In this guest post, Claire Patel-Campbell describes how she drew on childhood memories of Wisconsin to create a setting for her novel that explores the dark underside of the supposedly most innocent of places: small town Wisconsin. Claire’s novel Abernathy is crowdfunding at Unbound, where you can make a pledge to see it published.
It started with an image. In my mind’s eye, I could see a snowy plain, and in that snowy plain was a woman’s body. I could see how she was dressed and how she was placed – in a white, shapeless gown, laid out in the snow to look as though she was the victim of a ritual sacrifice. She had long, dark hair, and big, blue eyes – open, staring. Two men were standing over her, uncomprehending. Something terrible had clearly happened to her.
But before I could move forward with writing Abernathy and setting out the details of her tragedy, I knew I had to answer one all-important question: not who was she, but where was she?
The answer came to me without much fanfare or any need for a great deal of consideration: Wisconsin. It just sort of sprang into my head, unbidden, and seemed to make perfect sense. That was it. There was no question after that.
It’s a state I know pretty well from a purely factual perspective, thanks to my roots in the Midwest – I know its economy is closely linked to dairy farming, that there are large forested areas and lots of rivers and lakes. I know it has the requisite small communities, the requisite wide, open spaces, and the requisite absolutely freezing winters. But Wisconsin is more than that to me. It’s the state where my mother grew up and indeed, where she met my father, and it’s a place to which I still feel a strong connection.
My brothers and I grew up in the UK, but we were all born in Iowa, the neighbouring state, and spent a lot of our childhood in Wisconsin, where my mother’s family lived. I spent summers swimming in the green water of Lake Wisconsin. I rode the bike trails with my brothers and visited the Circus World Museum in Baraboo and ate burgers from Culver’s (butter burgers, I maintain, are still the best fast food money can buy). I learned the difference between stalagmites and stalactites at Cave of the Mounds. I visited the House on the Rock, and still think it’s probably one of the strangest places I’ve ever been.
So. Wisconsin it was always going to be. That much seems inevitable now – it provided the perfect landscape. But what about the town itself? Although it was very important to me that Wisconsin be the main setting, the town was really a much bigger consideration. In many ways, it is the key to the whole narrative: it’s almost another character within the story. I was sure from the outset that I wanted it to be more than just a place for the characters to live, more than just a backdrop. It’s a symbol, a totem. It represents both the desire to cling to a past that may never have really existed and to escape from the things that chain us to our own history, and doom us to repeat it. It lives and breathes and hurts and is hurt, just like the other characters.
At its heart, Abernathy is a murder mystery, but it’s also an examination of human frailty: of prejudices and complacency, naivety and vanity. Among its central themes is the concept of ending – of how easily everything that seems immutable can come crashing down. This woman’s murder is not just the end of her life but the end for the town and everyone in it, or at least the end of life as they’ve always known it. Her death is the spark that lights the fuse on the powder keg of secrets and lies underneath the town’s foundations. To make that possible, the town needed to have very specific characteristics.
It’s a source of intense love and loyalty for the people that live there, but also pain, regret and suffering. It has a pull and a power over its inhabitants, and indeed, over the people who simply come into contact with it. They feel bound to it, for good or ill. It provides life, shelter, protection, but it’s also at the heart of the destruction within the plot. Its inhabitants rely on it, but in many ways, it also relies on them and their desire to preserve things as they’ve always been. When they transgress against it, it begins to crumble around them, and so too does that symbiotic relationship. Years of settling, of sweeping things under the carpet, of maintaining the status quo at all costs have left it fragile, vulnerable.
In terms of its more tangible qualities (population size, rough geographical location), the town is very loosely based on Gingles, a tiny community in northern Wisconsin, near the Chequamegon National Forest. I’ve never been there to my knowledge, but I wanted to be able to pinpoint the town in relation to the other locations within the narrative (Illinois; Oregon; California) and I also wanted to be sure it wasn’t totally unrealistic for such a town to exist. Ashland is a real place and is indeed the nearest major town. There is a river nearby. Other than that, there are no similarities, or at least no intentional similarities.
In terms of look and feel, its closest real-life parallel, I suppose, is Wonewoc, the town where my grandmother lived. In my early childhood, I remember staying in her little walk-up apartment, which had its own garage, and a bright pink laundry room. Later, when the stairs got to be too much, she moved to a little wood-sided mobile home, which was the pattern for the home of Sally’s father (a main character), although I made his smaller and sadder.
Wonewoc is almost as tiny as Gingles, but further south – about forty minutes’ drive from the Dells, and an hour and a half from Madison. As of 2010, it had a population of 816, to Gingles’ 778. Memory is never perfect, of course, but I remember the drive to my grandmother’s cottage on Lake Wisconsin being lined with miles and miles of cornfields. It’s an image that’s stayed in my head for twenty-five years or more, and it’s something I felt I couldn’t leave out – thus the town in Abernathy ended up surrounded by cornfields.
I have several other key memories of Wonewoc, and they all helped to shape its fictional counterpart: it has a bakery and a bar, a public library and a swimming pool. It has a conventional small-town layout, with wide, flat concrete streets and lots of wood-sided houses. I also remember a house that was permanently bedecked in Halloween decorations, although I don’t know if that’s still there. It has three churches – one Lutheran, one Methodist, one Catholic – and a bit more unusually, a spiritualist camp, although I decided not to include that.
I used real places as jumping off points for the town in Abernathy, but I didn’t want it to mirror any existing place too closely for fear of taking away its universality. It’s supposed to be recognisable to anyone who knows what small town life is like – hence the shift in geography and the removal of big, glaring signposts to real-life landmarks.
Indeed, the more precise details are mainly imagined, including the history and the exact nature of the terrain. It’s much more in-the-middle-of-nowhere than either of its real-life counterparts, for example. There’s more space around it, more emptiness. I wanted it to have a feeling of isolation, of being cut off from the world outside – of being more or less a world unto itself. I wanted it to have its own customs and traditions, its own governmental structure, its own way of life that’s barely changed in more than a century. I wanted it to be universal but also unique.
That’s also why I chose not to give the town a name, to avoid any direct comparisons with real towns. The idea is that this town does not exist, and yet in some way, it does. It is like so many hundreds or thousands of other small towns, in the US and perhaps even worldwide – odd little enclaves that spring up almost from nowhere and evolve independently, that inspire that same fierce loyalty and resentment in equal measure.
About Claire Patel-Campbell
Claire Patel-Campbell is a writer, journalist and blogger, based in North Yorkshire. Abernathy, her debut novel, is being put out through crowdfunded publisher Unbound. For more information and to pledge to pre-order the novel, visit http://unbound.co.uk/books/abernathy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org