A couple of weeks ago, I was telling you about my author’s bible. Today, I thought I would look at my author’s bookshelf and give you my opinion of what every author should have on their shelf. At least, I’m going to tell you about a few of the reference books I have on some of my shelves, and tell you my go-to resources for when I am writing.
For anyone writing in English, the must-have book has to be an English dictionary. You can use an online dictionary, and there are several, but be aware that you may not always find the correct English spelling (they may be in American). For example, if I want to check a definition or existence of a word, I do an online search, but searching for ‘harbour definition’ gives me the result ‘harbor’, the American spelling.
What’s useful about this method is that the search results also include the origin of the word and there’s a section which gives me the word’s use over time.
However, bear in mind that this graph probably relates to the use of the word in print, and words only make it to a dictionary based on their printed use. Also, it may be American print, not necessarily British. This is a useful tool for when I am checking if a word I want to use in dialogue existed at the time that dialogue was spoken. I’ve mentioned before some words I wanted to put into my Clearwater and Larkspur historical mysteries (1884 to 1891) only to discover they were not in common usage back then. I scream when I see a TV series or read a book set before the 1930s and a character says ‘Okay.’ Why? Well, take a look at this more detailed chart of the word’s common use:
There are others, some more surprising, such as ‘paperwork’ (1934). So, the online dictionary is useful for this kind of thing, but if you want a proper definition, head to the real deal, print dictionaries, and the more extended the book, the better.
The same can be said of the thesaurus. There are online resources for looking up synonyms and antonyms, but again, check for American spellings. I use https://www.thesaurus.com/ but even this doesn’t always have older synonyms, which is why I have a Collins thesaurus beside my dictionary. You’ll also notice other useful resources in the photo below, including the Collins Dictionary of Quotations, and a few Oxfords: Guide to the English Language, Dictionary of Rhyming Slang and Dictionary of Idioms. All very useful. The rhyming dictionary is a leftover from when I used to write cabaret songs and musicals, and it’s now very handy for when I am inventing poetic ransom notes or clues in the mysteries. An Unkindness of Ravens gives me common collective nouns which can also be fun to browse. Did you know that a group of writers is a worship of writers? A group of nuns is a superfluity, but my favourite is a drift of fishermen.
By the way, the Samuel Johnson dictionary is fun to browse to find obscure words from the English language and to check older origins. I just opened it at random and found ‘Humicubation – the act of lying on the ground.’ Next time your toddler is throwing a paddy in Sainsbury’s, you can tell those giving you disdainful looks, ‘Ignore it. My dandiprat is merely humicubating in his dander.’ (‘My little fellow is lying on the ground in a temper’).
At the other end of this shelf, I have the complete works of Shakespear because everyone should have one, a Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and between them, a set of three books by Mark Forsyth. Rather than explain these ‘witty and erudite’ books, as The Times called them, I’ll direct you to his blog where you can learn more: https://blog.inkyfool.com/
Sitting alongside these on the dictionary shelf are copies of old and specific dictionaries, namely one of Kentish dialect (for use in my Saddling series and for Thomas Payne in the Clearwater collection), and Passing English of the Victorian Era, another go-to place for word finding and checking. I find such things from https://www.forgottenbooks.com/en Forgotten Books because I like them in print, but some can also be found online. In my browser’s research bookmarks, for example, I have a link to an English to Cornish dictionary in PDF format, one to a Cockney rhyming slang translator (but always check the date of first usage), and one to an online copy of The Vulgar Tongue, which I am constantly referring to when writing Frank Andino in the Larkspur books. I also have a hardback copy of this beside me as I write, and it’s another great resource for old street slang and cant. (Cant: Language peculiar to a specified group or profession and regarded with disparagement. I.e. “Thieves’ cant.”)
I also have a link to an online video dictionary of British sign language which I use when writing Joe Tanner, and from which I am constantly trying to learn new signs. https://www.signbsl.com/ Check it out and get signing!
Moving on to structure.
On another shelf, I have a collection of screenwriting books. Unsurprisingly, I bought these when I was writing screenplays, but what they contain is of use to novelists. This is because films are all about structure (unless they are art-house or experimental films), and structure is vital to a novel (unless it’s a bad one). Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ is an excellent guide to the structure of stories, and Aronson’s The 21st Century Screenplay is excellent for outlining and giving examples of the various story structures used in films which can also apply to novels. Elsewhere, I also have a copy of the Writer’s Journey by Vogler which is the go-to book for understanding the hero’s journey of classic story telling. This was given to me by Anne Zouroudi, the best-selling Bloomsbury author of The Greek Detective Series, and as she swears by it, so do I.
You will also notice in there, ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, a good read and useful. Part autobiography and part advice giving, it’s well worth having.
To be a Little More Specific
On a third shelf, I have a collection of reference and research books dedicated to my period, the late Victorian times. The photo below gives you an idea of what I research for the Clearwater and Larkspur novels. The Victorian Country House, Britain’s Stately Homes, Life Below Stairs, and a history of the Garrick Club are general to life at Larkspur and Clearwater House characters. Others relate to Silas, Fecker and the poorer East End renters and characters who appear on the other side of the great divide. East End 1888, Slumming, The Cleveland Street Scandal/Affair and The Good Old Days have all been mined for information.
Then, there are more specific books to dip into, such as Dying for the Gods (Human sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe, used for Keepers of the Past); Personal Reminiscence of Henry Irving by Bram Stoker (used in Bitter Bloodline); Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners (used for Guardians of the Poor); and The Gates of Europe (used to understand more about Andrej’s background in Ukraine).
And then there are the research books I have on my Kindle, but that’s for another day.
Beneath these shelves, I have another that contains maps and pamphlets, small works about specific places and other bits and pieces, all of which have been or will be used in background reading and research.
Above them, though, I have a shelf now nearly full of my own publications, and I’ll show you a picture of it, not to show off, but so you can see that a successful series isn’t just about typing words for eight hours a day. It’s about knowing your subject, exploring the past, getting in the details without flooding the page with unnecessaries, and understanding what it was like for people back then. From using the right words (or not using the wrong ones), to knowing what kind of wing collar a viscount might wear in 1890, from knowing what a butler might earn in 1888 to discovering how a parrot might be poisonous, the answer will be contained in a book somewhere. Or these days, online, but always check your online research, and don’t take the top search result’s words as true; double check, and if in doubt, buy the books, read them, and use them.
The result of all this reading and hard work? This:
Hope you enjoyed this pry around my office shelves. See you on Wednesday for my Work In Progress,
Have a great weekend,