By Margaret Coel
Where do you get your ideas? Every author hears that question a lot. Out of the blue, is my answer. Writing a series means I am always waiting for an idea to drop out of the blue for the next Father John O’Malley/Vicky Holden adventure. The idea for Winter’s Child did just that a number of years ago when I stumbled across the photo of an Arapaho couple, taken about 1920. They wore traditional Arapaho clothing, headdresses and beaded necklaces, and stared poker-faced into the camera as if a camera wasn’t the most curious thing they had ever encountered.
An Arapaho couple, except that the woman wasn’t Arapaho. She was white. Married to an Arapaho man named John Brokenhorn and living on the Wind River Reservation.
Whoa! I said to myself. A white woman who had become Arapaho? How did that come about? This was the idea that eventually led to Winter’s Child.
What I found out about the woman was that she had been born Elizabeth Fletcher, the youngest child of a white family, who called her Lizzie. In 1865, the Fletcher family was crossing the plains when Cheyennes and Arapahos attacked their wagons and captured two-year-old Lizzie. From that moment her life changed into one her family could not have imagined. She grew up Cheyenne, but she married an Arapaho and began living with the Arapahos, eventually going with them to the Wind River Reservation. She became Arapaho.
The idea of a white-Arapaho never left me. A couple years ago, I started thinking again about Lizzie Brokenhorn and wondering what it must have been like for her to assume a new identity, become someone else. She may have been very young when she was captured, yet everyday she had to see the whiteness of her skin, the reddish blond color of her hair and know that she was different. She was someone else.
I started asking the what if questions: What if a white child appeared on the reservation today and became Arapaho? Where did this child come from? Who had brought her to the reservation and why? Where was her white family? Now that she identified as Arapaho, what would become of her? And the last what if question was this: what might two white girls who lived a century apart have in common?
The more I thought about the idea, the more I realized I had hit upon a mystery wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside—well, another mystery. There were mysteries all around for Father John and Vicky to untangle, and plenty of reasons someone might not want them to succeed. In fact, might do whatever it took, including murder, to keep the secrets of the past hidden.
Not the least of the mysteries Father John and Vicky must confront is that of identity. Are we more than who we think we are? Do we create our identities, or do our identities create us? When we find ourselves in places or circumstances we had never planned, as is the case with both Father John and Vicky, how do we plot our way forward?
Big questions to ponder, but those are the kind of questions that draw Father John and Vicky into the story and keep them involved until they find the answers. The questions certainly kept me involved as I wrote the story—or rather, as the story seemed to unfold on its own—and I hope they will keep you involved as you go along on this adventure.
About the author:
Margaret Coel is the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of The Thunder Keeper, The Spirit Woman, The Lost Bird, The Story Teller, The Dream Stalker, The Ghost Walker, The Eagle Catcher, and several works of nonfiction. She has also authored many articles on the people and places of the American West. Her work has won national and regional awards. Her first John O’Malley mystery, The Eagle Catcher, was a national bestseller, garnering excellent reviews from the Denver Post, Tony Hillerman, Jean Hager, Loren D. Estleman, Stephen White, Earlene Fowler, Ann Ripley and other top writers in the field. A native of Colorado, she resides in Boulder.