Thursday, October 29, 2009

Guest Blogger: Mike Cox

Today, author Mike Cox is visiting. In 1993, he was elected to membership in the Texas Institute of Letters. For 20 years Mike was a newspaper reporter, and he’s also the author of 13 nonfiction books including a study of Texas disasters, three books on the Texas Rangers, one collection historical stories, one true crime story, a biography, a memoir and three local histories, as well as numerous magazine articles, essays and introductions for other books. You’ll find his byline in both state and national magazines.

Today, he’s talking about what you can learn from research.

Welcome, Mike Cox.

When I do the research for my books, including the second of my two-volume history of the Texas Rangers, Time of the Rangers, I like to visit as many of the places I write about as I can.

I’ve been to the remote Coal Mine Ranch in Presidio County, where Mexican bandits killed a Ranger in 1915. I’ve spent hours walking around Camp Mabry in Austin, where the Rangers officed before the Texas Department of Public Safety built its current headquarters in the early 1950s. I’ve been to the Walls prison unit in Huntsville, where narco kingpin Fred Gomez
Carrasco tried to escape in 1974 only to be thwarted by Rangers and other officers.

But until recently I’d never visited Snake-den Tank.

As I explain in Time of the Rangers, the men (and now women) who wear the distinctive silver Ranger badge have always been welcome guests on the ranches they helped bring law and order to. Since at least the 1950s, the famous 6666 Ranch near Guthrie has hosted an annual get together for the Rangers at a large stock tank on one of its sections.

Rangers gather to shoot, compare notes with colleagues, eat well and, at least at the Snake-den Tank, work in a little off-duty fishing. It’s even possible they will play a few hands of poker or sip something stronger than iced tea.

Snake-den Tank is aptly named, being a great place to run across a rattlesnake – or several. Retired Senior Ranger Captain Lefty Block, an old friend, tells me the only accommodation at Snake-den used to be a drafty plank shack. Often, when Rangers first arrived to set up camp, they found it full of snakes.

One time, Block says, he and several other Rangers had broken for lunch after finishing a round of target practice. As Block enjoyed his grub he spotted a coiled rattler under the chair of the Ranger next to him.

“Don’t move,” Block whispered.

The Ranger, a rookie, wrongly sensed a gag and laughed.

“I said don’t move,” Block ordered in a voice normally reserved for uncooperative suspects.

About the time the young Ranger finally realized his precarious situation, the diamondback unwound itself and calmly slithered right through the Ranger camp.

“We’d all taken our guns off,” Block says. “All we could do was just sit there and watch it until it crawled off.”

The Snake-den is still a good place to find a rattler, but the amenities have vastly improved. Now it’s a complex of attractive new ranch buildings complete with bunk beds, kitchen, bathrooms, flat-screen TV, computer with internet connection and the remodeled original camp house, now home to the owner’s trophy game mounts.

According to retired Company C Captain Carl Weathers, the 6666 Ranch sold a chunk of land to Amarillo wheeler-dealer T. Boone Pickens, who divided the acreage and in turn sold it to various others. Max Williams, a Dallas businessman and avid hunter, bought 2,500 acres including Snake-den Tank and named it the 2-4-6 Ranch.

I visited the ranch for the first time when the Former Texas Ranger Association’s board met there Oct. 21. Happily, I encountered no snakes.

Thank you, Mike.

What about all of you? Do you venture away from the libraries and computers to do research? Have you found first-hand stories that have given you ideas and visual pictures of settings and events?
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  1. Appreciated the guest post. Yes, I do research outside the hallowed halls of the library and internet. I get out in the streets, feel the hearts of people, experience extremes, listen to people's stories ... it's where the real drama of existence is, and that's a vast library from which to draw on to create settings, characters, conflict and resolution scenarios to write about.

    Marvin D Wilson

  2. I've been to most of the places I mention in my writing - however, I'm quite sure I'd skip visiting any location where I might be greeted by snakes, bugs or other creepy crawly things.

  3. Like Jane, I've visited most of the places in my fiction books. It really helps to get a feel for the area.
    Fortunately, I've never encountered a rattlesnake at any of those spots either!

  4. Thank you for the guest post. Very interesting. I have Texan friends and will forward this to them.

    I have never visited a place I've written about. My stories are usually never more than 1200 words so it hasn't been necessary yet. However, if the longer story is in me, I would hope I could do the research and travel needed to get the full picture.

  5. Thanks for the guest post, I find research so helpful in writing. Particularly in fiction, it gives such authenticity to the characters or events or place, and also helps to layer the story. Research is always a definite pre-req to my work.

  6. I just visited the place where my novel will be set, so yes, I think it is important to have a feel for the place, especially if "place" is part of the story line.

  7. I think research is essential. I'm setting my next one in Fiji.

  8. Great post Helen & Michael!

    I am learning the art of research now. Visiting the location does seem like the ideal route to take. But what about when you can't? The internet, library, what else is there?

  9. Loved this post! Hate snakes.

    I visit as many places I write about as I can. Since I'm fortunate to have lived in a lot of places, I have a good base to choose from.

    Tamika, think about these kinds of things when you research a place - unique smells, sounds, architecture. New York smells are different from the smells in Mexico City. Sounds you hear in the countryside in Amish country are different from what you hear on a Texas ranch. Housing styles vary by area. You may find some of this kind of information in books for children or in online forums. Be persistent and you'll find what you're looking for.

  10. The Rangers are welcome to come to our small mountaintop ranch any time. We have so many snakes that we named it "Rattlesnake Ridge." We currently have a foot of snow on the level so the snakes are thankfully in hibernation.

    I, too, visit the places I write about. I'd love to join you in Fiji, Helen. :)

    (Snowed-in, waiting for the snowplow)

  11. Wonderful story about the snake and the young ranger. Bet he listened better after that. :-)

    I do like to visit the places I write about. Scouting locations is the most fun of research. Well, that and interviewing experts in the fields I'm writing about. I guess we writers are consummate learners, too.

  12. Tamika, you can also ask. I belong to a couple of online listservs. In the past when I had a question about New York, specifically Central Park, I asked on the listserv and got wonderful answers. So, if you can't get there and can't find the answer in books, maps, etc., ask friends who live there.

  13. Mike, your book certainly looks interesting! I don't do snakes.

    I do set a lot of my work in places I've lived near or have visited. That generally is accompanied by extra research to make sure I have details correct. I've also used places I haven't visited, but always plan to get there as soon as I can after writing about them!

  14. My brother is fascinated with the rangers, I just discovered his Christmas present in the form of your book! Yes, I have driven to: Joshua Tree, Ojai, Taos New Mexico, and many other local Southern California destinations for research for my own stories. For script writing work I've done for corporate America I've traveled to Portland Oregon, Mexico City, Paris and many other more boring locations, (but they're never boring to me!)

  15. I love the idea of doing this kind of research and I look forward to the days when I'll have the time to invest in it. Right now, I'm tied down to my house (mommy duties) so I'll just have to wait for my day to come! :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  17. I'm not sure where I do my research. Serious, look for the answer type research is probably books and internet. But looking for feelings and ideas is just anytime anywhere.

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