One night in December 2003 I had the idea for a historical epic about a group of jazz musicians who went away to war. And since I was in the last five months of a BFA program in Film & Television, focusing almost exclusively on screenwriting, and I had to write a feature screenplay for one of my classes, I decided that the epic would be the screenplay. I wrote it and I showed it to a few people. They never failed to tell me how much they liked it and how it was “very literary,” but “not very commercial.” I understood immediately that “not very commercial” means “it’ll never be made.” It took me somewhat longer to realize that “very literary” means “write a novel, you fucking idiot!”
So, beginning last September, that is what I did. And today I have a draft of the first three chapters (about forty pages) that I’m happy with, and another forty pages that could use a lot of work.
Eighty pages isn’t too shabby but what people don’t understand is that the amount of time I have put into this project is twice what you would expect for this page count. Why? You guessed it. Research!
Now I knew when I decided to do this project that I was in for some research. But I had already done a lot of research for the screenplay so I didn’t think it would be too bad. I knew that researching a novel like this would be at least twice as hard as researching a screenplay with the same basic story — screenplays can play fast and loose with history, and anyway you can just write “gun” and the art department has to go figure out that it’s a Springfield Rifle, 1905 model.
Well it turns out I vastly under-estimated how hard it was going to be! I’ve done at least five times as much research as I did the first time around and I’m still going. And I’m jumping of Wikipedia to look up little things like a 1920 map of the Chicago El, or to find out which year the first new edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica in the 20th century was published, or which states had segregated trains in 1917.
Here is a list of the sources that I’ve used so far to help me research this project.
– Jamieson, Sgt. J. A. A Complete History of Colored Soldiers in the World War. New York: Bennett & Churchill, 1919.
– Astor, Gerald. The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military. San Francisco: Da Capo Press, 1998.
– Barbeau, Arthur E and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers. New York: DaCapo Press, 1974.
– Braddan, William S. Under Fire with the 370th Infantry. Self-published by author, c. 1920.
– Bertin, François. 14-18 : La Grande Guerre. Rennes: Editions Ouest-France, 2006.
– Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
– Harris, Bill. The Hellfighters of Harlem. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002.
– Harris, Stephen L. Harlem’s Hell Fighters. Washington: Potomac Books, 2003.
– Grandhomme, Jean-Noël. La Première Guerre Mondiale en France. Rennes: Editions Ouest-France, 2002.
– Icher, François. La Première Guerre Mondiale au jour le jour. Paris: Editions de La Martinière, 2007.
– Little, Arthur W. From Harlem to the Rhine. New York: Haskell House, 1974.
– Moss, Maj. James A. Privates’ Manual. Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Co., 1917.
– Moss, Maj. James A. Manual of Military Training. Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Co., 1917.
– Moss, Maj. James A. Officers’ Manual. Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Co., 1917.
– University of Chicago. The Negro in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922.
– Yanow, Scott. Classic Jazz. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2001.
Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Lt. Jim Europe and the 396th Infantry “Hellfighters” Band
James P. Johnson
Jelly Roll Morton
The Original Dixieland Jass Band
– Read every edition of Le Petit Parisien (Paris daily newspaper) from February 18, 1918, to April 15, 1918. And still going…
– Made contact with a French expert on the jazz of this period.
– Traveled to the site of the first jazz concert in Europe.
– Research trip to the South Side of Chicago.
– Reserach trip to the François Mitterand National Library in Paris.
– Research trip to World War I battlefields in Verdun, France.
Leave a comment! What are your experiences with research?