Book Covers and The Public Domain

ImageNow that National Novel Writing Month is over, I have a book in hand. I didn’t take the advice of experienced NaNo participants, and I did some editing as I went along – at least on the first half of the book. I finished writing last Monday, and since then, I’ve made a pass on the second half of the book.

My mother has finished reading it, and she has proclaimed it entertaining and a winner. That’s what mother’s are for, but she really did like it. We laughed over a few scenes, and she approved a few minor swear words that worked well in their context. My books really are pretty squeaky clean.

I usually cut out pictures, use glue, crayons, and markers to cobble together ideas for covers. I used the cover from Big Apple Hunter and started playing around with that yesterday.  Here was my first attempt. It is only being shown for humor purposes:

ImageThis is what I sent to my niece and asked her to work a miracle for me: ImageI want a Christmas tree that is mostly white -or- one that is very colorful; whichever looks best. I’m leaning toward a colorful tree. If I’m going Christmas on the cover, I may as well go all the way. I want a Chicago skyline, Susan in an apron while holding a cake, and I need a gorilla head! She also needs longer hair because Mick doesn’t want her to cut it. Men! It will be fun to see what Gillian comes up with based on the mess I sent to her. I gave her free rein to discard my ideas and go with something completely different if she wanted to.

This morning (Saturday), I double-checked the story I “used” in my book to be certain it was in the public domain. I spent most of my day reading about public domain works, and how they can be used for inspiration, or in your writing itself.

You may remember that I wanted to put Susan into a situation where she was seeing events unfold in the apartment building of Stephanie Plum. I wouldn’t mention any names from the Evanovich book, simply references of hearing gunshots, seeing a redhead lying in the hallway, men in black at her door, etc.  But, I soon found out that even if names are not mentioned, if a scene is recognizable, it is copyrighted.

I started reading books and stories in the public domain. I had the main storyline for my book mapped out, but I still wanted a sub-plot in the condo. I wanted Susan and Darby to have a parallel view of Imagesomething happening in another book. I finally found a short story in an old pulp fiction magazine.

It started out perfectly. The two of them saw the body, and they were questioned when the police arrived. It was all downhill from there. I only meant for them to observe and comment, but Susan can’t keep her nose out of anything, and she ended up smack dab in the middle of everything. I actually felt as though I had no control of the story at times. Writing still surprises me so much.

My book turned out better than I could have hoped by taking some elements of the public domain story and turning them into something completely different. I didn’t use any of the same names, nor did I use any text from the original story. Once Susan started snooping around the building, there were actually only a few original elements that remained.

That brings me to some of the things I’ve read as I’ve searched public domain books and articles over the past two months. It’s been fascinating!

Public domain is massive. There are more than 85 million books and stories in the public domain. In a nutshell, that means you can pretty much do anything you want with them.

If I wanted to write a book about Cinderella (the original Cinderella) traveling in H. G. Wells’ time machine to obtain some advice from Romeo and Juliet, I could do so. My new, original story would be copyrighted, but the characters would not. The characters will always remain in the public domain for others to use.

Many old fairy tales have been rewritten into modern day tales. Beauty and the Beast didn’t originate as a Disney movie. Look no further than Once Upon A Time on television, and you will see very creative use of public domain works.

You can borrow ideas, concepts, plots, and characters, and do Imagewhatever you want with them as you write them into your new work. Numerous beloved stories have been adapted. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a New York Times bestseller, a creation from the public domain, and it’s being made into a movie starring Natalie Portman.

My husband and I spent nearly an hour this morning chatting about the public domain, and discussing how so many books, movies, television shows, and music have used work from public domain sources to create wildly popular spinoffs, mashups, and new works.

Because there is still at least one Sherlock Holmes work of Sir ImageArthur Conan Doyle that is under copyright, the character of Sherlock Holmes won’t be released into the public domain until 2022. Start working on your zombie and vampire books now. The Sherlock Holmes fans will be gobbling them up.

Have you ever written a story, book, or song based on something that was in the public domain?

P.S. – The little cutie pie at the top of this post? She’s there because the first picture posted in the reader is the *BIG* one, and I couldn’t let that goofy cover with the gorilla head behind the Christmas tree be it, so you get to look at a little cutie pie.

50 thoughts on “Book Covers and The Public Domain

  1. “Crack Detective”? Ain’t even goin’ there. 😉

    As for proudly prejudiced zombies… I’ll leave that to others too.

    You’re really pretty amazing, Maddie. The amount of work you do shows up in your product. Nice work.

    • I remember Ellery Queen magazines in our house when I was a youngster. I used to love reading the mysteries. In another life, I could have been a gumshoe. … Thank you for your kind words, Tim.

  2. In my travels as an antiques and collectibles dealer once upon a time, I came across many books to buy, sell and keep, and always search to find out if they’re under copyright or public domain. Most have been, but I’ve got one gem from the early 1800’s, that was used for entertainment value. It’s sort of a fortune telling booklet. The fortunes are actually difficult to understand. Sign of the times, I guess. I really should get off of my butt and get it published, with my changes, of course.
    Thanks for this. Very helpful and fun post.

    • Thanks, Darylann. You could truly put your name on that little book and publish it word for word as is, but I agree, making changes and putting your own voice to it will be so much more fun. Good luck with your project when you undertake it.

    • Because of homeschooling and selling used children’s books, I’ve been aware of public domain works for many years, but it wasn’t until this year, when I started writing and looking into it more myself, that I saw so many interesting and creative uses by others.

    • Thank you, Annie! It wasn’t five minutes after I sent this post up, and my niece sent a mock up to me of her idea. It is *really* good, and I’m delighted. I’ll unveil it within the next ten days. 🙂

  3. Your spoof covers gave me a laugh, especially with that gorilla poking its head out from behind the tree.
    I’m glad you were able to find something that works for you! I’ve never really used anything from the public domain, but I do have a modern Sleeping Beauty idea stashed away for a rainy day. 🙂

    • I think many people have used public domain works without even realizing it. We are more comfortable to put a new twist on an old fairy tale, but there are so many books and stories that could be used for interesting new works as well. I found reading about the public domain to be really interesting.

  4. It will be interesting to see how your cover evolves, and since I’ve read Sunshine Hunter, I’ve been dying to get to the rest of the series. If only I didn’t have to go to work during the day I could get so much reading and writing done:)

    • My niece sent her first idea to me yesterday. I laughed out loud. Not because it was so funny (well, maybe just a tish because she knows me and knows what I want), but because she nailed it on the first try, and I’m going to love it. She makes it fun for me. I should be working during the day, but writing and blogging seem to keep me from making any money these days. 😉

  5. rGreat informative blog. I have used Aesop’s fables and fairy tales in some of my stuff. My favorite was the” Darrel The Fairy Tale Dwarf” comics I did a while back.

  6. I can’t wait to see how the new cover turns out… how exciting!
    I wasn’t aware of the whole public domain thing, and I must admit, I didn’t like it when they turned Jane Austin’s characters into zombies… (Even if its being made into a movie with Natalie Portman) 🙂

    • Thanks, Robert! These past couple of months of digging into public domain works and what you can do with them has really sparked some ideas for me. There are so many things I would like to try. I will leave the super heroes to you though. 😉 Oooh, a super hero Bellman! I would buy that book!!

  7. Great info on the public domain stuff. I sent your site off to my brother I thought he would find the domain info very useful, he too is a writer. Oh by the way I like the white Christmas tree !!!

    • Thank you, Rita Kay. I saw the first mock up from my niece yesterday, and the tree is “white.” 🙂 When is your next surgery? My mother’s knee is still a bit swollen and bothering her. We’re only going to wait until the end of the week. If it’s not better, we’ll have the MRI done.

  8. Pingback: That Uncertain Feeling – [Public Domain Movie] « mostly music

  9. I’m working on two fairytale rewrites myself, it’s rather tough. It has me tearing my hair out. Am very impressed you made it through NaNoWriMo without fail. I suppose you’re lucky to have the always supportive mum, but mine is a little critical. She supports me very well when it comes to writing, always brags of my accomplishments and points out the faults. Lately she can’t point out much, which has me triumphing, but only through a lot of hard work and self-teaching. Interesting about the public domains….

    • It helps that our son has moved out, and sad to say, even that our two older dogs have passed. I never realized how much of my time all three of them usurped until they weren’t here. I work from home, so in all fairness, I had quite a lot of time to write for NaNo. My mom was really irritated when she found out I was writing my first book. She was sure I would write something that would embarrass her. The fact that my books are pretty fluffy and not offensive makes it easier for her to be supportive. That’s good that your mom can’t point out much right now. 🙂 … I did find the public domain reading to be super interesting, and I plan to look into more creative ways to use some of the materials after the first of the year. Good luck with the fairy tale rewrites!

  10. Fascinating and valuable information to know. TY! 🙂
    ¸.•*¨*•.♪♫♫♪ 😆 Happy Holidays to You & Yours! 😆 .♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸ ♥
    ˜”*°•.˜”*°•.˜”*°•.★★.•°*”˜.•°*”˜.•°*”˜” ♥ ˜”*°•.˜”*°•.˜”*°•.★★.•°*”˜.•°*”˜.•°*”˜”

  11. Pingback: Avoiding the Circus -and- A Breakthrough | Breezy Books

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