Of all those reference books, though, there are five I reach for more often than the others.
1) Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition
This helps with spelling, sure, but I use it mostly for checking word origins. I don't want to use words that weren't used in the time period of my stories. I check even common ones such as hello, which dates back to 1877. That's after my stories take place, so out it went in favor of Good Morning, Good Afternoon, etc.2) Roget's International Thesaurus, 6th Edition
If I want to explore the many nuances of a word, this is my resource. My computer has a thesaurus, yes, but this book goes into much greater detail. For the word cut, for example, there are 32 entries for the noun form, 42 for verbs and 11 for adjectives. Each one takes me to a list of even more possibilities, so I'm able to locate the word with the precise meaning I'm after.
3) The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer
When I want to know if a certain saying had come into use by my period, this is the first place I look. I'll often coin my own sayings to keep my stories fresh and free of cliches, but when I have a particular character who uses them as part of his speech, such as a secondary character in my current story, I want to be sure he's not using idioms before their time. For example, if Abe were to say there was "never a dull moment" around his barbershop, I'd be guilty of an anachronism, since the first recorded use of that expression didn't occur until 1889, nearly two decades after my story takes place.
4) The Describer's Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations by David Grambs
When I want to find just the right word to describe something, this resource comes in handy. From descriptions of facial features to ways of walking, I can find lists covering many subjects. These appear on the right hand pages. On the left, the author includes examples of wonderful descriptions from literature.
5) Merriam-Webster's Pocket Guide to Punctuation, Second Edition
This little book is one I keep handy and reach for all the time. Having been an assistant editor for a small textbook company several years ago, I learned the importance of using proper punctuation. It was from this little guide that I finally learned how to use an ellipsis and an em dash correctly. This 4x5 inch book solves many of my comma dilemmas too. It's not a substitute for the Chicago Manual of Style, but it weighs a whole lot less.
Every profession has essential equipment. For me as a writer, my reference books are the tools of my trade. It's taken three years to build my library and represents an significant investment in my career, but it's one I feel is well worth the money.
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What reference books do you consider essential? What are some useful ones you've discovered that you'd recommend to others?