Evolution of a Book Cover: ‘Little Queen’s Gambit’

J.M. Aucoin . Jake Hawking Adventures, News, Writing about writing 1347 No Comments

JMAucoin-Hawking-BannerI was really excited to work with Pete Simeti of Painted Heros and Alterna Comics. Little Queen was a minor character in the first two Jake Hawking short-stories, but quickly grew a loyal fanbase. People seemed to be intrigued by the massic, former slave from Barbados that could crush bones into dust with ease. So when I sat down to write the third Hawking short-story it seemed to make sense that Little Queen would get some of the limelight to show off her skills. Thus Little Queen’s Gambit was born.

After the jump… how Little Queen came to life…

Brain Storm Session
Like the other covers, I sent Pete a copy of the story to read over. Since they’re not very long tales, it makes sense for the artist to read the story to help get some ideas instead of me just spewing thoughts myself. I still sent my own ideas, because collabing with great artists is a blast. Here’s what I sent Pete:

Little Queen's Gambit sketch

Sketch #1: Little Queen surrounded by privateers — far away angle

1) Little Queen and Marshall arm-wrestling…. this is actually low on my list ’cause I don’t want people to think it’s a pirate version of Over the Top
2) Little Queen standing, looking ferocious with her boarding ax and dagger in hand. Maybe standing over some bodies hidden mostly in shadow.. or shadows of soldiers just in the view of the frame (this is my fav idea of these three)
3) Kate’s idea that I’m throwing out there. I think this might be a bit much for a story cover but would make a cool comic frame… Little Queen standing on the soldier’s head while pulling her dagger out of his skull

Fun idea: Not really for a story cover, but if I find extra cash and you’re interested in doing this commission at some point… Little Queen as Rosie the Riveter, but with her boarding ax and a mug of ale instead. haha

Pete was of the same mind and we decided on number two. It seemed the best for this story. Even though Little Queen arm wrestles a lot in the story, we didn’t want it to be Over the Top with pirates. And with #3, we thought it would be a little too violent for a story cover.

Little Queen's Gambit sketch

Sketch #2: Same idea but closer up so we see more of Queen

And yes, Little Queen as Rosie the Riveter but with a pirate spin will happen. I just need to find some spare cash…

Pencil Sketch
Next up was Pete’s quick sketch to give me an idea of placement and location. Like with The Royal Bounty Hunter, Pete sent me two versions of a possible cover to choose from. Both versions are pretty similar, just one image is further away than the other.

We decided to run with the second image since it showcases Little Queen a little bit more. Around this time I sent a more detailed description of Little Queen:

So I picture Little Queen has a Wonder Woman/She-Hulk/Zoe (from FireFly) cross. She wears an orange headband, has long black dreads. She’s be wearing more earthy colors. Browns, dark reds and greens. The orange headband is the really only colorful part of her. Maybe she’d have some fun wristbands or necklaces, but nothing gaudy. Her weapons are a boarding ax and a big fuck-off dagger.

Little Queen's Gambit cover sketch

Detailed Pencil Sketch #1

Laying Out the Text & Detailed Sketch
Pete wanted to put some time early on to figure out where the text was going to be placed since this cover was a little bit more complicated than A Pirate’s Honor. That part of the process didn’t take long, and I had no notes for Pete at that point.

He also sent along a more detailed sketch of Little Queen facing off with the two privateer guards.

I had only a few notes at this point. We got rid of the belly shirt effect on Little Queen. She’s definitely not the midriff flashing type of gal. And her shirt was too short-sleeved t-shirt looking, so I asked Pete to either make it a rolled up sleeve or ripped off.  We also figured a belt and a vest would make her a little more pirate looking.

But I loved her expression and how we only get a small glance of the guards in the foreground. So Pete set about to make the small changes. Shortly after he sent the updated cover drawing.

Little Queen's Gambit cover sketch

Detailed Pencil Sketch #2

This second pencil sketch came back with Little Queen looking a little more muscular, too. She went from looking like Zoe Saldana (which isn’t a bad thing) to looking like a pirate who could throw down and break some skulls when needed.

Had no further suggestions or changes, so I gave Pete the A-OK to move ahead to the next part of the process…

Inks & Colors
…adding in the ink, shading and giving some color to the drawing.

At this stage we really get to see the drawing come to life. Queenie’s face gets a little sterner looking, the shadows show off her buffness, and the musketeers are finally cast in shadow to give the scene an ominous feel.

Little Queen's Gambit ink cover

Adding in the ink

Pete also started to add in more of the details, like beads in Queen’s hair, the bracelet gets a little more detail, her muscles more definition. For every bit of awesome the detailed pencil sketches were, the ink version just made it that much better. Little Queen was really coming to life at this point. And as a writer, one of the coolest things you can experience, I think, is seeing your imaginary friends become real on paper.

Pete sending me the ink version was really a mere formality since I had no changes for him.

Next was the color version and adding it to the background. Pete also added a little blood work to Queen’s ax, which I dug.

Little Queen color orig

Original “final” cover

It took us a little while to finalize the cover. There was a ton of black in the original “final” cover. It looked good, but it was definitely missing something. In A Pirate’s Honor, we had the cool map to add depth and a sense of adventure to the cover. And in The Royal Bounty Hunter we made the background look like a Wanted Poster for Jake Hawking.

Little Queen’s Gambit was in the same boat in that it needed a little more pizzazz to help it stand out from the rest of the crowd… especially since it’s so black heavy.

I can’t remember but it was either Pete or Kate who suggested maybe a 300 style blood splatter on the cover.

Little Queen's Gambit blood splatter cover


That looked better, but it was a little too much blood and was still missing something. There was still a ton of black in the background and foreground and even with the red blood splatter to break up the darkness of the image, we felt like it needed a little something else to make it pop better.

We tossed a few ideas, hoping for something would stick or would at least inspire the other to come up with the right idea. We eventually decided maybe adding a skull and crossbones to the top half of the cover would work. It’s very piratey and would be a nice nod to the Jolly Roger.

And voila!

The skull was exactly what the cover needed. It added a little lightness to break up the dark background and foreground, while still invoking images of pirates fighting on the high seas. The blood splatter lets the reader know this is an action-heavy story, and Little Queen gets her spotlight to show that both minorities and women could pirates, and were pirates; alas, lost to the tide of history.

For those who love the Little Queen character, you’ll probably love hearing about William Brown who was, in fact, a black women dressed as a man and had quite the remarkable sailing career, even after being outed as a woman. And last month I did a whole post on some black pirates and sailors who had colorful naval careers.

Little Queen’s Gambit is a short-story roughly 10,000 words long and is available as an ebook via Amazon for your Kindle or Kindle apps. If you don’t own a Kindle, you can still read the story via their free Kindle Cloud Reader on your computer.

J.M. Aucoin

Author. Fencer. Sometimes actor. Full-time nerd. I write swashbucklers & historical adventure novels.

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