They say truth is stranger than fiction - and in a lot of cases, they're right. Real life is full of coincidences and bizarre events that, if written into a story, would cause the reader to sit up and say, 'No way! I'm not buying that would ever happen.'
But, says the writer of such strange things, it did happen! It happened to me!
Well, not every weird real-life event you experience (or read about in the paper) is suitable to include in fiction. Here's an example of a real event, and its fictionalized version, to illustrate my point.
Once upon a time, when my son was just a baby, I had dropped my husband off for a late shift at work and was driving home at around two in the morning. For some reason, even though it was illegal, I decided I was going to buckle the baby and his carseat into the front seat next to me, instead of the back. On the highway, the car started smoking. I'm no stranger to engine trouble or breakdowns, so I pulled over, thinking the radiator was overheating and I might have to putter home at 15 mph with the flashers on and the heat up to full blast to keep the car from seizing.
When I shut the engine off to let it cool down, I noticed black smoke coming from the space between the hood and the windshield. Usually, an overheating car will release white smoke from the far end of the hood, by the front bumper. This worried me, because it meant a possible new problem that I hadn't dealt with before.
And then I saw the flames licking at the windshield.
Somebody was watching out for us that night. I grabbed my son - didn't bother taking the seat, just the baby - opened the door, and ran like hell down the shoulder of the highway. I'd gotten maybe a few hundred feet away when the ground shook beneath me, and when I looked back, there was a ball of fire engulfing my car. If I'd put my son in the back seat like I was supposed to, we never would have gotten far enough away before the explosion.
Years later, I wrote part of the experience into one of my novels. I had written a high-speed car chase, and since I'm the kind of person who likes to make things as hard as possible for my characters, I let them escape - and then I had the car break down and explode. It was enough to leave them without transportation... because who would believe that they'd have just enough time to run before they got crispy-fried, just from a mechanical failure? If it was a bomb, the savvy reader would think, sure they'd have to run. But a simple breakdown? Plenty of time.
Here's another part of my personal experience that won't ever make it into my fiction because it's just too crazy to be true. After the blur of finding help, calling the police, watching the fire department hose down my car, and crying with relief and panic (it was, of course, our only car, and at that point we were screwed) -- a kindly firefighter returned my purse to me, soaking wet and reeking of smoke.
And it turned out that I needed it to show the cops my license, so they could write me a ticket for the expired inspection sticker on the smoldering hunk of metal and glass that used to be my car.
That's the kind of cruelty I wouldn't even subject my characters to.