Author rounds up award-winning stories

Dawn Nelson writes about Western life

Dawn Nelson can be hard to track down. The author is more likely to be found rounding up cattle, castrating bulls or weaning calves than sitting in front of her computer.

That’s probably just as well because her novels and her nonfiction short-story collections spring from her life on her family’s cattle ranch near Creston, Wash.

In September she celebrated the release of her fourth novel and third nonfiction anthology with a cruise on Lake Coeur d’Alene. Nelson, 32, is too busy to be considered reclusive, but the limelight doesn’t appeal to her. “I love seeing my books out there, but I don’t like to be the center of attention,” she said.

The fourth-generation cattle rancher had no literary aspirations while growing up. In fact, she didn’t even graduate from high school. “My dad got really sick when I was 14,” she said. “So they pulled me out of school – they needed me on the ranch.” She’s quick to add, “My mom asked me to take the GED, and I did, and passed it on the first try.”

But her real education took place in the fields, hills and valleys of rural Washington. Nelson said with a grin. “My dad always called me his right-hand man.”

She took a job at a veterinarian’s office as a teen, and worked on a dude ranch as well. “I was a wrangler,” she said. “I took dudes out on their rides and met people from Europe, China and Puerto Rico – they had amazing stories to tell.”

Nelson met her husband, Kris Nelson, while training colts. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “He thought I was like, 14, and didn’t want to talk to me!”

Two years later, they met again at a barn dance. “I tried for a half an hour to get him to dance with me,” she said. When he failed to be persuaded, she tried another tactic. “I did what any red-blooded American girl would do – I got him drunk and gave him my phone number. I said, ‘If you want to make something of it, call me,’ ” she said with a smile. “He called.”

They married at the Hitching Post in Coeur d’Alene on Sept. 25, 2002, and settled in a little house on the Nelson family ranch.

When she was six months pregnant with her daughter, Nelson discovered a lump in her breast. Her doctor told her it most likely was cancer. “They wanted me to abort the pregnancy. They said if it was cancer it was fast-growing.”

Nelson didn’t tell her husband. Instead, she picked up a tablet and a pen. “I started writing down the stories of my life for Laren. I wanted her to know her mother, in case something happened to me.”

Following Laren’s birth in 2005, Nelson’s grandfather became ill. “Grandpa was my shining star – my mentor. He was everything to me.” Her grandfather died when Laren was a year old, and Nelson finally told her husband about the lump in her breast.

“We went to a new doctor in Spokane who said the good news was it wasn’t cancer,” Nelson said. “But it was a very large tumor – most likely the result of being kicked by a horse as a kid.”

She underwent a bilateral mastectomy followed by several reconstructive surgeries. Housebound and unable to work the ranch, Nelson picked up a pen again. “I decided it would be fun to write books. I needed something to keep my mind occupied,” she said. “I wrote my first novel ‘Cowgirl’s Justice’ while recovering from my mastectomy.”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, a friend discovered the manuscript Nelson had written for her daughter. She sent it to Russ Davis at Gray Dog Press in Spokane. Nelson said, “When Russ emailed me I had no idea what he was talking about!”

When it became clear Davis wanted to publish her book, Nelson was thrilled and told him she had just finished a novel.

In 2009, Gray Dog Press released “A Cowgirl’s Justice,” and her collection of stories written for her daughter, “A Cowgirl Remembers When …”

“A Cowgirl Remembers When…” went on to earn the Academy of Western Artists 2010 Buck Ramsay Award and was a finalist in the 2011 New York Book Festival as well as the 2010 Western Music Association Outstanding Story Telling Collection.

Nelson hasn’t looked back. Four novels, three nonfiction collections, one cookbook and one cowboy poetry CD later, she’s working on her first non-Western themed novel. Her second collection of nonfiction stories “A Cowgirl Never Forgets,” has been nominated for the 2012 Academy of Western Artists Book of the Year Award.

In addition, she’s in negotiation with an independent film company for the movie rights to her first novel. “They’re hoping to start filming soon and I’d really like them to shoot it in Washington,” she said.

Her books are found at Hastings, Barnes and Noble and Auntie’s, as well as online, but readers can also find them at more unusual places like feed stores. “Every summer I’d toss Laren in the pickup and load up a box of books,” Nelson said. “I stopped at every feed store, Western store and bookstore I could find.”

She also takes her books where she takes her bulls – to cattle sales across the West. “I went to California for the Red Bluff Bull Sale and set up a book table next to my bulls. I sold 300 books,” she said.

Nelson has found a way to combine her lifelong passion for ranching with her newfound penchant for writing. She said, “I have a voice that’s all my own.”

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