Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: Wisconsin

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.

So I just downloaded “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)”….


save-a-horse-ride-a-cowboy…and “Redneck Woman” and “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.”

Why you may ask? Has Singapore turned me into an aficionado of redneck Country music? No friends, fear not. Not that there’s anything WRONG with that…

Here’s why…. As you may know if you follow my blog, I’m living in Singapore and it’s making me homesick for Wisconsin. Now that I’m throwing Hooligans out there to the proverbial literary agent wolves (metaphorically :P), I’m really delving into my WIP. It’s set in my hometown. Okay, to be honest, I have multiple hometowns. I moved around a lot in Wisconsin growing up. Super-rural to suburb of Milwaukee to semi-rural Sparta to Madison to La Crosse to Sparta to Milwaukee proper then to Madison again. Oh, and then to Singapore. My WIP is going to be set in my HIGH SCHOOL hometown of Sparta, Wisconsin.

007 IMG_0802037 - CopyIMG_0223

I lived there for my formative high school years but always felt like an outsider (probably self-imposed because I saw myself as the girl from the suburbs of Milwaukee). I hated living there in high school, but now I miss it a bit, not going to lie.

I’m setting in there because I think it’s an interesting place to explore a few social issues, since I like to write YA laced with social commentary. Also, I haven’t really found a lot of stuff set in rural Midwest (besides Fargo lol) and I think it’s a great place to explore. The Midwest has it’s own culture and way of being that I love and miss. This girl is homesick. In addition to digging up rural/semi-rural Wisconsin culture, I’ll be delving into my memories of working at Wal-Mart, first loves, and harnessing demons from my high school past duh duh duhhhhhhhh.

screamMan I wish I would’ve brought my yearbooks with me to Singapore. If only I would’ve known…. And then there’s the fact that I’ve just finished up an epic quest of writing a novel set in Belfast, so I’m fully embracing the concept of writing what I KNOW this time around.

Friends, expect some posts about Wisconsin coming up as I embark on my journey of self-re-discovery.

OH! So why those three songs? Because people used to play them at the bars in Sparta every Friday and Saturday night and everyone sang along. Not me though because I thought I was too cool, of course. Actually, I think one of my next posts might be my list: You know you’re out in rural Wisconsin when…..

Have you ever gone spelunking into your past to fuel your novel? If anyone from Wisconsin reads this GIVE ME INSPIRATION I MISS YOU!!!!

An Ode to Wisconsin: Driving on back country roads



(Taken on Highway 33 between Cashton and Hillsborough. Passed a few Amish buggies on the way, too)

I was digging through old pictures, looking at pictures of my hometown for the purposes of my new novel project Rafa and Rose and I found this picture. It made me miss driving, having the capacity to get in a car and go pretty much anywhere for as long and far as I want. My husband and me have no car here in Singapore. Average cost to purchase, say, a Nissan Versa–$100,000 in Singapore! That doesn’t include gas and insurance. While Singapore does have amazing public transportation, I miss being able to drive, listening to music and meditating on my writing or life in general. I mean look at that picture. What an awesome place to drive through, windows down on a beautiful summer day.

An ode to Wisconsin from a pathetically homesick person in Singapore who’s being a bit of a whiner



(On Wisconsin! and props to Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee)

Best title ever, right?

So my husband’s gone back to Wisconsin for a week, leaving me alone in Singapore feeling all homesick. Really, I’m just being pathetic and whiny so don’t mind me 😛 But anyway, it got me looking through my old Facebook photos and they have a new meaning now that I’m far from home.

So below you’ll find a few completely random pictures of things I’ve decided I miss today, besides the obvious friends and family.


Good old Mad-town, Madison, Wisconsin, taken from Lake Monona. The Overture Center, the state Capitol poking up out over it.


Madison on Halloween with the State Capitol. There used to be the occasional drunken riot as 100,000+ people descended onto State Street. It’s a bit calmer now. One of the fun parts… Trying to stay warm while walking around outside for hours when it’s maybe 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe. But we’re from Wisconsin. We don’t care about no cold. We’ve got liquid blankets for that.


Go, Pack, Go! I’ve only been to one game and it was amazing! Went in October so it was actually warm. November-January, not so much. Subzero Fahrenheit temperatures? We don’t give a care, we’ll fill the stadium anyway! It’s called the “Frozen Tundra” for a reason, people! That’s what ski masks and 18 layers of clothes and four pairs of socks are for. Oh, and the previously-mentioned liquid blanket. Did you get a shit ton of snow the night before a game? Just ask the fine people of Green Bay (population 100,000-ish) to shovel out the seats and they’ll do it for free. Need to add to the stadium? Just ask the great people of Wisconsin to buy “shares” that have absolutely no value other than a framed document and they’ll pay for it. Want a season ticket? Get on the wait list; there’s only 81,000 people on it, plus nobody gives up their season tickets. You’re name will come up in about 30 years if you’re lucky. So just put your imaginary grandchild’s name on it. The Packers are the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in the United States. That’s right, the fans own them 🙂

*Sigh* nobody cares about American football over here. It is a ridiculously confusing sport though.

So in Wisconsin, we love our beer and cheese. We make a lot of both. Milwaukee alone historically has: Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Milwaukee’s Best, and Blatz. Did I miss one?  And now we have tons of amazing microbreweries popping up. We have more bars than grocery stores, fancy bars, corner bars, bars converted from houses and barns. And our bars know how to do taps. Psh one or two beers on tap? That’s baby stuff.


Here’s a sample of 30 taps at the Old Fashioned in Madison. I think they have even more on the other side of the bar. Mostly microbrews from around Wisconsin. Last time I was home, we stopped at a bar with over 50 beers on tap!

Like I said, we make cheese. A lot of cheese. We may not make fancy people cheese, but we have cheese curds. Yeah, take that world. They are delicious beer battered and deep fried or fresh and squeaky. In my U.S. and world travels, I’ve encountered deep-fried pizza and Mars Bars and burgers and God knows what else, but we’re the only ones I’ve found that deep fry our cheese.


We’re also the only place in the U.S. that makes Limburger cheese. Monroe, Wisconsin. Smells like stinky feet and that’s exactly what it tastes like.

Oh, and also the people of Wisconsin are pretty amazing, too 🙂 Now I know we have our own Wisconsin culture.

Have you ever lived abroad or in place far from home? What did you miss the most? What did you do when you felt homesick?

Autumn in Wisconsin


Autumn in Wisconsin

Taken at Mirror Lake State Park, Baraboo, Wisconsin, 45 minutes north of Madison. One of my favorite Fall pictures ever.