What is the Public Domain?
When someone publishes a story, they usually keep the copyright to that story. That means that they are the only one who can sell that story or write other stories with the same characters or setting. For example, as much as you might want to, you cannot publish a story about a boy named Harry Potter who is a wizard. You might be able to write one about Barry Slotter, but if he’s a magic boy who goes to a school called Bogfarts, you might get sued (this is only for published stories, of course. You can write anything you want for fun. Stories that use the setting and characters of published stories are called fan fiction).
However, this is only for stories that have been recently published. J.K. Rowling might sue you for using her story ideas but Shakespeare won’t. Well, he’s dead, but his family won’t either. That is because after a certain point, stories become part of the public domain. This means that anyone can use them or change them or publish them. They’re free to do whatever you want with.
Since this is a legal thing, it is different in different countries, but in most countries, stories become public domain 70 years after the writer dies.
Some examples of types of public domain works are:
- Mythology/legends (stories of Gilgamesh, Hercules, Maui, etc.)
- Fairy tales (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc. although Disney’s versions of these are copyrighted, of course)
- Holy books (the Bible, the Koran, etc)
- History (this is not fiction, but you are free to use parts of history in your fiction.)
- Any copyrighted work that is old enough (e.g. works of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes stories, Pride and Prejudice, Edgar Rice-Burroughs’s Tarzan, etc.)
The Advantages of Public Domain Stories
I am not suggesting you copy public domain stories word for word, but they are a good place to get story ideas. There are two advantages to using public domain story ideas in your writing. One is that they are usually established stories with universal truths like love and conflict and struggle. Another is that they are stories that people are familiar with and people like reading things they are familiar with.
The one caution about using public domain material is to make sure to make it your own. So here we will look at several ways to do that with examples.
Ways to Adapt Public Domain Stories
1. Using the same characters
Three main points of a story are the characters (who), the setting (when/where) and the plot (what/why/how). Of these, characters are some of the most memorable. If you think about characters like Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes or the Three Musketeers, you get an instant picture in your head.
You can use these public domain characters and put them into new situations. The readers will know who they are already, which will help them relate to your story.
- The Percy Jackson book series, by Rick Riordan. These books imagine what the Greek gods (and those of other mythologies) would do in the modern world.
- The Land of Stories book series, by Chris Colfer. These books take place in a world where all the fairy tale (and other public domain characters) all live together.
2. Using same plots
There are really only a few basic stories in the world, so you are free to use any general plot idea. For instance, “hero rescues woman” is a very, very old plot used in hundreds of stories. However, you can make the story special by changing the other details. For example, in Shrek, the monster rescues the woman (who turns out to be a fighter). Maybe write about a group of women who rescue men in danger.
3. Re-imagining the stories
This is a popular method of using public domain stories. For example, most everyone in the English-speaking world knows the story of Little Red Riding Hood. You can’t just tell the story again and have anyone care since it’s so well-known. However, if you change it in some way, it will be your own, but also be familiar. Here are some ways:
Little Red Riding Hood is set in a forest in a low-tech setting, probably medieval. However, if you move the story to a space station, it takes on a whole new meaning. Let’s say the grandmother is a pilot for one company and Red is bringing her some precious material she needs to transport. The wolf is a spy for another company.
An example of this is Disney’s The Lion King, which is similar to the story of Hamlet but set in Africa with all the characters as animals.
Different point of view
This is when the story is basically the same, but told from another perspective. Little Red Riding Hood is told from the perspective of Red Riding Hood, but if it were told from the point of view of the hunter, it would be a very different story.
An example of this is Wicked, by Gregory Maguire. That is the story of The Wizard of Oz but told from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West.
This is where you take the same story but change the type of story it is. Little Red Riding Hood is an adventure story, but you could change it to a mystery (What happened to Grandma?) or a romance, with a love triangle between Red, Hunter, and a guy named Wolf (I’m sure this has been done many times).
An example of this is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith, where a romance is turned into a horror story (although it’s also a parody).
Remember, you cannot copy directly from recently-published books, but there is a lot of works you can get inspiration from. Get ideas from wherever you can, but always make them your own. Your job is to write your stories and no one can write your stories but you.
Now it’s Your Turn
- Look at some of the movies and books that you like and see where their stories come from. Do they pull ideas from older stories (you might have to do some research online to find this out)?
- Although I used stories like Little Red Riding here as an example, those types of stories have been overdone. Look for more obscure stories where you can draw inspiration. Some examples of lists of public domain books are Google Books and Project Gutenberg. You can all find out which books enter the public domain every year (The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald became public domain in 2021).
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.