As a high school student, Ashley Hayden penned fantasy stories. When she was 18 years old, she wrote “Minnie,” a contemporary novella based on her experience working in a nursing home.
Writing always has been a part of Hayden’s life, but the Kalama native’s first novel came to her by accident when she was flipping through old portraits in a vintage shop 10 years ago.
One black and white photo of a young woman struck her. “People say we look like we could be related,” Hayden said.
But even more notable was the writing across the bottom: “Sincerely, Mildred.”
“I was thinking there’s a story there, so I came up with a premise that night. … I told my mother about the idea and she loved it, so I kind of started playing around with it,” Hayden said.
“Sincerely, Mildred,” which Hayden self-published in January, is a historical romance novel about 19-year-old Mildred Westrick, who lives in the Woodland/Kalama region during the Great Depression.
While working at a salmon cannery, Mildred writes letters to a famous pilot, Marty Townsend, which she never sends. When Mildred’s best friend discovers the letters and mails them, Marty responds and Mildred’s life is soon turned upside down. An heir to a timber fortune, Marty comes from a different world. As their love story progresses, his family and Mildred’s family work together to keep them apart.
Hayden began writing the novel in 2009, when she was 21. The project soon came to a standstill when her mother died the next year.
“My excuse every time was I can’t do it. I started it for my mom. ... There would be times where I would … just have to sit down and cry because it would bring up everything that I went through with my family losing her suddenly,” she said.
Eventually her husband, Ben Hayden, convinced her to resume writing. “He just said, ‘You need to write it for her. Even though she’s not here, she would want you to finish it.’ ”
Hayden started writing again in 2016 and finished the book in September last year, just before her 30th birthday.
“I wouldn’t have been able to write it the way I wanted to without having life experience first, so I think it happened when it was supposed to,” she said.
A self-described old soul, Hayden said it was fitting for her to set her novel in the 1930s.
“I always felt like I was born in the wrong time,” she said.
“If all the technology went away and things got simpler, it wouldn’t affect me negatively. I’m a very simple person, and I love reading old cookbooks and feel very drawn to the 1930s.”
Those old cookbooks — and other research — helped Hayden write not just a romance novel, but a historically accurate one. She did research throughout the process on everything from cars to fashion to “the romance of the era.”
“I didn’t want to have too many freedoms with history,” Hayden said.
Research wasn’t just a detached process, but a personal one too. Her husband’s grandmother grew up during the Depression and was able to tell Hayden what it was like first-hand.
And by setting “Sincerely, Mildred” in the region, it was easy to fill in other details. One of the novel’s climactic scenes takes place along the Columbia River close to what is now the Port of Kalama’s Marine Park, where Hayden spent lots of time during her childhood.
“Since I grew up here, I can picture it in my head and put it on the paper,” Hayden said.
“I want to write what I know,” she added, noting she would not have been able to write a novel about New York, Canada, or any other foreign place.
“Sincerely, Mildred” is not only set close to home, but the character Mildred was is partially based on Hayden’s own character and experience.
“I was very shy and quiet growing up, and I was always the good girl. I always followed all the rules. So when I met Ben (her husband) … I kind of felt like I was breaking the rules,” Hayden said.
Hayden noted she hadn’t dated very much before meeting her husband. She often stayed at his house, which contradicted her old-fashioned views.
“My romance with Ben was also really tender,” Hayden added. “I wanted to kind of encapsulate that experience I had kind of stepping out and seeing things.”
Mildred’s and Marty’s story revolves around class and is not a “bodice ripper.” Yet it is a romance and contains a “steamy” scene, Hayden said.
“If you were 16 and you knew things about the birds and bees you could probably read it. But I wouldn’t give it to a 12-year-old.”
Hayden said with a laugh that she had a few glasses of wine beforehand to prepare.
“I wanted to make it a tender encounter, nothing graphic,” she added.
Mildred is introduced to a new chapter in life when she meets Marty, who introduces her into a carefree world of champagne and parties even in the midst of an era of economic hardship.
A speakeasy scene when Mildred tastes champagne for the first time was actually her favorite to write. Hayden even drank champagne while writing it so she could describe the taste and how she felt. “I wouldn’t say I lived vicariously through Mildred, but it was definitely fun,” she said.
Hayden, who now lives in Woodland, works full time at a Vancouver engineering firm, so “Sincerely, Mildred” was wholeheartedly a passion project. “It’s a way for me to relax,” Hayden said.
She modeled its design after that of one of her favorite novels, Kathyrn Stockett’s “The Help.”
Though she only just finished her first novel, Hayden has already begun work on her next book, “White Ship.” Like “Sincerely, Mildred,” it will be set in the 1930s in the Pacific Northwest, but will focus on female relationships. “I always want to be writing something,” Hayden said.
Writing, she noted, takes her on a journey. “Sometimes the book took me for a ride instead of the other way around.”