#WriterProblems: Finding #Worldbuilding #Inspiration in #SmallTownLife

Hullo hullo, fellow creative souls! It’s lovely to have you back in this, Wisconsin’s Fake-Out Spring. (Never let the first thaw fool you. We’re bound to be snowed under for Easter.)

Once upon a time I shared some posts about the hidden pieces of historical inspiration as well as the peculiar locations in one’s small town that feel like a piece of fiction come to life.

I’d like to continue on this path today, as this pandemic has kept many in their homes. Some homes are in the midst of a bustling city, others out in the middle of nowhere. I’m not in one, but not quite the other, either. My town has neighborhoods (including one on the other side of the tracks), two gas stations, two bars, a library, and a post office. (We shan’t discuss the curious carnival or rock shop today…or the RV campground someone thought would be great to build between a cornfield and old industrial area. Yup, that’s scenic, all right.)

My town, you could say, is small. Built around a river mill and railroad, like so many other rural towns in this country. Just one of thousands, right? The kind teens are so determined to escape to “find themselves” elsewhere.

Well in all my travels through all the small towns as a kid, two towns always struck me as a little weird. Oh, they looked fine from the car: post offices, gas stations, bars, maybe a little general store, or a mechanic operating out of a shoddy barn. Bait and/or feed supplies. Houses of old siding and older brick with uneven sidewalks and prim gardens. The park playgrounds have lost their happy colors, the benches more often used for sharing crude notes than motherly conversations. I didn’t understand those notes as a kid, thinking them a sort of secret code. I bet such notes could be a secret code in a future story, couldn’t they? We’re so quick to dismiss such scrawlings as adults. We complain that the benches should be replaced, or at least painted. Then we remember that small towns often can’t afford such frivolities, and we let it all pass out of mind, just as we let the small towns we drive by pass from our minds.

Except, for me, the Ashippuns.

Let me explain.

First, there would be Old Ashippun.

Then, barely a few miles later, there would be…Ashippun.

Why on earth are there two Ashippuns, and why are they so close to one another? Was there some vicious family feud? Did someone lose land in a legendary poker game? I bet if you look at your state, province, county, parish, etc., you may just find your own version of the Ashippuns, too. Perhaps their origin stories tell the tales of escaped convicts, smuggled ales, or buried treasure. Or, perhaps their origins are blandly pleasant, full of nothing but nice people nicely settling down to build a nice town just a little ways up from the other nice town.

Or not.

Come on, I just HAD to share a bit of Hot Fuzz in a post like this. And if you haven’t seen Hot Fuzz, do. (Not with little kids, for the record.) It’s a masterpiece.

Are the Wisconsin Ashippuns rooted in seedy beginnings? Sadly, Wikipedia says we can blame the railroad for not coming close enough to the original settlement, founded a few years before Wisconsin achieved statehood. Still…the whole town didn’t move, just a portion. And the portion left behind was left to the past, to decay into posterity among the grassy hills and broken county roads. It reminds me of the small farming town where I grew up, a tiny gathering of homes around a railroad station hardly used, held at the mercy of a river that can irrigate plenty of cattle and corn farms one season or simply flood over all of them the next. No one stops at such a place, not when all the highways bypass it. Who would care about strange goings-on in a nothing sort of town with nothing sort of people?

I wondered about that as a kid. I wondered about that a lot as an adult. I wondered so hard I had to make up my own versions of the Ashippuns and put them in a story.

Old Sanctuary had never bothered with paved roads, let alone road signs. Who needed them in this dirt hole of a so-called town?

It would take a certain kind of soul to visit such the old, forgotten town, let alone live there. That certain kind of soul wouldn’t visit on a whim, either. There’d have to be a purpose, a special purpose, to come to a “so-called town” like this one. I was reminded of the Autumn Carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, its Autumn People eager to harvest desperate souls from small towns along its travels. Stephen King had a similar approach with the nefarious demon LeLand Gaunt selling people the one thing they desired most in Needful Things. Then another book came to mind: Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker.

And I knew what I needed to write.

See, The Boneshaker is a fascinating story. You’ve a young girl named Natalie coming into her own but still fiercely protective of her sick mother as they make ends meet in a small town. Many have their own little problems in a small town, problems that surely can be solved by the miracle cures advertised by the stranger Jake Limberleg and his traveling medicine show. But those cures come at a price. They always do.

We still see people paying that price in the real world, don’t we? Just replace “tonic” with “essential oil.” “Mixture” for “shake.” “Sure thing” for “time freedom.”

You’ve probably seen the ads on your social media, or gotten the messages from a person you went to school with ages ago. Social media has blessed those in every small town with the ability to reach out and connect with anyone anywhere, so they gather up the school year books and find the names online, and ding! The messages pour in. They say they want to catch up…and then invite you to a “business opportunity.”

All too often, people drink the dream. All too often, people drink nothing but poison.

Herbalife. Younique. Avon. LuLaRoe. Amway. Beachbody. Mary Kay. Scentsy. Shaklee. It Works. La Vel. Monat. DoTerra. Young Living. Optavia. Norwex. Color Street. There are dozens more, rising and collapsing every few years. They promise you the world by “social selling.” You can “change the world” by working in “pockets of your time” on your phone selling cosmetics. Insurance. Vitamins. Kids’ books. Weight Loss. Shampoo. Cleaning products. They have oils that can cure Autism and cancer. They have silver cloths that can be used to clean a toilet and your face in one go. They have wax melts to calm animals and plastic wraps to eliminate your fat.

They have everything the evil doctors and big corporations don’t want you to have. Capitalist society is such a crime. You can escape it and come to the real people who care about you and want you to succeed in the true way. You can be a part of the multi-level marketing family…for a start-up fee. For a monthly renewal fee. And be sure to get your inventory updated. Be sure to try the products for yourself. Be sure to sell the life to your family, your friends, your neighbors. And if your loved ones don’t support you? They’re toxic. Cut them out of your life. You don’t need them, you have your new family…

Nicole points to her Suzy Ray! bag with her drink straw and smiles extra-wide. “Suzy Ray! Living is, well, it’s not just body care. It’s really a way of life.” Nicole leans back and closes her eyes as usual, emphasizing her one-ness with the sunlight. “Suzy Ray! can heal your hair or skin, your gut, your muscles, your spine. Their specialized formulas that no other doctor’s been able to match bring vital nutrients to your marrow. They even,” Nicole opens her eyes slowly and looks upon the water pump and those sitting by it, “can bring function back to muscles that haven’t worked before.”

There are many YouTube creators warning people of these multi-level marketing (MLM) scams, and plenty of news outlets continue to show just how many people who cannot afford to lose money are giving hundreds and even thousands to these companies in the hopes of “financial freedom.” The creator Munecat’s deep dive into the company Arbonne is an excellent one, I think, as it shows how this company not only scams people, but grips them tight with cult tactics. Click here if you’d like to see it. I’m still working out how I can talk to my own family members and friends involved with the companies like Norwex and Optavia. They’re spending hundreds to have the right nutrition powders and latest cleaning cloths on the off-chance someone on their Facebook pages will buy them. There are women in my church who swear by Shaklee vitamins to the point they won’t take their own kids to the doctor because “those are just pills. These vitamins are made from plants, from God’s earth.” Heck, I have a friend who keeps changing MLMs, always changing her “business” to whatever sounds good at the time and insisting that “this time” it will work. Right now? Board games. Yes, there’s an MLM for frickin’ board games.

I suppose “The Hungry Mother” is born out of that frustrated confusion, that desire to show my loved ones they are not in any sort of family with those companies. To an MLM, they are nothing but dollar signs.

Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of tall shrubs is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes to snag the rest, and that yes is due any minute.

When I queried journals about “The Hungry Mother,” I emphasized the current double-pandemic of our country: the grip of COVID, and the grip of MLMs taking advantage of frightened, unemployed people. I’d like to think this is why a Wisconsin e-zine accepted “The Hungry Mother” for its Spring 2021 issue available March 1st.

I hope you’ll check the story out, and please, PLEASE do what you can to encourage loved ones to leave these MLMs. Such “business opportunities” promise nothing but loss: loss of money, loss of friends, loss of family, and loss of one’s own integrity.


Admittedly, I get weary of the small town life at times. The kids, too. It’s just the same library, the same playground, the same streets day after day. I’m very blessed the three little Bs enjoy taking off into their own imaginations, using whatever space ship, robot, or dragon will carry them into any Elsewhere they can think up.

Thank goodness they enjoy drawing! I wish I could say the same. When Aionios Books asked me to make a map for my first book Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, I cringed the whoooole time. It makes sense in MY head, I wanted to say. Who needs a map?

But after studying Tolkien’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings at our small town library, I better understand why such maps can be so important.

The book is a lovely collection of Tolkien’s brainstorming in art form. From sketches on scraps to detailed drawings with color and scale, the book reflects on just how immersed Tolkien was in Middle Earth. As the magazine Wired‘s review of the book explains:

HOW DID J.R.R. Tolkien create The Lord of the Rings? The simple answer is that he wrote it….The more complicated answer is that in addition to writing the story, he drew it. The many maps and sketches he made while drafting The Lord of the Rings informed his storytelling, allowing him to test narrative ideas and illustrate scenes he needed to capture in words. For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined.

This is such a vital point, one that I need to remember as I dive into series writing with multiple lands and locations. Though these places only reveal themselves to me as I write them, I must still map their locations and details so they are not simply forgotten like the small towns of the real world. Readers need the guide, and frankly, so do writers. We can’t afford to switch locations around or forget where the mountains are. Even if the mystery of borders is a part of the story, the writer needs to know them. And if you’re a writer like me who doesn’t really know them until the story’s done, then you better map them as you go so that when the time comes to revise, you can walk the same road without losing a step.

I suppose the biggest obstacle I face with drawing is, well, my pride. I am NOT an artist. I am fine with that. But to be required to look at my own drawings, even for reference, just makes me squirm as one may squirm with having to dissect a dead frog. Blech. And Tolkien makes it look so bloody easy!

But The Art of the Lord of the Rings is an important reminder that Tolkien wasn’t aiming for perfection every time. Just look at that drawing of Helm’s Deep. He did that on a student’s examination paper! He didn’t care. It came to mind, and he drew it. How much detail and how “good” it was didn’t matter. He just had to get it down so he wouldn’t forget it when he did have the chance to write.

The world [Tolkien] built extended into his art. His art breathed life into the corners of that world he would never find the time to write about. At the same time, those drawings, maps, and doodles also helped readers immerse themselves in his never-before-seen invented realm, “a world,” Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis once noted, “that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it.”

From Wired

THAT is the lesson to be learned here. What one draws and how one draws it shouldn’t prevent a writer from exploring a story-world, especially when one is building anew. Besides, technology allows writers new options if they don’t wish to draw their own. My fellow indie fantasy authors Wesley Allen and Michael Dellert both have extensive maps for their stories, but they didn’t publish their own sketches. Wes loves using special map-making software, and I confess–it looks pretty sweet! Michael commissioned a designer online to craft a polished map, and it’s a perfect reference to include with any of his stories.

So, it’s time I “Suck it up, Buttercup” and get mapping. After all, Charlotte’s not the only one who must explore the unknown. Two brothers must win a race through worlds to beat the crying sky, and Meredydd and her comrades must find where the Cat Man hides before he poisons the gods of their land.

Time for these teens to leave their small towns behind and discover what they are truly capable of.


More interviews on the way, of course! I’ve also got to do a school presentation on names, and considering the importance of naming characters, I thought I’d share some points of discussion with you, too, you lucky devils. 🙂 I’ve also been reveling in some fantastic adventure music which is bound to get your own characters racing to victory, so don’t stray far! We’re too close to Hell to back down now…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

38 thoughts on “#WriterProblems: Finding #Worldbuilding #Inspiration in #SmallTownLife

  1. What a wonderfully diverse post, Jean! Just when I’ve forgotten the fun of films like ‘Hot Fuzz’ you remind me of them 🙂 but, oh yes, the perils of pyramid selling (always too good to be true). And then we come to drawing maps – I loved maps in books right from the start – from E H Shepherd’s map of the 100 Acre Wood in Winnie the Pooh, to Tolkien’s map work in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. (Oh I’d so love that book). I tried several times to draw a map of the little town in ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’, but sadly I lack the skills. I just cannot draw. Like you say, it all clear in the mind, but to make anything other than a ‘word picture’…
    And on that little note of exasperation, I’m going to pop over and read you story! Congrats on publication 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh the art works is GORGEOUS, Chris! There’s even a separate edition just for Hobbit sketches. So amazing! Blondie loves looking at concept art books like this. The books on How to Train Your Dragon are her fav, though, and I don’t blame her!
      Yes, I could use a chance to rewatch Hot Fuzz, too. Timothy Dalton is such a treat in that film 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Chris! I was really happy with this one. I was originally going to go more of a novella, with scenes swaying groups and seeing more of the town. But in the end, it just felt like these two moms mattered the most, and how one saw mother earth, you know? So a short story it became! xxxxx

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hah, you make small towns like Ashippun sound like an amalgam of all those movie tropes — not just the isolated community but the creepiness that horror story writers like to make of them: Bradbury, King, the menace of Deliverance combined with the UK parody in Hot Fuzz. Even CBC’s Schitt’s Creek plays on that weirdness — well, weird from this side of the Pond, though I’m aware that the Welsh village we live just outside of was joked of as inhabited by ‘mountain people’! No banjo duetting there though…

    Maps. I have an obsession with maps, especially literary maps, as becomes evident in a recent post, one among many such on my blog: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-map3. I’m no draughtsman so I understood your reluctance to produce a map for your novel, but they are somewhat crucial to inhabiting some novels, are they not? 🙂 I also had a quick skim through your piece for Mobius — it looks good, though I’ll have to set aside a spell of time to appreciate it properly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes! I’ll have to check out your post soon. Yes, Wisconsin’s got all sorts of little towns that just ooze menace. Heck, one of the iconic “monsters,” if you will, the infamous Ed Gein–he’s from Plainfield, Wisconsin. That town’s barely a couple thousand people, last I checked. You can blink and miss it. You’d think it’d be hard for a monster to hide in a small town, but as Sherlock Holmes even said he fears the country more than the city for all the places evil can hide….


      • Gosh, I knew nothing about Ed Gein until your mention of him and now I’ve read about him feel … tainted.

        When we lived in Pembrokeshire in West Wales there had been a few unsolved attacks and murders, the perpetrator suspected by many locals, but when the cold cases were reopened and the evidence re-examined years later advances in DNA investigation and a dramatic trial meant the murderer could finally be convicted. We had walked some of the footpaths in the area his victims had been murdered in the years he’d gone undetected…

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’d be weirded out to walk those paths on my own! Yup, Wisconsin’s own Ed Gein has inspired many of the iconic monsters of stories, like Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill. And the town still doesn’t know what to do about his legacy. They can’t have his headstone in the cemetery because people keep taking it. His house was burned down years ago, and if you go near the property a mysterious truck *will* follow you until you’re out of town. We did enter the hardware store where he killed someone–yes, it was still a hardware store until the last couple years. The building itself had not changed in decades. A useful building needs to stay used in a small town…

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Peggy, exactly so! It’s something I’m appreciating more and more with writing series stuff. That bit about Tolkien creating corners where the stories don’t even touch because it gives the place a sense of history, of reality…that’s precisely the thing I’d like them to feel. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really don’t like those ponzi schemes either, but gotta say Avon has hung in there for decades so who knows what they’re putting in their Koolaid. And as for little towns, for about six years when I first moved to Central PA, I lived in a little town called Salunga which a little breakfast/lunch shop, a tea and tchotchkes store where you could also take classes on things like soap and perfume making (run by two sisters who my then-husband said were witches — no wonder we got divorced), and even had it’s own post office, BUT the town was so small that the next town over which was really just adjacent finally swallowed it up. A sad day, I think, because Salunga had its own character and ways and it was a delight to live there. Happy Tuesday, Jean. xo

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Love the post! As ever, wonderful, articulate and passionate. Yes… my brother in law got sucked in by one of those pyramid schemes and kept trying to get us to buy these grotty cleaning products, which we didn’t. As you say, they batten onto people who are often desperate to get themselves out of a financial hole – parasites…

    And I LOVE the story. Creepy, layered and compelling… I did NOT see that ending coming! No wonder it was published:)).

    As for maps… I generally draw sketches of my worlds/rooms/space ships so I don’t have someone turning left in one scene and right in the other. But they are basically scribbles and I have huge respect for folks who can draw beautiful scenes (like Tolkien) to help them visualise what is going on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eeeeee, I’m so glad the ending was a surprise! When I queried, I called it an “Outer Limits-eque” ending because I didn’t want to give it away, but I needed to reflect the unreal quality, too, with the karma of justice for those MLM “huns” as they’re referred to here. In the anti-MLM content I see on YouTube, the number of stories shared about conning people who are literally on their last dollar, telling them to take loans and sell their belongings to achieve that “financial freedom” is so, so bloody sickening.
      And yes to scribble maps! Wes’ glowing review of that map-making software, has me thinking that would be an excellent Mother’s Day gift to me from the family…or just from me, if I can swing it, lol…
      Lovely to hear from you, Friend, and I hope the smiles are still shining bright! xxxxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes – I love the way you denote the backstory by alluding to it, rather giving us long drawn-out explanations.
        As for map-making software – ooo… I look forward to hearing what you make of it! It sounds like a LOVELY Mothering Sunday present:)).
        I hit a bit of a wall at the beginning of the week. Just couldn’t sleep. And so have spent the last 2 days flopping around, as much use as a chocolate teapot… Just reading in bed and trying to drop off to sleep, basically. I’m now feeling a bit better, though a tad wobbly. Not yet caught up on sleep, but as the children are coming to stay over tomorrow and Sunday, I need to pull it together. And fast! But they always put a spring in my step. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hullooooo! I hope the visit went well. After everything you went through this past winter, I’m sure your body just insisted on a bit of a shutdown to recuperate. Bo and I got my mother to watch our kids so we could go on a day date for the first time since lockdown, and by the end of the day the kids were ready for bed here…and she plunked into her own bed, too, lol 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • In the event, I pulled the plug on the visit – thank goodness! Because what I didn’t know at the time, was that I was beginning to go down with COVID 19…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: #AuthorInterview: #Indie #Writer Rob D. Scott Discusses X, Y, and Z. Thanks, @RDScott9! | Jean Lee's World

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