Alison Henderson ~ Real or Make Believe

It’s lovely to be back at Petticoats and Pistols, one of my favorite watering holes on the web. Today, I want to talk about mixing fiction and history.

How do you feel about real-life historical figures in romance? I occasionally like to use them as minor characters—possibly because I’m a research junkie and can’t resist including some of the most interesting bits I come across in my reading. I had great fun brushing shoulders with Jesse James in my first book, Harvest of Dreams. He only appeared in one scene and had few lines of dialogue, but his presence added a nice sinister touch.

My current novella, The Treasure of Como Bluff, is set in Wyoming in 1879, during the fascinating period known as the Bone Wars. In 1877, enormous deposits of fossils were discovered in the barren hillsides of Como Bluff, about one hundred miles northwest of Cheyenne near Medicine Bow. Two eastern professors, O. C. Marsh of Yale (photo on the right) and Edward D. Cope of the University of Pennsylvania, waged war on each other (largely through surrogates) in a decades-long campaign. They instructed their hired bone hunters to do everything in their power to gain the upper hand, from misdirecting shipments of fossils to dynamiting the rival’s dig site.

It might seem an unconventional choice of setting for a romance, but I had wanted to write a story about the Bone Wars for several years before starting The Treasure of Como Bluff. I love feisty, independent heroines, and a female paleontologist in the American West seemed just the ticket. I also wanted to capture the excitement of the blossoming of scientific discovery in this country in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

My search for source material took me to Mark Jaffe’s terrific book, The Gilded Dinosaur. It’s a detailed account of the long rivalry, complete with original documents such as a letter to Marsh from a pair of bone hunters using the aliases of Harlow and Edwards describing their initial finds and asking for financial support. That letter painted such a vivid portrait of the two railroad workers-turned-dinosaur hunters that I included them in a scene but had them working for Cope (a valid choice since they changed sides depending on whichever sponsor paid the best at the moment).

I gave Professor O. C. Marsh a more prominent role, although he, too, has limited page time. My heroine, Caroline Hubbard, is excavating at Como Bluff, having tricked Marsh into hiring her, believing her to be a man. When the professor arrives unexpectedly to check on her progress, she has to persuade Nick Bancroft (the hero) to play the part of her husband, the paleontologist Marsh believes he hired. As you can imagine, mayhem ensues.

I don’t always include historical characters in my books, but when I do they mingle happily with the fictional ones. How about you? Do you enjoy real-life historical figures popping in to visit your make-believe world, or do you prefer that they confine their activities to sedate non-fiction? Let me know, and I’ll send a pdf of The Treasure of Como Bluff to one lucky commenter.  Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:

In her race against rival bone hunters, the last complication paleontologist Caroline Hubbard needs is an unconscious stranger cluttering up her dig site. Nicholas Bancroft might have the chiseled features and sculpted physique of a classical statue, but she’s not about to let him hamper her quest to unearth a new species of dinosaur and make her mark on the scientific world.

Nick has come to Wyoming in search of silver but, after a blow to the head, finds himself at the mercy of a feisty, determined female scientist. Despite his insistence that he’s just passing through, he agrees to masquerade as Caroline’s husband to help save her job. Once their deception plays out, they face a crucial decision. Will they be able to see beyond their separate goals and recognize the treasure right in front of them?

Thanks so much to the lovely fillies at Petticoats and Pistols for hosting me today, and thank all of you for stopping by to visit.  You can read more about me and my books at


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22 thoughts on “Alison Henderson ~ Real or Make Believe”

  1. I really enjoy real life people showing up in fiction. It almost always sends me to nonfiction books and the internet to find out more about them. Lookiing forward to reading The Treasure of Como Bluff!

  2. Alison, welcome back to our watering hole! We love having you. You always bring something interesting. I think it’s really neat to include real-life people in our fictional stories. I love it. I’ve always wanted to do that but never found an opportunity.

    Congratulations on the new book. Boy, that excerpt really hooked me! Wishing you much success.

  3. I always enjoy a historcal fact and my fiction mixed together. It is like getting a history lesson and enjoying the romance of the story at the same time. We have to know what came before us in order to enjoy what we have now..
    I like your Hero and Heroine from just the little bit I read here. Makes me want more…

  4. Good Morning, ladies! I always look forward to my visits to P&P. I had a great time researching The Treasure of Como Bluff and couldn’t resist borrowing a few characters from history for my story. I’m glad to hear you enjoy that, too.

  5. I enjoy real people and events in books as long as it fits in with the story and does not over take it. I like focusing on the journey of the characters to their HEA. Great blurb… definitely has my interest! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Welcome Alison! I love it when authors mix real historical figures in their fiction, makes the story seem much more real. What a great premise for your book, by the way. I had no idea bone hunting was so…cutthroat, a little Indiana Jones for paleontologists. Too fun!!!

  7. Welcome to the P&P Alison! I love to see real people step into my books sometimes. It really changes things up. Your book sounds fabulous and I would love to read it. Will have to check it out. Thanks for sharing with us today.

  8. Welcome to Wildflower Junction, Alison! I absolutely love real-life characters showing up in fiction. It lends such authenticity to the time period. I even enjoyed it in such shows as Bonanza and Dr. Quinn. The book blurb has really hooked me. Best of luck and come on over soon again.

  9. Welcome,,I enjoy reading about real charachters in ficton books,,always nice to dream abou what may have been

  10. Thanks for all the comments. I’m glad so many of you enjoy a bit of “real” history mixed in with your romance.

  11. Alison,
    Yes, I’ve put real people in my novels. Like you, It’s usually a scene or two. I think if you use the true personality of the individual and not embarass what family is left, I don’t see a problem.

  12. I do like real-life historical figures to make an appearance in historical fiction I’m reading. It really helps to deepen the sense of history and setting in the story.

  13. I think you do an excellent job of mixing real characters with fictional ones. Brief appearances adds veracity to your writing without getting you in trouble with their descendants! I threw several real people into my Salem witchcraft trial book. You kind of have to when you know those people were actually at the scene you’re describing. Great post!

  14. Alison, thanks for visiting P&P again. I love your blog and the book sounds intriguing. I’m a lot like you, a research junkie. I’d be in hog-heaven if I could research, plot and do profiles then let someone else write my book. LOL I did have Bat Masterson as a “special appearance” character in one of my anthologies. Since he was an iconic figure in the Texas Panhandle, I tried very hard to keep him as authentic as possible, especially with his speech. I read three books about him but it was worth it. I plan to add your book to my TBR pile. Hugs, Phyliss

  15. This book is a must read for me. I’ve been fascinated with Wyoming dinosaurs since my g-uncle took me to Wind River when I was six years old. He told me all about the bone wars and a bunch more, too. Fascinating stuff.

  16. Alison,

    I’m sorry I’m late chiming in today, but your story sounds fantastic!! The Wyoming bone wars is one of those gems in history that many don’t know about, but such a fascinating piece.

    If handled well, and not given too much of a part, I enjoy when historical figures walk across the pages of a book I’m reading or writing. Having these cameos can really tie the fictional people and events to history.


  17. Alison, THE TREASURE OF COMO BLUFF covers one of my favorite subjects. In my youth, a long time ago, I was fascinated with paleontology. I read everything I could on dinosaurs and digging them up. Much has been discovered and written on the subject since. Looking at the Marsh-Cope rivalry, it is sad that these two men couldn’t continue working together. The destroyed themselves plus a scientific data trying to best each other. Their story lends itself for use in fiction.

    I enjoy having historical figures pop up in stories as long as they are treated accurately. It adds a special touch to the story and helps add historical perspective.

    THE TREASURE OF COMO BLUFF sounds like a book I’ll enjoy. For now, it is on my Amazon Wish List.. Hopefully it will get moved to my buy cart soon.
    Best of luck with its release.

  18. I’m delighted to find so many fellow history buffs! Thank you all for dropping by to read about dinosaur hunters and The Treasure of Como Bluff.

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