From time to time I like to share books I’ve found useful in some aspect of my writing. Today I’m sharing a mix of general reference works that have proven invaluable to one or more of my novels. Maybe they will help you, too. Here we go:
Do you need a description of a specific kind of house, say a 1910 stick house in upstate New York, or a folk cabin in the Tidewater South? Get a copy of A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester. I love this book. It has a pictorial guide to various features of houses such as doors, windows, spindle work, arches, dormers. It’s arranged chronologically, making it easy to use. It’s chock full of photos of various styles of American architecture from the 17th century to the present. Highly recommended.
If you’re writing about the Colonial era, take a look at Daniel Freeman Hawke’s concise paperback Everyday Life in Early America. Beginning with a chapter called Who Came and Why They Came, Hawke paints a realistic portrait of the early settlers and their lifestyle that debunks many myths surrounding the colonial era. He includes chapters on houses, farms, health, manners and morals, celebrations, travel, church meetings and more. I don’t write about this time period, but it has been useful background reading when developing “family trees” for my 19th century characters. And it’s plain old fun to read.
I’m not sure whether JN Hook’s 1991 reference book called All Those Wonderful Names is still available. but if you happen to locate a copy, I think you’ll find it useful in naming your characters and towns. He writes about fads in children’s names, and offers insights into the names of real life people such as Mary Rhoda Duck and Dorothy May Grow. Entertaining as well as useful.
Louis A Berman’s Proverb Wit and Wisdom is another entertaining read that offers unusual and interesting quotes organized alphabetically by subject. Say you need a quote about friendship. Berman offers several pages of possibilities ranging from the Bible to Shakespeare to Ogden Nash to quotes taken from old postcards. I use this one quite a lot.
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is a more formal and more comprehensive guide to the most important things people have said about almost everything. I use this one often, especially when I need to quote or reference British English.
Last week, speaking at a writers meeting in Houston, I recommended William Brohaugh’s English through the Ages. This book allows you to look up a word and find out when it first came into popular usage. It’s invaluable for writers of historical fiction and has saved me more than once from using an anachronistic word.