Monday, December 14, 2009

The things you learn on the internet

Vicki here today. Here is a short list of things I learned this weekend on the Internet:

Some bars in NY State have a waiver that allows smoking
How to make a Singapore sling
The cost of a rototiller
How to spell Rosacea
What green vegetables can be harvested in Ontario in October
Not to bother borrowing a cat for a few days to control a mice problem

I began my creative writing career around 1995. I have always used a computer. I cannot imagine trying to write an entire novel on a typewriter or – more unimaginable – by hand. But even more, I cannot imagine writing a novel without the Internet. With the exception of the latter, everyone of the things listed above I need to know for the new novel I’m working on. What on earth would I have done without the Internet?

I have a full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica (going cheap, anyone interested?) so I could look up things such as the year of Napoleon’s death or the name of the really big dinosaur that ate only plants. But probably not those bits of information that give a book a sense of reality, such as if you can smoke in a bar in New York.

I would have had to write to Charles (i.e. use a pen on a piece of paper, put the paper in the envelope, address it, go to the post office, buy a stamp, put the letter in the red box). Charles would then have had to either make a special visit to a bar, because I am sure he doesn’t know what goes on in such places, or phone the state authority in charge. He would then have written me a reply (i.e. use a pen on a piece of paper, put the paper in the envelope, address it, go to the post office, buy a stamp, put the letter in the blue box). By the time I got the answer I would no longer remember why I needed to know.

And how about hard-to-spell words? I have never understood the principal of looking up in a dictionary a word you can’t spell. I can’t spell it, how can I find it in the dictionary? Now I might be able to find a book on bartending somewhere in the back of the bookshelf, but what if I don’t? Do I phone someone (Charles again?) who might be able to tell me how to make a Singapore Sling.

Never mind the cost of a long distance phone call. I remember my father – IT’S LONG DISTANCE!!! – standing by the phone with a time piece so we didn’t talk to Grandma for longer than three minutes and everyone trying to say Merry Christmas as fast as we could to get in under the three minutes.

So I wonder, did books just not have an aura of verisimilitude (spell checked that one!) in the past? Did people not write about things they weren’t familiar with? Sure I could say “He made a Singapore Sling” without actually having to describe what went into it. Or not mention if anyone was smoking or not in that N.Y. bar. I could just assume a rototiller costs a lot and hope the sort of people who read my books don’t know either.

I know publishers had much bigger editorial staff in those thrilling days of yesteryear, so I suppose they would have had to know how to spell Rosacea, not me. And they had piles of reference books containing such tidbits as gardening seasons in Ontario.

The last question on the list above, by the way, is not for a book. I need to know, and my many friends on Facebook chipped in with their opinion.

1 comment:


I'm with you on the loving the Internet for research. Of course, we have to be careful about our sources. So many people THINK they know the answer...

I remember writing in the 80s. Spent a LOT of time at the library. And talking to "experts." And collecting magazines. And using the damned encyclopedia: we had two different ones. A Colliers from the 1920s and a Brittanica with bright red and blue bindings. I can't tell you how many times I found better info in the Colliers...