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Behind the Story with Margaret Coel

Here's another glance at how one of my novels came to be written. Hope you enjoy.

The Dream Stalker

The Dream Stalker

Do I believe in six degrees of separation? Absolutely. It has worked for me as as a writer more times than I can count. The theory is simple: We are all connected by no more than six people. The Pope? The Governor? Tom Hanks? Think about it. You could reach them all if you really wanted to.

Here is how the six degrees worked for me with The Dream Stalker. In the mid-90s, the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming roiled with controversy over the possibility of building a nuclear waste disposal facility. Arapahos divided themselves into "for" and "against" camps, with the "for" camp emphasizing benefits: Good jobs, advanced training and educational opportunities; an economic boost for everybody. The "against" camp kept saying: Hey, do we really want radioactive material in our neighborhood? As one of my Arapaho friends put it, "If a nuclear waste disposal facility is such a good thing, why not build it in Manhattan?"

In the end, the reservation turned down the opportunity.

But I couldn't shake the idea. Here were all the ingredients for a mystery novel, practically served up on a platter. Controversy, high stakes, lots of opportunities for corruption and the chance for less-than-honest people to cash out. Hmmmm! Somebody might even get riled up enough to commit murder. And I could plunk down my characters, Father John O'Malley and Vicky Holden, in the middle of it all.

Little by little, the plot began to take shape.

Road to the Little Wind River

I set out to write the novel and immediately realized I didn't know anything about nuclear waste disposal facilities. I needed an expert.

The trick to making the six degrees of separation theory work is to pick the right starting point. Since this was before the Internet, I couldn't just Google nuclear waste disposal expert. And if I had been able to do that, it doesn't mean I could have found somebody willing to help me. For that, I needed a personal connection, someone who could vouch for me.

Beautiful prairie lands of the Wind River Reservation

After a lot of thought, I called a friend at the Western Governors Association. "I know just the person," she told me. She called a nuclear waste disposal expert in Washington, D.C., who turned out to be one of the nation's leading experts on the subject, and—because she vouched for me—he agreed to help me.

I did not need to know everything about nuclear waste disposal—I didn't need to become the expert. But I needed specific information that related to my story, which my new friend was willing to walk me through. He even read the manuscript before the novel was published to make sure I had gotten it all right.

Six degrees of separation? Heck. I only needed two.

Margaret Coel

Buy The Dream Stalker:
IndieboundAmazonBarnes & Noble

"Coel enchants and intrigues by presenting uniformly well developed, realistic characters...from O'Malley and Holden to the most peripheral walk-ons—who face difficult moral choices. Against a vivid landscape and accurate historical backdrop, Coel injects drama and surprise into every corner of her story. Heartily recommended."

"Margaret Coel is occupying Tony Hillerman turf, and she is the best challenger so far. Coel is worth watching."
The Boston Globe

Read more about the Wind River Mysteries.

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Margaret Coel  

Previous Behind the Story Newsletters:
The Ghost Walker
The Eagle Catcher