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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Judging a Historical Novel by its Cover–and Paper

Meg La Borde, the former COO of Greenleaf Book Group, told Publisher’s Weekly a while back that, in her opinion, packaging is more important than publicity in selling a book.

I couldn’t agree more—which is why I believe that authors should be allowed to take a more active role in the design process.

Most publishers and art designers will cringe at this suggestion. Traditionally, after a manuscript is purchased, the author is gently escorted aside while the editor and the design team take over. If the author has reached a certain echelon of success, he may be offered the courtesy of vetoing alternative design layouts once they’ve been completed. But is the rare author indeed who is allowed to participate from the start in the design meetings.

This tradition reminds me of another indefensible taboo, one that permeates Hollywood. A screenwriter is deemed guilty of a crime worse than blasphemy if he dares insert a camera direction into his script. Directors protect their presumed prerogatives like Croesus hoarding his gold. Yet the telling of a story and the mode of viewing by the audience are often intricately intertwined.

I’d argue that a book’s design is particularly critical for historical novels. Authors working with the past take great pains to evoke the time and setting of their stories. The look and feel of the book can offer a significant assist in the casting of the essential spell.

A recent trend in book design and production is worth noting in this regard. Artists and printers are becoming more adept at creating pages that appear ancient, weathered, stained, torn and burnt.

Two examples recently caught my attention. Neither book is a historical novel, but the design of their pages is brilliant: Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker (Harper Collins) and The Pirate Primer by George Chounas (Writer’s Digest Books). Next time you’re in a store, take a look at these beauties.

I interviewed the designers of both books to gain an insight into their magic.

Claudeen Wheeler, the designer for Writer’s Digest Books, told me she found a stock image of antiquated paper and layered it onto the text file in Adobe Photoshop. She used two inks—black and orange—to create an illusion of depth. The printing required a two-color process.

The acid-eaten look of the pages in Mister B. Gone was the brainchild of Mary Schuck, creative director at Harper Collins. Schuck said the art was produced from a stock image that had a weathered appearance. She tweaked it to make the book appear as if it had been saved from a fire centuries ago. The interior pages were printed on natural stock paper with four-color ink.

Of course, two-color and four-color printings are more expensive than the traditional black-and-white process. Yet once you’ve seen the pages of these books, you’ll yearn to have your historical novel similarly enhanced.

POV: The Projection Technique

Is there a subject on which authors and writing instructors disagree more than point of view? Some insist that to change POV from one character to another in the same scene is the mark of an amateur. Dissent as I do from this bromide, I’ll nevertheless leave that argument for another time.

If you must get into a secondary character’s head, there are ways to do it without risking a warrant for your arrest by the POV police.

In Game of  Kings, Dorothy Dunnett gave us a splendid example of what I call the “projection” technique. The following passage features a conversation between Tom Erskine and Christian Stewart:

Christian said quickly, “Not afraid: no. My reservations are of another kind. And not any dislike of you: of course not.”

“Then there’s someone else? he said.

It had not occurred to her that he might think that. With an effort, she applied her mind. “Under the circumstances, that’s rather flattering of you. But no—there’s no one else. It’s simply that—”

That what? It was not simple at all. Love was no prerequisite, whatever Agnes Herries might think. He must indeed be wondering why she hesitated; wondering perhaps if she was after bigger game than himself. She had money and her birth was higher than his own. She had no need to be diffident about her handicap, but it was the only excuse she had. So she went on. “It’s just that, my dear, a blind wife is no asset to a future Lord Erskine.”

Dunnett could have chosen to switch from Christian’s POV. Instead, she had Christian wonder if Erskine was thinking what otherwise might have been placed in Erskine’s POV.

This clever technique in effect sets two minds into one head.

Of course, there are limitations to the reach of the projection technique. Christian’s internal estimation of Erskine’s thoughts must by necessity be tentative and uncertain. Read the rest of this entry »