Margaret Coel (1937– ) is a New York Times best-selling author of both fiction and nonfiction. She is best known for her Wind River Mystery Series but has also published five nonfiction books, a book of short stories, and two additional mystery novels that take place in Denver. She is a fourth-generation Coloradan who has dedicated her writing career to the state and its history.
Margaret Coel’s family ties to Colorado go back to the year 1865. She is the daughter of Samuel F. Speas and Margaret McCloskey Speas. Coel’s mother, Margaret Speas, was an executive secretary for a large architectural firm for seventeen years until she decided to retire and stay home with her kids. Coel’s father, Samuel F. Spears, was a locomotive engineer for the Colorado & Southern Railroad.
Margaret Coel comes from a long line of pioneer railroaders. She and her father collaboratively wrote the book Goin’ Railroading, which tells a first-person story of railroading in the mountains and plains of Colorado. This work draws heavily on the stories passed down from her father and grandfather and details her family’s involvement in the railroad as well as the romance and difficulties of early railroad life. Goin’ Railroading, along with Chief Left Hand, has been listed by the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) as among the 100 best books on Colorado’s history.
Coel was born and raised in Denver. She attended and graduated from the Holy Family High School in Denver in 1955. While attending Holy Family High School she was involved in the school newspaper and the school’s theater productions, including its annual Gilbert and Sullivan show. Coel spent many of her early years writing. She wrote everything from short stories to newspaper articles. She said she knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a professional writer, a dream that inspired her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
After high school, Coel attended Marquette University, where she graduated in 1960 with a degree in journalism and a minor in French literature. In 1961 she married her husband, George W. Coel, a dentist in the Air Force. Together they had three children. Tragedy struck the family when their son Bill Coel passed away in 1976 at the age of thirteen. The couple currently has two daughters, Kristin Coel Henderson and Lisa Coel Harrison, who have provided them with six grandchildren.
The Coels moved to Alaska in 1961, following George Coel’s reassignment to Eielson Air Force Base outside of Fairbanks. They remained in Alaska until 1963, when they settled in Boulder, their current home.
Coel began her writing career shortly after graduating from Marquette University in 1960. While living in Alaska, she began freelancing for newspapers and magazines. Soon after returning to Colorado, she took a job as a reporter for the Westminster Journal, a small paper in the Denver suburb of Westminster. She covered almost everything that was going on in the small town, from city council meetings to the sheriff’s office. Coel says this is where she really learned how to do research and put it together into a story—a necessary skillset for writing a historical novel.
Soon after moving back to Colorado, she became interested in Niwot—also known as Chief Left Hand—an Arapaho leader who allowed the first white prospectors to camp near present-day Boulder. Coel set out to write an article for a western magazine about Niwot, but after extensive research she realized she had enough information to write a book. In 1981 Coel completed her book, Chief Left Hand, which was published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Coel has said she writes about the Arapaho people because they are Colorado people, even though most now live on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The Arapaho still have a very close affinity with Colorado and still consider it their home. She was also drawn to the Arapaho because they were diplomats and traders as well as warriors, activities that run counter to their traditional depiction in Western American lore. Coel maintains that one of the goals of her work is to get people to know the Arapahos as more than just warriors.
Coel first began visiting the Wind River Reservation in the 1970s when she was researching Chief Left Hand. During this time, she met many Arapahos who became and remain her dear friends. She spent a lot of time speaking to the elders and listening to their oral histories of early life on the plains. Coel attended the sun dance, sweat lodge ceremonies, feasts, and powwows. Some of her Arapaho friends have read through her manuscripts to make sure the information was correct and to give her feedback on the stories. In addition to her time talking with people on the reservation, she spent countless hours doing archival research there.
From History to Mystery
Coel has said her transition from nonfiction to fiction was difficult, but she maintains that “underneath every writer is a would-be novelist.” Coel realized that she had never tried writing fiction before and wanted to see if she could do it. She says the main difference in writing the two is that “in nonfiction you can tell the story, while in fiction you have to show the story.”
After four years of work, Coel’s first mystery novel, The Eagle Catcher, was published in 1995 by the University Press of Colorado. During the same four-year period, she also wrote two nonfiction books and a dozen articles.
Coel has said she chose mystery over other fiction genres because the situations that unfold in mysteries requires the characters to “put up their best game in what are often life and death situations.” She also believes that readers can learn a lot about how the world works from mystery novels. One of Coel’s themes in all of her books is the importance of understanding history. She has said that she wants her books to help people understand that their actions have a lasting effect on the world and that things done 100 years ago—both good and bad—are still being felt in the present. One of her other stated goals is to help others gain an appreciation for different people and cultures.
Coel’s Chief Left Hand received numerous awards, including the Best Non-Fiction Book Award from the National Association of Press Women in 1982, and it was named one of the best 100 books on Colorado History by the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) in 2001.
Her fictional works have also received praise. She received five Colorado book awards for her Wind River Mystery Series and another for her novel The Spirit Woman (2000). The Spirit Woman also won a Willa Cather Award, which recognizes outstanding literature about life on the Great Plains.
Coel’s other awards include the Frank Waters Award and the High Plains Emeritus Award in 2010, both of which recognize lifetime literary achievement. Coel has also been a keynote speaker at numerous events and has been invited to appear as a guest of honor at multiple book festivals.
Margaret Coel still lives in Boulder, where she says she is “sort of” retired, barring sudden inspiration for another novel. Coel still writes, though it is mostly newsletters and Facebook posts. After twenty books, she considers her Wind River series complete. If she were going to write another novel it would most likely be featuring the character Catherin McLeod, an urban Arapaho woman who works as an investigative reporter for a major Denver newspaper. This character comes from the Catherin McLeod mystery series, which currently has two installments.
In reflecting on her life, she said, “I did what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about Colorado’s history and its people and I did that” and that she “had a good time doing it.”