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 www.alisonhenderson.com.