When I got the call to appear as a featured guest on the History Channel's Engineering That Built the World tv series my response was: "Me? You Sure? How did you hear about me?" I was told that the head of the history Channel recommended me. Really.
Not sure if I can verify that but I will say that if it hadn't been for my blog on the Durant Family Saga probably no one would have heard of my fictional account of the family of Thomas Durant. My name is associated with this infamous family because of my relentless pursuit of information about them and blogging about the research journey.
I went to the New York City A&E studios in August 2021 and spent about two hours interviewing with Karl Hollandt and his crew from Six West Media. And while they only used about three minutes of the total interview, I was thrilled to be a part of the episode about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad titled Race for the Railroad.
I'm not an expert on the Transcontinental Railroad but I am well versed in the motivations behind why Thomas Durant conspired to take over the Union Pacific Railroad and control the contracts - so he could bilk the U.S. government out of millions by over charging for construction.
It was the money he made during this time period (1864-69) that allowed him to acquire the half million acres in the Adirondacks which he planned to exploit as a playground for the rich during the Gilded Age. His son William was supposed to spearhead this venture and if you read my novels you will learned more about what happened to Thomas Durant's legacy.
If you missed the first episode you can stream it online here.
It had always been about the brother, William West Durant, not the sister, Ella. I even titled a blog Tracking William West Durant.
William West Durant (1850-1934) was a scandalous genius, a man with a vision for the untamed Adirondack wilderness of the late 1800s.
My novels on the Durant family have two or more Points of View (POV), I thought transferring that over to a screenplay would work. Not quite. When I sent my pilot screenplay off to an editor I was surprised when he told me, pick one POV and suggested Ella (1855-1943) - the one I had a hard time finding any information about until the discovery of her scrapbooks in an attic in Pennsylvania. The challenge was to pivot multiple POVs to Ella’s lens on reality.
Firstly, and this is for those who have never converted a novel into a screenplay, I didn't know how to write a tv series with one POV if there are scenes where that person is not present. Then I thought about The Crown. Everything that happens in that tv series, even if the Queen is not present in the scene, revolves around her. The people who orbit her personal planet all impact her ability to maintain The Crown.
I re-worked the pilot, the ‘bible’ all from Ella’s POV, and sent it off. My editor tells me “strong shades of OUT OF AFRICA here”. Yay! I wasn’t aiming for that, it just happens to be a true story. So the next edit is about “make this story more about Ella. It can be done with judicious POV switches throughout the script.”
I’ve come to think of writing a screenplay as the ultimate omniscient POV. I am the god of the script, attempting to relay what's happening to Ella even when she’s not aware. And oh my….the things in store for her……
Inevitably when I give a talk about my Durant Family Saga trilogy, I get asked if I've been approached by producers who want to turn it into a tv series or movie. Usually, these people are avid fans of the t.v. series Hell on Wheels. This show had a five season run starting in 2011. It was an AMC series that was then picked up by Netflix. The setting is mid 1860s and the plot is about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad which connected the eastern and western states in America.
I was almost done writing my first novel in the saga when someone alerted me to the series. I hated to watch it at first because I didn't want the show to taint my view of the main characters in my novel who also play a leading role in the tv series: Dr. Thomas Durant (Doc Durant) and Collis P. Huntington. In the series Doc Durant is played by Colm Meany who does an excellent job portraying him as the blustery, conniving robber baron that he was as head of the Union Pacific. Collis P. Huntington, played by Tim Guinee, is head of the Central Railroad, and Doc's arch enemy.
When Doc Durant was done with the Transcontinental he was mired in debt and lawsuits. But he happened to have acquired 1/2 million acres of land in the Adirondack wilderness to exploit. He summoned his son William and daughter Ella back home from their posh life in England to help him regain the family fortune.
When Doc Durant dies, his enemy Huntington befriends Doc's son William (a friendship that leads to William's downfall). When I discovered this I knew I had a great plot twist on my hands. I continued to watch the series as I wrote books two and three but by then, Doc Durant was dead (he dies in novel 2) and I was focused more on Collis and his relationship with Doc's son William.
My novels continue where the Hell on Wheels Series ended. I'm not one to fantasize about success or making millions, but when I realized what I was writing was a sequel to the stories of two of the main characters on Hell on Wheels, I registered my saga with the Writers Guild just to be on the safe side.
While having your books picked up for production is every author's dream, it's also a long shot. At this time, my pitch is out there - sitting in industry person's email inbox. Where will it end up? Who knows?
If I've learned anything from this process it's that a lead may take you on an incredible journey you hadn't anticipated. When I started writing the Durant Family story, I thought I was going to be writing a love story set in the wilderness, with William Durant as the leading man, and found myself tracking his family story all over the place: museums and libraries all up and down the east coast, England, and an auction house. I had descendants of the Durants provide me with family lore; a couple from Pennsylvania tell me they had Ella Durant's scrapbook sitting in their attic for over three decades and didn't know what to do with it until they read my blog about her; and an archivist at the NY Law Library help me track down a Durant sealed divorce file from 1898.
When I started this writing journey I never thought I'd be breaking the wax seal of a 100 year old divorce file in the basement of a Manhattan Courthouse; nor did I think I'd be writing a trilogy, or speaking to over 300 people each year about my novels. If I've learned anything it's that one never knows where a story might lead. You just gotta have faith it will end well.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.