Once You Start, Where Do You Stop? by Nevada McPherson
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist Nevada McPherson as she shares with us “Once You Start, Where Do You Stop?” Enjoy!
Greetings! Hope your summer reading and writing projects are coming along nicely. If you’ve been busy with other summer activities you’ve still got a few weeks to read a novel or two or to pen a rough draft before fall arrives. I’ve personally been in the process of moving into a new apartment and am only now getting to some projects I’ve been planning.
With the first installment of my new graphic novel Queensgate completed I’m preparing to write a new play. It’s a period piece set during the American Civil War, which means a certain amount of research will be necessary, but for a project with a historical backdrop such as this, how much research is needed? Only enough to get the story of these characters told in a way that feels authentic and true.
I’ve written a couple of screenplays based on the lives of real people and in so doing read numerous biographies, past newspaper and magazine articles and all manner of ephemera associated with the subjects. When I wrote about Beat author Jack Kerouac, I’d previously done research on the Beat Movement and its writers for a class I was teaching called Literature of the Counterculture. I’d done some research on Kerouac and several of his contemporaries, the cultural context of the movement and his relationships with other authors and influences. As I continued to do research in preparation for the screenplay, I read of conversations, interviews, legendary parties, poetry readings, trips back and forth across America and things that happened in between. This was all most fascinating but at some point a writer/ storyteller has to stop researching and focus on the story itself and the subject as character.
When I wrote a screenplay about silent film director Erich Von Stroheim I started with a very short entry in a film encyclopedia (again, doing research for a lecture on Sunset Boulevard, for a film studies class I was teaching), became fascinated with his life and times then moved on to various biographies, then the Gloria Swanson Collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas where I came across photographs, letters, contracts and shooting schedules associated with Von Stroheim’s work on the Swanson film, Queen Kelly. On a trip to London I set aside time to spend at the library of the British Film Institute where I perused newspaper articles about Von Stroheim, including one about a gala given for him at the Savoy Hotel in London in the 1950’s. Again, quite fascinating stuff but all this went on for at least two years before I ever wrote a word of my screenplay!
The idea for my Civil War story started with a glimpse I had of a character at an abandoned planation house near the Chalmette Battle Field beside the Mississippi River outside New Orleans. I’ve since switched the location to Georgia where I now live and where I’m surrounded by antebellum history; the state house where Georgia voted to secede from the Union is on the campus of the college where I teach. Given the voluminous amount of information about the Civil War in general and here in Georgia in particular, it would be easy to spend months if not years on research and yet my goal is to have a rough draft completed by the end of the summer. My play is mainly about characters who aren’t actual historical figures (though one or two might be loosely based on some), who exist against the backdrop of momentous events and how those events will influence their lives, their interactions with others and finally their own actions. I want it to feel as authentic as possible and to have all the elements that will make it a compelling story.
I’m still in the early stages, but before I spend months or even years doing research, my first order of business is to get to know my characters, what they want and what’s in their way. From this I’ll arrange the “bones” of their story, then, when I get to know these characters better, they’ll show me the parts of their world where I should delve deeper into the mists of local history seen through the prism of the present. Have you ever found yourself so consumed with research that you’ve felt like you lost sight of the shore when it comes to the actual story itself? If so, go ahead and write the heart of it, where the characters interact, then sort through your research to discover what’s most integral to the telling of that story. If it turns out you have to do more research, so be it, but at least you’ll have direction, a more specific destination, and a definite end point in mind!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Originally from Georgia, Nevada McPherson lived in New Orleans for many years and now lives with her husband Bill and rescue Chihuahua, Mitzi in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she is a professor of Humanities at Georgia Military College. Nevada received a BA in English/ Creative Writing and an MFA in Screenwriting from L.S.U. She’s written over a dozen feature-length screenplays, one short screenplay, a short play, short stories and two graphic novels, Uptowners and Piano Lessons. She’s currently at work on her third graphic novel, Queensgate.
For more information about Nevada and her projects, visit www.nevada-mcpherson.com.