Friday, June 10, 2011

Adaptation Interview: Sharon Black

So far I've posted interviews with writers about adapting one form of writing to another, such as a screenplay to novel. This interview focuses on what it's like to create a screenplay from an actual historical event. 
Writer Sharon Black conducted ample research to write her screenplay
Home on the Range, 
the Story of the Song

Continue below the interview for a synopsis of the screenplay and information about Sharon.

Q: What inspired you to write about "Home on the Range"? Do you have a personal interest in the song?

SB: First, the cabin that Doctor Higley lived in still stands in Smith County, it being over one hundred years old. It is open to visitors year round.

Second, a school teacher, Margaret Nelson, wrote a book titled Home on the Range about the settling of Smith County. She writes about Doctor Higley performing pioneer surgery and Dan Kelley and his orchestra playing the song that Doctor Higley wrote. The book was published in 1947. Margaret was one of my mother's one room school house teachers and my mother bought a copy of the book at an auction. I read the book twice. That made me more aware of the song played in movies, radio, and television, (plus it is the Kansas state song) and I realized the making of the song was an interesting story and it deserves the big screen.

Q:  What type of research did you do in order to write the screenplay?

SB: I read the condensed version of Pioneer Women by Joanna Stratton to understand pioneer life. I took a lot of notes about how they lived and how they lived in dugouts. Next, I dug into the files of the genealogy room in Smith Center Public Library and looked at old newspapers on microfiche. They also have a scrapbook of newspaper clippings of every article about Higley, the song Home on the Range, and the cabin. I searched on the internet and also contacted  relatives of the Harlan Brothers Orchestra,the 3 man orchestra in which Dan Kelley joined and sang with. Mary Norris from Missouri sent me a three ring binder of the ancestry of the Harlan family. I also read articles from the Kansas Historical Quarterly  and Colorado Heritage magazine. I have permission for  particular articles and also have permission from author David Dary, who wrote True Tales of Old-Time Kansas, for a part of Act III.

Q: How challenging was it to blend accurate historical information with creative content?

SB: I had been listening to classical music on the radio for many years, and when I began writing the script, I heard a symphony by Beethoven and I heard a little of the melody of the song Home on the Range in it, so that got me to thinking that maybe the pioneers had attended concerts in the cities they lived in before coming out West, and that was the standard music along with the popular tunes from the Civil War. So in my script, that little melody that does sound like the song Home on the Range, could have been the foundation for the song.
The story is like a rock band making a hit song, except they don't have any idea that the song became popular. 

I gave the characters an upbeat attitude because Higley did observe the pioneers as not saying a discouraging word. In the third act, I showed the attorney Samuel Moanfeldt gathering information from people, and having them sign affidavits, and that the backseat of his car was filled with hundreds of affidavits from several states. So I tried to blend historical with a sense of humor. 

Q: How many "creative liabilities" (i.e. did you change facts to fit the story) did you take?

SB: I wanted to try to find out exactly which saloon the Harlan Orchestra played in at Ft. Hays. I didn't attempt to so I chose the Tommy Drum saloon, which seemed to fit with the facts rather than the other saloons. Later, on the Higley Facebook page, a friend mentioned what happened in the book Home on the Range was told in another old book which took place in the Tommy Drum saloon.

In the third act after Moanfeldt visits Cal Harlan and his wife in Smith Center, Kansas, Mrs. Harlan calls her niece in Kansas City to tell her that Moanfeldt is looking for evidence. When Moanfeldt waits in the airport in Kansas City, the niece finds him to give him a hand printed copy on foolscap paper of the poem/song Home on the Range.  Moanfeldt did visit her in Kansas City in her home, but I felt this was more theatrical.

Also, Doc Higley doing a c-section pioneer style was probably a fact changer, and that the woman survived.
In Act III, it is shown that the Smith County Pioneer in which the poem was published in 1873, is stolen. This is attributed to the publicity of the half million dollar lawsuit. I did read in one newspaper article that the original copy in the newspaper files was missing.

Q: Are there any films that are similar to your screenplay?
SB: I'm sure there is something similar, but I've never set out to find one and watch it.

Thanks, Sharon!

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Synopsis of Home on the Range, Story of a Song:

Dr. Brewster Higley wrote a poem titled My Western Home to describe his new home in Kansas. He kept the poem in a book and forgotten about until a man with a gunshot wound is brought to him for treatment. While recovering he opens a book to read and the poem falls  out. A friend also reads the poem and tells Doc Higley it should be set to music.  Higley presents the poem to a musician, Dan Kelley, versatile musician in the Harlan Brothers Orchestra.
The song now titled Home on the Range becomes popular at dances and is played in a saloon in Ft. Hays to drovers and soldiers, it becoming a cowboy anthem. 
President Franklin D. Roosevelt declares Home on the Range his favorite song. The song is in the news as the subject of a half-million dollar lawsuit over copyright infringement.   Attorney, Samuel Moanfeldt, travels the West to find the real author, and discovers an original band member, Cal Harlan, in Smith Center, Kansas.

About writer Sharon Black:

Sharon Black is the 2008 second place winner in the Kansas Voices Writing Competition for a short story, The Little Tornado, which she now sells on CD.  She has a novel almost finished.  Currently, she is art director for the ezine, Strange, Weird, and Wonderful, plus other various tasks. She has written poetry and short stories for a variety of small press magazines. She is mentioned in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. Through genealogy, Sharon discovered she is distantly related to author Eudora Welty. Sharon lived for a short time in New Mexico and resides in Smith Center, Kansas, and works in a hospital.


  1. The Home on the Range cabin is being refurbished since it is over one hundred years old. Recently, singer Michael Martin Murphy donated his time to help raise funds for restoring it.

  2. Sorry, Michael Martin Murphey

  3. Home on the Range is being filmed! More than I ever dreamed of ... starring Buck Taylor. He was in Smith County during the filming, and what a nice man he is. Lone Chimney Films of Wichita is the company. Don't give up on your dreams.