There's a place on the Web where dragons roam the skies, wizards cast their spells and vampires - or even stranger creatures - lurk in the darkness. It's a place where hardy adventurers meet to discuss their quest or seek advice from others who have followed the same path.
The place is the Forward Motion Writer's Community (http://www.hollylisle.com), fantasy author Holly Lisle's home on the Web.
If you had visited Lisle's site in 1995, you would have found a simple page with a few writing tips. If you visit today, you'll find a thriving community of writers, a place with a free exchange of ideas, advice and encouragement.
When she began the site, Lisle had no idea what her creation would evolve into.
"I figured I'd post a bunch of writing articles and then - as the bug hit me - a LOT of writing articles, and that would be it," she said. "But the Internet is a seductive place - and was particularly seductive in 1999-2000, when the dot-coms thought they'd created a way of minting money and everything on the Web was free."
That's when Lisle's site really began to change. The availability of free tools made it easy to experiment with message boards, chat rooms, classes and plenty of other interactive features. Now, the site has over 2,000 members, though not all are active, and gains around 20 new members a month.
"I kept thinking about all these people who wrote to me - thinking they would really like each other, and we could have a lot of fun and do cool things if I had some way to bring them all together," she said.
"The explosion of freebie Web tools made that possible. I have to pay now - the days of free on the Internet are gone. But now everything works - at least most of the time - and I know the price is worth it to me."
Lazette Gifford, who designed the original Forward Motion page almost seven years ago, is also surprised and pleased by what's happened at the site
"(Holly) has taken over and expanded in ways I never imagined," Gifford said. "I'm amazed at how much it's grown and how much time and energy Holly is willing to expend to help new writers."
Lisle says she considers that something she owes to the people who helped her, people like well-known fantasy and science fiction writers Mercedes Lackey and Stephen Leigh.
"Stephen rubbed the stupid out of my storytelling, and Misty showed me how to treat writing as a profession, not a hobby," Lisle said. "I couldn't pay either one of them back. But I could pay forward - that Robert Heinlein adage is some of the best advice he ever gave - and when I discovered the cool Web tools, I figured out how I could pay forward."
Lisle says that's how the site works - not just for her, but for everyone there. The spirit of Forward Motion is people helping each other.
"That's the coin of the site, the stated agreement," she said. "If something or someone helps you reach your dreams, then when you have the opportunity to help someone else, you take it."
And writers have found help in Lisle's community. Users like Jim Mills, Robert Sloan and Julia Pass praise the site's boards, classes and the inspiration they find there.
"The site really got me motivated to write more and actually think about what I was writing," said Pass, who now serves as a moderator. "It's also helped me to put more into my writing than just a plot, so now it actually says something."
Kay House credits Lisle's site with kicking her fiction writing into gear. House says she's wanted to write fiction since she was a child, but had never been able to get it going.
"My hard drive got littered with false starts. Despite the fact that I have finished more pieces of non-fiction than I could possibly count, I despaired of ever finishing one piece of even the shortest, most mediocre fiction," House said. "Within a month of finding the site, I had finished a short story. Not a good short story, or a long one, but a finished one - and finished was the goal."
Most users say the camaraderie keeps them coming back as much as the writing help.
"The community has a unique, stimulating atmosphere where in one sense, everyone's equal," Sloan said. "Every writer here is unique. We're all striving for the same difficult goals, and the same stresses affect popular, published successful members, as well as talented young writers who are beginning their careers in high school."
Gifford says there's no other site quite like it, and the information and help she finds there is invaluable.
"Having instant contact with a community of writers is probably one of the biggest changes in the lives of authors since the invention of the typewriter," she said. "There is almost always a person or two in chat willing to talk out plotting problems or share a triumph."
The community also continues to grow with new classes and opportunities for members. On a recent Saturday afternoon, members were given a chance to chat with a book editor from a major publishing company. Insights like those are invaluable say members.
Lisle says she feels a great deal of satisfaction and delight when a member of the community succeeds.
"My objective is to one day have an entire shelf of books by site members," she said.
But she's quick to point out that success comes primarily from the work the member puts in. The site just gives them tools that will help.
"I don't justifiably get to be proud. That would be like a hammer manufacturer being proud of someone using his hammer to build a gorgeous Victorian mansion or a castle," Lisle said. "Forward Motion is a place where you can get a wide selection of tools, and I think they're pretty good tools. But the folks who have the drive and the passion to build castles would figure out a way to do it with their teeth if no other tools were available."
Lisle says the biggest push now is to get a more stable interface for the site, but that's going to be a challenge. She says pricier packages aren't in her budget, and she refuses to charge for membership.
"More people need to buy my books so that I can afford a more reliable back-end for the community," Lisle jokes.
Other than that, she says she'd like to see the community continue on its present course.
"I think I'd just like to see more of what we already have," she said. "More writers participating in critiquing each other's work, more people volunteering to teach classes on their specialties, more passionate discussions about writing, more people finding a place where others share their love of words, more people bouncing onto the discussion board screaming, `They just bought my story!'
"That's a wonderful thing to see when I log on in the morning."