Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE, the prior chapter is HERE)
To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.
Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.
PACE is what DOESN’T make your reader feel like the book dragged.
It keeps them from putting it down. You want that, because if they put it down, they might not pick it up again.
We’ve all done that, right? So avoid that.
- Keep the chapters short, no more than 3000 words whenever possible, and
- make sure something interesting happens in each one.
Now, what’s interesting?
That can be a lot of things, but let’s say there are tiers. The big challenge the MC has to overcome in the overall story would be tier 1. Without it, there’s no story. Inconvenient stuff, the rocks we throw at our characters once we have them up a tree, might be tier three or four. But some almost tier 1 stuff that is more than inconvenient and not quite what the whole story is about, that’s good for a chapter.
Consider a story as one big challenge with lots of little challenges under it, and then a bunch of tiny challenges under those. How big each is, that’s up to you.
You may not know what Doug’s big challenge is yet, but you saw a second tier challenge at the park, and a reference to another one in church.
Think there’s one coming up here?
(Oh, and I apologize in advance for the random changes from First Person to Second Person you’ll see in the original.)
Chapter 4 A&B, An Angel On Her Shoulder “FINAL”
It looked a like a castle.
At almost four years old, anything princess-oriented was a big hit with our daughter. While Mallory stood at the massive front gate to Hillside Winery and snapped a picture, Sophie bounced up and down in her car seat. The castle was real, and she was finally here.
The morning sunlight sharply illuminated the rows and rows majestic grape vines leading up to the regal building. Its tall roof and circular front spires looked like something right out of a story book—which was all Sophie needed.
Her tiny mouth hung open as she gazed at the ornate building. “Does the princess sleep in that tower, Daddy?”
“Hold my hand, sweetie.” I wiggled my fingers at Sophie as I stood in the parking lot, waiting for her small hand to take mine. Mallory shut the van door and gazed at the big building through sunglasses, admiring the winery-castle and no doubt contemplating the many fermented treasures waiting for her inside.
“Let’s look both ways here.” The instruction was for our daughter but a reminder to my wife as well. Either could wander into a busy parking lot while distracted by what lay on the other side. Bold knights in shining armor for one, bold merlots in shining glass for the other.
Holding hands and swinging arms with Sophie, I lead the way as we crossed the lot toward the massive wooden front doors. “Cars are looking for parking spots. They aren’t watching out for little girls in pretty yellow dresses.”
With her own face buried in the brochure, Mallory strolled across asphalt, more or less in the general direction of the winery entrance.
“Hey.” I chuckled. “They aren’t watching for pretty ladies in blue jeans, either.”
“What?” Mallory let the brochure flop downward and raised her eyebrows. Her mind was elsewhere. On a vacation, that was a good thing.
I may have suggested to our daughter, through a series of carefully directed questions during our long drive from Tampa, that Hillside wasn’t a winery at all. Instead, it might contain all sorts of magic, good and bad, inside it’s tower walls.
It looked like a castle on the internet, after all. As my Sophie sat on my lap in her princess pajamas, we scrolled through the pictures on the Hillside website. I didn’t have to do much to convincing.
“Is that a Rapunzel tower, Daddy?”
“Hmm. Could be.”
“Oh, and is that there where the princess carriage goes?”
“Wow, I bet it does.”
For my niece’s wedding in Millersburg, we plotted out a meandering, scenic journey from Tampa to Indiana and back, stopping in on Virginia’s wine country “on the way.”
We saw a bear cross the road in front of us outside of Nashville, but Sophie had been more impressed by the real cows grazing near the dairy cheese shop near Macon. She also enjoyed spearing assorted cheese samples with toothpicks and offering them to anyone and everyone in the store.
Winery trips and the accompanying excursions were a welcome pressure release from the stresses of Mallory’s job. We even rented a minivan for the occasion—something I originally balked at.
“Why do we need a minivan?” The word invoked an utter lack of coolness that I was not quite ready to embrace.
Mallory looked up from her wine brochures long enough to give me the wife look. “To have some space.” She continued sorting the colorful collection of glossy pamphlets in front of her—an odd paper-bound method for a tech person. “You’ll be driving, but Sophie and I will be cramped into a small back seat if we just rent a sedan. After we load in enough suitcases for a two-week trip and start packing in cases of wine, we’ll be sardines.”
Shipping multiple cases of wine gets expensive fast, so on last year’s vacation trip to California, she had to be selective about our purchases.
In Napa, Mallory had been pining away over buying a very tasty but expensive bottle of wine. She had taken sommelier classes and had gotten the certification, so not only did she enjoy good wines but she had a knack for selecting them. This single bottle was $120. That’s about $30 a glass. But as a thrifty type, she couldn’t bring herself to buy it.
I’d been touring the winery’s grounds with Sophie. We came in right about the time Mallory was finishing her tasting and trying to decide what to buy. On our walk around the grounds, Sophie snuck a few grapes off the vines, and discovered the strawberries that had been planted in the gardens. She had a few of those, too. There are few treats as good to a then-2 year old as finding the largest, reddest, strawberry you can, and picking and eating it on the spot. She liked strawberries before; she loved them now.
“You know we grow these in Florida, right?” I held her in one arm and dangled the big ripe berry in front of her with my free hand. “About 20 minutes from our house is the strawberry capital of the world.”
Having exhausted the outdoor possibilities at the winery—taking in the grounds and the gardens and the planted areas of figs and olives and various fruits—I returned to the ornate tasting room with my daughter clinging to my shoulders, piggyback style.
“How we doing, honey?” It was my subtle way of asking my wife if she was ready to go. She never was. It was a winery, after all. The only way to get her out of a winery was with the promise of going to another winery.
“I have a dilemma.” Mallory frowned. “I really, really like this wine, but it’s really, really expensive.”
Get it, I thought. But in a rare moment of patience, I waited.
“I can’t justify spending that kind of money…”
“Well . . . ” I tried to hold Sophie as she attempted to climb onto a rack of sparkling wines. On the granite counter, one bottle of wine sat to Mallory’s left, and about a dozen bottles sat to her right.
I knew what was coming.
“There are some other wines here that I like, too…”
Of course there were.
Rather than force her to choose—and be a villain—I decided to find a solution to satisfy all her needs and be a hero. Besides, if I could find a way to let her have everything she wanted here, she’d probably just cut back on wines she’d buy someplace else. That was her way.
And the $120 bottle was a kind of prize. A wine trophy, to be displayed and remembered forever. That might earn me a few good husband points I could cash in after Sophie went to sleep.
“They have a wine club, right?” I knew they would. All the wineries had them. “Join the wine club and buy all those bottles.” I nodded at the collection to her right. “With the wine club discount, the savings will pretty much pay for that big expensive one. Problem solved.”
My wife brimmed, whirling around to gaze at her new acquisitions. “Really?”
“Why not?” I lowered Sophie to the floor. “We work hard. We deserve a reward once in a while.”
By “we” I meant Mallory, of course. But for a wine lover like my wife, it was suddenly Christmas morning.
That’s why we took these trips anyway, to allow her to relax and reward herself. Then, back at home, opening each one was a way to transport herself back to the vacation and the selection, the ornate ambiance and the lush landscaping.
Mallory dug a small calculator out of her purse.
I snatched it from her. “Go get it, honey.”
She whipped out her credit card and marched to the cash register.
“Hey,” I called out, stopping her. A look of concern flashed across her face. Was I about to renege? “I get a t-shirt.”
“Deal!” She turned and disappeared into the crowd to secure her prize.
Our annual vacation had evolved, like a lot of other things, to encompass our young daughter. Kids at that age can only do so much before needing a long nap or food; that left a lot of vacation choices off the table. As Sophie’s endurance expanded, so did our vacations, but there was nothing wrong with folding her interests into ours, or Disney World and Sea World would be the only places we’d ever go.
That compromise eventually led us to Virginia wine country, to round out a trip in our rented minivan to Courtney’s wedding and to see my family—especially my dad. Sophie’s grandpa had the ability to make each grandchild feel as though they were his favorite.
Sophie generally did fine in cars, so the trek to Indiana went well, but nobody can take a 13-hour road trip without stretching their legs. To accommodate that, Mallory arranged for stops—wineries, usually—along with a few touristy destinations for our daughter. Plus a cooler full of kid snacks. With the van’s DVD player, our daughter was pretty well set.
The routine at a winery varied depending on Sophie’s mood. Sometimes she would fall asleep in the stroller, so I’d park under a tree and read a book. Other times she played quietly in the tasting room while Mallory and I both did a tasting.
The return trip to Florida was well mapped out, designed to sample numerous award-winning wines from Virginia’s wine country.
One winery looked like a castle. That alone might be enough to keep Sophie interested for an hour, but mentioning that we’d go there on her birthday made it an over the top exciting event. Was it really an old castle that they made into a winery? Do you think it has a king? Is there a princess in a tower? Only a visit would say for sure.
Each day, as we made our way to other wineries, Mallory primed Sophie. “Pretty soon we’re going to the castle for your birthday!”
Sophie couldn’t wait. Each morning she would wake up and ask, “Are we going to the castle today?”
The newspapers I’d read online said that Hillside Winery had existed for many decades in the wide open spaces of Virginia’s wine country. Beautiful in every picture taken over the years, Hillside was proof its owners, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, had created a winery appealing to the eye as its esteemed wines were to the palate. From the huge iron gates of the entry, to the stone walls surrounding the campus, to the wooden floors of the tasting room, everything was done well.
It certainly appeared to be the result of an owner who loved his winery.
The articles indicated Mr. Hill’s business had prospered along with the growing town over a half century, making him a pillar of the community. He studied what the successful wineries in California were doing, and he did what they did. Tourists wanted a winery to visit, but they needed a restaurant to eat in and a hotel to sleep in, too. A hard worker and a quick learner, Mr. Hill saw to it that partnerships were formed, hotels were built, and the area thrived.
The last article I read was about a traffic accident a year ago—and the lawsuit that followed. It wasn’t flattering to Mr. Hill.
The police reports blamed a light Virginia rain, or maybe the fog that had burned off hours before, for making the roads slick. A car came through a traffic light and Mr. Hill’s pickup collided with it, smashing the truck and him with it. Doctors feared he would never walk again.
When we finally toured the winery in person that sunny fall morning, I noticed a hallway lined with pictures of his recovery, from hospital bed to standing with the use of two canes. A framed local newspaper clipping noted that getting up and down from chairs was now difficult for the old man, and his new pickup truck had to be fitted with hand controls for the brakes and the accelerator.
I strolled around the winery that morning, holding my daughter’s hand and wondering if he still worked there.
* * * * *
That’s why he walked across the tasting room with the dolly. Loaded with four cases of wine, no other employee would be allowed to do such a thing with paying customers present. Cases for delivery were to go out the back, but Mr. Hill’s car was parked by the front door—in the handicapped spot—closer to his office and closer to the walk up ramp.
“Going over to Bertram’s for their delivery,” Mr. Hill grumbled to his wife, letting Avery stack the last case of wine onto the dolly.
Mrs. Hill looked up from her desk full of papers and peered at him over her glasses. “Bertam’s? That was supposed to be delivered yesterday.”
“Yes, Bertam’s!” He grabbed his keys off his desk. “That moron José missed the delivery. Again!”
Avery patted the stack of wine cases. “I can load these for you whenever you want, sir.”
“I can do it!” Hill narrowed his eyes. “My knees and back might be on fire with pain, but I can still out work you any day.” He yanked open a desk drawer and pulled out a brown pill bottle, stuffing it in his pocket.
Avery recoiled. “Yes, sir. I didn’t mean—”
The old man yanked the dolly out of his employee’s hands and stormed out of the office.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to insult him.”
“Go on, Avery. He’s just in one of his moods.” Picking up the time sheets, Mrs. Hill flipped through them. José was off scheduled off yesterday.
* * * * *
I had to pull my daughter away at the last second to prevent her from running into the dolly as it sped across the room.
Lifting her to my arms, I swept a strand of blonde hair from her eyes. “You know how we look both ways before crossing a street or parking lot? We have to look both ways before crossing a winery lobby, too!”
She wasn’t amused. I figured she was starting to get fussy for lunch.
As I lowered Sophie to the ground and took her hand, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I shuddered, glancing around the ceiling of an air conditioner vent that must have just kicked on.
Sophie tugged my hand, visibly upset.
“Okay, okay. Let me tell Mommy we’re going outside and then we can get something to eat.”
The scowl on the face of the old man with the dolly was a real surprise. I didn’t know who he was, but he seemed to be a very unhappy employee. Unusual, for a customer service area. I don’t remember seeing any unhappy employees at the Napa wineries.
At the counter, Mallory was about to start sampling the wines. I informed her of the pint sized mutiny happening, and she agreed to stay behind and make sure the 2017 wines weren’t adversely affected by the weather or something.
“Okay, I’ll go feed Sophie her lunch. You come out when you’re finished.” I turned to our unhappy princess. “We’ll have a little birthday picnic in the parking lot. Does that sound fun?” I smiled in an attempt to brighten her mood. “It’s nice out. Maybe we’ll open the van doors, sit outside on the cooler, and watch a DVD.”
It didn’t work. Sophie had grown restless, launching into a near tantrum.
I’d better hurry with that picnic.
* * * * *
Mr. Hill wheeled the heavy dolly down the ramp, and stood it next to his grey truck. He placed a hand on it to steady himself while he dug for his keys in his jacket pocket. Pulling them out, he dropped them.
A group of young customers, two couples, had just finished their tasting. Early birds, one couple wanted to get to as many wineries—and as many tastings—as they could in a day. The other couple was considering whether to break for lunch. The men smartly decided to let their ladies decide, as they loaded their purchases into the trunk of their sedan.
“Come on, Sherry.” Abigail giggled, tugging on the sleeve of her red-haired friend as they stood by the driver’s side door. “We can eat any time. I wanna get loaded!”
The men laughed. They agreed with Abigail, who had already consumed enough alcohol to no longer whisper quietly. As the men made room among their cramped suitcases for their wines, the ladies continued.
“Aren’t you guys hungry at all?” Sherry asked.
“Sherry-berry.” Abigail wobbled as she spoke. “There’s gotta be a fast food place on the way to the next winery.”
Across the lot, Mr. Hill painfully stacked the delivery cases into his truck. Each one was an aching challenge. His knees burned from squatting to get the dropped keys, but that was the best he could manage using the canes. His back would soon hate him for lifting the cases instead of having a helper do it, but he was too proud and angry to admit to needing help.
The sedan trunk slammed shut. “What did you guys decide?” Steve put his arm around Sherry. Tyler leaned against the trunk as they waited for an answer.
Abigail stuck out her lower lip and pouted. “She’s being no fun.”
“I just think we should eat pretty soon.” Sherry sighed. “Or we all be three sheets to the wind like somebody I know.”
Steve nodded, digging his phone out of his pocket. “She’s got a point. Why don’t we look at the map and see what’s around here?”
Across the parking lot, Mr. Hill started the pickup. He glared at the hated hand controls of his truck, grasping them in anger.
“Look, there’s a historic church nearby,” Sherry said. “And an old antebellum house…”
The others groaned.
Mr. Hill swung an arm over the passenger seat. As he looked backward, the truck engine roared. The wheels screeched and the truck lurched backwards, speeding across the parking lot in reverse. The old man’s knuckles turned white as he clung desperately to the hand controls.
At the squeal of the tires, Sherry glanced at the gray truck sped towards them. Its tail lights never lit up to indicate that it was slowing down. Instead it came faster. Her eyes widened as she opened her mouth to scream.
Panicking, Mr. Hill gripped the controls even tighter. The truck accelerated faster.
The look on Sherry’s face made Tyler turn around. The tailgate of the truck was coming right at him. He flinched and turned away. Tires still screeching, the truck smashed full speed into the sedan. Glass exploded everywhere. The impact slammed Steve into the van in the next parking space and heaved Sherry into the air. She was like a matador being thrown by a raging bull in one of those “Animals Gone Crazy” videos.
Eyes bulging, Hill still gripped the accelerator, shouting as he bounced around the cab of his pickup. The engine raced as the truck forced its way past its victims and into the small grassy patch in front of the vineyard. The truck had barely slowed down on impact. It plowed backwards, churning dirt into the air, as it sped toward the vineyard. Engine whining, it smashed through vines and fences and irrigation posts, revving higher as it went, until it finally got tangled up in enough debris to stall out.
It was as though its driver had maniacally intended to kill everyone present.
ORIGINAL Chapter 4, An Angel On Her Shoulder
It was perfect.
Not many places look better in person than they do in the brochure, but Hillside Winery sure did. Michele stood in the parking lot and admired the view through her sunglasses. The bright morning sunlight sharply illuminated the rows and rows majestic grape vines that surrounded the regal winery building. It looked a little like a castle.
Savvy would love it. Almost three years old now, anything princess oriented was a big hit with her.
“Hold my hand, sweetie,” I said to Savvy, holding my hand out expectantly. She took it.
“Let’s look both ways here,” I went on, smiling at our daughter. “Cars in parking lots are looking for parking spots. They aren’t looking for little girls in pretty yellow dresses.”
With her own face buried in the winery’s brochure, Michele walked across the lot to the doors.
“Or pretty ladies in blue jeans,” I called after his wife.
“What?” Michele asked, looking back absently. Her mind was elsewhere. On a vacation, that’s a good thing.
Michele would own a winery if she could; that was one of her retirement dreams. To accommodate that obsession, they vacationed at wineries whenever they could. I was working on being a writer, so I freelanced as often as possible, and worked as a private contractor for a wine distributor as my “real” job. That way, if Michele ever got to fulfill her dream job of owning a winery, I’d be ready and know what the hell we were doing. It allowed me to take off just about whenever I wanted, which worked out well for all three of them. Savvy got to see both of her parents in a way that most kids don’t in their preschool years, and we could take meaningful vacations. After Maria’s wedding in Ohio, we took the scenic route back to Florida, stopping in on Virginia’s wine country on the way. We even saw a bear cross the road when we drove through the mountains.
Winery trips were a welcome pressure release from the stresses of Michele’s job. They had even rented a minivan for the occasion – something I originally balked at.
“Why do we need a minivan?” The word invoked an utter lack of coolness that I was not quite ready to embrace.
“To have some space,” Michele explained. “You’ll be driving, but Savvy and I will be cramped into a small back seat if we just rent a sedan. After we load in suitcases for a two week trip and start packing in cases of wine, we’ll be sardines.”
It made sense. It costs anywhere from $25 to $50 to ship a case of wine home; as long as you have to rent a car, go ahead and rent a van so you can save those shipping costs and spend that money on more wine. That was Michele’s economic rationale, and I had to agree with it. Plus, renting a car instead of driving one of our own vehicles prevented a costly breakdown. Of their two cars, the Lincoln Navigator was the only one big enough to hold everything for the trip, and it was almost 10 years old. Any breakdown would likely end up costing us the whole car, and I didn’t want another car payment at the moment. That money was for a certain little girl’s college fund, so the longer I could keep driving the old Navigator, the faster the account grew.
It worked both ways. Michele would usually look to me for an economic rationale for making a decision; that was my forte. So when she spoke my language, it was hard for me to say no – the way I wanted to say no about the minivan.
Sometimes the disputes would escalate into a fight, but most of the time if she played her cards right, she could get me to economically rationalize things to her advantage. I’m a logical guy, but she deserves to be happy, and you have to pick your battles. Like on their prior year’s vacation trip to California. Michele was pining over buying a very tasty but expensive bottle of wine. She had taken sommelier classes and had gotten the certification, so not only did she enjoy good wines but she had a knack for it. The single bottle was $120. That’s about $30 a glass. But she had always been the thrifty type. She couldn’t bring herself to buy it.
I had been touring the winery’s grounds with Savvy. We came in right about the time Michele was finishing her tasting and trying to decide what to buy. On our walk around the grounds, Savvy snuck a few grapes off the vines, and discovered the strawberries that had been planted in the gardens. She had a few of those, too. There are few treats as good to a then-2 year old as finding the largest, reddest, strawberry you can, and picking and eating it on the spot. She liked strawberries before; she loved them now.
“You know we grow these in Florida, right?” I asked my daughter, dismayed. “About 20 minutes from our house is the strawberry capital of the world.” It didn’t matter. Savvy had never seen those strawberries except in a box at the store. They were much more real: aromatic and alive, right on the ground where she could pick them herself, not boxed up in a plastic container and stuck on a refrigerated store shelf. To her, that made these much better. Maybe the kid had a point.
So Savvy and I had exhausted their outdoor possibilities at the winery, taking in the grounds and the gardens and the planted areas of figs and olives and various fruits. We returned to the tasting room to check on Michele’s progress.
“How we doing, honey?” I asked. It was my typical way of asking if she was ready to go. She never was. It was a winery, after all. The only way to get her out of a winery was with the promise of going to another winery.
“I have a dilemma,” Michele admitted. “I really, really like this wine, but it’s really expensive.”
Get it, I thought. But I waited. She went on.
“I can’t justify spending that kind of money…”
“Well,” I began, trying to hold Savvy in my arms as she attempted to climb onto a rack of sparkling wines. “Were there other bottles you were thinking of getting here?”
It was my standard approach: would she rather have just one bottle for $120, or would she rather have twelve bottles of various wines at $10? Or maybe six bottles at $20 each. Either way, I knew that about a hundred dollars would be spent at each winery, and it was my job to make sure that we saw enough wineries but not too many. Visiting five good wineries and spending about $100 at each of them would supply my wife with enough wines for the year – and then some.
Which would she enjoy more?
Back in the hotel, I laid out some coins on the carpet and asked Savvy what she would rather have, one quarter or 5 pennies. If you don’t know the value of the items – and at age two Savvy still didn’t – the impulse is usually just have more things. If the value is known, the choice obviously changes.
Putting the choice before Michele in that way might force her hand, making her decide of that special wine was really that special. And if the $120 bottle really was so special, so be it. Get it. One bottle of wine from this winery. It was in the budget.
Michele explained that there were also some other wines here that she wanted.
Of course there were.
So rather than force her to choose, I decided to find a solution to satisfy all her needs and be a hero. If I could find a way to let her have everything she wants here, I thought to myself, she will just cut back on wines she buys someplace else. That’s her way…
I spied a wine club sign on the tasting room counter. All the wineries have them. “What’s the deal with that?” I asked, nodding at the sign.
“Their wine club?” Michele glanced at the sign. “Oh, you join their wine club and you get a discount on the wines. But there’s a fee to join.” Michele hated fees.
“What’s the fee and what is the commitment?” Usually, you had to buy a certain number of bottles of wine during the year.
“Um,” she thought for a moment. “It’s a $20 annual fee and you have to buy 12 bottles over the next 12 months. You get a 20% discount off purchases and free a t-shirt. And this week they are waiving the annual fee.”
It was the end of the season, so it was a good incentive.
“Well, then,” I began, quickly crunching the numbers in my head. “If you joined the club first, and then bought all dozen or so bottles of their regular wines that you were thinking about getting, the purchase would fulfill your annual obligation, and the savings would just about pay for the big expensive bottle you want. Right?”
It was a master stroke. The costs would mostly be offset and she would be able to get all the stuff she wanted. For a wine lover like Michele, that was like Christmas.
After all, that’s why we took these trips anyway; to allow her to relax and enjoy the fine wines, bring them home and have them to relish the rest of the year. Figuring out how to do it on her budget was the tricky part. And making sure we cancelled the wine club as soon as we bought our required obligation, was, too. No point in getting suckered into paying another fee next year and buying a bunch more wine if we didn’t have to.
Michele quickly dug a small calculator out of her purse. My quick math was good, but she wanted to be exact. She tapped away at the calculator, then frowned.
“The big expensive bottle is still pretty expensive after the savings.”
“How much?” I asked.
12 x 20 = 240 x 20 = 48; the big bottle goes from 120 to 102, less the remaining 48 = $54
“It’s still $54.00” she said with dismay.
I was ready. “And would you not buy that terrific tasting bottle if you walked in here and it were on sale for $54?”
“Oh, heck yeah!” She proclaimed. “In a heartbeat. It’s worth the $120 they’re asking!”
“But you can get it for fifty-four…”
“Go get it, honey,” I said with a wink.
She whipped out her credit card and marched proudly to the counter.
“Hey,” I called out, stopping her. A look of concern flashed across her face. Was I about to renege?
“I get the t-shirt,” I said.
“Deal!” she grinned. Then she disappeared into the crowd to secure her prize.
And thus the grand tradition was born. I wore my winery t-shirt every Friday night to make pizzas with my two ladies. I made the dough in the kitchen, looking out onto the back patio where Savvy would play and Michele would grill onions and peppers for her veggie pizza – while sipping a favorite selection from her most recent winery trip.
These were the moments we worked so hard for during the week, so we could then relax and enjoy our daughter. To share some quiet time and build traditions that I hoped would last a lifetime. Who doesn’t like pizza? Secretly, I hoped to become good enough at making dough so that Pizza Night would be a favored weekly event, definitely not to be missed. I worked to evolve my pizza making talents to where one day Savvy would bring all her friends over to watch me spin dough up into the air and flawlessly catch it, putting on a show that would ensure that I’d be able to enjoy my daughter’s company well beyond the age where most kids want to run off with their friends as early as possible on Friday night. She was growing up fast enough as it was.
A big part of that Friday night tradition was enjoying a glass of wine with my lovely wife, allowing her to explain the complexities of the tannins and the delicacy of the aftertaste. I was pretty much a beer drinker. Sharing her wines allowed her to enjoy them even more. Doing so while playing with our daughter on the porch made every Friday night like Christmas morning.
So, of course, we had to plan winery trips.
Our annual vacation had evolved, like a lot of other things, to encompass our young daughter. Kids at that age can only do so much before needing a long nap or food; that left a lot of vacation choices off the table. As Savvy’s abilities expanded, so did our vacations, but there was nothing wrong with folding her interests into ours, or Disney World and Sea World would be the only places we’d ever go. When Michele and I were first married, we of course took a honeymoon. The following year, Michele needed to use up some accrued vacation – a use it or lose it rule at her job, and her calendar year-end was usually a very busy time at work. Many last minute deals were struck at the end of the year to get things purchased on this year’s bonus and squeeze out any remaining drops from the customers budgets – so the client could get some of their cool wish list items and also justify getting bigger budgets the following year. Since it was so hectic and so monetarily important, she needed to be working and couldn’t usually take time off around Christmas like a lot of other people did. Like me.
That eventually led us to Virginia wine country, to round out a trip from Florida to Ohio for Maria’s wedding and to see my family, especially Savvy’s grandpa Chavo. Of all his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she was the youngest so far, so dad pretended that he liked her the best. That is, grandpa Chavo always had the ability to make each grandchild or great-grandchild feel as though he liked them the best. Since grandpa Chavo lived in Ohio and Savvy lived in Florida, visits were less often than everyone would like, so any excuse would do – and a wedding was the best reason of all. Everyone, all the aunts and uncles and cousins, they would be there at the same time.
The drive to Ohio for the wedding went well. I actually enjoyed the newest features of today’s minivans: automatic doors that opened with the remote were pretty cool, and the rear view camera was helpful. After packing for a two-week car trip, we still had plenty of space left over for the many cases of wine we’d be procuring along our way. Savvy generally did fine in cars, but nobody can take a 13 hour road trip without stretching their legs. To accommodate that, Michele located various spots to stop – wineries, usually – and a few touristy destinations. One was a dairy farm where you could sample lots of cheeses. Savvy enjoyed spearing the assorted chunks with toothpicks and offering them to anyone and everyone in the room.
Taking Savvy into a winery was no big deal. As long as the kid isn’t going crazy, the winery owners don’t seem to mind. Business is business, and if the customers have a kid, then that’s just part of the deal. Putting up a sign that said “No Children” would cut off too many potential customers. It didn’t usually matter for us, though. As the designated wine expert in the family, Michele usually did the tasting of samples in the wine tasting room while Savvy and I toured the grounds. That usually meant a lot of creative effort on my part to keep the kid entertained, but it was better than sitting in the car seat. We would take pictures, walk, look for birds – anything to fill the hour or so needed for Michele to sample the wines and make her selections. Then I’d return to the tasting room, carry the purchases to the car, and give Michele an abbreviated tour of the grounds.
The routine varied depending on Savvy’s mood. Sometimes she would fall asleep in the stroller, so I’d park under a tree and read a book. Other times she played quietly in the tasting room while Michele and I both did a tasting.
So the drive to Ohio was broken up with exploratory stops at unknown local wineries along the way, but the return trip to Florida was mapped out to sample numerous well known, award winning wines from Virginia’s wine country.
One winery looked a little like a castle. That alone might be enough to keep Savvy interested for an hour. We spun stories for days before we got there. Was it really an old castle that they made into a winery? Do you think it has a king? Is there a princess in a tower? Only a visit would say for sure.
Each day, as we made their way to wineries, Michele primed Savvy. “Pretty soon, we’re going to the castle!”
Savvy couldn’t wait. Each morning she would wake up and ask, “Are we going to the castle today?” The inside of the winery probably wouldn’t look as much like a castle as the outside, so Michele packed a cooler full of tea, crackers and cheese. Savvy and I could go play out on the expansive grounds for a while, and then enjoy a picnic while Michele went inside to sample the wines. The rental van also had a DVD player. I had thought about sitting on the cooler right outside the passenger side door, watching a movie while enjoying the nice weather.
Now, it was an odd series of coincidences that landed the family on trips around this time of year. First, we both had to use our vacation time from work, but Michele’s job made it hard to take vacations just any old time. We would go to the beach for a week in summer, and she could enjoy lots of individual days off for festivals in Fall and Spring, but taking a week at a time was a little trickier. Since we had gotten married at the end of September, that was a good excuse to use the extra vacation days around their anniversary each year, and take a trip. Later, when Savvy was also born at the end of September, that cemented it: an annual Fall trip to celebrate the anniversary and birthday. It would be perfect, at least until Savvy started school. But for now, we embraced the new tradition and celebrated it. And just to be fair, we tried to make sure that Savvy would enjoy the trip as much as we did – so it wasn’t all trips to wineries. Kid friendly things like the Atlanta Aquarium got folded in, as well as a lot of new Barbie dolls, cartoon DVDs, and goldfish crackers.
And it was precisely because there were so many happy things all happening in the same week, that anything unusually bad happening that week carried a little extra weight.
Hillside Winery had existed for many decades in the wide open spaces of Virginia’s wine country. It was beautiful. Its owners took pride in laying out a winery and vineyard as visually appealing to the eye as its award winning wines were to the palate. Everywhere you looked was like a picture postcard. From the huge iron gates of the entry, to the stone walls surrounding the campus, to the wooden floors of the tasting room, everything was done well. It was the result of an owner who loved his winery.
Or used to, at least.
Starting out, Mr Hill was a friend to everyone he met. He couldn’t afford not to be. Ambitious and hard working, but with little money, he dreamed of building a business that would make him prosperous and maybe even pass on to his children one day. He worked at several jobs, leading a thrifty life and saving his pennies until the day he had enough for a down payment on a large tract of unwanted land on the outskirts of town. Then he put his passion to work, tilling the uneven land in his off hours and weekends, until he had created rows and rows of grape vines.
He had studied grapes, and he knew that Virginia could grow just about anything that Europe could produce. Others were trying it at the time, and with some success, so why not him? The first big obstacle was not the grapes. It was getting the land.
Grapes require sunlight and water, like any other plant; but the rich soil of Virginia proved to have characteristics that the vines loved – and they grew well. He started with just a few dozen seedlings that he had shipped in from a supplier, growing them in pots on the back porch of his apartment until he could farm them for real. Then, with each passing year, he pruned his “mother vines” to create cuttings that would grow into new plants. His propagation rates were pretty successful; over 80% of his cuttings lived to become autonomous plants. Each of the new plants would produce almost 30 cuttings to create more vines for the following year. In just a few short years, he had crowded together enough mature plants to start one long row of grape vines on the day he purchased his land.
With luck, love, and enough sun and rain, his one long row of grape vines grew quickly to become 24 rows, just like the propagation rates. Enough for an acre. And two years after his first acre was mature, it could propagate 24 acres. From there, the sky was the limit. It was an ambitious 5 year plan that took a little closer to 10 years to realize, but through all the tough times he worked his regular jobs that allowed him to pay his mortgage.
Grapes were not uncommon in Virginia, having come over with the first settlers, but they fell out of style as cotton and tobacco became the big cash crops. There was no excitement for grapes, so they fell away to an also-ran status for decades. Then, as times changed, those who were fortunate enough to look beyond tobacco would come to benefit from grapes again. American wines came into favor, and American grapes were needed to produce them.
Mr Hill’s business prospered along with the growing town, and his Hillside Winery became well known for its quality wines. He had a knack. He was a successful grape grower, and with a little help, he became a successful winemaker and businessman. A creator of jobs and a pillar of the community. He was smart enough to know that he didn’t know everything, so he found other young men to work with him: vintners to craft the wines into something special, and managers to focus his business so it would be successful. He also worked with other businesses to become a kind of tourist destination, explaining that while folks may want to walk romantically among the rows of vines, they also need a hotel to sleep in and a restaurant to eat in. He looked at what other successful wineries were doing, in California and elsewhere, and he did it, too. As “Virginia Wine Country” grew and became a tourist destination, he worked with the other vintners to make maps of the “wine trail” and packages with hotels.
He wasn’t a pioneer as much as he was a hard worker and a quick learner, and it served him well in business for a long time. But as is often the case, the people who help a new business become successful – and there are almost always more than just the person whose name it bears – may crave a taste for their own name to be above a door, their own name to grace the back of a label. That’s when the owner may decide that they have earned a piece of the business, or that they deserve some sort of recognition. Or he may grow jealous and feel unappreciated, and lack of appreciation is a disease that is rarely cured by money. Both Mr Hill and his managers and vintners began to have constant quarrels, until he started to become paranoid of their ambitions. No longer the young, hard working man he used to be, he came to find their energy for their own ideas as a threat, and he viewed their ambition as disloyalty. He had always enjoyed the benefit of making wine, which was that there was always a drink nearby, but with his age and prosperity an occasional drink on the job had evolved into a bad habit. And his drunkenness on the job caused even more conflicts with his managers. One by one, as he ran them off, his own business suffered, and finding replacements that were just as good became harder and harder. From the outside, the business looked as good as ever. Inside, it was starting to fall apart. The beautiful buildings and lush grounds masked the disharmony and bitterness lurking within the walls. Now almost 70, but looking closer to 80, he resented having to work so hard, but the new managers required too much training for him to ever miss a day. Friends and neighbors who used to help work a shift as a cashier here and there when he was unexpectedly busy, now always seemed to have made other plans. His children grew up and didn’t want to work in the business that had served them so well their whole lives. The years spent in the sun toiling over fussy plants had taken his youth and his looks, making him almost not recognize the wrinkled old man he saw in the mirror each morning. And the frigid Winters of Virginia that he had endured his whole life now seemed irritated the arthritis in his old hands and made his knees ache. Instead of enjoying his golden years, each day brought another list of mistakes by his pain in the ass employees. By 10 in the morning, he was often furious at so many things that had already gone wrong.
The cheerful salespeople of the tasting room in their brightly colored uniform shirts contrasted sharply with Mr Hill. You’d never know he was the owner of the place, dressed in his drab jacket on such a nice day, and with that weathered scowl on his face.
Then there was the bottling and the labeling, the storage of the finished wines – simple things, really. A monkey could do them. So he hired monkeys. And sure enough, they managed to screw that up too. Labels went onto bottles upside down; cases got broken. If he wasn’t there to watch every step every day, the whole place would come crashing down in a matter of weeks.
He had to be there. Always. Constantly. The place needed him, no matter what his wife and children said. They couldn’t run it without him.
Anyway, he didn’t want to be another one of those old men who retired and then six months later they’ve dropped dead.
You can’t be drunk on the job, but every winery owner cheats a little now and then, Mr Hill rationalized. Quality control required him to taste the wines, but he was doing more and more quality control, earlier and earlier in the day. Some days, he was legally drunk by noon, before he headed out to do deliveries. Breath mints were a lame attempt to mask it, but if you were only chatting for a few minutes during a delivery, customers wouldn’t notice. Or if they did, they sure didn’t say anything.
But his friends and employees were aware of his poorly kept secret, and had been for some time. They didn’t know why the jovial man who had overseen the growth of a successful business had become the surly, bitter man they now avoided. At first they thought it was just old age. Then they blamed his traffic accident with the tourists in town. Then the pain killers he took for his aches in his legs from the accident. Then they just decided that it was always something, and it was better just to stay out of his way whenever they could. He had changed, they all could see that.
As with many people who have a pebble in their shoe that they refuse to do anything about, Mr Hill was completely unaware of how his attitude had deteriorated. A man who used to be mostly friendly was now rarely that way, but he didn’t see it. He would get angry over nothing, which would cause him to forget things – which would cause him to become angrier. He drank to ease the pains, and that caused him to become even more forgetful. He stacked alcohol on top of back pills on top of arthritis pills, without ever seeing the problem that it had all become.
Once his wine and pills had knocked the aches and pains down to an acceptable level for the day, he thought he could function as good as he had in the old days.
He found out the hard way that he was wrong.
A year ago, Mr Hill had been making a routine delivery. Local restaurants carried his wines, and it was not unusual to see him make the delivery himself. He would pile the cases into his gray pickup truck, and drive over around lunch time to see if the restaurant’s owner would comp him a free lunch with the delivery. Most were happy to do so, quietly feeling that some food in his stomach might help alleviate the obvious alcohol in his system. He had, after all, been a good business relationship for many years.
The police reports blamed a light Virginia rain, or maybe the fog that had burned off hours before, for making the roads slick. A car came through the light and Mr Hill ran right into it. His pickup truck hit solidly into the car’s front end, smashing the truck and him with it.
The reports didn’t mention whether he had been drinking, but by then it would have been rare if he hadn’t. They didn’t mention that Mr Hill probably ran the red light; they instead scolded the tourist for not watching the road while looking for a street sign. In small Virginia towns they take care of their own. Insurance took care of the tourists, but more would be needed for Mr Hill. He was taken from the scene by ambulance, and doctors feared he might not walk again. But the old man proved tougher than they thought, and in just a few months he was back up again, walking with the use of two canes. In time, his legs got strong enough to walk without canes, but he still needed them nearby. Getting up and down from his truck or even his desk was now difficult, and his new pickup truck had to be fitted with hand controls for the brakes and the accelerator, because his legs were now frail and unreliable after the accident. He hated the hand controls. He’d rather drive the old way, but he couldn’t control his legs enough to do it.
Now he was forgetting orders or messing up labels. He wouldn’t remember scheduling a delivery so he would lash out when they customer called to see where it was. He was creating problems every day, and it was hard on his wife as she silently followed after him, undoing his mistakes.
It was humiliating to him. The handicapped sign that hung from his mirror was a constant reminder of his back pain and failing legs, and the hand controls in the truck assured him that he would never again be what he once was. His wrinkled hands fumbled with keys or papers, dropping things that were now difficult to bend over and pick up.
Still, he set about the business of the winery each day and many days, by almost sheer force of will, he stacked the cases for delivery to his favorite restaurants in town and drove them over himself. The effort was laudable, but the combination of alcohol, pills, and the hand controls in the car were often more than he could deal with.
That’s why he walked across the tasting room with the dolly. Loaded with four cases of wine, no other winery employee was allowed to do such a thing with paying customers present. Cases for delivery were to go out the back. But Mr Hill’s car was parked by the front door – in the handicapped spot – closer to his office and closer to the walk up ramp.
“Going over to Bertram’s for their delivery,” Mr Hill said his wife, letting Raul stack the last case of wine onto the dolly. Mrs Hill looked up from her desk full of papers and peered at him over her glasses.
“Bertam’s?” His wife asked, surprised. That was supposed to be delivered yesterday.
“Yes, Bertam’s!” He growled at her. “That dumbass Larry missed another delivery. Again!”
Then he stormed out of the office and across the tasting room lobby with the heavy dolly.
She picked up the time sheets. Larry was off scheduled off yesterday.
So Mr Hill didn’t really see Savvy in her bright yellow dress as he wheeled the dolly through the lobby. He was focused on his delivery. I had to pull her away at the last second to prevent her from running into the dolly as it sped across the room.
“You have to look both ways before crossing the winery lobby, too!” I sarcastically half-joked to Savvy. She was starting to get fussy for lunch.
It was a nice day but Mr Hill’s aching knees and sore back would hate lifting the cases into his truck, and as I held Savvy’s hand, I noticed the scowl on the face of the old man with the dolly. I didn’t know who he was. A very unhappy employee, I thought, and then returned my focus to Michele, who was about to start sampling the wines.
“Okay, I’ll go feed Savvy her lunch. You come out when you’re finished. We’ll have a little picnic on the side of our van…”Then we headed for the door.
Mr Hill wheeled the heavy dolly down the ramp, and stood it next to his grey truck. He placed a hand on it to steady himself while he dug for his keys in his jacket pocket. Pulling them out, he dropped them.
“Damn it!” he cursed.
Inside, Savvy had grown restless, launching into a tantrum. Probably because she was hungry.
“We’ll have a little picnic on the side of our van,” I had said. “It’s nice out. Maybe we’ll open the van doors and watch a DVD.”
A group of young customers, two couples, had just finished their tasting. Early birds, one couple wanted to get to as many wineries – and as many tastings – as they could in a day. The other couple was considering whether to break for lunch. The men smartly decided to let their ladies decide, as they loaded their purchases into the trunk of their sedan.
“Come on, Sherry,” Abigail told her red-haired friend as they stood by the driver’s side door. “We can eat any old time.” Then she whispered, “I wanna get loaded!”
The men laughed. They agreed with Abigail, who had already consumed enough alcohol to no longer whisper quietly. As the men made room among their cramped suitcases for their wines, the ladies continued.
“Aren’t you guys hungry at all?” Sherry asked.
“Sherry-Strawberry,” Abigail teased, “there’s gotta be a fast food place on the way to the next winery…”
Across the lot, Mr Hill painfully stacked the delivery cases into his truck. Each one was an aching challenge. His knees burned from squatting to get the dropped keys, but that was the best he could manage using the canes. His back would soon hate him for lifting the cases instead of having a helper do it, but he was too proud to admit to needing help. He wouldn’t turn it down, but he wouldn’t ask for it.
The sedan trunk slammed shut. “What did you guys decide?” Steve asked, putting his arm around Sherry. His friend Tyler leaned against the trunk as they waited for an answer.
Abigail pouted. “Sherry’s being no fun.”
“I just think we should eat pretty soon,” Sherry replied. “or we all be three sheets to the wind like somebody I know.” She motioned at Abigail.
Steve, her boyfriend, sighed. “She’s got a point. Why don’t we look at the map and see what’s around here?”
Across the parking lot, the engine started in Mr Hill’s gray pickup. He didn’t bother to look in the rearview mirror. Instead he glared at the hated hand controls of his truck, grasping them with anger.
“Look, there’s a historic church nearby,” Sherry said. “And an old antebellum house…”
The others groaned.
Mr Hill swung an arm over the passenger seat. As he looked backward, the truck engine suddenly roared. The wheels screeched and the truck lurched backwards. It sped across the parking lot in reverse. Hill clung to the hand controls for dear life.
Sherry heard the squeal of the tires. She started to look up as the gray truck sped towards them. Its tail lights never lit up to indicate that it was slowing down. Instead it came faster. Her eyes widened.
Panicking, Mr Hill gripped the controls even tighter. The truck accelerated faster.
The look on Sherry’s face made Tyler turn around. The tailgate of the truck was coming right at him. He flinched and turned away. Tires still screaming, the truck smashed full speed into the sedan. Glass exploded everywhere in a loud bang. The impact slammed Steve into the rental van. Sherry was knocked into the air. It was like a matador being thrown by a raging bull in one of those “Animals Gone Crazy” videos.
Hill was still too panicked to release his grip on the accelerator. The truck engine raced as it forced its way past the sedan. The pickup hardly even slowed down on impact. It continued backwards, driving deep into the vineyard. Hill’s engine just never quit roaring. It hardly slowed for an instant until it finally got tangled up in enough vines to stall out.
It was as though he had maniacally intended to kill everyone present.
Wow that was long. And boring.
I’m sorry I put you through that.
But, you needed to see it.
My book The Navigators is amazingly fast paced, voted one of the best books of 2016 by a review site, and this story is why. When I wrote the original Angel, it lacked tension. I wrote The Navigators to learn how to add tension.
I’m a fast learner. Angel was my first novel, Navigators was my second.
The point is, you can learn to do this, to cut the unnecessary stuff and to keep the story moving. Did we need to know all that history of wine making stuff, or did I need to know Mr. Hill knew it and resented his kids for not going into the business he gave his life to?
Wow, I just summed up 6000 words in two sentences. Damn, I’m good.
But I wasn’t always, and that’s why I showed you this. It’s the equivalent of opening the door in your undies. A little embarrassing, and you need to learn not to do it.
In the Final version we also managed to create a challenge and answer a mystery while adding another one. The reader knows who the pickup truck driver is, but the MC doesn’t. (That’s dramatic irony).
- The reader is happy to see the opening chapter questions finally addressed. But
- we also still don’t know if Doug survived the winery wreck, and
- now we have the element of whether the crash was done on purpose, too.
That last line isn’t overt, but it’s intended to gently raise the question. Did the grumpy old man do it on purpose? That can’t possibly be possible, can it?
You’ll have to come back to find out.
You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.
Please share and reblog these as we go. Your friends need to know this stuff, too.
Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!
Available in paperback and audio book, too!