I am a pantster, I write my stories as my characters speak to me. I don’t usually outline and sometimes characters appear I never met until the words appear on the page. During my research in preparation for my historical novel, I was fascinated by the various nationalities, who populated the geographic setting of my story. Because the information ruminated in the back of my mind, many minor characters took shape from those tomes.
Potpourri of ethnicity
During the mid -1800s significant immigration by many diverse people groups to the unsettled regions of the Midwest occurred. African Americans came west after the Civil War. Former slaves looking to start new. Irish immigrants who’d help build the railroads and were sick of big city life in the East. Some who in order to gain citizenship fought in the Civil War on both sides. Chinese nationals helped build the railroad. Wikipedia places them only on the west coast. However, my resource books show they also moved inland. Not all Native Americans were on reservations either. And Mexicans were the first immigrants to the area under the Spanish flag.
All of these nationalities took up residence either on the ranch or the surrounding community in my novel, Secrets and Charades.
Research the nationality of your setting
When populating your novel with characters, it’s important to know who settled the area. For example, did you know that most police officers and firemen in New York in the 1800s were Irish? Those jobs were considered dangerous. The Irish were treated as second-class citizens when they arrived on American shores. Some had military training, either in Ireland or were Civil War veterans. Because these jobs paid better than most available to the Irish, many took up the call. Often patrolling tenement areas housing Irish
immigrants. So, it would be appropriate to have Irish police officers in your novel set in this time period in New York. Those same poor, abused Irish immigrants came west as farmers, miners and the like. The various free land opportunities gave them a chance for a better life.
African Americans who had served during the Civil War also participated in homesteading opportunities. Former slaves with specific skills such as blacksmithing could make a living out west. Black communities sprung up throughout the west. The stigmatism leftover from slavery made it safer to form their own communities.
Mexican-Americans from the rich to the poor had to make room for many settlers. The poor Hispanics found work on ranches. Non-Hispanic cowboys learned their skills from these experienced vaqueros. Often the household staff on large ranches were Hispanic.
The Chinese usually create their own communities in a section of town. Their different dress, language, and culture put them under suspicion. Chinese were not permitted to bring their families with them. Although I don’t explore the seedier side of their communities in my novel, sadly there was one. Rather I chose to paint them with a more compassionate brush. Asians have been part of American culture for hundreds of years. Besides, a key scene in Secrets and Charades would be impossible without my Chinese characters.
Native Americans were ever present in the old west. Not all lived on reservations. Their life was hard, abuse at the hands of the white man is well-documented. Still, there are accounts of Indians and mix-race families living peacefully with white neighbors.
Knowing the culture of those who lived during the time you place your story can make the tale not only more believable but far more interesting to the reader. Don’t hesitate to add some color to your otherwise vanilla characters.
Who are the characters that populate your story world?
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