December 9, 2016

Development of a Historical Book Cover

By Heather Day Gilbert

Ask any historical indie author, and you'll soon find that putting together a convincing historical cover (without paying for an individual model shoot) can be difficult. Stock art photos are very limited in terms of finding characters that a) represent your characters accurately, and b) are costumed authentically to the time period you're writing about.

For my first Viking historical novel, God's Daughter, my talented brother Jon was my cover artist. We found a stock art photo of a Viking woman, authentically dressed, who looked very similar to my main character, Gudrid. We altered her eye color, lightened her hair, toned down her makeup as much as possible, manipulated the background, and basically built a cover around that stock photo. The only problem is that many other Viking-era authors (mostly romance authors) used the same stock photo, so my cover was not as unique as I had hoped it would be (although it does stand out, both in Christian book circles and on the Amazon Norse bestseller list, where it's remained for three years).

For my second-in-series novel, Forest Child, I had a strong idea of how I wanted the cover character to look. Freydis is a deadly Viking warrior, and I hoped to show her facing the reader directly, a challenging look in her eyes.

My brother Jon and I set about finding a stock photo we could work with, this time hoping to add costuming and background to make the model look different. I found a photo that drew me in, and here's Jon's initial mockup of it:

Obviously, this wasn't the finished product (we would fix the leaves on her head, add more clothing, etc.), but I did love this girl's dead-on glare and her blue eyes and freckles. However, when I showed this one to a couple of author friends, they felt it looked more like a fantasy cover than a historical cover. Also, this girl seemed too young. She wasn't quite right.

We moved on to stock art woman number two—a woman with wild red hair like Freydis. I liked her serious, yet wistful vibe:
Jon took this photo and designed an amazing arrow for her, then integrated a photo of his wife's hand so she could hold said arrow. He added the cloak, toned down the makeup and added freckles and more hair, as well as a leafy forest background. I felt we were getting really close...

But something still wasn't quite right about her. She looked a bit too vulnerable and soft for my heroine.

THEN I found this stock art photo when I was trolling around, looking for just the right redhead:

Now, this woman HAD something—a glare, a haughty look, a challenge in her blue eyes. I loved how she was facing the reader, completely fearless.
But my brother was busy and didn't have time to work on all the elements we'd need to alter to go in this totally new direction. So I contacted my mystery cover designer, Jenny at Seedlings Design. Jenny felt she could integrate all the changes I needed. We proceeded to tone down the makeup, add freckles, make her hair redder, add a cloak and arrows, add curling hair tendrils, and tweak an amazing leaf-strewn background...

When the final changes were integrated, I KNEW I was looking right at the Viking warrior-woman I'd pictured for years in my head:

I'm a firm believer that with my cover art, I'll know it when I see it, and I knew this was the right cover for Forest Child because it was unique and represented my main character so perfectly.

Hope you've enjoyed this behind-the-curtains peek at the development of cover art for a Viking historical cover! I'd love input from other indie authors (especially historical) as to your cover design process!

HEATHER DAY GILBERT, a Grace Award winner and bestselling author, writes novels that capture life in all its messy, bittersweet, hope-filled glory. Born and raised in the West Virginia mountains, generational story-telling runs in her blood. Heather is a graduate of Bob Jones University, and she and her husband are raising their children in the same home in which Heather grew up. Heather is represented by Rebeca Seitz and Jonathan Clements of SON Studios in FL. Heather's Viking historical novel, God's Daughter, is an Amazon Norse Bestseller. She is also the author of the bestselling A Murder in the Mountains mystery series and the Hemlock Creek Suspense series. Heather also authored the Indie Publishing Handbook: Four Key Elements for the Self-Publisher. Find out more at

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