Public Domain & Self-Publishing: Be Like Disney, Craft A Bestseller

We looked at using public domain materials in Plotting Fiction: 3 Tips To Help You To Plot Like Shakespeare:

As a rule of thumb, anything published before 1923 is now in the public domain, unless the author’s estate has taken steps to secure copyright.

I’ve been rereading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and wondered why variations of this novel have been used again and again, not only in movies and television, but also in books and plays.

Apropos of which, why does the public domain offer such rich source material? Some 50 Disney Movies Are Based On The Public Domain. The movies include Alice in Wonderland (of course), and Frozen, Disney’s take on Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Snow Queen.

Film makers and authors raid public domain materials, and often craft bestsellers from them. Could you do it?

Public domain riches: could they help you to craft a bestseller?

After thinking about it, I realized that public domain materials offered two essential elements for bestselling fiction:

  • An amazing story, which has stood the test of time;
  • Emotion.

Story: discover amazing stories in the public domain

Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813, offers a story which film makers and novelists plunder again and again; indeed, Pride and Prejudice retellings form an entire fictional genre, all by themselves.

Story is part of the success of Pride and Prejudice, but so is character, and emotion. At times, the story is illogical. You might wonder why, at the height of the Napoleonic wars, an extremely wealthy man like Darcy found time to waft around the countryside. Why would he stay with a much younger man like Bingley, on a rented estate?

Judging by Pemberley, Darcy must have had many commitments; we’re not told that Bingley is related to him, so family duty doesn’t account for it. Consider Tolstoy’s War & Peace, also set in the Napoleonic era, in which the main characters act much more believably.

Sorry for the above if you adore Darcy! I know many readers do. Obviously, if I consider Darcy a slacker, I’d never be able to write a Pride and Prejudice retelling.

Now let’s look at emotion. Public domain bestsellers are master classes in using emotion in fiction.

Emotion: Wilkie Collins was a master of emotion

Many of my fiction writing students struggle with using emotion in their fiction. If you struggle with it too, read Collins: he uses emotion powerfully, and subtly. Not only do we become emotionally engaged with the characters, Collins uses scenes brilliantly.

Collins tells the story of The Woman in White using several narrators—enjoy Frederick Fairlie’s contribution: it’s hilarious. (It inspired me to think about about using several narrators in my current novel.)

So, how does the emotion in The Woman in White make it special, and how might studying the novel help you if you’re self-publishing fiction?

As well as studying Collins’ characters, when we read The Woman in White we realize that evoking emotion in readers needn’t mean writing lengthy, conflict-laden scenes. These kinds of scenes can become wearing; they can result in melodrama too.

Less is more.

For example: the first horrifying months of Laura Fairlie’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde happen offstage. We know they were horrifying because her sister Marian is confused at how Laura has changed. Our imagination shows us what happened to Laura, more powerfully than an author’s words ever could. Collins never descends to melodrama, not even when Walter, Laura, and Marian are in hiding.

Public domain riches: be like Disney

In summary, if you’re writing fiction, and would like to write a bestseller, be like Disney. Study (and perhaps use) materials in the public domain.

Disney can afford to pay millions to hire the best writers, but great stories—which arouse emotion—are rare.

Consider the public domain. Learn from it, and if you wish, use it to craft your own bestseller.

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