[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Writers Online

by Robert J. Sawyer

Originally published in Database Canada, February 1991

Copyright © 1991 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

A freelance writer is an instant expert. He or she has to be. After all, an editor may call on Monday and say, "Give me 2,000 words about hog farming in Ontario by Friday!" Before the writer can talk knowledgeably about that issue, he or she has to become intimately familiar with it. That used to mean a trip to the library, poring over all sorts of documents, trying to learn all things hoggish in a manner of hours.

Not anymore. Increasingly, freelance writers make direct use of online databases. For instance, most of Canada's top magazine writers belong to the Periodical Writers Association of Canada. PWAC stuck a deal with the online service QL/Systems to waive sign-up fees and monthly minimums for its members. Now, QL (which originally stood for "Quick Law") is best known for its legal and government databases, and those can be quite handy, but what particularly attracts PWAC members to QL is access to all Canadian Press stories back to the early 1980s. With a well-targeted search, a freelancer can get a complete rundown on past press coverage of any issue in a matter of minutes.

Of course, old facts and figures are of no use to a freelancer, except for a historical overview, but a quick online scan of back newspaper articles provides a list of contacts — government offices involved, industry pundits, and so on. Using the Canadian Press database, the freelancer quickly comes up-to-speed on the topic, and has in hand a good initial list of interview subjects.

If more background information is required, again the freelancer may let his or her modem do the browsing, instead of actually heading out to the library. Some libraries now have their card catalogs online, available for public dial-up. I use Yorkline, the interactive catalog for York University, since I happen to live near the campus. It's free and openly available to the public. No account or password is required to access it. Using the catalog lets me quickly find out what books are available on any subject, but, just as importantly, Yorkline tells whether their copy of the book is checked out. Time is money for the freelancer, and knowing that a trip to the library won't be fruitful is almost as important as finding out that it will be.

Card catalogs are all well and good, but I want to know if the book will be useful before I actually go out to get it. For that, I use Book Review Digest. It's a service from H. W. Wilson Company offered on the consumer online service CompuServe through a joint effort with Telebase Systems, Inc. For two dollars, Book Review Digest gives me up to 10 titles meeting any search criteria I want; for another two bucks per title, I can get synopses of major reviews of a book, letting me know immediately which volumes might make good background reading and, just as importantly, which authors could be useful interview subjects.

Librarians are wonderful about answering general reference questions over the phone, but sometimes nothing beats browsing an encyclopedia. A print encyclopedia is an expensive purchase and gets out-of-date rapidly. Many freelancers use computerized encyclopedias instead. The most readily available is Grolier's Online Encyclopedia, with 32,000 articles, updated quarterly. It's available as part of the basic flat monthly fee through both CompuServe and GEnie.

Indeed, interactive services such as CompuServe, GEnie, and Delphi are increasingly popular with freelancers. When I was a freelance editor for The Financial Times of Canada, I had my writers submit articles to me via electronic mail on CompuServe — a local call from all major North American cities, and far more convenient for both the writer and myself than arranging for us both to be home at the same time so that we could do a direct modem transfer.

Plesman Publications, responsible for many high-tech trade magazines and newspapers, has taken this a step further, providing a special section on their Computing Canada Online bulletin-board service for their writers and editors to swap manuscripts and exchange electronic mail. CCO also allows, in another section, readers of Plesman periodicals to talk directly with the writers.

Increasingly, I find that the commercial online databases are my best allies: they represent a community of experts from all over the world who "network" not just in the computer sense, but in the business sense as well, gladly sharing their expertise.

Let me give you an example of just how useful access to these experts can be. My first science fiction novel, Golden Fleece, was published in December 1990 by Warner Books, New York, as part of the Questar Science Fiction line. I made heavy use of CompuServe, my online service of choice, in creating this book.

Golden Fleece is set aboard a Bussard ramjet, one of the very few theoretically possible types of starships. The Bussard ramjet was proposed in the early 1960s by physicist Dr. Robert W. Bussard. Well, I'd run into Dr. Bussard purely by accident in CompuServe's WordStar Forum, a section in which people who use the same word-processing program I do come to share tips and help solve each other's problems. This was too good to pass up: I told Bussard through CompuServe's electronic-mail service that I was writing a novel based on his creation. He referred me to some excellent sources, and agreed to read the story and offer his comments.

For one plot twist, I wanted to propose a universal computer virus, a type that could infect any computer designed by any race anywhere in the galaxy. I asked on CompuServe for help in identifying the characteristics such a virus would need to have. Several professional programmers piped up with the kind of expert feedback I couldn't possibly have gotten as efficiently (or as cheaply!) any other way. I also needed to describe a death by radiation exposure. High-priced U.S. specialists gave me all kinds of information on that topic for free.

More: the novel has many specific dates in the years 2170 and 2177 A.D. for which I had to know the day of the week. Unfortunately, the perpetual calendars I had didn't go that far into the future. I also needed some help with identifying certain prime numbers, as those were the key to decoding alien radio messages that feature in the plot of Golden Fleece. I asked on CompuServe. Within hours, one user in Buffalo wrote me a quickie find-the-primes program and another in New York City dug up a public-domain perpetual calendar that went far into the future. He sent it to me via electronic mail so that I could get the weekdays I needed.

Other freelancers I've spoken to agree: once you get over the initial hump of learning how to use your modem, how to log on, and how to search efficiently, online databases become indispensable tools for the writer trying to make a living in the information age.

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