Last week I wrote about some sources I’m using for the children’s historical fiction book I’m working on. I’m in the process of editing a YA (young adult) novel I just completed. It’s a small town-supernatural story set in Colorado and I’m working on in-depth character development.
The characters I am working on originally lived in the Pale of Settlement before they came to the United States in the 19th century. I needed to do look into some information however to get the details right, specifically the dates.
The Pale of Settlement was the area in imperial Russia where Jews were permitted to live. Established in 1791, the Pale, as it came to be called in English, was the only area in Russia where Jews were allowed to permanently settle. Empress of Russia Catherine the Great (1762-96) created the Pale after Russia absorbed large numbers of Jews from The Partition of Poland. In 1772, Russia, Austria, and Prussia took advantage of Poland’s internal weaknesses and partitioned the country between them. Poland underwent three partitions (1772, 1793, and 1795), thus effectively eliminating Poland as a political entity until after the end of WWI. The new Jewish populations in Russia stirred up long-standing anti-Semitism, Russian Empress Catherine decided then to restrict Jews to the areas just annexed from Poland in order to solve complaints against the Jews. Over the course of the 19th century, Jews were increasingly restricted from life outside the Pale, and even within the Pale, Jews were barred from living in certain areas.
I wanted to go further with this train of thought, but I didn’t need to for my story. It’s easy to go overboard when you research, especially when you’re not sure what you want to use and what will be left out.
Another Train of Thought…
For another character, I need to do a lot more research to figure out the details of his backstory. This character, let’s call him P. for now, was born and raised in Mexico and fought in the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as a young man. I wanted to figure out the most likely setting for this character and what he would have done during the war. Finding more information about the experience of the war, especially from the Mexican point of view has been very difficult. I wanted to look into some Spanish language sources to get a better picture of what the war was like from the perspective of Mexico—which meant some translation work, but it also meant that I found something beside the American experience and perspective of the war.
After a lot of digging and some translating, I found a great story that solved the dilemma of what my character was up to during the war. In September 1847, American General Winfield Scott was close to capturing the Mexican capital, Mexico City. El Castillo de
Chapultepec—or Chapultepec Castle, provided one of the last defenses for the city against the American troops. Before the war Castillo de Chapultepec housed a military college and the young cadets were pressed into service during the war. Around 200 of these cadets along with over 600 soldiers fought in the Battle of Chapultepec against the Americans in September 12-13th. Eventually Mexican General Nicholas Bravo ordered the troops to retreat, but six young cadets refused to leave their post and continued to fight, perishing in the battle. The Los Niños Héroes are celebrated today in Mexico as heroes and a monument was created to honor them at Chapultepec Hill.
My character—P. isn’t one of the Los Niños Héroes, but I decided to make him one of young cadets that defended Chapultepec in the war. I don’t plan on giving a full explanation of
the entire complicated backstory for my character in the final edit for my book. Much of what you research for a paper, article, or book never ends up in the final product. There’s too much to include, and cramming everything you learned through your research would be artificial and get in the way of the story or the paper you’re trying to write. The purpose of the research when you’re writing a story is to use real-world knowledge to develop the lives of your characters and the world they live in so that they seem as believable as possible. All the character details and backstory I create won’t end up in the final story—and they shouldn’t. When you meet a person for the first time, you don’t learn their entire history at once, but that personal history still shapes their actions and interactions. It’s the same for fictional characters. Just because the research you found can’t work in your story or paper, doesn’t mean that the information is useless, everything you learn informs what you write and allows you to create an authentic character and setting. The information you learn is not to be copied verbatim into your story, but adapted to fit the needs of the story, as Albert Einstein once said:
Imagination is the highest form of research.
So use your imagination to fill the gaps between the research and the story. See you next week!
Check out for more information
The Pale of Settlement: http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/pale_of_settlement
The Center for Jewish History: http://www.cjh.org/
The Mexican-American War: http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/war/
Sources from the War: https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/mexicanwar/
Los Niños Héroes: http://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/n/ninos_heroes.htm
Lithograph of Chapultepec Castle: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98503693/