How A Photographer Chooses His Cover - Morgan Shank

24 Jul 2023

What do we say through art?

It’s the question artists ask themselves, the reason they start their projects. If we didn’t have something to say, we wouldn’t have something to create, and if we didn’t have something to create, we wouldn’t have a reason to live, not if art is our calling and passion.

Ironically enough, I consider myself a photographer before a writer. Sure, nothing excites me more than sitting down with a blank page and charting a new adventure, but where does the inspiration come from? What drives my stories?


First and foremost, I see light. It’s what I say through my photography: the story of contrasts. Light weaves stories through darkness, and its pull grows stronger when its quality grows softer. Enter any room and the first thing you look at is the color, the light. This dynamic inspires all my photography, which in turn, inspires all my writing.

It’s why I write dark fantasy. Ultimately, I want to inspire readers. I want to offer stories of hope, redemption, and beauty…but like light, these virtues grow stronger when contrasted against darkness. When compared to the gritty messiness of our lives, we see hope for what it really is: something barely tangible, sometimes distant, but always available. There aren’t shadows without light, but when you put a candle in a dark room, the darkness can’t remain.

When I explore a new landscape, its valleys, and hills unveil the story. Its canyons and gullies show me the character’s low moments while the mountains show me their heights. A booktuber once asked me if character or plot inspired my stories, but I ended up being that guy who responded with the invisible third option: neither. For me, it always comes back to landscapes.

This is where my Low Country Trilogy came from. I had visited the American Southwest for an annual photo expedition since 2019, and by 2022, an adventure formed. I started to see Low Country’s chase scenes through Utah’s Canyonlands, and the vision of Low Country itself came from those moments on the desert mesa when I watched morning light fill the tableland. The memories of those nights under the vast, brilliant sky with all the stars more luminous in the city’s absence? I saw people under those stars, people with the same fears, dreams, and goals as I had, wrestling with the vastness of their world, the magnitude of the desert buttes and flats in comparison to their short lives.

But in a story, you don’t get the visuals. At least, you don’t get them without illustrations, but if I only wrote photo essays, we wouldn’t have dark fantasy stories! Instead, I try to select the right words for the right scene. If photography is my inspiration and every picture is worth a thousand words, the challenge comes from sifting through the thousand words for the bare minimum, so the reader sees the photo for themselves. Or in truth: so they imagine a different photo from mine.

Herein lies the beauty of writing: we each imagine our own photos. I can hand you a photograph and tweak all the colors, lighting, and contrast until you see it my way, but if I give ten people the same sentence, all ten leave with different emotions, memories, and thoughts. The contrast presents a unique challenge for me: I know how I want you to feel when you see the art, but when you read and thereby feel it for yourself, all certainty goes out the window.

Aha, but now we come to the book cover, the primary visual. This is where the mediums converge, where I offer you a snapshot of my story. It’s no secret that Jeff Brown is my cover designer, and after I found his work, I never wanted anything else. I found no comparison for his attention to texture, color, contrast, and light. His work brings life to my landscapes, telling their story through the rugged canyon of A Low Country, or the bleak, stifling flat readers see through the window of A Savage Country.

A Low Country is the debut novel from Morgan Shank

When Jeff and I recognized our mutual affinity for visual aesthetics, everything changed. A Savage Country’s session stretched long because we kept sharing images and ideas through Zoom’s chat feature. In every meetup, I send him a few photos that describe the landscape, lighting, or mood I’m conveying. He blends these with his own ideas, and the results bring something bold, imaginative, and unique.

So far, every cover we’ve worked on has captured my goal for light: contrast it in a unique way to offer a story that grounds and encourages readers. In A Low Country, light fills the canyon behind Sharla, my protagonist, and it leads the way toward her dreams. In A Savage Country, the light spills through a decrepit shack, offering a sole sunbeam from which to face the danger. The trilogy’s conclusion already has something similar, and I can’t wait for the final reveal!

Jeff has a stellar eye for detail, and he works every session from a central question: which element is our focal point? He strives to render that element according to the specified genre, and that presented unique challenges when running Low Country’s fantasy/western hybrid. Ultimately, we used a horse, a canyon, and soldiers in plate armor contrasting with a desert flat reminiscent of New Mexico or Nevada.

A Savage Country will be published in August 2023

In each of these covers, light shapes the scene. The cover grabs the reader, tells the initial story, the initial story shows the light, and the light poses a question: is this pleasing? Do you want more?

I’ve often heard photography described as painting with light, and I’d argue that writing is painting with words. It shapes the way we see the world, and in my case, it arranges everything so readers may clearly see the light. If they see it in the cover, hopefully they’ll find it in the story. And if they miss it in the story, I hope to at least remind them of the color, vividness, and beauty around them. We live in a world of dazzling contrast, breathtaking detail, and soft, ever-present light. I aim to capture this light in every cover, to communicate an initial story of hope, a perspective that encourages readers to keep seeking, believing, and living.

In our world, this light is everywhere, at all times, and it contrasts every shadow. Shadow wouldn’t exist without light, yet light always banishes its counterpart. I urge whoever reads this article to hold to that truth at all costs.

Look for the light and stay in its path. It will always bring you clarity.

About Morgan Shank


 In middle school, I finally broke away from incoherent clumps of algebra to fill a composition notebook with my first handwritten novel. Since then, I've imagined my own Skyrim rather than fumble through objective studies.

For reasons unknown to anyone, I somehow found my way into a trucking gig, and I now enjoy a day job hauling freight. When I'm not trucking or writing, I spend my time dabbling in landscape photography, running Spartan Races, and staring at the mountains that surround my hometown of Harrisonburg, VA, which provide ample inspiration for my fantasy novels.

You can get to know more about him on his website or his Twitter