Thursday, February 1, 2018

Cover Story: A STONE’S THROW

From Jim

Since we’re freestyling this week, I’m writing about some recent news that made me very happy: the cover reveal of my sixth Ellie Stone mystery, A STONE’S THROW.

August 1962. A suspicious fire claims a tumbledown foaling barn on the grounds of the once-proud Tempesta Stud Farm, halfway between New Holland and Saratoga Springs, NY. The blaze, one of several in recent years at the abandoned farm, barely prompts a shrug from the local sheriff. That is until "girl reporter" Ellie Stone, first on the scene, uncovers a singed length of racing silk in the rubble of the barn. And it's wrapped around the neck of one of two charred bodies buried in the ashes. A bullet between the eyes of one of the victims confirms it's murder, and the police suspect gamblers. Ellie digs deeper. 
The double murder, committed on a ghostly stud farm in the dead of night, leads Ellie down a haunted path, just a stone's throw from the glamour of Saratoga Springs, to a place where dangerous men don't like to lose. Unraveling secrets from the past--crushing failure and heartless betrayal--she's learning that arson can be cold revenge.

Covers are, of course, important marketing tools. They’re the first thing prospective readers see. They can bewitch, beckon, bore, or bedevil. Some get the job done via huge letters spelling out the famous author’s name. Others rely on a shadowy man walking away. Or a shadowy woman, for that matter.


More covers than we can count include “girl” in the title, as if there’s some kind of bounty on the word.

There are fancy covers with raised lettering, gold foil, or cut-outs. Cozy mystery covers have evolved to appeal to their readers. And thrillers likewise. And who wouldn’t recognize a bodice ripper by the ripped bodice on the cover? So-called literary novels, too, have their own look. Usually a solid color background with an abstract graphical image of some kind and the title in a quivering font that approximates quirky handwriting.

Whatever the design, covers are meant to attract attention of an audience and—at the very least—inspire a window shopper to pick up the book and read the blurb, synopsis, and author bio. There’s no one way to accomplish that goal. People have different tastes. That’s what makes a horse race.

And that brings me to A STONE’S THROW. In her sixth mystery, Ellie Stone investigates a double murder on an abandoned stud farm. It’s about Thoroughbred racing, so the very first requirement in my mind was that there had to be a horse on the cover. Fortunately my publisher agreed with my assessment. It also needed to have a period look, or at least not appear too modern. But most horse racing photographs from the early sixties are in black and white, which isn’t ideal for a cover. It’s possible to create a compelling cover in black in white, of course, but it’s rare, like yellow covers. Here are a couple of exceptions that prove the rule. One is about adventures in a strange foreign land. The other is about a monkey.

Good thing there’s Photoshop. With it, a graphics designer can manipulate images, add filters, scratches, change colors, etc. to make a photo look older than it is.

Here are some of the ideas we toyed with for the cover of A STONE’S THROW.

1. (Photo removed)

It’s a watercolor, and apparently we don’t do that on covers. Plus, we have a view of the horse’s ass (the jockey’s, too), which might put off some of my more sensitive readers.


(Photo removed)

I love this painting. For a long while, this was the image I wanted to use for the cover. It’s raw, dramatic, and compelling. The duel is intimate and almost violent. But it’s a painting, and—again—apparently we can’t do that. On the plus side, there’s no horse’s ass.


(Photo removed)

This is an amazing photograph. It captures the beauty and power of two champions. Only one of the two horses’ eight hooves is actually touching the ground here. They’re almost flying. And these two Thoroughbreds—Jaipur and Ridan—make cameo appearances in A STONE’S THROW in this very race, the 1962 Travers Stakes. But, alas, it’s black and white (with some down-and-dirty colorization), and the sharpness just isn’t there.


(Photo removed)

Right era, right location, but, again, there’s the horse’s ass. And it’s rather quiet. No energy or mystery.


This is my cat Tinker. Not a horse, so no.

There were several serious contenders. Many of them were actually taken at the Saratoga Race Course. In the end, there was one remarkable photograph that took my breath away.

My cover designer, Jackie Cooke, has a great eye for what works. She focused on the most powerful elements of the image, created some mystery, and drew attention to the drama and energy of the horse itself. Then, carefully placing the text, which remains consistent with my other covers, she adjusted the colors somewhat and added some filters for mood and that old-timey look. Here’s the final result.

I love the nearness of the horse to the viewer. And note the incredibly delicate lacing of the jockey’s fingers through the reins; the beautiful musculature of the horse’s chest and neck, sinews straining, with the the light hitting so perfectly; and the stride—three hooves off the ground as the other pounds the track—propelling the horse and jockey forward to victory. The exploding dirt beneath the 1,000-pound animal tells a story of speed, courage, and passion better than I could ever hope to. The headless horse and rider only add to the mystery.

This is my favorite of all my covers, and it makes me VERY happy. I’m so proud that my name is on it.

A STONE’S THROW will bolt from the starting gate on June 5, 2018.


Ann said...

The cover is masterful, Jim. However, now I have "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" for my daily earworm, replacing the theme from The Big Bang Theory. Thanks loads. xox

Unknown said...

Suspenseful post - I couldn't wait to see the final result, and it's a winner indeed. Great cover, Jim!

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Great cover, Jim. I'm looking forward to checking it out.

Susan C Shea said...

I dunno. I kinda liked the cat. Seriously, it is a wonderful cover for the reasons you cite. The jockey's incredibly light hold on the reins is something I hadn't noticed until you mentioned it. Publishing question: Did you have to pay use rights for the photo, get permission to crop and alter it, and is the publisher crediting the photographer?

James W. Ziskin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheila Good said...

Love the cover! Great job and congratulations. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles