Coel, Margaret 1937-
COEL, Margaret 1937-
Born October 11, 1937, in Denver, CO; daughter of Samuel F. (a railroad engineer) and Margaret (McCloskey) Speas; married George W. Coel (a dentist), July 22, 1962; children: William (deceased), Kristin M., Lisa M. Education: Marquette University, B.A., 1960; graduate study at University of Colorado; attended Oxford University. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Skiing, tennis, and travel.
Home—3155 Lafayette Dr., Boulder, CO 80303-7112. E-mail—[email protected].
Westminster Journal, Westminster, CO, reporter, 1960-61; Boulder Daily Camera, Boulder, CO, feature writer, 1972-75; freelance writer, 1972-90; University of Colorado, Boulder, writing instructor, 1985-90. Member of board of directors of Historic Boulder; guest lecturer at universities, including University of Colorado, University of Nebraska, Pennsylvania State University, and Marquette University; at libraries, including the Phoenix Public Library (Phoenix, AZ), Rapid City Public Library (Rapid City, SD), Stevens Point Public Library (Stevens Point, WI), and Denver Public Library; at writers conferences, including Writers in the Sky, Telluride CO; and to numerous groups and organizations, including Denver Museum of Natural History, Colorado State Historical Society, and the National Convention of Questers.
International Association of Crime Writers, American Crime Writers League, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Michener Society, Henry James Society, Colorado Authors League (board of directors, 1987-92; president, 1990-91), Denver Women's Press Club, University of Nebraska Center for Great Plains Studies (fellow).
Fellow at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 1981; By-Line Award, Marquette University, 1998; Best Nonfiction Book of the Year Award, National Association of Press Women, 1981, for Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapahoe; Top Hand Award for best nonfiction book by a Colorado Author, Colorado Authors League, 1986, for Goin' Railroading: ACentury of the Colorado High Iron; Best Mystery Novel Award, Colorado Center for the Book, 2000, for The Spirit Woman, and 2002, for The Shadow Dancer; Willa (Cather) Award for Best Novel of the West, Women Writing the West, 2001, for The Spirit Woman; Colorado Authors League Award, 2003, for The Shadow Dancer.
Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapahoe, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman), 1981.
The Next 100 Years: A Report, University of Colorado, Medical School, 1983.
(With Jane Barker and Karen Gilleland) The Tivoli: Bavaria in the Rockies, Colorado & West (Boulder, CO), 1985.
(With Gladys Doty and Karen Gilleland) Under the Golden Dome: Colorado's State Capitol, Colorado & West (Boulder, CO), 1985.
(With father, Sam Speas) Goin' Railroading: A Century on the Colorado High Iron, Pruett (Boulder, CO), 1986, new edition published as Goin' Railroading: Two Generations of Colorado Stories, Pruett (Boulder, CO), 1991.
(With Karen Gilleland) 450 Best Sales Letters for Every Selling Situation, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1991.
The Pride of Our People: The Colorado State Capitol, Colorado General Assembly, 1992.
The Eagle Catcher, University Press of Colorado (Niwot, CO), 1995.
The Ghost Walker, Berkley (New York, NY), 1996.
The Dream Stalker, Berkley (New York, NY), 1997.
The Story Teller, Berkley (New York, NY), 1998.
The Lost Bird, Berkley (New York, NY), 1999.
The Spirit Woman, Berkley (New York, NY), 2000.
The Thunder Keeper, Berkley (New York, NY), 2001.
The Shadow Dancer, Berkley (New York, NY), 2002.
Killing Raven, Berkley (New York, NY), 2003.
Wife of Moon, Berkley (New York, NY), 2004.
Also coauthor of A New Westminster, 1987. Author of six short stories published in hardback by A.S.A.P. Publishing, and contributor of short stories to numerous anthologies. Contributor of articles to newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, National Observer, American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Rendezvous Magazine, and Old West Magazine. Contributor of book reviews to Denver Post.
An accomplished writer of both fiction and nonfiction, Margaret Coel is best known for her series of mystery novels set on the Arapaho Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, featuring Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden and Jesuit priest Father John O'Malley. The series, which is frequently compared to the work of Tony Hillerman, has been praised for its depiction of Native American life and the landscape of Wyoming, as well as for its flawed but realistic characters, particularly Vicky and Father O'Malley, whose mutual attraction to one another creates tension as they work together to solve crimes. The series has brought Coel critical accolades. John Rowen of Booklist, writing of the novel The Lost Bird, complimented Coel's "rare gift for portraying engaging, realistic characters, devising a difficult puzzle, and pacing everything at a brisk, nail-biting canter."
Coel's portrait of reservation life is the product of her love of research. As she told BookReporter writer Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum, "Even though I've written extensively about the Arapahos, I am still doing research on the history and the culture, and I'm still learning new and wonderful things, which keeps the tribe interesting to me." For research into the character of Father O'Malley, Coel consults priests who have worked on the Wind River Reservation, and she also regularly visits St. Stephen's Mission, which is the inspiration for the mission in her books. As Coel told Gershenbaum, she believes "the best mystery novels are character-driven," and that the romantic tension between Father O'Malley and Vicky Holden is a way of keeping the characters both realistic and interesting. "Both of them have taught me a lot," she told Gershenbaum, "Father John and Vicky have come to understand that it doesn't matter what they might want. We don't get everything we want in life. We make our choices, take our vows, and that's what we get. And that can be good enough."
In Coel's first novel, The Eagle Catcher, the murder of the Wind River Reservation's tribal chief involves O'Malley in an effort to prove that the chief's son is innocent of the crime. O'Malley, a recovering alcoholic assigned to the reservation's St. Francis Mission, must also cope with his strong attraction to Vicky. A critic for Publishers Weekly commended the novel's "likeable, well-drawn characters and a lively pace."
The Ghost Walker begins when Father O'Malley finds a body in a roadside ditch, but the body disappears before the authorities arrive. The Arapaho believe the dead man has become a Ghost Walker, one whose soul must wander the earth searching for a way to the afterworld. The Ghost Walker is an "excellent mystery," Stuart Miller wrote in Booklist, while a writer for Publishers Weekly called the novel a "well-crafted adventure."
In The Dream Stalker, Father O'Malley is entangled in a plan to build a nuclear waste disposal site on the reservation, a development that is favored by the poverty-stricken Arapaho. Vicky receives death threats for opposing the project, and a thirty-year-old murder case figures into a present-day murder case. "Coel enchants and intrigues by presenting uniformly well developed, realistic characters … who face difficult moral choices," Rowen wrote in Booklist. Rex E. Klett of Library Journal praised the "usual commendable plotting and characterization" in The Dream Stalker, and a Publishers Weekly writer noted that "the nicely drawn Wyoming backdrop, capable plotting and engaging characters all add up to another coup for Coel."
The Story Teller concerns a stolen ledger book—an Arapaho pictograph record of a nineteenth-century massacre of their people. When the book goes missing from a Denver museum, three students end up murdered and Father O'Malley and Vicky must track down the killer. A writer for Publisher's Weekly praised the book for its "knowledge and respect for western history" and called it a "solid mystery with a credible premise in Indian lore."
The Lost Bird begins when an elderly priest driving Father O'Malley's truck is murdered, and O'Malley suspects that the bullet was meant for him. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the dead priest, who was Father O'Malley's predecessor, had returned to the reservation to expose an old scandal. As he searches for the killer, Vicky helps out movie star Sharon David, who has come to the Wind River Reservation in search of her birth parents. A writer for Publishers Weekly praised the book's characters and "sense of place," and wrote that "Coel knows that the gaps between cultures are fertile ground for suspense." The story of Sacajawea is central to the plot of The Spirit Woman, Coel's sixth mystery, which is kicked off by Father O'Malley's discovery of a decomposed body. When Vicky's friend, Laura Simmons, arrives on the reservation to search for Sacajawea's fabled autobiography and soon disappears, Vicky realizes the circumstances surrounding the dead body and the her missing friend are somehow connected. The legend of Sacajawea figures as a theme in the book, especially when it dawns on Vicky that she and many of the other women she knows "are all daughters of Sacajawea—battered women struggling to survive their battering men," a critic for Publishers Weekly summarized. Reviewing the novel for Booklist, Rowen called the fictional memoirs "a terrific McGuffin in this nicely paced and suspenseful mystery."
In The Thunder Keeper, a young Arapaho is found dead of an apparent suicide near the reservation's sacred petroglyphs. Shortly thereafter, a diamond mining executive is murdered in Denver after attempting to provide Vicky with information about the reservaton. When O'Malley acquires surprising details about the deaths from a stranger in his confessional, O'Malley and Vicky begin to investigate. In the process, they uncover not only foul play, but a thread that links the two murders and reveals the truth about a corporate conspiracy. A reviewer for the Denver Post wrote, "Coel has again fashioned a fascinating tale that leads from such wildly divergent settings as the corporate boardroom to the vast and mystic land of the Wind River Reservation. She creates dense and compelling characters in complex stories to entertain her loyal fans."
An obscure, resurrected Native American sect figures prominently in The Shadow Dancer, when Father O'Malley fights for the survival of the mission and one of his parishioners suddenly vanishes. Meanwhile, Vicky's ex-husband is murdered and she becomes the main suspect. Forced to go their separate ways for a while, Vicky and O'Malley eventually cross paths again when their investigations lead them to the charismatic Orlando, who has formed a cult based on the nineteenth-century Shadow Dance religion. A writer for Kirkus Reviews praised Coel's "finely textured world of believable characters," but called the ending "more Nancy Drew than Nick and Nora." Conversely, a Publishers Weekly critic said the novel "captures the rugged and majestic atmosphere of Wyoming" and deemed the ending "poignant."
Killing Raven opens with yet another dead body. This time, the victim appears to be involved with Captain Jack Monroe's rangers, a group that is protesting the development of a new casino on the reservation. Vicky takes a job at the casino at the urging of the handsome attorney Adam Lone Eagle, but she soon discovers that the casino management is involved in fraud. Soon afterward, Captain Jack is killed and Vicky worries that Adam is also involved. Once again, wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "Coel keeps her readers sweating, guessing and turning the pages."
In her nonfiction books, Coel has introduced readers to the people who took part in history's greatest events. Coel's first study, Chief Left Hand, strives "to convey to the reader a sense that the inhabitants of the plains before the white man arrived were people with hopes and plans, talents and abilities, just like any other group of people," the author once told CA.
Coel's interest in "people at work under special circumstances … at a special time" led her to write Goin' Railroading: A Century on the Colorado High Iron, she told CA. An account of the development of the railroad across America's West, the study features the authentic voice of Sam Speas, Coel's father, who spent decades tending the boilers of old steam engines. Through Coel, Speas recalls both the personal and historical aspects of the railroad. Calling Speas "a better storyteller than historian," a Publishers Weekly critic observed that the tales "come alive" when Speas focuses on his personal experiences as a railroad worker. Speas's fascinating anecdotes, the critic adds, allow "the romance of the rails [to] slowly charm the reader."
Margaret Coel contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA in 2004:
There is a picture I carry in my mind, much like a favorite snapshot in an album that I can turn to whenever I wish. It is evening, and a man with wire-framed glasses and red hair sits in an upholstered chair, one hand on the book propped open in his lap, the other holding the pipe he occasionally lifts to his lips. He is reading a story out loud, maybe Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty, David Copperfield, Treasure Island, Grimms' Fairy Tales, or any one of dozens of other books. That man is my father. Seated cross-legged on the floor at his feet are three small children, two boys and a girl. I am the girl, and the boys are my brothers, John and Clay. We are very still, transported by our father's voice into the magical world of the story.
Not long after the picture of these evenings became a permanent part of my memories, I learned to read myself at age five and knew I wanted to write stories. I was enchanted with words, not only with the sounds and cadence, but with the ideas conveyed by a medium as fragile as air. I knew that I would be a writer. Which, years later, made it hard to understand when my own children said they didn't know what they wanted to be when they grew up. My attitude was, "What do you mean you don't know what you want to be? You're nine years old!"
For someone who would go on to write articles, essays, short stories, nonfiction books and novels, most on the American West, I had been born into the right family at the right place and time. Mine was a large, extended Irish Catholic family that included an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins living within a six-block area of Northwest Denver, a neighborhood settled fifty years earlier by Irish immigrants. It was a family that loved books and valued learning. Stories, poems, and songs were as natural and necessary as the air we breathed. And we had a sense of belonging to a particular place, which happened to be the Rocky Mountains and the open plains of Colorado. By the time my brothers and I came on the scene, my family had been in Colorado for three generations
My father's name was Samuel F. Speas. My mother was Margaret McCloskey Speas, and theirs was a great love story. They were destined to meet—Irish Catholics who lived in the same neighborhood, belonged to the same parish, St. Dominic's, and whose mothers played bridge together. My mother was Irish through and through, descended from the "black" Irish of County Donegal. Her father and four brothers were tall and black-haired, with heartbreaking good looks, laughing eyes and enough charisma to charm everybody they met. I always thought my mother, with her black hair and gentle demeanor, was exceptionally beautiful. She carried herself with an air of well-bred confidence, despite the fact that her own childhood had been as hard and unstable as a ride on a buckboard.
She was born in Victor, Colorado, next door to Cripple Creek, where her father was working as a miner, an occupation he pursued whenever the prospects of his real occupation dimmed. That occupation involved ferreting out get-rich schemes, and he soon moved his family to Denver where the prospects seemed more promising. He strolled around the neighborhood attired in a white suit and carrying a walking stick, always looking for a stake in the next multimillion-dollar gold mine or real estate deal. He made and lost several fortunes before dying at the age of seventy with little more than a modest house and a few possessions. One of my mother's sharpest childhood memories was of the night her father came home and announced that they had to move the following day. He had lost the house. But it was this romantic man, chasing dreams, who demanded that his children memorize poetry and recite the poems for family gatherings. In her eighties, my mother could still recite the stanzas of poems she had learned as a child.
My mother had grown up in the same neighborhood and attended the same Catholic school as my brothers and I. Her first job was as a secretary, which led to a position as executive secretary in a large firm of architects in downtown Denver, a position she held for seventeen years. When she and my father met and fell in love, the depression had just begun to settle over the country. Since she was helping to support her family and my father was taking care of his widowed mother, they put off their wedding for seven years. When they married, they were each thirty-six years old. I was born the following year, and a little more than two years later, my brothers had arrived. Close in age, as we were, we grew up almost like triplets, a fact that made us close emotionally. We are still close friends and part of one another's lives.
My father was only half-Irish, since his father came from German ancestors who had crossed the Atlantic in 1740 and, according to family lore, stood fast with England during the Revolution. His mother, however, was Ellen O'Leary, the daughter of immigrants, and I believe my father always thought of himself as Irish. Years later when I traveled to Ireland with him, I was struck by the way in which he blended into the crowd. He might have been just another light-complected, red-headed Irishmen strolling down Dublin's O'Connell Street.
He had been born the second of three sons in Como, a tiny railroad town deep in the Colorado Rockies. His father, a farm boy from Missouri, had come to Colorado in 1883 along with thousands of other people flooding into the new state, looking for better opportunities than they had left behind. My grandfather went to work on one of the railroads then being built across the state and soon became a locomotive engineer on the Denver, South Park & Pacific, still a legend in railroading history. The little steam locomotives that he drove pulled narrow-gauge trains over the highest mountains, up the steepest grades, around the sharpest curves and into the highest towns in the nation.
My father and his brothers grew up riding trains with their father at the throttle up in the locomotive. Sometimes they got to ride in the locomotive and watch their father at work. Like him, they would all became railroad engineers, each working forty years for the Colorado & Southern Railway. The words in the song "City of New Orleans" by Steve Goodman might have been written about my father and his brothers: "The sons of railroad porters and the sons of engineers ride their fathers' magic carpets made of steel."
Before starting his railroading career, my father had attended the University of Colorado engineering school on a scholarship he had won in a state-wide competition. He had been the valedictorian when he graduated from high school in the mountain town of Buena Vista, where his family then lived. In the early decades of the twentieth century, only a small percentage of people graduated from high school, and those who did, like my father, passed a rigorous course that would daunt most graduate students today. He completed four years of Latin, Greek, science, philosophy and advanced math, including calculus and trigonometry, and he became a violinist. He loved the university when he got there, but in 1919, he almost lost his life in the influenza epidemic and had to drop out of school, which meant the loss of his scholarship. After a year spent recuperating, he hired out on the Colorado & Southern, which, in his secret heart, I believe, was what he had always wanted to do. Railroading was in his blood. He never lost the romance of trains, and he was a man who enjoyed his work. At the same time, he never lost his love for learning. When he died at the age of eighty-one from a sudden heart attack, he'd been rereading the works of Plato.
My father was also an amateur historian with a special interest in the Civil War. He read voraciously on the subject and became an expert on Abraham Lincoln. He could relate episodes of Lincoln's life as if they had occurred yesterday to a dear, close friend. So real did Lincoln become in my father's stories that I often felt as if we must know the man, that the long-dead president might join us for dinner one evening.
In the stories I heard growing up, the past seemed an exciting, interesting place to visit, especially when the visit was with my ancestors. Our family vacationed each August in Buena Vista where we stayed in a log cabin and spent the days hiking the Collegiate Peaks that my father had hiked as a boy, walking the old railroad beds that my grandfather's trains had traversed and exploring the remnants of mining camps and ghost towns that still clung to the mountain slopes. We took excursions to places like Breckenridge and Cripple Creek and visited the old mines where my mother's father had worked. So many of Colorado's places held the traces of my family. The houses my grandparents and great-grandparents had lived in were still standing, as were the houses in Como, Leadville, and Buena Vista where my father had grown up and the little shack in Victor where my mother had been born. The stories about early Colorado became as much a part of me as the landscape.
I remember standing at the top of Kenosha Pass and looking down on the South Park, an immense flat plain wedged between the high mountains, and my father telling stories of the buffalo herds that had once thundered through the park and the Indian warriors who had ridden up the canyons to hunt, all of which had occurred long before he was born. As a child, he'd heard the stories from old timers who had come to Colorado looking for gold when the Arapahos, Cheyennes, and Utes were still there. Later on, plowing through high school and college history texts filled with dates and lists of names, I would remind myself that beneath the tinder-dry facts was the story of real people with hopes and dreams, people whose lives had shaped the present.
And much later, when I began work on my first nonfiction book, Chief Left Hand, the biography of an Arapaho who might well have been one of the warriors in the old timers' stories, my prayer was: "Let me not make this story dull. Let the people be in the readers' minds as they had once been in life."
Summers as a child also meant visits to Aunt Edith and Uncle Clay, my father's aunt and uncle who lived on the plains east of Pueblo. There would be large family gatherings, with fresh watermelon, peas, and corn harvested out of the garden. After the rest of the family had piled in cars and started for home, my cousin, Elle, who was my age, and her sister, Mary, a few years older, would stay on for a period of long, lazy days spent wandering through the open spaces and trailing down the dirt roads, as free as the tumbleweeds that blew after us. Often we rode horseback farther and farther onto the plains until we were suspended in an expanse of space and sky. Time was also suspended, with nowhere to go and nothing to do except ride. Later, as I began learning about the Arapahos, I could understand the freedom that Arapaho children had experienced riding their ponies across the plains. In a small way, I had tasted that same freedom. As much as I have always loved the mountains, it was during those summers that I fell in love with the vast, stark beauty of the plains, a love I try to impart in my novels set in the flat, open spaces of Wyoming's Wind River Reservation.
It was Aunt Rose, the mother of Elle and Mary, who gave me the lifelong gift of music which became a major influence on my writing. Aunt Rose, a professional pianist, insisted that every child in the family learn to play the piano. So at age four, I began studying piano along with Elle, who would become a professional pianist herself. I studied piano for more than ten years, despite the fact that by the time Elle was playing sonatas, I was still plunking away at simple four-note pieces. It was apparent I would never become a musician, but it was not a crushing blow, since I already knew I would be a writer. After a few years, I began taking voice lessons, which suited me somewhat better. During my high school years at Holy Family, I sang in the school choirs and musical programs, as well as for various clubs and local groups—anyone who invited me. By then I had learned to play the piano well enough to accompany myself.
When The King and I came to Denver, my mother and Aunt Rose took Elle and me to the performance. I'm sure I sat wide-eyed, glued to the seat at the way in which the orchestra, voices, dancing, costumes and scenery all blended into the seamless whole of the story, and I became a lifelong fan of musical shows. I still have the program that first show. In the role of the king was Yul Brynner.
About the same time, I attended my first opera, Aida, at the historic opera house in Central City, an old mining town close to Denver. The beauty of the voices and orchestra moved me to tears, and on that day, I became a lifelong opera buff, never passing up a chance to see a performance. Every summer for the last twenty years, I've spent a week in Santa Fe going to the opera with other cousins who had also received the gift of music from Aunt Rose, including her daughters. When I created the character of Father John O'Malley for the mystery novels, I made him an opera buff so that he could drive through the emptiness of the reservation in the company of a beloved opera blaring from the tape player, just as I drive around with my opera CDs on high volume. The operas that Father John listens to in each novel always reflect what seems to me is the theme of that novel. For example, in The Spirit Woman, which is about journeys, he listens to Mozart's Idomeneo, also about a journey.
Whether I'm writing nonfiction or fiction, I'm aware of the underlying musical structure to the story: the crescendo building to a climax followed by the piano and sotto voce, the melodic fragments reiterating the theme, the accelerando and vivo of fast-paced scenes, the repeats of the returning chorus and the harmony of the parts. When I'm writing sentences, I can feel the rhythm of the words. In my novels, I gave the name of Aunt Rose to a recurring character, the aunt of Vicky Holden, the Arapaho lawyer who teams with Father John to solve the mysteries. Whenever Vicky is troubled, she turns to Aunt Rose, a source of comfort and inspiration, much like the gift of music that my aunt gave to me.
Another strong influence on my writing was the close view I had of alcoholism and the destruction it wreaks on families. With the exception of an occasional drink on rare social occasions, neither my mother nor father used alcohol, but three of my mother's brothers were binge-drinking alcoholics, the stereotypical pictures of Irish drunks. Since our families lived close to one another, I grew up with their children. We played together and went to the same school; we went back and forth to one another's homes, and I became a little voyeur, looking in on my drunk uncles and seeing my cousins' families gradually disintegrate. There were many days when various cousins got home from school and found their fathers raving, belligerent, and reeking of alcohol. The kids stuffed their pajamas and toothbrushes in a paper bag and come to our house, where they remained until their father—and sometimes mother—had sobered up. There were many nights when I lay awake listening to one of my cousins crying herself to sleep in the bed beside me. Before they reached their mid-fifties, my uncles were dead.
Watching this destruction left me with a lasting sense of loss, not so much for myself—they were uncles, not my parents—but for them and for their families. "To dissipate," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in "Babylon Revisited," "is to make nothing of something." Fitzgerald got it just right.
There is no question but that this experience influenced the creation of Father John Aloysius O'Malley. I'm often asked if Father John is patterned after someone I knew. He is not, although aspects of the people who have influenced us probably have a way of showing up in every author's fiction. Henry James referred to his characters as his "dream people," which I believe hits the mark. My characters are also my dream people, in that they find their way out of some deep, subconscious region where all the people and experiences of my life meld together.
It was natural that Father John would be Irish, part of a culture and way of life that is my own. And it's not surprising that he is an alcoholic, since I was profoundly influenced by the alcoholic destruction in my family. But unlike the alcoholics I had known as a child, Father John is recovering. His is a hard, ongoing struggle, but it is a struggle that he is winning. He is a man who has made a choice for life—he has chosen something in place of nothing—a choice that he must confirm every day. In some ways, I have created the man who makes the choice I wish my uncles had had the courage to make.
But in creating Father John, I've also drawn on other influences. He is red-headed, like my father, and there is a steadiness about him that I found in my father, who was as solid and dependable as the mountains that rose outside our kitchen window. The same steadiness is in the make-up of my brothers, and it is what I found in my husband, George. In many ways, Father John is an amalgam of the various men I have loved throughout my life, yet he is still his own man, different from them and set upon his own path in life.
Still, it's Father John's struggle with alcoholism that brings me the most questions. I've been asked many times if I am an alcoholic. It's a question that I take as a compliment because it means that the character of Father John rings true. I also find it a compliment to learn that my novels are discussed in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. When I'm asked if I am "a friend of Bill's," the code phrase AA members use, referring to Bill Wilson, the organization's founder, the questioner is polite enough to assume that I must be recovering. My answer is always the same: I've had my own problems in life, and I'm thankful that alcoholism is not one of them.
Aside from what the Irish call the "scourge" of alcoholism in my mother's family, my own family had a firm toe-hold on the middle class. In three generations we had climbed out of the enormous deprivation of nineteenth-century Ireland into a level of comfort of which my ancestors could not have dreamed. Along with my brothers and cousins, I went to Catholic schools, taught by nuns who were tough and demanding, accepting no excuses for late homework or unfinished assignments. The first instance of bad behavior might bring a scolding. The second instance, and the student was going to public school. It was an environment in which we learned to read, compute, and think.
After-school time was taken up with piano lessons, singing lessons, sewing and swimming lessons. My brothers played baseball. I got braces on my teeth and went through Girl Scouts. In his sober periods, an uncle taught us kids to play tennis. He was an excellent player himself, and he loved to organize family tennis tournaments. For years afterward, family gettogethers centered on tennis tournaments with the competition as fierce, if not as skilled, as that at Wimbledon. I still play competitive tennis two or three times a week.
In my freshman year of high school, I joined the ski club and learned to ski, a sport that, like tennis, settled in as a permanent part of my life. I ski at Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, and Keystone and the other popular ski areas that were pristine and vacant mountain landscapes when I explored them as a kid. From the top of Copper Mountain, I can look down on the railroad bed climbing Fremont Pass that my grandfather had traveled. One of the reasons I enjoy skiing and hiking is that the experience always puts me in touch with the past and with the beauty of the place in which I grew up. Just as when I was a kid, I would still rather be outdoors in any kind of weather than inside the most beautiful building.
No matter what other activities I was involved in, I was always writing stories, all kinds of fantastical stories about imaginary people who lived exciting lives and traveled the world. On sheet after sheet of paper, I scribbled stories about places I had never been and things I knew nothing about, creating whole new worlds where only I knew the landscape. My mother taught me to type, which allowed me to write much faster. I still have some of my childhood stories, and whenever I happen upon them, I get a glimpse of a girl with a wild imagination fueled by reading a lot of books. I read as much as possible; I could never get enough of reading. Even today, I experience a tinge of excitement when I open the cover of a new book, knowing I am about to enter a magical, other world.
One of my high school English teachers had graduated from Marquette University and used to talk about the journalism school in class. I decided that if I studied journalism at Marquette, I could make a living doing the only thing I wanted to do, which was write. I applied to the school without ever visiting Wisconsin. Although I'd gone to Southern California to visit relatives and toured several other western states with my family, the farthest east I'd ever been was the Colorado-Kansas border. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, might as well have been on the other side of the world, but when I was accepted in the Marquette journalism school, my father got me a train pass, and for the next four years, I rode the Denver Zephyr and Milwaukee Road back and forth between home and school.
Marquette was unlike any place I'd ever seen. It was older than any of the public buildings in the west, a collection of Gothic-like structures that huddled on the edge of the downtown. Like other universities established by the Jesuits in the nineteenth century, Marquette had started out in the country, but the city had wrapped around what could only loosely be described as a campus. Except for an area barely large enough for a picnic, there was not a blade of grass, only cement slabs connecting the buildings. The winters were long, gray and cold, with no hint of the blue skies and sunshine of Colorado. Traffic cut through the campus, and in the winter, a freezing wind howled off Lake Michigan plastering students against the buildings. The cold was especially hard on the girls, since the dress code required that we wear skirts on campus. It was an ongoing struggle to find knee-high stockings long and warm enough to blunt the cold blowing under our skirts.
But I loved every day I spent at Marquette. The intellectual excitement and rigor of the classes and the dedication of the faculty could make you forget about the ancient buildings, treeless, cement slabs, and freezing winters. I believe that, in many ways, Marquette still followed the ideals set out in the nineteenth century by John Cardinal Newman in The Idea of a University. The idea was that undergraduates should receive a liberal education, rendering them capable of independent thought and decisions, instead of a job-training course. There were excellent graduate schools at Marquette, including the medical and dental schools, waiting for the liberally educated undergraduates.
At Marquette I had my first experience with the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, who administered the school and taught in most departments. Many of my classes were with Jesuit professors. They were brilliant, fair and tough. They were well-educated—some with doctorates in more than one field ranging from astronomy and physics to history and law and every point in between. I found them to be excellent teachers—not surprising, since the Jesuits have been educators for four hundred years. I've always felt a debt of gratitude to them for having given me the skills to do extensive research and evaluate information, as a writer must do, and to write both nonfiction and fiction.
Later, when I'd decided to write a mystery novel, the character of a Jesuit priest, Father John O'Malley, came to me in a dream. In his mid-forties, six-feet-four, well-built, with red hair and blue eyes and a wry humor and a way of tilting his head to let people know they had his full attention. I felt comfortable writing about a Jesuit, after having studied with them. And, since the Jesuits have operated a mission on the Wind River Reservation since 1878—St. Stephen's Mission—it was realistic to have a character who was the pastor of such a mission. What's more, a nonnative Jesuit priest would be an outsider to the Arapaho culture, someone like myself, who had embarked on a journey into Arapaho history and culture. My hope was that readers would come along on that journey.
When I was at Marquette, the journalism school was lodged in Copus Hall, a gabled, peak-roofed Victorian house at the edge of campus. Ruling over the school, his laughter rumbling through the hallways, was the legendary Dean Jeremiah L. O'Sullivan. He'd had an illustrious career as a journalist in the 1920s and 1930s before taking the helm of the Marquette journalism program. No student fortunate to have been at the school during his tenure could have escaped the imprint of his magnanimous personality, his sense of duty and ethics, and his commitment to the profession. For more than three decades, his students climbed to the top positions in the journalism world at places like the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, Scripps-Howard newspapers, and other national publications. Every student was sent on his or her way resolved to observe and write about the world as it was, without losing hope for what it might become.
There were many opportunities at school to gain practical experience. Like most students, I wrote news articles and feature stories for the newspaper, including stories on the historic buildings around campus—my first attempts at writing history. It was a challenge that I found exhilarating, and I began to think that, at some point, I might be able to write books about history. It would be fifteen years before I would begin to do so.
Every year at a gala banquet, the journalism school honored an alumnus with the prestigious By-Line Award. I remember attending those banquets and being in awe of what the honorees had accomplished in their writing careers, never dreaming that I could ever do anything to merit such recognition. Yet in 1998, I went to the beautiful Marquette campus that exists today, with hilly stretches of grass and trees and handsome buildings, to receive the By-Line Award. I count the award as one of the greatest honors in my life.
By the time I graduated, I had amassed enough courses for a double major in journalism and French Literature, with many other courses in English literature and history. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree summa cum laude, not because I was one of the bright students who skimmed textbooks, missed classes and aced exams, but because I studied hard and I studied a lot. I had staked out a comfortable place in the library that became my second home. Not long ago I was reminiscing with one of my classmates, and he mentioned a bar close to campus where students hung out. When I told him that I had never been inside that bar, he laughed and shook his year. "Oh, yeah," he said, "you were always in the library." I had to laugh at the image of the geeky young woman I must have been, hiding out in the library, so entranced with whatever I was reading that I had no idea other students were getting together and having a good time at a bar.
Sometime during my junior year, a friend introduced me to a student at the Marquette Dental School. His name was George Coel. He was tall and nice looking with brown, curly hair and a soft voice. He'd grown up in Wisconsin where his family—Germans, for the most part—had lived for several generations. According to the stories passed down in his family, they were descended from John Jacob Astor who, while flinging his fur empire west, had settled Green Bay, originally called Astoria. While in Astoria, he had conceived a daughter, Margarite Astor, with one of the women connected to the trading enterprise, perhaps the wife or daughter of a trader, or perhaps an Indian woman. Whoever she was, when Astor returned to New York, the woman was left to raise their child. True or not, it made a good story.
George and I went out on a few dates, but it wasn't until senior year that we began spending more time together. I managed to extricate myself from the library long enough to attend movies and basketball games with him, although many of our dates were "library dates," with me reading through history or philosophy and George pouring over a dental textbook or Mad Magazine. The man was fun, and that appealed to me.
After graduation, George left for the Air Force and an assignment in Alaska at Eielson Air Force Base. I went back to Denver and found a job with the Westminster Journal, a weekly newspaper that covered a large suburban area. In the early 1960s, major news magazines and newspapers hired female journalists only for such jobs as researchers or reporters on the social scene. But on a small weekly, I had a multitude of jobs: general news reporter, assignment editor, copy editor, feature writer and—after a brief lesson on how to operate a camera—photographer. One of my photographs even won an award from the Colorado Press Association, the result of lucky timing and the right amount of light.
Days at the Journal were hectic, with deadlines always looming. I covered the city council, county commissioner and school board meetings. Often the meetings ran on and on. I wouldn't get home until eleven o'clock in the evening, only to be back at my desk by eight o'clock the next morning to write up the article. Each week I made the rounds of the police and fire departments, checked with the major businesses, and stopped in for a chat with the city manager or the city planner to stay ahead of the breaking news. And in between writing news articles, I went in search of interesting people doing unusual things and wrote feature stories about them.
One day members of the Westminster Historical Society came to the office with a proposal. If they did the research, they wanted to know, would I write articles on the town's history? I agreed, and every week an article appeared on the people and places of early Westminster. Again, I found myself enjoying writing history, and from the letters that the paper received, I knew that people were waiting for each new installment. After a year, the paper published the articles in a small book—which, I suppose, was my first book.
That experience on a weekly newspaper would serve me well throughout my career. It would help me organize and write three-hundred-page nonfiction books. It would help me write several short stories, articles and a novel every year. It taught me how to interview people and get them to reveal themselves, and how to listen for the apt, telling quote. I learned how to research public records, locate sources for various kinds of information, focus on what was important and eliminate the rest. It helped me to turn dry facts into a good story.
At the same time, I learned to write fast against deadlines and still manage to produce a story that was coherent and accurate. I learned the discipline of writing all day and staying with a story until it was finished. I also learned that I could write fairly well when I didn't feel like writing at all. On mornings after a late meeting, I would drag myself to the office and stare at the blank paper in the typewriter. After a few minutes, I would have to start writing, and soon I would feel like writing. We still had the old linotype machines clanking in the back room, and there were many mornings when the operator stood at my shoulder waiting to grab the paper out of the typewriter so that he could set the type in time to print the paper. Today, when people ask if I have to be inspired before I sit down to write, I tell them that the opposite is true. I sit down to write and then I become inspired.
After I'd had a little more than a year's stint on the Journal, George and I were married. My parish church was filled with music, I remember, and the smells of flowers. It was a gathering of the clan, with aunts, uncles and cousins crowded into the pews along with our friends. Afterward we set off on our honeymoon driving the Alcan highway to Alaska, each day moving farther north into the breathtaking beauty of the mountains and lakes of Canada and then into the Yukon. Along with the landscape, I drank in the stories spun by the lumberjacks and fishermen and women preparing the meals in the little roadside inns where we stayed. And then we crossed into Alaska, still heading north, wrapped in the beauty of the place.
We settled into our new life at Eielson Air Force Base, about twenty miles south of Fairbanks, where I might possibly have found a journalism job. But in the winter, with snow and ice and temperatures that could plummet to seventy degrees below zero, Fairbanks could be as inaccessible as the moon. I landed a job on base as a substitute high school teacher, although I had no teaching credentials. Most days I taught journalism, English, or history, subjects in which I was comfortable. But from time to time I was called on to fill in for an absent science teacher, and George and I would sit up late into the night while he tutored me on the lessons I had to teach the next day.
On days when I wasn't called to teach, I sat at the dining room table and wrote stories on the small typewriter I'd hauled with me through college. I wrote about Alaska and life on an Air Force Base, about camping at Mount McKinley and riding the Tanana River on a paddlewheel boat. I sent off the stories to magazines and began collecting rejection slips that grew like a fungus, but I kept writing.
The year after we were married, our first child, Bill, was born, and my life took a turn in a new direction. Bill was a beautiful baby, sweet-natured and happy, and George and I fell instantly in love with him. I gave up teaching, but the stories didn't stop running through my head, and when the baby slept, I plunked away at the typewriter and continued collecting rejections.
After three years, George was discharged. We left Alaska, drove back to Colorado and settled in Boulder, a pretty town nestled into the foothills with the snow-capped mountain peaks rising overhead. It was a university town with a rich and varied cultural life, and yet it was close enough to Denver that we could still be a part of my family. Within a few years, our little family had expanded with the births of our daughters, Kristin and Lisa.
What followed were busy years raising three children and trying to steal an hour here or there to write. In the evenings, after the children were in bed, I set my typewriter on the dining room table and wrote. From time to time, I sold an article to a newspaper or magazine, but my rejection file kept growing. Eventually I began placing stories with the Denver Post and became a regular contributor of feature stories to the Boulder Daily Camera. I wrote stories on everyone from bus drivers and preschool teachers to handicapped skiers and nuclear engineers. Still entranced with the history of Colorado, I began writing stories on early-day Boulder.
About this time, I started reading about the Arapahos, the people whose villages had stood where I now lived. So many things about them resonated with me. I liked the way they treated their children, giving them ponies at an early age, letting them be children, instead of expecting them to be little adults. I liked the respect that they gave to their elders, whom they believed were sacred because they were close to returning to the Creator. As I read, I became more and more interested in one of their leaders in the mid-1800s, Chief Left Hand, a man fluent in English.
Fluent in English? At that time, I still had much to learn about the Plains Indians, but I knew that very few could speak English. They used a universal language—the Plains Indian sign language—to communicate with other tribes and with the English-and French-speaking traders and trappers moving onto the plains. I decided to find out more about Chief Left Hand and write a feature on him, not knowing that I was setting out on a journey that still continues. Almost immediately I found myself in the archives at major libraries in Colorado, plowing through government records of the Plains Indians, early newspapers and primary sources, such as unpublished manuscripts and journals written by men (and women,) who had known Chief Left Hand. I remember the day in Norlin Library at the University of Colorado with a century-old manuscript spread on the table and the sun slanting through a high window down over the book stacks, and slowly coming to realize that I did not have an article. I had a book.
I had not gone looking for a book to write. Three small children, a husband, a new home being built, and deadlines on feature articles all kept my days humming. And sometime before, I had begun working part-time on a master's degree in English literature at the University of Colorado. To write a book, I knew, would entail a tremendous amount of research. I would have to search out the details of an Arapaho chief's life and place the man in his own times, among his own people. I would have to immerse myself in the history and culture of the Arapahos and of the Great Plains. The task seemed overwhelming and, at the same time, thrilling. I withdrew from the graduate program, even though I'd completed most of the class work. There was irony in that—a writer deciding not to write the thesis—but I had a book to write.
I was right about the research ahead of me. It consumed four years, and in that time I worked in numerous libraries across the West, as well as in the federal archives and the British Museum, which holds a large collection of Plains Indian photographs. I became acquainted with historians and other writers also researching the Plains Indians. One writer, the late Virginia Cole Trenholm, author of The Arapahos, Our People, took me to the Wind River Reservation for my first visit. Virginia introduced me to her Arapaho friends who had been sources of information for her book. She was an elderly woman by then, gray-haired and spry—a "grandmother" in the Arapaho world—and I saw the respect with which they treated her. Because they trusted her, and because she was vouching for me, in a way, they began to trust me.
Another author who wrote about the Plains Indians, the late Kent Ruth, invited me to Oklahoma where he introduced me to Arapahos in Geary. Because of Ruth, I was able to spend an afternoon with Gus Yellowhair, who was very old, but told stories that were fresh and vibrant. With tears in his eyes, he talked about his days in a government boarding school, far from his family, when he was forbidden to speak Arapaho. He had found a tree that he could hide behind and there he had spoken out loud to himself in Arapaho so that he wouldn't forget his own language. He told me stories of his people when they lived on the plains, stories passed down from Chief Left Hand's time. It wasn't long afterward that Gus Yellowhair had died. I've always felt privileged to have met him and received the gift of his stories.
My research trips across the plains were always family outings. We piled the three kids, the dog, and the camping gear in our Suburban and set out. Armed with the copies of old maps and descriptions of various sites that I'd found in the archives, we found traces of Arapaho villages, the tepee rings (circles of rocks that had fastened the bottoms of tepees) still visible in the short prairie grass. We went to the sites of Arapaho trading camps that had resembled county fairs, where many tribes had come together to exchange goods, turning thousands of ponies onto the prairie to graze while the people bartered. We found remnants of old forts and ate picnics in places where treaties had been signed. We found battlegrounds. We were touching the past.
Our first visit to the site of the Sand Creek Massacre is etched in my mind. Located on the southeastern plains of Colorado, in a place the Arapahos called the "no-water land," the massacre site is windswept, dry and desolate, as if it had been permanently marked by what had occurred there. On November 29, 1864, a force of volunteer troops had surrounded and attacked a camp of Cheyennes and Arapahos, whose chiefs had brought the people to Sand Creek on instructions of the territorial governor John Evans. The Indians had believed they were safe. When the slaughter ended, one-hundred and sixty Indians, mostly women and children, lay dead. There were others—the half-dead and naked wounded—who fled northward in bitter cold trying to reach a large camp of Sioux. Chief Left Hand and his family had been at Sand Creek.
I had found a map made by a survivor that showed where the different chiefs and their people had camped and the directions from which the soldiers had swept down like a tornado. Following the map, we spent the day walking the site, determining where Left Hand must have been and following the survivors as they'd headed north in the dry creek bed with the soldiers chasing them. As we made our way along the creek bed, I was overcome by the sense of a tremendous force crashing behind us. It was such a strong feeling that I yelled, "Run!" I broke into a run myself and didn't stop until I was out of breath, dropping onto the sandy banks. George and the kids had run along with me, thinking I wanted to get some exercise, but I'd had the sense that I was running for my life.
Much later, in my novel The Story Teller, Father John and Vicky Holden visit the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. I gave Vicky the same feeling that had overpowered me, and she also starts running for her life, just as her people had done that freezing day in 1864.
By the time of my first visit to Sand Creek, I had completed most of the research for Chief Left Hand. I had documented the events of Chief Left Hand's life and mapped out the contours of his world, yet I couldn't write the book because I didn't know the ending. A controversy over Left Hand's fate at Sand Creek had raged among historians for almost a hundred years. Some maintained that he had escaped the massacre, while others were adamant that he had been killed. I was suspended between both theories, with not enough evidence to prove either one.
It was a busy little circle that I was going around in, with my ongoing research, the kids in school, sports and other activities, and George running a busy dental practice. Then, without warning, our world exploded. It was as if an earthquake had struck and opened a chasm that swallowed us whole. On Good Friday, April 16, 1976, our son, Bill, thirteen years old and full of life and dreams, was riding his bike to a friend's house when he was struck and killed by a sixteen-year-old boy, drunk and driving seventy miles an hour down a twenty-mile-an-hour residential street. There are no words to convey the grief and pain that enveloped us. Bill was sunshine and laughter. When he laughed, he seemed to pull the sounds all the way from his toes. He was sandy-haired and green-eyed and beautiful, and when he was killed, a part of the rest of us died with him.
There was a long period afterward when getting out of bed each day was the most I could accomplish. I felt as if I couldn't breathe, as if all the air had been sucked away. I looked at George dragging himself to the office and knew he felt the same. We were aware of the divorce statistics for couples who lose a child—a chilling seventy percent—and we understood. With both parents devastated, there is no way for either one to reach out and help the other. But we had other children, and when we looked at the two girls, clinging together in grief over the death of the brother they had adored and in fear that the rest of their family would be destroyed, we knew that we were going to have to find a way to go on.
More than two years passed before I became aware of the research files piled around my study, files I hadn't even thought about or noticed, and the book I'd set out to write began calling again to me. I started rereading the research. I even started writing the first chapter, although I still didn't know the ending, and the writing seemed to pull me to myself. Not my old self—the woman with a son and two daughters no longer existed—but someone different, a woman I had to discover.
Each day I sat down at my desk and worked on the book. As the days slipped into weeks and months, I became more and more stymied by the fact that I was deep into writing a story with no ending. I reviewed my research again, searching unsuccessfully for an overlooked clue to Left Hand's fate. I reread materials that should have spelled out his fate, but didn't, and kept coming back to The Life of George Bent, a biography of a half-breed Cheyenne who had survived the massacre, written by George Hyde. Bent was a prolific letter-writer who had written dozens of letters to Hyde, which Hyde used for the biography. Many of the letters told about Sand Creek, but nothing in the book told of what had happened to Left Hand. Yet George Bent knew the truth.
It occurred to me that Hyde might have included something about Left Hand's fate in his original manuscript, which an overzealous editor could have cut. I set out to find the original manuscript and eventually located it at the Denver Public Library. I remember the day I sat at a table in the library's Western History Department and poured over Hyde's typed pages. Word for word, the manuscript was the same as the book. There was no mention of Left Hand's fate. I thumbed through the last of the pages and stopped, frozen to my chair. Folded between two pages were three letters written by George Bent about Sand Creek. There, in Bent's own words, was the ending for which I'd spent four years searching. Chief Left Hand had been shot and mortally wounded during the massacre. Along with Bent and a ragtag of other wounded Indians, he'd made his way north to a large Sioux camp where he had died.
I was able to finish the book. The University of Oklahoma Press published Chief Left Hand as part of the "Civilization of the American Indian Series" in 1981, and the book was reviewed in more than a hundred publications across the country, in Europe, and in Israel. It won the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year award from the National Association of Press Women. Twenty-three years after publication, Chief Left Hand is still in print. Recently, the Colorado State Historical Society listed the book among the top hundred best books on Colorado, and the Denver Post called Chief Left Hand "a classic."
One summer after the book was published, George and I took another trip out onto the plains searching for the site of the Sioux camp where Left Hand had died. Today the site is on a private ranch. After obtaining permission to go on the land, we drove along the dirt roads until they disappeared into the dry prairie grass. Armed with a compass, an old map and descriptions of the site, we walked several miles through the flat, open land burned brown in the hot sun, and at some point, we noticed that we had company. An owl had begun following us. Whenever we stopped to take a drink from our water bottles, the owl perched on a mound of dirt and waited. As soon as we started off again, the owl flew along.
According to the map, the Sioux camp had been at the confluence of two creeks. We found one of the creeks—a dry bed—and followed it to the point where it met the other creek. A bluff rose between the creek beds, like a burp in the flat land, and the owl was now perched above us on the edge of the bluff. We climbed up the sandy side and came out into one of the most beautiful sights I could imagine. Spread across the bluff for a mile or more was a carpet of wildflowers, an oasis of the most vivid reds, purples, blues, yellows and pinks in the midst of the brown plains. Among these wildflowers, Chief Left Hand was buried. When we looked around, the owl had disappeared, and I knew that we had been touched by the past in a special way. According to Arapaho beliefs, if a dead person chooses to return, that person will come in the form of an owl.
Step by step, we had begun rebuilding our lives around the enormous empty space that Bill had left behind. After finishing Chief Left Hand, I started working with my father on the book that would become Goin' Railroading. Dad had always been a great storyteller, and I used to tell him that he should write a book. "You're the writer," he told me, so we made a pact. He would tell the stories, and I would write them down. He told stories he'd heard from his father about running the narrow-gauge steam locomotives through the mountains in Colorado's early days. He told his own stories of working on the old steam locomotives and operating the powerful diesels that hurtled down track at eighty miles an hour with a hundred cars behind and the horizon receding in the distance.
By that time, my father was in his late seventies. Even though he was in good health, I had the sense that we should push through the book without pausing to rewrite or polish the prose. The stories were his, and without him, the book couldn't be written. As we went along, he made notes on the changes he wanted to make for each chapter. We had finished the first draft when my father had a sudden heart attack and died. Six years later, my mother also died, and the loss of my parents expanded the great empty place that George and I and our girls had been trying to build our lives around since Bill was killed.
Fortunately I had my father's notes, which allowed me to make the changes he had wanted as I polished the book. Goin' Railroading was published in 1985 and, like Chief Left Hand, it has remained in print, a steady seller to railroad buffs around the nation who want to read the stories of what it was like to be a fireman or engineer on Colorado's spectacular mountain railroads.
With two books published on Colorado history, I threw myself into writing freelance articles on Colorado and the West, placing articles in such publications as the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Three of my articles became cover stories for American Heritage of Invention and Technology, and one story, about the Pioneer Zephyr, was included in Inventing America, an anthology of the magazine's best articles.
Other writing projects were also coming my way. Westminster, where I had begun my writing career, hired me to write a new history of the city. The project turned into a three-hundred-page book that expanded on the small book I'd written years before and brought the history up to date. About the same time, the University of Colorado Medical School hired me to write the report on a national conference on medical ethics, which was published as a pamphlet-sized book.
One of the most exciting projects came my way when the state of Colorado hired me to write the history of the State Capitol. I spent several months stepping back into time with all the governors, legislators, and people of the nineteenth century who had been determined to build a capitol building worthy of the gold-rush state, even covering the massive dome with real gold. My research took me through the archives, but it also took me through the building from the underground tunnels to the highest point above the dome—places never open to the public. I climbed ladders and stepped out onto the tiny balcony surrounding the golden dome, blindingly bright in the sun, and watched the traffic crawl through the city streets below. I even scooped up pieces of gold leaf that had fallen to the balcony floor, tiny mementos of the past. The book, containing beautiful full-color photographs, is still sold at the capitol building.
My career as a freelance writer continued to take me into unexpected and ever-interesting places. Along with writing articles and books, I spent about eight years working as a contract writer for IBM, which meant a variety of projects, from newspaper and magazine articles to brochures, pamphlets, and executive speeches. Often I worked with Karen Gilleland, also a contract writer at the time, who became a close friend and writing collaborator on many projects. Together we wrote three small books on historic places in Colorado, as well as a hardback book for Prentice-Hall on writing business letters. I still never consider a manuscript complete without Karen's clear-eyed and always valuable suggestions for ways in which to improve the story.
By 1990, I had written a wide variety of books, articles and other pieces, but I had never written a novel, and I started thinking that it would be fun to try. I happened to attend a writers conference where Tony Hill-erman spoke on writing mystery novels about the Navajos, and I thought that maybe I could write a mystery novel about the Arapahos. I still had a strong connection to the Arapahos, visiting friends on the Wind River Reservation whenever I got the chance and writing articles on the tribe. And mystery novels had long been my favorite bedtime reading. I liked the puzzle and the intricacies of the plot. I was also drawn to characters who had to react to challenges and show the stuff of which they were made.
While still writing other nonfiction pieces, I began work on The Eagle Catcher, still on a journey into the Arapaho world, this time in the company of Father John O'Malley and Vicky Holden and a cast of other "dream" people. The plot for The Eagle Catcher had been rattling around in my head since Chief Left Hand. I had come across many gripping stories that were far a field of Left Hand's story, but I had kept notes, including notes about the way early government agents had swindled Plains Indian tribes out of the best lands on the reservations. I started asking myself how the effects of an old crime such as that might percolate up into the present, and what the results might be. The answers gave me the plot for The Eagle Catcher.
Even though I was a published author, when it came to selling a novel, I was a novice. The only advantage I had was a wide acquaintance in the publishing world, and through my contacts, I found an agent who sold The Eagle Catcher, as well as two unwritten novels, to Berkley Publishing, still my publisher. Since I was unknown in the mystery field, Berkley decided to publish the novel as a paperback. Before Berkley had bought the book, however, I had entered the manuscript in a contest cosponsored by the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities and the University Press of Colorado, which had launched a search for fiction on the West. As one of the contest winners, the manuscript went to the Press. Out of the blue, I received an offer from the Press to publish the book in hardback, and Berkley agreed to postpone the paperback until after the hardback book appeared.
Within days after publication, The Eagle Catcher had sold out. As a university press book with a small print run and a mystery novel set among an Indian tribe, it became a collector's item. Collectors and book dealers around the country bought cartons of books. Since my daughter Lisa lived in Los Angeles at the time, I arranged for a book signing at the Mystery Bookstore there. As Lisa and I walked down the block to the signing, we spotted the crowd heading into the store. I stopped and checked my Day-Timer, sure that I had the wrong time and that a well-known author must be signing. Lisa said, "Let's go see who it is." Embarrassed at having shown up at the wrong time, I followed my daughter to the store. In the window was a sign with my name in large, bold letters. The crowd inside were book dealers waiting for me.
Such dealers promoted The Eagle Catcher across the country and in Canada. They advertised the book in newsletters, pamphlets, brochures, and websites, giving the novel more publicity than any new mystery author could hope for, and they helped to build an audience for the novels that followed, which Berkley has published both in hardback and in paperback.
I still do a great deal of research for my mystery novels, but it is a different kind of research. I visit the reservation in the summers and spend time with friends. I've gone to many powwows and attended the Sun Dance and taken part in a sweat lodge. I drive the back roads that Father John and Vicky drive, and I go to the places where they go to because I want to describe the places accurately, and I want to get the feel of them. When I was writing The Spirit Woman, which weaves in the story of Sacajawea, George and I took a float trip down the Missouri River, following the path of Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea. We camped where they had camped, in wilderness areas accessible only by the river, surrounded by a landscape much the same as what they had seen.
I subscribe to the reservation newspaper, but I also read everything I can about what is going on in Indian country, clipping and jotting down notes for future stories. The widespread growth of Indian casino gambling, for example, and the dangers of corruption and fraud, gave me the plot for Killing Raven. For the kind of specific information that every mystery novel needs, I go to the experts, such as FBI agents, police detectives, coroners, forensic anthropologists. To find the experts, I rely on the six-degrees-of-separation theory. I start with someone I know, who might know someone, who might know the expert. It has always worked. For The Dream Stalker, I interviewed experts on nuclear waste storage facilities. For The Lost Bird, I talked to leading virologists. All of the experts who contribute so much to my novels are always in the acknowledgments.
Along with the novels, Father John and Vicky also appear in numerous short stories, which are part of anthologies. And a series of ten short stories, based on the Arapaho commandments, is being published by A.S.A.P. publishing in California. Each story is a beautiful limited edition, hardbound book, illustrated by the acclaimed illustrator Phil Parks, and introduced by mystery authors, including Tony Hillerman, Marcia Muller, and Jan Burke.
In September, 2003, Killing Raven, the ninth novel in the "Wind River" series, was published, and September, 2004, will see the publication of Wife of Moon. I find myself now with a contract for two additional novels and several short stories, still married to the same man, with two daughters and two fine sons-inlaw and four beautiful grandchildren. Since our grandchildren live in California and New Mexico, George and I spend a lot of time shuffling from one place to the other so that we can be with them as much as possible. We want our grandchildren to grow up as we did with a sense of belonging to a family—something that is part of them and bigger than their immediate families, something that is rooted in the past and reaching for the future.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, October 1, 1996, p. 325; August, 1997, p. 1882; August 1999, John Rowen, review of The Lost Bird, p. 2033; September 1, 2000, John Rowen, review of The Spirit Woman, p. 68.
Deniver Post, September 30, 2001, review of The Thunder Keeper.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of The Shadow Dancer, p. 1077; August 1, 2003, review of Killing Raven, p. 994.
Library Journal, September 1, 1997, p. 222; June 1, 1998, p. 186; October 1, 1999, Susan A. Zappia, review of The Lost Bird, p. 130; September 1, 2000, Susan A. Zappia, review of The Spirit Woman; November 1, 2002, Kristen L. Smith, review of The Spirit Woman, p. 144.
Publishers Weekly, November 29, 1991, p. 46; April 3, 1995, p. 49; August 19, 1996, p. 54; July 14, 1997, p. 67; August 3, 1998, review of The Story Teller, p. 77; October 4, 1999, review of The Lost Bird, p. 68; August 28, 2000, review of The Spirit Woman, p. 59; August 12, 2001, review of The Thunder Keeper, p. 289; August 19, 2002, review of The Shadow Dancer, p. 70; August 18, 2003, review of Killing Raven, p. 61;.
BookReporter,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (September 5, 2003), Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum, an interview with Margaret Coel.
Margaret Coel Web site,http://www.margaretcoel.com/ (March 2, 2004).