Sunday, September 21, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Margaret Coel at Brea Library

Who: Margaret Coel
Where: Brea Library
When: Saturday, September 6th

Margaret Coel
Margaret Coel is the New York Times bestselling author of the Wind River Reservation mysteries, which currently numbers about 18. When I walk into the library, the owner of Mystery Ink bookstore has set up a table with 17 out of 18 of those books--everything except the first novel, The Eagle Catcher.

I settle into my seat, and she begins to speak. Margaret Coel is an older lady with short brown hair, wearing a black shirt, a black and white skirt, and a big bright turquoise necklace. She seems to know exactly what she wants to say, for she speaks without hesitation and goes right into her talk.

(Please note: my quotes aren't perfect. I was using pen and paper and scribbling as fast as I could.)

* * *

"People always ask me, 'Is Wind River a real place?' " Margaret says. "Yeah, it absolutely is."

Though the reservation is a speck in the middle of Central Wyoming, but it's still bigger than all of Delaware and Connecticut. It houses both the Arapaho and Shoshone tribes. Now, the Arapaho were originally from the plains of Colorado and the Shoshone were their traditional enemies.

"The government, in its infinite wisdom, put them together," she says drily.

Wind River Reservation
When the government took the Arapaho's land, they were supposed to reserve a portion for them to live on. But by 1878, it still hadn't happened. Finally, their chief had to plead with their enemy, the Shoshone, to "come and live under their blanket." According to Margaret's friend on the reservation, "When we finally trickled in, we were about 800--and we were a pitiful lot."

They thought the arrangement would be temporary. One hundred and fifty years later, they're still there. But the landscape of Wyoming turned out to be much like the plains of Colorado, and this is partially what drew Margaret in.

"I grew up in Colorado and I love it."

To others, however, the landscape may be an acquired taste. Father John, one of her amateur detective, comes to the reservation from Boston, going from a lush forest scape to what he sees as empty land. He describes it as, "the landscape of the moon."

"Now I always give my manuscript to my Arapaho friends to look over and make sure there's nothing offensive," Margaret says. "When my friend came to that line, she was horrified. 'You can't say that. It's insulting.' "

Her friend explained that the land was given to them by the creator and is considered sacred and beautiful. Margaret agrees. "But I didn't say it 'the landscape of the moon.' Father John said it."

Her friend re-considered. " 'Okay, you can use it. As long as we know he's wrong.' "

* * *

But how did Margaret decide to write mysteries centered on the Wind River Reservation? It began when she decided to write the history of Chief Left Hand, a Arapaho leader who lived in the mid-1800s, when everything changed. Gold was discovered in Colorado, and 100,000 people flooded the state. "To the Arapaho, it seemed as if all the white men in the world had come to their land."

Chief Left Hand
Writing about Chief Left Hand took Margaret into the Arapaho world. She visited the reservation for background information. A little later she went to a conference with Tony Hillerman, who writes Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels. Up until then, Margaret wrote non-fiction, but listening to Tony, she thought, "I can do that."

Later, when she became friends with Tony, she told him the story of seeing him there. He laughed. "I had no idea I was the responsible for Father John and Vicky," he said.

Father John and Vicky are the main characters of her series. When Margaret started thinking about who she wanted her detectives to be, she decided she wanted outsiders, "because that's what I am." She learned there was a Jesuit mission on the reservation. Recognizing the need for education, the Arapaho invited the Jesuits in, gave them the land, and "tolerated them through the years." Father John arrives as an outsider to both their culture and to the west.

Vicky, an Arapaho lawyer and advocate, came about because Margaret wanted strong female lead and an Arapaho voice. Though she is very much a part of her people, Vicky had to venture into the outside world in order to get her law degree. Like Father John, she is one of what the Arapaho call the "Edge people"--people on the border of two different cultures.

* * *

When people ask Margaret where she gets her ideas, she says they come in pairs. For example, her latest book, Night of the White Buffalo.

The latest Margaret Coel mystery
She'd always wanted to write about the birth of a white buffalo. In a Sioux myth that migrated through the tribes, a white buffalo woman came from the spirit world and gave the plains Indians their prayers and ceremonies and taught them how to live their lives. "I will return in times of need." When a white buffalo is born, it's a sign the creator is still with them and still cares for them.

Back when the plains were "an undulating brown ocean of buffalo," the birth of a white buffalo was probably a more common event. Now, with a few thousand left alive, decades can pass before a white one is born.  When it is, people come from everywhere to see the baby buffalo, trampling the pastures, overwhelming the few motels and unsuitable country roads. Though a nuisance, it can also be quite profitable for the rancher, as people do bring donations.

"I thought about what would happen if a white buffalo was born on the Wind River Reservation, what the consequences of that might be," Margaret says.

But that was only one idea, and she needed a second. It came to her in the form of cowboys. They're still around, a very nomadic people, and their lives are tough. Margaret read a case in newspaper where all the cowboys on the ranch disappeared. What happened was shocking.

"Since I write history, I like to bring history into all my books. In my first draft, I dump it in, but since few people want to read 15 pages of history, I go back and reel it in."

So Killing Custer centers on re-enactors of the Battle of Little Big Horn, Buffalo Bill's Dead Now has to do with Arapaho that went to Europe for the showman's Wild West Educational Exhibition, and Silent Spirit talks about Indians who went to Hollywood in the 1920s to play extras in Westerns. Although some chapters go back in time, the main story is grounded in the present.

"Usually, there's a crime in the past, a crime in the present, and they're related."

* * *

Now it's time for questions.

A member of the audience wants to know her research method. "Do you write the story first and research later, or visa versa?"

It's a combination of the two. She starts off doing general research, say, about buffalo and its birth, getting enough information to build a story. Then she start to write it. When she comes to a part she doesn't know, she makes a note to back and research more. Once she gets a draft down, she fills in the gaps.

One thing she doesn't do is write up a long, tedious 90-page outline. "If I did that, I wouldn't write the book." Instead it's like coming up with a road map for a long trip. She knows she needs to start here, go there, end up there. But she doesn't know what will happen on the way: the side trips, the people you meet, the surprises.

"The day my characters stop surprising me, will be the day the story ends."

* * *

Rita, a girl from my writer's group, raises her hand. "Do you have a specific system for getting yourself to write?"

"I have a deadline," Margaret says.

She sits down at her computer by 9:00 AM every morning except Sundays, whether she feels like it or not, whether if she thinks what she's writing is boring or not. "If you make yourself write, pretty soon you feel like it."

"But when you get stuck, do you have a method to overcome it?" Rita persists.

"I don't think writer's block exists," Margaret says.

She admits that a writer might come to a tough part in the book and not know how to continue. At that point, you need to trust in yourself and keep writing.

"You can call it Writer's Block, but I just call it avoidance." However, she does advise that you don't need to write things in chronological order. Just start with the most interesting thing and use that to get into the story.

* * *

"What drew you to the Arapaho?" asks another member of the audience.

As a 4th generation Coloradan, Margaret grew up on old stories her family would tell. Soon, she started getting interested in the people who had been there before. The Arapaho interested her because they were the "businessmen of the plains," always trading among the tribes. As such, they were peacekeepers, "because war is bad for business." At the same time they were a spiritual people and still are today.

While researching them, she discovered Chief Left Hand, who happened to be fluent in English. This was an amazing thing. Back then, the common language on the plains was sign language. But when the gold rush came, who was going to deal with the white man? Chief Left Hand's ability to negotiate led to his rise. He strove for peace and was a hero. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." He died in the San Creek Massacre, giving his life for his people.

Margaret was so fascinated by Chief Left Hand, she set off to write a magazine article. "5 years later, I had a book."

* * *

Kaleo, who leads the Brea Library Writer's Club, gets in the last question. "Any advice to writers who want to be published?"

Writers today have a lot of options. First thing you have to do is finish the book and make it the best you can. Then you put on your business cap and figure out how to sell. You have to be able to support the book and bring people to it.

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