A few days ago we had a great discussion on headless women covers and their function as a marketing tool for historical fiction. Sheramy from Van Gogh's Chair made the astute observation that the point of writing historical fiction is often to give faces and voices to women of the past, and then the covers take the faces away. Catherine Delors, whose has described in detail the genesis of the cover for Mistress of the Revolution, designed a cover for my novel which, I was glad to see, left the hapless woman in possession of her mouth. Jennifer described trends in YA historical fiction covers and pointed out that the girls on them don't have to surrender their heads, although they are usually shown from behind or in three-quarters view. We discussed reasons for the differences and for the headless woman trend in general. It was a great discussion, and I thank all the participants!
It was pretty evident from the comments that readers (and writers!) are becoming sick of the trend, especially as it seems to reduce the scope of the story and the main character's trials to the level of a costume drama. That got me thinking--if we were to abolish headless women on our covers, what would we put there instead? I listed a few elements often seen on HF covers: reproductions of artwork (the rights to which, as Sheramy pointed out, are often too costly for publishers to use), landscapes, cameos, calligraphic fonts. What are some other possibilities? How could designers signal to potential readers, mostly women, that the book is historical fiction without making the book look like an issue of Vogue?
I began reflecting on my dream cover for The Measure of Silence. I'd love something that captured all the threads of the book: women's voices, printing/publishing, fabric, and religious choices. I came up with a few possibilities. The first would be a detail taken from a Renaissance painting of a woman's hand holding either a book or a quill, preferably against a backdrop of her skirt or a luxurious tablecloth. This would be my first choice, as I think using artwork captures the atmosphere of the times better than contemporary compositions do. If the cost of a reproduction were too prohibitive, I would love to have a still-life composition of an open book, an ink-pot and quill, an empty birdcage (you'll understand why when you read the book!), and Jollande's cross pendant against with billowing folds of velvet or silk. A third possibility would be a design that mimicked a sixteenth-century binding, although it would have to be an elaborate, jewel-encrusted one in order to catch the 21st century bookstore browser's eye.
If you're writing an historical novel, what do you envision as the perfect cover? If you're already published, what do you think worked (or didn't) about your cover? If you're a reader of HF, what would you like to see as a new trend? What would jump off the table at you and prompt you to read the back copy?