Fantastic History #44: Living without Historical Accuracy by J. Kathleen Cheney

I’ve been talking about cover art a lot lately, mostly because it takes up half of my creative day. The work gives me some insight into how covers generally turn out, and that often means not historically accurate.

When I was being published by Big Publisher, I had no say whatsoever in my first cover. It literally landed in my inbox one day; I hadn’t even known they were working on it. It is a lovely cover—no question about that. But it wasn’t accurate for my character or my time period.

My book was set in 1902, in Portugal, and the character was acting as a lady’s maid. Not exactly the sort to be wearing jeweled overlays. And historically, that dress is off. 1902 was the age of the S-bend corset, with that bizarre poof to the front of the blouse to accentuate the smallness of the waist. My character refused to wear a corset, even though that was a shocking thing—she made do with a corset cover with stays—but she couldn’t wear one because she had air bladders outside her lungs. (I’ll skip the non-human anatomy lesson.)

And I wasn’t entirely surprised that the cover wasn’t correct. My editor had at one point asked me whether, when I referred to the character wearing a suit, I meant a suit with a skirt… or a pant-suit. That was when I knew I could no longer count on the publisher’s grasp of period accuracy.

But this was a super-big publisher. Wouldn’t they want it to be perfect?

No, not really. They want the cover to be good enough. They want the cover to convey the rough historical period, but don’t worry themselves over pin-point accuracy. And that’s okay.

Most readers don’t know the difference.

As a writer, I do a lot of research and obsess over crazy things like the presence or absence of sidewalks. I do my best to put my character into a historically accurate setting, but… I sometimes deviate. Like the air-bladder business. As long as I could come up with an explanation for the deviation, I was happy with that. (Ask me at some point about the smoking in 1902… so much smoking. If you read novels from that period, everybody in Portugal seemed to smoke.)

Yet my readers didn’t complain too much about the cover or any historical quibbling I did inside that cover. They wanted a good story. (I’m now sighing over those hours I spent researching the sidewalks.)

So what should we be looking for one our covers? Particularly since most of us will be purchasing pre-made covers or having them custom made ourselves.

Roughly Correct Historical Look

For people who know costuming, there’s a difference between the clothing of 1815 and 1825. The length of the bodice changes, dropping down toward the natural waist, and the sleeves and skirt were fuller, the early stages of what we call ‘Victorian’.
But while the writers know all about the underwear of the period, on the whole, readers don’t. So when they look at your Regency (Georgian?) period cover, all they’ll be looking for is an Empire waistline.

From a cover artist perspective, it’s a little difficult to get even that much. That’s why stock photos that are decent representations of a woman wearing Regency era clothes get used over and over and over and over. Unfortunately for a cover artist, it’s difficult to sort the gold from the dross. When you put in the word “Historical”, you get search results that vary from roughly accurate to ‘high school girl with too much makeup in a Gunne Sax dress that’s 3 sizes too large.’ (Also, if you put in ‘Regency’, you get a large number of photos taken in front of a Regency theater or hotel.)

Now there are photographers out there taking fantastic period photographs, but we’re talking about people who expect to be paid far more than your average cover artist is paying. If you’re expecting to make thousands of dollars on your book, then that’s the route you might go.. or even have a custom photo taken.

But not everyone is so sanguine about their literary financial prospects, so we tend to economize. Therefore, we have to compromise.

Roughly Correct Hair Style

Hair styles changed along with fashion, but the vast majority of stock photos show women with their hair down. If you want to swap out their hair for a more-formally-coiffed style, you’ll probably have to steal hair from a wedding photograph. That’s the primary occasion in stock photos where the women wear their hair up.

What they don’t do is wear it with Regency-era sausage curls on either side of their face or scraped back as was more common in the Victorian era. So… even if you can find a woman with her hair up, you’re not likely to find one that’s just right.

Nor do you want to.

Readers will look at those sausage curls and cringe. Sometimes we choose not-quite-accurate because we want to attract the readers of today, not the readers of the 1970s.

Makeup—just try not to worry about it

This is a hard thing to say, but finding a model with no makeup is a rarity. Whenever I find an artist who does this, I bookmark that one, because it’s like I’ve found a unicorn.

Characters of color

Men and women of color are especially difficult to find in historically correct attire. Your cover artist might be able to work around this, but expect more of a struggle. (My personal guess on this is that the vast majority of stock photographers seem to be Russian, which means their model choices are somewhat restricted.)

So what can you do?

Look through some stock photo sites yourself to get an idea of what’s out there in your time period. This is especially helpful when you start getting frustrated with what the cover artist has to show you. Most of the major stock photo sites (iStock, AdobeStock, Deposit Photos) share about 85% of their photos, so if you find one you like, there’s a chance that the artist can find that one on whatever site they use to get their photos.

Check Pinterest. While this is unlikely to lead you to a regular stock photo site, you’ll find some fine photographs from independent photographers who take more accurate period pics. Just remember, Pinterest is a better place for ideas rather than for actual purchases*.

Bookmark/pin anything you like so you can come back to it later. This is vital, since going to an artist and saying “There was this girl in a blue dress I liked but I don’t know where to find it” is not particularly helpful.

Remember, while we’d love our historical cover to be perfect, it’s probably not going to be.

Good luck out there!

*There are some great photographers out there. HOWEVER, they will almost certainly want more $$ for use of that photograph than a stock photo will cost. Cover artists usually pays about a buck or two per image, so if you pick out a $200 image from Awesome Photographer X, you’ll probably have to pay the $199 yourself. In addition, many photographers who have great pictures don’t allow royalty-free use, which essentially means that you’ll have to account for each book sold and pay the photographer a royalty on top of the initial sale price. So much bookkeeping! Then there’s the question of model releases… so be aware that a lot goes into the licensing of a photograph. Even though there are great pics out there, some are more trouble than they’re worth!

J. Kathleen Cheney taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). She’s currently working on the sequels to Dreaming Death: In Dreaming Bound (2019), Dreams from the Grave, and Twilight of Dreams (both 2020.)

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.