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Phoenix Falling: The Story Behind the Story

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

Today’s blog is another in my occasional series of showing how stories come together.  This time I’m dissecting the second in my contemporary romance series: the book what was once called The Spiral Path and I recently renamed Phoenix Falling in the relaunched Starting Over Series.


Setting the Scene:

My historical series are all built around men who became friends as schoolboys, so I decided to build my contemporary series around a group of female friends.  They met as girls at a real school, Baltimore’s Friends School, which is a Quaker institution, though students come from all backgrounds. 

Why Baltimore?  Because writing contemporary would represent so many challenges in other areas that I thought it would be nice not to spend much time researching the setting.  Hence, using my home town, Baltimore, which has texture and character and might seem exotic to people who've never been here. <G> 

MaryJoPutney_PhoenixFalling_2000The first and third books in the trilogy are set in Baltimore, but except for a few scenes, Phoenix Falling is set in California, New Mexico, and England. 

The Genesis:

One inspiration for the story was reading in the Baltimore Sun about Cass Elliot (real name: Ellen Naomi Cohen), one of the singers in the famous 60’s rock group, the Mamas and the Papas

Cass died at age 32, leaving a daughter by an unknown father.  The girl was sent back East to be raised by Cass’s family.  That gave me the idea for a heroine whose mother was a famous rock singer who died too young, leaving a child who was sent to Baltimore to live with her cold, disapproving grandparents. 

The Characters

Hence, Raine Marlowe, real name Rainbow. Rainey survived emotionally because of the friendships she formed at school and she stays in touch with Kate and Val and the others.  But she has talent and desire, so off she goes to Hollywood to become an actress.

The Story:

I'm not sure why I decided on a Hollywood/movie making set-up, but I liked the idea of writing about creative process, and what kind of people do the hard work of creating the magic.  The book begins with Rainey approaching her estranged husband, Kenzie Scott, to ask if he’ll star in the movie she wants to make from a Victorian novel that she loves.  The Centurion is about an officer in one of Queen Victoria’s “little wars,” and the terrible price that is paid for empire.  Though I invented the novel, the little wars were real enough, and so is the cost of empire. 

Adventures in the Screen TradeAfter separating from Kenzie, Rainey had thrown herself into writing a script and putting together a budget as a distraction from her pain.  But in order to get the financing, she needs a “bankable” star—and Kenzie is a superstar, as well as a contender for my most tortured hero ever.  Think Pierce Brosnan in his 30s—gorgeous, enigmatic, and very British.

The story is about a lot of things, and one of the central questions is how can two people build a lasting relationship in the middle of the craziness of celebrity.  Rainey is a successful Oscar nominated actress, while Kenzie is a tabloid darling whose every date becomes fodder for speculation. 

The Scarlet PimpernelRainey and Kenzie fall in love and impulsively marry after they finish making a new version of The Scarlet Pimpernel together.  The love and caring are real, but the pressures and separations crack their marriage. 

But because Rainey needs Kenzie and he can't say no to her, he agrees to do the movie without even reading the script.  Which turns out to be a terrible mistake, since the central conflict of The Centurion cuts dangerously close to the horrors of his childhood. Playing John Randall, the brave, tormented British officer, brings Kenzie closer and closer to the breaking point. 

The situation is worsened when the actress cast as the love interest quits before shooting begins, and Rainey must take on the role herself.  It turns out that the heroine, Sarah Masterson, has a loving loyalty which freaks Rainey out because of her personal commitment issues. 

If that isn't bad enough, just as shooting wraps up, a British paparazzo with an apparent grudge against Kenzie explodes a scandalous accusation that pushes Kenzie over the edge.

Rainey moves in to protect her husband, not knowing if the story is true or not, and not really caring.  She’s never stopped loving Kenzie, and she’ll do anything to save his sanity.  They retreat to the remote New Mexican ranch that he’d bought on impulse. There the layers of pain and secrets are revealed, and the healing begins. 

The Research:

I love this story, and the research was immense.  I read all kinds of memoirs like Emma Thompsonscreenwriter William Goldman’s witty, informative Adventures in the Screen Trade and Emma Thompson’s The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, in which she recounts all the work that went into her Oscar winning screenplay for Jane Austen’s famous novel, and what it was like to play the lead in the movie after she’d written the script. 

Also, a friend of mine is the sister-in-law of a director who was shooting a movie in Baltimore, and she was able to get me onto the set for a day.  (Shooting a movie is a really, really boring process, I learned. <G>)

Royal Academy of Dramatic ArtI interviewed my friend Laura Resnick who had studied at one of London’s famous schools of drama to get a sense of what Kenzie’s time at the famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Art would have been like.

I talked to a young woman who had been a Hollywood personal assistant, a class of people who are like magical elves, doing anything and everything necessary to make a star’s life run smoothly.

New Mexico cave B&BI had once read about a B&B carved into a cliff in New Mexico, and thought, “Wouldn’t that be a great place for Rainey and Kenzie to go for a few hours of peace and quiet!” 

I'd also read about a monastery far off the beaten path in northern New Mexico.  The Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert was literally the very first site I visited back in the ‘90s when I got an internet capable computer.  I used the monastery for Tom Corsi, a secondary character in Stirring the Embers. He's living in the monastery as a novice and trying to decide whether or not to take final vows.  A warm and tolerant man, he’s there when Rainey needs to talk.

LabyrinthOne of the most important elements was the labyrinth, which became the central metaphor for the book, and which provided the original title for the book, The Spiral Path. I’ve blogged about labyrinths in the past, and the symbolism is perfect for the complicated relationship between Rainey and Kenzie.  Plus, there is a real labyrinth that Kenzie makes as he comes to terms with his painful past.

The research was fascinating, but the heart of the story is two complicated people trying to rebuild the loving marriage that they both desperately need.  Is there a happy ending?  Of course!  My stories are always about healing and reconciliation, and never more than in Phoenix Falling.

What’s behind the new title?  I think of Kenzie as like a phoenix who'd built a soaring and successful life from the ashes of a catastrophic childhood.  When his life is shattered again, will he have the strength to rebuild? 

With Rainey’s love and understanding, yes. Here’s an excerpt of Rainey’s first meeting with Kenzie.

MaryJoPutney_PhoenixFalling_2000I’ll be giving a copy of the original print edition of The Spiral Path to one person who leaves a comment between now and midnight Tuesday.  Or if you’re impatient, you can download the e-book of Phoenix Falling from any of the major online bookstores.  If you do read the story, I hope you love Kenzie and Rainey as much as I do.

Mary Jo

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.