When I chose “Windermere” for the name of the beach mansion in my current mystery novel, I didn’t know I’d selected a name associated with a famous writer–Ernest Hemingway. I’d merely researched names of lakeside residences and chose one that felt right. It wasn’t until I attended a writers conference several years ago on Walloon Lake near Petoskey, where the Hemingway family’s cottage still stands, that I realized Ernest and I had something in common.
The Hemingway’s Windermere was built in 1904. It was where Ernest spent most of his summers until he was twenty-one. To travel to their cottage, the family took a thirty-two hour trip on a lake steamer from Chicago to Harbor Springs, where they’d board a train for Petoskey. They then switched railway cars to Walloon Lake and took a small steamer to Windermere.
Fortunately, going to the writers conference on Walloon Lake this year took my friend, Shelley, and me, only a little over four hours, including a stop in Charlevoix for lunch. Once we arrived at Camp Michigania, where the writers conference was held, we boarded a pontoon boat that took us past the Hemingway cottage. All I could think of was all the amazing ideas and unique ways of describing them that came out of that place and the surrounding area.
I struggled about whether to rename “my” Windermere when I learned about the Hemingway’s place. But by then I was invested in the name and nothing else seemed quite right. I’d imagined a two story white clapboard house with a wrap-around porch that backed up to Lake Michigan in the imaginary tourist town, Port Elizabeth, Michigan.
During the four years I worked on my novel, I’d looked for a “real” house that matched the one in my imagination. I scoured Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Grand Haven, and other places whose names I can’t recall. I googled beach houses, beach mansions, New England homes, etc. No dice. It was just last week when I ran across the snowy photo above. It was instant recognition. Almost perfect.
When I start a novel, I need to know the names of the characters before I can write about them. I also have to know what they look like. My protagonist, Alex, in the Windermere novel looks like Stana Katic (Kate Beckett in Castle). The antagonist, Cassandra, is based on Madeline Stowe (Victoria Grayson in Revenge). So it surprises me that I imagined my Windermere before I knew it actually existed.
But that’s what we writers tap into–our imaginations. Even if you don’t write down your stories, you still tell them–you might embellish events you’ve engaged in to make them sound more interesting. You probably imagine how characters in a book look and are disappointed when the movie is made because the characters aren’t as you’d pictured. I believe imagination is a gift–something that separates us from other creatures on Earth. And I’m grateful every day for it.