speakers and the Women’s Voice award.” We struck up a conversation and before I knew it, she asked to review some of my work. Linda Lowen was the editor of About.com, now ThoughtCo.com.

“Your work is really good,” Linda said.
“Thank you.”
“No, you don’t understand. Your work is better than most that I see come across my desk.”
My essay “Grown,” about losing my father, is evergreen on Linda’s site.

I hope I always feel the way I do now when people say they like my writing. It’s the same feeling I got when people said, “What a beautiful baby!” Of course she is, and at the same time, I’m the mother. It’s amazing to hear someone else say it.

Unlike what I hear from other writers, my mother is my worst critic. “I just don’t get it,” she’s told me more than once. She’s the first one who wrote a somewhat negative review of A Ship of Pearl. Mom told me she had a hard time getting past the first chapter, but once she did, she loved the story and she said it flowed beautifully. I encouraged her to write that in her review because perhaps other readers felt the same way, and she would be encouraging them to read on.

Mom with her 9 kids

Mom with her 9 kids


What challenges are you encountering?
Besides taking the time to write and doing the research, I’d say that marketing/publicity is my biggest challenge.

Every writer has her own process. For me, an idea pops into my head—perhaps from something in the media, or a smell or sound brings back a memory, or I read something in a book. Sometimes I can’t wait to get to the keyboard to start writing. Other times, I put it off because of more pressing tasks: gardening, shopping, answering the phone, children, grandchildren, laundry, a good movie…. Once I start writing, I can’t seem to step away. Then BAM, I’m stopped because I want to be factually correct. That’s when I start researching. Or I hear some slang about the era I’m writing about or see an old car. I start taking notes and photos to be used later. When I need resources, I scramble to find them. Right now, I’m using Scrivener to keep my thoughts and research organized. I’m making notes in the margin telling me to research instead of stopping and starting.

I try to do one “in person” marketing event each month. That’s probably on the slow side, but it’s what I can do right now. I do book club events, which I absolutely adore. At first, I was daunted by the very idea. What if I don’t know the answers? What if I forget a character? What if they don’t like my books? So far, so good. I also attend book signings at bookstores and libraries. I connect with organizations that support America’s homeless and hungry for fundraising events. Once I sat in a hair salon for the day, talking to clients, selling books, and raising funds for Habitat for Humanity.

Adele's in person” marketing event


What are you learning about yourself through this process? 
I’m better at connecting with people than I ever thought possible. As an introvert, I crave the solitude of writing. I love that I can get my words just right before expressing them to the world. I can’t do that when I’m interacting face-to-face. My work interviewing people really helped me overcome my reticence.

I was so nervous the first time I met with a book club, the first time I attended a book signing, and the first time I did a Facebook Live to promote my book. Once I got past those firsts, I realized that people don’t really want a perfect me, they just want the real me. Now, even when I forget to unplug my PayPal thingy and I’m talking away with no sound, I can thank the friendly commenter and adjust with a smile. I decided to follow some advice I read back when I was in my twenties: When you do something embarrassing, just remember it makes the other person feel a lot more comfortable. Besides, it gives me a great story to tell over supper.

Attending a book club in Michigan

Attending a book club in Michigan

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I’d like to say “no” because everything I’ve experienced to this point has led me here. That said, I love writing and interviewing people so much. It just makes my heart happy. It doesn’t pay nearly as much as working in industry. I wish I had had the courage to start sooner.

I also wish I’d hired a marketing expert. I might still do that.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
First watch Tim Minchin’s “9 Rules of Life.” Keep your mind open to that shiny thing in the corner of your eye.

Never, ever feel like it’s too late. My good friend Ellie (Erane Elizabeth Scully) didn’t start writing until she was in her eighties. After she wrote her first memoir, The Carrion Vine, she began speaking at high schools about her time in a Russian internment camp. She had a documentary, also called The Carrion Vine, done about her life. Ellie was well past the midpoint of her life when she started. It’s never too late to follow your dream or develop a passion.

I think it’s a good idea to do a little research. I give this advice to young people, too. Talk to people that are doing what you’re thinking about. Ask them what they like and don’t like. Find out what surprised them. Ask if you can shadow them for a day. I’ve found that people are very happy to help. Most view it as a compliment.

Ellie (Erane Elizabeth Scully) at the Rez Reads book club.

Ellie (Erane Elizabeth Scully) at the Rez Reads book club. She’s explaining how she grafted her severed finger after she cut it off with a hatchet during her internment in a Russian gulag.


What advice do you have for would-be writers?
Start writing: journal, blog, letters to the editor, whatever. If you like a column or op-ed, write to the journalist and tell them what you like and why. Get involved in online writers’ support groups like SheWrites.com and BlogHer.com. Connect through social media like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Try SnapChat and Instagram. GoodReads.com is a great place to meet readers and writers. Go to writers’ conferences when you can. Work hard to get your work published. Start small and work toward large. Above all, listen to what readers say. Listen to the good, the bad, and the ugly. I know it’s hard to hear criticism, but take it in, let it settle, see if it resonates. Look at criticism like buying clothes: If it fits or needs a little alteration to make the real you shine, buy it; if it doesn’t, leave it on the rack.

A lot of writers recommend a writing group. Others like to work in solitaire. So far, critique groups don’t work for me. I find them distracting and I end up spinning my wheels. I agree with Stephen King, “…critiques force you to write with the door constantly open, and in my mind, that sort of defeats the purpose.” Just get the first draft written. With the door closed. Then you can start working on whittling away at what and how you want the story to become. I like to wait until I feel confident about my creation before putting her out in the world.

Oh, I almost forgot. Get a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunck, Jr. and E.B. White. Practice what these two experts preach. You will be surprised how the Elements improve your writing. It’s a tiny little bit of a book, every word crucial. I started practicing one or two Elements with my emails until I got them ingrained. People started commenting on the clarity of my messages. Try it!

The desk where I write


What resources do you recommend?
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: This is a great book to inspire authors to keep at it.
On Writing by Stephen King Another inspirational book about writing.
The Name Book by Dorothy Astoria Fiction writers need names. I like to research the meaning of names.
Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri This is a nuts and bolts book about creating a work of fiction. It’s priceless for helping keep me organized and mapping my path.
A Current copy of Writers Market
A community for bloggers:  BlogHer.com
A community for writers of all sorts:  SheWrites.com
A resource for finding an agent:  Agent Query
A local writers’ association like Chicago Writers Association
The National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) This group is not just for women. It began in 1937 and is dedicated to helping writers and professional communicators.



What’s next for you?
I’m working on my next novel with the working title, May His Tribe Increase. I loved using the poem “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes as my tether for Ship of Pearl May His Tribe Increase follows my main character after World War II, as he and his band of friends begin their careers and families. The title comes from the poem “Abou Ben Adhem” by James Henry Leigh Hunt.


Connect with Adela Crandell Durkee:
Email:  Adela@BlackTortoisePress.com
Once a Little Girl
The Black Tortoise

A Ship of Pearl
The Fable of Little Tzurie

Twitter: @blacktortoise
Facebook Page
GoodReads Page
Amazon Author Page

Find me elsewhere:
In print: McHenry Chronicle, The Marengo-Union Times, TribLocal (a section of The Chicago Tribune), and PKA Advocate, memoir short, “Ride Like the Wind.”

I was BlogHer.com’s 2011 Blogger of the Year honoree and have several pieces syndicated. Follow this link for my essays published by BlogHer.com (Now SheKnows.com).

I’m syndicated on ThoughtCo.com:  “Losing a Father — Daughter Reflects on the Death of a Parent”

HeleneTStelian Musing
I’m Hélène Stelian, the Midlife Mentor with a passion for facilitating personal development in women 40+. Through my THRIVE Courses, I help introspective, curious, action-oriented women 40+ deepen their journeys of self-discovery and growth—and create their next chapter with courage and intention.



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  1. Peg Hart Burnham

    So proud of you! Who thoughts girl from our little town would be an author! You were always fantastic in school and a so nice to everyone. Congratulations Adela! Keep up your amazing work.

  2. Phyllis King

    Beautiful story, family and lady. Congratulations on your well-deserved success in this next act of life.


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