SPRING HILL - Millions of people catch up on the day's events by watching the 6 p.m. news on television.
Ralph Cotton, of Spring Hill, also watches but with perhaps a more discriminating eye.
Cotton, the author of some 74 western books over the past 20 years, often gets ideas for characters and plot lines from current events.
Many of his stories could be taken from today's headlines and are just transferred to the 1870s West, he said.
"The book takes on a life of its own," Cotton said. "I just let the story make itself as I go along.
The prolific author is under contract with Penguin Random House to do four books per year. He moved to Hernando County eight-and-a-half years ago and said it's a great place to continue his writing, which includes his most recent book, "Lawless Trail."
Cotton's books can be found in most major book chains, online at Amazon or in the paperback aisle of some stores. There are more than 1.5 million of his books in print and some of his more popular ones feature Arizona ranger Sam Burrack.
"He's my biggest series," he says. "(He's) dogged. He's determined. He puts one foot in front of the other until he gets the job done."
The Ranger series was originally to be a trilogy but proved so popular it continues to this day.
One critic has placed him up there with two of the giants of the genre: Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour.
Cotton's writing room in his home off Deep Creek Drive is a western lover's dream. It includes a Frederic Remington painting, copies of his books on two book shelves and other memorabilia from the West.
Cotton said he likes to write from around 4 or 5 a.m. until 8 a.m. He takes a break and goes back to his computer around noon. He puts in about 40 hours a week. His novels are generally about 300-350 pages and each book typically takes 8-10 weeks to finish.
Cotton said he typically has music or the television going in the background while he writes his stories.
He likes to think of himself as a writer of fiction who just happens to write westerns. And, while admitting the genre is not as popular as it once was, there is still a devoted fan base. Many of his fans are women, he said, which probably goes against the typical demographic.
Cotton attributes that to writing strong women characters and for stepping outside of the usual template of western writers.
Cotton said he doesn't use outlines and is not afraid to deviate in one direction as the story evolves.
For example, a character slated to die might get a reprieve if the author thinks he or she might become a recurring character or have more potential.
Cotton said he doesn't shy away from the blood and guts because that's the way it was in the Old West.
"My books are fairly violent and sometimes graphically so," he said. "But that's not unlike any other genre or what you see on TV."
Candidate for Pulitzer Prize
Cotton, 68, knew he had a gift for writing in the seventh grade when he wrote a short horror story as part of a class assignment.
"I presented it to the class and my English teacher accused me of copying it," Cotton recalls. "In a way, it was sort of a back-handed compliment."
His first published work, "While Angels Dance," was a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and encouraged Cotton to go into writing full-time. That was the first in his series featuring Jeston Nash, a look-alike cousin of Jesse James.
He was a ghost writer for other authors until his own books caught fire and he became a well-known name.
Cotton only went to school through seventh grade but eventually received his high school GED. He said his literary skills came from the greatest classroom of all: life.
At various times, he was an ironworker, a second mate on a commercial barge, horse trainer and was a Lutheran lay minister.
True to his blue-collar work ethic, Cotton said he maintains a rigid schedule for getting four books out per year. He admits it takes determination and he treats his work as any other job, albeit one that he loves.
Cotton has more than one fiction going at the same time. Right now, for example, he is working on a crime drama.
A different formula
One reason westerns fell out of popularity, he says, is because too many writers tried to mimic Hollywood's pre-conceived notions of what a typical book must portray: the bar brawl, the shoot-out, the tougher-than-nails stock type of lawman or western hero.
"People were afraid to take chances," he said. "They tried to be like Louis L'Amour or Hollywood."
Cotton said he will include some of those elements in his books but tries to do so in a different way.
The readers got tired of the same old formula, which is why Cotton tried to bring something different to the genre. His characters are complex, his plots easily identified with topical issues.
His books might be set in the 1870-1880 time period but they appeal to a modern audience, he said.
For example, his book Valley of the Gun, deals with a radical polygamist cult that he said was modeled after the real-life character of Raymond Jessop, who was involved in a polygamist sect in Texas and was convicted in 2009 for sexually assaulting an underage girl.
Not ready to retire
Cotton said most people he meets around Spring Hill react differently when the conversation crops up about what he does for a living.
"I have mixed feelings about introducing myself as an author," he says. "I don't want to seem like I'm bragging. But still, I don't hide the fact. I just say, 'I write westerns.' That gets their attention."
Some look at him with a blank stare, not knowing what to say. Others are surprised such a renowned writer is living in their backyard.
Cotton has thought about retiring but admits he's having too much fun. His contract with Random House is on an annual basis, just in case he wants to stop the exploits of his heroes.
"It's a job that I love doing," he says.
Before his Arizona ranger hangs up his hat and fades into the sunset, Cotton said he would like to see one of his books made into a movie.
Cotton and his wife, Mary Lynn, have four children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Cotton says he doesn't worry about what the critics say about his work.
"I let my work speak for itself," he says.
Anyone who like westerns or just plain "good fiction" will enjoy his books, Cotton said. And he hopes to see the western genre experience a renaissance.
"Traditionally, westerns go through spurts," he said. "It's such a part of our heritage. The western genre was born and raised right here (in America).
"What happened back then (will) never happen again."