Image conscious

Study of A Portrait.

If you are planning on self-publishing, you have probably been told a zillion times to ensure your cover is fabulous! And if you want to stand out from the crowd, you’d better do your homework. So here are a few tips to help you out:

Check out the opposition. Take a look at what is selling well in your particular genre or subject – what do the covers look like? Are there ‘unwritten’ rules for the covers of your type of book? For example, cozy mysteries and romance tend towards pastel shades and bright covers, often with cartoon-style illustrations, whereas thrillers and crime tend to have dark images, often quite abstract – a view of a street, or a blurry person. Trees and snow are more favourites. Real life drama and experiences will likely have realistic-looking photographic cover images; classical fiction might go for something arty or a pattern. But if your book is about car engines, then you want something that says, ‘this is where to go for a good engine strip-down, this gal knows her stuff’, so you would probably go for a close-up of an engine, or a particular part. Non-fiction is usually a lot more geared towards the specifics. Fiction is often more about an idea than a ‘thing’. Either way, try to choose an image that will blend in and yet stand out.

How many times have people said ‘great book, but in the story Jeff had blond hair but the cover shows a dark-haired male.’ Sometimes these things are out of our control, but if you have the last say, make sure your cover is relevant and accurate to your story or text. If the action takes place in a block of flats, don’t show a cosy country cottage on the front. Your cover can often explain or hint at the story, so be careful not to include visual spoilers!

Clarity is everything. It’s no good having a fabulous image that doesn’t translate into black and white (for less sophisticated devices), or is indecipherable as a thumbnail. If people have to screw up their faces or borrow Great Aunt Aggie’s lorgnette to figure out what they’re looking at, they probably won’t bother to inquire any further with your book. It’s got to look good in the tiny! Likewise, if creating your own image, make sure it is of sufficient size and quality for the platform you have chosen to publish on – it’s no good having a pic that is an adorable thumbnail but goes wishy-washy and out of shape when ‘stretched’ to full book-size. This can be an issue especially for print-on-demand paperbacks. Also check that the file size is compatible too. You don’t want a cover with too much empty space around the outside, where the image is too small.

Lastly, I know it seems obvious, but I have actually seen published books out there in the world and available to the public, with a typo right there on the cover! So please do check, and if your spelling is terrible, maybe get someone else to check too, especially if you have a tagline or byline in addition to your title and author name. Ditto book blurb and ‘about the author’ sections on the back cover if publishing an actual book. It’s no good trying to establish yourself as the world’s leading authority on anything if you can’t ensure at least your cover is perfect. I once applied for a job saying I had great skills and attention to detial. Don’t do that!

It goes without saying you should never snatch an image and use it if it’s copyrighted unless you have permission. There are plenty of great sites where you can download royalty-free images, often free-to-use, so make sure you only use those kinds of images. Some images are only for single or private use and do not cover large-scale usage.

Now I need to work on some book covers, it’s no easy task to choose the right image, and so easy to get carried away looking at beautiful pictures. Thank you, photographers of the world for your amazing images!

Harold! Nooo!


If only we could travel back in time!  Where would you go?  Who would you speak to?  Your past self, to tell them to avoid going out with Mr Nasty?  Or some famous public figure?  Would you go back in time to buy up shares in something or other, to make yourself a billionaire in the here and now?  Or would you take back a bunch of antibiotics to get rid of the plague?

I often think I’d like to go back in time to meet various ancestors.   I’d love to go on that journey from Falmouth to Deal that John and Elizabeth Reed undertook when he left the merchant navy and joined the newly formed Coastguard Service.  I’d have liked to help Elizabeth with her four or five small children on the company boat and reassure her that although the new place was going to be different, and the people in Kent wouldn’t speak the same language, that she would be okay, that she would get used to it, and to tell her to be careful of her health.  It must have been like going to the other end of the world for her in the 1830s.

I would have liked to be at Queen Victoria’s wedding, I would have loved to hear Dickens doing a reading from his own works.  I would have liked to pop down to Chawton and chat with Jane Austen about her works (even though she wasn’t in the pink of health by the time she lived there).

Mostly I think, I would have liked to have a quick chat and a cup of coffee with King Harold.  Maybe my black jeans and glam top from Evans would have been enough to convince him I came from the future?  or my self-tanning body lotion?  Big earrings?  I’m assuming my phone won’t work back then.  Maybe a pack of raspberry pop-tarts would convince him?  I would like to pop in and have a coffee with him, catch him during his brief respite in London after his victory at Stamford Bridge (the battle not footie).  I’d give him a bit of a talking to.

“Harry,” I’d say, “you’re just one man, I know not all the rough rude sea can wash off the oil from the God’s anointed, (oops sorry that’s not been written yet – note to self – must go back in time and write Richard 2 before Shakespeare gets his mitts on it).  But you can’t do it all.  Stay here for a couple of days, take in a show, do a spot of sight-seeing.  WAIT until the rest of the lads arrive, don’t go rushing off to sort out Bill from Normandy.”  Because that’s just what he did – a big set to Up North (anywhere beyond Watford), with Harold crushing the insurgents, then a mad dash South, a quick fuel stop in London, then arriving panting and short-staffed in Hastings, ill-prepared and even worse equipped to meet William in the field of battle.  Literally!  (For overseas readers, the Battle of Hastings took place not at Hastings, but a few miles inland where there is a lovely town by the name of Battle.)  “Harry, my boy,” I would have said …

“My Liege, if I may speak boldly.  Tarry a while here in London, Good Sir, rest and gather your strength.  Wait until ALL your men arrive from the North and you will have sufficient numbers to overcome this young upstart from Normandy.  allow your knights and their men time to rest and eat and prepare themselves for the conflict.  Do not dwell on William’s escapades in Sussex, another two days will save the crown and your people.  then it will be time to march on Hastings and with both weapons and strong men, you will not fail to win the day.  Also, I pray thee, don this helmet with yon strengthened visor to protect the Royal eyes from arrows.”

That’s what I would have said.  “Harry, baby, Nooo!  Fools rush in … take a chill pill.”

I bet he would have gone anyway.  You know what lads are like when you try to boss them about.

Your name seems familiar …


“That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers.  Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character?  And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder.

Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me:  Meredith Hardew from my WIP A Meeting With Murder.  Amy Harper and Kym Morris in The Silent Woman. (all still lying fallow!)  These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story.  But it doesn’t always work out like that. But I can spend hours, literally, agonising over the right name for a character.  There are times when I actually cannot begin writing a story because I can’t seem to find the right name.  Sometimes I can’t remember the names I’ve given to my characters, usually when I’m away from home and writing ‘middle’ chapters, and I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character.  It can get confusing.  In these circumstances I have to write long explanations to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs.

But I can’t always trust myself when a name does just spring into my head either.  Like the time I had a main character called Ben and I needed to give him a surname. Sherman.  Hmm, I thought, Ben Sherman sounds really good.  It’s like those two names were meant to go together, somehow.  What a great, natural-sounding name for a character, I thought.  Too often I hear people moan, no one would be called that, it’s not a name anyone would really be called.  I told my daughter.  She rolled her eyes heavenward in what can only be described as her ‘For God’s sake, Mother!” expression. Apparently there is already someone well-known with that name.  Oh well.  Back to the book of baby names again.

Names can be absorbed by osmosis from society and culture and we don’t always know where they’ve come from.  I usually check my friends’ names on Facebook or for authors on Amazon to be ‘on the safe side’.  I had also written five chapters of my WIP before I realised that two of the main characters were named Meredith and Edith. Edith had to become Sheila.  You need to keep the names quite dissimilar to avoid confusion, unless that is germane to your plot.  And never feature  Jack Peters and a Peter Jackson.  (I’ve known it happen, and the confusion accidentally created by the author seriously impacts on the enjoyment of the story!  You can’t suspend belief if you’re trying to remember who is who.)

When it came to creating character names, Dickens was a master.  He used names to ridicule his characters, to reveal societal trends and attitudes, and to denote characteristics or personalities.  Think of Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, think of Uriah Heep, Mr Cheeryble, Squeers.  He also used another technique that is still useful for writers today.  He used to take names that were ordinary and just slightly change them, creating something different and yet somehow familiar.  Thus Philip became Chilip.

Think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, think of Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – the woman Offred was the ‘property’ of Fred. Also for bizarre names it is impossible to beat Alistair Reynolds’  Pushing Ice character Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird.  So don’t be afraid to play around with names and have fun. Maybe Isaac can become Istac; Sophie can be Phosie, Mary can become Maare, John could become Hjon, Dohn, Joon.  In creating fiction, you are creating a whole world, so a few names is not much more of a stretch.  Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.


Uncle Harry



When I was a little girl, in the 1960s in Tunbridge Wells, it was I think pretty normal for elderly close friends of the family to be referred to by children as Uncle and Auntie.  I had a couple of Uncles and Aunties who weren’t really family but were friends.  I have written quite a lot about Auntie Zonya, a unique soul and wonderful woman, an enigma.

But living in our grand old house in Tunbridge Wells, there were others.  In the room next door there were two hairdressers, two men, who went ‘professionally’ by French names – deemed more ‘suitable’ for hairdressers.  One called himself Rene (or Rennie as we used to say), I can’t remember what the other one called himself.  They were very ‘artistic’.   Of course now I look back and realise they were a gay couple, but in those days they were simply glamorous, artistic people, who lived together for convenience and to save money.  None of us living in the house had much of that.  It was a house full of similar people – no estate, no money, not much of anything.  There was an artist who made me a cat mask.  On the top floor was the elderly lady who owned the whole house, Miss Lilian, she had snow-white hair and almost never went out.  I was a bit scared of her.  We were a strange little community.

And in the room next door but one, on our floor, was an elderly man who lived alone.  His English was good but heavily accented.  He was from a exotic-sounding place I had never heard of – Yugoslavia – and he had come over during the second world war, and had never been able to return.  He was all alone.  Family left behind, unheard of, out of touch, maybe dead.

I don’t know what his name was really, but I called him Uncle Harry.  Perhaps he really was called Harald something.  I used to scamper into his room once or twice a week, sometimes with a story book, sometimes with paper and crayons.  He used to tell me stories.  He used to tell me about his little girl.

He always used to give me a little glass dish of tinned fruit with tinned cream poured on top, and he used to sprinkle sugar on the cream.  He kept the tins for me, in his little cupboard.  He used to tell me to run and ask my mum if it was okay for me to have it.  She always said yes, and told me to say thank you.  My mother could rarely afford such a treat.  I didn’t get much pampering (neither of us did) and I hadn’t much experience of father figures.

But Uncle Harry was gentle and indulgent.  He was softly spoken and kind.  He never told me off.  He let me chatter.  He told me stories.  He gave me pudding!

Whenever I have a dessert with cream, even now, 50 years later, I sneak a bit of sugar on top.  And when I am sad, or worried or bored, sweet things are what I crave.  Especially dairy products.

I remember sitting at his dining-table, my legs dangling, unable to reach the floor.  I felt safe.  I felt loved.  I had an uncle-figure, an older man, wiser, who had weathered storms to make his home in a bedsit in Kent.  He added hope to my life.  I wish we hadn’t moved away, I would have liked to know him when I was older.

Gold or Silver?

I found these notes in an old journal.  I was pondering the attributes, from a writer’s point of view, of gold and silver.

Gold is the colour of royalty, of quality, of the authorised, and acknowledged, of states and state, religions and churches and faiths, of the accepted and acceptable, of righteousness.  Gold is pure, incorruptible, reliable, ‘pure gold’, good, honest and forthright.  Gold is given in blessing and to enrich, it is security, savings and wealth.  Gold is warm and appealing, gold is the colour of the noonday sun, giving life to all and sight to all.  ‘Gold standard’ indicates a status achieved, a level of existence and compliance, of regularity and trust, and a line by which all else is measured.  Gold is laid up for the righteous.

But silver.  No.  Silver is ‘other’.  Silver is secretive and fleeting, it is mercurial and unremarkable in nature, it changes hands easily, claiming a new master.  Silver works its arts by night, it is hard, cold, bright and the colour of small change, ready money, the easily-obtained.  The colour of stars and light of the moon, silvery and secret, sinister and elusive, dancing through the sky, always out of reach, now hidden, now displayed.  The thirty pieces of silver, the betrayer’s coin, the turner of hearts and souls, the illicit, the unpermitted, the unauthorised, the denied.