Kellie Larsen Murphy

By Kellie Larson Murphy

The August show, “Writing Virginia into Your Fiction,” turned out to be one of the best of the year—informative, fun, and fast-paced. The audience heard examples and advice on how to incorporate Virginia into fiction (or non-fiction) from a wonderful panel that included a successful novelist, an accomplished filmmaker and writer, and the Director of the Virginia Film Office, the audience learned how Virginia can be the perfect setting for any writer.

Kathleen Grissom was born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, and is now happily rooted in southern Virginia. Her first novel, The Kitchen House, became a New York Times bestseller and has been published in over fourteen countries. Her second novel, A Glory Over Everything, will be released in April 2016.

April Marcel is the CEO of Gibson & White Pictures and earned a B.A. in Theatre and Film at Hollins University. She has had several films and plays produced, including God’s Eye, produced by Millennium Studios, the musical play At the Table, and the feature film, No Weapon Shall Prosper, which is distributed worldwide by Maverick Entertainment. Her comedic short play, Out of Gas, was produced at Mill Mountain Theatre and is now a feature film, which will soon be released.

Andy Edmunds, Director of the Virginia Film Office, is a Virginia native and an accomplished musician and songwriter. After studying music at VCU in the mid-80s, Edmunds produced a music video of one of his songs that was broadcast on MTV. This experience introduced him to the film production industry where he settled in with the Virginia Film Office in 1997 and has worked with many notable filmmakers including Terrence Malic, Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, and Steven Spielberg.

Moderator, Karen A. Chase, is the author of Bonjour 40: A Paris Travel Log, winner of seven independent publishing awards. Her historical novel about the Declaration of Independence is represented by Rebecca Gradinger of Fletcher & Co Literary in New York. She pens a monthly column, “Will Travel for Words”, for Originally from Calgary, Canada, Karen lives in Richmond and is on the board of James River Writers.

Karen opened the show with a few facts about the nine sections of Virginia, how each was different, and commented that Virginia represented the USA in miniature. Andy agreed, telling the audience that Virginia offered diverse topography with unique locations and characters. He pointed out the nine sections could be boiled down to mountains, coast, and piedmont areas and each contrasted sharply with the Northern Virginia/DC areas. He said, “Virginia is rich with material and accents, from the country to DC.”

Noting that there are times when the place starts the story, Karen asked Kathleen about setting and her novel, The Kitchen House. After telling the crowd she was a Canadian transplant residing in Southern Virginia, Kathleen talked about finding an old plantation and a map of that plantation that included a former tavern known as Negro Hill. That was the beginning of her obsession that became The Kitchen House.

However, settings in Virginia don’t need to be historical. Karen suggested Thelma’s, a place known for chicken & waffles as a setting. April agreed. In her screenplay, The Way to A Man’s Heart, the genre of the food, locale, and dialect make the story.

For Kathleen, research played a large role in her novel. She visited three historians and spoke with multiple people who were locals. As Karen pointed out, people will help you if you ask. Andy joked that while it’s true here in Virginia, in Hollywood, people won’t hesitate to use “location extortion.” They want to be paid for the use of their land, house, etc. while Virginians are always friendly and ready to help. He cited the filming of three major projects in Virginia: Loving, Big Stone Gap, and Turn. Another series, Mercy Street, is also shooting in Virginia.

While these are larger projects that remind us Virginia has a lot to offer with its history, the people themselves can be characters. April’s grandmother was exactly that—a woman of faith who slept with a gun and cursed. April was able to keep this amazing woman alive as the inspiration for her character, Mother Straightway.

There are many ways to research and use Virginia in our fiction. According to Andy, the film office has more than 120,000 images available from all over the state. These are “not necessarily beauty shots” and include interiors and exteriors. Karen said she likes to go the sites of her stories. “I walk the land and it comes up through my feet,” she said. Kathleen admitted she drank from the dismal swamp as part of her research. She told the audience that kneeling down and drinking was a spiritual experience. Other ways to capture the essence of location were to collect rocks and plants or to record the sounds. Andy agreed that if the author can capture the setting, it can serve as a character and help the reader connect.

While researching, there can still be unanswered questions. Kathleen used the genealogy section of the library as well as court records. Karen has found the state library helpful. April takes the direct approach and spoke with police while working on No Weapon Shall Prosper, her project on domestic violence. They gave her access to other organizations. “You don’t know unless you ask,” she said.

Research often involves travel. Karen asked the panelists if they had any advice. Andy said, “Don’t forget your charger.” After the audience laughed, he also added the film office helps travel writers on a regular basis. Along the same lines, April reminded authors not to forget their computers. Kathleen advised writers to keep an open mind and ask questions. The final advice came from Karen. She said, “Leave your phone in the car. Use your five senses and experience the places.”

The first half of the show was followed by a question and answer session—always an audience favorite! September’s show (the last of the year) also promises to be both educational and fun. The topic next month, “Market and Promote your Indie Book, A Step-by-Step Guide”, will outline marketing options (pre and post-release) and feature Terri Leidich of BQB Publishing. Attendees will receive spreadsheets and task-lists. Looking forward to another g

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