One Priceless Hour

My posts on Thoughts, Stories & Novels are usually on topics of writing, but I occasionally slip in one about life.  This is such a post.  To my writer friends and followers, consider it a short story directed at grandparents and parents of young children.


My wife Claudia and I planned weeks in advance to drive to Louisville for an important family event.

We left our home in the North Carolina mountains early Friday morning to take our dog, Milo, to her favorite doggie daycare.  The facility was an hour out of the way in Charlotte, but that didn’t seem to make much difference given the 450-mile journey ahead.

The initial leg of the trip went fine.  It was after passing through Knoxville that the trouble began.  Brake lights appeared in the distance, and we came to an abrupt halt 100 miles from the Kentucky state line. After thirty minutes, we began creeping forward a car length at a time.  Claudia took to her iPhone to investigate, and she discovered a semi-trailer truck porting sweet potatoes had caught fire four miles ahead.  More than an hour later we passed the largest pile of roasted taters you’ve ever seen in the right lane of I-75.

We’d originally planned a relaxing dinner for two at Bonefish Grill in Louisville, but we arrived two hours later than anticipated, grabbed a sandwich at Arby’s and dined in our hotel room before falling in bed, exhausted.

Our family event went well Saturday, and we hit the road at 8:00 a.m. Sunday for the return trip.  We needed to pick up Milo before the daycare closed at 5:00 p.m.   Nine hours should have been plenty of time, but severe thunderstorms persisted most of the way back.  At the height of a storm, our car was third in a line of vehicles to body roll a deer carcass, unable to swerve.  I needed to pull over several times during the trip to pry my fingers from the steering wheel and lower my blood pressure.

Finally, we picked up our beloved dog in Charlotte minutes before closing and headed north on I-77 to our home just over an hour away.  Five miles down the road, brake lights appeared–again! We’d been locked inside three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic for half an hour when Claudia discovered the closure was anticipated to last four hours due to power lines having blown across the interstate.

Vehicles began leaving the highway on the shoulders, crossing the median and going up entrance ramps the wrong way.  The scene looked like rats fleeing a burning ship.  I resisted the illegal and unruly actions of those around me for another 30 minutes.  The next thing I remember is accelerating the wrong way up an entrance ramp with my flashers on.  Once at the top, I was greeted by surprised drivers wanting to merge onto the interstate.  I avoided their glares and turned carelessly into traffic.

Finding an alternate route north proved to be a challenge.  Lake Norman needed to be circumnavigated, and thousands of vehicles were clogging the secondary roads of the Charlotte suburbs like cholesterol in a fat man’s arteries. Determined drivers had Google maps on their iPhones in one hand and their steering wheels in the other.

The small, quaint towns of Cornelius and Davidson had been invaded by throngs of road-raged travelers seeking alternate paths to their destinations.  Traffic lights were out from the storm, and gridlock stalled progress at every intersection. Semi-trailer trucks struggled to make wide turns on narrow roads as cars and pickups refused to yield.  To say tempers flared would be an understatement.

Given that my wife and I had already been in the car more than ten hours and our dog was voicing an intense desire to get home, I can’t believe we were able to maintain our wits. Somehow we did.  We were ecstatic to reach our driveway slightly before 8 p.m.  The grand total for the weekend was 23 hours behind the wheel, including nearly 4 hours stalled in traffic.

You might ask why anyone would endure such a travel nightmare.  Well, our ten-year-old granddaughter was in a school play.  She had a lead role and performed like a star.  The play lasted one priceless hour.

We’d gladly make the trip again tomorrow.

Blending Facts Into Fiction: Author Toolbox

It’s time for my April contribution to the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop where dozens of authors post their thoughts on subjects of writing.  This month I discuss Blending Facts Into Fiction.

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I write fiction novels and short stories, mainly suspense, but I dabble in a variety of genres.  One of the many challenges fiction writers face is how factual their novels should be when events occur in a real time and place.

There are two ways to approach this challenge.  The first is to assume authors of fiction have the literary freedom to develop their characters and tell their stories any way they please.  It is fiction after all.  The primary objective of fiction writers is to develop compelling characters and thought-provoking plots.  I’ve read books where authors have completely altered historic events or places to fit their characters and story development. If it’s done intentionally with the reader fully aware, there’s a good chance it can be done successfully.  However, if descriptions of people, places or events appear as mistakes to the reader, the author can come off as uninformed or lazy.  Anachronisms can kill a reader’s interest as quickly as boring characters.

The second approach, and one I have found preferable, is NOT to ignore the reality of times and places in writing fiction.  My goal is to have my descriptions of real events and locations be as accurate as possible.

The five novels I’ve written have all taken place in the future, giving me complete freedom to describe people and places as I see fitting the story.  But my current work in progress, ROUND PEAK MOUNTAIN, and many of my short stories, take place in present time and familiar locations.   Round Peak, North Carolina is a fictional town placed today in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  An unsolved murder and rumors of buried moonshine money at the center of the novel are fictional, but real geography and historic events are woven throughout the development of the story and the characters.  Interstate 77, the Blue Ridge Parkway, nearby cities, the history of moonshining and the Civil War are all real.  Failing to describe known times, places and events correctly would  diminish the plausibility of the story.  Accordingly, time spent researching places and events to ensure accuracy is time well spent.

Blending fiction with reality is an art in itself.  Some novels require more fiction than fact, some more fact than fiction, but I believe achieving plausibility in the development of compelling characters and an entertaining story is the goal.  It’s a goal I’m still striving to achieve.

To enjoy other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, click HERE.  Happy blogging!Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2

You can check out excerpts of my work in progress, ROUND PEAK MOUNTAIN, by going HERE:

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What Makes a Great First Line?

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What makes a great first line in a novel?

First and foremost, it must capture the reader’s attention.  A captivating opening line can pull a reader into even an average plot (for a while, anyway), but a mediocre start may turn readers off before they can assess the quality of the story that follows.

There are several ways to grab the attention of readers. Building suspense, appealing to a reader’s curiosity, and painting a vivid picture are among the most common.  Optimally, combining these three approaches can ensure a book gets off to a great start.

Below are memorable first lines from notable novels.  See if you can determine which of the three approaches are used to capture the reader’s attention.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen (1813): ”It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman Maclean (1989):  ”In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith (1948): “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath (1963): “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

NEUROMANCER by William Gibson (1984): ”The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman (2008): ”There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

The first three authors clearly pique the reader’s curiosity in setting the stage for what follows.  The final three paint a distinct picture and build suspense.  You could argue that several of these lines combine all three approaches.

The opening line of a novel must also serve as a guidepost for what is to follow, setting proper expectations for the reader.  A suspenseful opening is appropriate in setting the stage for a murder mystery, but might establish the wrong tone for a romantic comedy.  In the six novels above, the reader gets a pretty good idea of what is to follow with each of the first lines.  Having read two of these books (albeit years ago), I can attest that the authors followed through with the expectations they set.

I recently returned to my prior novels and assessed the opening lines.  Oddly, I found my first book, CORRUPT CONNECTION, had the best start:

“In an unmarked commercial building on the Lower East Side, researchers were puzzled with what to try next. An hour into testing a biological computer implant, the situation became desperate.”

My current work in progress is a murder mystery.  Its working title is THE MYSTERY OF ROUND PEAK MOUNTAIN.  The unsolved murder of Mayor Hank Richards and rumors of moonshine money stashed in the Carolina foothills take center stage. Here’s the opening:

“A door slammed on the garage side of the house, jolting Hank Richards from the comfort of his leather recliner.  Richards tossed down his book and strode to the front window as the grandfather clock in the hallway gonged nine times.”

Without spoiling the plot, I can tell you Richards doesn’t make it past page 3. The first chapter is actually a flashback, and the former mayor’s unsolved murder is the basis for the entire novel.

I’m less than half complete with my current novel, and the opening line and initial chapters will likely be modified before the manuscript goes final. I recommend all writers hold off on finalizing the opening of their novel until it’s ready for print.  Authors only get one chance at making a good first impression with a reader, and if they’re lucky, they will get to do it again and again.

Please stop by and comment on Excerpts from my Work in Progress.

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