FICTIONALIZING PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
On the night of December 20, 1959, I was sitting in the left front seat of the Vista-Dome car of the Burlington Zephyr passenger train as it hurtled through northern Illinois on its way from Chicago toward my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The engineer would later tell a coroner’s jury that he was going 90 miles an hour (legal at the time) as we rounded a gentle curve at the tiny town of Chadwick.
From my vantage point in the darkened dome car near the front of the train, I could see the locomotive’s searchlight slice through the darkness, sweeping the tracks that stretched ahead of us. Suddenly, off to my left, I saw a car speeding toward a crossing we were approaching. The car looked like a 1949 Chevy, distinctive because of its sloped rear end. A split second later, I lost sight of the car as it went in front of the train.
I heard a bang, the train shuddered, and debris rained onto the Plexiglas dome, cracking the window I’d been peering through. I ducked, then scrambled down the narrow stairway to the dome car’s lower level where I told my dad and the conductor what I’d just witnessed.
I was nine years old.
The crash killed three people including a boy about my age.
Fast forward to 1994. I was doing a writing exercise recounting a personal experience—the one you’ve just read. As I wrote, I remembered a radio news report about a car-train collision in which an infant survived. I began wondering, “What if an infant survived the crash I witnessed and grew up wondering about her past?”
That idea turned into my first mystery-suspense novel Fast Track.
The novel isn’t about the accident. If anything, it’s an example of how a personal experience can be the seed of an idea that can blossom into something else—something redeeming.
Fast Track begins with my 25-year-old heroine vexed because she doesn’t know what to do with her life. She discovers the body of the aunt who raised her from infancy—a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. (This is an echo of my sister’s suicide in 1980, but that’s another story for another time.) That trauma begins a quest to unlock secrets kept hidden for a quarter century when my protagonist’s parents died in a mysterious car-train collision.
The Fast Track manuscript went through 14 major revisions over 10 years before I found my current agent, Barbara Casey, (the 39th agent I queried). During that process, I drew on other personal experiences to add texture to a story that includes politics, journalism, and mentoring relationships.
Fast Track is the first novel in a series that’s now five books and counting. But it all started more than 63 years ago in Chadwick, Illinois. So, I suppose it’s fitting that I named my heroine Lark Chadwick.
Orphaned as an infant, sexually assaulted as a naïve college student, strong-willed, impulsive Lark Chadwick is vexed and trying to figure out what to do with her mixed-up life. When she discovers the body of the aunt who raised her, Lark goes on a search for answers.
She is stunned to learn from a 25-year-old newspaper clipping that she’s the “miracle baby” who survived a suspicious car accident that killed her parents at a rural railroad crossing in southern Wisconsin. Lark convinces Lionel Stone, the crusty Pulitzer-Prize winning editor, to let her do a follow-up investigation of the crash. Two of her sources are the sheriff and the town’s mayor, they’re running against each other for Congress, the election is a week away, and both men have a secret that will unravel the mystery.
Award-winning novelist, writing coach, and manuscript editor John DeDakis is a former editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.” DeDakis is the author of five mystery-suspense-thriller novels. In his most recent novel, FAKE, protagonist Lark Chadwick is a White House correspondent dealing with “fake news” in the era of #MeToo. DeDakis, a former White House correspondent, regularly leads writing workshops at literary centers and writers’ conferences. He is also the host of the video podcast “One-to-One with John DeDakis” on YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Originally from La Crosse, Wisconsin, DeDakis now lives with his wife Cindy in Baltimore, Maryland.
2 thoughts on “Guest Blogger ~ John DeDakis”
It is a writer’s experiences that come out in their books. Thank you for being a guest today. It sounds like a great read.
Wow! A mesmerizing post, for sure. I couldn’t stop reading it. Just went on Amazon and got the ebook, as well. A steal at $2.99! Thanks for dropping by Ladies of Mystery.
Comments are closed.