Victorian series


Book covers: some history and a quandary

I’m “rebranding” my Moriarty series, which mostly consists of redesigning the covers. I love my cover creator, but I wanted a fresh take on the whole situation, so I hired the amazing Jane Ryder of Ryder Author Resources to study the scene with me. We spent quality time (on my ticket) browsing images: Victorian mysteries at Amazon, Victorian sensation novels in the British Library online catalogue, and endless Google image searches for things like “nineteenth century painting man on stage,” which yielded bupkiss. (It’s hard to find images of sufficient quality for a paperback.)

In olden days

An alchemical treatise bound in 1568. Be prepared before you open this one!

A book cover, according to Wikipedia, is “any protective covering used to bind together the pages of a book.” The article notes that books were originally handwritten on parchment, so that each page was an expensive item. The covers, often luxuriously decorated with leather or velvet, with gilding and even jewels, were meant to protect those precious pages and keep them together.

Obvious, you say; but not any more. Where are the pages being protected in the digital books I’m mostly concerned about? I sell paperbacks too, but my covers are chiefly designed to catch the eye, not entice the fingers. They’re attractive images which serve no tangible purpose. I rarely look at the cover of the books on my Kindle, once I’ve downloaded them. They don’t look like much in black and white anyway.

The dawn of the popular

 old-bookAlong comes the printing press, and that stack of paper isn’t so valuable, in and of itself. What’s wanted is quantity. It’s not the publisher’s job to make sure the product will survive for centuries, so now we get covers of simple printed pasteboard. They might be covered with thin leather and sewn closely, for a more expensive volume. But they might be pretty flimsy, almost like modern paperbacks. 

You’d enter the shop and flip open the cover to read the frontispiece, which is where the marketing happened. Consider these favorite examples.

Not that the author’s name isn’t shown. This short book was published anonymously. It’s loaded with scandel-mongering scurrility.
By the inimitable Christopher Marlowe, here spelled Marloe. 1593, the year he died.
Don’t you love the way Francis (Bacon, of course) had them dude up his first name there? He was Baron Verulam at this time, the Roman name of St. Albans, the town nearest his home at Gorhambury.

Onward, into the recent past

You have to have lots of readers as well as lots of paper to produce a truly popular press. So we fast-forward to the late Victorian period, after the new and improved public school program (the Elementary Education Act of 1870) has managed to push literacy out to the masses.

But are the masses clamoring for an updated copy of Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration in Latin? No, they most emphatically are not. What they want is sensation, thrills and chills. They want tales of romance obstructed and rewon; tales of battles, tales of strange occurrences. They want fun!

Scholars of literature date the novel from the early 18th century. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, was written by Samuel Richardson in 1740. I recently tried to read another early novel – Daniel Defoe’s 1724 Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress – but I got bored and gave up. I should’ve read the blurb: I didn’t know there was a murder in it! (Wait. 1724 is before 1740. Isn’t Roxana a novel? Also, I think Thomas Nashe’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveler is a novel. That one is a fun read, if you don’t mind early modern English. But I’m not qualified to define the term ‘novel.’ I just write the things.)

Genre fiction

A plain and sturdy cover

These days, ‘genre’ means ‘fiction that falls into one of several recognizable categories.’ Romance was the first, but by the late nineteenth century, the time toward which I struggle verbosely, we also have crime (mystery, thriller, suspense), fantasy, science fiction, westerns, and horror. The list at Wikipedia includes inspirational as a genre, but I think that’s more mid-20th century. Before that, all literary fiction was supposed to be uplifting.

But we don’t care about all that. We’re looking at covers. Many of the ones you find if you search for “Victorian era book covers” are practical, sturdy, leather-bound volumes that look like they were meant for the burgeoning library trade. You probably had to know which book you wanted when you went in. You’d fill out a slip at the desk and the librarian would go get it for you. So you cared as much about that cover as I do about the books on my Kindle.

But what if you’re browsing in a bookstore, for yourself or for a gift? Then the cover really matters. Also, let’s remember that the Victorians invented advertising, in the sense of big, eye-catching images with bald-faced lies around them. Perfect for fiction!

Here’s sampling of what we might have found.

rudyard-kipling-jungle-book            john-lang-the-ex-wife










Haunted House in Berkeley Square          book-cover-vic4


Spring-Heeled Jack was only a penny! That wasn’t a lot even back then. I would have read these by the barrow-load.

The Haunted House in Berkeley Square — actually, all of these — display most of the characteristics of a modern popular book cover. We also have a very abstract contingent, but for genre fiction, it’s still most commonly a frame of some sort in which the title and author’s name are displayed clearly. These books put the publisher on the front and even the price, for the penny dreadful. I don’t see any puff quotes — I guess Stephen King wasn’t around yet to tell us what a heart-pounding read this is. But we have the compelling central image that gives us an instant sense of what kind of ride that book is going to take us on. Moody and dark, for the Haunted House. Exciting, non-stop action for Jack.

A Walk through the Covers of Time

We can easily observe the changing taste in book covers by looking at everybody’s favorite lady novelist, Jane Austen. The first one is undated, but probably much like the originals in the late 18th century. Then we have a sensational one from the Age of Sensation, 1870. Then a milder one from 1946. Then one from probably the 1980s, when we’re reading Jane because we have to. Then we get through the whole Jane Reboot with movie after movie (all of which I’ve watched and loved, except for anything with Keira Knightley in it.)




The Quandary

If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a big chocolate cookie. The quandary is which direction to go in for my covers. Not all the way to early c18, definitely. But neither do I wish to get into the full abstraction of literary fiction in c21. I don’t write literary fiction and my name is not that well known. I think my covers need images that give a good sense of content.

But should I go full-on Victorian? It’s not that easy to find images that are of sufficient quality for my cover creator to work with and also relate to my story. I’m spending a lot of time grazing for images… The have to be in the public domain, absolutely. I’m even considering commissioning some original art, but that’s probably out of my reach.

If you like this sort of thing and want to watch the process, you can tune in to my Pinterest board. Note that not all of these are in the public domain! They’re there so I can contemplate having something similar made for me by an artist.

Medieval to Modern: Eight great historical mystery shorts

Medieval to Modern: An Anthology of Historical Mystery Stories is available now at all your favorite medievaltomodernonline bookstores.

What will you find in this volume? Three novellas and five short stories, ranging from Wales in 1141 to Dayton, Ohio in the 1930’s. You’ll also get a sneak preview chapter from the first book in each of our historical series. Here’s an annotated TOC:

I. Medieval Wales

Sarah Woodbury gives us a novella, The Bard’s Daughter, in which Gwen solves a crime that threatens her own family. I love the way Sarah takes Gwen one step closer to her true destiny in this perfectly-crafted work.

Then you get chapter one of The Good Knight, the first book in Sarah’s hugely popular Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mysteries. Don’t worry about getting hooked, because there are 10 more in this series to look forward to.

II. Elizabethan England

First is a short story called In Walked a Lady, featuring Francis Bacon’s sidekick, Thomas Clarady, as he takes a case on his own — with mixed results. By moi, Anna Castle.

This is followed by the first chapter of the first book the Francis Bacon mystery series, Murder by Misrule. The fifth book in that series, Let Slip the Dogs, will be out in August.

III. Regency London

Now we leap forward to 1814, for Libi Astaire‘s novella, General Well’ngone in Love. It’s about time! But will he grow too soft to be any good at his job? I hope not.

Next is the first chapter of the first book in Libi’s Jewish Regency mystery series, Tempest in the Tea Room. You’ll meet General Well’ngone and the Earl of Gravel Lane for the first time, in a tale told in the delightful voice of young Rebecca Goldsmith. I adore this series, which feels like falling into a Hogarth painting, only a few decades later with company that is much more genteel.

IV. Victorian San Francisco

Another turn of the hourglass, and we’re in San Francisco in 1888. The short story Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong is a perfect introduction to M. Louisa Locke‘s gift for peeking into the more obscure corners of San Francisco history and pulling out a delightful tale.

Next comes a novella, Kathleen Catches a Killer, in which the housemaid of series protagonist Annie Fuller helps out a friend in trouble and nearly lands in the soup herself. You’ll have to finish this one before you go to sleep!

Then we get the first chapter of the first book in M. Louisa’s Victorian San Francisco mystery series. You’ll meet ingenious Annie Fuller and her houseful of vivid characters for the first time. Not for the last; they’ll start to feel like family as you read on through the series.

V. Victorian London

First is a short story called The Stockbroker’s Wife, by Anna Castle again. This is a pastiche of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Stockbroker’s Clerk. Professor Moriarty must undertake a small fraud in order to expose a larger one — with the help of his wife, of course.

Then comes the first chapter of the first book in the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty mystery series, Moriarty Meets His Match. In my 180-degree twist on the Holmes canon, Professor Moriarty is a man driven to right wrongs even when it’s wrong to right them.

VI. Depression-era Dayton, Ohio

Turn over the hourglass over one last time and land in Dayton, Ohio in the 1930s. First up is M. Ruth Myers‘ short story, The Barefoot Stiff. PI Maggie Sullivan solves a crime the cops get wrong, thanks to her keen eye and her lively fashion sense.

Her taste for life’s little luxuries comes in handy in the next short story, The Concrete Garter Belt. This story proves that Maggie will do anything to solve a case – and I do mean anything.

Last up is the first chapter of the first book in Ruth’s Maggie Sullivan mystery series set in Depression-era Ohio. Maggie is my absolute favorite PI and one heckuva of a snappy dame.

These authors are all members of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative, aka Historical Fiction eBooks. This is my favorite place to browse for something new to read. I was honored to receive an invitation to join by M. Louisa Locke in 2014 and continue to be delighted by the quality and diversity of historical fiction created by this group. If you love historical fiction, you won’t find an easier place to stock up on great stories. 

That beautiful cover was designed by the multi-talented Sarah Woodbury.


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