Writing Fan Fic in the Good Old Days

My First Typewriter

The younger half wants to know what it was like to write fan fic in the good old days. Well, we had to do it in the snow. Uphill. Both ways. While dying of dysentery, snake bite, and broken legs. What was it like? First it had to be written, either by hand or by keyboard—and in those days, the keyboard was attached to a typewriter. There was no electrical plug to the typewriter, it was all manual. The force of your fingers pushed down the keys, and the harder you hit the keys, the harder the typebars hit the paper. The harder the typebars hit the paper, the darker the letter on the paper, which made a difference when a ribbon had been used several times and was faded. In those days, pounding the keyboard was literal. Many a story was written not for art’s sake, but for the relief of pounding out one’s frustrations.

Mistakes were forever. There was white-out, which you could paint across the mistake, but the stuff flaked off. Better to just strike out the mistake, correct it with copy-editor symbols, or just suck it up and retype the whole page.

To make a copy, before there were copy machine, and especially before there were printers, one used carbon paper. It was a thin sheet of paper, with dried ink on one side, which was put between two sheets of paper, and both were typed on at the same time. Like ribbons, carbon paper could be used several times, fading with each use. There were also extra thin sheets of paper for making carbon copies, especially if one wanted to make several copies at one time. It was more than a little easier to smear the carbon ink over your fingers, manuscript, and clothes.

Carbon copies were suitable back-up for stories passed around groups of friends or read out loud at writing groups, but if you wanted a bit wider distribution, you found a way to access a mimeograph machine. One typed up the work on a stencil, attached it to the machine, and whipped out dozens of copies covered with that unique purple ink. (And the smell! We would always breathe deep of the freshly printed papers in school!) Then all the pages of the zines were assembled by hand, stapled by hand, put in envelopes, and mailed first class to the people one wanted to share with.

It was not a cheap hobby, actually. Just the postage alone would buy you a self-publishing package for your work today.

The fan fic part wasn’t much different than it is now, actually. For millennia people have taken the heroes of legend, and even their own gods, and cast them into stories. Many of the stories of myth involve gods coming down to interact with normal, everyday Mary Sues and Gary Stus. Among the Skalds of Scandinavia, it was expected that they would take old, well-known stories and recast them in a new light. Intellectual property of stories was not a concept for most of history. However, once copywrite and ownership of characters became real, fan fic took on the aspect of an underground activity, allowable only under certain conditions. Nowadays, with the internet, those conditions are easily met, and fan fic once more proliferates.

There are some people who consider fan fiction to be “not real writing.” Probably because there seems to be no way of making money off of it. Possibly because far too much fan fiction is just wild fantasies staring well-known characters. But some people use fan fiction—and the fact that other fans will read fan fiction when they won’t read original stories—to hone their writing skills and learn how to create plots. And when their fiction moves away from the original story and takes on a life of its own, well, it’s time to file off the serial numbers, recast the characters, and sell it as an original story. I know of one author who wrote a sequel to The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien’s estate refused to allow the books to be published as such. So he invented a whole new world and whole new races of fantasy people—and some just happened to be about three feet tall.

The biggest problem with fan fic is that you are using someone else’s property to tell your story. Some authors are delighted to find their characters being used in fan fic, as long as their characters are treated respectfully. One author told me that it meant that her stories had come alive for her readers. Others, however, are very, very sensitive as to how their characters are used. And some corporations will sue you if you so much as mention their characters. Not naming any names, of course, but you wouldn’t want to draw the attention of any listening mouse ears. And, of course, fans often have strong attitudes about the treatment of their favorite characters, and will embark on long and bloody wars over someone’s slash story.

So, write on. Feel happy that you don’t face retyping the same page sixteen times until it is perfect, that you can make multiple copies at the push of a button, and that your hands will not get ink-stained unless your printer chokes. But be respectful of the original creator, and remember—the Gods are always fair use.

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