Silk & Shadows

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

I’m in crazy deadline madness, so I don’t have a lot of time for writing a deeply scintillating blog, but instead of pulling a classic, it occurred to me that I could do something fun: tell you about how I wrote one of books!  Is that great or what?  <G>

(I’m reminded of a cartoon I once saw, probably from The New Yorker, which showed a couple on a first date.  The guy, a pretentious literary looking sort, is saying, “But that’s enough about me.  Now let me tell you about my book.”  <G>)

AMaryJoPutney_SilkandShadows_400pxt any rate, some people enjoy hearing the story behind the story, so here it is for Silk and Shadows, book 1 in my Silk trilogy.  (That's the new e-book version with its wonderful Kimberly Killion cover.)

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact genesis of most books, but as a kid, I used to study the maps on the rack on the classroom blackboards when I was bored.  I particularly liked the map of the world, which showed great, empty spaces in the center of Asia.  What was there?  What mysteries lurked in the vastness?  It’s not surprising that I’ve written several books with Asian settings.

In terms of plot, I was intrigued by the idea of revenge, and a man who has lived for a justified vengeance.  His fury kept him alive and shaped his life.  But ultimately, if he is to have any kind of future, he must relinquish his vengeance.  Yes, the hero of S&S was one of the long line of my tortured heroes. <G> 

By its nature, the story became my version of Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo.   A Count of Monte Cristo Bookmysterious, enigmatic man from the east enters civilized society.  He is charming and charismatic and has wealth beyond imagining.  He is also ruthless, and nothing will stop him from accomplishing his secret agenda.

Nothing except, perhaps, love. 

Since I’m a great believer in laying everything out, the book has one of my favorite first lines:  “He called himself Peregrine, the wanderer, and he came to London for revenge.”

The story is set in 1839, the very early Victorian era, because the world was opening up.  Bold explorers were charting unknown lands and the Industrial Revolution was changing the nature of society.  Mikahl Kahnauri, known as Prince Peregrine of Kafiristan, has an entrée into London society because he saved the life of Lord Ross Carlisle, an aristocratic explorer and travel writer.  They had become friends—and Ross is now an unwitting tool of Peregrine’s revenge. 

-Sir_Alexander_BurnesI had a fabulous time researching this book.  While looking for a plausibly mysterious background for my hero, I came across the chronicles of real British explorers like Sir Alexander Burnes (left) who crossed the vast and empty tracts of Central Asia.  (Left)

A real rescue mission to Bokhara fascinated me so much it became the inspiration for Silk and Secrets, second in the trilogy, and the story of Lord Ross Carlisle.  I had to force myself to go back to my original story of Peregrine—and Lady Sara St. James. 

Lady Sara is Ross’s cousin, and the complete antithesis of Peregrine.  She is gentle and blond and kind, the fiancée of Peregrine’s enemy—and she has a core of pure steel.  Here’s an excerpt from when they first meet:

    As soon as Sara saw the tall, black-haired man, she knew that he was Ross’s newly arrived friend. Then she questioned her conclusion, wondering why she was so certain. His skin was dark, but no more than that of a weathered farmer, his craggy features were not noticeably foreign, and his superbly tailored black clothing was quintessentially British. Nonetheless, she was sure that he could only be Prince Peregrine of Kafiristan.
    It was the way he moved, she decided, fluid and feral as a predator, wholly unlike the way a European walked. She saw how women watched him covertly and was not surprised, for there was something about the Kafir that would make women spin foolish fantasies about sensuous savages who were really nature’s noblemen, untrammeled by civilization. Sara smiled at her own foolishness, then lost sight of the prince as she talked to one of her father’s elderly cousins.
    Quite suddenly the currents of the party brought her face-to-face with Prince Peregrine. Sara tilted her head up as she opened her mouth to welcome her guest, but her voice died unborn as his intense gaze caught and held hers. The prince’s eyes were a clear, startling green, a color unlike any other she had ever seen, a wild, exotic reminder that this was a man raised under different skies, by different rules. The unknowable green depths beckoned, promising…promising what?
It would be easy to drown in those eyes, to throw propriety and honor aside, and count the world well lost…. 
    Shocked and disoriented by her thoughts, Sara swallowed and forced her mind back to reality. Extending her hand, she said, “I am your hostess, Sara St. James. Surely you are Prince Peregrine?”
    His black slashing brows rose in mock despair. Taking her hand, he said in a deep resonant voice, “It is so obvious? And here I thought I was wearing correct native dress. Perhaps I should sell the tailor to the tin mines for failing me.” He had a faint, husky accent, and his pronunciation was slightly over-precise, but otherwise his English was flawless.
    Sara laughed. “It is not British custom to sell people to the mines, as I’m sure you know. Besides, your tailor is not at fault. There is an old proverb that clothes make the man, but that is only a partial truth. What really makes a man is his experiences, and your face was not formed by an English life.”
    “Very true.” The prince still clasped Sara’s hand. His own hand was well shaped and well groomed, but had the hardness that resulted from physical labor.
Sara remembered a demonstration of electricity she had once seen, for she felt as if a powerful current was flowing from him to her. It radiated from his warm clasp and those unnerving green eyes, and made her disturbingly aware of his sheer maleness. Perhaps an arduous mountain life had made the prince so lithe and strong, so attractive that she wanted to run her hands over his body, feel his muscles, draw him close….
    It took all of Sara’s training in graciousness not to snatch her hand back. The blasted man must be a mesmerist! Or perhaps the resemblance was to a cobra hypnotizing a rabbit. 
    She took a deep breath, telling herself not to be fanciful, the prince was merely different from what she was used to. Ross had once told her that Asiatics stood closer together than Europeans when they conversed. That was why she was so aware of the man’s nearness. 
    Disengaging her hand from his, she took a step back. “Local custom permits kissing a woman’s hand, or perhaps shaking it, but the rule is that the hand must be returned promptly.’’
    His mobile features fell into lines of profound regret. “A thousand apologies, Lady Sara. I knew that, but forgot. So many things to remember. You will forgive my occasional lapses?”
    “I can see that you are going to be a severe trial, Your Highness.” Sara hoped her voice sounded normal. Her hand still tingled where they had touched, and she felt abnormally sensitive, like a butterfly newly emerged from its cocoon. The flowers smelled sweeter, the music sounded brighter, the air itself pulsed with promise.

 I loved the darkness and passion of the hero, and the profound moral choice at the heart of the story.  I was also tickled when a writer friend told me that when she hit a particular point in the book, she thought she knew what was going to happen, and she was so upset that she put the book down and walked away.

S&S, original coverThen she resumed rereading, and found I’d done something quite different.  Music to an author’s ears. <G>  

I love the stories and characters of the Silk Trilogy, and I’m really happy that the books are now available in e-editions. One of the pluses of e-booking was reading through the whole scanned manuscript, looking for errors and possible changes.  It gave me a plausible excuse to fall in love with my characters all over again. <G>

Not all readers like exotic settings and backgrounds, and I can understand why.  Reading them requires a greater investment of time and energy, resources which are often in short supply.  But people who like them tend to really like them. 

MaryJoPutney_SilkandSecrets_200pxSo what about you?  Do you like exotic settings?  If so, what books have particularly charmed you?  Are there any settings that you’d like to see? 

Mary Jo, warning that sooner or later she'll be talking about Silk and Secrets and Veils of Silk, the other books in the trilogy.

Cover Images: Where Do They Come From?

Cat 243 Dover

by Mary Jo

Reader Laura Terhune asked, “How are cover images are selected?  Do you choose from existing photos or have a photo session to represent the story?  Do you get to select the models?  Does your publisher and/or editor have a vote?  Who ultimately makes the decision?"

Interesting you should ask this, Laura.  There are a number of answers to your question, and I’m currently involved in the variation that gives the author the most control.

Traditionally, covers were designed by publisher art departments and authors had fairly minimal input.  Publishers have their own ideas about the kind of look they want for particular authors and types of book.  New authors usually have little say, though as a writer becomes more established, she’s more likely to contribute to the process. 

Burning Point Original Only authors at the very top of the food chain—the Stephen Kings and J. K. Rowlingses of the world—are likely to have “cover approval,” which means they can veto a cover they don’t like.  One can get “cover consultation” in a contract, but that means only as much as the publisher wants it to.  If you want a horse on your cover and the publisher wants two people exploring each other’s tonsils, the heavy breathing will win.

The cover images are created when the publishing art department arranges a photo shoot with a couple of models and a range of different costumes.  Lots and lots of images will be shot, sometimes for multiple covers.  An image will be chosen and the illustrator works from that, making changes such as colors, hairstyles, and adding appropriate background. 

The author might be asked for suggestions of scenes from the story that might look good on the cover.  An author may suggest movie stars who have the look of her characters.  She might even suggest a particular cover model she’d like to see.  She might supply images to help create the background. 

Silk & Secrets--Stepback For example, for my book Silk and Secrets, which is a rescue mission to Central Asia, I included a picture of Bactrian camels.  (TWO HUMPS, NOT ONE!)  I was amused to see later that the step back illustration by the late great Pino used that exact image in the background, with the addition of camel packs and harness. 

Well organized as always, Harlequin has authors fill out art facts sheet to describe the appearance, clothing, setting, possible scenes, etc.  Each H/S line goes for a particular look, but within that, they’ll try to insure that books coming out the same month don’t look too much alike. 

Spiral Path Original Single title books have a more scattershot approach.  Sometimes the art department listens and follows the suggestions.  After all, they do a ton of covers every year, and often welcome ideas since they may run dry themselves occasionally.

Other times, sending information to an art department is like calling cats: they ignore you entirely.  <g> Sometimes the art folks come up with something you love, sometimes—not so much.  Art people tend to have brains that work differently from word people, and communication can sometimes fail.  (Word Wenches is unusual in that we have several Wenches, including me, who have strong backgrounds in the visual arts.) 

Generally publishers like to keep authors well out of the process because we can really get in the way. Authors tend to have clear ideas of what our characters look like.  We’ll look at a cover and think, “Wrong!” And then list all the shortcomings. <g>

There are maybe three times in my career where I’ve looked at a cover and DarkMirror--Final HIGH REZthought, “Wow!  That is spot on!” (My YA cover for Dark Mirror, out in March, is an example of a cover image that really hit the mark.)

The longer we write, the more pragmatic we become.  As in, “The models bear no resemblance to my characters, the costumes are half a century off, and she’s wearing twenty-first century slut make-up, but the image is beautiful and the colors are terrific and this cover will sell.”  <g> 

The_Burning_Point--Real Final In the golden age of romance, most covers were done using this photograph and illustration process.  With the advances in computer graphics programs, now a lot more is being done with computers.  This can result in very realistic images of people, usually with some romanticizing added to make the image more appealing.

There is now a seismic shift in cover design as authors start self-publishing their backlists or new books that haven’t sold.  This is part of a huge transition in publishing, one that is still very much in process. 

Our own Wench Pat has put a number of her backlist books online, with more to come.  I’m working on putting up my three contemporary romantic novels, and then will upload my historical Silk Trilogy, along with shorter works that haven’t been widely available.

Twist of Fate Original Self-publishing takes a lot of time.  You have to have a clean file, and maybe, if you’re compulsive, as so many of us are, you’ll do some editing on that original manuscript.  You have to convert the file into different formats so it can be uploaded to different sites with different requirements.

And you have to come up new covers since the original ones belong to the publisher.  This is where an author can really have fun.  Some authors have the computer skills to design their own covers.  There are numerous stock photo sites like stock photo sites like and with zillions of pictures, but searching for the right image can eat up HUGE quantities of time—and you might still not find one you really like. 

Not surprising, this need for romantic images is creating new resources.  I believe The_Spiral_Path--FINAL the first stock romance cover image site was by cover model Jimmy Thomas  His site site has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of images from photo shoots featuring him with different female models or alone, and also with different heat levels.  It still takes a lot of time to find the right image, but at least it’s like fishing in a pond that has been stocked with the right kind of fish.  <g>  We used him for the covers of both The Burning Point and The Spiral Path as shown above.  (The original images are shown as well, and have much less of a related look.)

TOF1 Despite a degree in design and years of work in the field, I didn’t want to design my own covers because I never learned the ins and outs of computer graphics. I’ve been too busy writing romances. <g> 

So I chose to work with author and designer Kimberly Killion . who has fabulous computer design chops and is doing a gangbusters business designing professional quality covers for other authors. 

A cover isn’t just a matter of finding a good image.  That’s actually the easy part.  Typography is enormously important, and weak typography brands a lot of covers as amateurish. 

Layout is also very important, too.  One of the things I learned in my years as a designer is that good design, like good writing, is often unobtrusive.  Done right, both things seem so correct and obvious that one doesn’t even think of how it could be different.  Instead, one sees the whole design or the story.

Here is a page from Kim’s site showing how she transforms images into finished covers.  It shows the value of cutting off the heads of characters. <G>  Using a real person's face will often look wrong.  Not showing the face allows the viewer to imagine her own image of the characters. 

Twist_of_Fate--Final 2 Kim has actually started her own stock photo site of specifically romantic images to use on covers.  Even so, developing a cover requires work.  The author has to supply information and help look for images and bounce ideas back and forth. 

Working with Kim is like playing tennis with a pro—it raises your game. <G>  She’d shoot an image to me, I’d make a suggestion, she’d try something different.  This took time, but it was a lot of fun, and I love the results.  Since e-book covers are generally used small, I kept the images simple: a man and a woman to show it’s a romance, and some sense of what the story feels like. 


Above, I've shown the original bland cover for Twist of Fate, then one of the covers we did while developing a new cover, and the one just above is the final.  I liked the girl in the raincoat, but the feeling was wrong.  The final has more angst and I loved the colors.  Kim dropped in the background and made the heroine's hair red, one of myriad changes.

I’ve scattered some of my cover images through this blog, and I’m starting to work with Kim to develop covers for my Silk Trilogy.  We’ll develop a “look” for all three books.  We'll probably go through dozens of variations of image, layout, color and typography before we finish with a cover we both think is great. 

ACF21 E-booking is a time consuming process, but done right, it will help our beloved older books sell indefinitely.  And sometimes, we get to do covers the way we wanted them in the first place! 

Laura, this is probably more than you wanted to know about the origins of cover images.  <g>  But since I used your topic, you get a free book from me!  Happy reading—

Mary Jo. ending with the cover for a novella that spun off from my contemporary novels.