How Did We Ever Write Before the Internet?

I’ve been mapping a scene all night. So far, I have:

  • Found the exact bench at Founder’s Park in Alexandria, VA that my story people meet at.
  • Selected my main character’s backpack.
  • Read over several different versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
  • Purchased a copy thereof that includes the cuneiform characters, plus several Greek and Roman epics and texts, delivered instantly, for a dollar.
  • Received a ton of papers on code switching and the effects of bilingualism on the brain from a person who did research on it for a university class.
  • Confirmed pigeons won’t come out to eat at night even if you shake a bread bag really loudly (and yes, I do actually know bread is bad for birds, thank you so much for helpfully pointing that out).
  • Found a video that not only would have been highly entertaining to my main character and her best friend/fellow profiler, but has a few seconds in which the singer looks almost exactly like her.
  • Been tipped to free genealogy software that will help me map characters’ families (although it doesn’t look like the designers ever imagined non-binary people).
  • Found a bunch of new music to write to.
  • And done probably a dozen other things I’ve forgotten completely about, but would have taken me hours of research in the past, if they’d got done at all.

For the next scene, I’ll be looking at the interior of a Learjet, among other things. All without leaving the house, making a phone call, asking someone to send a brochure, or anything similar.

I’d never be able to write about science without the Internet, definitely, but writing good fiction was also much less possible without it. I look back over stuff I wrote when I didn’t have internet access, and it’s so… thin. And wrong. So many mistakes. So many places where my imagination was crippled due to lack of information. So many nights where I’d gone through all of my music and was getting tired of listening to all the same stuff again, let’s not forget those dark days.

I can now open the computer at any time of night and have access to the entire world. No matter what ridiculous or esoteric tidbit I need to know, I can generally find it with a quick Google search or a question thrown out on Facebook. I’ve got a cadre of encouragers for those moments when I just want to rip my hair out. I’ve got people who can help me with names, people who can help me with places, people who can help me with concepts, and who can do all of this so unobtrusively that it doesn’t break the narrative flow. This is the kind of thing I used to weep for wanting back in the day. (And yes, I have been working on this series for that long. It required a lot of worldbuilding. But it probably wouldn’t have taken me thirty years if I’d had the internet back when I was first starting out.)

It’s very nearly a miracle.

I mean, I imagine writers of yore had about the same reaction when the telephone and the research librarian were created, screaming with joy over the fact that their job just became exponentially easier.

I don’t need coworkers to find Wise Readers now. When this book is ready for eyeballs, I can just reach out to you, here, and send you electronic copies rather than killing a mid-sized forest. When you’re all done ripping and tearing and helping me rebuild it into something better, stronger, faster, then I can find an agent, maybe. Or maybe I’ll say fuck it, fuck the agent and publisher and the endless round of trying to get someone to take what readers have already said they want. I can hire an editor and cover artist and have them whip it into exquisite shape, then publish it in an evening, right here from my bed/office (I haven’t got a chair in my room, alas, although I’m going to be looking for a comfy folding one soon). I can have a published book to you buy morning, for a fraction of the price you’d pay for a traditionally-published tome.

Technology changes everything.

So, should you come to me for advice on writing, part of it is now this: make sure you have a reliable internet connection. You’ll need a good imagination, some talent with words, and the willingness to seek the most random shit imaginable. Check the details, because you never know what they’re going to spark. You never know when a single accurate detail will change everything, when it will solve a thorny plot problem or give you an idea that will make the characters and world you’re creating so real and compelling to your readers that they must read on. You never know what you’ll need. But as long as you’ve got the internet, you’ll probably be able to find it exactly when you need it.

Image shows a gray cat standing on its hind legs with its forelegs stretched to the sky. It's standing in snow. Caption says, I LOVE THE INTERNET

How Did We Ever Write Before the Internet?

10 thoughts on “How Did We Ever Write Before the Internet?

  1. rq

    But but but technology an the internet is destroying our ability to build meaningful relationships with each other and is only isolating us from the true values of the world!!!!!! Haven’t you read the memo??
    In other words, praise be to technology and the advances of civilization that make inventions possible. It is absolutely awesome that people out there have the resources (incl. time and energy) to create things that change all of our lives. And go you!

  2. 2

    I love the internet too. I love when, in a conversation with one of my grandkids, a question is asked and I can immediately go look it up. I love finding out all sorts of things at random. But then, when I was a kid and the internet was not even seen on the horizon, I used to read encyclopedias, opening a volume at random and reading the first entry I noticed.

    When writing a fan fiction a few years ago, I wanted some mathy technobabble, so I went to Wiki and learned enough jargon to do what I wanted in less than a hour. I warned mathematicians among my readers that a fondness for Numb3rs did not equate with knowledge and apologized for any egregious balderdash I might have come up with. One reader kindly said it didn’t sound bad, given that the math being described was things like “transdimensional positioning algorithms” and “temporal combinatorics”.

    So yes, the internet saves enormous time searching through dusty library books and allows you to write with more confidence about things you have never actually seen or studied.

  3. 3

    Me too. “I love the Internet”.

    My brother and I often recall the old days (pre-1995) when we had questions and had to leave them unanswered because there was no way to find out. These days two words in Google gets us on the right track and three words puts a precise answer at the top of the list of search results.

  4. 4

    I love the internet too.

    I remember back in 1983 when I was the “mjr” on the internet… (sigh) …

    Most of my friendships have been there, in that place that is not a place. And I’ve always felt constantly connected to them (and vice-versa) and each of my friendships evolves to the point where we share exactly as much contact as we both need, no more, no less. Unlike in the “real world” I don’t lose friendships when someone moves to a different side of the country or even the planet. And I’ve booked gigs in fascinating places without having to spend hours on the telephone or go visit or send (augh! ugh!) letters. It’s great.

    I laugh when someone says that the current generation are emotionally disconnected because all they do is text. A friend told me the other day (with horror) that he saw a roomful of young people texting to eachother even though they were in the same room. I had to point out that it was: a) more private b) perhaps a safe way to talk about difficult things without exposing oneself too much. A friend of mine who has severe PTSD has found that texting allows her to communicate even when she’s having a triggered episode; she can talk safely to someone else instead of hiding in the bottom of her closet and cutting herself with a knife. Yeah, “emotionally disconnected” the internet is not. Sadly, some of that emotion is hate. :(

  5. rq

    Could definitely use less hate with my internetz.
    I really love the connectivity of the internet, too. That roomful of kids may not be talking to each other, but they may be talking to people they want to be talking to, halfway across the world. I don’t like the idea of forcing people into any level of relationship simply because of proximity to each other. It’s such a limited way of thinking (that the only people we need in life are those already placed near us by some random chance).
    And in my experience, having meaningful relationships that we choose for ourselves can actually help to improve the proximal relationships we have chosen, too, because it removes a certain kind of stress that comes from trying to force oneself into the appropriate relationship mold with all the other associated people, who may or may not fall into the category of ‘worthy’. Because you can now get that necessary relationship via the internet, rather than trying to force it (or completely avoid it) with people in real life. Talk about awkward!
    And I know, I still owe you chocolate, Marcus. It’s at the top of the to-do list for January 11th. :)

  6. 6

    I still owe you chocolate, Marcus. It’s at the top of the to-do list for January 11th. :)

    ZOMG! See what I mean!? Sometimes the internet brings me unexpected CHOCOLATE!

  7. 7

    I also love the Internet for the same reasons, but it has wrought noticeable change in other ways. Now my research is almost exclusively based in the Internet, and if I can’t find what I’m looking for there (which is rare) then I probably won’t find it. But when I was a pre-pubescent kid in primary school back in the nineties working on my independent projects, when set out to research my project at the start of term I would write polite letters to various sources and mail them. I remember one project was on Japan (we could choose the country), and I wrote to a Japanese student I knew of through a friend of a friend of a friend, and she took the time out of her studies to send me all sorts of fascinating cultural, historical and lingual data for me to use. This was before Japan was “cool” in the West. In another project on food, I chose to pursue the production of seafood, so I wrote to several companies whose addresses I copied off of the cans in my cupboard. Not all replied, and several that did sent only basic info or an apology that they could not spare the time to send anything, but several companies sent me exhaustive information about their sources, production lines and so forth, including photographs that some employee had gone out to take themselves for me, and folders of data that surely only prospective and paying clients and others in the business normally get to see. I haven’t actually thought about any of this for nearly two decades, and I am now struck by the sheer quality of my schoolwork at that age compared to later on. I don’t think I’ve ever had that sort of contact with my sources since, and I don’t know if any would even reply to anything besides an e-mail.

  8. blf

    Bald geese and swans are involved in writing pre-intertubes, as is this mysterious stuff called “ink”. Rumour has it that something called “parchment” or “paper” (sources diverge) is also involved, apparently as a repository for the ink. The exact process is unclear, since none of the items has a USB port into which the keyboard can be plugged, and there are suggestions yer supposed to lay your screen flat and balance these substances on it. Very odd pre-intertubes rite.

  9. 9

    I have a love hate relationship with my computer.

    I love it when it works and hate it when it doesn’t. Just gets so infuriatingly frustrating.

    But yes, the internet and what it enables everyone to see and do and take part in and enjoy and learn from is wonderful.

  10. 10

    Reeds blf, woven reeds and carved stones on islands whose names now grace spaceprobes that have rest upon the black encrusted volatile ice of hairy stars.

    Oh and maybe Incan Quipu* wove of cotton and camelid fibers too although they were probably more mathematical like abacus .. what is the plural of abacus anyhow? **


    ** Must wiki that .. Aha! :

    “..abaci or abacuses” so which do I choose and why? That’s, erm, not all that helpful here really. As well as straying further off topic, sorry.

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