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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Author Interview - Margaret Coel

Mysteries and My Musings is immensely grateful that Margaret Coel agreed to honor us with an interview.  You can read the review of her latest novel, The Spider's Web, here.  She is a fellow native Coloradan who hails from a pioneer Colorado family. The West — the mountains, plains, and vast spaces — are in her bones, she says. 

Along with the Wind River mystery series, Margaret Coel 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 recently included Chief Left Hand among the best 100 books on Colorado history.

She 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.

"Every day,"she says, "I drink in the West."  

- Do you start your next mystery with the killer, the victim or a plot idea?

I always start with the plot idea, usually just a tiny spark of something I think would be interesting to write about.  For The Spider's Web, the tiny idea was that of an outsider arriving on the Wind River Reservation and bringing murder, chaos and distrust in her wake.  I let the idea float round for awhile, asking myself a lot of "what if?" questions.  What if the outsider is a psychopath?  What if the Arapahos blame her for the murder of an Arapaho man?  What if she appears to be innocent?   What if Father John senses something dangerous in her?  And what if Vicky takes her as a client?  How will that affect Vicky's relationship with her people?  With Father John?  Eventually, the tiny spark grows into the plot of the novel. 

- Do you outline the plot or some variation of that (a little/a lot of detail, a strict 3 act structure etc) before sitting down and writing?

I don't do a true outline.  Rather, it is more like a road map.  I map out where I'm going to start, how I'm going to go, and where I intend to end up.  What I never know until I get into the writing itself is what adventures my characters may have along the way, what marvelous things might develop that I hadn't foreseen.  But with my road map, the characters can't ever go too far afield.  At the same time, I think you always have to leave room for the surprises, because they can be wonderful.

- What is your process for developing a character? Do you use pictures, a worksheet or just let the character(s) tell you about him/herself as you write?

I begin by jotting down obvious facts about the character.  Physical description, hair and eye color, little ticks, background and education--all that kind of thing.  I ask myself, what is it this character WANTS?  Then I start writing, and I find that I learn all kinds of things about my characters as I write about them.  With The Spider's Web, Father John O'Malley and Vicky Holden make their fifteenth appearance, and you know what?  I am still learning new things about them.  

- How do you find time for writing, what works for you - and do you have anything special you do before writing, particular music or a special room/location that helps you get in the zone and write?

 I think of my writing as a job, and like any job, I do it everyday, except for Sundays (usually).  About the only ritual I have is that I walk three miles every morning before I start work.  I find walking not only loosens my muscles, it seems to loosen my brain and gets the ideas flowing.  While I love music, I prefer to work in silence.  Just me and my characters having a conversation.

- What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?

 I write in my office at home, and I try to get to the "office" by 9 am. and write 4 or 5 hours.  Then I spend a couple hours on the business part of the writing business, dealing with agents, editors, publicists, emails, speaking requests and so on.  Also I do a lot of research for each novel, so I spend time reading and gathering information on the internet.  Makes for very full days that usually don't end until 6 p.m. or so.  I can write a novel in 6 months or less.  But each year, I not only write a novel, I write short stories, essays, book reviews, book introductions--all kinds of pieces.

- What in your background prepared you to write mystery novels?

Absolutely nothing.  Except for the fact that I always loved to read mystery novels from the time I discovered Nancy Drew--and that was a long time ago.  I have always followed the advice I was given years ago by a writing teacher:  Write what you love to read.  I love to read history, and I wrote four history books.  I love to read biography and wrote a biography.  I love to read mysteries---so there you are.

- How did you get your first break toward getting published?  Was it at a writer's conference or mailing a query letter etc?

My experience was different for the non-fiction/history books, which I wrote, submitted to the publishers myself, and had them accepted. 

To sell a mystery novel, I knew I would need an agent.  First, I wrote the novel, The Eagle Catcher.  Not until I had the completed novel did I put on my business cap and go out to sell it. Remember, you can't sell something that doesn't exist!   I attended conferences where I met agents and editors.  I did a lot of networking among my writer friends. And, yes, I sent out queries.   Through all of that I located my first agent who not only sold The Eagle Catcher to Berkley Publishing, but got me a contract for the next two novels.   

- What are you currently reading?

 Innocent, by Scott Turow.  It is excellent.

- What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

  I can't write without my cup of tea. I've been known to drive to the grocery just for tea because I was out.   No tea, no writing.

- Do you participate in a critique group (or have you in the past?) What are the pros and cons of critique groups?

  I was part of a critique group when I started writing my first novel, The Eagle Catcher.  I found the experience very helpful.  We met every two weeks and brought a part of our chapters to read.  I learned a lot about what was working and what wasn't in my novel from the other members' comments.  The time came when I felt confident to strike out on my own, but  I recommend critique groups as a way to get started. At the very least, you always  have to write something for the next meeting, so it spurs you on.  No excuses.

Thank You Ms. Coel for that great interview!!

Please leave comments and show Ms. Coel our appreciation for her time.

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