Vail Valley books: Weaving western fact with fiction
Vail Daily correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –The western writing genre is certainly a varied one. There are those who live in the West and write stories that may not be about their home, but are informed by the vast stillness that is their landscape. There are also writers who live as far away as France who dare to take on the classically male, classically American western genre. Some authors blend fact and fiction, blur the lines of history, and delve into common cowboy and Indian stereotypes.
And then there is another type of western writer altogether; those who were born and raised in the west, and who write about the western landscape and people with an insight and truth that comes from a deeper understanding of this way of life. Margaret Coel is one such author.
When asked if western history informs her writing Coel says, “Inform my writing? It is my writing. I’m a fourth generation Coloradan and I grew up on the stories of our area. They became part of me. All of my novels weave in aspects of this great history of ours.”
Coel began her career as an historian writing non-fiction, and then made the switch to fiction with a series of mysteries set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Coel has just released her 14th installment in the series, “The Silent Spirit,” a story which brings the reader from Wyoming to California to solve a murder mystery that spans generations.
Coel is visiting Edwards on Thursday for an intimate lunch at Etown, hosted by The Bookworm. We recently talked to Coel about her adventures in Western writing.
Vail Daily: You began your career as an historian writing non-fiction. Why did you make the switch to fiction?
Margaret Coel: I think if you’re a writer of any kind, in your secret heart, you want to write a novel. That’s how it was for me. I wanted to see if I could do it.
VD: How much research do you do before you begin a novel?
MC: I do a lot of general reading on whatever topic I’ve decided to write about. For “The Silent Spirit,” which deals with a crime committed in 1923 in Hollywood, I dove into dozens of books on early Hollywood, which was a crazy, wild place. Walter Winchell, the columnist, called Hollywood a place that had to be seen to be disbelieved. I had so much fun researching that I had to tear myself away to write my novel. I also spent a few days in Hollywood checking out the lay of the land and going to the places that appear in the novel.
VD: Your Wind River series is a mystery series set among the Arapaho of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. What prompted you to write about the Arapaho in the context of the mystery genre?
MC: My interest in the history of Colorado led me to the Arapahos, who once lived on the eastern plains, along with the Cheyenne. That led to my first book, “Chief Left Hand,” a history of the Arapahos and a biography of one of their great leaders. After writing three other history books, including “Goin’ Railroading,” about Colorado’s early railroaders, I wanted to try my hand at a novel. I love mystery novels, so naturally I thought I would write a mystery novel. It was Tony Hillerman who gave me the idea of setting my mysteries among the Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation. By then I had spent a lot of time on the reservation and knew many of the people.
VD: How does Hollywood factor into the latest installment in the Wind River Mysteries?
MC: The story is based on actual history. In the 1920s, Arapahos and Shoshones from the Wind River Reservation went to Hollywood to appear in early silent Westerns, including the first epic Western, “The Covered Wagon.” I asked myself, what if one of the Arapahos disappeared in Hollywood back then, and what if, today, his great-grandson sets out to learn the truth and is himself murdered? Father John and Vicky, my detectives, soon realize that the murder in the present is connected to a murder almost 90-years ago in Hollywood. The story moves back and forth between the present on the reservation and 1920s Hollywood. The biggest challenge was not to give away too much of the story in the Hollywood chapters before Father John and Vicky have figured out what happened.
VD: Are your characters ever based on real people?
MC: They are not, at least consciously. But my Arapaho friends tell me that folks on the reservation are always trying to guess who the characters really are.
VD: What will be the next adventure for your Wind River characters?
MC: I’m putting the finishing touches on the next novel right now. Father John and Vicky will be back, and this time they are dealing with the arrival of an outsider on the rez, one who seems to bring murder with her.
VD: Do you have a favorite western writer?
MC: If you haven’t read the mysteries of Craig Johnson with their wry, funny take on today’s West and the wide-open spaces of Wyoming with its cast of unforgettable characters, you’re missing out on some great stories. His latest is “The Dark Horse.”
Besse Lynch works at The Bookworm of Edwards.