Character Study

A novelist’s job is, first and foremost, to tell a good story. For a historical novelist, there is another layer. Yes, the story needs to be good. But the place and characters – the story’s universe, as it were –must feel real. Authentic. Of their time, but also relatable for a reader picking up the story today.

This is not always easy. And it may be why I’ve been at work on my women’s fiction novel The Admiral’s Wife for so long. How do I bring to life the voice of my protagonist, Katherine Cochrane, when we are separated by two centuries and so little of our lived experience overlaps?

Portrait of Kate with her daughter Elizabeth
Detail of a portrait showing Kate Cochrane and her daughter Elizabeth. Private collection.

I understand my role is not that of a documentarian, nor of an academic. But having grown up a lifelong love of history and earning a master’s degree in the field, it irks me not to get the details right. I am terrible to watch period films with for this reason – I will spot anachronisms, roll my eyes, occasionally comment, and depending on the film, either give it a pass or make a mental note to visit History vs. Hollywood later. Historical novels are the same way. I literally stopped reading a New York Times bestseller after the third gaffe I spotted, a reference to hunting deer in the spring. It doesn’t take a wildlife biologist to know that spring is the wrong time to hunt deer. One, they’re raising babies. Two, deer tend to be rather thin after the winter. Three, a Google search could provide a fact-check on this topic in about 10 seconds.
So I decided that a book with sloppy research wasn’t worth my time, no matter how well it sold. And I set a goal for myself to do better.

Unfortunately, there are no books written on Kate Cochrane. Nor any academic articles, essays, or other items that I was able to locate. She is mentioned in works about other people – mainly her husband, Admiral Lord Cochrane, but never as the subject in her own right. Before I could become Kate’s storyteller, I had to become her biographer.

I delved into sources on her period: paintings, newspapers, dresses and jewelry of Regency England (that’s Bridgerton era, y’all, for anyone swept up in that series), recipe books, documents, music. I made a Pinterest board to keep track of it all. And luckily for me, Kate was quite the letter writer. I located a trove of her correspondence in a Scottish archive and spent several rainy autumn days reading and transcribing her letters. It was magic.

Letters are the next best thing to an interview, I think. It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation. As a reader of letters, you are privileged. You pick up tone, relationship dynamics, desires and tensions. In Kate’s, I see her longing for her husband, exasperated by her children, frustrated by circumstances, triumphant after a successful lobbying effort.
Her excitement and elation at traveling in South America, when she accompanied her husband there during his naval campaigns, is palpable:

I determined to continue my route as far as the Inca’s bridge, which is about four leagues the other side of the highest pass on the Cordillera…This I accomplished and was most particularly gratified by having done so as it enables me to give you a good account of this country when I return which I am sure will also please you, altho’ you would have feared my going. I think you will be amazed by my adventures!

Letter from Katherine Cochrane to her husband Thomas Cochrane, November 10, 1820, Argentina

Much later, in a letter sent to Thomas while he was in Greece and she in France in 1828, she alludes to her husband’s apparently recurrent periods of low spirits and attempts to cheer him:

Why are we not to be happy, at least why not so much so as we have ever been? I cannot understand your state of mind or feeling, what can you dread? There is no fighting now in Greece. You surely cannot be well or such vile blue devils would not hold you so tight…Yet my dearest I would strongly advise you to look on the brighter side, and leave that sad train of thought. Try reading writing walking in fact try anything but thinking.

Letter from Katherine Cochrane to her husband Thomas Cochrane, September 9, 1828, Beaujon, France

And finally, triumph after her years-long efforts to persuade the British government to grant Thomas a pardon after he made powerful political enemies. In the midst of her exultation, she pauses to place credit where credit is due.

“Good news! Good news! You will be happy to hear that it is to be done. I have succeeded beyond my wildest hopes…The will was wanting and where there is no will, there never was a way in the world. I am thankful that I had the will and found the way. I have done more for you than if I had brought you a dower of 50,000 pounds.”

Letter from Katherine Cochrane to her husband Thomas Cochrane, February 17, 1832, Southampton, England

I could practically see Kate taking a victory lap as the words sing from the page.

There are dozens more anecdotes I could pull from her letters, more nuggets of personality to glean. But perhaps these pieces are enough to show you what I see: a woman of great feeling, with steely determination and strong passions. She is pragmatic, loyal, and loving. She is fed up. She is confident and charming. And through it all, she speaks with a voice that is her own.  

And that is something I can relate to.

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This summer I am revising a novel. It isn’t the first time. Or the second. In fact, I’ve lost count of what revision round this is. The 4th? The 7th? The 17th? All I know is that the manuscript–the complete first full draft–was produced in 2015. And I’ve been revising it off and on ever since.

Sometimes I stepped away for years. And in those years, wrote entirely new books. Sometimes I took the manuscript to workshops so it could be torn apart and put back together. Sometimes I didn’t write at all. There were days, weeks, months when I just existed.

But the story always called to me. I knew I hadn’t put it away forever. I knew someday I would come back. And so I did, cautiously. For the book had been made and unmade so many times that I could hardly see its original shape beneath the cuts, the rewrites, the false starts. What was this thing that I labored to create? What was its soul? Where was its soul?

I told myself I had good reasons for not writing. A different job, a different house. The ongoing challenges of the pandemic. And not least of all, that I had lost my writing desk.

I didn’t need the desk to write. I’d written in plenty of odd places, at odd times. The sweltering porch of a bed and breakfast on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On an Amtrak train bound for New York. A morning in the dark predawn at a near-empty diner. Starbucks. My dining room table.

But those weren’t at my desk. Those weren’t in the space that was my own, that I could sit at and let the ideas come (or not) and type them and fight with them and chase the sparks that would propel me forward. My desk was where things had happened: three novels, countless articles, hours and hours of notes and staring and scribbling.

Without the desk, I was anchorless. Or so I told myself. How could I recover the essence of a novel when I literally could not get back to the place where I had written it? How could I find the center of something when the path to it was gone?

I moped. I mourned. I halfheartedly browsed for another desk, looking at secondhand furniture sites and bougie boutiques. But I didn’t want someone else’s desk. And I didn’t want a new one. The solution became apparent: I would make one for myself. I’d find something that spoke to me. Strip it of its former character. Claim is as my own.

Desk before.
Desk after.

And so I did. The battered thing I found had seen hard use. It cost me next to nothing; snow flurries spit from the sky as a kind warehouse employee helped load it into my car. But it had character. Untapped potential. I brought it home. Cleaned it. Sanded down the damaged veneer, painted it in shades of cream and blue that reminded me of the sea.

It is transformed. It is mine.

And the novel is transforming too. I am giving my heroine not just a voice, but a pulse. A vulnerability.

For art is not about perfection. It is about the mess. The imperfect moments of our lives. Our second guesses. Our failures. Our flashes of clarity. Our glimpses of love. Our courage, our fear.

And so I write, not to divorce my heroine from those things, but to put her into the thick of them. To give her a reason for carrying on. And for me to follow, to go up the stairs, to sit at the desk. To keep the story going.

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Fiction, Fast and Loose

Anyone who has had the misfortune of watching a historical anything with me will probably tell you that I’m nearly insufferable when it comes to period detail. I grouse about language, clothing, the construction of the buildings, the kinds of food that appear on the table. I nearly barfed while watching Outlaw King, and actor Chris Pine pats a child on the back while saying something that sounds suspiciously like “It’s going to be ok.”

Whaaatt? “OK” was not common parlance in medieval Scotland.  “OK” wasn’t common parlance anywhere in the English-speaking world for at least another 400 years. 

Television hasn’t proved much more satisfying. There was BBC America’s Copper, which featured a revolver-wielding detective navigating the gritty slums of New York in the years just following the American Civil War. Interesting concept. Except that the New York City Police Department didn’t have any detectives at the time. And policemen weren’t issued guns.

Reign was another show that caught my fancy. (And I watched it to the bitter end, mainly due to the captivating performances of Megan Follows as Catherine de Medici and Craig Parker as slippery nobleman Stephane Narcisse.) But among the many anachronisms that proved persistently distracting were characters drinking tea (which wouldn’t have been imported into Europe for another century). The clothing, too, was a mishmash of styles and periods that made it appear as if the series’ costume designer had raided a community theater wardrobe room and appropriated what was left from productions of PippinHair, and Our Town

Of course, there are exceptions. DeadwoodBoardwalk Empire. And even A Knight’s Tale, which makes a delicious nod to Geoffrey Chaucer while playfully winking at history; it’s a world where a medieval-sounding melody is used as a prelude to David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” and characters are dressed in pants and tunics that carry more than a whiff of the Rolling Stones’ swagger. 

I realize that we watch movies and television to be entertained. But I believe that in order to tell a good story, we need to understand the world that the story is born in. 

And in the case of history, that does mean checking a few facts.

Or a lot of them. As I wrote The Admiral’s Wife, inspired by the amazing – and true – adventures of Katherine Cochrane, I wrote it very carefully. I read. I researched. I visited archives to examine centuries-old documents firsthand and took a bus to sleepy Scottish villages. Since Kate also spent a good part of her life in South America, I gave myself a crash course in the politics of early 19th-century revolutions, made a Chilean stew called charquiquan, and drank wines from the region where she lived. I listened to recordings of native songbirds and learned what flowers grew and where. I sent a letter to the 15th Earl of Dundonald to give him a heads up that I was writing a book about his formidable ancestress. (I even started a mood board for the Cochrane’s world via Pinterest.)

It was a lot to take on. But I didn’t see a way to get around it. Since I was dealing with actual historical figures who left a sizable paper trail, I felt it was incumbent upon me to be as informed about their real lives as humanly possible. Secondly, since Kate has living relatives, I also believe I have a duty to represent her fairly, with all the understanding and authenticity that is her due.

Of course, the pressure was terrible. I often felt that I was writing while walking across a tightrope in a straightjacket. Because I didn’t just want a novel that was well-researched and thorough. I wanted a story that was good.

The best thing to do, I realized, was to put it aside. And I started writing a book that was completely different. Historical, yes. Requiring a bit of research, yes. But with characters and plot entirely made up. And completely lacking in literary pretensions.

It was the most liberating thing I could have done. My characters don’t hew to any prescribed code of behavior, and in writing it, neither did I. If I wanted to put in racy bits, I put in racy bits. If a character was in a scene where it made sense for them to throw a punch, they threw a punch. They smoke and place bets and make secret ferry crossings over the Irish Sea. There are assumed identities and well-meaning liars. There’s a clever housemaid with a taste for intrigue. And a dog. And a barfight.

Best of all, there was no unseen judge looking over my shoulder. I wrote what I wanted. That’s not to say that I was careless about things. But I was certainly much more carefree. 

In fact, it was so much fun that I’ve started writing another one. A Western, set in Montana during the waning years of the frontier, where a grieving widow is called upon to serve as her town’s justice of the peace. Writing the meet-cute between my protagonist and the man destined to become her partner (and love interest, naturally) made my toes curl. In a good way. So did a scene where the heroine interrogates a suspect using a variation of the Reid technique and all of the good cop/bad cop shenanigans that go along with it. 

I’ve no doubt that I’ll go back to The Admiral’s Wife. It’s a tale that needs telling. And when I do, I have the feeling that both Kate, and myself, will move through it a little more freely. 

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On Being Creative When Life Feels Awful

The past six months have been like swimming uphill in an avalanche. I’ve changed cities and states. I have a new role on a new project team at work. I bought my first house and survived the sale of another.  During the lead-up to our move my husband and I spent three months living in separate states. While he began a new gig in Pittsburgh, I wrangled with realtors and repairmen in Maryland to finish the sale of our home outside of Washington, DC. Together, we packed dozens of boxes and dreamed of a day when we could both know where our can openers and socks were.

Things accelerated instead of growing calmer. I flew back from speaking at a national conference the same week we closed on our new home. Our lender needed new documents at the 11th hour. The seller hadn’t vacated. And then, the day after we moved in, my husband was called away on a 36-hour emergency flight to the Philippines to be at the bedside of his dying grandmother.

When we envisioned our start in a new city, this was not how we pictured it.

Moonrise over the Atlantic.

Throughout this spaghetti pile of transition, I kept writing. I burrowed deep into 19th-century England and South America and lost myself in battles fought 200 years ago, in silk dresses and kid leather slippers, in exquisite letters written in a style at once eloquent and arcane.

I was rebuilding a book, an effort undertaken following a fiction workshop with the wonderful Meg Wolitzer at the 2017 Southampton Writers Conference. The workshop fueled me to re-attack my manuscript, and attack I did. I felt closer to the finish than ever.

I sent the manuscript out for feedback (a second round of beta readers.) Feedback came back. Some positive, some negative. Some unhelpful, some constructive. And one piece of feedback was so devastating that it brought my writing to a standstill.

I doubted the book. Worse, I doubted myself. For months, I couldn’t look at my novel.

When the doubt became unbearable, I began a rewrite. I tried a new point of view, new chapters, new settings. There was a temporary relief to be moving again. But I still didn’t know where I was moving to. I was only walking in the dark.

Then came August, and with it, the loss of two family members. One was only 37. He left behind far too many “Whys?” and “What ifs?” for comfort. At his funeral I started at the box that held his ashes, and began remembering him living. Remembering playing alongside each other as children, remembering meeting at my grandmother’s every Christmas. Knowing that we would never meet again. Feeling sunk under the thought of a life burned down to only what a small metal box could hold. For he was more than that, and the unlived years felt bleak and colossally unfair.

The other death did not surprise me with its suddenness, and I felt some relief at the passing of one who herself longed to rest. She had lived a full century, through the Great Depression, a World War, Civil Rights, a man landing on the moon. She saw the beginnings of radio, television, rock n’ roll, computers. In short, a world that changed far faster than she could.

 As I spoke the eulogy for a woman who had lived 100 years, I realized that life is an aggregate. We are sums of parts. We are built through time. We are not defined by grand gestures, but by small moments.

Small moments, like getting up. Making coffee and noticing the color of the sky. Reading something just because. Getting out a new notebook. Opening a laptop. Going on.

I have no wiser words than these – go on. For to write is to look at a thousand roads and choose, and choose again, and to keep choosing always with the daring faith that you, and you alone, hold the end, and the beginning, and all that is in between.

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Taming Your Overgrown Manuscript

Typewriter, notebook, and cup of coffee

They say that writing is rewriting. Or rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting. Or put more bluntly, revision hell.

But how to tell when enough is enough? Where is the mysterious epiphany that lets a writer know when she is “done”?

I can’t answer that. But I can tell you that my revisions have taken far, far longer than my first draft. And that many of my early revisions were simply pushing words around on the pages. I wasn’t making hard choices. I wasn’t making hard cuts.

I was stalled out. I’d been living with the story so long that I could no longer see it clearly. I knew I needed outside perspective beyond what my first readers had given me.

Through a writer’s workshop and residency (led by the incredible Meg Wolitzer and attended by a supremely warm and talented group of fellow writers), I found the courage and faith that I could really rework the material and breathe fresh life into it. Since then, I’ve cut 25,000 words from my overgrown manuscript. For mathy folks, that’s a 21% decrease.

It wasn’t easy, but I believe this newer, leaner iteration of the novel is moving much closer to telling the story the way it should be told.

So how did I get there?

Taking Breaks

Long, hard breaks. Sometimes I put the manuscript aside for days, weeks, or even a few months to work on other things. When I returned, I could see it more objectively. By the same token, sometimes you’ll find that you need to write every day so that you don’t lose your thoughts and the connective tissue between chapters.

Getting it Wrong

Words are tricky, slippery things. Maybe a chapter has to be written wrong three or seven or 15 ways before it turns out right. Maybe it takes us that long to know when we’re only making something different, not necessarily making it better. (If anyone has a formula to make this faster, please let me know.)

Cut, Cut, Cut

We know that our job is to show, not tell. But showing takes a long time. So we must also decide – what things do I need to show? What is superfluous? How do I keep the writing interesting with tension, plot development, and spicy emotions? (If spicy emotions are your thing. I dig ‘em.)

At the end of the day, it’s saying enough to tell the story and getting rid of everything else. And having faith that when you let things go, better art emerges.

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Your 1st Writer’s Residency

Making art can’t happen without living life. But often, life gets in the way. Residencies offer the gift of time apart, time for focusing on craft, for enjoying the company of other creative souls, and for letting go – for a time – of other obligations.

And yet the first residency experience can be terrifying. And there are many things I wish I’d known before walking in.

A few years ago I was honored and humbled to be accepted into my first artist’s residency. Elated and intimidated, I packed my suitcase and bundled up my laptop and notes and drove off deep into the countryside to a fittingly lovely and rustic retreat set amongst hills and farmland.

Picture of a wooden fance in front of a pasture
Hills, meadows, and trees in the countryside.

The space of those hours was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I spent my days writing, writing, writing. Occasionally I would walk in the woods, using the autumn quiet to incubate ideas. In the evenings I mixed with writers, artists, and composers from across the country and around the world: a sculptor from Germany who crafted exquisite figurines, a young modernist composer from Chile, an installation artist from Denmark. Writers from everywhere: poets, novelists, essayists. We were a veritable jungle of talent from all tribes.

Where was I in all this? I was working on my first book. I had publication credits in a few national magazines. (None of them literary.) I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have an MFA.

I was thrilled when one writer expressed interest in doing a co-reading and asked me if I would share some of my manuscript with her. I pored over the pages and eventually gave her an extract. Then I waited. I wanted to read – the thought of putting my work out publicly frightened me but I also desperately wanted to walk over that bridge. And I didn’t want to go alone.

That night after dinner she invited me up to her room to talk. She spoke a lot but the word I never heard from her mouth was “Yes.” She handed me back the pages and gave me some advice – I can’t remember what. And though she never verbalized it, it was clear that she was retracting her invitation to read together. I took the pages. I didn’t touch that manuscript for two and a half years.

Our work is our deepest, most sacred, most intimate thing. To expose it is to put our naked heart into the world. We want honest responses. But we hope that the honesty is gentle.

The first residency is an opportunity to screw courage to the sticking point. Emotions surfaced. In the long hours with only me and my silence and my work, I found myself ambushed by a mix of feelings I neither expected or welcomed. Eventually I found a way to manage them: by journaling, by going for long runs in the afternoons, by the occasional phone call home to my husband. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t anything anyone had told me to prepare myself for.

And I kept writing. By temporarily putting aside my nonfiction manuscript, I produced my first draft of a new novel in less than a year. (For me, I am an achingly slow writer so that is a record!) It poured out in the weeks and months following my residency. I even managed a research trip to Scotland and started an e-mail pen pal exchange with a Brit that has blossomed into a lovely, real-world friendship. I attended conferences and made new writing contacts. And I launched both this website and my monthly e-newsletter.

Confidence can be a hard thing to hold onto. The writing life is rewarding but rarely easy. And every day for my first residency I had to push myself to believe in my right to be there. Over dinner one night I spoke with a novelist about his work and his path to becoming a writer. He talked about his MFA program – he was only a few years older than I – and we spoke of the fact that I hadn’t attended one. The he looked at me and said, “At your age it’s a bit late to go and do one.” (NB I was – and still am – in my 30s. And Ta’nehisi Coates has said it interviews it took him 18 years to build his writing career.)

My fellow author didn’t mean to say I was old that night, that I’d missed the boat. He didn’t intend to make a cut. But cut it did, for here was something I lacked, and now I was being told that the door to get it had already closed.

The world gives us plenty of reasons to doubt ourselves. I’m convinced that one of the most important things that writers must do is cultivate belief. Belief that what we are doing is valuable. Belief that we are saying something that is worth saying. Belief that the hours, days, weeks, months, years spent working on our material, practicing our craft, building our platforms are worth it.

Don’t let emotion determine your conviction.

A couple days later I was in the residency program’s shared kitchen. A very well-known author (multiple New York Times bestsellers) stood next to me by the sink as we rinsed our coffee mugs. Without preamble, he turned to me and asked, “What do you think of epilogues?”

With that question, he launched a lively discussion that covered not only epilogues, but his current book project and how he researched it.

Picture of an open window with checkered curtains
View from my writer’s studio

That 10-minute conversation did more to make me feel like a peer than anything else I experienced during my first residency.  And what I took away from it was this: Even when you feel like an imposter, show up. Show up, because serendipitous moments happen. Show up, because you never know who you might meet. Just keep showing up.

The final thing I wish someone had told me was the importance of creature comforts. New places, however welcome or exciting, aren’t home. The very first trip I took away from my writer’s studio was to get snacks, warm socks, and waterproof boots. (It was a rainy October and the shoes I’d brought with me were no match for the weather.) I had brought a Keurig coffeemaker with me and that was a lifesaver on chill and damp afternoons.

This summer I’m headed to another writer’s residency program. The pages that my fellow writer passed over were submitted to a national memoir contest this spring. And I’m working towards seeking representation for The Admiral’s Wife, the novel that sprang out like a tidal wave post-residency.

Writing is a long and winding road. But each step is part of a journey, and every part of the journey is yours to own.

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Book Cover Design: Q & A with Natasha Snow

Not sure where to start with cover design?  Read on for Natasha Snow’s fantastic Q & A and find answers to the things you always wanted to know about working with designers, selecting a cover concept, and industry trends.

How did you become a designer? What led you to specialize in designing book covers?

When I was younger, I dreamed of finding something to do with my life that was creative, but still… strict. I’ve always liked rules, deadlines, plans. And then I discovered design. It’s creative, fun, and visually enthralling, but with rules. Sure, you can bend those rules, but design isn’t entirely opinion-based. There is good design, and there is bad design. And of course, all those little spaces in between.

I went to college for design with a major in print and illustration.  After that, it was really my love of reading that escalated my career as a book cover designer.


What are some design influences that impact your work?

I like to go on to Pinterest and see what other cover designers are doing! I also spend a lot of my time on Goodreads so I’m basically looking at book covers all day. I find it really helpful for inspiration, but also because designing book covers is actually quite different from designing other things. You have to taken into account how it will look in thumbnail size, how it’ll look next to other book covers of the same genre, etc.

Do you have a favorite book cover?

Of mine? Oh, no. But if we’re talking about other covers, then yes! I have a few!

The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp (The typography, the color palette, the weight, the balance: perfect)

The Diviners by Libba Bray (The version with just the hands and forearms in the darkness. Stark, striking, represents the genre perfectly, great typography)

Between the Notes by Sharon Huss Roat (Striking, minimal, create colors, and the use of negative space is fantastic)

When authors start their search for a cover designer, what kinds of things should they be thinking about?

  • Style. Make absolutely sure you like the artists style. Every designer has a different style, so make sure you like the majority of their portfolio.
  • Typography. If you yourself can’t tell the difference between good typography and bad typography, hire a designer who does. Typography is one of those areas of design without a lot of wiggle room. There is good typography and bad typography. There are good fonts and bad fonts, and some authors and designers will have a personal taste that affects their likes. But the actual typography work isn’t negotiable. It’s one of the biggest issues I see with some book covers. If your cover is amazing but your typography is lacking, people will notice.
  • Price. Look around at portfolios and find one a design in your budget. Look for pre-mades if your budget is lower. If you’re looking to have covers designed for an entire series, send the designer an email and see if they offer any kind of discount for a series.
  • Genre (sort of). I personally think a good designer can design an amazing cover in almost any genre. Before starting a project, I do research on the genre and what’s selling, what big publishing houses are putting out in that genre in regards to the cover, what’s popular, etc. But make sure the designer you’ve selected is comfortable designing in other genres. If you love a designer’s work but don’t see the genre of cover you’re looking for in their portfolio, shoot them an email and ask.

How much about a book do you need to know when you start the cover design process? Should an author send you a synopsis?

I love getting a synopsis! It’s definitely helpful and an integral part of the design process. Sometimes a brief passage of the book is also provided, which can be very helpful.

Also, I need to know the genre, overall feel, about the setting(s), and the characters, including visuals on how they look and their persona. I need to know if it’s a series cover as well. Knowing if there are any vital elements that the author thinks should be on the cover also helps a lot. And if the author has any suggestions in regards to visuals, I’ll definitely take those into consideration as well.

Describe your ideal collaboration process with an author when creating a cover design.

To start, I love having all the information about the book(s) before starting. Usually, the author will fill in the order form on my website  and from there, if I have any questions, I’ll email them to touch base, discuss when I’ll be starting the project, when we’re likely to be finished, and if we can meet all the deadlines.

From there, I start working on some concepts and send them to the author. Ideally, I do like getting feedback. Good types of feedback are things like “Oh, I like the blue, but remembered that the landscape is more green. How would a green palette look?” or “Can you try other fonts for the title and author name? I’m not sold on this one.” Or letting me know if some of the visuals need changing in general. I find my best work comes from feedback and usually after a handful of rounds of revisions.

I’d say the most important part of the relationship between author and designer is communication. If both parties are able to communicate well, I think you’ll end up with a great design.

What kinds of things should authors avoid doing?

Authors should probably avoid giving too much feedback or going through a lot of rounds of revisions.  Not only will this delay the process but sometimes it’s easy to get hung up on the small details that are only opinion-based.

I would also suggest avoiding getting too literal. If the character on the cover doesn’t look exactly like how you picture the character in the story, that’s okay. It should look similar, but I would always suggest going for something that looks good over something that looks accurate. Good will get potential readers to click the thumbnail and read the blurb.

I always say that it’s best to lure readers in with a great (but as accurate as possible) cover, and then hook them with the blurb.

What trends do you see in cover design?

In Romance right now (Contemporary, Erotic, and New Adult), black and white images with neon text is super popular –  usually with a shirtless and tattooed model, and a script font! Urban Fantasy is also really popular. A lot of bestselling covers in this genre have neon or bright colors and a model on the cover, holding something that looks magical.

Silhouettes are very popular in mystery/thrillers, as they have been for awhile. Double exposure is also becoming more popular in mystery/thriller covers.

Any final words of advice?

Trust your designer. Above all else, trust your designer and their opinion, their taste, and their style.

As a cover designer, it’s my job to make the author happy and give them a cover they love, but it’s also my job to tell them what works, what doesn’t work, and what I believe will sell.

Sometimes an author wants a cover that, unfortunately, won’t sell. Or won’t sell as well as it could with a different cover! My best advice would be to trust the designer you’ve hired, trust when they tell you one font is working more, one layout is working more, or one color palette is working more.  Nine times out of ten, you’ll get a much better cover by listening to your designer’s recommendations.

See more of Natasha’s work in her portfolio, contact her online, or visit her Facebook page.  

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On Writing and Place

This morning I walked along the Atlantic coast. The sun had not long risen, and yellow light sliced through gray and pink clouds. I thought of how artists have always been drawn to the sea, and the waters that are always mesmerizing, always changing, always the same.

picture of ocean in early morning, with waves and sunlight

I have seen many oceans. The Atlantic was the first, but also the North Sea along the English coast, the Mediterranean that circles the Greek islands of Naxos and Santorini, the aquamarine-blue Caribbean. Then the Pacific along Nicaragua, and then later off the coast of California, and finally the reaches of the Pacific along the northwest coast, along the old whaling towns off Bainbridge Island.

I could not know, as a child catching her first look at the sea, that I would one day write a book where the waves and storms and mists become as much of the fabric of the story as any character. All of those seaside walks, the early morning digging oysters in Wellfleet, the squall on the Mediterranean that had me ferrying ginger ale and aspirin to seasick passengers – those all invisibly built something in my mind that years later, came spilling out onto pages.

We all have a place that we know so well, it has become part of us, consciously or not.

We’ve all read stories, too, where place becomes a presence that seems to influence or even drive the behavior of the characters – for good or ill. Novels like:

Of course there are more! Which novels moved you with the way place shaped the story in a way that you can’t forget?

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Quotes on Writing


November is National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo) – but any time of year is a good time to read quotes on writing and inspiration by great writers.

“When you’re writing, you’re conjuring. It’s a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you’re inviting into the room.”
~Tom Waits

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the hearts affections and the truth of imagination – what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not.”
~ John Keats

“Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”
~ William Faulkner

“If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
~ Toni Morrison

“Every book is holy. Every single one of them, even the bad ones. Every single book has at least one good idea about how to be a human being.”
~ Sherman Alexie (read the complete interview on The Lightning Notes)



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Stephen King’s Writing Tips: Infographic

“If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able  to  describe  it, and  in  a  way  that  will  cause  your  reader to prickle with recognition….Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” – Stephen King

Stephen King needs no introduction, and this infographic contains 14 of the bestselling author’s top tips on writing:

Infographic showing 14 writing tips from Stephen King

[Note: This infographic appeared on Hodderscape, in the post “Infographic: 14 Top Tips from Stephen King’s On Writing“]


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