There’s Power in the Public Domain — A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

Stuck for an idea to develop?

As a writer, I’m constantly looking for new approaches and new ideas to write about. I’m guessing you do the same.

In recent years, there have been a number of books that have been written about characters developed by writers in the past – such as Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide and others that are available for any writer today to use and spin off because they are in the Public Domain.

My friend Peter Clines wrote a great twisted novel entitled The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe and parodies like Sense and Sensibilities and Zombies received such critical acclaim that they have been in development as motion pictures.

Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable. That means that any writer can continue to tell the tales of the characters – by writing prequels or sequels to existing stories, adaptations and continuing adventures, or develop entirely new approaches using these characters – without paying for the privilege or worrying about copyright issues. Not only is this a great writing exercise, but it can also be very profitable if you can match your skills with a character the public is still interested in.

Below is just a small list of famous writers and their stories that are in the public domain.

Take a look and see if there’s anything that suits your fancy. If interested in learning more about how to spin off public domain stories and the different approaches you can take to develop these characters, drop me a line in the Comment section here and I’ll develop the concept in a future post.

One other thought: if you write a novel inspired by or a screenplay adaptation of these works, be sure to make your source the lead when you pitch your story to an agent.  Nothing says credibility like a little Literature, with a capital “L.”

Have fun!

Horatio Alger: Novelist famous for his rags-to-riches stories. All of his work is in the public domain. Famous stories include The Store Boy and Ragged Dick.

Hans Christian Anderson: All of this famous Dane’s works are in the public domain. Famous stories include Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Princess and the Pea.

Jane Austen: She has become one of the go-to storytellers in Hollywood in recent years. Well-known novels include Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.

Honore de Balzac: Famous stories include The Girl With the Golden Eyes and Father Goriot.

Charlotte Bronte: All of her work is in the public domain including her most famous novel Jane Eyre.

Emily Bronte: Just like her sister, all of her work is in the public domain. Her only novel is the oft-filmed Wuthering Heights.

Frances Hodgson Burnett: Best known for the children’s stories The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. All of her works are in the public domain.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: Creator and author of Tarzan of the Apes. Only some of his work is in the public domain including the original Tarzan of the Apes and At the Earth’s Core. Be sure to check the availability of his other stories before considering using his other works.

Lewis Carroll: Famous mathematician and author whose works include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through The Looking Glass and The Hunting Of The Snark. All of his work is in the public domain.

James Fenimore Cooper: His more famous tales include The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer.

Daniel Defoe: All of his works are in the public domain. His most well-known stories are Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

Charles Dickens: All of Dickens’s work is in the public domain. Famous stories include A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and Great Expectations.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Most, but not all, of his works are in the public domain. The later Sherlock Holmes stories may not yet fall under the public domain but all of his stories before 1923 have including many involving his most famous creation Sherlock Holmes. Other well-known stories include The Poison Belt and The Lost World.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: All of his works are in the public domain including Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: All of this German writer’s works are in the public domain. His most famous works include The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust.

Brothers Grimm: Two German brothers who were famous collectors of fairy tales. Their versions of the famous fairy tales are all in the public domain including such cherished gems as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: All of his writings are in the public domain so go ahead and try to write a new version of The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables.  Stories like these work great when set in more modern times with hip and sophisticated contemporary characters.

Homer: Not Simpson, but the Greek guy who wrote the epic poems , The Odyssey and The Iliad, both of which are in the public domain.

James Joyce: You can based your novel on some of Joyce’s well-known works like Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Franz Kafka: This unique writer has a few stories that have fallen in the public domain. The most famous being The Metamorphosis.

Rudyard Kipling: Some, but not all, of Kipling’s work is in the public domain including The Jungle Book.

Jack London: All of this great American writer’s body of work is in the public domain. His most famous stories include The Call of the Wild and White Fang.

H. P. Lovecraft: All of this bizarre horror writer’s work before 1923 is in the public domain.

Herman Melville: All of this author’s work is in the public domain. His most famous story is the required reading for high school students: Moby Dick. A thought — ever wonder where Jaws came from?  Just sayin’.

Edgar Allan Poe: Filmmaker Roger Corman has exploited much of Poe’s work and you can too. All of this macabre author’s work is in the public domain. His more famous works include The Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mask of Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart.

Rudolf Erich Raspe: All of his works are in the public domain including his most famous story The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

William Shakespeare: Old Bill has been dead for a long time; hence, all of his work is in the public domain. Try your own take on Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.

Mary Shelley: All of her writing is in the public domain including Frankenstein. Her other famous books include The Last Man and Matilda.

Robert Louis Stevenson: All of this writer’s work is in the public domain including the popular stories Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, and New Arabian Nights.

Bram Stoker: All of this writer’s work is in the public domain including Dracula, The Jewel of Seven Stars, The Lady of the Shroud and The Lair of the White Worm.

Mark Twain: All of this great writer’s works are in the public domain. His most famous stories are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Jules Verne: All of this entertaining French writer’s work is in the public domain. His most famous works include Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and Around the World in Eighty Days.

H.G. Wells: Only some of Wells’s stories are in the public domain but they include The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War of the Worlds.  Most of the great modern time travel stories, both books and films, owe a nod of thanks to this author.

Oscar Wilde: All of this great playwright’s work is in the public domain. His most famous stories are The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Johann David Wyss: This writer’s most famous story The Swiss Family Robinson is in the public domain.


Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent project for TV is entitled THE STREWN.  His new writing book is tentatively entitled “SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect Your Abandoned Story and Get It Written NOW!” (Release TBA.)

Larry’s add to Art’s bio: when he’s not on set doing rewrite work or chasing a deadline for a studio script assignment, he’s also a major screenwriting teacher at the University level, a story development coach and a sought-after workshop facilitator at writing conferences around the world.



Filed under Guest Bloggers

15 Responses to There’s Power in the Public Domain — A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

  1. So interesting, and what an intriguing list! Thanks for the post, Art–I’m printing it out.

  2. Jan Rydzon

    Art, I’d love to learn more about this fascinating topic!

  3. Pingback: Nano 2014: 30 ideas to prompt your imagination | Awakening Chymeeras

  4. Glenn Dyer


    Interesting post. I like to learn more.


  5. Art. Thank you for taking the research time the time to pull the list together. Thank you. Your article is timely and fits nicely with Larry’s last post. Concept is one of the main reasons why the writers you have listed are still read, studied and followed. Their material is driven by much more than a master’s touch at handling story structure.
    Yes, I would be interested in learning more about spin offs and various angles on character development. Thanks.

  6. Well I’ll never need to search far for story ideas now. Thanks ART!

  7. Robert Jones

    There’s endless recipes using public domain characters. Consider what Alan Moore did in his “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” bringing together an entire group of famous classic characters who banned together to defeat the schemes of one of the greatest literary villains, Professor Moriarty.

  8. Thanks, Art. What a great list of ideas! Another way to get a wealth of information is at the movie database: They have tons of movies and TV shows listed complete with plots and concepts. It used to be easy to navigate, but they keep redoing the home page and it’s tricky to figure out now. Scroll nearly to the bottom, and you’ll see a menu that includes Top Movies and Top 250, among other things. Click one of those, and you’ll see that the movies include a Storyline, Plot, and Synopsis. (You can also search on a specific movie.) Since plots can’t be copyrighted, this can give you a treasure trove of ideas. Change the names, change the locale, maybe change the time period. Lots of fodder for creative minds.

  9. Yeah, the Public Domain list is also here along with some other stuff.

    Nann, thanks for the imdv site. Your’re right. It is a trip to navigate.

  10. Robert Jones

    @Nann–That’s a great resource. Here’s another one:

    They also publish fat volumes you can sometimes find in used book stores. You can look up tons of movies and get a quick description that sometimes borders on conceptual. But it can be a huge source for writing prompts and ideas.

  11. Art,
    Great post! And thank the stars for Project Gutenberg.

    As it turns out, I was invited to write a short story for an anthology scheduled for release in January/February with 13 other authors. My story involves a rewriting of the Cinderella story, told to Giambatista Basile in 1594 in Venice, Italy and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1811 on a train from Hamburg to Hanover, Germany, but told by the same character.

    Public domain is a great source for ideas as well as images for cover art. Thanks for reminding everyone.

  12. Thanks as usual for a good post, Art. I’ve been thinking of mining the Public Domain for story ideas. Yours is an excellent starting point.


  13. Got to put in a plug for Jasper Fforde’s “The Eyre Affair” (which kinda kick-started me into writing…I figured that the author had to of had a helluva lot of fun writing it…and I wanted in on that fun…).

    And why? Because the basic premise is that Jane Eyre was kidnapped out of her book.

  14. MikeR

    FYI … ALL of Jasper Fforde’s works are great reading, especially for “us literary types.” He is expert at poking fun at the “barrier” between the reader’s reality and the world of fiction that (s)he is reading. Only a thoroughly well-read and skilled writer could ever manage to pull-off … even once … what he adroitly manages to do in “book upon book.”

    Bon Appetit!

  15. An interesting post, Art, and as great list of books. Thanks for the tips. There’s nothing new under the sun – but there are readers who love to hear new stories!