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.

♫ Wouldn’t You Like to Be A Genius, Too ♫

ImageSometimes I have ideas, and I think I’m a genius. Within a week, I see my genius advertised on television for $19.95. Someone beat me to it.

I have two genius ideas right now:

Genius Idea #1- I think every automobile should have a light bar running from left to right across the back of the car. It will show you the degree to which the driver has applied the brakes. Is Grandpa riding the brake and thereby applying only a little pressure? Just a few lights of the bar will light. Is the driver braking rationally in preparation for a stop? Possibly half of the lights will light. Or has the driver slammed on the brakes because a squirrel darted into the middle of the road and held up a stop sign? All of the lights across the rear end will blind you with their redness. Rear end collisions would be eliminated with my light bar, which is a way better idea than that goofy additional red light in the back window. … The Big Three have ignored my emails.

Genius Idea #2 – We don’t heat our upstairs in the winter. It’s great for sleeping, and with plenty of blankets, it’s always warm and toasty in the bed. Getting out is manageable, but taking off warm pajamas to put on frozen clothing is brutal! This year, I’m putting my clothes for the next day into a box with an electric heating pad hooked up to a timer set to turn on an hour before I get up. I’ll let you know how that invention works out and if the guys at the Shark Tank go for it.

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When I came up with an idea for my next book, I thought I’d hit upon genius again!

I’m a Janet Evanovich fan. In 2008, I picked up the first book in her Stephanie Plum series, and I read it in one sitting. I laughed out loud – something I rarely do when I’m by myself. I read the next thirteen books in the series, plus the in-betweens, in just two weeks.

In Explosive Eighteen, there is quite a bit of action at Stephanie’s apartment in New Jersey. I thought it would be awesome to have Susan and Darby go to New Jersey, stay with his uncle in Stephanie’s apartment building, and their story would run parallel to hers for one weekend. Darby would comment on the passed-out redhead in the hallway, or they would be awakened by multiple gunshots in the middle of the night, and the uncle would bark, “Go back to bed. It’s just the bounty hunter across the hall.”

Genius I tell you! There would be no mention of any names whatsoever. Only an Evanovich fan would catch the references.

But I do my homework. Research and a quick online consultation Imagewith a copyright attorney quickly exposed my folly. Even though no names would be referenced, characters and locations are by design copyrighted. If fictitious characters and locations can be recognized, you cannot use them.

It would have been fun to write, and I was disappointed. This idea came to me out of nowhere. I was working on something else at the time. Why was it dumped into my head by the universe?

Ha! I don’t give up that easily. It’s still a good idea. In my next book, Windy City Hunter, coming to an eReader near you in 2013, I have Susan and Darby staying in a condo in Chicago. I know I want a subplot in the condo, and I still want to use my idea of these two looking in on events from another book.

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Not the book I have in mind.

I’ve been speed-reading Public Domain Books! I’ve already found two possibilities. I’m pretty sure this isn’t an original idea, and when someone reads my book they will likely have no idea what I’ve done, but I’m pleased that an idea fell into my head, and I figured out a way to make it work.

Have you ever used a public domain book when writing? Tell me about your inventions!