The mental image of a character : the influence of covers

A Mental Image from Voice alone

a blank face so we create our own mental imagesHave you ever met someone on the phone — a business colleague, perhaps — and created a mental image of them from voice and conversation alone? If you later met them face to face, how did the reality measure up to your mental picture?

I vividly remember doing just that with a woman who subsequently became a close colleague when I was working in London. From her voice on the phone, from her senior position in the organisation and from what she said to me, I pictured a middle-aged, rather motherly figure with mid-brown hair in a beautifully-coiffed jaw-length bob. It was a pretty strong mental picture, though I have no idea where it came from.

We had quite a few phone conversations. (This was long ago, in the days before social media, so there were no online images that I could view.)

motherly mental image turned into glamorous blondeAnd then I met her.

When she walked in, I was shocked.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.

She had a wild mane of curly ash-blonde hair, she was bubbly and she was fun. She was senior and responsible, certainly, but neither middle-aged nor motherly. Oops 😉

Mental Image : the Influence of a Book Cover

Cover of Sara Craven's last bookA few days ago, I was given a copy of the last book by the late, great Sara Craven, bestselling writer of deeply emotional romances and much-missed friend of the Libertà hive. I didn’t read the blurb on the back — I didn’t want anything to spoil the unfolding of a taut, unputdownable Sara Craven story — but I couldn’t help looking at the cover.

It’s lovely. That dark-eyed beauty with long straight ebony hair certainly registered with me. Yes, she could easily be the heroine of a Sara Craven romance. (For some reason, the chiselled, bearded hero didn’t make as deep an impression. It was the woman who set my imagination working. Something to do with the light on her jawline, maybe?)

Me-time: Cup of tea, book, mental images of charactersTime for me-time. Delicious luxury.
I sat down with a cup of tea and began to read. The voice of the ebony-haired beauty sang out from the first page. i was quickly hooked into her story and dying to uncover her secrets.

About three pages in, my mental image was shattered. Sara’s heroine, Alanna, had a cloud of dark auburn hair. What? Did that mean it was curly as well as red? What’s more, her eyes were green. Nooo! Not possible. She was already in my subconscious as that dark-haired, dark-eyed siren.

I read on — of course I did; it’s a fabulous read, a real belter of a story — but I’ll admit I had difficulty “seeing” Alanna in my mind’s eye after that, because my original mental image had been so wrong.writing for a reader - stressed

How to give Readers the “right” Mental Image

Is there a solution?

For my self-published books, the choice of cover model is my responsibility. And I try very hard to get it right. Mind you, it can be difficult, because I generally write historicals and because — whisper it ever so softly — many of the picture studios that produce shots for use in cover art don’t seem to have a clue about the period they’re supposed to be representing. If you don’t believe me, look at a typical example: female in ball gown, kneeling male in evening dress and…?

Riding boots in the drawing room?

…and boots. Riding boots! 

My #1 and biggest beef, by far.

Think of a cover scene.

It’s outdoors. He’s dressed for riding. Boots? Yes, fine. Totally appropriate. But how often is that kind of shot used?

More often, he’s in the lady’s drawing room. Boots? Well, possibly Hessian boots and pantaloons. Certainly not knee-high jobs for riding.

Ballgown and riding boots?

Often in these shots, though, he’s seducing the heroine at a ball. We know that, because she’s wearing a ballgown.
Hero in boots? No. Never.
Dancing shoes. Plus knee breeches, quite possibly, and silk stockings. But NOT boots.

I have a solution here that I’m happy to share. I usually ask my cover designer to hide the boots somehow — with the title, or a logo, or simply by cropping the shot. If it’s my own cover, I will NOT have my hero wearing riding boots at a ball.

Will photo galleries ever get the message? I’ve never yet seen a gallery shot featuring dancing pumps.
If you find one, please do let me know.

The Right Mental Image : Beef #2

A Regency Invitation, Edition in Polish

A Regency Invitation, Polish Edition

My second biggest beef is facial hair. In the Regency period, gentlemen were clean-shaven. They didn’t have moustaches or beards. And they absolutely did NOT have designer stubble.

Here’s one of my own covers that made the facial-hair mistake (though only in the background). Please don’t complain to the poor author, dear readers. I tried to get that beard photoshopped out as soon as I saw it, but I was too late. Much gnashing of authorly teeth.

Sometimes, both my beefs appear in a single shot. Have a look at these examples of a Regency couple: not only boots, but designer stubble as well. ARGH.

OK, that’s 2 beefs about the male models.
What about the females? Surely those are right?
Or a bit more right?

Rake’s Reward
Regency Lords & Ladies Collection


That, I fancy, is a topic for another blog.


And in the meantime, I leave you with the only one of my covers to include a gent in knee breeches. Problem is that, although he’s in period, he’s not exactly my mental image of a hero…

Sigh.Joanna Maitland, author


Writer On Holiday

Writer on holiday is  not a natural role for me. I admit it. I’m not good at holidays. We never had them when I was a child and somehow I’ve never really got the knack of it. But sometimes I accompany The Birdwatcher on one of his birding trips. It is a delight.

Well, for me it is a delight. And The Birdwatcher is kind enough to say he enjoys it too, in spite of my not knowing much about either ornithology or birdwatching etiquette.

Holiday Reading

I probably won’t read much but I get uneasy if I haven’t got a book to hand. So I like to take one non-fiction and one novel, both chosen wholly for fun.

Holiday readingThis time my non-fiction was a memoir by Lev ParikianWhy Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? The author’s situation is the reverse of mine. Basically he knows what he is doing in the matter of puffin-bothering and just fell out of the habit when he grew up. Whereas I have been going along with it for a while, without ever getting much better. He decided that he would take it up again for a year.

His book is a thoughtful and very entertaining saunter through his bird pursuits, memories, music, encounters with experts and much else. It’s a charming journey with delicious laugh-out-loud moments and life-enhancing digressions. Continue reading

Right word : wrong place? Pedantique-Ryter rants

stars with text Even Illustrious Organs can get words wrong

Even the most illustrious organs get word usage wrong some of the time

Torturous or Tortuous? Right word, wrong place?

Earlier this month, the Guardian included this quote in a piece on the Cambridge Analytica data enquiry:

Ravi Naik, a human rights lawyer with Irvine Thanvi Natas, the British solicitor who is leading the case, said the decision “totally vindicates David’s long battle to try and reclaim his data”. He added: “The company put him through such a torturous process over what should have been a very simple subject access request … “

question mark : which of a word pair to use?A torturous process? Is it really being suggested that Cambridge Analytica tortured David Carroll? Or was it a process full of twists and turns, excessively lengthy and complex?
In fact, a tortuous process?

Lots of writers confuse the two words, possibly because, in speech, it can be difficult to tell them apart. If the Guardian‘s quote was taken over the phone, it could be a mis-transcription. Or maybe it’s not wrong? Maybe the speaker did in fact mean that it was a process involving or causing torture?

Or perhaps — subversive thought — some of the increasingly common misuse of torturous arises because writers don’t know that two different words exist? Continue reading

Writer in Control

writer in control?A writer in control?

I hear hollow laughter from my friends and fellow authors.

And yet only a couple of days ago someone was telling me a story which appeared to demonstrate the exact reverse.

Writer in Control While Lecturing?

The story is this: some time ago a Very Distinguished Author was holding one of those literary Events in an overseas capital. I detect a faint whiff of the British Council. But possibly it was just a simple commercial book tour. At some point the Very Distinguished One invited questions. As they do.

Writer in control - inviting questions

In control? I don’t think so.

Anyway, my interlocutor, a kindly soul, recognised her civic duty. She bit on the bullet, braced up and did, indeed, ask a question of the Very Distinguished Party. Did his characters ever get away from him? Continue reading

Veronica the crafty companion : Guest blog by Judy Astley

Judy Astley authorThis month, we welcome another Libertà friend and much-loved author, Judy Astley, to the blog.

Like so many of our guest bloggers, Judy has a fascinating portfolio of skills. She spent several years as a dressmaker, painter and illustrator before writing her first book, Just For The Summer. She’s since written nineteen more. Phew! And now, after a two-year rest to refill the creative well, she’s working on book number twenty-one. Her many fans will be delighted.

Like many other writers, Judy has a furry friend — Veronica. And Veronica sounds to be quite a character, as Judy explains…

Veronica has her own ideas about what to wear…

Veronica the crafty Burmese cat (+ friend)


My cat’s collar was starting to look like a charm bracelet. From it dangled her metal tag with her address and phone number, a magnetic gadget that opened her catflap and then this new addition: a soft blue disc that held a new device — a tracker.

“I’m sorry, but you’ve brought it on yourself,” I told Veronica (a blue Burmese, sweet but crafty).

She gave me a look that clearly said, “You expect me to go out in this?” Continue reading

Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

demon long distance writerFirst, I don’t know if the loneliness of the long distance Writer is any different from the horrors that come with any other profession. When we close our eyes at night, we are all alone with our demons, after all, from Accountant to Zoo Keeper.

long distance writer despairs


But I do wonder if there is something peculiar to the occupation of writing which attracts this shadow companion.

And then chains it to us, hip and thigh, when the going gets tough and the carpet disappears under discarded drafts.

So I thought I would share some thoughts on it. Just in case they may be useful to some writer who thinks he or she is alone in the cold and dark. Continue reading

Historical Costume 1800-1820: a spencer for a skimpy gown?

In BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice, Mary and Jane wear spencers, Lizzie wears a shawl, and Lydia wears…er…nothing

In BBC’s 1995 Pride & Prejudice, Mary and Jane wear a spencer, Lizzie wears a shawl, and Lydia wears…er…nothing

What to wear if it’s cold? A spencer?

replica Regency gowns with spencers

Replica spencers (BBC’s Persuasion)

As the Pride & Prejudice picture shows, the high-waisted Regency gown needed a particular kind of outerwear.
A normally-waisted coat would have ruined the shape of the lady’s silhouette. So fashion called for something special. The answer was the spencer.

From about 1804, the spencer was a short-waisted jacket with long sleeves. It could be prim and proper, buttoned up to the neck, as modelled by Mary Bennet (above). Or it could be rather more risqué, accentuating the bosom, as Jane Bennet’s does.

But why was it called a spencer? Continue reading

Hearing the Soundtrack of your Novel

hearing and writingMy discovery of the week:  hearing is a crucial sense. A novel needs a soundtrack just as much as any movie does.

I’ve always known that the sense of smell is important when I imagine the worlds of my novels.

But I’d never previously thought much about sound, though I savour it enormously in other people’s writing. (There may even be another blog on that!) I think I did put it in, mostly. Well, a bit. And not just conversation, either.

But somehow I’d forgotten when it came to my latest novel. So over these last few days I’ve been on a roller coaster of exploration and experiment – and revision! Continue reading

Spring is late this year, ditto the Libertà Sunday blog

late spring for marsh marigolds and candelabra primulas

Late Spring for marsh marigolds and candelabra primulas, but cheerful and welcome

Apologies to readers looking for our normal Sunday morning blog. Unfortunately we’re not able to post today but we’ll be back soon and blogging, as usual, next weekend. Meanwhile, enjoy the sunshine and the spring flowers. And for those running the London Marathon, take care in the heat. You have all our admiration.

Spring carpet of lilac alpine phlox

Late Spring 2017 carpet of lilac alpine phlox; not out yet this year but coming soon 😉

Naming characters: hints and tips plus a fun quiz

Naming characters — there’s no single right way

naming characters - what is MY name cartoonAuthors have different ways of naming characters. Some label their key characters hero and heroine until they have finished the first draft, others need names for their characters before they can write a word.

(And some need to know all the character’s backstory before they start to write… But that’s another blog altogether.) Continue reading