Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Seamus McCree Compendium

It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of the WWK blog that my heart belongs in the northwoods. It’s where Jan and I retired and is our official residence. Because of the remoteness of our place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we don’t live there the whole year. For at least a decade, Jan has called the place we live in during the winter months “home.” She calls our U.P. residence “camp”—it’s the name locals assign to any abode in the woods outside town, regardless of whether it is a tarpaper shack or a Rockefeller mansion.

I call our U.P place “home” and refer to our winter abode by the name of the city in which it is a part. “We’re going to our Madison place,” I say.

Because Seamus has wandered around since growing up in Boston, I’ve set novels in Ohio (Ant FarmBad Policy) and Michigan’s U.P. (Cabin FeverEmpty Promises). Doubtful Relations traveled from Ohio to New Jersey with stops in South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina in between. The novella, Low Tide at Tybee, occurred on Tybee Island, Georgia. I’ve set short stories featuring Seamus in the U.P. and Chicago.

When talking with readers, one question I often am asked is where I’ll set the next Seamus McCree novel. It turns out I’m not the only one with geographical preferences. Ohioans want a return to Cincinnati and Chillicothe. Those who love the northwoods want it set there. Others want Seamus to visit their favorite area to live in or read about. False Bottom (May 2019) takes place in the Boston area and includes a short side-trip to Cincinnati.

Northwoods fans are disappointed. I’ve also discovered in talking with them that they often read Cabin Fever first and jump to Empty Promises. Some will then pick up other books in the series. Others return to reading William Kent Krueger or Steve Hamilton or CJ Box with the promise that if I write another novel set up north, they promise to pick it up.

I have an idea for a seventh Seamus McCree, which I’ll set in the U.P. In the meantime, I prepared a compendium to satisfy new Seamus McCree readers who prefer stories set in the wilds. It includes Cabin Fever and Empty Promises, and two short stories. “Accidents Happen” was Seamus’s debut in print and takes place in the same area of the U.P. I plan to include a bonus story, “Homework.” It’s a coming of age story. While it doesn’t feature any of the McCree clan, it is set in the U.P., and Jan says it’s her favorite of my short stories.

I titled it Seamus McCree U.P. North, playing off the using the Upper Peninsula for “up” and moving Seamus McCree into the title. For those not familiar with the U.P., I included an outline of the territory as part of the cover to help the geographically challenged. (Although in truth, it's unlikely people who don't know about the U.P. are going to be interested in this compendium.)

Here's the print version, showing the back, spine, and front.

A version of this blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Roots – Or Maybe Root Cellars

Last night I had a fine idea for this blog. False Bottom, the sixth Seamus McCree novel, is coming out later this month. In it, Seamus returns the Boston area where he grew up. I’d include descriptions and pictures of some scenes where the action occurs—a little teaser to ramp up interest in the story. To prepare for writing False Bottom, Jan and I took a trip a couple of years ago to revisit the area, so I had plenty of pictures to choose from. My photographs, 16,000 and growing, are “organized” in Adobe Lightroom with various tags for “easy” retrieval. I couldn’t find any of the Boston pictures.

So, in true pantser fashion, I changed the title from Root to Roots – Or Maybe Root Cellars (to recognize I would have to dig through cobwebs to find those pictures) and kept writing:

Seamus is a third-generation American, the son of a Boston cop. I also have roots in the Boston area. It’s where the first Jackson’s arrived in the mid-1600s. By the mid-1700s we’d moved west to the Berkshires. By the early 1800s we lived further west in Upstate New York and stayed there for seven generations. It’s where I was born.

Boston, however, keeps calling us back. My five-greats grandfather (Col. Giles Jackson) left the Berkshires to fight outside Boston at Bunker Hill (actually Breeds Hill, but Bunker Hill got the monument) during the American Revolution. My grandfather worked for a time in Boston during the Great Depression. I returned to work in the area for two years (late 1977 - early 1980) and returned to earn my MBA from Boston University in 1985.

Now’s the point when I figured to include some of those pictures in this blog. One scene takes place in Boston Public Garden and references the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture. That would be nice.

So would a picture of the Swan Boats or one of the statues.

I could include a picture of the apartment complex in Waltham where much of the action takes place.

Maybe the Waltham police station where I researched murder investigations in Massachusetts and Seamus spends a little time.

Heck if nothing else, I could include a picture or two of birds from Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.

 “Aha!” I exclaimed. “I posted one of the pictures on Facebook. Let’s find that.” I did. It had a date. I found all the pictures in Lightroom based on dates. Because we were traveling, I had not labeled any with tags and then forgot to do it when we got home.

Pantsers aren’t known for their organizational skills. We find our stories through writing not plotting. By the time people read our tales, we’ve patched the holes and added the pictures, and they’d never know its original mess. Unless we choose to show them.

A version of  this blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Designing a Book Cover

One of my mother’s favorite bromides was “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” As personal philosophy, the words have a strong moral base. As a marketing tool, they are worse than useless. Everyone judges books by their covers, even those who say they don’t.

It used to be that most people browsed bookstores and/or libraries to find their next read. How to choose? An author you know and like is always a good bet, but what if you are looking for something new? A trustworthy friend’s recommendation can get you to check out a new author. Or a review in the paper (my 95-year-old mother still reads them). For many people, the first thing that catches their attention is the cover.

Today, that cover is likely to be an electronic representation of the physical cover. Maybe it’s viewed on a computer, but it could be a tablet or smart phone, which I understand more and more people use to shop. If I search for a book on my phone, the height of the cover is about one inch.

If you are a well-known author, shouting your name on that valuable bit of electronic real estate is your best bet. When former president Bill Clinton and mega-seller James Patterson linked up for last year’s top-10-selling book, they included both names in large CAPS. The title, also in capital letters is prominent – but the President portion of the title is the most prominent—in case we forgot Clinton was president?

This cover included a version of the US flag, the Capitol dome (not the White House) and a generic man. I didn’t read it, but Goodreads reports 78 editions and over 57,000 ratings, so a lot of people have.

For designing the cover for False Bottom, the sixth Seamus McCree novel, I needed to keep the trends of big title, big name, and simple graphics in mind. Here’s another recent example from one of my favorite authors, Barry Eisler. Title: BIG. Author name: BIG. Graphics: minimal but giving the sense of a group of people running.

One thing book cover designers need to keep in mind is any series branding. That’s a problem for me since the Seamus McCree series covers have been designed by several different people.

 Holy moly, what a mess: Titles range from single color to two colors and include white, yellow, red, and gray. Author name is at least consistent with James M. Jackson, but color is white or black. How do I reflect recent book cover trends and keep within the eclectic style? Should I start fresh and redesign the entire series? The time and effort and sales don’t justify a total rework.

My first draft (left) pulled the title colors from Book 5, added one graphic, played with the word Bottom. A somewhat boring background color. By the third draft (right), I had darkened the image and added texture (from a photograph of light shimmering on a lake!) 

Death runs through this book and I thought the cover might remind people of wood—a coffin to go with the Celtic cross grave monument? The monument came from a picture I took at the Gettysburg Battlefield and represented the Irish Brigade—an historical fact I liked, and it tied into Seamus’s Irish roots and a continuing character, the Happy Reaper, who sports a Celtic cross tattoo.

Comments from the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime Marketing subgroup included muddled, confusing, what genre? Everyone agreed they could read the title, but most didn’t like (or understand) the symbolism of the title reaching toward the ground.

By draft five (left) I had returned the title placement to horizontal, emphasized FALSE, and used a color border at the bottom to make the author name more prominent. I replaced the single-color textured background with fog and trees, shrank the Celtic cross and also eliminated much of the decoration on it (the regimental dog was asleep on the base of the cross in the original).

I sat with that version of the cover for several months before I considered how it would work with a print book. The colored bar at the bottom would need to wrap around the spine and back. I could place the Wolf’s Echo logo in that color on the spine, but the color would run through bar code, making it look wonky. I could increase the height of the band to solve the problem, but that didn’t feel right.

And so I played around with other ideas, and here is the current thumbnail (right). 

For those who like print, you’ll see something that looks like the version below. The back will include a teaser of the story (some of the hardest 100 words to write) and a short blurb from a wonderful author.

Would the cover make you curious enough to pick up the book and read it’s blurb?

A version of this blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill.