Getting to Know Lake Geneva

DSC03349 (640x480)As many of you know, production on the Mailboat suspense series was delayed because it turned into a series instead of a stand-alone. On the one hand, I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to release a book in 2015. But on the bright side, stretching out the production process meant I had the chance to squeeze in a second research trip to the story’s real-life setting, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Am I ever glad I did!

I had two goals for my 2015 trip. One was to photograph and/or video as many settings as possible – sometimes in step-by-step detail, as my characters walked through a scene. But perhaps even more importantly, I needed to map out something far less tangible. I needed to get to know the personality of Lake Geneva.

The photography was pretty straight-forward: Find locations and bring a camera. But getting intimate with the character of the community meant becoming more than just a tourist. I needed to get to know the people who lived there.

DSC02264 (480x640)I met Walter during my first research trip while standing in front of his house with a camera, waiting for the Mailboat to come by. We struck up a conversation, and a year later, he and his wife Margaret invited me into their charming getaway. They drew from generations of lake life to flesh out the history of Lake Geneva for me, beyond what I could pick up in texts on the subject. They also showed me how incredibly laid-back life here is … even if you do own a golf cart to get from your house to your pier.

Linda, who had contacted me by email to say how much she was looking forward to the release of the series, met me for coffee in Fontana. We toured the town and saw how much more peaceful and rural it was on the west end of the lake. And she really touched me when she gave me a coffee mug and a book to remember our visit. Coincidentally, it was the same book as the first one I’d ever checked out of a library for research on Lake Geneva. I was thrilled to have a copy for keeps!

Jamie the librarian patiently applied her years of knowledge of the town and surrounding areas to help me find actual locations that resembled settings I needed for the books. She later followed up with me at my blog and went so far as to send me a Thanksgiving card. Awww!

DSC03360 (640x480)I’ve easily spent the majority of my time in the area hanging around the employees of the Lake Geneva Cruise Line, which owns and operates the real-life Mailboat. I’ve never met a more steady-going, even-keeled group of people. Even the teenage summer employees are laid-back – all of which fits hand-in-glove with the strong German heritage of that part of Wisconsin. (Germans: nice, quiet, hard-working, never get excited about anything.)

I follow a number of Facebook pages that have their origin in Lake Geneva (At the Lake Magazine and Reel Life TV are favorites), and I’m frequently reminded by their posts of the strong sense of community there. Yes, the place gets overrun by tourists every weekend. That somehow hasn’t squashed the small-town, help-your-neighbor feel of the place. And from the number of “God bless you’s” I’ve received – without even sneezing – I’d guess most “Geneva-ites” have a strong faith tradition.

I also wanted to find out whether the people from the Geneva area had any speech mannerisms. Yes, they do. Despite the protests of several of my Wisconsin-born friends, there is, in fact, a Wis-caahn-sin ay-ccent. In that part of the state, at least. After just a few days at the lake, I began thinking all my thoughts in Wisconsinish – which I’ll admit drove me crazy.

Despite that, I’m so glad I had the chance to make two separate trips to Lake Geneva before releasing the first book in the series. The lake and the communities around it have captured my heart, and one of my chief hopes is to do the setting justice.

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Guest Post by Primary Character Tommy Thomlin

DSC02186 (2) (640x460)Okay. Danielle’s been trying to get me to write a guest post here for a long time, and I guess I give. I told her writing wasn’t really my expertise, and I probably didn’t have much to talk about anyway – but apparently she’s okay with that.

Ohhh, where do I start?

Well, I suppose she’d want me to mention my role in the novel. I’ve been captain of the Mailboat for nearly fifty years. I don’t think I planned on doing it that long when I got started, but now it’s kind of a habit I can’t shake.

Just like the Mailboat itself is a habit Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, can’t shake. The postal service is perfectly capable of delivering the mail by road, which it does most of the year, but there’s something that’s both novel and nostalgic about having the kids jump the mail off the side of a moving boat, like they’ve been doing for a century. The residents keep signing up for marine mail delivery, and the tourists keep paying to ride the boat and watch the spectacle, so I guess we’ll keep doing it.

Mail Jumper on the Lake Geneva Mail BoatNow, lest you make any assumptions, based on the title of this blog post, let me just clarify that I’m not the main character. That would be Bailey, one of the young mail jumpers. I had no part in the naming of this blog post, but according to Danielle, a “primary” character is a sort of runner-up to the main character – but more important than a secondary character.

Then in the next breath, she tells me that I count as one of four main characters in the story – which I find confusing, but Danielle and Bailey are both nodding vigorously as if that all makes sense. Obviously, I’m new to this whole novel-writing thing.

Frankly, I did not want to be in this book at all. The events that took place during that time were … well, let’s just say they were painful, and I wasn’t interested in re-hashing them. Bailey’s about the nicest young lady you could ever want to meet – but she can be sneaky when you least expect it. Without telling me, she dug up some information about how to get your story written if you’re a fictional character – and she went so far as to submit a proposal to an actual author. (Danielle.)

So I was pretty surprised when this same author showed up one day and started asking me questions about me and Bailey and everything that happened.

Once I sorted out what this interview was all about, and got over my surprise, I’m afraid I was very blunt. I told her, in no uncertain terms, that no, I was not interested in being interviewed, and that Bailey had never even told me she’d been looking into getting our story written.

As I understand it, Danielle promptly sat down with Bailey and asked why on earth she’d contracted an author without discussing everything thoroughly with the other main characters. I believe she’s now updated her contract so that all main characters have to sign before work can start on the novel. I’m assuming she’s collecting the signatures of primaries and secondaries, too. And thirdindaries, if there is such a thing.

So, my relationship with Danielle really started on the wrong foot. Not only did I have this whole book project sprung on me, I also had no desire to go through with it. Danielle and Bailey literally spent years conniving me. But I just was not interested in revisiting those days. They got pretty bleak. Yes, a lot of good came out of it all, but my only goal was to put the past in the past.

I guess I’d forgotten from my thirty-five-years of marriage that women always get their way.

DSC01843 (2) (480x640)Writing the first several scenes of the book was a pain for everyone involved. I still didn’t want to be there, and I had no idea what I was doing – how this whole book writing process was supposed to work. Danielle and I battled our way through a few chapters. I was so uncomfortable about one scene in particular, that I refused to let Danielle write it in first person. For first draft, she was writing everyone’s scenes in first person so she could get as intimate as possible with us. And … well, that one time I just wouldn’t let her.

It was only shortly afterwards that I realized why.

In a nutshell, I’ve struggled with letting people close to me. It’s one thing to be social; another to ingrain another human being into your life. As in, to let them so close that you give them the power to hurt you if they let you down. There’ve been a few times …

Come to think of it, that might be the real reason why I didn’t want Danielle writing this story. I’ve had to let her get pretty darn close to me – and by extension, everyone who reads the book. Still not sure how I feel about that.

But maybe she and Bailey were right. Getting things off my chest and onto paper has been more cathartic than I anticipated.

Danielle and Bailey found a lot of parallels in their lives while working together. To our surprise, so did Danielle and I. We’ve both been faced with the same question: If our past hardships were the only way to gain the good that we managed to glean, would we live it all over again?

I think we’d both like to believe that there has to be an easier way. But she said something the other day which gave me fodder for thought. “This is my story, and no one else’s. I’m going to embrace it. And I’m going to tell it.”

I guess I am, too. No thanks to two young ladies I know.

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A Note from Danielle 

Seriously, Tommy’s the worst character I’ve ever worked with. (What was up with the day he distracted me so badly, I got on the wrong bus? What the hell?!) I keep telling him he’s lucky I like him. One day, I’ll go into more detail about all the “fun” we’ve had trying to flog the story out of him. But for now, I’m just really proud of him for actually guest posting on my blog. (Go, Tommy!)


Mailboat CoverBailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. Turns out the first victim was only the ripple before the storm.

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