Gettin’ all nostalgic about rural Wisconsin culture while brainsplosion-writing my new novel

644084_10100125594230685_535874386_nSo I pull up on this pick-up and there are four–FOUR–calves just hanging out back there keeping it real. I’ve lived in Wisconsin since I was three (oh, and excluding this past year). That was a first. I guess you gotta get your cows around somehow and maybe this guy didn’t have a cattle trailer thing. Oh, Wisconsin, I miss you.

So I pounded out 40,000 words on my new YA novel! Eek! Yeah, I’ve really been getting into it. I set this novel in Sparta, Wisconsin,self-proclaimed “Bicycling Capitol of America” because it’s at the junction of two big bicycling trails. Sparta’s a town of almost 10,000 tucked in Western Wisconsin’s rolling hills, ridges and coulees, created by the Mississippi River. I wanted to explore the people, the culture, the life of this area of Wisconsin. I am also exploring the mindset, which can be hard and personal at times. (side note: I drop a bunch of g’s in -ing words in this post because that’s how people talk in at least parts of Wisconsin. Heck, I have to consciously THINK about not dropping g’s).

A lot of people I knew and worked with and hung out with in Sparta had a much smaller view of the world than I had at the time and much, much smaller than I have now. But to them, their world felt big, and the little events around town felt exciting. For a lot of them, Sparta was pretty much their world. Vacation was going to the Dells, Twin Cities, Chicago, maybe Florida. But there’s a simplicity to the life that has a certain beauty, which I can now appreciate. Everyone knows everyone. You go to Wal-Mart or Piggly Wiggly and run into people you know and catch up. My favorite part of the Sparta newspaper is “Local and Society,” where you can read about who came home to visit, people’s trips to the Twin Cities to catch a show, family vacations to Orlando. Maybe goin’ fishin’ up at the cabin (if you got one) or goin’ campin’. Oh, and I also like to read the “Arrested” column and Divorce/Marriage certificates, just to see if I know anyone πŸ˜›

Butterfest and 4th of July and Homecoming parades and baseball games down at Memorial Park.Walking down to Memorial Park for the 4th of July, Weddings at the bowling alley, Club 16, or the VFW (cuz that pretty much exhausts your options for wedding venues in Sparta). The big summer concert sponsored by Fort McCoy’s MWR. Butterfest, bar-sponsored baseball games transitioning to high school football games when the leaves change.

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(The flea market and craft fair at the annual Sparta Butterfest. Um… You know you live in the North, right?)

Most people from Western Wisconsin’s ancestors came from (southern?) Germany and Norway and places like that a few generations back. Wisconsin’s only been a state since 1848 and Sparta was settled later than that. Ninety-five percent of Wisconsinites have at least some German ancestory. This impacts how we talk and drink and other parts of our culture, like our general stalwartness (not a word, I know, but it fits). Wisconsinites are tough. You have to be with our crazy winters. I mean, two feet of snow and we may still have school the next day? School doesn’t get cancelled unless it drops like ten degrees below zero Fahrenheit (not including wind chill). And when you make eye contact, people smile and may throw in a “How’s it goin’?” To which you respond with ONLY “good” or “fine”, nothing more. Or maybe, “oh she’s goin’.” Or perhaps they might greet you with “How ’bout them Packers?”

Walking down Water Street in Sparta, you’ll find pretty much every other shop being a bar, alternating between second-hand stores and restaurants and other little stores that turned over pretty quickly. And then there would be the one you hoped stayed open, like Ginny’s Cupboard, a cute little coffee shop that had good mochas for Sparta.

007Goin’ out on the weekends and always seeing pretty much the same people.In high school. Stay tuned for my upcoming post on the bars of rural/semi-rural Wisconsin. In high school, it was Friday and Saturday nights at the bowling alley or the movie theater, maybe driving around in the country. Maybe going to parties or deer shining or mudding or ‘coon bashing (that means RACOON, let me be clear. Oh, and I didn’t do anything in that sentence). Future Farmers of America and Drive Your Tractor/Snowmobile to School Day.

Weekly summer concerts at Evans-Bossard featuring local acts. Christmas lights in December.

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Cranfest over in Warrens that last weekend in September, a town of like 400 invaded by hundreds of thousands of people on the hunt for crafts and bargain buys from the flea markets and random things like snake oil to promote virility or something like that. Hoards of women wearing silly hats and dressing up for the occasion in matching sweatshirts they may have made special just for the weekend, arriving at the crack of dawn to get the best stuff, bringing strollers and trolleys and wagons just to haul around their treasures. Walking tacos, brats, corn on the cob, funnel cake, cheese curds, cranberry cream puffs. Carnival rides and food trucks tucked between houses. A massive parade that lasts for hours; local high school and middle school marching bands compete to win first place; Miss Cranfest, Miss Sparta, Miss every local own around sitΒ  on own floats wearing pretty dresses with jackets over their shoulders, smiling and waving. And, without fail, the bagpipe band from La Crosse.

264289_10100111243334995_73563588_nMen (and women) vacating the town that last week of November for gun deer hunting season. A noticeable drop in attendance at school the three days before Thanksgiving. Excitement over deer carcasses hauled into town in the backs of trucks to be processed. Pride while sharing that you got a (insert number here) point buck, or disappointment if you SEEN one (“I seen”, not “I saw”) but it got away before you brought it down. Driving through the country those days, seeing blaze orange speckling the empty farm fields and bare-branch forests. Advertisements in the paper and Wal-Mart and local bars for ladies’ bar specials or shopping trips or church dinners for while their men are away huntin’.

1554632_10100402889214315_1580560717_n(Oh, the things I see in the backs of trucks while driving through Wisconsin)

Knowing when the Packers are playing because the streets and Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly and McDonalds and Taco Bell are empty. Ghost town. Now the bars on the other hand… πŸ˜› Go, Pack, Go!

plates-great-LD - Copy(oh, and da Bears still suck, and don’t get me started on da Vi-queens)

Once winter rolls in, obviously more Packers, but also and shovlin’ and snow blowin’ all that snow (and helping the neighbors), doing donuts in the parking lot and goin’ ice fishin’ and snowmobilin,’ sometimes up to the Kwik Trip…or the bar, lol. Then when it finally gets about 40 degrees Fahrenheit in, I don’t know, maybe March…shorts! That snow won’t be all gone until April anyway. And there could always be that freak snowstorm in May. Cookouts featuring beer-boiled brats with sauerkraut, washing it down with Spotted Cow or a Leinie’s Summer Shandy while playin’ yard games like Cornhole, testicle toss, and washers.

251698_10100104861883475_1794185342_nRiding a bar-sponsored school bus down to the big city of Milwaukee, drinkin’ beer all the way, tailgatin’ before the Brewers games. Cuz, you know, driving in Milwaukee tends to be terrifying for small-town folk (and I can say that officially because I was a small-town folk who moved to the MKE), and then you couldn’t drink…as much.

311692_979156056985_1692694693_n(The racing sausages, my favorite part of Brewer’s games besides tailgating because I know pretty much nothing about baseball. All my sports-understanding-capacity is taken up by football)

When I finally got out of Sparta, it felt like I’d escaped a prison. Since then I can say with all humility that I’ve seen quite a lot of the world compared to your average American. I can think of maybe one person I went to high school with that has traveled more than me. Now that I’ve been living in the concrete and glass jungle of Singapore for a year, I can say in all honesty that I really do miss he smalless and simplicity, the sense of community. The beauty of the bluffs and leaves changing and winter and watching a hometown parade. Hearing the Wisconsin accent while people talk about the Packers.

Wow, so that was a deep post, Sarah! πŸ˜› And it started off so funny. This novel’s really dredging up a lot of stuff for me, good and bad, but mostly good. I guess that’s a sign that it’s important for me to write, if not just for myself.

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6 comments

  1. Joseph E Bird · September 19, 2014

    You just wrote for all of Small Town, USA. Nice piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sjoycarlson · September 19, 2014

      Yaaaay thanks! That was my goal. And to present it positively!

      Like

  2. Ana Atach · September 20, 2014

    Love this piece! Especially the “snowmobile to school” part and the “racing sausages”. For me, living in WI has been in some ways a cultural shock, especially the cold winters and the hunting tradition. I do miss those delicious cheese curds and there is nothing like Midwest hospitality. I miss that too πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • sjoycarlson · September 20, 2014

      Aww thanks, Ana! Yeah I miss the Midwest hospitality and the cheese curds. I also miss the winters, tho haha. (To all my readers out there, Ana is actually the one co-authoring this book with me!! Oh, and she’s amazing)

      Like

  3. authorleighmichaels · September 20, 2014

    Sounds a lot like the small(er than Sparta) Wisconsin town that i grew up in :-).

    Congrats on pounding out all those words! Good luck on the rest :-).

    Liked by 1 person

    • sjoycarlson · September 20, 2014

      Yessssss let me know if I should add anything Wisconsin friend! I thought really hard on this one, but I’m sure I missed a lot.

      This was actually a really fun post to write and it did give me some setting and scene ideas. Thanks for the congrats. It’s kind of how I write. I once I get a basic plot and an awesome scene with good character dynamics, it just kind of snow balls πŸ˜›

      Like

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