Texas history author Mike Cox tells the stories we’ve almost forgotten
“I got my first money for a story in 1964 when I was in the eighth grade,” says nonfiction author Mike Cox, flipping through the pages of a recently revised hardback edition of his book Texas Ranger Tales: Hard-Riding Stories from the Lone Star State. “It was $35 from the Cattleman Magazine. I thought I was rich.”
“I kept writing through high school and I’m still writing now,” he continues. “It’s been a major part of my life and it’s an inherited disease. My grandfather and both of my parents were writers.”
Perhaps best known for his two-volume history of the Texas Rangers, Mike has published 31 books to date on topics ranging from Texas’ worst natural disasters, to vintage photo collections of oil industry scenes, to the life and times of Fred Gipson, the creator of Old Yeller. His 32nd book offers stories that trace the legends and lore of the Texas State Capitol and is set for release in the summer.
Mike began his writing career as a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. For 20 years, he covered police news, city and county government, University of Texas happenings, and everything in between. He then spent 15 years handling media relations for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) before moving on to the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department in the same capacity.
“I subscribe to the philosophy that if you want to sing the blues at night, you’d better have a day job,” he says. “But really, every day I spent working as a reporter and, later, as a DPS spokesman was different, and that’s what I loved about it. I’d come to work and never know what crisis had happened overnight or what might happen while I was on duty. I had 35 years of rock and roll.”
On a freelance basis, Mike has also contributed articles to many prestigious publications, including Texas Highways, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, and Texas Sportsman. He also writes a syndicated weekly newspaper column, “Texas Tales,” focused on lesser-known historical events. The column reads like an extension of Mike’s story-driven works. Texas Panhandle Tales, Big Bend Tales, Texas Ranger Tales I and II, Central Texas Tales, and West Texas Tales all present little-known historical events and their connections to larger themes throughout Texas’ past.
Mike teaches seminars and performs readings and book signings across Texas, while still finding the time to edit a monthly newsletter and a quarterly magazine, the Wild West History Association Journal. He’s in the process of composing a memoir and an instructional guide to successful writing based on lessons he’s learned throughout his career, and he even has a few ideas for fictional tales. However, for Mike, writing usually comes back to his long-held love of history, which he developed as a young boy, with his grandfather there to nurture that curiosity.
“My grandfather was really influential on my career,” he says, describing the days before car seats and seatbelts when he would literally stand up in the front seat of his grandfather’s car during their many road trips. He recounts a joint adventure to Fort Davis that led to Mike discovering a historic belt buckle while kicking up dirt clods as he and his grandfather walked across the old cavalry post’s parade ground. “I still have it,” he adds.
It was Mike’s grandfather, L. A. Wilke, who first taught him about the Texas Rangers. Also a newspaperman and freelance writer, Wilke was born in Travis County in 1897 and personally knew several of the most famous Rangers, such as Frank Hamer, who killed Bonnie and Clyde.
“He always told me stories about them, and somewhere along the way I realized, I think, the best way to convey history—through storytelling,” Mike continues. “Yeah, if you are assigned to just remember a bunch of dates and names of battles, I can see how that could be boring, but if you can connect that to a good story, especially one with a universal theme, people are going to enjoy it more.”
Now, to gather compelling inspiration for his “Texas Tales” column and future books, Mike prowls antique stores, estate sales, Internet forums, and self-published books. Through these treasure hunts and his years of research, he has learned the value of writing our histories down.
“We all think we’re going to remember,” he explains. “Most antique stores will have a basket of anonymous old photographs. Unless you can identify a landmark or someone had the foresight to write on the back who and when it was, they’re just people—lost to history.”
For Mike, fading out of memory and record is “one of the saddest things to imagine,” so he’s passionate about uncovering and telling as many previously forgotten stories as possible, even if only in the form of vintage photo collections.
Mike and his wife, Beverly, now live in Wimberley, where they both volunteer for local organizations and events. Recently, they helped with Wimberley Village Library’s annual book sale and were involved in their community’s efforts to clean up the Blanco River after the historic Memorial Day flooding in 2015 trashed much of the riverside.
Wimberley’s friendly, artsy vibe nurtures Mike’s writing, and its central location among Dripping Springs, Blanco, and San Marcos—along with its proximity to Austin—provides Mike and Beverly with many opportunities to explore and meet a variety of new “interesting characters.”
“H. G. Wells said the literary life is one of the great modern adventures, and for me, it has been,” Mike says. “I’ve done everything from riding in a blimp, to being on a salvage expedition for Spanish gold in the Gulf of Mexico, to walking up and down Congress Avenue in a gorilla suit. I’ve interviewed a lot of interesting characters in my career—murderers and writers and lawyers and politicians and architects.”
“My goal used to be to become rich and famous,” he concludes, laughing. “I’ve given up on both of those, but I’ve realized I am rich in the experiences that I’ve had through writing. It’s so fulfilling.”
To learn more about Mike Cox and to browse his bibliography, visit his author page at Amazon.com/Mike-Cox/e/B001H6KYBQ. You can also purchase copies of his books at BookPeople, Barnes & Noble, and other major book retailers.
Mike Cox’s Tips for Aspiring Writers:
- Be approachable and grateful to your audience.
- Develop a thick skin and a sense of humor. Laugh off rejections and embrace critiques.
- Read everything, often.
- Maintain a structured writing schedule to ensure that you continue to improve through practice and continue to produce publishable writing.