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Filing the Serial Numbers Off

A reader asks, "I was at a con and people kept talking about 'filing the serial numbers off' fanfic and publishing it for real, but I don't understand how you do that. How does that work? Wouldn't it be obvious? Wouldn't you get into trouble?"

This is such a good and interesting question that I'm going to take several days and several posts to answer this, and I'd love for all of you to chime in!

First of all, yes, you would get in trouble if what you wrote were so close to the source material that it violated copyright. If I wrote a book about two guys named Kurt and Spork who were in Starnavy it would be pretty obvious! However, there are plenty of ways one could "file the serial numbers off" anything and have it not be obvious and not be a problem.

So let's look at how to do this in detail!

First, stop and think for a moment about the thing you love, the story you're so fannish about that you really, truly, want to write this with all your heart. Your fascination. Your love. What is it about it that's essential? Now, this is going to be different for different people. Take Stargate Atlantis: what is it about SGA that speaks to you personally, the thing that if it were missing the story wouldn't be Stargate anymore? Is it the story of exploration? The team themselves as people? The Wraith? A particular relationship that you love? Team adventure? The modern military setting? What's the thing that you want to talk about, that you want to say something about? A ship? A plot? Maybe it's the Wraith and their barely explored culture. Maybe it's the theme of unlikely friendships among the team. Maybe it's Elizabeth Weir and her choices and responsibility.

Pull that out. Pull out the thing you love most and look at it. Keep that. And then change the other things, the things that for you are peripheral. If you want to write about the Wraith, ditch the Atlantis expedition. If you want to write about Elizabeth, change the setting. If you want to write about the team, move them to a different place and time. (For example, [Unknown LJ tag] and everybetty had an absolutely brilliant novel length story with the team set during World War II in the South Pacific. If I had not known this was a Stargate Atlantis story because of the characters' names, I would have bought it as a war novel.)

Maybe the thing that's essential to you is a conflict -- Wraith vs Human, old vs new, one idea vs another. Maybe it's a secret -- what happens when you find out that you're not really human? Maybe it's a concept -- something terrible happened in the past and it must come to light and be righted. Find the thing or two and then change everything else.

So an example! This is something I did for fun a while ago, just playing with filing the serial numbers off. It could easily be the beginning of an original novel.

You tell me what this was inspired by in comments. The inspiration is not at all obscure. You tell me how obvious this is, or isn't! Tomorrow I'll take it apart and discuss the choices I made -- what I kept and what I changed.

Leonie Maria Margit Sophia Louisa von Erstein was fourteen years old in the summer of 1933 when she first came to the house on Lake Constance. It was a lovely old house belonging to a distant cousin, one of the Dorners who were related through her father's mother, and it had gardens that came down almost to the water. She knew she was fourteen, of course. Her birthdate was February 1, 1919, and as yet she'd had no reason to doubt it, no more than she had reason to doubt her name.

Her father was a member of the Federal Council, Frederick von Erstein, and everyone knew him as a leader of the Christian Social Party. He had to stay in Vienna for the entire summer. Politics were too heated. And so he suggested that Leonie should go to Lake Constance with her aunt. After all, she was an only child, and motherless these last two years. "It's very dull for a girl your age," he said fondly, "Staying in Vienna all summer with only an old man for company."

"You're not old, Father," Leonie said, and in truth she found politics fascinating. "Besides, how else will I learn how to get elected to the Federal Council?"

At that he smiled and pinched her cheek, not believing her to be entirely serious, and sent her away with her aunt and cousins.

There was lots to do at the lake house, of course. They went boating and walking. There were picnics and amateur musical performances and all kinds of lovely things for a girl her age to do. The old house was big and comfortable and quiet, and if at night when it rained there was something about it that seemed mournful, surely it was only her imagination.

One day it rained and the boating trip was cancelled. Leonie curled up by the library fire with a copy of de la Motte Fouqué's Sintram, listening to the rain against the panes of the window, an afghan over her knees. Perhaps she slept. She dreamed of another girl in this very room, a girl with a face like hers and a black mourning dress with jet beads pacing back and forth, waiting for a lover. He was coming. Surely he would come. She had sent for him, and he had always said he would come if she sent for him. There was a step in the hall. Surely he was here!

Leonie jerked awake. There was no one of course. Just the fire and the rain. And yet the sense of the girl clung to her so tightly….

A ghost? Surely one saw ghosts with one's waking eyes. A fanciful dream? Assuredly. Her father was quite clear that there were no such things as ghosts, no theosophical conceits about wandering souls or seeing things from a distance, no secret connections.

Yet a ghost hunt was a perfectly reasonable amusement for a rainy afternoon.

Leonie got up and folded the afghan neatly on the chaise. If the girl haunted this house, she'd probably lived here once. And so there was probably a picture or something of hers still here. She'd start with pictures. After all, how would she identify a piece of furniture as having belonged to her?

Not one of the oil portraits, Leonie thought with a frown. She wasn't that old. Her dress was out of style but not ancient, from the last days of the Empire, decades old rather than a century. There were photographs in the Rose Room, the little ladies' parlor her aunt didn't use because it was stuffy.

Leonie went to look. The curtains were drawn, and she pulled back the heavy damask to let some light in. Dozens of framed photographs covered one entire wall, half a century of them from the 1870s to the 1920s. Children posed ensemble, and a weedy hussar glared ineffectually out of a silver frame. A fat woman with plumes looked a lot like her aunt, though her clothes were from the 1880s. A blond little boy with curls smiled for the camera, his ruffled skirts flounced with lace.

And there she was in the back row of one of the pictures, her arm around another girl's waist, seven girls in white shirtwaists smiling together, the one on the far left hand side. There was no mistaking the shape of her face, the beautiful clear lines of her jaw and cheek. Leonie had never seen her before, but she knew her. She knew the shape of her eyes, dark and laughing. She was younger in the picture than Leonie had dreamed her, younger by a decade, but it was the same girl.

Leonie climbed on a chair and took the picture down. Someone had penciled very lightly on the back "Summer 1899 at the Lake" and then a list of names beginning with Amalia.

Amalia what? And she wasn't so very old. If she'd been fifteen or so in 1898 she'd still be alive, probably. She couldn't be fifty yet.

No, something said inside her. Amalia was dead. Amalia had been dead a long time. How else would she haunt this house where she had been so happy?

But why would she dream of Amalia? It was ten years before Leonie understood.

Lekso Czornik had just turned fifteen in the summer of 1933 when he first saw the biplane. He had no reason to doubt it -- his birthday was April 19, 1918 and he knew it like he knew his name. He was making a delivery for his uncle Ota when he saw it land, wobbling a little before it put down in a fallow field at the bottom of the valley, and he gunned the engine on the old truck, turning down the track that led toward it. After all, planes didn't land here every day. Ok, they never landed here.

By the time he got there the pilot was walking around it, his white scarf and leather jacket distinctive as he examined something about the engine.

"Hey there!" Lekso called as he downshifted the old truck and parked on the track. "Something the matter?"

The pilot looked up and raised a hand. "I've got a problem," he called back. "Oil leak. My engine was overheating and I had to put her down."

Lekso scrambled out of the truck and across the uneven ground. "Oil leak, huh?" He looked at the pilot with envy, his eyes running over the plane's pale surfaces, first and second seats beneath the shade of the upper wing. "Where are you going?"

"Prague to Bratislava air mail," the pilot said. "I'll be late into Bratislava, even if I can find somebody with engine parts in this town."

"My uncle owns the motor garage," Lekso said, which was kind of an exaggeration. His uncle owned the only gas pump in town, and one of only three automobiles. "I'm a good mechanic."

"Are you, kid?" The pilot looked amused.

"I'm fifteen," Lekso said. "And I repair stuff." He reached out tentatively to touch the wing. The stretched fabric felt like skin under his hand, like a restive horse longing for the sky.

"Well, it's an oil leak," the pilot said. "Come have a look. I think I need a gasket."

It was an oil leak alright. "I might have one that will fit," Lekso said thoughtfully. "I know I've got a couple of cans of 40 weight oil in the back of the truck. You probably need more than that to fill up, but it might get you to Bratislava. It's not but 60 km as the crow flies."

"That might do me," the pilot said. "If you've got a gasket the right size."

"I might." Lekso led the way back to the truck and started scrounging among the boxes in the back. There were a bunch of different size rubber gaskets in here somewhere. It was just finding where amid all the rest of the junk. But then you never knew what it might take to fix something.

"There's just one problem," the pilot said, shifting from one foot to the other. "I don't have any cash on me. You can take my IOU, or you can ride along to Bratislava with me to drop the mail. I'll give you the money there and then bring you back on my return trip to Prague."

Lekso looked up. "Seriously? You'd let me ride in your plane?"

The pilot shrugged. "Why not? You fix me up and ride along to Bratislava. I'll drop the mail, pay you, and bring you back with the mail for Prague."

"In your plane." Lekso had always dreamed of flying in a plane. It seemed impossible. But now it was real.

"Sure," the pilot said. "If you can find a gasket."

They took off in bright midday, the sun cutting through a few high scudding clouds over the mountain peaks. Lekso sat in the front seat with the pilot behind with the controls, and it seemed for a moment that they would dash straight into the little river, running down the slope like an out of control truck until at the last moment they lifted, the wheels coming up and then the tops of the trees were beneath them, old Bogdan's cows looking up curiously at the biplane sweeping over. The swooped like a hawk, their shadow running before, and Lekso couldn't help whooping.

The cows were tiny as toys beneath suddenly, and ahead the slopes of mountains green with summer grew closer quickly. His breath caught in his throat, joy lifting him speechless into the sky as they banked steeply, turning east toward Bratislava, a path between the peaks higher than goats ever climbed. The clouds shifted, their shadows dappling the ground beneath, mountains and pastures and farms.

The plane shook beneath them, but it was a comfortable shaking, Lekso thought. There was nothing beneath him, nothing beneath his seat but the thin skin of the plane, and yet he felt utterly safe. It was like being an angel, like learning a piece of music he'd had in his head for his entire life.

They landed in Bratislava in afternoon, a real field with high unlit oil torches along the perimeter to light it at night, wheels kissing ground smoothly and then they taxied toward the hangar. The pilot jumped down once they stopped, but Lekso stayed a moment longer, looking at the controls, savoring the moment.

"I'll get your money," the pilot said. "And there's mail to load."

While they switched the mail bags another man came out to have a look a the gasket and add several more cans of oil. Lekso watched another plane land, a big Fokker that put the little mail plane to shame, all sleek lines and bright metal, three enormous motors roaring. He watched the mechanics working on another Fokker in the hangar, one radial engine partially disassembled. He thought he could see exactly what they were doing.

"Here's your money," the pilot said, pressing it into his hand. "Thanks, kid. That was a big help."

"Do you think I could get a job working on planes instead of trucks?" Lekso blurted.

The pilot grinned. "Maybe. Not a lot of planes to work on in the back end of beyond where you live."

"I know," Lekso said. "Not a lot of anything. But maybe my uncle would let me get an apprenticeship in town. It could happen."

"Sure," the pilot said. "Anything can happen."

Lekso nodded. And because it was that kind of day, he said the thing close to his heart, the thing he'd never said before to anyone. "I'm going to be a flying ace. I'm going to be better than the Red Baron, better than the Flying Circus."

"Yeah?" The pilot raised an eyebrow. "Well, maybe you'd like to take the wheel for a minute on the way back. There are double controls. You can hold it once we're at altitude and you can give it a try."


"Really." The pilot grinned. "Got to start somewhere if you're going to be better than the Flying Circus. There were some damned fine pilots in the Flying Circus. Still are. They're not all dead and gone, you know."

"One day I'll fly with them," Lekso said. "You'll see."



( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 16th, 2013 01:39 pm (UTC)
I'll take Star Wars for $400 :)
May. 16th, 2013 04:15 pm (UTC)
I'm with her. I wasn't sure in the first section, but the second made me wonder.
May. 17th, 2013 11:36 am (UTC)
Absolutely! You're right!
May. 17th, 2013 11:35 am (UTC)
You would win that $400! :) I just put up the exploration.
May. 16th, 2013 02:45 pm (UTC)
My first guess was John Sheppard as soon as I saw the pilot, so my mind won't let me move off of that as a guess. ;D

Interesting topic! I look forward to what else you have to say on it (I feel like I'm getting ready for a series of lectures. ~pen and paper at ready~ ;D). I've done this a couple of times, most obviously with Railroad Spine. You just have to find the heart of the characters, the reason you want to write about them, and voila. :D
May. 17th, 2013 11:36 am (UTC)
Star Wars! :)

Oh yes. Railroad Spine. Which if I had not known I never would have guessed!
May. 16th, 2013 08:21 pm (UTC)
Star Wars, Luke and Leia. I wasn't sure until the second section, but between the emphasis on them being as sure of their birthdays as they were of their names, Leonie focusing on Amalia at the lakehouse (and Amalia being both so happy and then so sad), and Lekso wanting to be a pilot, it all fits.

Though if I ever found a Star Wars novel that focused on Leia and Amidala, along with Leia and Luke's sibling relationship, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. The closest I've found in the Luke/Leia dealing with being related and sharing parents was The Truce at Bakura, and it dealt largely with Anakin.

Edited at 2013-05-17 04:18 am (UTC)
May. 17th, 2013 11:38 am (UTC)
I love The Truce at Bakura! That's one of my favorites. :)

And you're right -- it's Luke and Leia. I just put the exploration of that up.
May. 17th, 2013 01:03 pm (UTC)
The Truce at Bakura, The Courtship of Princess Leia, The Approaching Storm, and the Wraith Squadron trilogy (within the Rogue Squadron series) were my top Star Wars tie-in novels, mostly because they all dealt more with the human dynamics and character development than they did with the larger war story.

...And oddly, aside from Approaching Storm, none of them deal extensively with Obi-Wan, who is still my favorite character in the entire series.
May. 17th, 2013 01:25 pm (UTC)
Oh lots of good ones! I love Children of the Jedi by Barbara Hambly too. And the Han Solo trilogy by AC Crispin. And all the Brian Daley books -- my first loves! :)
May. 16th, 2013 08:43 pm (UTC)
I vote for Luke and Leia.
I wasn't sure at first until Leonie said "Besides, how else will I learn how to get elected to the Federal Council?"
Instantly I could hear young Leia say something this to her adopted father.
And then the mention of the house at the lake made me think of the scenes with Amidala and Anakin at a lakehouse.
Then of course Lekso,wanting to be a pilot, must be Luke.
May. 17th, 2013 11:39 am (UTC)
Luke and Leia it is! And those are the exact things that were touchstones for me. I just posted the full exploration of that.
May. 16th, 2013 10:37 pm (UTC)
I don't know the source (though I can see the arguments for Star Wars), but I want to read more!
May. 17th, 2013 11:40 am (UTC)
It is Star Wars. And yeah, this is something that could turn into a book!
May. 17th, 2013 03:44 am (UTC)
Definitely Star Wars, and the most wonderfully evocative real-world adaption. I love how on the one hand I feel the source so clearly - Amidala standing by the window in black, Han's bemused amusement at Luke - and on the other it is so firmly set when and where it is. It gives this peculiar sense of double-sight, in which both are simultaneously very real and immediate.

I'm excited to hear your analysis of what you did here!
May. 17th, 2013 12:04 pm (UTC)
Oh yes! Star Wars! I see what you mean about the double sight. Yes.
May. 17th, 2013 11:06 am (UTC)
Yeah, I'd go with Star Wars. :)
May. 17th, 2013 12:04 pm (UTC)
You are right! :)
May. 18th, 2013 06:41 am (UTC)
Definitely Star Wars. And I love that you set this about 30 miles from where I spend my summers...
May. 18th, 2013 11:28 am (UTC)
*g* Oh yes! Absolutely Star Wars!
May. 19th, 2013 01:57 am (UTC)
Do you have a link for that SGA WWII story? It sounds fantastic.
May. 19th, 2013 04:04 pm (UTC)

Here you go! There are ten sections and this is in reverse order, but it will make sense when you look at it. It's really excellent!
May. 19th, 2013 04:13 pm (UTC)
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )