A North Shore Story

September is upon us, folks.  Kids go back to school, there’s a refreshingly crisp coolness to the air, and the North Shore becomes just a little bit quieter.  While many adventures are just beginning, for some of us, stories are coming to close.

This time last year I was writing feverishly to finish up my manuscript for Coming of Mage.  Hopping around coffee shops, shake shops, pretty much anything ending in “shops,” I was tapping away at my keyboard every second that I wasn’t working.

It was interesting writing Mage during the summer because the story takes place all in one summer on the North Shore–so the progression of the novel was virtually synced with my days.  When my main character, Quinn, was experiencing that first taste of the season–the feeling that the longer, warmer days would last forever–so was I.

And when he was feeling the summer slipping away too quickly, so was I.

I was writing the finale about autumn setting in right up until the leaves started changing.

Did I think this was going to be my first book?  Not exactly.  I had dozens of ideas in the can, different tales I was working on.  But when I first moved to the North Shore, it wormed its way into every aspect of my life.  And writing was no exception.  As I said in a recent interview, I suddenly wanted everything I ever wrote to be set here.  There’s something truly magical about the North Shore, which probably triggered my desire to write a fantasy.

Obviously a lot of the spells, creatures, and locations featured in Mage were straight outta my wild imagination.  It’s a fantasy at the end of the day.  And though the story takes place in an “alternate” Minnesota town called Alkamee Heights–where wizards are a dime a dozen–a lot of the places and landmarks are based on real North Shore places that inspired me when I first moved out of the city and into this new world.

So…how ’bout a tour?

Devil’s Kettle / The Book Cover

“Shaking it off—for now—I continued leading my pack of Basilisk Hunters deep into the trees. The forest was a paint splash of greens and yellows. The foliage was dense and very little sunlight trickled through. The air was muggy and thick and the ground would suckle at every step I took.” – Quinn Sullivan, 1986

cover in the wild


When my publisher said I could submit my own cover design, I knew the perfect guy to ask was Kell Sanders.  Not only is he an award-winning former photojournalist, a phenomenal photographer, and a frequent return visitor to the North Shore, he’s also my best friend.  When he and I hiked the Devil’s Kettle a couple years ago, he snagged a pic towards a peak that just screamed fantasy.  It was spring and the combo of vivid green moss coupled with the scarceness of leaves on the trees made for an absolutely epic shot–perfectly encompassing both the fantastical setting of my book and the real North Shore.

Fiction aside, Devil’s Kettle itself is a pretty fantastical setting.

Alkamee Heights / Lutsen

“It was my third summer—and Emma’s fourth—at Alkamee Heights Lodge. We were both fresh from our first year of college, but she’d found out about Alkamee Heights a year before me. And, no, I’m not spelling it wrong: Alkamee is the Native American spelling of alchemy. Apparently the Brits had a strong presence there in the 1800s, or so I’d heard. Don’t know why—it was probably the last presence there that could be described as strong. Now the population kind of changed with the seasons.” – Quinn Sullivan, 1986

old cover smaller

The basic story of Coming of Mage revolves around Quinn returning for work at Alkamee Heights Lodge and trying to win over the girl of his dreams, Emma, by getting her a very rare–and very magical–stone.  In between shifts, he tries to crack the mystery of the stone.  Though, he’s also trying to crack the mysteries of the neighboring town and the creature he finds in the woods, culminating in the wildest summer of his life.

A lot of the book takes place at Quinn’s lodge, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say most of that was based on my experiences at Caribou Highlands Lodge.  But there’s plenty of other locations in Alkamee Heights that relate to spots in real-life Lutsen.  Moondance Coffee, for example, was the inspiration for Quinn and Emma’s favorite haunt, the Space and Thyme Cafe.  Fictional Wind Elk Mountain and the Antimoni River are based on real nearby landmarks–can you guess which ones?

Willow Bay / Grand Marais

“Willow Bay wasn’t so much a town as it was a splotch of houses and shoppes at the first big bend on Superior’s northern bank. To say it was rural was an understatement. Still, coming over that hill and seeing the big blue nothing that was the Great Lake was always a humbling experience. A vision that couldn’t be replaced by a thousand memories or million spells.” – Quinn Sullivan, 1986

downtownWhile Coming of Mage‘s version of Grand Marais gives Quinn the creeps because of its mysterious past, to me it’s the town that I fell in love with.  Changed my whole perspective on things.  I tried to pour as much of Grand Marais into “Willow Bay” as I could.  From the fudge shops to the library, even the lighthouse, my goal was to pay homage to all my favorite spots.  Can you tell which real restaurant “Svengali’s Pizza” is based on?  Or where I got the Willow Bay’s annual “Magus Market” celebration from?

Paladin’s Face / Palisade Head

“Paladin’s Face? Nobody knew where that was. I’d only been asked—or told—its location about a billion times. And if I marked each one of those on a map, well, there would be a billion different dots along Highway 61 between Willow Bay and Sailfin Cove. In fact, three years deep, I was starting to doubt the place even existed. Just an urban—and I use that term loosely—myth. I’d seen the alleged cliff depicted in many a painting adorning the walls of Space And Thyme, although most of those were overly fantastical.” — Quinn Sullivan, 1986

Another great photo by my main man Kell.

Another great photo by my main man Kell.

In the book, “Paladin’s Face” is a legendary rock formation that Quinn believes nobody will ever find.  In reality, Palisade Head–just outside of Silver Bay, MN–is one of the most breathtaking vistas the North Shore has to offer.  I’ll never forget my first visit there; the fog was so thick I could barely see the lake let alone two feet in front of me.  Later, when I returned on a much sunnier day, I couldn’t bring myself to the edge knowing how close I’d been to it in the fog…

The Lakewalk / The Island

 ”Waves lapped at the remains of tangled steel, leaking from between crevices and flowing over jagged slopes of brick. It was difficult to tell since the ruins had been polished by years of water erosion, but I could still make out the general foundation of a large house—or many smaller houses. Near the far coast, remnants of lighthouse stood stoically like a single finger torn off at the knuckle.” — Quinn Sullivan, 1986

A watercolor I did based on a favorite scene.

A watercolor I did based on a favorite scene.

The infamous walk out to “the island” in which Emma and Quinn discover that something very sinister is afoot in Willow Bay stems from the very relaxing Lakewalk hike just beyond Grand Marais.  I’ve mentioned this hike before, but it is truly something awe-inspiring (and just regular inspiring, especially to writers).  The shores of Lake Superior are truly unique, as they are not sandy, but rocky.  Millions of naturally-polished basalt stones (or, as Quinn calls them, “perfect rocks”) skitter across each other with each step. That moment I first rounded the bend and saw the beautiful little “island” just off the edge of shore, I knew it had to be in my book.  And the sound of the water along the rocks is entrancing.

I guess when it comes right down to it, I feel like I owe the North Shore something.  Truly inspiring, and truly life-changing, there is just something honestly magical about this area.  Something I tried to do justice in my book, but I know you can never duplicate it in words.  It needs to be experienced.

Although, I’ve been told Coming of Mage comes pretty close.  :)

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