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.