What I recall, though, is being a little ticked off because clearly the person hadn’t bothered reading my acknowledgements where I flat-out say that the Winter I describe in the book is not based on the real Winter, WI. Really, I just loved the name and decided to go with it. But that was my first clue that people take these things seriously, and I do understand that you need a certain amount of verisimilitude, particularly if you’re going to talk about a place, and most especially if the setting is a key determinant of the narrative’s direction.
I think it was Ben Winters talking about Concord, NH, the setting for his Last Policeman series, who said he really wanted folks to have a mental map of that town so that if they ever went, they could stand on a street corner and say, Yep, there’s thus and such. People take Hobbiton tours and any number of Lord of the Rings tours; you can walk through the London neighborhoods where Holmes prowled, or—if your tastes are tad more modern—walk the beat around Lower Manhattan with Stabler and Benson from on Law & Order: SVU.
What we’re talking about here, of course, is setting. Setting puts characters in context and, IMHO, ought to be treated as a character in its own right. For me, if I can’t visualize or don’t know where my characters are, I really can’t construct them to be as real as possible. People react to setting as much as they react to situation and other people, and in fact, setting can create situations and act to bring people into narratives. Settings become so important that not only do people want to see where their favorite characters lived, but you--the writer--may even create a place your readers want to see for themselves.
I get a fair amount of fan mail about the ASHES trilogy, and many fans do ask about the places I mention in the books. (I’m always particularly thrilled when folks who live in Wisconsin or Michigan say that they recognize a lot of what I’m talking about, even when it’s fictional, as the town of Rule is.) But much of ASHES is based on real places, and so I thought that, over the next couple of weeks, I would take you on a bit of a guided tour through a few of the places mentioned in each book of the trilogy. This way, if you’re ever in the neighborhood, you can decide for yourself just how accurate my descriptions are. If they aren’t, please . . . don’t tell me. It ain't called literary license and fiction for nothing.
Sheboygan, WI: Yes, there really is a Sheboygan. There are actually two; the other’s in Michigan. The Everly Brothers did, indeed, write a hit song entitled, “Mention My Name in Sheboygan,” and it’s quite the catchy tune.
Alex's Aunt Hannah hails from here (and, yup, there are scads of Lutherans; Lake Wobegone hasn't got them all), and it's a beautiful place, right on Lake Michigan.
Rule, MI—Sorry, there is no Rule. There are, however, scores of small towns that were wholly given over to mining (iron and copper), lumber, or grist milling once upon a time and which dot the Upper Peninsula. There are six big iron-rich regions (ranges) in the area and one, the Gogebic, runs through the western part of the U.P. and into northern Wisconsin, and is where I envisioned Rule. Most MI mining these days is kaput, although there are a few active taconite mines. Wander through any of these smaller towns, and you get a sense for how they were once quite well-to-do but fallen on very tough times. Go through a tiny town with single traffic light or a four-stop at its center, and you’ve got Rule, in terms of what it once was, nailed. Or tour through one of the U.P.'s many mining ghost towns for a taste of how busy and developed this area once was. (Fayette's fun while Mandan, a copper mining town in the Keweenaw Peninsula and further east and north than where I envisioned Rule, is downright spooky.)
The region’s awash in mining history, too. In the first book, I mention an iron mining museum, and there is a fabulous one in Iron Mountain, MI, where you can, indeed, ride an ore cart about 2600 feet underground into this drift mine. (Yes, I’m jumping a little ahead of myself here since a mine doesn’t really become a “character” until SHADOWS, but let’s just go with it for a second.) In case you can’t make it all the way to visit Big John himself, you can always watch this video of the entire tour.
As I recall, I believe that Alex mentions a big Cornish pump. If she didn’t, shame on her, because this contraption, based in Iron Mountain, is an amazing piece of machinery. Mines filling up with water was/is a huge problem in the area, and the pump, designed for the Chapin Mine, is the largest steam-driven pump in the United States and one of the largest in the world. At the height of its operations, it removed about five million gallons of water (yes, that is million with an m) every day. You can see, then, where I’m going with this and how I got the idea for stuff that happens later in the trilogy. Anyway, if you’re in the neighborhood, you should stop by for a look-see. There’s also a very nice iron mining museum right alongside.
The Waucamaw Wilderness—nope, sorry, no Waucamaw either. But there is the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park—the Porkies, to those of us who love them—that run right into and up to Lake Superior, and I used them as the models for the Waucamaw. Having hiked them a fair amount, I can tell you that what they may not have in height (these are pimples compared to the Shenandoahs, the White Mountains, you name it), these aren’t easy either. My favorite treks include Lake of the Clouds,
the view of Lake Superior from Summit Peak,
anywhere along the Presque Isle River and its gorgeous waterfalls,
Government Peak and Mirror Lake,
And loads more. But nothing beats Lake Superior at sunset. This photograph by Steve Perry really does capture just how breathtaking and magical this place is, too.
Next week, we wander through SHADOWS.
And a final note: only five days left to enter for your chance at a signed copy of MONSTERS and an ASHES backpack. It's easy; just click the Goodreads link, on the right, top of the page!