Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer - A Story Archeologist

Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer - A Story Archeologist

SARAH ELISABETH SAWYER is a story archeologist. She digs up shards of past lives, hopes, and truths, and pieces them together for readers today. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian honored her as a literary artist through their Artist Leadership Program for her work in preserving Choctaw Trail of Tears stories. A tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, she writes historical fiction from her hometown in Texas, partnering with her mother, Lynda Kay Sawyer, in continued research for future works. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about her book, Canyon War.

Please give us a short introduction to what Canyon War is about.

Traveling the West as a female physician, 34-year-old Doctor Rebekah LaRoche is no stranger to trouble. But on her way to New Mexico Territory, an unexpected stay in Amarillo, Texas, leads to a confrontation with the Baxter clan – four brothers bred for trouble – and finds Rebekah in deep trouble.

Cattle rancher Clem Baxter's private war over grazing rights in the Palo Duro Canyon turns disastrous, and when the dust settles, one of the Baxter brothers is hurt bad. Clem sends for a doctor, not a woman, but that's what he gets when Rebekah, known as "Doc Beck," arrives at the ranch. Now held at Clem's ranch against her will, Rebekah must plot to flee through the night with her young friend into the dangers and beauty of the Palo Duro Canyon.

Of Omaha Indian and French descent, Rebekah has always relied on her wits to get her out of any situation. But does that include facing down men willing to die—and kill—for a wild piece of land just as dangerous as any bullet?

What inspired you to write this story? Was there anything in particular that made you want to tackle this?

Several years ago, I came across the story of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha), the first American Indian doctor. I was fascinated with her story and knew it would inspire a character someday. It did when I created Doctor Rebekah LaRoche (Doc Beck), an Omaha Indian doctor traveling the West. I grew up on old Westerns and wanted to explore the genre from a Native perspective.


You call yourself a story archeologist. Why?

Crafting a story feels more like the process of discovering pieces that are buried. I’m simply digging the pieces up, assembling them, and putting the final piece on display for readers.

How much research did Canyon War require from you? What was the most interesting aspect of this research?

Being a Texan, I’ve wanted to use the Palo Duro Canyon in a story. I visited there in 2015, and it was so fun to go back in my memory and photos to capture the wild beauty of the canyon. For Rebekah, researching the background of Dr. Picotte was a joy. Susan’s is a truly remarkable story, and though Rebekah’s isn’t a mirror of Susan’s real life, their backgrounds are similar and I’ve grown to respect her so much.

Tell us more about Doc Beck. What makes her tick?

Her drive is to serve her Omaha people, but when a tragedy leads to her being banned from the Reservation, she is determined to seek out anyone who will receive her help. Female physicians are rare in the 1890s West, but healing is what she does. She’s strong and determined, yet with a heart soft enough to take in “strays” like her new friend, Jimmy, whom she meets in this book. He becomes her sidekick for the series.

What did you have the most fun with when writing Canyon War?

Writing the action-packed, rough, and tumble scenes. The kind of story my daddy would have enjoyed reading. He passed in 2012, but left the love of Westerns with me.

Readers say your story brought vivid images to mind. How did you pull this off?

I think the fact that I’ve actually been in the Palo Duro Canyon. Photos truly don’t do it justice, and there’s nothing like walking the terrain you are capturing in words. I was there in the afternoon through sunset, and it was remarkable to watch the rapidly changing colors on the canyon walls. I hope the descriptions inspire readers to visit the canyon themselves!

This is book 1 of a series. Can it be read as a standalone? How do the other books in the series tie in with this one?

It can be read as a standalone, yet it’s intended as a launch for the entire series of 12 books (8 books currently available for binge reading!). We meet Rebekah and Just Jimmy, a sixteen-year-old boy who knows the West and adds the humor and caregiving Rebekah didn’t realize she needed in life.

Do you ever suffer from writer's block? If so, what do you do to combat it?

If I start to get sluggish on writing and editing, I do Morning Pages for a week or two. It’s a three-page brain dump that really helps me work out whatever is in my head so I can get on with writing. Sometimes I brainstorm story problems there. Mostly though, it’s prayer on a page for me where I talk to my Father.

Why did you title this "Canyon War"?

The main conflict in the story is caused by the Baxter brothers, who want to dominate a grazing section in the canyon, and the Lowells, who homestead and run sheep in the area. It’s a classic range-feud-type story, with an Omaha female doctor caught in the middle.

Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?

I write mostly by dictation now. I love getting in a comfortable spot, sometimes at my desk with my office chair leaning back and feet on my desk (terrible posture!) and relaxed with instrumental music in my earbuds. I usually have my outline pulled up on my computer or iPad to follow along while I record words on my phone. I write anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 words in a session. My record is 11,000 words in a day when I had a deadline to meet!

What are you working on right now?

Outlining the final 4 Doc Beck Western books, and doing a heavy edit on book 5 in my Choctaw Tribune historical fiction series. I have a contract with Chickasaw Press for a nonfiction book on WWI Choctaw/Chickasaw war hero, Otis W. Leader, so I’m working on it, too. And I just released a course for authors: Fiction Writing: American Indians (

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

Readers, you can download a free copy of my novel, The Executions (Choctaw Tribune Series, Book One) here: That will add you to my VIP reader newsletter so we can stay in touch. You can also find me at and my website,