Writing in the Public Domain (Part II)

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February 9, 2023

Whether it's a magical fairy tale like “Cinderella” or a well-worn favorite such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), classic stories continue to inspire both readers and writers alike. Works that are in the public domain offer a multitude of opportunities for writers seeking inspiration. This can be seen in the numerous retellings of classic myths and fairy tales as well as the reimaginings of popular tales such as Pride and Prejudice (1813), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1866), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1870), and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

One benefit of reworking a familiar tale is that the foundation is already in place. It's story elements resonance instantly with readers, who are adept at picking up allusions present in well-known tropes, symbols, and themes. One excellent example is Amal El-Mohtar’s coming-of-age story “The Truth About Owls,” which explores issues of identity and loss through the lens of Welsh mythology. El-Mohtar creates a contemporary atmosphere by setting the story in Glasglow during Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006. For the mythic component, she incorporates the 14th-century tale of Bloudewedd, a girl fashioned from flowers who is later turned into an owl. Found in the Fourth Branch of the early Welsh legends known as The Mabinogion, Bloudewedd’s story is a small one, but it forms the basis for numerous retellings including Alan Garner’s highly acclaimed fantasy The Owl Service (1967). And it continues to inspire contemporary writers to this day.

Whether working from a classic favorite such as Anne of Green Gables (1908) or one of the more recent works to enter the public domain such as The Great Gatsby (1925), writers can make these tales their own by utilizing one or more of the following exercises.

Writing Prompts for Recrafting the Classics

  • Pick a New Point of View: Rewrite a public domain story (or a part of that story) from a different perspective. Are there villains whose stories haven’t been told? What about the stories of secondary characters?
  • Change the Setting: Take the classic tale of your choice and put it in a different time and place. Pick your favorite historical period or set it in the here and now. Make sure you have a list of the tale’s themes, symbols, and motifs at hand before you start. Which ones align with your selected time period? Can they be enhanced, expanded, or explained?
  • Change the Genre: Choose a genre. If you want to be daring, select two. Take the story of your choice and recast it in the genre or mash-up of genres you selected.
  • Mash It Up: Take two stories in the public domain (the classics, fairy tales, and/or myths) and find a way to connect them. Is there a way you can seamlessly blend the themes, motifs, and/or symbols? Or can you take other route and play up their differences? Can you move a character, such as Sherlock Holmes, into a completely different tale such as “Little Red Riding Hood”? If you try this method, keep your connections concise and clear.
  • Deploy Parody or Satire: Brush up on your irony and humor. Writing a fractured fairy tale or a monster mash-up can be a difficult but rewarding task. Your task is to write in a light, straight-forward style.
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