Virginia’s Ghost: This Book Has a Cover!

Getting my book Virginia’s Ghost to a publishable stage has been a long haul. I’ve never been a swift writer, and between my plodding approach to writing, my editing work, and dealing with a chronic illness, I’ve been wondering if the book will ever come into being as a published work. Will something tangible really emerge from the endless writing and rewriting?

But now, with a completed book cover on my hands, I realize how close I am to the finish line. This cover has me glowing almost as much as the ghost is.  Sure, seeing my name in lights as it were is a little ego boost, but there’s much more to the excitement than that–it’s thrilling to see how the designer has represented my book and captured its essence through images.

Virginia's Ghost cover
Virginia’s Ghost cover


I was a bit nervous about the design process at first. What if the designer couldn’t connect with my book and produced something I felt lukewarm about? But with a designer like Scarlett Rugers, I needn’t have worried.  After reading Virginia’s Ghost, she came up with three excellent cover concepts, all of which reflected the great extent to which she’d absorbed my book. Concept one was very colourful and showed a small ghost on the balcony of a Victorian house, while concept two depicted the blurry figure of a ghost ascending basement stairs. But concept three, which you see here, was definitely the one, and it was Scarlett’s favourite too. Her version of Constance the ghost matched very closely the Louise Brooks-like image I’d been carrying around in my head. But to ensure I wasn’t utterly misguided in my choice, I sent the cover concepts to various people I knew including editors and other writers, very few of whom had actually read the book. While the results weren’t unanimous, concept three was preferred by most.

I liked Scarlett’s thoughtful approach to the design. When I asked her why she hadn’t chosen an art deco font, which was what I’d expected, she replied that this might mislead readers into thinking that all the book takes place during the 1920s, which isn’t the case. Pondering her decision, I couldn’t agree more. The image of the flapper ghost and the border design allude to the 1920s, whereas the bold and glamorous title font gives readers a whiff of the present.

We made a few adjustments to Scarlett’s original concept–shifting the title down to reveal more of the ghost’s hands, for example, and decreasing the size of my name, which I thought was competing with the title for attention. On the back, we’d originally had an author blurb and photo, as I had really wanted this, but the text covered much of the red-brick mansion and wasn’t that readable even though Scarlett had darkened the house behind it. Something had to go, but it wasn’t the mansion. I wanted it in for two reasons: a good friend of mine, Louise Kiner, had taken the photo, and the house represents the one the ghost inhabited when she was alive. Once the extra bit of text was gone, Scarlett was able to brighten the mansion, allowing it to shine forth in all its gloomy glory!

After some back and forth and lots of nitpicky little decisions, I finally have a book cover. And I couldn’t be happier with the result. Many thanks to Scarlett for her inspired design!

The Great Literary Blog Hop

I was recently approached by fellow editrix and  fantasy authoress Vanessa Ricci-Thode to participate in something called a blog hop. Vanessa published her novel The Dragon Whisperer last year and now has another book in the works. Honestly, I don’t know where she finds the time and energy to do all these literary things and raise a child too.  When she first mentioned the blog hop, I didn’t have a clue what it was, but I soon learned it would give me an opportunity to blab about my writing. What writer can say no to that? Thank you, Vanessa, for giving me the kick in the pants I needed to start blogging again.

As part of the blog hop, I’m required to answer four questions. At the end, I’ll provide links to the websites and books of some terrific writers who are taking up the challenge to continue this blog hop. So without further ado, let’s get started.

1.  What are you working on/writing?

As far as paid work goes, I’m currently editing the third book in a series of thrillers. The novel is action-packed, well-written, and suspenseful, so I’m really enjoying the process. Editing flows quite easily when the material you’re working on is so good. I consider myself very fortunate to be working with this particular author, who not only writes well but is very pleasant to deal with and shares my love of dogs.

There’s also my novel, Virginia’s Ghost. The book is a cozy mystery with a supernatural element. My protagonist, Virginia, is an auction house employee who encounters a rather demanding ghost named Constance from the 1920s. She realizes the ghost is trying to tell her something important, and precisely what is revealed as she reads Constance’s diary, written when she was a young woman. I include several diary entries, so I’m working with two first-person narrators. Simultaneously, mayhem and murder begin happening at the auction house, and the ghost is ultimately the key to making sense of all the chaos. Past and present are interwoven, and the book is really about the extraordinary connection these two women from separate eras forge and how they affect each other.

It does feel as if I’ve been writing Virginia’s Ghost forever, but after two rounds of edits by professional editor friends, I’m finally at the end of the writing process. Recently, I posted Chapter 1 on this site, and received eighty-eight Facebook likes, which astounded me! Because I’m a fanatical perfectionist, I’ve printed out the whole thing to read one more time and tweak as needed. About a month from now, we’ll be starting the cover and page design, which I’m very excited about.

Virginia'g Ghost book cover

2.  How does your work/writing differ from others in its genre?

I call my book a cozy mystery, but I doubt it is, strictly speaking–it’s just what it’s closest to being. One way in which it differs is that my protagonist isn’t really a sleuth as such and certainly doesn’t see herself as taking on that role. Instead, she has chaotic circumstances thrust upon her and copes as best as she can. Virginia’s Ghost does have a number of the characteristics of cosy mysteries, though: it’s set in a very closed community and features a victim who dare I say deserves to die. As well, there’s no graphic sex or violence, so it’s suitable for all ages. And although I intended to write a page-turner, I also like to think it’s more than a whodunit.

3.  Why do you write what you do?

I’ve been very influenced by my previous career. I worked at an auction house for about fourteen years and always thought it would be an excellent setting for either a mystery or a ghost story (I ended up combining both). There’s something both intriguing and slightly creepy about being surrounded by dusty old antiques that suggested both of those genres to me. I have a fascination with past eras, particularly the 1920s, so I wanted to bring a nostalgic storyline into the book–the story of Constance, the beautiful flapper ghost.  As well, there’s always a lot of adrenaline surging through the auction world–the pressure of crazy deadlines and the excitement of a live auction–that I thought would make for a dramatic book. And I met a lot of eccentric people, both clients and fellow employees, who I’ve drawn on in creating the characters for the book. The day I left that job, I thanked the staff for providing such wonderful inspiration for the novel I would one day write. Some of them looked a little worried when I said that. I guess they didn’t want to find themselves as a character in the book–particularly a villain or someone who gets murdered. But my characters are composites of various people I’ve met in my life.

4.  How does your writing process work?

What can I say? It’s slow and painstaking. This is because I’m an editor too. My sentences barely have a chance to squeak out before I’m polishing them to within an inch of their lives. I try to tell myself just to write, but it’s nearly impossible to quiet the professional editor in my head. But I’m also a better writer since I became an editor. I think I must have been pretty awful before.

I’m actually not too sure how many drafts of Virginia’s Ghost I’ve done–it’s either five or six, I think. It often tell my editing clients that it’s a good idea to start with an outline, but I didn’t do that myself. There–I’ve come out of the closet as a non-outliner! Actually, though, I did put together a synopsis of all my chapters after I’d written my third draft, and it did help me see what wasn’t really adding up in the narrative. And doing this helped me get unstuck and move forward.


I now pass the baton to my chosen blog hoppers, who are as follows:

Tiana Warner. Tiana is the author of The Infinite Knowledge of J.T. Badgley, an intensely dramatic science fiction novel that takes place on a planet called Zielaarde but illuminates much about life here on Earth.  As you’ll see from Tiana’s website, she’s also an accomplished poet. You can read my interview with Tiana here.

Pat Krapf. Pat has just published Brainwash, the first of a series of techno-thrillers featuring tough, no-nonsense private investigator Darcy McClain, formerly an FBI agent, and her sidekick Bullet, a giant schnauzer. Pat is currently following up Brainwash with two more Darcy McClain thrillers, Gadgets and Genocide.

Martin Turnbull. Martin has written the Garden of Allah series of novels, which are set in Hollywood’s golden age. If you love the thought of rubbing shoulders with screen legends like Greta Garbo and Errol Flynn, you’ll love Martin’s novels–The Garden on Sunset, The Trouble with Scarlett, and Citizen Hollywood.

Ali Lawati. Ali is a children’s author who has written The Jungle Adventure of Chimpoo, a whimsical tale of a monkey family.


Back-cover Blurbs: What I’ve Learned So Far

I’ve been crafting it off and on for weeks now, and sometimes I lie awake at night, mentally tweaking the wording until it’s just so. It consists of four little paragraphs, a mere two hundred words. But those paragraphs might be the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and every one of those words has to pull its weight. What, you might ask, is causing me such writerly agony? The back-cover blurb for my novel, Virginia’s Ghost.

Logic would dictate that this process shouldn’t be so excruciating. After all, I’ve written or edited blurbs for many clients before, so I know the drill. And no one knows my book better than I do, right? But maybe familiarity is precisely the problem. What’s making the blurb so challenging is knowing my book all too well; I’ve been living and breathing Virginia’s Ghost  in all its subtle nuances for quite some time. With so many tiny details about the plot, character, setting, and dialogue filling my brain, I’m finding it tricky to pick out the broad strokes.  Here’s my latest effort to whittle the book down to its essence and pull my audience in (and please feel free to criticize, as I still consider the blurb a work in progress).

Antiques specialist Virginia Blythe of Gable & Co. Auctioneers is working late one night when she hears mournful wailing. Following the sound to its source, she gasps in astonishment: a breathtakingly beautiful flapper who looks like a refugee from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is lingering in the shadows of the company’s basement. 

Later the disconsolate young woman returns to offer Virginia her diary, written in 1928. It reveals she’s the ghost of wealthy Toronto socialite Constance Pendleton. What is Constance trying to tell her? Intrigued, Virginia curls up with the diary and begins dipping her toes into the elegant opulence of Constance’s Jazz Age world.

But suddenly things go terribly awry at Gable & Co. Just as Virginia’s preparing for a blockbuster auction, some valuable porcelain mysteriously goes missing and her job is on the line. The worst, however, is yet to come. A shocking murder spins the eccentric world of the auction house into chaos. Struggling to make sense of it all, Virginia turns increasingly to the secrets of the diary.

Virginia’s Ghost is a tale of ghastly crime, euphoric love, and devastating betrayal in which two women transcend time to affect each other’s lives in startling ways.

Apart from discovering that writing your back-cover blurb is damn difficult to pull off, what else have I learned? Here’s my advice, based both on my experiences helping clients with their blurbs and writing my own.

First, get as much critical feedback throughout the blurb-writing process as you possibly can. People who have already read your book (e.g., your editor) are invaluable and can help you answer some key questions. For example, does the book actually deliver what you promise the reader in your blurb? If you’re describing thrills and chills aplenty on the back cover but your book’s more of a meditative literary piece, then you have a serious mismatch on your hands.  As well, does the tone of the blurb match your book’s tone? Obviously, it should, and only someone who’s read your book will know. But people who haven’t read it can also be enormously helpful in answering the big questions: Would you read this book? And if not, why not? Take every bit of feedback you receive to heart and keep revising your blurb until you’re hitting all the right notes.

Second, use language that will hook readers emotionally. What will grab them enough to make them want to read your book? If you’re not sure, think about who your readers are–their tastes, interests, and values. Chances are you’re like me and you’re writing for the very club you’re already a member of, which makes it much easier to know what your audience wants. I expect my readers to be largely 40+ women who are fans of the cosy mystery genre and period pieces. Because of this, I’ve tried to heighten the mood of mystery and intrigue and have emphasized the past by playing up the flapper ghost and the auction house setting. And I hope that the image of Virginia curling up to read the diary will strike a chord with my readers, who probably enjoy spending their Sunday afternoons with a cup of tea and a good book. Consider what’s important to your audience and use language and images that truly speak to them.

Finally, make every word count. Most blurbs aren’t much more than about 250 words, so you’ve got to be economical in your prose and focus on what’s really important–namely, some enticingly described story details that will leave your readers wanting to know more and eager to buy your book. Now’s not the time to blather on using wordy or vague language, pat yourself on the back for your brilliant book, or give too much of your plot away.  Remember that your blurb isn’t a synopsis but a teaser that functions as your primary marketing tool. You’ll be using it on the back of your book and elsewhere too–on your website, Facebook author page, and Amazon, for example. It’s worth your while to take your time and do it right.

Headache Begone: Preventative Strategies for Fellow Sufferers

Editors, writers, and others who spend long hours working at the computer seem particularly vulnerable to migraines and tension headaches. Perhaps more than any other group of people I know, editors frequently commiserate on Facebook about headache hell. Personally, I inherited a predisposition toward migraines from my mother and have suffered from them since I was fourteen. Although my headaches have abated recently, under severe stress I still sometimes get three-day episodes; these start on one side of the head and slowly migrate to the other, causing severe pain not just in my head but also in my eyes and jaw. Needless to say, it’s almost impossible to be happy or productive under such circumstances.

Several years ago, I attended a workshop on natural headache prevention and wrote an article about the techniques I gleaned. I’ve adapted the article for this blog and hope you’ll benefit from these suggestions I present below.

If your pain is caused by either muscular tension or blood vessel dilation—as in migraines—a daily exercise routine can alleviate existing headaches and prevent them from recurring. The routine is rooted in the principles of energy medicine, which postulates that energy must flow harmoniously within the body; if it fails to do so, pain and illness result. These exercises are designed to move around the stagnant energies that induce headaches.

For maximum benefits, perform them slowly and fluidly. Rushing through them or making sudden, jerky motions will diminish their effectiveness. You might even strain yourself in the process. Also breathe deeply and exactly as instructed. Let’s get started.

While in a comfortable sitting position, relax your shoulders. Tilt your head toward your right shoulder. (Do not bring your shoulder up toward your head.) Place your right palm on the right side of your head. Inhale as you press your hand and your head against each other for a few seconds. Exhale slowly while dropping your hand into your lap. Stretch your head further to the right, inhale, repeat the isometric press between your right hand and your head, and exhale as you let your hand drop. Stretch your head as far right as you can, and perform the sequence a third time. Finally, reach across your head with your right hand, resting it on your left ear. Allow the weight of your elbow to pull your head over further. Repeat the entire sequence on your left side.

Next, find the two indentations between the two ridges of the base of your skull; these indentations are known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as the headache points. When stimulated, they relieve pain. While tilting your head back, inhale and press your fingers into the headache points while pushing against your fingers with your head. Drop your hands into your lap while returning your head to an upright position. Exhale slowly through your mouth.

The next step takes some getting used to, and since you’ll look really silly doing it, you might feel more comfortable without an audience. Inhale through your mouth as you thrust your lower jaw out and pull it up toward your upper jaw. Now exhale and allow your jaw to relax. Repeat the inhalation and jaw-jutting exercise, and as you exhale, let your head drop toward your chest.

Now you’re in the home stretch. Inhale and press your fingertips up into the middle of your forehead while pushing your head down. As in the previous exercises, you’re pushing against yourself. Release your fingers as you exhale, and let your head drop down further. Repeat the inhalation, fingertip press, release, and exhalation before dropping your head further toward your chest again. Repeat the sequence a third time, and as you exhale, lock your fingers behind your head and gently pull your head down.

After performing this combination of simple isometric exercises and deep breathing, you’ll feel deeply relaxed. The exercises sweep away the cobwebs by removing energy blocks. You’ll feel refreshed and alert as energy begins to course freely through your body again. If you’re experiencing a headache before you start the exercises, it should start dissipating as you continue. Perform this easy sequence of exercises religiously every day, and you should find they go a long way toward alleviating your headaches.

Usage Misdemeanours: Peak, Peek, and Pique

Virtually every manuscript that’s crossed my desk for editing in the past year or so has contained errors in the use of the homophones peak, peek, and pique. Personally, I’ve never had any difficulty keeping these three little words straight, but given the number of errors I see it’s obvious they’re a source of confusion to writers everywhere. I’ve seen “peak my curiosity” and “a sneak peak” among other misuses. Here’s a quick peek (if you’ll pardon the expression) at the differences between these words and tips for keeping them straight.

Peak is a word dating back to the 1500s, and it has several meanings as a noun. It can be the pointed top of a mountain or any mountain with a pointed top. Mountains aside, a peak is something that protrudes and reaches a point.  When you whip egg whites vigorously, they end up having stiff peaks (and you’re then ready to make a meringue).  A peak is also a high point in a different sense; you can reach a peak of activity or achievement. For example, “Horace reached his peak as a magician.” As well, a peak is the point on a graph that reflects the highest point in terms of a physical quantity. The brim of a hat (particularly in Britain) or the narrow part of a ship’s hold are also definitions of the word peak.

As a verb, peak means to reach an apex, and often a certain time for this occurrence is specified. You could say that “Horace peaked as a magician at age thirty.” Peak is also an archaic verb from about 1600 meaning to become sickly. Derived from it are the adjectives peaked (always pronounced pea-ked) and peaky, which is more commonly used in Britain. Both words emerged in the early 1800s and not surprisingly mean pallid or gaunt from illness. Peak used as an adjective is fairly recent, dating to about 1900. Again, it’s related to attaining a maximum. “Horace reached his peak level as a magician.”

Peek as a verb means to glance quickly or slyly. For example, “Alice peeked through the window at her devastatingly handsome neighbour.” It can also mean to protrude very slightly so as to be barely visible, as in, “His fingertips peeked through the ends of his threadbare gloves.” As a verb, it’s very old, dating back to the 14th century. It wasn’t used as a noun (meaning a quick or furtive look) until the middle of the 19th century.

The important thing to remember about peek is that it’s always associated with looking, whereas peak is primarily associated with  high points. With this in mind, I created this illustration to help you distinguish the two. The two es  in peek resemble a pair of eyes, while the a in peak, when capitalized, resembles a mountain.

Peek vs. peak

Finally, there’s pique. The word derives from the French verb piquer, which means to prick or irritate. The noun form of the word emerged first around 1600 and means irritation or resentment at suffering a slight or blow to your pride. A person typically has “a fit of pique,” which isn’t much fun for those witnessing it. But pique is most commonly used as a verb meaning to arouse interest or curiosity, and it’s been used as such since the late 17th century. For example, “You piqued my curiosity when you started whispering.” To be piqued means you’re feeling irritable. To pique yourself means that you pride yourself, but this is an archaic usage that’s unfamiliar to most of us. Pique is also used a both a noun and a verb with reference to piquet, a card game for two, but most of the confusion writers experience isn’t related to this usage. To avoid confusing pique with the other homophones, remember that it’s the only one with an i in it, which stands for irritation.

I hope I’ve clarified the meanings of peak, peek, and pique for you and provided useful tips for keeping them straight. Now when you need to choose the right homophone in your writing, you’ll no longer experience confusion or succumb to fits of pique!

New Year, New Look

Happy new year! If my greeting comes rather late, it’s because life has been unexpectedly eventful in recent weeks, and not necessarily in the most positive way. I’ve needed to spend a little time just catching my breath.

There have been some exciting new developments. Virginia’s Ghost, the novel I never thought I’d finish, finally went to my colleague Irene Kavanagh for a manuscript evaluation in December, and I’m eagerly (but patiently, I should emphasize, since I don’t want to rush things) awaiting her feedback so I can resume work on it. Based on her reactions so far, it seems the novel has provided her with a few good giggles, but I expect I’ve still got plenty of work to do. As well, I’ve recently finished editing the first in a series of thrillers featuring an investigator with a wonderful canine sidekick.  Any book featuring dogs as characters is always a delight; this series is right up my alley.

If you’re familiar with my website, you’ll notice it has a fresh new look that I hope you’ll see as an improvement over the old version. I hadn’t actually planned to make any changes; I don’t know my way around WordPress that well and was content to just let things be. But I discovered four days before Christmas that I could no longer add new material to my site. A friend put me in touch with a WordPress specialist, who would ultimately end my frustration and update the look of too.  But fixing my broken-down site would have to wait, as Toronto was struck by a devastating ice storm unlike anything I can remember.


Toronto Ice Storm, December 22, 2013
Toronto Ice Storm, December 22, 2013


Overnight, everything was glazed in a thick coating of ice, and I could hear ice cracking and cascading from enormous branches as they crashed to the ground. Sadly, Toronto lost an estimated 20 percent of its tree canopy. Our building lost most of its power, and we had no heat from the radiators and no hot water. We toughed it out for a couple of days, boiling water, running a couple of space heaters, and praying that the power would go on in time to make a turkey dinner. But when the temperature dipped to -10C and the dog began shivering and whining, it was time to go. We were fortunate to be able to drop Trinka off with a caring friend who had power (and a boisterous wire-haired dachshund for her to play with), and we also managed to find a hotel, which was where we spent our Christmas. It was four days before we could go home. Yes, we were a lot luckier than many people who had no friends or relatives to depend on, but it still made the festive season a bit dismal. In truth, I felt a bit numb from the ordeal–and not just from the cold.

Thank goodness all this is behind me and that 2013 is gone at last. By all accounts, it was a challenging year for many. The destructive energy of that year lingers on, however–it’s still the year of the snake on the Chinese calendar, and will be until January 31st. But I for one will be awfully relieved when that old serpent hisses its last and gives way to the year of the horse. Happy 2014, everyone.


A Short Guide to Handling Speeches in Fiction

Whether they take the form of lectures or diatribes, speeches are rarely enjoyable to listen to–unless they happen to combine the talents of a gifted orator and a skilled speechwriter. But this combination is rare. The average speech is, well . . . average. This is generally true in real life and especially true in fiction.

Yet many aspiring novelists think it’s a good idea to include speeches. They appear either as formal addresses to a captive audience or, more commonly, informal monologue. Here’s an example of the latter.  During a coffee break at the lab, Dr. Saurus, a mad scientist who’s secretly recreating extinct creatures in test tubes, lectures his colleagues about the natural history of the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods. But more about the good doctor later.

The problem with speeches is that your plot typically goes on vacation during them, so everything grinds to a halt. The grave danger is that the reader will get bored, impatient, or exhausted and will consign your book to the trash can. Obviously, you don’t want that to happen, so what should you do about speeches?

First, consider the purpose of each speech. What does the speaker want to achieve? Cut out anything that’s irrelevant to that purpose. If, for example, Dr. Saurus wants to reveal the nature of his experiments to his colleagues, he should confine his words to those experiments. He shouldn’t ramble on about the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods; the scientists know about them already, and he comes off looking pedantic. He’s also committing the terrible sin of information dumping, which brings me to my second point.

Include only information that’s vital for the reader’s understanding of what’s happening. Anything beyond that is extraneous. If readers want an in-depth discussion about the Jurassic period, they’ll google it or pick up a book on the subject. Don’t pummel them with paragraph after paragraph of facts and figures. When you do, they forget they’re even reading a novel and imagine they’ve mistakenly wandered into a textbook. Remember that few things destroy the fictive dream like a big information dump in a speech. A far better approach is to eliminate such speeches altogether and weave their content bit by bit into the narrative instead of depositing it all in one place.

But if you’re still committed to keeping a speech in and have done your best to rid it of irrelevant material, it may still be too long. If so, there’s a lot more you should be doing. Try interrupting the speech. Consider for a moment that many authors write speeches without properly supporting them with narrative. Reading this is much like listening to the radio; you hear a voice, but you can’t see where the speaker is or what he’s doing. This results in an incomplete sensory experience for the reader. Interrupt monologue with lots of supporting details about characters’ actions, gestures, and expressions. In the Dr. Saurus example, one of the scientists might jump up and down excitedly after hearing about the experiments and spill coffee on a colleague. Remember that the speaker isn’t talking to zombies (well, not usually) but to actual human beings who react to what’s being said, so interrupt using questions or comments from listeners as well. Another of Dr. Saurus’s colleagues might ask him why he wants to recreate extinct creatures and accuse him of playing God. Dialogue and interaction are inherently more dramatic than monologue, which is essentially static, so don’t hesitate to turn speeches into conversations.

As well, you can briefly summarize many points of a speech in narrative form while giving your character choice lines highlighting the most important or dramatic points. For example, you could summarize Dr. Saurus’s experimental procedures in a paragraph but allow him to talk about the exciting results of his work: a baby stegosaurus hatching in his lab right before his very eyes!

Much like Dr. Saurus, you as an author get to play God. You’re in control of everything that happens in your book, so unruly characters needn’t get away from you and run the show. You probably wouldn’t let someone drone on and on in real life uninterrupted, so why let it happen in your fiction? Use the above techniques to more effectively handle speeches. They may take work, but the payoff is prose that will keep readers thoroughly engaged in your work.


New Books by Chantelle Saumier: Vinnie! Star of the Show and Vinnie! The Hurricane

Author Chantelle Saumier has just released two books about her husky-shepherd rescue dog, Vinnie. Because I’m the owner of a mixed-breed rescue dog myself and a huge sucker for a good dog story, I was keen to interview Chantelle about the adorable Vinnie and her writing adventures so far.

Author Chantelle Saumier with her rescue dog Vinnie
Chantelle with Vinnie

CK: I know that by day you teach primary school in Langley, B.C., and have done for over sixteen years, but now you’ve also written two children’s books, Vinnie! Star of the Show and Vinnie! The Hurricane based on the antics of your real-life dog (also named Vinnie). How long have you been writing and what got you started as a writer?

CS: For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed writing. By nature I am a creative person, and writing has been one of the outlets I have used to express my creativity. However, after university I took a hiatus. It wasn’t until a few years into my teaching career that I got the creative writing bug again. What sparked it was seeing the pure joy in the eyes of my students as I read them a story. The timelessness of that moment, the smiles on their faces and their total engagement, made me want to be a part of creating that experience for them. When I had my own children, this feeling only multiplied and I knew I just had to do it.

CK: You told me once that your dog Vinnie sleeps with his legs straight up in the air, as does the fictional Vinnie. How alike are the real-life Vinnie and his fictional counterpart? Which one is naughtier? What’s the worst thing your dog’s ever done?

CS: My dog, Vinnie, and his “fictional” counterpart, are really one and the same. This is why I knew I had to make some children’s stories about his antics. The things he does seem so unbelievable and silly, yet at the same time are very relatable to those who have dogs of their own. Vinnie has two sides to his personality. On one hand, he is super loving, very sweet, and always craving attention. On the other hand, he makes poor, impulsive choices that end up causing destruction of some kind. Not only has he wiped out the entire living room, but he’s also destroyed about eight pairs of my favourite shoes! Let’s just say that Vinnie, like all of us, is evolving and slowly learning from his mistakes.

Cover of Vinnie! Star of the Show

CK: Your family figures in the books, but Vinnie is, as the title of the first book indicates, the real star. How does the real-life Vinnie feel about now being in the limelight? Is he at all embarrassed by any of his bad behaviour?

CS: Vinnie, as the first book relays, loves attention! It’s a fact! So he is soaking it up.  He is pretty oblivious as to why he’s getting it, but that’s okay, he’ll take it! As for being embarrassed about his bad behaviour, he is. Vinnie knows exactly what he’s done when he’s done it because he gives us three distinct signs. He lowers his head, twitches his tail, and stares up at us with a certain look in his eyes. It’s the look that leads to the question, “Vinnie!  What did you do?”

CK: Have any of your students read the books yet, and if so, how have they reacted to them?

CS: My 2012/2013 Grade 1 students from R.C.Garnett Elementary have read the books. I decided to use my journey throughout this process as a learning opportunity for them as well. I wanted my students to learn about the different stages of publication, and I also wanted them to really see that writing is life-long and can go wherever we want it to go. Therefore, they saw all the stages of development from first draft manuscript, to basic illustrations, to revision stages, and finally, publication. My students were my biggest cheerleaders! They were so excited about the books and laughed throughout the reading of the stories no matter what stage they were in. They were able to make connections between Vinnie and their own dogs, which is so important in the development of early childhood literacy. In fact, it was their enthusiasm towards the stories that kept me on track and helped me to really believe in myself. Thank you Division 14!!

Cover image of Vinnie! The Hurricane

CK: Without giving too many juicy details away, what do you expect might happen to Vinnie in subsequent books?

CS: Vinnie will continue to be naughty and will continue to destroy things, but he also learns a few new tricks along the way. Stay tuned to find out what those are.

CK: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to publish a children’s book?

CS: Whether your dream is to publish a children’s book, or something else completely unrelated, my advice to you would be just make it happen. Push all your worries and fears aside and make it happen. Push away negative chatter from yourself and others and follow your heart. I strongly believe that we were born to live our dreams, and when we do, unexpected things, unimaginable things, fall into place before our very eyes.

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Please go to Chantelle’s website to read more about her or to order her books. Her dog Vinnie was adopted from A Dog’s Life in Kenora.

Lumbering to the Editing Phase: Draft Four of Virginia’s Ghost Begins

I recently finished my third draft of Virginia’s Ghost, the novel I’ve been working on for longer than I can believe. Without a doubt, I’m a putter-inner, not a taker-outer, as my first draft was a bare-bones one and came in at a very slim 30,000 words, while this most recent draft is an impressive (to me, anyway) 61,000 words. I printed it out and discovered that it’s got physical heft if nothing else.

Seeing my book all in one big pile almost made me weak at the knees, and in a reckless moment I almost passed the thing on to one of my trusted editor colleagues. But after rereading it, I realized that it’s almost where I want it to be, so I’m not ready to relinquish it just yet to editorial scrutiny. Almost isn’t nearly good enough for me, nor should it be for any author. I refuse to embarrass myself.

So what’s my next step? Instead of diving directly into Draft 4, I decided to write a summary of each chapter. It’s my way of stepping back into a more objective mode of thinking and ferreting out all the things that need to be fixed: the little timeline glitches, the things that are missing, the events that don’t quite add up or that feel contrived, and the stupid things that sometimes come out of characters’ mouths when you least expect it of them. I’ve written suggestions as to how I’m going to fix these things at the bottom of each chapter summary. The blue writing identifies my main storyline, while the red is a second storyline. I’ve also done some hard-copy edits right on my draft.

Chapter summaries for Virginia's Ghost

But aren’t you supposed to do all the outlining and summarizing stuff at the beginning? Certainly a lot of writing books suggest drawing up an outline well before you write the book, and I often suggest it to clients who seem to be struggling with an unruly plot. But I began writing the book well before I knew very much about outlines, but more importantly, I think that my initial outline probably would have been nearly as skeletal as my first draft. In other words, my writing process doesn’t seem to lend itself to the outline-before-you-write approach. I find myself layering new stories into each successive draft, adding richness and complexity (I hope) to the storylines. There are things going on in the third draft that would have seemed inconceivable to me when I was writing the first or even second draft.

All this reminds me that there are probably as many ways of going about writing a book as there are writers. We each find our own way of getting from that first blank page to the end of that final draft. Our path may be straight, swift, and sure as an arrow heading toward a bull’s eye, or it may be more like that of a meandering, lumbering bear apparently not heading anywhere in particular. The choice is ours, and there is really no right way. The only thing that matters in the end is that the book itself is everything we want it to be.


New Book Release: Under the Skin by Nick Hahn

Under the Skin book cover


Nick Hahn is the author of the recently released novel Under the Skin, a political thriller set in Uganda. As this interview demonstrates, he is passionate about both the issues confronting third-world countries today and the craft of writing. Check out Nick’s blog, Nickspeak, as well as this link to Under the Skin, now available on

CK: I know that you spent some time in Uganda. What took you there, and what experiences did you have that prompted you to write the book?

NH: I lived and worked in Uganda for several months in 2008. I was there on a consulting engagement, retained by a nonprofit consortium of three organizations evaluating the organic cotton supply chain from small farmers in the North near the Sudanese border to commercial yarn spinning factories in the South near Kampala, the capital of the country.

The consortium partners, Invisible Children, Inc., the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Edun Apparel LTD. were interested in sourcing a women’s apparel line in Uganda produced from 100 percent organic cotton. Edun, owned by Bono and Ali Hewson, collaborated with their consortium partners, both prominent NGOs, in an effort to support economic development for Uganda and add a measure of relief to poverty-stricken cotton farmers.

In my work I observed abuses of human rights, especially those of women, perpetrated by local authorities and self-centred politicians. Their refusal to acknowledge the disparity between the traditional role of women in tribal societies and advancements made by women in contemporary Western societies kept Ugandan women in a subservient role within the family. In Uganda, and much of Africa, women are forced to accept genital mutilation, prepubescent marriage to men many times their age, and abject slavery in their spousal roles.

My objective in writing this book is to build awareness of these abuses and do so within the context of fictional storytelling. I want my readers to be entertained, educated, and motivated. My hope is that some will be moved to action and make a difference within their own sphere of influence, whatever or wherever that may be.

Under The Skin is my first novel. The message is there but so is the emotion, tension, and entertainment.

CK: In the book, a young woman of very humble origins, Nabulunghi Kibugu (Nabby), becomes educated in a Western university and returns to her country to seize political power. We tend to think of East Africa as dominated by corrupt politicians and vicious warlords like Joseph Kony. In the Africa of today, how common are female leaders like Nabby? Would you say that African women are now emerging from the shadows of oppression? What are some examples of women in this part of the world who are making a difference?

NH: My lead character, Nabby Kibugu, is fictional but her story could easily be true. Today women of all races, religions, and ethnicities are making their presence known in the world. Educated and motivated, women in all fields including politics, education, arts, science, and business are making a difference. In Africa this is particularly prescient. The role of women there has changed dramatically with the emergence of Nobel Prize winners like Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to receive a Nobel Prize. This advancement is still in the incubation stage. When we see progress growing from a base of zero, we tend to overcelebrate it. Africa, the Middle East, and Muslim countries around the world are still generations out of step.  I’ve lived and worked in most of these regions and have seen up close the devastating effect on women, whose lives are controlled by cultural and religious traditions created and enforced by men.  My hope is that through the medium of fictional storytelling I might add a small voice in opposition to these abuses and lend some weight to a movement toward equality with men, if not full parity. The real tragedy here is the loss of intelligence and intuition that women bring to problem solving; life for men would improve exponentially with educated and trained women in their midst.  My dream is that real-life Nabby Kibugus and Maggie Kincaids [Maggie is another character in the book] will emerge as thought leaders and role models, inspiring a new generation of women from the developing world.

CK: Nabby forms a powerful alliance with a wealthy American, Maggie Kincaid. The unlikely friendship that blossoms between the two young women is really at the heart of the novel, and the way they forge ahead in single-minded pursuit of their goal against overwhelming odds is quite incredible.  Who or what inspired these two fearless females?

NH: Maggie was inspired by Nabby’s true grit and determination to change her world. Nabby’s youth was destroyed by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when she was raped at age eleven. This experience exposed her strength in ways she wouldn’t have known otherwise. Her acceptance of the scholarship to St Andrews University and her successful career there made a lasting impression on Maggie and her wealthy parents in New York. When Maggie arrived in Uganda and became involved in Nabby’s political campaign, it changed her world from one of luxury and excess to one of purpose and resolve. Together these two young women changed more than a country’s leadership; they changed the course of each other’s lives.

My book is written primarily from a woman’s point of view. I can’t explain this except to say that I’ve been blessed in having strong women in my life, women who have inspired me with their strength and discipline. I believe that if women held positions of authority in all fields, but especially government, there would be less conflict in the world and the rights of women and men—human rights—would be recognized. Women understand the power of moral authority in society and know how to exercise it. They appreciate that passive resistance can be stronger than armed resistance, and that we should not be defined by race, religion, or territory.  One looks at political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Camilla Vallejo of the University of Chile Student Federation, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund, the late Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of England, or Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and likely candidate for US president in 2016.  These women and others like them are changing their worlds in positive ways, both large and small. The title of my book, Under The Skin, drove much of my thinking. The notion that skin colour should make a difference in our perception of people and their worth to society strikes me as absurd. As shown in my novel, our hearts beat the same under the skin, regardless of our colour.

CK: The book really opened my eyes to the desperate struggles the Ugandan people face, and I’m sure it will for other readers as well. What do you hope people will take away from reading your book? Is there any particular message you want people to understand?

NH: The message is simple; we’re all members of the same race, the human race. For some unfathomable reason, men have insisted on defining themselves by race, religion, and ethnicity rather than the common spark of humanity that separates us from the beasts. That spark should be joining us, not dividing us. If we can put men on the moon, put the entire world’s knowledge base on a smartphone in the palm of our hand, and discover cures for “incurable” diseases, wouldn’t you think we could find better solutions to world problems than armed combat? Social, economic, and territorial conflict is real and requires thoughtful solutions, but not those found in the barrel of a gun or rooted in a dictator’s nepotism. I’m not suggesting that women have all the answers; I am suggesting they have more of the answers than history gives them credit for. My hope is that women like my character Nabby Kibugu, languishing in the backwater of some third-world country, will find their voice and aspire to education and training. We have no idea how many Nabbys are out there, waiting for another Maggie Kincaid to discover their genius.

CK: How long have you been writing? Who are the writers who inspire you and why?

NH: I started writing in high school. I had a disciplined English teacher at a strict Jesuit prep school in Cleveland, Ohio, who thought my writing showed promise and that I should pursue a career as an author. That was the age of the great American writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. They all inspired me, but I must confess that Hemingway was my hero. I loved his work and, truth be known, loved his macho lifestyle as a war correspondent, bullfight enthusiast, and deep-sea fisherman. Hemingway lived as he wrote. His stories were more than figments of his imagination; they were fictionalized memories of a man who lived his dream. It was his love affair with life that drove him to end his own. Once his health failed and he was no longer able to live as he wrote, he could no longer bear the alternative.

I carried this romanticized view of becoming an author into my college years at the University of Notre Dame. It was there that I skipped a beat, maybe more than one, if truth be known, and succumbed to the real world of earning a living and raising a family. My writing dreams went on the back burner as I pursued a business career for forty-eight years. Time and circumstance reignited my love of writing. I started by recording and publishing commercial audiobooks for Audible and soon realized what I had been missing. With a career behind me and a family on their own, I went back to where it all began. As T.S. Elliot reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

At heart I’m a writer, have always been a writer, and will continue to write as long as my physical and mental health allow me.

CK: Now that Under the Skin has been completed, what do you hope to write about next? Are there any particular issues you want to explore?  

NH: The issues that concern me are many, but there’s one in particular, and next on my writing agenda is human trafficking. This is one of the most deplorable evils in human society and one most of us know little about.  Many people aid and abet traffickers by hiring illegal aliens at substandard wages, procuring the services of underage prostitutes, and paying access fees to pornography websites. Human trafficking has an estimated annual turnover of $32 billion, with far more unaccounted for. My next book, Drone, addresses this issue through the eyes of a female undercover agent working for Interpol, the secretive international police organization. Again, the story is fiction, but the subject matter and circumstances our lead character confronts are true, and the message is clear. Drone, like Under The Skin, will entertain and frighten you and stimulate your emotions, but you won’t finish the book without gaining a new perspective on human trafficking and sexual slavery in the US and around the world. Like my first book, this one is being written from a woman’s point of view. The lead character, Cosita, will stimulate your conscience and move you to a heightened awareness of one of the world’s most misunderstood crimes and its degrading effect on women.  Drone is a story about another courageous woman and a friendship formed in a tempest of mutual need and respect.

CK: What has the process of completing your first novel been like, and what sort of advice do you have for writers? 

NH: I’ve never had a baby, Caroline, but the fourteen-month gestation period for this novel and the labour during the days preceding its release to the public gives me some idea of what that’s like. For me, as with mothers, it was a labour of love. I never wanted to let it go; every time I reviewed it, I saw areas needing improvement. It was like, “How could you have said it that way, dummy? You can write better than that.” And so it would go, day after day, until my editor convinced me I had a book and to let her smooth out the rough edges.

I have so much advice for new writers, I hardly know where to begin, so I guess I’ll just restate the obvious: begin. Put words on paper, i.e., your word processor, every day. Find your creative sweet spot, that time when ideas seem to flow effortlessly. Mine is early morning, but for others it’s evening or the middle of the night—whatever works for you. But do it. I might also suggest that you not read too many books on writing. At the end of the day, your storyline will carry your book, not your sentence structure or preoccupation with the beginning, the middle, and the end. I find that the words come to me scene after scene, but I must confess—and my editor reminds me—that I have problems with chronology and time sequence. I tend to worry less about that and let my editor fix it. I concentrate on the creative process of developing a story that first entertains, but for me, always with a message. As a first-time author with one published book to my credit, I don’t presume that my advice to writers will be all that impressive. Find your own style, your own story, and make sure you fall in love, deeply in love, with all your characters. They will become the most important people in your life for the duration of the book.

For me it’s all about narrative and dialogue. I want my readers to feel the emotion, the tension, the anxiety, all the demands of life wrapped up in the character’s role. I’m a storyteller first and a writer second, if that makes sense. There are passages and whole scenes in this book that bring tears to my eyes each time I read them. I welled up when I wrote those words, but they weren’t my words—they were Nabby’s and Maggie’s and those of other characters in the book. Maybe that’s the litmus test for a writer; maybe it’s about human emotion and finding the right words to express it. In Under the Skin, I found the right words.