Setting The Stage
Drawing a Picture With Words
From the beginning of my writing career, my wife Carolyn has been my working editor. She pulls no punches and helps with so many things, like not switching character point of view, not losing reader momentum in backstory or subplot tangents, focusing the direction of character dialogue, and clearly setting the stage for key story events. She is also good at reducing and simplifying my sentence and paragraph structures.
She has always loved theater and thinks in terms of what the set (background, scenery and props) should look like. Properly staging the story in crisp, clean wording helps the reader form a complete mental picture of what is happening, which keeps the reader oriented and engaged.
Using the right props can make or break a key story event. In addition, a good prop can be woven into the story to tie together a chain of events or people. Certain props can even have their own character, almost a personality. My first car was just a stripped-down dune buggy, an engine on a frame, but it still had lots of character, which contributed to the success of many of my teenage adventures.
I got my first car because of someone else’s Christmas gift. Gerald Rana and I played on the football team together throughout high school. He was a hard-charging full back; I was a center. One year, Gerald’s neighbor got an arc welding kit for Christmas and that very day, the neighbor pushed an old Pontiac into his front yard.
"Pontiac Straight-8" by User Bill Wrigley on en.wikipedia.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A straight-8 engine in a still intact Pontiac.
No one worried about the lawn; Trona had no lawns. The alkaline soil killed any grass (and even most weeds) that tried to grow there. With no lawn to worry about, the neighbor decided to use the space in front of his house to turn an old car (with a great engine) into a dune buggy.
Cutting arc in hand, the neighbor dove in and stripped off the car body, even removing the dash board with all its gauges. Then he sliced right through the middle of the car, drive shaft and all, so that the car lay in two separate pieces. Cutting all the way through the car again, but now just in front of the rear wheel assembly, he hauled the whole middle section of the car away to the dump.
|dimasobko/123rf Stock Photo|
Arc Welding a Steel Frame.
He was energized! Work continued for days in every spare moment. He welded together the front and rear pieces of both the drive shaft and frame. The car was now less than half its original length.
The straight-8 engine, with its eight pistons in a row, took up half the length of the buggy. Behind the engine on the shortened frame was just a bench seat with a gas tank tucked behind that. The car ended there. With no real weight to pull, that straight-8 knew no bounds.
The next step in the plan was to weld on roll bars and side supports, but Gerald’s neighbor ran out of steam at that point. The project sat idle for weeks. All along, Gerald had been observing the project next door with interest, so one day his neighbor called him over.
“Hey, Gerald. You like this dune buggy?”
“Sure,” Gerald said. “It’s going to be great.”
His neighbor chewed his lip. “I think I’m done. My wife is tired of this project and keeps reminding me that I’ve got other things I should be working on.” He raised his eyebrows at Gerald. “If you want it, I’ll sell you this buggy ‘as is’ for just my out-of-pocket costs.”
“Yea? How much you talkin’?”
While you couldn’t beat the price, I think Gerald realized there were going to be ongoing costs of upkeep, and it would be good to have a partner sharing those costs. There were a number of guys he could have partnered with, but he chose me, and the next day in school, he approached me with a proposition. He would let me in on the deal as a 50% owner if I paid half the price to his neighbor.
This sounded like a sweet deal to me. I was 14 or 15 years old at the time and crazy about cars. Though I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, I had been driving (mostly off road) for some time. The buggy had no lights or plates or anything else that was required by law for street use, but it was after all, just a dune buggy intended only for off-road use. I figured I could sell the concept to my Dad on that basis.
Early the next morning, when no one else was around, I approached Dad as he ate a solitary breakfast at the kitchen-bar counter. “Hey, Dad. Gerald Rana’s neighbor has a dune buggy for sale. Gerald and I want to go in on it 50/50. Can I buy half?”
Dad looked at me closely as he chewed another bite. I could see dollar signs flashing in his eyes and knew he was wondering how many hundreds of dollars this was going to cost him.
“It won’t cost much,” I said encouragingly.
Dad smiled and shook his head. “How much?”
“Fourteen bucks is the total cost. If I pay seven dollars, I’ll be half owner.”
Surprise flitted across his face, and he stopped chewing. Then his grin widened. I was prepared with a list of logical reasons why this purchase would make good sense, but without another question, he stood up, pulled his billfold out of his pants pocket and peeled off a five dollar bill and two ones.
Handing the money to me he said, “Here you go. Just don’t kill yourself.”
I had a dune buggy (half a dune buggy), but to us, it was a car. We couldn’t drive it much at night, without using flashlights, or drive it to school, but otherwise it had many practical uses. Since the County Sherriff only came through Trona on Thursdays, most of the time we drove it all over town.
It was an educational purchase as well. I learned a lot about auto repair. Whenever anything went wrong, we’d drive out to the city dump and rummage around in the abandoned cars for a new part. We didn’t care if it came from a Pontiac or not. We could make just about any part from any other make or model work in our Pontiac. Once, the starter motor went bad. We found one that didn’t look too corroded in a Ford and drilled new holes in the frame to make it fit into our Pontiac. The buggy started up like a dream. Already a Frankenstein creation, we constantly attached more miss-matched parts, always trying to make it run better (faster).
The real joy was what that buggy could do. And the freedom we enjoyed. We drove all over the desert, exploring places a regular car could never go. We did tear up a lot of old tires, but there were piles of replacements available at the dump, and we were always trading out the buggy’s tires in a constant tradeoff between better traction or greater speed.
For a while, we were excited with a set of rear dual tires mounted on dual rims from an abandoned, flatbed truck, but in the end, we decided the duals slowed us down too much and went back to single rims.
Sometimes, we considered the cost of getting a set of roll bars added to the frame, but we worried about the extra weight the bars would add to the buggy. Long term, the only things we really missed were the gauges, especially the gas gauge and a speedometer. We were always dipping a stick into the gas tank to see how much gas was left, and we never knew how fast we were going.
Though we didn’t know our speed, we did know, in a drag race, we never had any trouble shutting down all the other buggies around town. None of those new V8s could hold a candle to our straight-8, and with the right tires, we would leave the competition in the dust.
Once when Gerald’s parents were out of town, he drove his Dad’s car behind me as I raced the buggy down the Trona-Wildrose Highway as fast as I could go. We wanted to see what the buggy’s maximum speed could be on a paved highway, but in just a few miles on a straightaway stretch of road, Gerald’s car fell back quickly. He wasn’t matching my speed, so I slowed, waiting for him to catch up.
When he pulled up beside me in the opposite lane, I yelled, “What’s the matter?”
“When you got past 120 mph, my Dad’s car couldn’t keep up anymore. You were leaving me in the dust like I was standing still.”
We never did find out what the buggy’s maximum speed was, and I never did tell my Dad about the speed test. However, I am sure that buggy was the best $7 investment I’ve ever made, and to this day, I sometimes sit back, close my eyes and imagine that I’m flying through the desert behind a Pontiac straight-8 engine with the pedal to the metal and no cares in the world.
That first car was a first love of a special kind, which takes on the magical characteristics of the best kind of prop found in any story, fiction or otherwise. Whenever I think of setting the stage in a story with a powerful prop, I will always think of my first car in all its stripped-down glory, and then attribute the quirky characteristics needed to give my story’s key prop its own, one-of-a-kind personality—one that any reader could love.