I love working on websites for authors of historical biographies and historical nonfiction. Not only do I get to learn about interesting historical figures and events, but I also get to bring them to life for website visitors. And that is really the crux of what makes an author website successful: identifying the best way to bring the subject(s) to life while also featuring the author.
One of the great things about historical book websites is that there is often either public domain photography or artwork to use. You can use it as background elements, stand-alone images, headers, footers, etc.. It sets the tone for the site, immersing the visitor in the subject at hand. Things like maps, handwritten documents, and close-ups of photographic elements make great backgrounds because it’s easier to have legible text over them.
With the aesthetic in place, layering over the site’s content is where you get to share elements that bring extra depth to a story. These are stories that didn’t make it into the book, or more information on peripheral characters, or timelines, or artwork/photos. You can be as creative as you want here.
As the author of the book, including yourself in the website is important too. You will position yourself as an expert/enthusiast, and ideally, share with site visitors what makes you passionate about the subject. Stories live on because we retell them, giving them a new shape and perspective. As the person telling the story, you get to inject your own thoughts on the subject and share why it resonates with you. After all, no one spends years researching a subject that they don’t really care about.
Lastly, I encourage my clients to not just rely on tropes for the visual design. One of the things that brings new life to an old story is its retelling. If you haven’t seen the Dickinson tv series, they do a great job of making Emily Dickinson and the world she inhabits relatable to the modern age. You want to walk the line of using visuals that immediately communicate your subject, without heading into caricature territory.
Here are some examples to demonstrate my thoughts… (click to see full size)