Lakes Area Review

As luck would have it, arts area news slowed due to COVID, and Brett Blocker interviewed me for filler. He wrote a great article I am happy to share.

Article from Lakes Area Review

Cryptic government codes inspire local author’s book series

By Brett Blocker


On Monday, May 5, 2014, at exactly 10:19 a.m., the National Security Agency posted a mysterious garbled tweet: “tpfccdlfdtte pcaccplircdt dklpcfrp?….”

In a time where “Covfefe” had yet to enter the public lexicon, the post immediately fueled speculation: Had national security secrets been mistakenly revealed? Did an overworked employee fall asleep on the keyboard? Perhaps an intern had pulled a prank…

The reality, however, was far more pedestrian; the mystery solved in mere minutes by civilian coding whizzes equipped with cryptogram-solving web tools. Once deciphered, the code (a simple substitution cipher in which one letter of the alphabet is swapped with another) read: “Want to know what it takes to work at NSA? Check back each Monday in May as we explore careers essential to protecting our nation.”

Simply put, the tweet was a recruitment tool. 

It wasn’t the first time a government issued a call to the public to help crack ciphers. During WWII, the British code-breaking headquarters in Bletchley Park teamed up with the Daily Telegraph to create a complex crossword puzzle tournament, whose winners ultimately formed Alan Turing’s research team devoted to – and succeeding in – breaking the Nazi Enigma device.

Although she has never admitted to participating in international espionage, these challenges got former math teacher Mary KG Seifert’s creative juices flowing. So much so, that the Willmar author has since penned three books and counting in a nine-part series, all inspired by the NSA challenge.

With the 2014 tweet as a foundation, Seifert has blended her love of logic with her experiences in the classroom to create her fictional “Titanic” series. The “adult cozy” novels each take place in a small rural town, with the protagonist, a former cryptanalyst turned high school math teacher, working to bust codes with deadly implications.

Each book details about a month in the fictional town and, once complete with the nine-part series, will form the story of a full – albeit strange – school year.

Recently, Seifert was awarded a $2,500 grant on behalf of the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council to fund a professional edit of her second installment in the series, preparing it for submission to a literary agent.

Following the success of her first novel, “Titanic Cocktail,” (2019 semi-finalist for the Murder and Mayhem Category of the Chanticleer International Book Award), “Titanic Tea” follows the same cast of characters as they scramble to unravel yet another mystery.

In “Titanic Cocktail,” she explains, protagonist Katie Wilk works with students to crack encoded messages revealing the locations of recurring “skittles parties,” in which teenagers host parties where a mishmash of drugs are placed in a candy dish and consumed.

“Titanic Tea,” meanwhile, focuses on the disappearance of a local town Royalty candidate. With her search-and-rescue dog in tow, Wilk sets out find the missing teen, in the process, finding leads by cracking coded clues. 

While the plot draws inspiration from ciphers and puzzles, local readers are sure to recognize area landmarks and businesses from around the lakes area, including a cameo (in book three) from the “Happy Sol” along Main Street New London, where the fictional teenagers gather to enjoy “retail therapy.”

“My daughter loves the Happy Sol,” Seifert said, “and so there are places in New London, Spicer and Willmar that make it in.”

In fact, the setting of the novel itself, “The city of Colombia,” was inspired in part by the “breathtaking panorama” of criss-crossing fields as viewed from Mount Tom, and traces its roots to the formation of Kandiyohi County.

“When I was doing some historical research, I found out that there used to be a Columbia Minnesota, and it was the capitol of Monongalia County, which was north of Kandiyohi,” Seifert said. “And after Columbia was the county seat for a while, it shifted to New London. And because neither Monongalia nor Kandiyohi could afford to build anything, the counties got stuck together. So there used to be a Columbia, Minnesota and that’s where this is all taking place. So [the series] is actually happening where we are.”

Moving forward, the series will continue to delve into the darker aspects of technology, who-dun-its, and missing persons. But for the time being, Seifert is allowing the series to guide itself.

“There are basically two types of writers: the ‘plotter’ and the ‘pantser,’” she said. “The plotter has an outline from chapter one, to two to three… I don’t do that. I’m the pantser. I fly by the seat of my pants. I know how it starts, how it ends, and the rest takes its own turns as I write. Sometimes I have a plan and have work to write my way there, and I have notes, but it’s more of a skeletal plan. I like to see where the story takes me.”

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