From the beginning, I knew what elements I wanted on the cover of my debut novel, Finding George Washington: A Time Travel Tale.
It’s not an easy story to characterize. Genre: a fine sci-fi blend, with notes of history, baseball saga, and action thriller. But I had lived with it long enough to have some images in mind.
I knew I wanted to feature a picture of George. Not the old marble-faced George on the dollar bill, but a younger version, Revolutionary War George, in uniform. George at 45, his age in my story. The one who disappears from his own time and shows up in 2014 on the shores of San Francisco Bay.
I knew I wanted to show a baseball field with some players in the background, because baseball is a central theme and metaphor in Finding George. I wanted a shot of a locomotive, because trains are important in the story.
I wanted to show the green-handled sword Washington carried into battle, as well as his headquarters, the stone house where he lived during the Valley Forge encampment in the winter of 1777-78.
I had taken photos of all these elements during my research travels. I selected pictures of a painting of Washington at the Smithsonian, a baseball field in Philadelphia, an Amtrak train, the headquarters house, and the sword.
And I knew I wanted the cover to reflect a contemporary sensibility, with a bit of an old-timey feeling. Not old-fashioned or outdated, but stylized in a way that suggested an amalgam of traditional and modern.
I put together a few rough versions of cover art in PhotoShop. They used all the elements I had in mind, but they were flat — no depth, no life.
Then I hired Matthew Félix for line editing, publication services, and book design, one of my best all-around decisions. I told him what I had in mind for the cover. He sent me a list of 100 sci-fi bestsellers and suggested I select my ten favorite-looking covers, as a way of conveying the style I had in mind. This was a fruitful exercise. I noticed immediately that I was drawn to the covers that had prominent images in the foreground, plus distant views in the background of landscapes or cities or other places. Covers with depth.
From these clues, and with the images I provided, he put together four prototype covers, and I promptly picked one (the fourth one in the series above). I had been thinking of using the picture of George full length, but Matthew cropped it into a head-and-shoulders shot, with an informal half-smile and good eye contact. He split off the word “Finding” from the rest of the title, placing it into a pale orange, isosceles triangle that, on first viewing, resembles a sports banner. On closer examination, we see it also looks like a headlight beam emanating from a blue locomotive. The background for the cover is a shot of the infield and the stands at the ballpark.
In this first draft, “Finding” is in a traditional-looking script font, “George Washington” in an old-timey font that looks like it belongs on a baseball jersey. We tinkered with the design and eventually selected different fonts with similar characteristics. The subtitle “A Time Travel Tale” is prominent, per my request, as I wanted potential readers to know what they’re getting into. It’s not a biography. The subtitle and byline both ended up in Optima bold, a mid-20th-Century font that adds a modern flavor.
That first draft did include the headquarters house, but it crowded the cover. Not worth it. The sword never made it onto the cover either. Too much clutter. We tweaked George’s hair, deepened the orange on the banner, brightened some elements, diminished others.
Best of all, Matthew came up with a couple of visual ideas that added hugely to the cover’s appeal. First, he bought stock photos of a baseball and crossed bats and placed them just under George’s image. And he added a traditional clockface with Roman numerals, as a round “medallion” behind GW’s head and shoulders. The clock numerals are repeated concentrically four or five times, adding a sense of movement, vibration, and disconcerting instability to these still images. This suggests time travel in a simple and effective way. (When I overthink it, of course, time travel is more about calendars than clockfaces, but the image still works.)
In one of Matthew’s other cover prototypes (the first one above), George was wearing a baseball cap, and his head shot seems to jump off a dollar bill. I loved it, but I had doubts. Though it was jaunty and appealing, I decided it was probably too cute, even too goofy, to put on the cover. Combined with the other modern elements, and without his military uniform, his slight smile in the original painting came across as a slight smirk. Nothing like the complex, passionate, controlled personality I was trying to convey in the book.
Also, if he wasn’t dressed as a soldier, I was concerned that folks wouldn’t recognize George at 45. No doubt this fear had come about at least partially from my experience wearing a white ball cap with a similar image of young George on it. Though he’s dressed in his army duds, more than one person had checked it out and asked, “Who’s that? Hamilton?” Young Alex, of course, is a present-day superstar, though the immense popularity of the eponymous hit musical has also boosted George’s fame in the past few years.
The final version of the cover appears below, along with a shot of my white ball cap.