Covering the Historical Mystery
Hi. I’m Sarah Hoyt, and I’m finally returning to my cover series. If you don’t remember it, check out here for the start of it. Then go forth every week to find how to cover sf, cozy mysteries and historical romances.
As with everything relating to any artistic pursuit — and doing covers is art — remember your first efforts are going to be wretched. There is a learning curve. I am now, after years of doing this, at the point where I sometimes do a cover that astounds even me, but the majority are just good, serviceable covers. It’s a similar curve as with short stories.Historical mystery has been a bit of a problem for me. Part of it, of course, is that there are so few historical mysteries being published. Like almost everything they collapsed hard in 2001, and never came back fully.
The other part is that there are even fewer historical mysteries (or historical anything) being published indie.
And still the other part is that it’s very hard to find images that are truly fit to put in a cover. Particularly images of people. There must be some law of nature that a man must plaster an idiotic grin on his face when holding a sword. When I was trying to cover the Musketeer mysteries (now headed for yet ANOTHER re-cover before I publish the sixth) I found a dozen pictures of men wearing musketeer’s attire, but all of them had this grin that screamed “I am dressed like a musketeer, look.” Sigh. Also, honestly, most pictures in musketeer attire were women. Because that’s the time we live in.
So, you wrote this historical mystery. What’s the first thing you do, when contemplating covering it?
If you answered pull out all my hair, you’re correct but premature. First, let’s look at what other people did for covers.
Navigate to kindle books. Mystery, thriller and suspense. Mystery. Historical.
This is probably just me, but I can never figure out the bestsellers under that. So we’ll have it by featured. Now, let’s take a look, while remembering that historical can be anything from 50 years ago on back.
First of all, as usual, either Amazon has no clue what mystery is, or the publishers are crazy (and a lot of these are traditionally published.) For instance, under pure mystery, not thriller, we find the DaVinci Code. Of course it is a mystery how that book sold so well. Maybe. I know how it did and it involved hyper-push and “buy a bunch of books in NYC and London and distribute them to movers and shakers” but whatever.
So, I’m going to try to pick a few from each era.
The first thing you notice — and I’m NOT recommending you write to market, mind — is pure market research. Most historical mysteries are set from the 19th century on. This makes perfect sense because something I noticed when writing JANE AUSTEN fanfic is that anything contemporary or within living memory has more readers. Historical requires another layer of effort on the readers’ part, one most readers aren’t willing to do for fun.
So, when considering writing historical mysteries consider that.
If you write, say, your thrilling Medieval Mystery “In the soup, with bones” you’re going to have a smaller pool of readers to draw from. OTOH you’ll also have less competition.
Next, the one thing I notice is that most of these books have covers with no people or covers with the people so tiny you can’t see what they’re wearing. The first one is just achingly beautiful.
It looks drawn, but that could be just a filter. And note the planes and bombed out area correctly identify this as a WWII mystery (It’s set in the Blitz.) Note also the spot color on a black and white background, giving it an “old time” feel, without looking like they swiped a picture wholesale from a website.
It is traditionally published.
There are a bunch of other WWII mysteries, one of which I will probably download today, as it’s free with prime.
I’m going to skip to a Victorian one of which I’ve tried to read the first, but failed since it annoys me beyond belief. The main character is a suffragette and a spy, and a …. yeah. And utterly unbelievable because there’s no actual sign of the exceptional personality that would allow for this. That said, it sells extremely well and is a long running series, so it’s worth looking at.
All of this is completely doable with clip art of a Victorian street, maid and lady. Probably from free sites, or one of those Dover clip art books. (And if you do a lot of historical, it might be worth buying one of those. Note whoever did this is good enough to have shadows, etc. So if not hand drawn, it’s still very skillfully done.
This is another long-running series, and either regency or Victorian (I’ve read a few, but I don’t remember. Not a favorite.) It’s a perfectly serviceable cover, with no people.
Next up, and much further back in history, also no people, and recovered for the current age (I remember at least three different covers, including very representational paintings. ) Note something I said before, of when indie becomes successful in a subgenre their style influences the traditionally published. This is such a case.
Part of it might b ehow well the cover looks in thumbnail, but definitely also the no people, etc. Nothing in this cover an ambitious indie couldn’t do.
Next up two series I read. One of them is difficult, unless you can find a friend who is very talented at tricking out “manuscript illumination.” It’s also perfectly appropriate because even though tagged as a bookseller, the main character does manuscript copying and illustration.
Which brings us to the last two written by the same people, and two series I read. The first one is set on the border of Scotland and England, during the Elizabethan age, and even though the author interprets everything differently from what I do for the same era, it’s a very good series. If you like Pratchett’s Nac MacFeegle, you’ll love this series.
It’s traditionally published, and I don’t think very highly of the covers. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think that the series would do better with better covers.
The second is the same author, different name and indie, and it’s a perfectly serviceable cover. It could use better signaling, but it’s not offensive. If I were covering it I’d do something more like the suffragette’s cover, but hey, I’m not.
Because of the wide disparity of covers and time frame, I’m not sure what to cover for a demonstration. NOT the musketeers. I’ve just farmed that off to a very talented young artist.
So I’m open to suggestions for time period, title, etc.
I’m even willing to do one for near-past and one for more distant past.
Your turn to make suggestions.