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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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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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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What If Books Had Soundtracks?

Storytelling and music are natural fits. From ancient Greek poetry that was more sung than spoken to the piano music that accompanied early silent films, humans have paired the languages of music and speech together for millennia. Music evokes memories, sets word to rhythm, conjures up moods.

I’ve always been a sucker for movie soundtracks, and as I’ve been thinking of character arcs and motivations for my novel, I can’t help but make associations between songs and characters. Just for fun, here is some of the music I associate with my protagonist, Kate Cochrane.

Tiffany – I Think We’re Alone Now

This song is so young and innocent and bubbly, I can almost imagine it playing as Kate and her soon-to-be-husband elope into a secret marriage.

Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Classic song for women who want the best out of life and aren’t afraid to go after it – especially if they haven’t had many chances to do so. Kate’s first blush as a woman of title and money must have opened a new world to her.

Gin Blossoms – Found Out About You

Secrets just won’t stay hidden, and what we try to conceal to protect those we love usually has a way of coming out.

P!nk ft. Nate Ruess – Just Give Me a Reason

Is there a better song that encapsulates love that’s gone wrong?

Eminem ft. Rihanna – Love the Way that You Lie

Possibly the gold standard of dysfunctional relationship anthems. Can’t stay in, can’t stay out.

Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart

The song for when you are ready to take the plunge into love. And Kate finds a second chance.

Vertical Horizon – Best I Ever Had

When the recognition of the truth comes too late to change events.

Sia – Chandelier

The lyrics on this speak for themselves.

What songs make of you think of your favorite characters?

P.S. I do love Menselssohn’s Hebrides Overture and have from the second I heard it. If the novel is ever made into a film, this much has to be a part of the soundtrack!

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Selima, America’s First Champion Racehorse

Over the course of the last several months, this blog has taken a turn from the western frontier into equestrian pursuits. Yesterday, I made a serendipitous visit to the Belair Stables, an unassuming building located a stone’s throw from my house, yet deeply connected to one of colonial America’s most intriguing stories.

The Godolphin Arabian, sire of Selima, the first champion racehorse of the American colonies.

As a child, I read (and loved) Misty of Chincoteague as well as King of the Wind, both by Marguerite Henry. For those unfamiliar with the plot, King of the Wind tells the improbable yet true story of a horse of unknown pedigree that was brought to Europe from Morocco, where the horse and his faithful attendant experience a series of misfortunes before finally coming into the home and stables of Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin. There, the horse–known as the Godolphin Arabian–became a cherished stud and the sire of outstanding racehorses; his progeny Lath won England’s Newmarket races 9 times. The racing records failed to impress my mind as a 10-year-old, but I was enchanted by Henry’s rags-to-riches story involving a horse.

Only a few weeks ago, I learned that Selima, a filly sired by King of the Wind, came to America around 1750. Selima’s new home was none other than the Belair Stables, a site that I had passed many times, never knowing the connection it bore to a beloved tale from my childhood.

Selima was a champion racehorse herself. In 1752, at the age of 7, she won the most significant race of the colonial era at Gloucester, VA. Astonishingly, she is believed to have walked almost the entire 150 miles from Maryland to Virginia for the race, and then still emerged the champion! The purse was a whopping 2,500 pistoles (a typical race of the era might have a prize of 30 pistoles). Selima eventually retired from racing and had 10 foals, many of whom became champion racehorses themselves.

I visited the Belair Stables and stood near the spot where Selima lived out her days, a place that many racing historians credit as the birthplace of professional horseracing in America. I viewed the stables and racing memorabilia, and thought about this mysterious horse named Selima, and the family who owned her, and how happenstance had suddenly brought me into such close proximity with a fascinating tale.

In digging around for more on Selima, I turned up this interesting article, originally published in Smithsonian. But I am sure there is more to the story, and luckily, I may not have too far to go to find it.  

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P.S.: The Playlist

Driving out West this summer I had many hours in the car to listen to music. I found myself thinking about which songs I’d pair up with the people and places on my journey. This is the playlist I came up with. Some choices are pretty obvious; others have an explanatory note.

1. Where’s a Sunset (When You Need One) – Lane Turner
For Jack Bailey
Reading Jack’s c. 1868 trail log at the Library of Congress was one of the catalysts for getting me started on this trek. At the end of the diary there is a poem Jack wrote to his wife, and this song seems fitting. Plus, both Jack and Lane are from Texas, and Texans stick together.

2. Cowboys – Counting Crows
For Dodge City, KS
“Cowboys on the road tonight, crying in their sleep. If I was a hungry man with a gun in my hand there’s some promises to keep…”

3. Truly, Madly, Deeply – Savage Garden
For Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton
Letters exchanged between these two are preserved at Baylor University’s Texas Collection. Sweet, lovely, and romantic.

4. Only Living Boy in New York – Simon and Garfunkel
For Teddy Roosevelt
After his wife Alice died, I can imagine TR walking around Manhattan feeling like this.

5. Lose Yourself – Eminem
For Buck Taylor
The star cowboy of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show might have been able to appreciate Eminem’s sentiments.

6. One – Metallica
For Custer’s 7th Calvary
One YouTube viewer wrote, “If this song was already written in 1944 and iPods were invented, this is what I would listen to while invading Normandy.”

7. Amazing – Kanye West
For George Armstrong Custer

8. Professional Widow – Tori Amos
For Elizabeth Custer
There’s a story that Elizabeth once met Abraham Lincoln and in the course of their conversation, told the president that she supported her husband’s aggressive military campaigns. The president replied, “So you want to be a widow?”

9. Happiness is a Warm Gun – The Beatles
For Wild Bill Hickok

10. Please Don’t Leave Me – Pink
For Calamity Jane
This song about bad behaviors and sour relationships struck a few chords with me as I thought about one of the West’s most notorious women.

11. Time to Pretend – MGMT
For Buffalo Bill
Did anyone package and sell the Western experience more effectively than Buffalo Bill? I think not! There’s even a line about Paris, where the show stopped multiple times.

12. Pokerface – Lady Gaga
For Deadwood, SD

13. Highwayman – The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson)
For the drive home.

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