Turning Real Terror into Fiction

Years ago, I experienced a terrifying hell ride when the gas pedal on my Ford Explorer stuck wide-open while driving Rte. 125 during rush hour traffic. Two days later, I received a recall notice in the mail. Little good it did me then. The experience remains as fresh in my mind today as it did then.

I’d just left Khols parking lot and stopped at a red light. When the light turned green my foot shifted to the gas pedal, and the SUV took off like a bullet fired from an automatic pistol. Here’s the strange thing. When something like this happens, you try to reason it away. Never do you think anything dangerous could be happening. Our self-protection mode kicks in and we waver in and out of denial.

Until we can’t any longer.

Until we need to face the truth — this day could be our last. And it’s terrifying!

The SUV kept gaining more and more momentum till the speedometer read 40 mph, 50 mph, 60 mph, and climbing. Rte. 125 is a main drag. Traffic lights stood every mile or so, and most of them turned red. But I couldn’t stop. With both feet on the brake, I screamed out the window for someone to help me.

No one did.

Other drivers honked their horns. They didn’t know what was happening inside my Explorer. All they saw was a crazed woman swerving in and out of traffic, barely missing numerous vehicles, black smoke trailing behind from the brake pads tearing clean off. Next, smoke poured out the back. Not sure why. If I had to guess, I’d say it was the rotors or something else brake-related. All I knew was I couldn’t stop the damn SUV.

As the speedometer climbed toward 70mph, a gazillion things raced through my mind in the span of a few seconds, including how to crash the vehicle without killing myself or others. After five sets of lights and miles and miles of the most harrowing journey I’d ever had the displeasure of experiencing, I came to a stretch of road with a field on the right. My plan was to veer in to the field and crash into a tree, where hopefully I could jump out the driver’s door. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking clearly. My complete focus was on avoiding obstacle after obstacle so I didn’t kill anyone.

If it weren’t for two college students who pulled alongside me, I might not be alive today.

They hollered at me to throw the SUV into neutral, which I did. But the car kept accelerating. Then they told me to turn off the ignition. Finally, I rolled to a stop. When they hustled to my door, I could barely speak, nerves zinging through my system, tears streaming down my twitching cheeks.

Horrible memories make great fodder for books. Wouldn’t you agree?

Fast forward to 2017.

In May, my neighbor asked to borrow my vehicle because his wouldn’t turn over. Thing is, it was a fairly new vehicle. What we soon discovered was he’d missed a loan payment. The lender blocked access to the car by using what’s called a starter interrupter device to make the vehicle un-driveable till he brought his payments up-to-date.

My crime writer antennae dinged.

If they could prevent him from starting his SUV, could someone hack in and take control? What I discovered chilled me to the bone . . . and breathed life into HACKED.

Have you used a terrifying experience in your writing? Do tell.


“HACKED is a meaty novella packed with great characters, unexpected humor, intriguing plot twists & page turning pace. This comes from good writing and an author who delivers every time.” ~ Jordan Dane

“Witty, exciting and perfectly paced! Normally, novellas leave me wishing for more but Sue Coletta’s ‘Hacked’ was absolutely perfect!” ~ Amazon Reviewer

Look Inside: https://amzn.to/321QDqM 

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

48 thoughts on “Turning Real Terror into Fiction

  1. Those are quite the stories about your accelerator and your neighbor’s car, Sue. And HACKED sounds extremely interesting. What a great cover, too!

    I would imagine that for at least a while after the accelerator incident you wondered every time that you were in traffic if something similar would happen once again. Hmmm…that gives me an idea…

    I haven’t used my own terrifying experiences in stories — “I moved a box and a spider crawled out! EEEEEEEEEEE!” — but I have used experiences that I have heard about from others.

    Be safe, Sue, and have a great Labor Day!

    • Thanks, Joe! I didn’t drive for a long time after that incident. Even when I got back behind the wheel, I’d only drive short distances. My husband enjoys “Driving Miss Suzie,” so even today I much prefer the passenger seat.

      Wishing you a safe and happy Labor Day, too!

  2. Great post, Sue. And a great story. It kept me on the edge of my seat. I often think about that type of scenario while I’m driving, and wonder where I would crash the vehicle. I believe Toyota had some problems with stuck accelerators back in 2014.

    You got me thinking, with your question. I’ve never used my own experiences. I live a very boring life. But, working in the medical field, I’m always thinking about how “the system” could be hacked for nefarious purposes. Years ago I started a series with a wounded warrior who had medic and nurse anesthetist training and goes underground to solve such nefarious hacks of the system.

    I’m currently writing a middle-grade fantasy series for my grandchildren. When I finish that, I want to return to my Mark of the Fire series. In the meantime, I will start combing my boring history for any harrowing experiences.

    Thanks for all your great posts.

    • Aww, you’re so sweet to write a middle-grade fantasy series for your grandchildren, Steve. I’m sure they’ll cherish it for years to come.

      Working in the medical field, I bet you could reimagine frightening scenarios to turn into a compelling premise. Your wounded warrior story sounds awesome!

  3. Oh wow, I can only imagine the terror you must have felt! Thank goodness you managed to stop the SUV without having to jump & hit a tree! Were you hesitant to drive again after that?

    • Absolutely! I didn’t drive for a long time after that. Every time I got behind the wheel I relived the experience. I got my revenge on Ford, though. 😉

  4. Great story! As I was reading your terrifying tale I felt sure you were teaching us how to grab the reader and keep him/her glued to the pages (my heart rate went up). I expected your ending to sound something like: “Of course that didn’t really happen, but I had you! I used this technique that’s common in thrillers…” etc..
    I was sure it was just a lesson when you mentioned that shifting to neutral didn’t work. That was the first obvious thing I was thinking about to solve the problem. Then the author skillfully dashed that hope, putting the main character in greater danger.
    When I finished, all I thought was, Damn. That was real! I’m glad nobody got killed!
    Unfortunately (but not really), I’ve had no similar terrifying encounters. I’ll borrow others’ experiences. 🙂
    Great post. Thank you.

    • This happened to my mom when I was a kid. The cruise control came on and she couldn’t turn it off. And she had her two children in the car with her.

      It was terrifying! We were in the country with no cars and no lights. I know you were scared out of your mind in a city full of obstacles.

      Great story and I’m getting Hacked, can’t wait to read it ?

      • Wow, Cindy! Alone was bad enough. I can’t even imagine having children in the vehicle. Your poor mother.

        Hope you enjoy HACKED! The opening scene is my real experience with a few “enhancements.” 😉

  5. Wow, Sue! What a terrifying experience. It’s the kind of thing nightmares are made of. Thank goodness for those two college students.

    I had read recently that cars are really giant computers and can be hacked. System indicators can be changed to make you think you have a flat tire. If you put your home address into the GPS (and who doesn’t?), a hacker will know where you live. Lots of opportunity for mayhem! Which reminds me, I just grabbed a copy of Hacked. Can’t wait to see how you handle it in your story.

  6. Sue, you brought to mind many movie and TV scenes where a bad guy has disabled the brakes and the hero is now shooting downhill…most famously, perhaps, in North by Northwest.

    Good on those college kids.

    Your Explorer, BTW, was at the time prone to roll over. Just to add to your terror.

  7. Good grief. That was like the first chapter of some thriller. Terffifying! But now I know what to do if it happens to me. I Googled what to do etc and your savior guys were right — turn the ignition off! Whew…

    • Yeah, thank goodness for those two young men. I wish I knew their names. I would’ve dedicated the book to them. They were my guardian angels that day, and even drove me home. The police, my husband, and friends ALL said to turn the ignition off once I got home. That did me little good after the hell ride, though. I’m much happier in the passenger seat. 🙂

  8. Sue,

    What a terrifying episode! I’m glad you came out of that in one piece.

    It reminded me of the time, back in 1973, when I was returning home on the bus from grade school. The bus turned onto our street, to reveal skid marks that led past our house and onto the lawn of another house. Perched on the lawn was a white Ford station wagon. One of my classmates said to me, “Isn’t that your parents’ car?” Stunned, I couldn’t believe it. But it was. My mother had been driving it when the accelerator became stuck and she was forced to drive into a neighbor’s lawn, managing to stop just shy of their house.

  9. Sue, Hacked is now on my Kindle.

    In the first novel of my series, Instrument of the Devil, a terrorist hacks the protagonist’s new smartphone. She thinks the weird happenings are b/c she’s doing something wrong. In actuality, the villain uses her phone to set her up as a scapegoat for his attack on the power grid.

    You and I get our revenge the same way–after a loved one suffered a near-fatal accident due to factory defects, I mentioned that car corporation in my books, and not with a five-star rating!

    Most of all, glad you survived and are here to tell the story.

    • Thanks, Debbie! Writers use the most dangerous weapon of all — the written word.

      Instrument of the Devil sounds rife with conflict! Adding it to my TBR pile. 😀

  10. What a terrifying experience! I once had my brakes fail, but it was nowhere near the horror factor as yours. Thank goodness for those smart, compassionate college kids.

    However, when my son, my born-that-way, push-the-envelope-kid (there’s one in every tribe, and he’s still that way at 43) was about 2, he went missing in a crowded So. CA amusement park. It was at one of those crawl-through tubes that adults can’t fit into. He crawled in with a bunch of other mini park-goers and didn’t come out the other end. As you can imagine, I was near a complete break-down after waiting for a day and a half…not really, more like about 20 minutes…for him to reappear. We finally found a smallish middle schooler, whose parent agreed to let us use him as a sniffer dog.

    The kid found him and made him come out. Chris finally appeared with a huge grin on his face, asking, “Were you scared, Mama?” He’s been scaring me ever since. And now he’s got a fourteen-year-old boy cut from the same batman cape. Oy!

    All that to say, when I wrote a scene for my WIP, No Tomorrows, I relived that nauseating agony. A four-year-old girl goes missing in a community park. I purposely strung out the scene to sixteen pages, the tension and fear building as her mother runs from one end of the park to the other searching and imagining. The time elapsed was only about thirty minutes, but it was a lifetime and a half for Mom. Now, during the editing and revision process, I still get scared when I read that scene.

    I remember that nausea. The images conjured up in a parent’s imagination in that kind of situation are barely printable. I figure if I still get scared reading it, maybe a reader or two will…

    (And a nod to JSB for pointing me some time back to an excerpt out of Dean Koontz’s Whispers for an example of a long, scary, tension-building scene. 🙂

    • Whoa, sounds frightening, Deb. When I was about 5 y.o. my mother went through a similar experience in a shopping mall at Christmastime. She turned her back for a half-second, and I vanished. Panic set in. Everyone in the store was searching under racks of clothes and in dressing rooms. Then, over the speaker, my mother heard my voice. When she stepped outside the store, there I stood . . . on stage singing with the band. LOL

  11. I’ve never had an experience like that, Sue. So glad you made it through the experience–I can’t exactly say safely. There was apparently a LOT of psychological damage left behind. (Being afraid to drive . . . a lot of damage.)

    Thank God for the college kids.

    • You’re lucky, Jim. This story is one of many. I’ve been hit by not one but two tractor trailers while I was stopped in a line of traffic waiting for the exit ramp. I’ve been driven off the road by a drunk driver. Stalked by a car full of kids at night, drunk or high on God knows what. This incident was just the last straw. Is it any wonder I prefer the passenger seat?

      In 2020, I’ve driven twice. Once to drive my husband to the hospital after an accident with a chainsaw (story for another time) and last week to get his stitches out. And I’m fine with that. I don’t think I drove at all in 2019.

  12. Thank God you and everyone else on the road was safe. One of the good things about being a writer of mayhem is we play out disasters in our heads in quiet logic so we may have that info stored in case of an emergency.

    In February, I was sitting at a stop sign ready to turn onto a four lane road that was divided by a deep grass median filled with a concrete drainage culvert. I took my foot off the brake, and in the next confused seconds, I was being slammed by speed, my seat belt grabbed me, and I was batting away the air bag. The car was straddled over the culvert with its nose in the grass, and it was pancaked from the tires upward into the engine. I was able to get out with only bad bruises from the safety equipment that had saved me. It was so fast that mental slow motion was never achieved, and I wasn’t frightened to death.

    I have no memory of touching the gas, let alone slamming it into the speed I would have needed to leap over that culvert which, frankly, a low-end 2014 Ford Focus shouldn’t have achieved. Since I walked away from the totaled car, Ford and Nationwide didn’t bother to figure out what the spit happened. I’m a missing statistic in what may be a Ford death trap.

    That’s not an accident that would be very novel-worthy, but any disaster and its emotions can be mined for use later in other contexts. Maybe a cop in a bullet-proof vest is hit by a sniper. One moment he’s just standing there minding his own business, then he’s on the ground with no clue about how he got there.

    Most of my mined personal physical and emotional terrors have come from years of horseback riding, but I did write a scene in my first novel where one of the characters is almost killed on horseback in an accident I survived. His was man-made. Mine was bad luck and a storm which had dropped several trees across the trail out of line of sight.

    • Frightening, Marilynn! Thank God you’re okay. That had to be terrifying. Love the sniper idea. 🙂

      I’ve got a quick horse story for you.

      Kindergarten had just let out and I was walking through the school lot with my older brother. My mom was within throwing distance when I spotted a dirty white horse (you know the color, with gray splotches mixed in) and his female rider. As we passed, she asked if I wanted to pet her horse. My mother’s expression didn’t show concern (circa 1971 or ’72) so I reached up and the horse clamped down on my upper arm and whipped me across the parking lot. Still got the scars. My next memory is the doctor coming to our house to deliver the first round of rabbi shots. Not a big fan of horses after that. They’re beautiful and majestic . . . from a distance. 🙂

      • Yeah, that was scary and painful. In a situation like that, punch the horse in the nose or higher. I’ve been bitten by cats, dogs, and horses, and not a one has ever tried a second time because of the punch and because I taste really bad.

        That horse, it was dapple gray by the way, wasn’t showing standard horse behavior. I’ve never seen or heard of one that just attacked like that without any warning. The ears will go back, and the horse may nip if they are annoyed with you, but they are pacifist prey animals. Most also tend to understand the difference between a young human and an adult and will be more forgiving of a kid.

        If that was a pony instead of a horse, the behavior is more understandable. Some ponies are nasty, vicious jerks.

        • When that horse bit me he’d already bitten five others. Some official came to the house and asked my mother if she wanted it put down, but she couldn’t deliver a death sentence to an animal. The person he bit after me did, though.

  13. I was terrifed just reading that account. Thank goodness those kids were there to help. I would have been so terrified I don’t think I would have even thought of the things they mentioned. I know we as writers regularly make use of life experiences for our writing, but some, like that one, I’m sure we could all do without. 😎

  14. I’ve driven onto black ice at evening three times, and come to a safe stop in the ditch each time after spinning out of control. Once into a slot 3rd from the end of about a dozen cars already in the ditch at the base of a long grade southbound on I-15 in Utah on a late December afternoon. Your experience reminded me of this, and one of my favorite lines from a movie scene: https://youtu.be/IPMgc_Hbomg

    • Hahahaha! That clip is hilarious, Richard. Thanks for the laughs!

      I don’t want to sound sexist, but I think men handle car “issues” better than women. I’d never had a problem driving in ice and snow, thank God, but that’s my husband’s job now. 😉

  15. I’m sensing a theme here with a Ford product. This happened in the early 60s with a Mercury to my mom..

    She and my little brother in his car-seat had just picked me up from junior high. To get home we went the usual route, down a very long hill. At the end of the hill was a four-lane highway straight ahead and a truck weigh station to the left. But before the intersection was a bridge with a rise that went over a creek.

    A little before the bridge Mother stepped on the brake. Only nothing happened. We flew over the rise, which my brother thought was great fun (I know this because he giggled and “blew” the little horn on his car-seat). Speeding was totally out of character for Mother. I looked over at her and she had a power grip on the steering wheel. Once we cleared the bridge, she yanked a hard left for the parking area of the truck station. I don’t know how she got the car to stop. Possibly she shut the ignition off. I don’t remember driving home. But we did. Whether by coincidence or design, the folks bought another car within a year. It also was a Ford product. Good brakes. Bad rear wheel bearings.

    Very glad your road experience also turned out okay.

  16. You’ve told me the runaway Explorer story before, Sue, but this version took me right into the seat beside you. Whhhooooah…. I was seeing it through the windshield of your words. Nice to hear the happy ending even though I wouldn’t have wanted to do your laundry. Hope you traded the Explorer in for a white Bronco. I hear they go much slower in busy traffic.

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