Fantastic History #28: Because I Live in a Small Town by Catherine Schaff-Stump

A project I began about 10 years ago, currently on the back burner is the story of three teenage trolls who live in Decorah, Iowa, the premiere vanguard of Norwegian immigrants in the state. As a small town Iowan myself, I can extrapolate what life might be like living in Decorah, but for the details I needed, I needed field work. One thing I admire about really good urban fantasy is the setting becomes a character in the story, and in this novel I am striving for this. Decorah is a unique place where I could interpret traditional Norwegian folklore in a new setting. In order to make sure the story had the feel I wanted, I needed to know more about this place. Happily, I only live a couple of hours from Decorah, and I could get a feel for the town by visiting often.

Here are some things I did which helped me get a sense of the setting.

1. Websites: The websites I visited seem pretty pedestrian on the surface, but I learned about interestingly mundane details such as what schools were in the area, neighborhoods, town policies, and attractions. Municipal websites will highlight historical sites and attractions, like the Vesterheim museum, or Norwegian Ship, Decorah’s version of UPS. While not a substitute for visiting the town, nevertheless the local color and details can be found, which help add a sense of character to the town.

2. Visit the town: Proximity helps here. For the novel, I did also visit Norway to get a sense of where the trolls came from, and I had to make that trip count, because it was likely to be one trip. Going to Decorah, however, was something I could do periodically when I needed more details. I visited the Vesterheim, parks and landmarks I wanted to use in the novel, local places I wanted to have my characters frequent, and sites for places I would make up. I also know a writer in Decorah. He and his wife went to college there, and have lived there for many years, so they could give me insider knowledge. I have visited Decorah maybe around 10 times, and I’m due to go back before I finish this project.

3. Stay for longer than a visit: Another way to get a sense of the local is to live there. I stayed at a B&B so I could be in the town at night. I went to the small theater, toured the college, just ran around, ate at the co-op, lots of things you can do if you don’t have a visiting agenda. With the exception of lodging, I’ve gone to Decorah to stay for a few overnight trips with no agenda to get the experience of living in the town.

4. Attend the town festival: One of the most awesome things about Decorah’s Norwegian heritage is that each year they have a great festival. Lots of people come from far and wide to see the town and tour historical sites. Norwegians visit as a way to come to a friendly spot in the US. My favorite part of the festival is the chance to try Norwegian food, available on every street corner and in church basements, or to watch traditional dances mixed with a very Iowa small town parade. This is the unique blend of old world and new world at its best.

While I am far from an expert regarding Decorah, I feel like I know it well enough now to characterize it. By the time I get back to this project, though, my information may be a little out of date. I can set the novel in the time I visited, or I can update myself. Either way, I’ve got to get back there and eat some more rommegrot.

April, 2016

How could I have guessed that putting out three books in rapid sequence would have left me drained creatively?

Honestly, I think I could have guessed, having completed large, long term projects before. This, ladies and gentlemen, is perhaps the biggest reason I could never be a personal author mill. With my day job, I can usually put out a book a year. Last year, I drafted two, but it was a good year. This is a gentle reminder to write on your own terms, and to not hold yourself to someone else’s standards. If I wrote all day, it could be different. I don’t, and I like my job. So there you go.

Lest you think that is a prelude for a conversation about not completing work, you will be disappointed. I have begun The Wisdom of Thoth. I have joined a horror writing group and I’m sending them drips and drops. There are words happening, albeit at my pace.

What interesting things have I been doing with my time? Well…I guess traveling, going to author shows, hanging out with friends and getting more and more fit. I enjoyed the Northern Iowa Book Bash in Clear Lake immensely. I had heard good things, but this was an exceptional show with an eager clientele. If I am invited back, I will return.

I think I will show you a picture of the most interesting thing going on at my house right now, with the caveat that the only way in which I am involved with this will be the wearing of it. This recreation is the work entirely of my very talented spouse, who clearly has not squandered his winter.

Onto May, then. School will be over mid-month, and Wiscon is on the horizon. I have a lot of gaming to plot and plan as well. See you then.