In this article we're going to consider a type of writing known as "fan fiction." Fan fiction refers to taking the universe developed by another author and creating a new story using those characters and settings. I have written a novel, The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen's Emma, which can be classed as fan fiction, so many of the observations that follow are based on actual experience.
Fan fiction is pretty popular, so many readers of this column will already about it. Nevertheless, some definitions may be helpful.
Fan Fiction, or Fanfiction (often abbreviated as Fan Fic, Fanfic, or simply Fic), are terms for stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator(s).
Canon or Canonical Fictional Universe refers to the elements in the original story and is generally considered more important than fan fiction. Fan fiction is a little peculiar in that it is based on canon but is not considered canon.
Here are some words in the Wikipedia entry on fan fiction:
"Works of fan fiction are rarely commissioned or authorized by the original work's owner, creator, or publisher; also, they are almost never professionally published."
Although these works are not often professionally published, there are significant exceptions, such as Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, a continuation of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, a mystery using the characters created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. There is a bit of looseness in the definition, anyway. Television series are usually created by teams of writers, necessarily not written by one person, and then these stories may be continued in books and movies and even graphic novels. The Oz books (there are more than forty), which started with Frank L Baum's The Wizard of Oz, were continued by several other writers after Baum died.
Obviously, some of them are published, and because they have the blessing of the estate or the publishers, may be considered canon, even when they are not well received by people at large.
The first best reason -- in my opinion -- for writing in the story-verse created by another is because the world created is so compelling that you want to spend more time there. You feel as if you know the characters and have a story that you want to tell. Perhaps there are questions that you want to answer, or a relationship that you want to develop, or some backstory that you want to fill in.
Some write these stories because they want to see something happen in them that did not take place in the original. Perhaps you want to see Romeo and Juliet live. Perhaps you want to see two characters have a romance. This sort of drastic change is known as "fanedit."
You may also want to write fan fiction because it can be easier. You will have to do less invention with respect characters or setting. The Highbury Murders is, so far, the book I have written the most quickly.
Another reason for creating fan fiction is for the money that can be made by taking advantage of the success of the original work(s). Scarlett was not a critical success but it did very well commercially. The reasons for writing and publishing fan fiction can be similar to the reasons for writing a sequel to a story of your own.
Writing fan fiction has some challenges that are different from creating a new story universe of your own. Some are legal; others are artistic.
Legalities. You should make sure that you are not getting in trouble legally. This wasn't an issue for me when writing The Highbury Murders, as Jane Austen has been dead for nearly two hundred years and her works are in the public domain. There are some authors who actually encourage fan fiction. One example is the group of writers creating and contributing stories based on Eric Flint's novel 1632. [Editor's Note: this particular fan fiction community has produced several published anthologies of short stories, and several novels, with the blessings of the author and publisher, and continues to create a series of electronic anthologies in The Grantville Gazette.] However, there are other authors, such as Anne Rice and Laurell K. Hamilton, who will sue those who attempt fan fiction based on their books. In other cases you are expected to write a disclaimer announcing that you do not own the characters and will not make any money from them.
Study the Details of the Original. Readers will want to visit the world created by the original author, so you should not be confused about details such as the first and last names even of the most obscure characters. It may be wise to keep a copy of the original work beside you while you write, so that you can keep from making mistakes in the first place. Of course, you will be making changes, or at least adding to, the original story-verse, but it is generally best to know which changes you are making rather than to make them by accident. For example, if you are writing a story based on Firefly, you should know where the ship's bridge is, where the shuttles are located, and that fresh food is more precious than platinum.
Know the Characters. Good fan fiction goes beyond knowing the details of the setting and the phrases that the characters tend to use. You should understand the characters. What motivates them? What secrets do they have? How will they act in new and challenging situations? Will you take their personalities in new directions? Will it be a logical continuation of an arc or not?
Voice. Another aspect is the voice of the original fiction. Imitating the voice of another author is hard to do, but if you can manage it, you will add to the charm of your fiction. You should take a look at the lengths of sentences, the structure of the stories, and the general attitude. You should even consider the meanings of words. For example, Jane Austen uses the word "nice" in a way that is very different from how we use it today.
Miscellaneous. Some issues will be unique to your situation. When writing The Highbury Murders I had to make a decision with respect to spelling. As Austen was British, I could have chosen to use British spelling. This would not have been that difficult as all I would have needed to do would be to set my word processor to use UK spelling. I could have gone another step and used Austen's own spelling, which, as she wrote two centuries ago, is a little different than spelling today. One reason I stayed with modern spelling was because I know that some editions of her works have been updated for spelling, and so readers might be surprised or even confused by the older versions of words. I decided it was better to steer away from the appearance of typos. I also decided to stay with American English, as an acknowledgement of the fact that I am American.
New Directions. Finally, what will you add and what will you invent? You don't want to just copy passages from previous works. Eventually you have to invent something or the story will not be your own.
Once you have written your fan fiction, what should you do with it? Naturally, that depends on you and your story. A lot of fan fiction is quite short, consisting simply of scenes that readers wish they could have read or watched. These bits are frequently shared on websites or just kept locally for personal enjoyment.
However, if you have written something longer and you feel it merits a wider audience and there are no legal issues, you can publish it. In some cases publishers actually solicit new books in series, such as novels based on Star Trek or Star Wars. Occasionally books are commissioned as sequels, as was Scarlett. These works have a head start with respect to marketing: they already have a devoted audience, a set of people that are desperate to find out how the story continues. I did not like Scarlett, and it received terrible reviews; nevertheless it sold well. Part of the reason it sold so well was because people like me, who were known to like Gone with the Wind, kept receiving Scarlett as presents. I received two copies as gifts, and somehow a third copy has made its way into my house. Oh, well.
If you have set your story in a popular story-verse, there may even be groups to help you market. Although I have long read Jane Austen's books -- the frame of my license plate says "I'd rather be reading Jane Austen" -- I had kept my obsession mostly to myself. When I started to do research, I was stunned by the number of websites, clubs and societies devoted to Jane Austen. And as Jane Austen wrote only six novels, and those have been analyzed over and over, many groups welcome having something new to discuss. Readers who love a particular story-verse may want more, but how can they satisfy their cravings if the author is debilitated or dead?
Nevertheless, if you publish anything, you need to thicken your skin, even if -- or especially if -- you have written fan fiction. Some readers be horrified by the idea that another could attempt to sound like someone else. One person was so offended by my trying to imitate Jane Austen that she went and blacklisted all of my books (without reading them). On the other hand, some readers have written reviews so glowing that they make me blush.
If you have made serious changes, deviating from the canon, I recommend that you include an Author's Note. This will give you the chance to explain the choices you have made and why, and to include passages from prior works that you consider relevant.
You can learn a lot by working with characters and settings created by others. If there are stories that inspire you, and other stories in which you wish to spend time and energy, then writing fan fiction can be worth your time and energy.
Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.