Real People – Real Stories

Disclaimer: No, I don’t use “real people” in my stories. At least, not intentionally. OK, so maybe bits and pieces of real life — including people — do show up in my stories. Consider it a compliment that your life is exciting enough to be part of a story.




All joking aside, I don’t really use “real people” in the stories I tell. I’m not talking about friends or family members — many of whom actually plead, “Put me in a book, please!” Maybe they think life will be be richer, fuller, or more exciting as a fictional character. Yeah, that can be arranged, I suppose.

The “real people” I’m talking about are mostly historical figures. I write historical romance, you know. From time to time, a real person gets a mention as part of the story’s narrative.

  • In “Happily Ever After”, for instance, I mention William Rockhill Nelson and Charles Gleed, both newspaper men from the early days of Kansas City journalism.
  • In “Summertime”, set in 1914, I mention Woodrow Wilson and his intention of keeping America out of the war in Europe.


Other than brief mentions, I hesitate to use “real people” — historical figures — in my fiction. Many times, though, authors do write stories that include well-known characters. A favorite romance novel, Texas Viscount, by Shirl Henke, calls upon the larger-than-life persona of President Theodore Roosevelt to add excitement and intrigue to the pages. In her story, Roosevelt works.

Another use of “real people” from history is in speculative fiction, the fascinating “What if…” variety of novel. One example of this “alternative” history is The Secret Daughter of the Tsar by Jennifer Laam, who looks at Russia’s Romanov family from a new perspective.

Honestly, I don’t have imagination enough to pull off such a feat. It’s enough for my brain to keep history straight as it is, although I’m fascinated by many of these “it-could-have-happened-this-way” stories.

Real people of the lesser known variety often find their way into fiction, as well. Books have been written about Narcissa Whitman and her husband, Marcus, sharing their tragic story as missionaries in the Pacific Northwest. Maggie Osborne’s best-selling Brides of Prairie Gold was inspired by the real-life experiences of a group of women. 

So, what about “real people” who aren’t famous historical figures? What of those whose lives weren’t filled with danger or excitement? Is there a place for them?

Sometimes we find fascinating stories of very ordinary people. Quite often we find them in our own family histories, and when we do, those ordinary people suddenly aren’t so ordinary any more.

I recall reading the story of my great-great-grandfather, a German immigrant who lived here in Missouri during the War Between the States. For those who aren’t familiar with midwest history, the border between Kansas and Missouri was a frightful place to live. Guerrilla raids were frequent, towns were terrorized, and citizens were often shot.

One day, a group of Confederate “bushwhackers” came calling at my ancestor’s farmhouse.  They’d been roaming the countryside, searching for Union supporters, and shooting them.

My great-great-grandfather, Louis Grotjan, quickly hid in the attic. His family spoke little English, and when the bushwhackers questioned one of the sons about his father’s whereabouts, the boy — too frightened to lie and too confused to speak — pointed upward.  As the Confederates tried to get more information, the child could only mumble a few words in German. When he began to cry, the raiders concluded that the boy’s words and actions were an indication that his father had died and gone up to heaven. They left the farmhouse without a search.

A few years later, my great-grandfather was born. Had his older brother’s poor English not saved his father’s life that day, Oscar Grotjan would never have lived. He wouldn’t have married and raised the daughter who became my maternal grandmother. Quite simply, had a little boy spoken better English, I wouldn’t be writing this post today.

There are other memorable stories I’ve found on the family tree. Some are love stories, some are exciting dramas, and one, in particular, is a bit of a mystery.

When my great-uncle, Frank Zungs, died, he left behind a suitcase filled with personal treasures. Letters. Old photographs. Clippings. This. That. Bits and pieces of a life that ended too soon. He was only in his 50’s when he passed away. Among those treasures was a beautiful portrait of a singing star with words of love on the back…addressed to him, signed by her.

Who was she? Why did they never marry? What became of her? I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but the memory of that beautiful picture has remained in my mind from the moment I saw it. It served as a bit of inspiration when I wrote Summertime, the story of a young man born and raised in a little farming community — much like my great-uncle Frank — and who fell in love with a singing star who went on to have a career on the stage in San Francisco.

No, I don’t use “real people” in my stories. At least, not intentionally. But, yes, life does offer inspiration and ideas, and if we look, we’ll find fascinating stories worth telling over and over again.