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.
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!