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A long-awaited Christmas gift

It's a wonderful life all right for a couple who, after nearly 30 years, publish a holiday story that might head to TV.

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published October 26, 2005


It all started with a simple question:

What if?

What if a 21-year-old creative-writing major from Delaware and a 25-year-old newspaper reporter from Connecticut could author a Christmas classic along the lines of It's a Wonderful Life

What if they could attract the attention of a movie producer who would turn their story into a major motion picture?

What if they could then convert their script into a bestselling novel?

Within months of meeting in 1975, Katharine Fair and Christopher "Chip" Scanlan decided to find out if they could pool their energies to make a dream come true.

Now, after a 30-year collaboration in love and life, the husband-and-wife team understand that the biggest dreams sometimes are launched with the simplest questions - and a lot of hard work.

Fair, 51, a freelance writer, and Scanlan, 55, an award-winning feature writer who is a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, are on the verge of having their story, The Holly Wreath Man, turned into a television movie.

The tale of a harried executive who learns the true meaning of Christmas was published as a book in September after appearing in 2003 as a serial novel in newspapers across the country.

The couple's own story started on a Sunday morning when Scanlan stopped by the Delaware State News to pick up a paper. Fair, who was working three jobs to put herself through college, was at the reception desk. They decided to go horseback riding for their first date.

Before long, the couple had begun a conversation about a two-part feature Scanlan recently had written for the paper. The conversation - another series of "what if's" - went like this:

What if things had turned out differently for the character known as the Holly Wreath Man, the one who struggled to preserve the local Depression-era tradition of holiday wreathmaking that supported poor farm families? What if instead of being put out of business by a jealous competitor, something had happened to save the day?

Sensing they had the makings of a holiday classic, the couple began casting the movie-to-be before they ever put pen to paper. Then they bought a script writing book so they would know how to "do it right" and talked about how wonderful it would be when they were rich and famous.

"We thought if we could write a story about a burnout case and get it in the hands of Clint Eastwood, he would go for the movie," Scanlan said. "Our dream was to make a movie, a big movie, that people would watch every Christmas."

But the years flew by. Moves to Washington, D.C., and Florida and the birth of three children put The Holly Wreath Man on a back burner. Yet the couple never gave up on it completely.

"Sometimes we put it aside for a year, two years," Fair said. "We would get it out, but we wouldn't really do anything with it."

Then in 1997, a former Universal Press Syndicate executive came to Poynter. He said the syndicate was looking for projects and asked Scanlan and Fair if they had anything to submit.

"We looked at each other and said, "Oh, do we ever have something,' " Fair said.

The syndicate wanted to see a sample right away, so the couple wrote a synopsis and a few chapters, which were promptly rejected. Disappointed, they put the script away for several more years.

Then Scanlan discovered the work of a "productivity guru" named David Allen. He was so impressed with Allen's five-step plan to help people get things done that he began teaching it at Poynter-sponsored National Writers workshops. In 2003, another Universal Press Syndicate executive turned up at one of the workshops.

"I remember waking up the next morning thinking, "Maybe he'll like The Holly Wreath Man,' " Scanlan said. " "He's the president. Maybe he'll say yes.' "

It turned out the syndicate wanted to turn the story into a newspaper serial novel. After reading what Scanlan and Fair had written so far, the syndicate asked the couple to deliver another 22 chapters in 21/2 weeks.

"We counted up the hours and subtracted time for sleep, time for eating, and some time for the kids," Scanlan said. "We realized we could probably spend about three hours per chapter, but we soon learned it didn't always take three hours for a chapter. Sometimes they took five hours."

The couple got an extension, and using Allen's five-step plan, made their deadline.

"There were 19-hour days," Fair said. "We neglected our children, we neglected our house. We ate out all the time."

After The Holly Wreath Man's newspaper debut, the syndicate wanted to turn the story into a movie. Its request for a book followed.

"It was so funny," Scanlan said. "It started out as a script and went nowhere. It became a serial newspaper novel, then we turned it into a script. Now it's a book."

In hindsight, the hardest part has been waiting to hear from publishing executives, Scanlan said.

"Katharine is much more confident than I am, much more of a natural extrovert," he said. "She's an optimist and I'm a pessimist."

"That's good because he keeps my head out of the clouds," Fair said.

They agree that the best part has been the chance to work together. But there have been tense moments.

"It's when we get anxious because we don't think it's going well," Fair said. "I don't like what he's saying and he doesn't like what I'm saying."

Those are the times when they call on their "cold reader squad," a band of "eagle-eyed and sharp-eared" friends and colleagues. Among them are the couple's 18-year-old daughter, Caitlin, and their 16-year-old twins, Lianna and Michaela.

"Their approval is more important than anybody else's," Scanlan said.

Both Fair and Scanlan have experienced "aha!" moments in bringing The Holly Wreath Man to life. For Fair, the biggest surprise has been how following a plan makes everything easier.

"I always thought you had to be inspired," she said. "But when you sit down and map things out, the creativity comes. You just have to do the work."

For Scanlan, the biggest discovery, despite more than 30 years as a writer, has been the power of words to move people.

"The idea that you can control people's emotions with marks on paper was a surprise," he said. "I don't know why."

As they wait for word about the movie version of The Holly Wreath Man, Fair and Scanlan have turned their attention to another serial newspaper novel. This one, called Mystery @ Elf Camp, is about a group of children who learn that Santa's workshop is staffed not by elves but by kids like themselves who are facing challenges.

The couple followed the five-step plan from the beginning with Mystery @ Elf Camp, setting aside at least 15 minutes every day to work on it. They hope their second effort will be as successful as their first, but they're maintaining a philosophical outlook.

"We've had a dream come true," Scanlan said. "Everything else is gravy."

MEET THE AUTHORS

Christopher "Chip" Scanlan and Katharine Fair will appear at the Times Festival of Reading at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Davis Hall 103. For information about the festival, go to www.festivalofreading.com

[Last modified December 6, 2005, 10:44:48]


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