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.











  1. “Is this a dagger I see before me? Come let me AAAAGGGHHHHHH!”

  2. I’m experimenting with a montage of artifacts, with an artistic filter applied, and suitable typeface for the Lone Star series. I lifted the notion of a montage of items appropriate to the era from the opening titles to the TV Sharpe series.
    I was stuck for a cover for my first novel – the pioneer wagon train saga, until I picked up a copy of Memoirs of a Geisha, which was a black and white vintage photograph with a hand-tinted effect, and pastel pink and cream colored titles. I’ve had good luck using photographs with various filters and treatments for my historicals. For The Quivera Trail, we used one of a very fussy, dark Victorian interior – with an open door on the far side of the room – opening to a sunlit exterior of grass and blue sky. This was pretty much the theme of that book: two sheltered 19th century women daring to step out of what constrained them and into a life on their own terms.
    (Like the WWII mystery cover: somewhat the same concept as the Geisha cover: sepia/grey background with the pop of color.)

      1. yeah i know, i just couldn’t find the source images you used in the SF covers post.

    1. Or else a smile of the sort that suggests that he would be just as happy as to use that sword as to resolve the issue any other way.

  3. Considering the preponderance of Shutterstock element covers from big name publishers, you stand a pretty good chance of being able to make something that looks more or less equivalent on your own.

  4. The Cadfael series is quite long and has many devoted fans, so I suspect a reprint of the first in series would sell very well no matter what the cover looked like. The same is true of Chisholm’s books, though to a lesser extent.

    1. I saw the Chisholm books at the library and despite what you might say about the covers, they are eye-catching. Can’t hurt.

  5. People on a book cover can be treated in several ways, and your post reminds me of something I read on an illustrator’s blog a while back. (Dan Dos Santos… maybe?) It’s not uncommon for cover artists to obscure a face. Maybe their face is turned away, hidden by a hat or covered in shadows. Or… as you found, maybe the figure on the cover is only large enough to signal the correct period, culture, status- etc, but too small to make out facial details.

    The purpose of this is so that the reader can supply their own favorite characteristics to the main character. (no one imagines a face precisely the same way, even when reading the same descriptions)

    A similar trick an artist uses is to have the figure facing away from the viewer- as you see in the first cover you shared. This technique is something used even in fine art circles- the purpose is to make the viewer feel like they’re a part of the scene they’re viewing. In the case of The Secret Orphan, we feel like we’re actually there with the child- possibly following along behind. (To see examples of this in fine art, check out old American landscape paintings- Google Hudson River School, or look up Vilhelm Hammershoi)

    (by the way, I also tried to read the Lady Hardcastle mysteries. Ran into the same… bleh block I think you did. Shame. The premise looked interesting.)

  6. It looks to me like that Victorian “street scene” (most unlikely, I’d think), was done in Photoshop, and moderately well at that.

  7. At some point I may wind up reading Dan Brown, as I’ve a mad notion for a thriller ‘mystery’ that has to be set during The Troubles to make any sense at all. Partly inspired by my memories of being very unimpressed with reading the opening to a Dan Brown book on Amazon.

    That said, remembering that I have that on my ‘maybe do it, if I ever find time and get interested enough’ list may be why I am so depressed at the moment.

  8. Dover Clip Art books can be useful indeed. Or, as the case may be, not. I use them a lot, but seldom straight. And I pick and choose.

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