Monday, July 9, 2012

Fire in the Night - When Life Sucks, Write It

There is an old saying, “There is no substitute for experience.” After last night, I can tell you, this is true.

As a writer, it’s our job to make our readers feel every experience our characters go through on a visceral level. We must place our characters in jeopardy (for without that, there is no conflict), put them in the worst possible situations and watch them get themselves out of said situations, all the while summoning forth every emotion we can from the character’s gut, even, and perhaps especially, the most intense and frightening.

Grief. Rage. Hatred. Fear. Many writers have written their characters into scenes most of us only see in movies and television. Floods. Tornadoes. Car crashes. Hijackings. House fires. But how many of us get to experience those things before we write them?

It’s one thing to write about a car crash or a house fire based on how other writers write it, or through a second hand account. It feels a whole lot different to write about something like that after you’ve gone through it.

Ok, let me back up and tell you the story.

On Friday night, the hubby and I were at home, enjoying his first week off in six months. We’d invited my BFF to come down from Brantford for the weekend. It was one of those perfect weekends where you think nothing could go wrong. Hubby had made us his famous sausages (famous in our house anyway), and we’d spend a few hours watching one of our favourite TV programs before my friend and myself decided to leave hubby to his internet surfing and turn in for the night. I’d only been asleep for a couple of hours when I heard people screaming outside on the street.  

Someone was screaming bloody murder, right outside my house. In retrospect I should have jumped up and gone to check things out right away. But I had just been ripped from sleep, and I was still in that confused state you’re in when you come out of a dream. That, and the neighbour who was yelling and his girlfriend fight all the time, often having public shouting matches in the street every so often. I thought this was just another fight.

Then my hubby went to the door, and I heard him talking to a panicked sounding neighbour. Little did I know, he had already called 911, and while I had slept on, outside, a nightmare unfolded. But something in the neighbour’s voice began to seep into me now. I scrambled out into the living room. And that’s when I heard it.

Outside, from what sounded like the backyard.


Still confused, I tried to see what was going on. Then the neighbour said, “The house next door is on fire.”

I tried to ask if we should leave the house, but the neighbour had left, my hubby was on the phone, calling 911 for the second time. Amazingly, my friend was still half asleep.

Then, someone came up the steps and I heard a man’s voice, fearfully say, “That house is going to blow.”

It was as if those words snapped me out of a daze. I can’t describe the fear those words imprinted on me in a way that does it justice.

The three of us bolted from the house. I remember someone helping me down the stairs, and then we were running. I remember sparks flying, and a large chunk of burning ash flying passed my head. My friend froze for one horrible moment as the house next to us burned from the inside out, an orange blaze trapped inside a flimsy shell.

I remember ordering my friend to run. My hubby grabbing me and pulling us along. I have terrible knees, and they were screaming in pain, but the glow of orange light chased me from behind and I kept going.

“That House is going to blow.” Those words. Yeah, I ran faster than I have run in years.

Once we were across the street, I looked at the blaze and saw that in fact two houses were going. I thought ours would soon catch flame.

I remember that horrific moment when I realized our cat was inside and there was no way to get her out. She hides, and when she does, finding her is impossible. I think that’s when I started to scream for someone to get her out. I started to cry. I remember my friend holding me while my hubby tried to see if our house was going to go.

I noticed that the street was filled with people and at some point, fire trucks had pulled up our street, at least 4 of them, along with at least one police car. And smoke. There was so much smoke.

I remember us having to walk through it, down the street to get away from the blaze. The smoke was like a thick fog. I couldn’t breathe. None of us could. I couldn’t see. I could hear my friend behind me, and feel my hubby pulling me through the wall of white.

When I could see again I was down the street and a neighbour was helping us up her steps, her on one side, hubby on the other. She gave us water, a bathroom, and for my friend and I who have trouble standing for extended periods of time, places to sit.

We were safe.  For us it was over.

Our house remained untouched. It would be the next day before I would realize how close it was to going up. The metal fence that runs between our house and the next had melted, burning half way to the side of our house. Our entirely wood house.

Our next door neighbour’s house and the one beside it are unliveable. The fire gutted the homes. At least temporarily, four families have no place to live.

With the seriousness of the fire and how hot and dry things were, all it would have taken was one spark, one falling piece of orange debris, and our house wouldn’t be here. My hubby, my friend, my cat, or I, might not be here. Had the wind carried the flames and smoke in our direction, our house would be gone instead of the one on the other side. We are all alive and unharmed, because a neighbour had the sense to get us out in time.

Because the wind chose to blow north instead of south.

Now, at the time, I was barely thinking from one moment to the next, and much of the details I only recall now, as I write this. But now, I find myself trying to notice which details would stand out on a page and how various characters in my novels might react, what they might notice. I’ve written more than one fire scene, but how differently will I write it when another one is called for, now that I have witnessed one firsthand?

I might be tempted to go for the obvious. The memory of how the smoke choked me. The distinctly fearful voice of the neighbour telling us to get out. The almost eerily calm way my hubby called 911 even though this was the second time he called, the house next to us was ablaze, and they still hadn’t come. The way my friend froze, staring at the flames in horror. The absolute horror that my cat might die and our house be devoured in flames.

Many writers seem to have similar ways of describing things and when they replicate a scene such as this from somewhere, they tend to duplicate the same sensory details as everyone else. But after you go through it firsthand, what might you see that wouldn’t be in the text if it was second hand or based on something you saw on tv or read in the paper?

To me, as a writer who puts this in prose fit for a book, the neighbour’s voice wasn’t just fearful, or filled with the concern for others that mirrors the good Samaritan tone you always hear about. It carried the edge of a steel blade as it’s pulled free with a concerned hand. (Yes, you can tell I wrote medieval epics. LOL).

To me, the smoke didn’t just choke or block my view with a wall of white. It seared my throat and closed my airways until I wondered if I could breathe long enough to get through it. My throat hurt for a good day afterward.

When the neighbour said the next house was going to blow, I didn’t just picture us all dying as our house was consumed in flames. I pictured orange death roaring toward me for one final moment before I saw my hubby’s and my friend’s faces reduced to fiery light, and then my own life gone in a single blast of agony. 

I wasn’t just gripped with fear of losing our home or our cat once we got outside. My mind raced with thoughts of what we would do if we lost either, knowing we had nowhere to go.

And hours later, when I could think straight again, I worried that my friend’s parents would refuse to let her near our house once they heard about this. I was even afraid this might be the last time I visited with her.

And the whole time, I remember thinking not only how lucky we were to have come out of this unscathed, but how fortunate we were that my hubby happened to be on holidays, that he’s almost storybook hero cool in a crisis, and that a hundred other things that could have gone wrong, didn’t. I doubt my friend and I could have gotten out without him. I kept thinking, if I didn’t believe that a benevolent god watches over us before, I do now. 

And as a writer, when the need for such a scene arises, as painful or frightening as it may be, I will try to put myself in the head of those who lost their homes, imagining how they feel so that I can better describe how my characters feel. Not with the same clichéd descriptions everyone else uses, but with the much more powerful, rare, real life descriptions that come only from seeing or feeling it first hand. 

My point. Most of us are never faced with the kinds of ordeals we as writers must thrust upon our poor characters, and I would never hope or wish for this to happen to myself or anyone again. But these things do happen in real life. And when they do, there is no better way to make a book come alive, a scene feel more real for our readers, than to mine the worst, and best, events of our lives for our stories, putting the diamonds we find amidst the rubble onto the page and letting the readers see it as though they are there with us every step of the way. 



  1. Wow, just wow! So glad everyone got out and cat and house are safe. Super scary. What a night you had and how bad I feel for the neighbors to lose everything. Glad you are safe, my friends!

  2. Thanks, Mish. We were really lucky. Apparently the fire was started by careless smoking. Though investigators are talking about investigating it as an arson case. Yikes.

    Thanks for reading.



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