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Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Author Margaret Coel: What I’m Not Thinking
I’m excited today to welcome author Margaret Coel to Thoughts in Progress to talk about her writing and her recent release, NIGHT OF THE WHITE BUFFALO, the latest installment in her Wind River Mystery series.
Margaret’s series is one of my favorites as she explores Native American life and culture. Her work draws me in much like that of the late great author Tony Hillerman. Here’s a brief description of NIGHT OF THE WHITE BUFFALO.
In the latest Wind River novel, Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden and Father John O’Malley confront a ruthless killer in the wake of a miraculous event. A mysterious penitent confesses to murder, and then flees the confessional before Father John can identify him. Two months later, Vicky discovers rancher Dennis Carey shot dead in his truck along Blue Sky Highway. With the tragic news comes the exposure of an astonishing secret: the most sacred creature in Native American mythology, a white buffalo calf, was recently born on Carey’s ranch. Making national headlines, the miraculous animal draws a flood of pilgrims to the reservation, frustrating an already difficult investigation. As visitors throw the reservation into turmoil, Vicky and Father John try to unravel the strange events surrounding both Carey’s murder and the recent disappearances of three cowboys from his ranch. It could be coincidence, given the nomadic life of the cowboy trade, but when one of them fails to appear in court to testify on an assault charge, Vicky wonders if Arnie Walkfast and his Arapaho buddies are guilty of more than just assault. And at the back of Father John’s mind is the voice from the man in the confessional: I killed a man…
Now please join me in giving a warm welcome to Margaret and she talks about what she’s not thinking about. Welcome, Margaret.
I’m on my way to an author event where the hostess is known for asking authors what they think about as they write books. I can’t wait to hear what I’m going to say.
What was I thinking when I wrote NIGHT OF THE WHITE BUFFALO? I know what I was not thinking and what I am never thinking as I write.
I am not thinking about the words I type on the screen. Sometimes the words don’t make any sense. I don’t care. Sometimes I can’t find the exact word to fit the situation, so I type a series of X’s and write on. I am not thinking about grammar, which was why, years ago, I had to learn how to turn off that horrible function that corrects grammar before I killed it. (I do write mystery novels.) I am not thinking about whether whatever I’m writing should be in another chapter. In short I am not cutting, editing and polishing my first venture into a story. Which means I will have a one word answer to the question.
What was I thinking about? The story. From the moment I turn on the screen and type Chapter One, I am lost in the story. The house could burn down. I’m not sure when I might notice. A blizzard could rage outside, but if my story is set in the hot summer, I am mopping the sweat from my brow. Out my window may be a view of the rooftops of Boulder, but what I see are the wide open plains of the Wind River reservation. For NIGHT OF THE WHITE BUFFALO, I saw the buffalo herd out in the sage-studded pasture. I saw the dam sheltering her baby, and I saw the baby—a white buffalo calf that resembled a lamb. I saw the crowds and crowds of visitors flooding the reservation to see the most sacred of all the creatures. I saw the cowboys working on the ranch, and I saw what happened to them before the reader did. I saw Vicky Holden in court defending a client who might be a killer. I saw Father John O’Malley in the confessional listening to a penitent say: I killed a man.
A novel is always about story, and authors enter into the story in different ways. For me, writing is like watching a play. Actors enter stage right, say and do something and make their exits, while I type away, recording every move and word. I live the lives of all the characters simultaneously, laughing and crying when they do (I’ve shed a lot of tears over my keyboard), plotting revenge or forcing myself to do the right thing, making a general mess of my characters’ lives, then trying to extricate them (and myself) from the mess.
Non-writers may think writing is lonely work. Writers sit all day in front of a computer, no fellow office workers around, no one to shoot the bull with over the water cooler. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are never alone. We are surrounded all day by fascinating people who talk and act up and do all sorts of wonderfully interesting and surprising things. That’s because writers are telling the story to ourselves. I have no patience for the so-called post-modern, minimalist, theme-driven novels—or whatever tag may be current in literary circles--because they have abandoned story. And story is what we live by, what connects us to other human beings and helps us to make sense of our own lives. All great novels tell great stories.
Only after I have safety tucked the first draft away in my computer do I allow myself to step away from the story and take a more objective look. I move out of the creative—and fun—side of my brain into the practical, critical side and I become an editor. I edit the plot to make sure it makes sense, I check and recheck the facts. I change the words, always looking for the exact, the most precise word to convey my meaning. I move things around. Sometimes I move whole chapters. And I delete any thing that is superfluous, that isn’t absolutely crucial to—you got it! The story.
I spend weeks doing all of this so that, when the novel is finished, it is not the pretty words or a complicated style or a new novel-writing technique that might stop the reader in mid page. It is the story, just the story carrying the reader through to the end. Margaret, thanks so much for stopping by today and sharing this look at what’s going on while you’re writing. As readers we do tend to think of writing as a lonely art, but I can see where that’s not the case. Now let me share a bit of background on Margaret.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Margaret Coel is the New York Times best-selling author of the acclaimed Wind River mystery series set among the Arapahos on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation and featuring Jesuit priest Father John O'Malley and Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden. She is a native Coloradan who hails from a pioneer Colorado family. The West — the mountains, plains, and vast spaces — are in her bones, she says. She moved out of Colorado on two occasions — to attend Marquette University and to spend a couple of years in Alaska. Both times she couldn't wait to get back.
Along with the Wind River mystery series, Margaret is the author of five non-fiction books, including the award-winning Chief Left Hand, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. This biography of an Arapaho chief and history of the Arapahos in Colorado has never gone out of print. The Colorado Historical Society has included both Chief Left Hand and Margaret's memoir-history of railroading in Colorado, Goin' Railroading (which she wrote with her father, Samuel F. Speas) among the best 100 books on Colorado history.
Margaret writes in a small study in her home on a hillside in Boulder. The window frames a view of the Rocky Mountains and the almost-always blue sky. A herd of deer are usually grazing just outside, and one summer a couple of years ago, a mountain lion made its home closeby.
Thanks so much for stopping by today during Margaret’s visit. What is it that holds you attention to a story? Is it the writer’s style, the theme of the story or just the essence of where the writer is taking you on that particular journey?
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