Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ranger Jim’s Ramblings

Just finished reading fellow Western Fictioneer Larry Sweazy’s The Gila Wars, the (regrettably) last volume in his Josiah Wolfe Texas Ranger series. If anyone wants to see a fine example of how to write a fine Texas Ranger novel, read any of Larry’s Josiah Wolfe stories.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s blog: How to write a Texas Ranger novel. I’m hardly an expert on the subject; however, I’ve penned a few in my time, and have come up with some pointers on what to and not to do. Quite a bit of what you’ll see here is already known by most of us, but some will undoubtedly be new, and some will bear repeating.

I’d like to say, to begin, that a novel is fiction. Sounds stupid to say that, but with so many people willing to nit-pick the smallest thing in a novel, it’s worth saying. Of course you want to avoid major errors, but it’s perfectly all right to come up with places, towns, and businesses that didn’t exist, and shift things around. That’s why it’s fiction.

First, and most important: Never, EVER have your Texas Ranger wearing a uniform. The Rangers never have and never will wear uniforms. Putting your Ranger in a uniform is a dead giveaway you have no idea about your subject.

Which brings us to Second: Badges. Despite popular legend, the Rangers never officially adopted badges until well into the 20th century. Yes, some Rangers did start wearing badges in the late 1800s, but not all. As far as Rangers hand-carving their badges from Mexican five or ten peso coins, that’s most likely untrue. The more likely story is some men commissioned badges to be made.

Get past those first two items which have tripped up many a writer of Ranger tales and you’re well on your way.

Now for some other thoughts and advice.

I personally would say don’t write a novel with the main character being any of the more famous frontier era Rangers, such as Big Foot Wallace, “Rip” Ford, Leander McNelly, Jim Gillett, and such later Rangers as Bill McDonald or Frank Hamer. There’s already been plenty written about them, plus there are plenty of people willing to point out any error you make. If you want to use an actual historic Texas Ranger figure as the main character in your novel, I would suggest using any of the thousands of lesser-known Rangers. There are plenty to choose from. And in most cases it’s hard for anyone to dispute anything you might write about any of those lesser-known Rangers. You see, the Texas State Capitol burned down in 1881, and the flames destroyed most of the records of the early Rangers. So quite often you can take your actual Ranger and put him (yes, him, no female Rangers until the 1970s) in any setting you wish, and describe him however you’d like.

Which brings us to research. Obviously, the loss of those records dealt a severe blow to researching the Rangers prior to 1881. However, it may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. One of the best sources is the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco. They have the most complete records in existence of the Texas Rangers and their members from the organization’s founding to the present day, and are more than happy to help writers, researchers, and historians. Depending on how much information you want, there can be a fee, but as a source the Museum can be invaluable.

And of course there are plenty of books which can give you a ton of information. Walter Prescott Webb’s classic history of the Rangers is probably the most well-known. Others who have written excellent histories of the Rangers include Charles Robinson III, Robert Utley, and Michael Cox. Cox’s series of Texas Ranger Tales books includes both verified and possibly apocryphal tales, all of which are highly entertaining. A true story from his Texas Rangers Tales II is the basis for my forthcoming entry in the WF West of the Big River Series, The Ranger. Mr. Cox was gracious enough to grant me permission to use his work.

Also, don’t forget some of the overlooked resources available to the modern writer, resources which didn’t exist fifty, even twenty or thirty years ago.

One of my most valuable go-to sources is the simplest of all: The excellent annual Texas State Travel Guide put out by the Texas Department of Transportation, along with its accompanying road map. If you need basic information about nearly any community in Texas, it’s in there. One especially important piece of information included in the city entries is the founding date. That’s one thing anyone writing a novel set in frontier Texas needs to be especially careful about. Many towns in Texas that folks assume have been there since the days of the Texas Republic simply weren’t. For example, say you want to set your Texas Ranger story in the Texas Panhandle, in the year 1881. You start off your book by having your Ranger ride into Lubbock. Uh-uh. Lubbock wasn’t founded until 1909. Okay, we’ll move the story down to Amarillo. Again, wrong. Amarillo was founded in 1887. I’ve been tripped up once or twice in this area, or nearly so. So have some other writers I could mention, including some native Texans. A quick glance at the Texas State Travel Guide for the town you want to use will let you know if it existed at the time frame of your story. Saves a lot of grief later. And the road map can give you a basic idea of distances between points, which fools a lot of folks. Texas is a lot bigger than most people realize.

While I’ve been to Texas a number of times, and have been through most of the state, I can’t claim, like Louis L’Amour liked to brag about his settings (his claims were exaggerated, by the way) that if there’s a place in my story I’ve been there. However, if I haven’t, and need to get a good look at the landscape and geography of the area, I just go to Google street view. Bounce the little yellow guy around the roads in the territory where your story is set and you’ll get a good idea of what it looks like, good enough so your geographical descriptions will be accurate. After all, you don’t want to have high, pine covered mountains if your story is set in far south Texas. Another advantage of Google maps is if you need an idea of how far your character has to ride from one point to another, get the directions from Google maps. The mileage won’t be the same as a hundred and fifty years ago, when the roads which existed were dirt and much less direct, but with what Google provides you can work out a good idea of how far your character would have to travel.

It’s also helpful to have friends who know the Rangers, plus others who know things you may not. I count on my buddy retired Texas Ranger Jim Huggins for a lot of background on the Rangers. Then, I count on my friends Karl Rehn and Penny Riggs for information about weapons of the period I’m writing about. My knowledge of firearms is limited, so their help is invaluable. So if you have anyone who can help your research, cultivate that resource. Give them credit in your book, and you’ll find most folks are eager to help.

So there you have it. Get your basic knowledge of Texas, write a story with plenty of action, ridin’, and shootin’, and you’ve got your Texas Ranger novel. With the Rangers being one of the most legendary law enforcement agencies ever, and with lots of people still being fascinated by the Rangers and their history, you’ve already got a ready-made base audience. However, when it comes to marketing that book, you’re on your own. If I could solve that problem I’d be rich and retired. 



  1. There's some good advice there, Jim. Thanks.

  2. Very informative post, and very sound advice. I enjoyed this!

  3. I have to plead guilty to usually having my Ranger characters wear badges they hand-carved themselves from Mexican cinco peso coins. It's just too good an image to pass up, and since it's so indelibly in the minds of the public anyway few people will quibble about it. Besides, the legend of the hand-carved badges can't be completely disproved.... but it can't be proved, either.

    Jim Griffin

  4. Very helpful advice. I couldn't resist using Bigfoot Wallace as a major supporting character in my tales about Texas Rangers Jake Blackwell and Luke Temple... he's just so dern fun to write!

  5. Excellent advise. Very informative.

  6. Jim, thank you for posting this -- and good on ya for researching Texas and the Rangers so thoroughly! We Texans can be a cranky lot, but I've found nothing to complain about in your stories because you get the vast majority of details right (at least in my "Texan to the bone" perception of the details). Of course, lack of things to complain about is a whole 'nother reason to complain. ;-)

  7. Excellent post, Jim. I read somewhere that they tended to wear their gun holsters high on the waist rather than down on the thigh, in order to be better able to draw while on horseback. Does that sound plausible?


  8. The old Rangers were men of their times - some good, some bad. Mike Cox and Robert Utley are better sources than W. P. Webb - who wrote an excellent analysis of settling the Great Plains, much better than his history of the Rangers.

  9. Awesome, awesome post! And I'm so sad about the badge history. I bought one for my little grandson when I was in San Antonio. I know I will come back to this post for information and hints.

    As for that Travel Guide, my friend (and Cheryl's too) Linda Broday put me onto it when I needed a setting for my Christmas story set in Texas...alas, the followup tale is taking place in Arizona. I was heartsick that the "actual" setting --Sedona--wasn't named until about 1909! Boo. But I did use Cathedral Rock whether or not it was named, in the 1880's. Poetic license, I hope!

    Got one of your tales in my Kindle, sir. Now it's getting time to cuddle up and read it!

    Great job today.

  10. Keith, those tied down holsters were a Hollywood invention. As you said, holsters were worn waist level or a bit lower. Dac, the main problem with Webb's history is it reflected the prejudices of the time it was written, 1935. Webb himself admitted that, and was planning on writing a second revised edition, but died before he could complete the work. Utley and Cox are both excellent sources. Just watch out for some of the later revisionist histories of the Rangers. They're opposite Webb, who painted the Rangers pretty much with a white brush. The revisionists paint them with a black brush. As you say, the truth is there were good Rangers and bad. And people do tend to forget there were Hispanic Rangers, almost right from the start. Even during the darkest period of relations between Anglos and Mexicans in Texas, there were still some Mexican ancestry Rangers.

    Jim Griffin

  11. Tanya,

    Don't feel too bad about the badges. After all, today's Rangers do wear badges carved from Mexican cinco peso coins, so your grandson's badge is following tradition. The thing you have to watch out for is the unscrupulous sellers on eBay and other online auction sites trying to pass off fake badges as genuine. For an excellent history of Texas Ranger badges, go to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum website at and click on the Badges/Fakes link.

    Jim Griffin