Monday, October 7, 2013

Trekking Through the ASHES Trilogy

I remember reading a scathing review of DRAW THE DARK a couple years ago where the person got all upset because I clearly hadn’t done my research or else I would know that Winter, WI (a real town, and a very nice one) is not even close to Milwaukee.  I think the person also complained that you couldn’t see Lake Michigan from there either, but I haven’t gone back to check because life is too short to indulge in masochism.

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.

In the past, Sheboygan was a big manufacturing town for, of all things, chairs and ships.   I’m not kidding.  But it’s also heavily German, and so one of the other things it’s known for are its brats, something about which the New York Times wrote a nice article.  The places they list to get great brats?  Still here, and yes, Miesfield's makes brats to die for.  Purists soak them in beer first, and I’m completely okay with that . . . except it does seem like a waste of a good beer.

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!


Jordan Dane said...

Stunning images. Great to see the beautiful state of Wisconsin again. I lived in Madison for 4 yrs but traveled through the state on business. I love a good, vivid setting in a book. Nice post, Ilsa.

Ilsa said...

Thanks, Jordan. I love that I live here. I now have a hard time going back to the East Coast or anyplace where there are cities. Just feels too crowded. Or maybe it's just my tactile defensiveness ;-)

Jordan Dane said...

I felt that way when I lived in Alaska. The only thing I craved (besides seeing my family in TX) were trips to a beach. The big city wasn't on my radar.

Ilsa said...

Oooh. Alaska? Where? For how long? More importantly...what were you doing there?

Jordan Dane said...

I transferred there with the energy industry. We lived there for 10 great years and lived an adventure neither of us expected. Surprised we survived. I traveled all over the state on business and pleasure--fly-in fishing trips dropped by small plane into the wilderness, camping, mountain climbing, kayaking, etc. I was a checkpoint operator on the Iditarod trail for the Iditaski race, an international competition for x-country skiers & snowshoers. I was charged by an angry mother moose on mile 17 of a 26-mile marathon race and lived to tell about it. Have tons of stories like that. My heart is still there...along with good friends. Was last there in 2007 for the Bouchercon book conference. You would love it, Ilsa.

Jordan Dane said...

I write about Alaska in several of my books, including my WIP current thriller THE LAST VICTIM. Can't stop writing about it.