Cover Kibitz: Searching for Historical Stock Images for Red Blossom in Snow

As I was writing the draft for the next Lotus Palace book this November, I kept on promising my brain that if I finished the draft, I could reveal the cover. So for the first time in forever, I actually finished a novel during NanoWriMo (though I refuse to call it a NanoWriMo novel because….who puts a novel writing month in November, the worst writing month ever?!)

Okay, so on with the cover kibitz. If you’ve every tried to find stock images for Asian heroes, it’s SO difficult. When you’re also looking for heroes in appropriate historical dress, it’s nearly impossible. I don’t have the budget to do photo shoots, so my cover artists typically use stock photos and image manipulation and they do a fabulous job (thank you so much Deranged Doctor Design!)

As a wise person once said:

“Nudity is always historically accurate.”

— Jeannie Lin

I definitely have a file of these, hoping that, in a pinch, a talented cover artist might be able to incorporate this into a historical cover? But the look doesn’t quite work for Li Chen who has been presented as a mild-mannered, by-the-book scholar-gentleman. That’s not to say he can’t look like that under his scholar robes, but you get my drift.

Asian man with bare torso and muscular build.
Fact check: Were six-pack abs a thing in the Tang Dynasty?

The historical pictures I manage to find are sometimes too cosplay or posed (lots of modern day wedding costumes).

Asian man in full suit of armor
Though I think this would totally work in a retelling of “The Slaying of the Tiger General” I’ve been dreaming about.

At one point, I wondered if the popular illustrated cover approach would work for Tang Dynasty romance. What do you think?

For the “Red Blossom” cover, I managed after HOURS of searching to find an image in acceptable (more on this) historical costumes for the Tang Dynasty. The image had a couple in a pose that had some degree of romantic tension (Why must every model be grinning like a Cheshire cat? Give us more brooding intensity!)

About the costumes: The lady is wearing a plain robe. Her hair looks very C-drama and the robe can sort of pass for Tang Dynasty hanfu. It doesn’t have the flash of Wei-wei’s model in The Hidden Moon and The Liar’s Dice, but it will do. (My children said she looked like she was wearing pajamas, and the outfit sort of does looks like the pale zhong yi (middle clothes) that everyone wears in C-dramas.)

Song Yi is a less feisty heroine than Wei-wei, though she’s strong and strategic in a more internalized fashion. She’s even-tempered and rational.

Woman in light-colored/white robe holding an umbrella

In The Hidden Moon and in Red Blossom in Snow, Song Yi is described as wearing darker or more muted colors than the other courtesans. She doesn’t try to draw attention to herself with vibrant colors in the same way that a great beauty like Mingyu (The Jade Temptress) would.

What I’m totally enamored with is the hero’s uniform. It brings quite a bit of drama with it:

Picture of male model in black constable's uniform with sword

Look at the intensity in those eyes:

Close-up of male model's face with intense gaze

And you know what they say in America’s Next Top Model about posing from head to toe? Check out the tension in his hand.

Close up of curled fingers of male model's hand
Totally in the midst of a Pride and Prejudice-style hand flex.

Okay, I’m getting carried away…. but feast your eyes!

Cover: Red Blossom in Snow. Couple facing each other in historical imperial Chinese clothing. Winter backdrop with snow and red flowers.
Cover image: Red Blossom in Snow. Cover art by Deranged Doctor Design.

On Historical accuracy: I get that it’s not 100% accurate. The model is wearing what I would consider closer to a constable’s uniform — so this is what I actually imagine Gao or Wu Kaifeng wearing. Magistrate Li Chen wears a dark green robe to denote his rank.

I was also recently educated on a Twitter thread by @bookgir that the cross-collar hanfu is more of a Han Dynasty look and the Tang Dynasty favored round collars. (I confess, I have spent more time looking into Tang-era women’s clothing than men’s clothing.)

What makes this cover image work for me is this is how Magistrate or Judge Di Renjie is typically depicted in the popular “Detective Dee” movies which started with Andy Lau and has since switched out leads for new installments, a la James Bond. (Detective Dee even has a green uniform in the Blood Vine movie poster). Looking at these posters in more detail does show the “round collar” described in the Twitter thread.

Movie poster: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Man in black robe with sword, on boat in mysterious cave.
Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame (movie poster)
Movie poster: Chinese release. Detective Dee and the Blood Vine. Official in green robe with flaming sword pointed at large fanged snake.
Detective Dee and the Blood Vine (movie poster)

Judge Di or Judge Dee was a real historical figure in the Tang Dynasty who served under the reign of Wu Zetian. He was popularized as a sleuth and investigator by Robert van Gulik who wrote a long-running series of mysteries where Judge Di would travel about and investigate crimes, as magistrates in the Tang Dynasty were expected to do.

The movies opt to refer to Magistrate Di as Detective Dee, leaning into the more investigative and hands-on role magistrates were expected to take when it came to serving justice. As you can see from the movie posters, Detective Dee has been re-branded as an action hero, wielding swords and fighting off paranormal forces.

But it it important to note that Magistrate Li Chen of the Lotus Palace series holds the exact same position as Judge Dee or Detective Dee. They are both magistrates who, in imperial China, are tasked with investigating crimes, gathering evidence, as well as rendering judgement.

The first draft is indeed done. It’s one of my twisty-est, swooniest, C-drama, most “burn for you” novels and I absolutely wanted to feature a couple on the cover to convey that

I just adore the tension, the body language. The longing looks. So many longing looks.

Despite the winter frost, that cover is smoldering. It will continue to inspire me as I finish these revisions.

To Pre-order and Add on Goodreads:

Get caught up on the Lotus Palace series…

The Liar’s Dice

The Hidden Moon

Red Blossom in Snow

Cover makeover: Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles

“Tales” is a three novella anthology in the Gunpowder Chronicles world which released in 2019. I originally requested an “object” cover since it was an anthology and the cover that Deranged Doctor Design came up with was amazing. There’s a library with a scroll and an opium-looking pipe with a dragon design. Steampunk-y gears in the background and the whole thing was awash in gold. :

Original cover: Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles- library with desk and scroll with red ribbon

Despite getting everything that I asked for and more, I didn’t feel as overwhelmed as I had when I saw the previous covers. After spending some time watching the reader response and sales, I could sense that there was a similar lack of enthusiasm. Beautiful cover, but wasn’t quite drawing readers in.

Undaunted, I thought — alright, let’s try a 3D box set so readers know they’re getting three stories in one volume.

3D Box set: Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles cover with library and scroll + 3 spines showing in the box: Big Trouble in Old Shanghai, Island of the Opium Eaters, Love in the Time of Engines

Then a little research and word on the street showed that other fantasy authors had been through this as well and overwhelmingly preferred “character” covers to object covers. Lesson learned!

I didn’t have much time to test out the 3D cover because I had already enlisted DDD to re-vamp the cover. I provided some character details and sample models and suggested that multiple heroines could be depicted on the cover. The concept design they came up with was AMAZING. Look at those costumes — they were not a part of the original model photos.

Mockup version of cover: Two heroines with Chinese courtyard in background and gears in sky. Girl with glasses holding book on left, girl in armor with weapons looking down on right

I was just in LOVE with the girl with the glasses. Isn’t she awesome? And they have her holding a book too — my little geek heart was going pitter-patter. I thought she was a perfect depiction of studious Anlei in “Love in the Time of Engines”.

I loved this cover as well. The colors, the mood. That backdrop is amazing with the Chinese courtyard and the gears above it. But the two ladies might imply a sapphic story, and I didn’t want to confuse readers.

It seemed other authors were also wrestling with how to depict anthologies as some vendors prefer or even require 2D covers. So I requested that the designer move to a triptych design and the final design, once again, blew me away.

Final version of cover: Three heroines in three color bands, blue, orange, green. Girl in suit with weapons, girl with glasses holding book, girl in leather with two knives.

The cover totally reminds me of a superhero movie poster. I call it my girl power cover. It depicts three different stories with three very different heroines.

I might play with a 3D box version of this cover, but for now I’m going to try this makeover out and see if it makes people stop and click.