Writing Worlds – Part 1: Using Existing Fictional Worlds

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Sometimes there is nothing more wonderful than the blank page when it comes to writing – the potential, the lack of limitations, the fact that we can create anything we want. And sometimes there is nothing more daunting – it can be hard to whittle down an infinite number of worlds and characters and plots to just the right ones.

To save some of this painful effort, writers can choose to use existing worlds. There are a few options, some simpler than others and all easier than going to all that trouble of creating yet another new one.

Your Own
If you’ve written fiction before, then you’ve already created at least one world. No point letting it go to waste. Rather than starting from scratch again, you can use the same world to tell the story of different characters.

Michael Connelly is a great example of this. Harry Bosch, Mickey Haller, Jack McEvoy, Terry McCaleb and Cassie Black have all starred in their own Michael Connelly novels but all exist in the same fictional version of Los Angeles and appear in minor roles or are referenced in other books of which they aren’t the main character. So much simpler than going back to the beginning.

With Permission
It’s a pattern that I hate but it’s occurring so frequently now that I admit there is little I can do about it. And that pattern is established authors partnering with unknown writers who then do all the hard work based on worlds the established author has previously created. Clive Cussler does this. The estate of Virginia Andrews did this.

I imagine there’s good money in it but the unknown writer in this arrangement will almost always lose out in the ownership of their writing. I imagine it’s a little like surrogacy. All that hard work at the end of which you have to give up everything. But at least you know the baby you worked so hard to give life to is out there somewhere.

Fan Fiction
Fan fiction is meant as an expression of devotion to a world that has captured a reader’s imagination. There is a lot of it out there. And, mostly, it remains fan fiction. But it can be a great way to practise and it can also lead further than an amateur might ever have dreamt. Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James was originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction, the feverish, R-rated, ‘what if?’ sexcapades of Bella and Edward. When she realised she was onto something, she changed the names, removed the vampires and tweaked enough of it so that it was barely recognisable from its beginnings. Millions of sales, two sequels and a movie franchise later, who cares that it started out as imitation? EL James certainly doesn’t.

When Copyright Expires
Although copyright laws differ from country to country, in most cases, copyright for fiction expires either fifty or seventy years after the death of the author. After this time, the work enters the public domain and anyone with the inclination to do so can use it as the basis for a new creative work. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is probably the best example of this. From Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith to Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James and Mary Bennet by Jennifer Paynter, there is a veritable industry of writers working to tweak or add to the universe of the Bennets (or the ‘Bennetverse’ if you will).

You don’t have to be as famous as PD James to take advantage of copyright expiration. But you do need to be a little respectful. Certainly, fans of the existing world will not hesitate to let you know if they don’t think you’ve done it justice. And you also need to be familiar with the world. If there are inconsistencies between the world and characters you are using and what happens in your writing, then you may as well have not used it in the first place.

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Writing can be a hard enough endeavour. If using an existing fictional world can make it just that much easier, then why not? It doesn’t make you any less of a writer.

But if you’re determined to create your own fictional world, check out this Friday’s blog post for Part 2 of Writing Worlds.

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