Jim Gasperini

Adventures in the public domain


An unexpected detour on the way to getting my book ready for publication took me deep into the fascinating, fun, but time-consuming world of image research.

The draft book proposal completed months ago promised that I would supply a list of possible illustrations on request, drawn from our rich heritage of beautiful, amusing, and intriguing depictions of fire. My book coach however suggested that I proactively research and select these illustrations, secure in advance the rights to use them, and make sure I have access to high-resolution digital files suitable for printing. The process, he predicted, would take much longer than I expected.

As usual, his advice was spot on. Though most of my selections are in the public domain, securing the right to use them requires careful research and can incur significant expense. Much depends on the policies of the institution that owns the original work.


Many great museums and libraries, fortunately, have chosen an “open access” policy, which allows you to freely copy, modify, and distribute images, even for commercial purposes. These include the Metropolitan Museum, the Wellcome Collection, Yale University Libraries, and the Getty Museum (but not Getty Image$, which charges the max.) The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which has a wonderfully deep collection of old Dutch engravings in particular, even encourages you to create a “Rijksstudio” and fashion their images into something of your own. When you download a digital file, a dialog pops up prompting you: “What will you create? The image you just downloaded is supersharp. Sharp enough to turn a single detail into a shirt. Or a car. Or a phone case. Start creating your own masterpiece! View tips and examples…”


All things lie dead if not preserved by fire, for it vivifies all things by its heat. In an image packed with symbols, a female personification of fire, her head engulfed in flames, rides a chariot pulled by flaming salamanders. She sits on the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the gates of Hades, while a personification of fertility rides as passenger. In the background, reminding us of the destructive side of fire, Aenaes saves his aged father from the burning city of Troy. Anton Wierix II (before 1604). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Other institutions keep tight control over the works in their collections, whether “public domain” or no. The Morgan Library “allows reproduction only from publication quality digital image files;” you need to pay them to create new artwork even if files of good quality can be found on their own website or elsewhere. This includes images from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves. I would have liked to use a miniature from that work, “Souls in Purgatory Consoled with the Offering.” It depicts an angel delivering sacramental bread, made possible by the donations of people still living, to souls kneeling at a communion table in the flaming mouth of Hell. It beautifully illustrates much of what I say about Purgatory.

Images from Catherine of Cleves do appear in Wikimedia Commons. According to the official position of the Wikimedia Foundation, I have the right to use them: “faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain.” A publisher however will very likely require that I get permission from the Morgan, which not only requires that I pay for photo reproduction but will charge a fee based on who the publisher will be for my book, how many copies will be printed, how many “specific languages” it will be printed in, what media, how many editions etc. This permission will be good for three years, after which I must apply again. I filled out their form hoping to get a ballpark idea of the cost, noting that I don’t yet have answers to these questions. They responded with an invoice for a $60 reproduction fee “for research only” and another form to fill out when I have answers to all these specifics. They will then determine the fee. Fortunately, there are plenty of other great images I can use to illustrate my chapter on the fires of Purgatory.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France, thankfully, has a much simpler policy: they charge a one-time Tarif of 60€ for use of an image on an interior page of a book. I like this clearly defined cost, since I would very much like to use a unique image from a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript in their collection.

It depicts priests blessing a pilgrim entering a famous cave in Ireland known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory. For centuries, believers came from all over Christendom to spend a night in this cave, where they would be seized by demons and endure fiery tortures until morning—if they managed to survive at all. Why would anyone choose to spend a night in a cave, risking death at the hands of fire-wielding demons? Because such a visit works like a vaccination for the soul: if you survive, you will be spared much worse tortures in the afterlife.

Other institutions, such as the British Museum, allow free use of their works in the public domain except for “commercial use,” which includes books like mine. I sent an inquiry to their sales department about a 16th-century German etching sometimes called The Revenge of the Sorcerer Virgil. It illustrates a popular bawdy medieval story about how the Roman poet Virgil fell in love with the beautiful daughter of the Emperor. She embarrassed him, leaving him dangling in a basket while trying to get up to her chambers (depicted in the background).

The amorous poet, also a sorcerer, magically extinguished all fires in Rome. The Roman citizenry could only light them again when Princess Febilla stood naked in the Forum while they rekindled their torches from the fiery focus of her erotic allure.


Of the several copies of this print I found in museums around the world, the British Museum had the only one downloadable in suitable resolution that I could find. How much would it cost to license it? They too require the name of the publisher, the unit run (both printed copies and e-book downloads), language(s), territorial distribution, reproduction size (1/4, 1/2, or full page), and expected audience of the publication. Oh, and they don’t consider the file on their site to be of “commercial quality,” so I should also pay £60 for new photography.

Annoyed, I dug a little further and found an even better copy at the Biblioteka Narodowa in Poland. With the help of Google Translate I determined that “It is allowed to reproduce, change and distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, without having to ask for permission.”

Aside from the occasional frustration with such bureaucratic obstacles, I had great fun curating my collection of digital images. In addition to the selection that I will propose to publishers for inclusion in the book, I came across many more beautiful, evocative, and downright weird images. Some of these I will post to Instagram and elsewhere in this blog.


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Fumigating miasmas and burning love letters

While researching illustrations for 𝘍𝘪𝘳𝘦 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 Imagination, I came across striking images that don’t suit the book but deserve attention somewhere. I’ll post some of them here.

Solomon Eagle, or Eccles, was a composer of note until he became a Quaker, decided church music was sinful, and burned all his compositions. Mentioned in Daniel Defoe’s 𝘑𝘰𝘶𝘳𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘗𝘭𝘢𝘨𝘶𝘦 𝘠𝘦𝘢𝘳, he also appears in the 29 July 1667 entry in Samuel Pepys’ diary: “…a man, a Quaker, came naked through the [Westminster] Hall, only very civilly tied about the privates to avoid scandal, and with a chafing-dish of fire and brimstone burning upon his head… crying, “Repent! repent!”

A common belief at the time held that diseases such as plague were caused by miasmas (from the Greek for “to pollute”), poisonous vapors containing particles of decomposing matter. Fire featured in many schemes to evade noxious miasmas. A note in the source calls the device on his head a “burnace,” but I have not been able to find other references to this term.

Solomon Eagle striding through plague-ridden London with burning coals on his head, trying to fumigate the air. Chalk drawing by E.M. Ward, 1848 (Wellcome Collection)

An advertisement from the 50s by Al Moore could perhaps illustrate a chapter in Fire in the Imagination about the persistence of fire rituals, but would take too long to explain.

It seems that this woman, her era’s epitome of beautiful upper-class babe, is unaware of a fatal flaw. The man of her dreams, after writing beautiful letters from Rio full of plans and hopes for their future, stepped off the plane full of ardor. But soon he seemed to change. His ardor became indifference, his tenderness “merely formal courtesy.” Now she has come back from his wedding to another woman, dressed to the nines. Before burning his letters, she reads them, searching for an answer. What had happened to change his feeling for her? “She would never know…”

But we know. “A case of halitosis (bad breath) can cause a rift in a promising romance.” Don’t let this happen to you!

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Killing monstrous darlings

Wanyūdō (“wheel priest”) from Konjaku zoku hyakki, a supernatural bestiary by Toriyama Sekien (1779).

I have been relentlessly combing through the draft of Fire in the Mind, trimming it down by over 3000 words in recent weeks. In the process I have had to “kill my darlings,” as the saying goes. Perhaps they will still be of interest presented piecemeal here.

Several beta readers thought I was overly fond of fiery yokai in Japanese folklore, for example. The monstrous darlings I decided to kill include the wanyudo, which rolls along mountain roads and through village streets in the form of a giant, angry monk’s head framed by a flaming ox-cart wheel, hunting for souls to drag to Hell. A female version, katawaguruma, features a tormented, naked woman also riding a giant burning wheel.

Many yokai feature monks or other religious figures. Kazenbo (“monk in the flames”) resemble monks burning alive. In the tenth century CE, the story goes, a group of monks decided to leap into fire as a shortcut to achieving enlightenment. This experiment failed, and ever since their spirits haunt a mountain in Kyoto, wrapped in the fires of ignorance and sinful attachment.

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San Francisco Writers Conference

I spent a productive few days at the San Francisco Writers Conference, attending for free after winning the Grand Prize in their 2022 writing contest. Highlights were the many informative “breakout sessions” with agents, acquiring editors, independent editors, writing coaches, and book publicists. Aside from a few useful contacts, the conference gave me good ideas for honing my book proposal, which I continue to carefully craft.

As a full participant (last year I attended as a volunteer) I could schedule eight-minute consultations with editors and other industry professionals. Every fifteen minutes a group of attendees with appointments were ushered into a “holding room” consisting of a single long row of chairs. At the appointed time we swept into a hotel ballroom dotted with dozens of experts spread twenty or so feet apart, each seated at a little white-clothed table with a vase of flowers. At the time of my first appointment the arrangement of tables was random; we had to recognize our consultants from head shots set up on boards by the registration table. This led to people wandering about calling “Linda?” “Mr. Jones?” By my next session, fortunately, they had arranged the tables alphabetically.

I found I could get a surprising number of questions usefully answered in eight minutes. I had a good session with a guy who would be an excellent choice for an agent, once I decide to send out pitches. He thought I had a good subject and had made a good choice in a “comp” (a successful book with similarities to mine. At the top of my list is Salt by Mark Kurlansky.)

The advice I heard was not always consistent. I asked one “book coach” and literary lawyer about permissions. I have a few epigraphs to which I may need to track down rights, including a D.H. Lawrence poem (set to enter the public domain in about three years) and a couple verses from the 1948 song Ghost Riders in the Sky (“’Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky/on horses snorting fire/as they ride on hear them cry…”) He advised that not only would I need to secure the rights to all of these creative excerpts but also get permission from every last scholar from whose works I include a quote. That surprised and dismayed me. I could risk not doing this work, he said, but that would not be his advice. “It depends on your tolerance for risk. We lawyers are conservative.”

Many careers ago I had experience on the other end of the permissions game when I briefly worked for a well-known literary agency in Manhattan. Among my early responsibilities were lugging home fat manuscripts of bad novels from the slush pile and handling permissions. Requests would come in for permission to use a story by Ken Kesey, say, or Erica Jong, and I would write back saying how much it would cost. Here was a chance to shine! $100 for a chapter in an anthology? No! I’d ask for $200. I doubt I impressed anyone by driving hard bargains as the Permissions Department, but now, with some trepidation, I imagine someone like my 22-year-old self reviewing my requests.

I brought up the same issue later with the acquiring editor of a publishing house that would be a good home for my book. To my relief, she thought there would be no problem quoting scholars without permission. Even short quotes in epigraphs should be OK, though for an entire poem or a song lyric I might err on the side of caution.

I learned a lot from workshops with book publicists, a role I had not looked into much before. These days, even if you do find a traditional publisher, most authors are expected to do a lot of (even all) a book’s promotion themselves. Some experts gave advice about how to choose, hire, and work with a professional publicist, others on the sorts of things you can do yourself. One tip produced a flash of inspiration: I plan to design a custom Fire in the Mind matchbook, like the ones restaurants once gave out to their “matchless friends.” Now that smoking no longer takes place inside restaurants you don’t see this much, but dozens of vendors still make them, for weddings and other events. Something fun to give out in lieu of business cards.

A little ceremony after the Saturday “banquet” honored us writing contest winners. Here I am with honorees in various categories (poetry, adult fiction, young adult, etc.) Yes, we guys were distinctly in the minority at this conference.

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Fire in the Mind wins SFWC Grand Prize

Fire in the Mind won the Grand Prize in the 2022 San Francisco Writers Conference Writing Contest. For this annual contest, literary agent judges read excerpts from unpublished manuscripts and choose First Prize Winners in four categories. The Grand Prize Winner is then selected from among the four winners. Fire in the Mind took top honors in Adult Non-Fiction. The Grand Prize includes free entry to the next conference, which will take place in February.

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On procrastination

In starting this blog, I might also congratulate myself (he said with a sigh) for launching what may well prove to be the most alluring method of procrastination yet.

Though I constantly tell myself that the book is my first priority, I just as constantly find “little things that need doing so why don’t I get them out of the way first.” So I water the plants, check how the stocks in my IRAs are doing, work on replacing the broken passenger side mirror, and soon enough most of the day is somehow gone.

The best I have been able to do is construct a hierarchy of procrastinations, so that I procrastinate from doing the thing that should be first priority by doing something else I do need to do but a little further down the list. While writing a chapter on the story of the four elements, I came across a great source about the tarot which could be mined for a quick addition to an already drafted chapter, about divination with fire. It’s just so tempting to take a little detour… it shouldn’t take long to research and repair a minor gap in a web already woven, rather than pick through and select threads of sources and concept about something new… Soon a day or so has gone by, I have read most of two books on the history of the tarot and yes, made the “finished” chapter a little tighter, but all the threads about how Greek atomists alchemists, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Cartesians and scientists conceived the elements that had been gathered in my head ready to be stitched together lie jumbled in a heap of broken neurons.

Oh well. Whatever the flaws in my process, it reflects something in my character that I need to just accept and get on with it.

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Origins of my book about fire

So now I have decided to write a blog about the process of writing my book about fire, and here is the first entry. I hope it will be a useful exercise to step back and scrutinize my process at some level of abstraction, and even result in something of interest to anyone who stumbles across these musings.

This project grew out of my work as Worship Associate at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, California. Offered the opportunity to lead a worship service, I asked myself what subject I might address in a sermon. Having attended the Burning Man festival over a dozen times, an event where many attendees use fire as a celebratory spiritual practice, I decided to center my service on fire. In preparation I looked for books about fire and spirituality, or the meanings humans have imagined for fire over the centuries.

To my great surprise, no such book exists. Though plenty of books have been written about fire, they primarily focus on the history of practical uses of fire, fire prevention, famous fire disasters, and fire in particular cultural traditions. No author has comprehensively addressed the subject of fire and the human imagination. Toni Morrison once said “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it yourself.” So here I am six years later, fourteen chapters drafted of a planned nineteen, beginning to look for a publisher.

It may be that no-one has ever taken on the subject in such breadth because no-one with any credentials to write about some aspect of the subject would imagine tackling such an ambitious project, inevitably requiring venturing well outside any particular field. in researching this book I have had to educate myself in many disciplines including anthropology, archaeology, theology, history of religion, mythology, cosmogony, eschatology, and the history of science. I have no real credentials in any of these fields; the audacity of the outsider may be my main advantage. Though I have many published (and unpublished) writing projects to my credit, as detailed on the Selected projects page, this will be my first full-length book. The process has been exhilarating and fulfilling. As the prospect nears of completing the project, I look forward to seeing it make its way in the world.

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