Monday, February 1, 2016



Margaret Coel 

Author of the following novels set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming

The Eagle Catcher, The Ghost Walker, The Dram Stalker, The Story Teller, The Lost Bird
The Spirit Woman, The Thunder Keeper, The Shadow Dancer, Killing Raven, Wife of Moon, Eye of the Wolf, The Drowning Man, The Girl With Braided Hair, The Silent Spirit

In each story, the dual protagonists, Father John O'Malley and Arapaho lawyer, Vicky Holden, work together to solve murders that involve the Arapahos and their surrounding communities. Father John and Vicky's relationship is one that has an undercurrent of unspoken love. So in each novel, the question is always there - Will they ever declare their love for each other?

Coel has endeared herself to the Arapaho people because her stories convey a sympathetic, honest portrayal of the modern day Arapaho.  

So How Does She Do It?

How does Coel consistently produce these quality novels? Does she have a formula? Does she have a brilliant editor? Why doesn't she get bored with the same protagonists?  Why are readers hooked on these novels?

Coel, I found, works in a meticulous and organized way.  After an early morning walk each day, she goes to her study and works for about five hours on her current novel. After that she works on the business part of writing, and then finishes her work day with research.  

So what does she actually do during that five hour writing spell? In interviews that I read from her, she says that she creates an outline based on a mystery novel formula, works out character profiles, and then writes.

It just sounds too easy, doesn't it? Many authors write like this. Writing classes teach budding authors to use outlines, formulas, and character profiles. So what lifts Coel's writing from the mediocre to the sublime?

Hear are a few observations:

1. Unique subject matter:  How many of us think about Arapahos outside of an old Western?

2. Credible and familiar characters:  Father John and Vicky Holden are very realistic. The reader is privy to their thoughts which reveal their hopes, fears, desires, and frustrations.

3. Details:  Each chapter is replete with sensory details that put the reader right there. Some details that Coel uses are unique because they show the history behind things.

In addition to all the above, Coel crafts each chapter as a separate scene where something happens. Vicky drives someplace, Father John pays a visit to a family, people hold a conversation somewhere. There is always a defined place where an event happens and each event is a step along the path to solving the mystery.

If I were ever to meet Margaret Coel, I would tell her thank you for opening a window to the Arapaho for me.  I don't think I would have learned about them in any other way.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016


Maeve Binchy: Quintessential Irish Story Teller

Though she passed away in 2012, Maeve Binchy's story telling abilities continue to astound me. When I read her stories, I get lost in the lives of the characters. They jump right out of the pages. I don't have to work hard to understand their actions, motives, likes, dislikes, and problems.   The narrative is simple, yet profound. So how did Binchy do this?

My research turned up articles about Binchy's personal life, her books, and her fans, but very little serious critiquing has been done on her actual writing style.  No one, it seems, has analyzed how these deceptively simple stories are able to reveal such profound human truths.

I found some answers from Binchy herself when she shared her writing process on an on-line video. She explained with the audience that her characters just do ordinary things where they make mistakes, and we can see them making the mistakes, but in the end, they take control of their lives. They don't end up indulging in pity parties.  Binchy also shared three secrets:

1. Write like you are talking to a friend.
2. Listen to how real people converse.
3. Write a minimum of five pages, twice a week, every week of the year.

Perhaps a 100 years from now,  Binchy's stories will be read, loved, book clubbed, fan clubbed, and smothered with affection the way Jane Austin's books are treated now.  To my surprise,  I learned that in Austin's time, her readers credited her with writing fashionable stories, rather than great stories. It wasn't until the 1940's that her books began to receive literary merit from English professors and others. Binchy's stories have yet to be viewed as literary masterpieces, but I say, give them time.

I would love to have a cup of Irish tea with Ms. Binchy to see what else she might tell me about her writing methods, but I have a suspicion that she would just point to the three secrets and say something like, "There it is, now get on with it!"