Composers do it all the time: take a theme written by some other composer and go off in some new direction with it. Usually, they’re very open about it, naming their new piece something like “Variations On a Theme by Thusandsuch.” All very proper and aboveboard and with goodwill all around.
Writers, for some reason, don’t have the same luxury. Of course there is always a certain amount of pastiche going on, and anything that’s fallen into the public domain is up for grabs, but even then it’s somewhat dismissed. Somebody who writes a terrific and extremely original Sherlock Holmes story, at the end of the day, is still often pooh-poohed for not having come up with their own work.
I bring this up because for a while now I’ve been chewing on a story idea that, in an alternate universe, might be called “Variations on a Theme by Tolkien.”  Not, as so many modern fantasy novels are, simply taking Lord of the Rings and repackaging it, but actually taking an element of Tolkien’s work and using it as the springboard for a different story.
The particular idea I have in mind was inspired largely by the Scouring of the Shire in Return of the King , as well as the general difficulties that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin had in returning to their “normal” lives after the War of the Ring. My story idea involves a similar sort of idea — a Hobbit returns after a long time away and has to try to pick up the pieces of his life in a Shire that would rather not have to deal with him. It’s not epic at all — in fact, it’s a very personal kind of tale, set against a fantasy background.
To some extent, the story could be set anywhere and anywhen — my hero could be a modern American returning from Afghanistan just as easily — but the character came into my head as a halfling and is only willing to be written as such. And there is a certain uniquely Shire-like quality of this character’s home that is required for the story as envisioned to work. But here’s where the difficulty arises.
First off, obviously, the Shire is up to its woolly eyebrows in copyright/trademark protection. Were I to just bang out a book about a fuzzy-footed pipsqueak coming home to the Shire after a life of adventure and having to cope with it, Saul Zaentz (and probably Christopher Tolkien too) would be all over me with C & D letters if not lawyers looking like hungry sharks. (Assuming, of course, that I wrote this with the intent of selling, which is what I do these days, and got noticed, which I sometimes do and sometimes don’t.)
Second, as I alluded to above, such a work would be seen by many as little more than an extended fanfic. I don’t really think of it as such myself, in the same way that I don’t think of Ivanhoe as “Robin Hood fanfic,” even though there’s a major visit by the Merrie Man of Sherwood Forest himself halfway through the story. My story is its own beast, even if it takes elements of Return of the King as its launching point.
So the obvious answer, and the one I’ve been working with, is to “file off the serial numbers” and write it anyway. What was Willow Ufgood if not a Hobbit? But then that itself brings up the question, “How much filing off do you do?” Or, to put it another way, how much changing do I need to do to make the story viable, without losing the core elements that make it what it is?
Starting with the basics, for example, I have to figure what I want to do about Hobbits. Thanks to D&D, the term “halfling” has become a fairly generic term, but certainly these folk wouldn’t refer to themselves as such. To halflings, they’re just the right size, it’s everybody else who’s too damn tall. So they need a name for themselves. In Tolkien, that name was “Hobbit,” but that term also makes it very specific. My little folk, while rustic stay-at-homes with an Olde Englishe sort of bent, are not necessarily hairy-footed tobacco fiends. But whatever they call themselves (“Nelwyn!” shouts Willow Ufgood), as soon as people find out that these are diminutive country folk who are not bearded grouches in mines, they’re going to think of them as Hobbits. There’s no way around that.
The Shire, same deal. “Shire” is a real word with a very specific meaning, to wit one of the midland counties of Great Britain (such as Worcestershire or Gloucestershire) — and in fact the modern “sheriff” derives from it (being a blurred version of “shire reeve,” the king’s representative within a shire). What’s important about it for my story is that it’s a fairly remote area of farmland populated by halflings, rather than the specifics of Bag End and the Brandywine river, so I can put it wherever I want. But anywhere I put it, as long as it’s a green and pleasant land full of farming !Hobbits, people are going to think of it as the Shire. Again, no way around it.
So it’s a balancing act. To write the story the way I want it, it’s going to have these Tolkien elements in it, and the task becomes creating that (and all the baggage that comes with it) against my ability to come up with something that’s entirely my own story. If I were just going to write this as a Tolkien fanfic, I know exactly where and when, right down to the year, it would be set in Middle-earth. But I’m not writing a Tolkien fanfic, and in order to avoid accusations of such I need to come up with ways to distance it from that, even if such things aren’t really there because the story needs them, which is the part that bugs me.
I can certainly create a generic !TheShire full of charming place names and interesting characters without difficulty. But because “Variations on a Theme by Tolkien” is not something that will fly in a literary context, I also have to find ways to hide my tracks, or at least downplay them. Hopefully some of that will come up in the draft process, arising as much from my own interests and writing style as anything else. Professor Tolkien was a linguist at heart, and as a natural by-product of that, Lord of the Rings is as much a study in languages as it is a chronicle of war. Although I’m interested in languages and have a degree in English, I don’t have anything like the linguistic chops that he did; on the other hand, I have a certain postmodern sensibility that he didn’t and a strong love of individual characters reacting as normal folk might in very un-normal situations, which will doubtless inform my own work.
I’m not going to let it worry me too much, particularly not for the first draft. Thanks to the wonder of search-and-replace I can call them Hobbits all I want until some better term shows up, and chances are that if I spend a few hours playing with maps and making up history, some critical and game-changing detail will come to me. But it is something that will be lurking in the back of my mind until I come up with a solution.
 Actually, I’ve got a handful of these that I’d like to do, including one which is so very epic that I’d have to create a Middle-earth-sized world just to hold it all. Not sure I want to tackle that one yet!
 Sadly, completely left out of the films, even though Tolkien himself thought of it as one of the most important parts of the story.