This week we’ve explained making your stories as true as they can be, which is to say make them the best they can be. Sunday I explained the problem, and Tuesday I explained my way of writing passages to make them real. Yesterday and today I’m giving examples form my books.
This is from An Angel On Her Shoulder, a paranormal thriller to be released before Christmas this year (crosses fingers).
I clipped Savvy into her car seat. “I can’t wait to see cousin Vivian!” she exclaimed. She had been asking me all morning when we were going to leave. Now it was finally time.
A few minutes later, we were on our way. At the next stoplight, I texted my brother to let him know. Then we pulled up onto the interstate.
Immediately, I knew something was wrong. The car seemed sluggish. I tried to give it some gas to get us up to highway speed, but it didn’t want to do it. That had never happened before.
The on ramp is only a few hundred feet long; you need to be up to speed when it ends, or you’ll get hit from behind by a driver going 55 miles per hour. The car was too sluggish. We weren’t going to make it. I flicked on the emergency flashers and stayed in the emergency lane. Cars roared by on my left side. I stomped the gas pedal a few times to clear whatever was blocking the fuel line or clogging the engine.
Suddenly, the car started making strange noises. There was a loud hissing sound, but without the white cloud of steam that usually accompanied a blown engine hose. The car still refused to accelerate. The next exit was coming up quickly. I pulled off.
As I decelerated coming down the off ramp, the noise lessened. When I came to a stop at the next traffic light, the noise stopped.
I considered my options.
It was a hot, sunny day, and the swimming would be good at my brother’s house. Besides, I reasoned, the kids wanted to see each other. Whatever the noise was, it had stopped. Maybe a piece of a tree limb had gotten stuck under the car and had finally come free when we turned off the highway. It had happened before, and the rubbing against the wheel had made a similar noise. In any case, it was gone now.
I glanced at the odometer. Over 200,000 miles. That was a simultaneous source of pride and embarrassment. I preferred driving a new car, of course, but I took pride in the fact that each month I avoided a car payment, Savvy’s college account got fatter. I love my daughter enough to make that small sacrifice, and besides, as long as the car was drivable and had air conditioning, it was the smart thing to do.
That “smart” decision didn’t seem so smart now.
I pulled into a gas station. Slipping the transmission into neutral, I revved the ending a few times. The car acted fine, like whatever had been clogging it was now gone. I stepped out and looked underneath. No tree limbs…
Inside, Savvy was waiting to go see cousin Vivian.
I got back in and revved the car one more time. It seemed fine. I dropped it back into “drive” and turned around, listening for any noises. Pulling onto the road again, I cut off the air conditioning and radio. I put down the windows. I didn’t hear anything.
As I made my way to the interstate, the car acted fine. Whatever it was seemed to have cleared itself up.
Probably just a tree limb stuck underneath, or something…
I got back onto the interstate. This time the accelerator responded fine. The car got up to speed quickly.
“Dad, the wind is blowing too hard on me!” Savvy complained from the back seat. I put up the windows and turned the air conditioning back on. The car seemed fine.
There are three bridges that connect Tampa to St Petersburg. The interstate runs across the middle one, a long narrow ribbon that stretches 10 miles over the bay. Once you get up on that bridge, there are no exits until you reach the other side. And of course, they were working on parts of the bridge, so there might be delays. As we approached, I still listened to see if the old car was going to tell me something or not.
I didn’t hear any hissing or rattles; the accelerator was working fine… we came up on the “last chance” exit. I thought about pulling off, but only for a moment. It seemed like whatever had been wrong with the car before, it wasn’t wrong any more.
I eased my car onto the bridge. The water of the bay was beautiful, a glorious shade of blue, with just a few ripples on the surface. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the sun was beaming down. It was hot, but otherwise, it was a real chamber of commerce day.
The car lurched. My hands tightened on the wheel. The engine hissed louder than ever. It was all I could hear.
This time, there was no handy off ramp. Construction cones and sawhorses blocked the emergency lane for miles. A strange plastic smell came into the car.
In the other lanes, cars streamed by at 70 and 80 miles an hour. 10 miles of bridge and no place to pull off. Even slowing down could be dangerous. Cars behind me wouldn’t be expecting that. We could end up in a huge pile up.
The smell got stronger and the hiss got louder. Something was definitely wrong, and there were no good choices for what to do about it. I cracked open the windows to let some fresh air in.
Savvy said something, but I couldn’t hear her over the engine noise.
I took my foot off the gas pedal. The car began to slow down. Once again, I turned on the emergency flashers, hoping that the speeding commuters behind me would notice in the bright sun.
With the windows open, each construction sawhorse made a zoom! noise as we passed it. They were too close together to avoid hitting any at that speed, if I decided to try to pull into the emergency lane, and I couldn’t risk slowing down too much or I’d get rear ended from another car.
Smoke started coming out from under the hood. There was no time left.
“Hang on!” I shouted at Savvy, and turned the car into the sawhorses. The first ones smashed into the side of the car. The next ones slammed into the grill and piled up underneath. Pieces flew up into the windshield.
Flames began to flicker under the hood. The pile of sawhorses under the car blocked the steering. Three feet away on the left, cars sped by, horns blaring, Three feet to the right, a small concrete wall and a forty foot drop into the bay.
Gripping the wheel as best I could, I hit the brakes. Splintered sawhorses flew everywhere. Construction gravel helped slow us down.
Now the black smoke came pouring out of the hood. Orange flames burst up in front of my eyes. Inside, the car quickly began to fill with smoke. There was no time to spare.
I hurried to unclip Savvy from her car seat, straining backwards to reach. No good. I couldn’t get both hands far enough to undo the clasps. But I knew it didn’t take long to undo it. If you ran a stopwatch on it, maybe it took 20 seconds, tops. That would be enough time.
I got out and dodged the heavy traffic on the driver’s side as car sped past, horns blaring. I reached the side door and flung it open. A cloud of smoke was sucked out as I did. One, two three, the car seat was unbuckled and my daughter was free. Holding her to my chest, I stepped around the door and ran to the front of the car.
I turned back to see the flames grow larger. The thick black smoke billowed upwards into the clear blue sky.
The slight wind on the bridge came from the west, so I had been driving into it. As I stood in front of the car watching the smoke poured out faster and faster from under the hood, I thought about going to get anything of value inside. In the amount of time it took to wonder, the decision was made for me. It was only seconds before the whole car was engulfed in flames.
There, in the middle of a hot bridge, I stood with my daughter in his arms. There had been no time to grab my cell phone. I hadn’t packed a cooler because it was just a short drive across the bridge. We stood there, with the sun baking our heads and the pavement frying our feet, as a black column drifted into the sky. The flame ravaged the car like a pack of starving animals.
Traffic whizzed by at 70 miles per hour or more, just a few feet from where we stood. There was no place else to go, so I stood there, getting tugged on every time a car went past.
I looked at Savvy’s face as she watched the car become completely engulfed in fire. Two little smudges of dirt were under her nose. It was from the smoke. The few moments we were stuck breathing it was all that were needed to lightly coat our faces and clothes, but the real danger was from inhaling it. The fire is eating the air with you, but it eats it much faster. A few seconds more behind the wheel and I would have passed out from lack of oxygen.
Then there would have been no one to get my daughter out of her car seat.
She would have sat there, strapped in, struggling against the intense heat and the acrid smoke, until the fire took the last bits of air available.
The two smudges under her nose were a sign of how close had come to doing just that.
“Hey,” I said. She looked up at me. “Let’s try to blow your nose.”
I was still holding her in my arms, so I held up one hand and pinched her nose slightly with it.
She blew. Black dirt splattered onto my hand. Smoke residue.
More black. And more, the third time. I wiped it off on my hip. Then I did the same for myself.
It was a freak occurrence. I had just had the car serviced. Clean bill of health. But a random short in the electrical panel for that model caused a spark that happened to catch just right. They sold a million of those cars; none of them would have the same thing happen. The service records showed that we had properly maintained the car. Everyone, the police, the insurance inspectors, the insurance agent, all agreed that they were lucky.
Standing on the bridge in the 95 degree heat, we didn’t feel lucky. It was hours before we got off the bridge. Other drivers had seen the fire and called for help, but it was a fire truck that arrived first, to put out the blazing car fire. When the police finally arrived, they wanted statements and answers. They were sympathetic, but they didn’t have sunscreen. The firefighters gave us bottled water, and the paramedics checked our lungs.
We were fine. Scared, but fine. And tired.
I consoled myself that I now had a good story for another time. Sucks when your car gets burned up.
There you go.
This is the second suggested passage, as suggested by Allison, showing I went where the pain lives and readers subsequently got emotional about my writing. There are others, of course, and not every one is a painful place (most are funny, actually), but since she liked these, I used them. So a BIG THANK YOU to my good friend Allison Maruska, an amazing author who helped with this series.
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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great upcoming sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to read a sample chapter and click HERE to check out his other works.