Archived Blogspot Blog Posts

Friday, June 5, 2009

Five on Friday: My Favorite Reference Books

I have two shelves filled with books on the writing craft. Because I write Historicals, I have another three shelves with books on the Victorian Era, the railroad and the history of the California Mother Lode. I've kept Amazon busy the past two years.

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.

• • • • •

What reference books do you consider essential? What are some useful ones you've discovered that you'd recommend to others?


Jody Hedlund said...

Thanks for sharing those resources. I hadn't thought about the possibility of using a different thesaurus than the one on my computer. Do you use it a lot?

sherrinda said...

Like Jody, I have been using one online. I certainly need to get an idom book! That one looks great!

Jessica said...

I actually don't have any reference books. A few dusty craft ones (eek, did I just admit that?) Well, yes, it's true. I'm bad at reading non-fiction. But a thesaurus...I dream of owning one of those. LOL

Keli Gwyn said...


I use the thesaurus on my computer much of the time, but when I find it lacking out comes Roget's. I know I'll locate just the word I want, even if it means a bit of page flipping.


Roget's is an investment but one I felt was well worth it.

Keli Gwyn said...


It's taken me several years to build my reference library, but I'm such a fan of research that doing so was important to me.

Your friendly neighborhood library may have several of the items I mentioned. You could save up your questions and hit the reference section when you stop by to get books for you little ones.

And a thesaurus would make a nice birthday or Christmas present for a writer I think. Might consider adding one to your list. Hmm?