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Wednesday Writing Prompt: Mining the Public Domain by Rill

Eek! NaNoWriMo starts in two short weeks, and I have NOTHING. Okay, I have a few ideas. But the time I’d dedicated to plotting and character building has been devoured by blogging instead. Thankfully, today’s guest post has some great ideas about how I can mine the public domain and still create a fun, sellable novel for National Novel Writing Month. And best of all, I didn’t write it! Enjoy Rill’s brilliant guest post on mining the public domain and then get busy digging for gold!

Mining the Public Domain by Rill

I love the title of Nanowrimo founder Chris Baty‘s book No Plot? No Problem! Write 50,000 words and begin with no plot, no characters, no setting, no time frame, just the desire to write a novel.

When I’m writing a novel for Nanowrimo, I often blank on:

* a character’s  name

* a character’s  description,

* a setting for the action,

* a reason for the character to be  in a particular location or a part of this scene.

The public domain to the rescue.

What Is The Public Domain? The public domain consists of materials which are not covered by copyright. You can find articles, books, artwork and music all over the Internet that are not covered by copyright.

A good source for public domain books is Project Gutenberg. You can also check out The Internet Archive. If you use a ebook reader, smart phone or a tablet, your app store may have public domain material, too. If you like reading  audio books, Librivox has a good collection.

Warning: Not all free material is in the public domain. The author, artist or musician may have posted some free material to promote his or her work while maintaining his or her copyright. Librivox has a wiki page devoted to how to tell if a book is in the public domain:

Isn’t This Cheating?

Not at all!

William Shakespeare used stories from the public domain and in turn people have used his stories. I first discovered this from two mid twentieth century musicals:

* West Side Story is a remake of Romeo and Juliet.

* Kiss Me Kate is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.

I’m sure you can name others.

Consider Sherlock Holmes as a public domain character. Let’s look at how Laurie R. King approaches him in The Beekeeper’s ApprenticeHolmes retires. Dr. Watson is in poor health and living in France. Holmes, with Mrs. Hudson as his housekeeper, moves to Sussex to keep bees and there he meets Mary Russel and their adventures begin. King takes the Holmes universe and begins to spin her own tale with Mary Russel as her narrator and heroine.

Take Thursday Next who first appears in The Eyre Affair. Jasper Fforde creates a whole universe where Thursday comes into contact with Miss Havisham, wearing her tattered wedding dress, from Dickens’ Great Expectations, Mr. Toad and his lobster red car from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and the afore-mentioned William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to name a few. Even Louis Carol’s Cheshire Cat appears, though due to some zoning issue, he’s now the Unity of Warrington Cat.

A Case Study. I just finished reading Anna Kathrine Green‘s novel The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow.Here’s the Librivox page ( and the Project Gutenberg page ( for the story.

A teenager just arrived from France via England is shot dead by an arrow in a New York City museum. One of the museum patrons or employees must be the killer but why and how? Ebenezer Gryce, an eighty-something-year-old inspector is on the case. One of the museum’s directors is present. He is seeking his party’s nomination to run for the Senate. The year is 1913.

I have some ideas how to transform this story into a modern mystery. I’m not going to do it. Feel free to take any of these suggestions as the basis of your work. Just give Rochelle and me credit. That’s all I ask.

Four problems immediately come to mind:

1. Fingerprints turn out to be unhelpful. Would a CSI unit find evidence the 1913 NYPD could not have found?

2. Would a contemporary museum have a bow and arrow accessible to anyone to use?

3. What sort of publicity would such a crime in the Big Apple spark today? How would the city, museum and Senate hopeful spin the story? What sort of investigations would be launched?

4. What should we do with Ebenezer Gryce?


Problem 1: Despite all the evidence collected, nothing conclusive can be determined as to the killer.

Problem 2: Give a reason why the public has access to the arrows. Maybe a demonstration was planned where everyone could feel the balance and admire the craftsmanship of a Native American arrow.

Problem 3: This has real potential. It could be a fictitious museum with a very limited collection. In the original story, there are only two floors and a basement. The museum’s Board of Directors is fearful:

* the city will shut them down,

* the public will stop coming,

* the girl’s relatives will sue,

* their insurance will be canceled.

How do they react?

Problem 4: An eighty-something-year-old protagonist needs to be transformed.

Here’s where the  freedom to play with public domain material really shines.

*Take Gryce off the police force. He will have retired decades ago. Make his trusted detective Caleb Sweetwater the head investigator for the NYPD. Decide whether these two can still work together or or their relationship is strained.

*In Green’s story, Gryce’s grandson has married and left his grandfather’s house. Have the grandson also investigating the murder. He can work as a private investigator who the museum hired or for an Internet news site which is also writing exposees on the politician/director. The grandson can ask his grandfather to assist him.

There are more characters and plot twists in the original story. I don’t want to spoil it for you.

There is another character in the original novel who never appears. Elvira Brown is dead. Her back story is only hinted at. Developing her story could be a NaNoWriMo novel in itself.

Final Thoughts. I’ve outlined how you might take a public domain novel and make it your own tale. You can, as I do, often just take a piece of the narrative or a character. Ebenezer Gryce or Caleb Sweetwater might be your man. Or perhaps Ebenezer Gryce becomes Evelyn Gryce, a crack detective in her time who assists her granddaughter in the granddaughter’s private investigations. The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow is one of Evelyn’s greatest cases and is only referred to in your story as her finest hour.

Take a little. Take a lot. Make it your own. Most of all, have fun writing in November.


About the Author. Rill is a Nanowrimo winner (2007-2011), a Camp Nanowrimo winner 2012. She is a member of the Middleton Senior Writing Group. Rill is Documentation Coordinator and wiki editor for the Vinux Project, a Linux distribution implemented  specifically for the visually impaired. She blogs much of her writing at You can follow Rill on Twitter @writing_rill. Rill’s Seeing Eye dog, Elwood, figures prominently in her personal stories.


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