Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Delving deep into setting


In my day job, I’m a school psychologist. Now school is officially out for the summer!


After weeks of scrambling to finish up special education evaluations, writing up and filing all the supports and interventions kids have gotten, trying to see as many students as possible before they leave for the summer (or too often forever) … I’ve made it through.

It always takes a bit to get my brain turned back to writing. And this year, the catalyst has been returning to my high school home town for the annual Butterfest. Which, incidentally, has never had anything butter-related from as far back as I can remember to middle school.

So why Butterfest to turn my writing brain back on?

I’ll be getting edits back from my publisher for All the Walls of Belfast (Turner Publishing, March 2019) soon, as well as my final cover design. Eeeeeeee. But still nothing to do there at the moment per say. Getting back into #WriteMentor and helping my fabulous mentor needs to be ASAP, and will be. But I need something inspiring.

So when my sister told me she was making the trip back for Butterfest, I decided to join her. As a teen, I remember the building excitement as we practiced marching in band for the Butterfest parade, watching the rides slowly go up the week before, planning when to go with friends. Then finally opening night. The Zipper and Superloop and Gravitron. Walking around with friends free of parents and supervision just as the school year ended, hoping to see boys we liked, fretting over if we picked the right outfit. And, back in that day, searching for trinkets I thought were cool in the craft fair/flea market. And it was just something to DO. In my hometown, weekend excitement was the bowling alley (which apparently closed), movie theater, playing video games or watching movies at a friend’s house. Maybe a trip to the mall in La Crosse or Olive Garden if you were lucky. For other crowds, it was parties at people’s houses or in farm fields or deer shining.

Annnnyway, back to why it was inspiring. My current WIP is set in my hometown and deals with complex issues around the overpowering desire to break free and the intense pull to stay, for family and familiarity and safety. I’ve gone back a few times to work on capturing setting, but not in a few years. As a writer, truly capturing a sense of place and culture is something I’ve discovered I LOVE doing, whether it’s somewhere relatively far flung like Belfast or close to my heart, like my high school home town. Almost making setting it’s own character, and making sure it shapes the characters and the plot. Actually diving into the setting, physically being there, helps genuinely capture things beyond the sights–it’s the sounds, smells, textures, temperature, interplay of light and shadow … the feel of a place you just can’t get by looking at Google Maps Street View or pictures. It also allows for me to gather details that would be what my Junior English teacher referred to as “specific is terrific.” The graffiti, specifics for clothing, the decals on the cars/trucks, dialect, news playing on a local radio station in the diner.

Since I’ve left that town, I’ve lived in Milwaukee, Madison, Singapore, and now the Madison area again (all much more cosmopolitan and urban). And, even though I still live in the same state, culturally it’s very different. And, over the years, it’s been really fascinating looking at this town using more of an anthropological lens like I did for Belfast, trying to appreciate the culture, language, society, norms, food, attire, etc. Even down to popular sodas—Sundrop, which doesn’t even exist 127 miles away in Madison. And also reflecting on my own experiences coming of age there as well.

So Butterfest may well be the perfect catalyst to turn on my writing brain again.

A few pictures from my adventure.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: