Danielle Hanna

Hearth & Homicide Fiction

Lake Geneva: It’s Always Been the Place

DSC02264 (480x640)I fell into Lake Geneva by accident.

Wait. That reads wrong.

What I mean is that I stumbled across that particular place as the setting for my novel Mailboat unintentionally. But not only has it become a singularly appropriate setting for the story, but the community itself has also endeared itself to me more than I ever imagined.

The One and Only Mailboat (Mostly)

I like to build my fictional stories around things I find in real life. I first encountered the Lake Geneva Mailboat while idly flipping channels, and I immediately knew I had something so unique, I had to write a story around it.

Within a day or two, I had launched my research and was combing the Internet for mail boats.

One thing I’ve learned in years of researching various topics is that, if you find something that seems unique, there are usually dozens more; you’d simply never heard about them until now. My general practice when researching a novel is to study all examples of whatever unique item I’ve found, then mix and match the bits I like to create my own fictional version.

So imagine my surprise when, after weeks of research, I finally concluded that the U.S. Mailboat Walworth II was essentially the only boat doing exactly what it does.

Mail Jumper on the Lake Geneva Mail Boat

Now, let me clarify. There are other boats that deliver mail. There are still some remote communities that are only accessible by water and therefore must have their mail delivered via boat. Some of these mail boats also carry tourists, like the Rogue River Jet Boat in Oregon. But by and large, these mail boats carry bags of mail to their town of destination, and the mail is then delivered house-to-house via more conventional routes.

I have yet to find another mail boat that involves a mail carrier leaping off a moving boat to put the mail in the mailbox. I certainly have yet to find another mail boat with an audience this big – it carries over 100 passengers every morning. And I’ll positively never find another mail boat that delivers a lake-side tour of turn-of-the-century mansions built by Chicago millionaires.

The Lake Geneva Mailboat is truly unique. And once I realized that, I was more inspired than ever to build a story around it.

The One and Only Lake Geneva

DSC01888 (640x480)Very well. With no other mail boats competing for my attention enough to significantly influence my creative process, I decided to copy the Mailboat virtually untouched into the manuscript. (Thank you, Lake Geneva Cruise Line, for your approval!)

But I still had leeway to do whatever I wanted with the lake and the town, right? There are thousands of summer resort towns and thousands of lakes across the U.S. that could offer inspiration. There was no need for my setting to be located in Wisconsin. No need for my lake to be ringed by multi-million-dollar mansions. No need to remain true to the Mailboat’s real-life setting.

But the more I researched the Mailboat, the more I became familiar with its home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and the more I fell in love with it. The Riviera, Library Park, the Lake Shore Path, Black Point, the history of Chicago business barons, and all the rest seemed inextricably attached to the Mailboat. It was a package deal.

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The Riviera on Geneva Bay. The Mailboat docks just behind it.

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Library Park, with the library in the background.

The Lake Shore Path. This trail circles the entire lake and gives the closest view to the mansions.

The Lake Shore Path. This trail circles the entire lake and gives the closest view to the mansions.

Black Point Estate, the only house on the lake open to the public as a museum.

Black Point Estate, the only house on the lake open to the public as a museum.

The Lake Geneva Mailboat at home port.

The Lake Geneva Mailboat at home port.

I would be hard-pressed to create a more charming setting out of thin air.

It’s Always Been the Place

DSC01872 (2) (640x460)If you visit the official website of the town of Lake Geneva, or if you run across any of their brochures or videos, you’ll find the tagline, “It’s Always Been the Place.” For many of Lake Geneva’s residents, this couldn’t be more true. Families make the 90-minute commute from Chicago summer after summer, generation after generation. Some of the homes around the lake have been passed down within single families for a century. Lake Geneva makes the promise not only of glittering summer days, boating, swimming, and time spent with friends and family … but also of simply always being there to come back to.

And that, ultimately, is what made this the only place to set my novel Mailboat. There are many themes running through my story, but one of the strongest is the word always.

For main character and teen mail jumper Bailey Johnson, family was not always there for her. For Mailboat captain Tommy Thomlin, life was not always easy. For police officers and one-time lovers Monica Steele and Ryan Heath, trust was not always a given.

But as summers faithfully come year by year, and the Mailboat continues to circle the lake on its appointed rounds, Lake Geneva extends a simple promise: Despite past disappointments, there can be such a thing as always.

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Links to Learn More 

I had the extreme pleasure of visiting Lake Geneva last summer to do research for my novel. When I first set foot in town, I felt as if I’d stumbled across a second home I hadn’t known about. I highly encourage you to visit and see for yourself! Here’s where you can learn more:

The Official Site of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. If you want to learn about everything Lake Geneva has to offer – from lake-side resorts to boutique shopping to canopy zip line tours, and (of course) the excursion boats that are at the center of my book – this is the website to get you started.

Lake Geneva Cruise Line. The owners and operators of the U.S. Mailboat offer more than just the Mailboat tour! They have a fleet of beautiful boats, including a stern-wheeled paddle boat and an old-fashioned steam yacht. They offer narrated tours of the lake, dinner cruises and ice cream socials, and opportunities to charter a boat for weddings, business functions, and whatever your heart may desire. After hanging around their boats for four days, I can attest to the friendliness of the staff and the love lavished on each of these vessels. You’ll never forget your time there.


  1. Danielle,

    Thank you so much for this post. I’ve never been to Lake Geneva, but I grew up in Central Michigan and similar communities dot the state. While none of them have a mailboat, there are many small communities around lakes that people return to year after year. So I’m transported back to my own home state and community through this post.

  2. Love your tribute to Lake Geneva.
    Keep abreast of happenings around Lake Geneva by reading our weekly newspaper.
    Have it delivered to your home, read on line digital version or listen to the Podcast.
    Come back soon.
    I have also used Lake Geneva as setting of several of my short stories.

  3. Hi Danielle, I really enjoyed your post. Nothing quite like discovering a real world reflection of your story, is there? I’ll look for Mailboat – sounds intriguing.

    • Visiting Lake Geneva last summer was surreal. I was literally walking around in my story world! Thanks so much for stopping by, Cheryl. Mailboat should be out in a few months!

  4. Black Point Estate, the only house on the lake open to the public as a museum.

    The image by itself is enough to plant the urge to walk that path around the lake and visit that museum. How long is the path around the lake? :o)

    • The entire path is 21 miles. However, to get a tour of the estate, you arrive by boat. When the mansion was converted into a museum, the neighbors weren’t thrilled about parking lots and all that going in, so all of the modern visitors to the estate arrive the way visitors of the 19th century did – by water.

      Tickets for the boat tour/house tour are at http://www.cruiselakegeneva.com/boats-tours/black-point-estate/. I took the tour last summer. It was awesome! Such a relaxing setting.

  5. Bridget Hefty-Morisseau

    July 23, 2015 at 8:48 PM

    Thanks so much for highlighting the mailboat! From 1987-1990, I was a “mail girl” and had the BEST SUMMER JOB! As a Lake Geneva resident, being a mail girl was the equivalent of being the queen of the prom! It was the ultimate summer position and everyone wanted it! I was so fortunate to have this experience and cherish my time I spent with Gage Marine. Growing up in Lake Geneva was the most amazing childhood, and being the mail girl was the icing on the cake!

    • Hi, Bridget! Glad you dropped by! Thanks for sharing your memories. I had the great pleasure of visiting Lake Geneva last summer and job shadowing the captain and crew for a few days as research, even making a few deliveries. Arriving in Lake Geneva somehow felt like coming home. Looking forward to my next visit. Thanks again for sharing your memories!

  6. Danielle, I stumbled on your post today via Facebook. I’m excited you were attracted to LG like you were, and I am going to look up “Mailboat” as soon as I stop typing this comment. I’m also an author who grew up in LG. A couple years ago I was blessed to have a book release set in LG in 1933 when the Riviera building was built (Love Finds You in Lake Geneva, WI). The mailboat is unique, and people never tire of taking that boat ride and watching the mail jumper do his or her thing. The history of the lake and town is also unique. Check out my FB page (not the author one) and you’ll see I feature LG a lot. Thanks for sharing about my special hometown!

    • Pamela, I’m so happy to “meet” you! I’ve been reading other novels set in Lake Geneva, and yours was one. I really enjoyed getting to know the history of the Riviera.

      Mailboat isn’t ready for reading just yet, but you can check it out under “works in progress” in the menu. When I was about a third of the way through first draft, I looked back on how many words I’d written and discovered I already had enough for a full-length novel. That was a bit of a wake-up! It’s now going to be at least two books, maybe three. Since I’ve always viewed the story as a single story, I’m writing it all the way through, then going back to see where it can naturally be broken into separate books.

      I’m still aiming to get the first book out this year. I’m really excited to set the story in such a wonderful community, and I’ll try my best to do it justice.

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