Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Category Archives: An ode to Wisconsin

(Not so) epic pilgramage for my WIP, part 1


So I was recently back home in the good ol’ US of A, which was very exciting because I hadn’t left the Asian continent in 8 months. I went back for a sad reason, a funeral in Maryland (and that road trip was a whole different pilgrimage) but while I was there I made the most of it!

So I’m co-authoring a book set in one of my hometowns; I say “one of” because I moved around growing up and as an adult, so I guess I don’t have like a hometown. This particular hometown is what I call my “high school” hometown. We moved to Sparta, Wisconsin when I was in 8th grade. I graduated high school Sparta High. My parents lived there until a few years ago. So Sparta has a population under 10,000; it’s just west of the Mississippi River, surrounded by coulees and ridges and corn fields and barns and cows. Self-proclaimed bicycling capitol of America.

So I had a free couple days while friends and family where at work, and access to a car, so I decided to go on a photographic journey. In my novels, I like to have a strong sense of place. I also wanted to get re-acquainted with the culture. I say “culture” because living abroad has definitely convinced me that A) the US has a culture B) Wisconsin has a culture C) rural v. urban Wisconsin have different cultures.

So in the title of this post, I said “not so epic” pilgrimage, but I guess really it was kind of epic because, to get back to Wisconsin, I did have to travel 21 hours on three planes. Don’t get me started about the way back to Singapore! To make the trip back to Sparta MORE epic, I decided to take back roads to get there. It helped me transition my brain back into a more rural place, plus it’s just a pretty drive. So here’s the photographic part one of my epic pilgrimage for Rafa & Rose, the drive back to Sparta. There are lots of barns and it’s also corn harvesting season (the corn used for animal feed, I believe). Not going to lie, I actually have a thing for barns. I enjoy photographing them, even though I never lived on a farm. A lot of the farm equipment photos are taken just outside Sparta.

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And just for fun, an Amish farm and Amish buggies hanging outside Aldi’s. I passed a few buggies as I was driving, too!


Stay tuned for (Not so) epic pilgramage for my WIP, part 2. Probably to be released tomorrow.

Writer friends, what do you do to get a sense of place in your own mind for your novels? How do you capture it on the page?

Corn maze and pumpkin “picking”


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I just really love fall!

Coming home to Madison






Some of my favorite Fall photos from Wisconsin


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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 😛

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.


(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.


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 sit  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… 😛 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! 😛 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.