Architectural Inspirations

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. I’ve written before about using my family’s houses and a few of my friends’ homes, and even some public buildings in various towns I’ve lived in as the inspiration for buildings in my novels. It’s always helpful to have a specific floorplan in mind when moving characters around. Architecture has often made a deep impression on me, but it hasn’t always been because I lived in or visited a particular building in real life. Photographs have also had a lasting influence. Sometimes I was even lucky enough to be able to follow up and experience the place in person.

The summer between ninth and tenth grades, I went to a church-sponsored summer camp at Minden, a mansion the Presbyterian Church owned on Long Island. I’m pretty sure I picked it based on a photo of the house and “attractively landscaped twelve-acre plot.” The girls’ dorm was on the second floor of the main house. The boys were in the carriage house. There were extensive lawns and flower gardens. The idea, of course, was that we’d spend time contemplating uplifting and/or religious topics. I’m pretty sure I spent most of my time thinking about this really cute boy I met there. I doubt he knew I existed, since the boys were outnumbered by the girls by about four to one. That “camp” was my first experience with being away from home and/or family for more than one night, my first experience with living in a dorm, and my first experience with what it would be like to live on a rich person’s estate. Years later, Minden became the model for the rich guy’s house in The Mystery of the Missing Bagpipes, one of the children’s books I reissued in 2020.

Despite the insistence of our high school guidance counselor that I should consider Albany State my best option for higher education, I applied to Bates College in Maine because I liked the picture of the Gothic chapel in the college catalog. I not only ended up attending and graduating from Bates, I met my husband there and we were married in that chapel two weeks after we graduated. In an alternate reality, I might have gone to William and Mary—different architecture, but still appealing—but I only made it as far as their wait list.

Jumping ahead, it was a photograph of Warkworth Castle in Northumberland that inspired my short story, “The Reiving of Bonville Keep,” one of my earliest attempts at short fiction in an historical setting. The story was published in Murder Most Medieval in 2000. The following year, I had the opportunity to visit Warkworth in person and it didn’t disappoint.

The first time I visited England was between my junior and senior year in college. I didn’t have the opportunity to return until I’d already written the first seven books in my Face Down series. Once again, I relied on photographs and printed floorplans and—thank you National Geographic and similar resources—cutaway recreations of the interiors of sixteenth-century houses and castles, This one is from The Times London History Atlas.

I’d love to be able to visit or revisit every place I use in a book. That isn’t always possible, but there was one time when I managed on-site research for a novel I was actually writing at the time. That was Lethal Legend, published in 2008 and set on a fictional island in Penobscot Bay in 1888. My husband and I made reservations at the Dark Harbor House on Islesboro, built just a bit later than that, and set off on a weekend adventure. I was looking forward to getting the “feel” of staying in a mansion (okay, another mansion) and this trip turned out better than I could have hoped. Sadly for the owners but serendipitous for me, the mansion-turned-hotel was up for sale and on the second night of our stay, we were the only guests. We had free rein to wander through the rooms, soaking up the late-nineteenth-century ambiance. Yes, I could have written that book from photographs alone, but it was great fun to peek into all the hidden corners and even poke our heads out onto the widow’s walk. Architectural inspiration indeed!

interior of Dark Harbor House

What are the places that have stuck in your memory? Have you ever made up stories about them or, if you’re a writer, used them in a book?

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (A Fatal Fiction) as Kaitlyn. As Kathy, her most recent book is a standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. She maintains websites at and A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen.

This entry was posted in Kaitlyn's Posts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Architectural Inspirations

  1. kaitcarson says:

    Love this. Reminds me of the Beatles song In My Life.

    Yes, yes, yes, to using places I have been or seen only in photographs for my inspiration. Sometimes it’s possible to get up close and personal through Google maps. There is one house in the Keys with a two story glass waterfall of windows that I’ve only seen from the water that crops up in several of my Florida Keys mysteries. I keep searching for it on Google satellite view, alas, haven’t found it yet.


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      I’ve been frustrated by Google’s satellite too, mostly when there are so many trees around a house that you can’t see the house itself! Sometimes the street views are great, though, especially if a house is on a corner.


  2. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    The Dark Harbor House! We lived on Islesboro for 4 years (my daughter and grandson are still out there), and I had a few delicious dinners there between 1995 and 1999. It’s for sale again as a private home, I think. I knew the two men who owned it at the time and was lucky enough to get a private tour of the property w/o having to plunk down any money, LOL. Beautiful, beautiful place. The island has some pretty fabulous “cottages.” Now, if only I won the lottery…


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Love Islesboro, and they have a neat little library, too. Plus, I’m a sucker for lighthouses. I wish we’d taken more still shots, but I have the entire house tour on VHS, plus a lot of beach scenery. You’re so lucky to have lived there for a while.


  3. bereksennebec says:

    I’ve long been intrigued by some of the monastery descriptions in Eliot Pattison’s mysteries set in Tibet. Coupled with the mountains and spiritual atmosphere, it would be an amazing experience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s