Loretta Ross

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Tag: Writing

Free Sherlock

Today the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a ruling on Klinger v. The Conan Doyle Estate regarding the copyright status of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as characters.  If you haven’t been following this (as, indeed, I had not been), the basics of the suit are as follows:  Leslie Klinger edited an anthology of stories called A Study In Sherlock, inspired by the canon works (the original novels and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).  The Conan Doyle Estate strong-armed his publisher into paying them a licensing fee to use the characters.  When Klinger tried to publish a sequel with a different publisher, the estate again approached them demanding payment of their fee and threatening them with legal repercussions if they didn’t pay.  As a result, the publisher refused to publish the work unless Klinger obtained a license.  Rather than pay for a license, Klinger filed a suit seeking a declaratory judgement stating that he is free to use the characters because they are no longer under copyright and are thus in the public domain.

Prior to 1998 the length of copyright protection was 75 years from the date of publication.  In 1998 that was extended, for old works still under copyright, to 95 years from the date of publication.  1998 – 75 = 1923, so anything written before 1923 was already out of copyright and not affected by the new law.  Under current copyright law, new works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.

The Sherlock Holmes canon consists of four novels and fifty-six short stories.  All four of the novels and forty-six of the stories were published before 1923, the earliest being in 1887.  Ten of the stories were published between 1923 and 1927 and are still in copyright, which was the basis for the Conan Doyle Estate’s claim to ownership of the characters.

The court’s ruling is available here and is well worth reading.  They found that characters cannot be copyrighted except as part of a published work.  Thus, Sherlock and Watson became part of the public domain when the first literary piece depicting them went out of copyright.  Any original elements of their characters that didn’t appear until the later stories are still under copyright until the story they appeared in enters the public domain.

The thing that stood out to me most, reading about this case, was one of the arguments that the estate used to try to persuade the court that they should extend their copyright protection beyond that set out in the law.  I’m going to quote directly from the decision here:

“Lacking any ground known to American law for asserting post-expiration copyright protection of Holmes and Watson in pre-1923 stories and novels going back to 1887, the estate argues that creativity will be discouraged if we don’t allow such an extension. It may take a long time for an author to perfect a character or other expressive element that first appeared in his early work. If he loses copyright on the original character, his incentive to improve the character in future work may be diminished because he’ll be competing with copiers, such as the authors whom Klinger wishes to anthologize.”

So, in other words, I might not be inspired to keep writing about my characters SEVENTY YEARS AFTER I DIE?

I wonder what Sherlock would make of that argument?

 

 

Yering

Every now and again someone on Twitter will talk about coming up with character names.  Most of my names, honestly, get pulled out of thin air.  But it occurred to me today that I do have one very minor character in the book I’m currently writing whose name has a story behind it.  On the off chance that anyone’s interested in that story, here it is:

As everyone who knows me knows, my day job is in the produce department at Walmart.  Part of that involves stocking fruits and vegetable and part of it involves getting rid of the boxes they came in.  One thing I really do like about Walmart is that, at least in my department, we throw very little away.  We donate almost-out-of-date food to the local food pantry, compost things that are too far gone to donate, and recycle just about everything else.  Part of that process — the oldest part, in fact — involves a huge metal monster of a squisher machine called the cardboard baler.

On the front of our cardboard baler there is a metal plate with the name of the company that produced it and three more names on the line beneath it.  Like this:

Manufacturer

Vernon, Al   *  Clearfield, Pa  *  Yering, Nv

And I know you all see this and immediately understand exactly what it says.  But for MONTHS, every time I took cardboard back, I would read this sign and think, “I understand Al Vernon and Pa Clearfield, but what kind of a name is Nv Yering?!?”

So, while working on this current book, I had a minor character who needed a name.  I was thinking about the character while I was crushing cardboard and so was born Firefighter/Paramedic Yering.

I haven’t said as much in the MS, but his first name’s Nv. 😉

There Was A Little Girl …

And maybe you’ve heard of her?  I don’t know where this came from (suppose I could Google it) but my mother used to quote it to me often enough that I always kept my hair out of my face lest I be mistaken for her:

There was a little girl/who had a little curl/ right in the middle of her forehead

And when she was good/she was very, very good

And when she was bad/ she was horrid.

I get accused of being nice a lot.  (“Why do strangers feel the need to tell me about their colonoscopies?” “It’s because you seem so nice.”) but the truth is, every once in a while I can be really, really mean.

I see a lot of people posting rules for writers.  I’m not a big believer in generic rules.  I kind of think writing is an area in which we all need to find our own way.  What I have are strictly rules for me, though if anyone else wants to adopt any of them, they are, of course, welcome to do so.  The thing is, I find inspiration in two types of writing — that which strikes me as really, really good, and that which strikes me as really, really bad.  This is a list of rules I made for myself from things that either amused or annoyed the hell out of me.

I apologize in advance if I’m insulting something that is near and dear to someone’s heart.

My Rules:

  • The Dancing Chicken Rule — Many years ago I had the extreme misfortune of seeing the movie Quest For Camelot.  Near the beginning there is a part where the main character, a small girl, suffers the tragic death of her father.  She expresses her grief in a slow, sad musical number that segues without breaks into a silly, slapstick bit with dancing chickens.  This was the inspiration for The Dancing Chicken Rule:  Do not careen wildly between comedy and tragedy.

  • The Insane Demigod Rule AND The Welcome Back From The Dead Handshake Rule— During the horrible fifth season of the previously enjoyable Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Hercules starts out devestated by the tragic death of his best friend, Iolaus.  Then he has a fling with a thoroughly unlikeable Irish demigod chick.  Then he has to fight a demon to save Iolaus’ soul (a story arc that violates The Dancing Chicken Rule, but that’s another matter).  Then he gets a dorky, substitute Iolaus from another dimension and tells him less-than-flattering stories about the real Iolaus.  Then he wanders off to judge a fashion show.  Finally, last episode of the season, he gets the real Iolaus back, greeting him with a welcome-back-from-the-dead handshake and telling him to calm down and stop scaring people.  What I get out of this mess is The Insane Demigod Rule:  Emotions should be appropriate and consistent (unless, of course, the character is supposed to be insane!) and The Welcome Back From The Dead Handshake Rule: The payoff has to be worth the journey.

(I could also liken a story with an emotionally unsatisfying resolution to sex without an orgasm, but somehow I think that’s an entirely separate blog post … )

  • The King of Corinth Rule — Another one inspired by Hercules.  In an early episode, Herc and Iolaus must save the spirit of an innocent young man from being condemned to Tartarus by forcing Sisyphus, the evil king of Corinth, to take his rightful place in the underworld.  Later we meet Jason of the Argonauts for the first time when he is the troubled king of Colchis.  Then, in The Wedding of Alcmene, Jason must give up the throne of Corinth in order to marry Hercules’ mother Alcmene, with whom he has been secretly having an affair since he brought her the news of her husband, Amphitryon’s, death in battle.  This would have been while she was pregnant with Hercules.  In later flashback episodes and in the short-lived spinoff, Young Hercules, we meet Jason again when he is the crown prince of, you guessed it, Corinth, which is being ruled by his father Aeson.  Oh, and this Jason is only a few years older than Hercules, whose mother he’s been having an affair with since before . . . Hercules . . . was born . . . .? Ergo, The King of Corinth Rule:  Continuity Counts, Dammit!

  • The Blue Monkey Rule — When Sir Arthur Evans discovered the ruins of the palace at Knossos, on the island of Crete, he devoted the rest of his life to studying it.  Perhaps unsuprisingly, he became enamored of the idea that this culture had been a utopia, a bright oasis of beauty, peace, culture and civilization in the darkness of the ancient world.  To a certain extent, there is some evidence to support this interpretation.  They did, after all, have flush toilets.  Sir Arthur, though, took this idea so much to heart that he tended to weight his interpretation of everything he found to favor the people of ancient Crete.  (Evidence of cannibalism?  Nonsense!  It was just a burial ritual to put children’s bones in cooking pots with edible crustaceans and NO I DON’T SEE ANY TOOTH MARKS!)  The most famous example of Evans’ fancies involves the reconstruction of a frescoe from fragments recovered on the floor below where it had been.  Sir Arthur’s reconstruction, using only a small percentage of original fragments and a lot of imagination, depicted a comely young man with his skin dyed blue gathering flowers in a garden.  A later researcher, noting stylistic similarities with another period fresco in Africa, reassembled the piece using a much higher percentage of original material.  In his version, the creature capering among the saffron flowers is a blue monkey.  The Blue Monkey Rule (applies mostly to historicals):  No place has ever been perfect.  Perfect places aren’t real.

  • The “Hi, Spock! Where have you been?” Rule — This rule was inspired by one of the pro Star Trek novels.  I’m not sure of the name now, it was either Deep Domain or From the Depths.  In any case, it was an attempt to ape the pro-environmental popularity of the fourth movie by involving Our Heroes with a world that had an endangered and strangely whale-like species living in the oceans. It was, and I say this with a certain amount of awe, probably the single worst piece of fiction I have ever read.  It begins with the premise that Spock, Captain Kirk’s bestest friend in the whole, wide universe, and Chekov, another good friend and valued member of his crew, have been kidnapped by eco-terrorists and disappeared while left on this world for a routine inspection-thingie.  Naturally, the good captain rushes in to save them . . . and promptly gets completely caught up in trying to salvage the troubled relationship between the world’s leader (villain?  heroine?  Who the hell knows? The author certainly doesn’t!) and her estranged father.  I could seriously write a book that’s longer than this book about what’s wrong with this book.  It not only breaks most of my rules (not the Dancing Chicken Rule — they’d drown) but it breaks rules set by older, wiser authors than myself.  (Remember — and this is REALLY ironic — [Anton] Chekhov’s Gun?  The eco-terrorists force [Pavel] Chekov to sign a confession to being something vaguely sinister, but he cleverly uses a false middle name on the document, which is never produced and never mentioned again.)  I’ll try to confine myself to my biggest complaint, however.  So, big premise, Spock and Chekov missing.  We see them in the hands of the eco-terrorists, in grave danger.  Then they disappear and are not mentioned again by anyone, for something like 90 pages!  They finally surface briefly as prisoners of the good/evil world leader chick, who threatens to torture them by simulated drowning until Spock tells her his alien biology makes him able to hold his breath for long periods, at which point she more or less says, “Oh . . . well . . . nevermind then . . . .”  Then, about halfway through the book, they miraculously and without explanation survive a shipwreck and get beamed back aboard the Enterprise, where Kirk greets them with a “Hi, Spock.  Where have you been?”  And it’s not an insoucient, “Dr. Livingston, I presume” understated bit of banter used to cover deep emotion, either.  It’s more of an absentminded, “oh, yeah.  We were looking for you.  Uh, tell me about it some other time.  Right now I’ve got this World Leader Chick and her father in a room together and I’ve got to go give them a Good Stiff Talking To!”  And the rest of the book is about them and their struggles with the Deep, Dark Secret that the oddly whale-like creatures are really sentient (which I take it they figured out by the oddly whale-like creatures flat refusing to read this book!)  So, this is the “Hi, Spock.  Where have you been?” Rule:  The main story should be introduced at the beginning and carried through to the end.

  • The Penelo-pee-pee Rule — I said above that the Star Trek book I was dissing was the worst piece of fiction I’ve ever read.  The worst piece of non-fiction was a supposed-true-haunting tale called Spindrift: Flotsam From a Psychic Sea.  In Spindrift, the author tells, in histrionic tones liberally sprinkled with casually-dropped fragments of French, of her time living in a “haunted” brownstone in New York City, where people and animals associated with the building kept dying mysteriously.  For example, there was at least one person who died mysteriously from terminal cancer, several extremely elderly residents who died mysteriously from being a hundred and six years old, and a stray dog they mysteriously found on the street in front of the house and mysteriously adopted that mysteriously died from being mysteriously infected with every canine disease known to veterinary science.  The really mysterious death, though, was the tragic demise of their own, dear little elderly and extremly infirm frou-frou dog, which also mysteriously died when they mysteriously took it to the vet and had it mysteriously put down!  In documenting this tragedy, the author noted that, when they went up the ramp to the vet, Penelope puddled.  When they came out, the puddle was still there, but Penelope was gone.  Was that all her life amounted to, the author agonized, dripping with pathos, “Penelo-pee-pee?” Shortly after the book went to print, the author herself mysteriously died.  Some reports claimed she committed suicide, but personally I think her muse strangled her in self defense.  The Penelo-pee-pee Rule:  Don’t.  Just don’t.

(Bit of irony here! I looked this book up on Amazon awhile back out of morbid curiousity and there was a single, rave review for it.  The ironic bit is that the reviewer’s name was “Lori Ross”.  That is what my family calls me but, I swear, it *wasn’t* me!)

Things I Learned Today

Normally, I’m a creature of habit.  You know?  Kind of the way a rock is a creature of habit.  Five days a week I drive twenty miles southeast to Warsaw, work my shift at Walmart, then drive home.  On my days off, if I can’t work it out so I don’t have to, I sometimes drive twelve miles northwest to Clinton to shop and run errands.  And that’s it.  I can follow this pattern for YEARS without variation and, in fact, I have.

So going somewhere other than Warsaw or Clinton is a big deal for me, even if it just means driving thirty miles north to Warrensburg or Sedalia.  Well, today, for the first time in probably more than a decade, I drove nearly ninety miles south, all the way down to the big city of Springfield, Missouri.  This is what I learned on my Big Adventure:

There is a chain of convenience stores named Kum and Go.  Also, they are sensitive about their name and apparently haunt Twitter, constantly on guard against anyone who would mock them, so that they can respond almost instantly.  I am sorry if my amusement insulted them but I doubt I will ever again be able to put a gas nozzle in the tank opening with an entirely straight face.

Highway 13, where it crosses I44, has been redesigned by a team of drunken double-crochet fiends.  Seriously.  Google “map of Springfield, Missouri” and then enlarge it enough to see the lane detail.  I’ll wait.

You see? I thought I was hallucinating (I giggled about the convenience store thing long enough that lack of oxygen was a possibility) or epically lost and wandering around England (again — it could happen!)  when I drove it, but the map confirms what I thought I saw.  The divided lanes of 13 cross each other (so that you’re driving on the LEFT side of the road going over the overpass), then re-cross each other, then join up into a single road on the other side, going through a combined total of eight intersections.  Even the green arrows on the lights are gollywonkers.  Going south they point to the eleven o’clock position, then straight, then the one o’clock position, then straight again.  I don’t know how they look going north because I took highway 65 back so I wouldn’t have to find out.

Is this normal, regular city drivers?  Or is it some kind of entrance exam you have to pass to get into the city?

If it’s designed as an entry exam to keep the bad drivers out, I’d like to point out that it also keeps the bad drivers who are already there in.  Like, for example the lady who almost backed into me as she was leaving a business that advertised cheap, easy car insurance.

Of course, there are also many nice people in Springfield, like the kind couple who gave me directions when I got lost in a Walmart parking lot the size of Benton County!

I also learned that their Walmart has long-Johns with dark chocolate frosting and Bavarian creme in the middle.  Our Walmart does not have these.  This is not fair!

The reason I went to Springfield was to have a new author photo taken (more about that in a day or two) and the couple who run About Faces Photography are lovely, but when someone tells you on the phone to “watch for the mailbox because our sign is easy to miss” you should ask them to be more specific, because EVERYBODY has mailboxes.

I’ve learned that a professional photo shoot is remarkably like a game of Twister and that my head really will only turn so far.  I suggested that the gentleman photographer take up photographing owls, as they would actually be *able* to strike the poses he kept asking for.

I’ve learned that if I’m going somewhere with a wide selection of available restaurants I should choose one in advance, lest I get overwhelmed with the choices and end up just hitting a fast food joint.  Yes, I’m that lame.

I discovered that my favorite used book store (and this really did surprise me) regularly hosts book signings by local authors.  I also learned that the author of one of my favorite children’s books (and still an all-time favorite) Wylly Folk St. John, wrote another children’s book I’d never heard of.  AND I scored a copy!

As I mentioned earlier, I took 65 to come back north, in order to miss the tangled skein of roadways at 13 and I44, and in the process I learned that I still suck at merging onto a busy highway.

I learned that there is a Foose, Missouri and that either there is an Urbana, Missouri or I wandered several hundred miles off course and detoured through Illinois.

And, finally, I found Nemo.  He’s just a few miles south of Pittsburgh.

Missouri.

I think.

The Mystery of Cabin Island

Cabin Island

My first book is coming out in the winter of 2015.  For the publishing industry and the world at large it will be, I know, just another business day.  For me it will be the culmination of a life-long dream.  I’ve been doing a lot of looking back lately, at my admittedly strange life and how I reached this point; where I came from and where I hope to be going.  It’s been a long journey.  One thing I’ve been thinking about is, I’ve been trying to remember the first mystery I ever read.  I can’t say for certain now* but I think it quite likely that it was either

DesmondPG

or

Ghost Saturday Night

I do, however, remember vividly the first mystery to make a profound impression on me.  Mom bought it for me at the old Walmart store, when it was in Eastgate Shopping Center. I can still tell you where the book department was in the store and where the book was in the department.  If I close my eyes I can see it on the shelf.  The price sticker was a little, black circle in the upper right-hand corner with a gold border and the price ($1.95) in gold numbers.

I must have been six or seven — younger than eight, I know.  I started reading obnoxiously early and by the time I was eight or nine I was reading as many adult books as children’s (though I never did stop loving children’s books).  This book caught my attention immediately.  Already, “mystery” was a magic word for me, and this book had that magic word right there on the cover.  The Mystery of Cabin Island. The picture on the front showed two teenage boys (“big kids” like my own teenage siblings) hiding behind an evergreen, peering across a winter landscape at a snow-covered cabin.  Who were they? What were they doing?  What was in the cabin?  What was going on?  I wanted to know! The back cover said the Hardy Boys books were for “boys ages 8 to 13” and I was neither a boy nor in that age range, but Mom was always lenient when it came to books so she let me get it anyway.

So I got it.  And I read it and I loved it.  But the thing that was a real revelation for me was that it was part of a series. There were more books — LOTS more — with the same characters and settings and more mysteries.  I was in little kid book heaven.  With the closest (in age) of my siblings being nine years older than me, I was, for all intents and purposes, an only child.  We lived miles from any other children my age and much of my youth was spent largely in isolation.  My friends lived in the pages of books.  Characters in series could be best friends, because they came back to visit again and again.

For years I devoured every Hardy Boys book I could get my hands on, and from there I moved on to other series, both children’s books like the Rick Brant Series, the Ken Holt series, Trixie Belden, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators (to name just a few) and adult books.  My parents both loved to read, too, and Mom always looked for books at yard sales and auctions.  Reader’s Digest Condensed Books were popular back then, with two to four (maybe five?) novels in each volume, and we wound up with boxes of books they put out for a special mystery-lover’s club.  Thus it was easy to progress from The Hardy Boys to Nero Wolf and Ellery Queen, Miss Marple, Campion, and Lord Peter Wimsey.

There’s a long article at Wikipedia about the history of the Hardy Boys if anyone’s interested.  Reading it was … actually, a bit depressing. I know they were far from perfect books, with simplistic plots and characters and a persistent problem with racist stereotypes (which were, honestly, more a comment on the time they were written than on the books themselves).  But they were also an important and beloved part of my childhood and of my education as a writer.  It was while reading about iceboats in The Mystery of Cabin Island that I determined to take information wherever I found it — something I still try to do.  (I’m pretty sure I was the first kid in my grade to know the word “sleuth”!)  And much of what I learned about character, plot, and story structure I can trace back to those books. If Joe finds an amulet under the floor boards of the old house in chapter three, there damn well better be an explanation for it by the final line of chapter twenty!

In 1987 the Powers That Be launched The Hardy Boys Casefiles — a dark, violent series that began by blowing Joe’s girlfriend Iola Morton up in a car bomb and saw the boys carrying guns and killing people.  At that point they lost any magic they still held for me and I haven’t looked at a new Hardy Boys book since.  But there will always remain, in my imagination’s memory, a place where I stand on Shore Road above Bayport and watch the distant lights of the Sleuth and the Napoli racing off through the darkness on some endless adventure.

 

*I have a very vague memory of a series of mysteries for beginning readers.  They were slender books in hardback with a keyhole on the cover and I believe they were about three or four children — siblings, maybe?  I cannot, for the life of me, remember enough to pin them down.  Do they sound familiar to anyone?

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