When Margaret Coel appeared at the Mesquite Public Library in Phoenix yesterday, she was introduced as the award-winning author who sets her books on the Arapaho Indian Reservation. Her latest book, Blood Memory, starts in Denver, though.
Margaret said after thirteen novels set on the Arapaho Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, she decided to do something else. Father John O'Malley, from her series, went to Rome at the end of the last book, The Girl with Braided Hair. Coel kidded and said her other author friends set their books in Paris and other exotic places, and get to take tax deductible vacations. She always took tax deductible trips to the Indian reservation. So, she sent Father John to Rome.
Blood Memory is not set on the reservation. It doesn't feature Father John and Vicky Holden. However, as people found that out, Coel received a slew of email asking if Father John was ever going to get out of Rome. Yes, he will be back in next year's book.
Blood Memory is a suspense book, not a mystery. A mystery is a whodunnit, a puzzle in which someone investigates to find out who committed a crime. In a suspense novel, a crime is going to be committed, and the character has to prevent it.
This latest book, Blood Memory, is set in Denver. Catherine McLeod is an investigative reporter who is the target of an attacker. She instinctively knows that the attack is about her work. Is it a story she's written? She realizes someone is trying to kill her to prevent her from writing a story. The attack concerns something she's about to write.
Margaret based the underlying story on a true story. In 2004, the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes filed claim on 27 million acres in Colorado, one third of the state. But, they said they were willing to forgo the claim if Congress gave them land for a casino. It was a way of going around the state laws. It didn't work out because the tribes couldn't agree, so Congress threw out the claim. But, as a fiction writer, Coel thought, what if this is going on, and other events are as well.
This is the story that Catherine McLeod is working on. It takes her into the past. All of Coel's novels give you a little history of the Arapahos and Plains Indians because she loves history.
Catherine knows she is a native, but she was adopted by white parents. She knows nothing about her past, but she learns while covering this story. She's forced to go on the run to escape the assassin. As she loses herself, she finds herself.
Coel said when she decided to make the character a reporter, she though, I was a reporter, so I can write about what they do. Then, she realized when she was a reporter, they still worked on typewriters. So, she has a friend in Cheyenne who works for a newspaper who read the book, and helped her. She said after the friend read the book, someone threatened to kill her. She had covered the story of a young man who had a band. She interviewed him because he had heavily promoted it. When they investigated, and tried to verify his publicity claims, they couldn't verify them. When they told him they weren't going to run the story because they couldn't verify his claims, he threatened her. She said after reading Blood Memory, she knew what to do. Of course, since they knew who he was, he was arrested in a few days, but in the meantime, she did what she needed to do to stay safe.
Margaret Coel is often asked where her characters come from. She calls them Dream People because she often dreams of the characters. Father John came from a dream. She likes the process of getting to know the characters, where they came from. What do they care about?
She's currently writing the next Vicky Holden/Father John mystery. It should be out next year, and it's set back on the reservation. She's looking forward to getting back to Vicky and Father John. Someday, she might want to get back to Catherine and Nick Bustamante from Blood Memory. It was refreshing to write about new characters. This wasn't planned as a new series, but some reviewers jumped the gun, and said "Blood Memory, the first book in Margaret Coel's new series..." She said that's news to her publisher. She also writes short stories, and some of them have different characters.
When she was asked if she always knows how the books will turn out, she said she starts with a road map. She thinks the story through. She usually has a good idea where it will end. She just doesn't know how she'll get there. Coel said her women characters don't always do something that she foresees. Vicky did that even in the first book, The Eagle Catcher. She took off in her own direction. Coel said she was used to writing nonfiction, and that doesn't happen in nonfiction. So, she deleted Vicky's actions, and put them in another file. Then she read an article that said sometimes characters surprise you, and you should allow it to happen. If they surprise you, they'll surprise the reader. So, she went back to Vicky, and gave her a little slack.
One audience member asked if Margaret ever thought of giving Father John a new pickup truck. She responded that she gets that question a lot because his truck is so old, and it conks out. But, she's not getting him a new one because he has nothing since he gives things away. That's just Father John, and if someone gave him a new SUV, he'd probably sell it to give the money to someone.
When she was asked about "The Arapaho Ten Commandments," she said they were a series of stories she did for a California publisher. Each story was based on one of the Ten Commandments. They were published in limited editions with outstanding illustrations. It took her ten years to finish the stories. Now, the publisher wants to publish them in an anthology, along with her other short stories. The problem is, they want three original stories as well. If the anthology comes out, it will probably be this time, next year.
In response to a question, Margaret said every writer uses a different pattern to write. She likes quiet, and she's used to being home alone. However, her husband is retired now, home rattling around. She likes to work in quiet in her own office. She goes there every morning by 8:30, and writes for four to six hours, and takes a lunch break. She does research. Each novel deals with the past, and the internet has been great for research. Writing is a business. She spends a couple hours a day dealing with people. She has a fantastic website, and a fantastic web person, but she has to give her the information. She has to correspond with her editor, and deal with the person who sends out her postcards. She usually does a book tour in September and October, but this year, it goes into December. In January, she hits the writing hard. She tries to write on the road, and her current book is due soon to the publisher. She has a computer with her, but it's tough to write on the road. Coel said she does more reading on the road.
When asked, she said she's never hit a block. There's no such thing as writer's block. Coel said she worked as a reporter, and the editor doesn't say, "Do you feel like writing today, Margaret?" You sit down and write. She had that training. There is no writer's block, just writers who refuse to sit down and write.
Another question was about writers who influenced her. Naturally, Tony Hillerman was the answer. Coel had written a nonfiction book about Chief Left Hand. That's the first book that too her into the Arapaho world, to Wind River Reservation. She wrote it in 1981, and then heard Hillerman speak at a conference, and thought I can do that. Hillerman is now a friend, and he has helped her.
When asked why Southwestern mysteries are so popular, she said it's writing about a whole different world. For one thing, the authors are dealing with so much space out here. New York (i.e., the publishing world) doesn't get the space out here. The tribes are culturally rich for stories. The Wind River Reservation has a powwow every weekend during the summer. It's a vibrant culture, exotic to readers, so they want to know what the tribes are really like. It's an ancient, rich culture.
In The Dream Stalker, Vicky is going through a tough phase, so she goes to her grandfather, and asks to be blessed by the Sacred Wheel ceremony. Coel read up on it, taking information from a reference book. Then she sent the manuscript to a reader, who told her there was more to the ceremony. That reader asked the Elders, and they told Margaret more about the ceremony, so she had more in her book than the reference book. Sometimes, the Elders have told her things, but asked her not to say anything, so she doesn't.
Her novel, Killing Raven, was picked as One Book for Fremont County, Wyoming. Fremont County is an enormous county, with the Wind River Reservation in it. There were twenty-five discussion groups for the book, and Margaret Coel spoke toward the end of the last month of the series. Then, at the end of it, the Arapaho had a celebration for her on the reservation. They don't just invite a few people to a celebration. They send out invitations and notices to everyone, including the newspapers. And, they even serve food. They had 300 people that day. The Elders prayed in Arapaho. There were drummers and singers. They said, it's about time someone wrote about us. Then they gave her gifts - a beautiful blanket, and they wrapped her in it. There was a gorgeous jacket, and a large card with a painting of the Eagle Catcher, signed by the Elders. When Coel spoke, she was weeping, and said in all of her career, it was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to her. There was dead silence, and then a woman said, "Really?"
Coel wanted to tell us about next year's book. In old silent movies, the cowboy and Indian westerns, the Arapahos were often the Indians. They were proud of being in the movies. The book is set in the present, but it goes back to 1922-23, in Hollywood. She said she likes to go back in history in her books.
"The Covered Wagon" was the first epic western, and there were 500 Indians in it. Fifty of the Arapaho went to Hollywood, and did stage shows at Grauman's Theater. They camped in Coanga Canyon in tipis. Every night they rode ponies into Hollywood to be on stage. Many of them were Buffalo Indians, old Indians on the plains not that many years earlier. Her working title for the book is "And Starring Real Indians" because old westerns, starring Tim McCoy would say, and starring Real Indians, or, and starring John Wayne.
In response to a question, she said there's usually something embedded in the book that gives her the title. Say Goodbye was her original title for Blood Memory, and she fought for it, giving the publishers all the reasons it should be called that, but they didn't like it. They gave her a list of twenty titles. Finally, she said Blood Memory.
When she was asked if the tribes did well from the casinos, Coel said some were better off due to the casinos, and some were not. The Shoshones built a top-rated hospital, with a helicopter pad, and used casino money. Some tribes squandered the money. The Arapahos are jut getting theirs going on the reservation in Wyoming.
She said there are lots of Arapaho in Denver. The reservation is in Wyoming, but there are also a lot in Oklahoma. In July, they all come together for Sundance on the reservation. But, they have an affinity for Denver, because Colorado, and the Denver area, are their ancestral homes.
Coel said she likes to give readers a snippet of a poem that relates to the book. Finally, she ended by reading from Blood Memory, beginning with parts of a poem by William Carlos Williams.