Author Margaret Coel was drawn to 1920s Hollywood, when cowboy-turned-actor Tim McCoy recruited 300 Shoshone and Arapaho Indians to act in the silent film “The Covered Wagon.”
She knew she wanted to write about it, but she wasn’t sure how to get the mystery in there.
A historian and author of both fiction and nonfiction, Coel did what she does with every piece of writing. She started with more research.
Digging through the past, she came across accounts of crimes committed in old Hollywood covered up by the studios.
“I thought, ‘OK, I can do this,’” Coel said.
The result is “The Silent Spirit,” the 14th installment in Coel’s Wind River mystery series, set on the Wind River Reservation.
The fictional novel, published by Berkley Prime Crime, intertwines two mysteries, one in the past and one in the present. Arapaho man Charlie Wallowingbull never returns home after the filming of the movie. Three generations later, his great-grandson Kiki searches for the truth. But his body is found later on the shore of the Little Wind River.
Coel’s central characters, Jesuit priest John O’Malley and Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden investigate.
CS-T: How did you come to choose the reservation as a setting for your stories? What role does the landscape play?
A fourth-generation Coloradan, Coel grew up on stories of the region’s history. The Arapahos lived on the Colorado plains before the west was settled. Half of the Arapahos were sent to Wyoming by the federal government in the 1870s, and that’s why Coel writes about the Wind River Reservation -- because the Arapahos are there.
In the late 1970s, Coel began researching Chief Left Hand, a leader of the Plains Indians in the mid-1800s.
“I set out to write a magazine article on him and I just got so into the archives,” Coel said. Her work evolved into a book, published in 1981.
“And that is the book that took me into the Arapaho world.”
Inspired in part by renowned author Tony Hillerman, who wrote about the Navajo culture, Coel decided to try fiction.
In her mystery series, the landscape plays a central role, and Coel’s characters always have to contend with it.
“I look at the landscape of Wyoming as its own character,” Coel said. “… They’re out there in the middle of this wide open space. There is no place to hide – they can’t even hide from themselves. I think it’s a metaphor, in a way, for the mysteries they’re trying to uncover.”
CS-T: Tell us more about the research you had to do for your series. How did you get to know the Arapaho community?
When first researching Chief Left Hand’s biography, Coel got up the courage to call author Virginia Cole Trenholm, well known for her book “The Arapahoes, Our People.”
“That was my lucky day,” Coel said.
Trenholm offered to take Coel to the reservation and introduce her to her friends. Trenholm was very respected on the reservation, Coel said, and in turn the community took a liking to Coel.
Since then, Coel has been to countless powwows, ceremonies and celebrations. She does independent anthropological research on her own and spends time each year visiting the reservation. Coel sends manuscripts to two friends to “go over it with a fine-toothed comb.”
“They mark up everything they don’t like and send it back, and I go through,” Coel said. “… I’m very concerned about leaving an accurate impression.”
CS-T: The stories you tell are somewhat based on real-life crimes, is that right?
“Not necessarily. They are based on history and things that happened in the past,” Coel said.
Sometimes a newspaper clipping will inspire a larger plot, but history often plays a major role. Her latest in the Wind River mystery series deals with the real-life silent film “The Covered Wagon.”
CS-T: How did you develop your two main characters, Father John O’Malley and Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden? “They’re purely fictional, but it’s a great game they’re playing (on the reservation) trying to figure out who these characters are,” Coel said.
Coel wanted a strong woman in the novel and a strong Arapaho voice. The result was Vicky Holden.
She had not originally envisioned a priest playing a central role in her stories, but she wanted one of the characters to be an outsider to the culture, much like herself.
St. Stephens Mission served as inspiration. In the fictional stories, Father John O’Malley serves as pastor at St. Francis Mission.
“He’d come into this culture not knowing it, and my readers could come along on that journey,” Coel said.
After 14 books, Coel’s main characters remain fresh.
“I’m not tired of them yet,” Coel said. “I think characters tend to not be fresh when they’re not learning anything new, when you realize you’re writing the same thing. I haven’t felt that yet.”
CS-T: What have you learned from your work with the reservation?
“Certainly it has impacted my own life,” the author said.
Coel is inspired by the way elders are treated in the Arapaho culture. She likes to say that when she lets her hair go gray, she’s going to the reservation.
Coel has also learned from the deep spirituality, rituals and the sacredness of ceremonies she’s observed, she said.
“They give a lot of strength,” Coel said. “… It has made me stop and think, ‘Maybe I should be a little more tolerant, maybe there’s something to this.’”
Colorado native Margaret Coel is the author of the 14-part Wind River mystery series set on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation.
Her novels have been widely acclaimed and appear on the best-seller lists of multiple newspapers, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.
"The Spirit Woman" won the Colorado Book Award and the Willa Cather Award for Best Novel of the West. It was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best Novel. "The Shadow Dancer" also won the Colorado Book Award.
Coel also writes nonfiction books, and her biography "Chief Left Hand" has been listed by the Colorado Historical Society as one the best 100 books on the state's history.
For more on Coel, visit her Web site: margaretcoel.com
‘Fine Just the Way It Is’
By Annie Proulx
Scribner, September 2009, paperback, 221 pages, $15
"Fine Just the Way It Is" presents nine stories based in the dangerous, rough Wyoming territory. The collection is Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx's third based here.
In it, you'll find widows and aging cowboys, ranch hands just trying to get by and a hiker who makes a life-ending mistake.
Proulx is the author of "Brokeback Mountain." She has written three novels, three short story collections and the acclaimed "The Shipping News." She is also winner of a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, two O'Henry Prizes and a PEN/Faulkner Award.
‘The Daily Coyote: A Story of Love, Survival, and Trust in the Wilds of Wyoming’
By Shreve Stockton
Simon & Schuster, November 2009, paperback, 287 pages, $16
Shreve Stockton was moving from San Francisco to New York City when she found Wyoming.
“Acting on a daydream,” the photographer and writer got on her 150cc Vespa ET4 and hit the road for two months, 6,000 miles.
“On my ride across America, I took a sweeping path through Wyoming and fell in love at first sight, love at the very border,” Stockton writes in her book, “The Daily Coyote.” “I felt magnetized to the land, to the red dirt and the Bighorn Mountains and the wide-openness I had no idea still existed in this country.”
She made it to New York, but Wyoming kept its hold. Stockton searched the Internet for rentals and found one in Ten Sleep. Without ever visiting the town, she mailed a deposit and moved west.
“Great unknowns were out there to be seen, felt, experienced; this was what life meant to me, this was what life was for,” she writes.
Stockton’s memoir, “The Daily Coyote,” stems from a blog she keeps of the same name. It documents her new life in Wyoming raising an orphaned coyote named Charlie.
Read Stockton’s blog at www.dailycoyote.net
‘Spoon: A Novel’
By Robert Greer
Fulcrum Publishing, October 2009, hardcover, 256 pages, $24.95
This is the first time we meet Arcus Witherspoon in a novel. But author Robert Greer has known him for a long time.
Greer created the fictional character more than 20 years ago, the summer after he got his master's in creative writing at Boston University. He had a professor read his story but was told the character needed more development, Greer explains on his Web site. Greer rewrote over the years, and the result was “Spoon,” a literary novel of suspense.
Witherspoon is a “mysterious half-black, half-Indian, oddly clairvoyant” man who served time in prison and did a navy tour in Vietnam. Spoon is in search of his roots.
He comes across a family ranch in Montana and stays through the family's economic hardships. Spoon tries to help the Darley family and mentor their son, TJ, as a coal company threatens their ranch.
“Yet even in the darkness, I could feel Spoon’s presence, imagine him breathing, see his incisive, deep-set eyes and weathered brown skin,” writes Greer from TJ Darley’s perspective. “He was there all right, and I had the strange sudden sense that he’d become a guidepost for me.”
Greer is the author of the CJ Floyd mystery series, two medical thrillers and a collection of short stories, “Isolation and Other Stories.” He is a practicing pathologist and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado. Greer owns a cattle ranch in Wyoming.
‘The Light in High Places’
By Joe Hutto
Skyhorse Publishing; Nov. 15, 2009; hardcover; 276; $24.95
‘The Light in High Places’ documents writer and field biologist Joe Hutto’s journey to discover why the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep population is declining. He follows bighorn herds and intertwines stories of ecology and Wyoming’s cowboy with that of the sheep.
He writes in his preface: “Humanity and wilderness appear to be in opposition – in contradiction – but in the most vital and elemental sense, we may discover that we are in fact, in the end, inseparable.”
Hutto has been “an intermittent resident” of Wyoming for more than 30 years. His writing and artwork have been featured in national newspapers, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, Orion magazine and Florida Wildlife magazine.
Hutto owns and operates a ranch north of Lander.
‘Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains’
By Patrick Dobson
University of Nebraska Press, 2009, hardcover, 296 pages, $29.95
For two and a half months in 1995, Patrick Dobson traveled from Kansas City, Mo., to Helena, Mont., on foot, accepting rides when offered.
“Taking off across the plains struck me as the right and proper thing to do,” Dobson writes in his book, “Seldom Seen.” “I would inundate myself in sky and land. Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming, I thought, would show me a way to find a new life.”
Along the way he met others in the midst of their own personal journeys. “Seldom Seen” serves as a record of Dobson’s travels and provides a portrait of who we really are.
“What I knew of people and towns of the plains, I had gathered from rest stops and gas stations,” writes Dobson, who had only seen the Great Plains from inside a car before this trip. “I wanted to move slower, to feel the distance and lose myself in it. I wanted to know the plains more deeply than from conversations with strangers filling their gas tanks or coffee thermoses. With decent shoes and a backpack I would become familiar with the scenery and its people.”
Dobson currently lives in Kansas City, Mo., with his wife and two children. He is pursuing his doctorate in U.S. environmental history and American literature at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
‘The Word Reclaimed’
By Steve Rzasa
Marcher Lord Press, 2009, paperback, 449 pages, $14.99
It’s the year 2602, and teenager Baden Haczyk is trying not to bicker with his father aboard the vessel Natalia Zoja.
While exploring a wrecked starship in deep space, a small white container floating in debris catches his eye. When he touches it, images and voices flash through his mind, leaving him gasping for air.
Baden has discovered a Bible, unseen for centuries since all printed materials have been banned. The teenager finds himself in a race through the Realm of Five, trying to escape the religious police.
Author Steve Rzasa lives in Buffalo with his wife, Carrie, and two sons. He won an award this year in the Athanatos Christian Ministries Writing Contest for the short story “Rescued,” which is set in the universe of “The Word Reclaimed.”
Available at amazon.com or through Marcher Lord Press, a Christian speculative fiction publisher (marcherlordpress.com).