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He began writing in the third grade, finding it to be an escape from the school work at which he did poorly. Ralph Cotton attributes much of his success as an author to his earlier careers, which include second mate on a commercial barge, teamster, lay minister with the Lutheran church and iron worker.
He launched his writing career with While Angels Dance in 1994 which became a candidate for a Pulitzer prize. There is also a song by the same name, which the author co-wrote along with Nashville song writers, Stan LaGrange, and Nan Cassidy.