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The Three Rs on the Internet: Readin' Writin' and Researchin'

by Ken Conklin

Once upon a time on the Internet it was a dark and stormy night and a shot rang out, waking up sleepy writers who were seeking a muse for a story idea. Often the muse is elusive and miserly with its inspiration, so the writer must look elsewhere. Sometimes an idea comes from a dream, other times from something seen, read or heard, or it may come from some unseen muse. When it appears we need to grab it, hold it, mold it, and, above all, write it down.

Back in B.C. (before computers) I would scribble on a legal pad until I found the right words to render on the page. Later I would stare at the blank page in my IBM Selectric until the little "golfball" typing element began making words. Then the blank page was replaced by the screen on my first PC, which eventually led to the Internet. While the sources I discovered on the Internet would not write a story for me, they provided access to a wealth of material. For example, I might find a story idea from a news flash on my home page, or from reading what other writers have written. Additionally, while drafting a story, I could look up a quotation, find just the right word from a reference source, and even check my spelling and grammar.

Once when I was checking the Reuters headlines, I noticed a story about two sisters who had literally been separated at birth. This gave me an idea for a story in which two boys are adopted by dissimilar parents and raised as twin brothers in utterly dissimilar circumstances. I modeled the brothers after my older twin brothers. CNN, NPR (National Public Radio), and other news agencies also offer a wealth of news items that can lead to story ideas.

Reading the "great books" is not only an enjoyable experience but can sometimes foster ideas. I'm not talking about plagiarism, but rather finding a new twist on an old story, or taking off in a new direction. Both classic and contemporary authors have something to offer us all. Mark Twain's quote about reading great books is apropos: "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them." The Internet is an excellent resource for all literature. Try Poets and Writers Online for starters.

Several times when I've needed a quotation, the Internet has served me well. Recently I was looking for a quotation to use in a short story about an errant sheepdog and his would-be master. I typed in "quotations" in my search engine and my favorite writer's name immediately caught my eye. I clicked on the URL listed and went to Mark Twain's Quotations , where I found the quotation I was seeking -- "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man." -- in Mark Twain's Puddn'head Wilson's Calendar. While looking for the quotation, I discovered another good site for finding quotations: Famous Quotes and Quotations .

Another time I needed to know the author of a book I had mentioned in an article I was researching. I went to Authors , where I discovered that James Conrad had written Victory, the book in question. As I was scanning the other entries under the broad search list of authors, I found other good sites, including Literati.Net, which features today's leading authors; An Online Library of Literature ; and an especially good site for researching the great writers of all time, called Great Writers and Poets .

As it is with other writers, I've always kept a dictionary and a thesaurus on my physical desktop along with a few other reference materials. These include The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Ernest Hemingway, Write Right by Jan Venolia, and The Washington Post Deskbook on Style edited by Robert A. Webb. Granted, it's frequently easier to glance through one of these books than it is to find the answer in cyberspace; however, I've found that when my physical resources are inadequate, I can find just the right reference source on the Internet. And to my surprise, my old standby, The Elements of Style, is now on the Web.

For dictionaries, the Dictionaries on the Internet site and Dictionary.Com provide links to not only Merriam Webster dictionaries, but to guides for word origins, dialects, foreign words and etymology. To dig deeper into the etymology of words, I found Word and Phrase Origin and if anyone tells you (as they used to say on the old "Laugh-In" television show) to "stick it in your Funk & Wagnalls ", you can go there as well.

I also discovered some help with grammar with the following sites. The Grammar Lady Online is a good place to spend a few minutes reading about grammar questions and solutions. How's Your Grammar also offers sound usage advice.

As is the case with writers everywhere, I am always trying to sell an article, a story, a poem or one of my novels. As columnist Russell Bakers said, "The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work and that writing didn't require any." The Internet has opened a new world of prospects for authors everywhere. Write Market Webzine, Glimmer Train and Zoetrope offer book and story suggestions, as well as other information about various authors. Zoetrope was founded by Francis Ford Coppola as an avenue for new writers to gain some recognition.

Other sites that writers my want to browse for exposure include Writers Contests and Byline Magazine. Several sites help promote new writers; these include The Fiction Network and Publish Your Book on the Web. These sites present stories by first-time authors, which are accessible to publishers. To look for writing jobs, try Jobs for Writers and Telecommuting Jobs . Writers' organizations such as the National Writers Association also offer job tips, as well as other valuable information.

To find even more writing-related sites, I often go to sites that link to other sites. For instance, Authors, Ken's Corner, Authors and Books, and Online Literature Library list literature and other comparable sites of interest to writers.

Perhaps today's muses exist only in cyberspace, darting about through fiberoptic cables, awaiting a call from the electronic writer. However helpful the Internet may be, though, it cannot replace the creative juices of a hard-working writer. As Sir Phillip Sidney wrote in Astrophel and Stella, "Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: Fool! Said my Muse to me, Look in thy heart and write."

Ken is a freelance writer and editor with a variety of experience. He was a technical writer/editor with IBM for 18 years, and a technical editor for CSC, Arinc, Rolm, and Infotech. He also has written feature articles for the Gazette Telegraph and Springs magazine in Colorado Springs, published short stories and poems in regional magazines, and has three novels in preparation.


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