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Essential and Nonessential Reference
Books for Authors

By Cheryl Bolen

While looking up information in cyberspace is commonplace, there are still many of us who prefer to use traditional reference books. Here are some that—if within easy reach of the author’s desk—can be handy references for clear and better writing:

Synonym Finder. Mine is a 1,359-page paperback by J.I. Rodale that sells for $14.95. Its much more comprehensive than a thesaurus. For example, if one looks up “stingy” on the computer word processors thesaurus, fourteen words of similar meaning are given. Three synonyms: selfish, uncharitable, and ungenerous; and 11 “related” words: avaricious, covetous, economical, frugal, grabby, prehensile, scotch, sparing, sparse, stinting, and thin. On the other hand, if one looks up stingy in the Synonym Finder one gets 54 choices, which include miserly, parsimonious, tight-fisted, penny-pinching, thrifty, frugal, any many more. Its pretty obvious which does a better job there.

Dictionary and speller. Because I write historicals and wish to avoid using anachronisms, a dictionary that gives the year when words came into being is a must. The greatest dictionary of them all is the OED, Oxford English Dictionary, which comes in 20 volumes at the cost of $995. It is also available to subscribers on line. I also keep a pocket-size speller on my desktop for easy spelling references.

Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases. The one I own is a paperback that cost less than $5, but is invaluable for looking up the spellings of seldom-used phrases, such as coup de grace, caveat emptor, or menage a trois (the spellings for which I just looked up in said book).

Word Finder. Though this 1,317-page book is also compiled by Rodale (J.J., rather than J.I.), it is vastly different from a synonym finder. This reference gives adverbs, adjectives and, in some cases, verbs that elucidate the word youre looking up. For example, lets say youre looking up the word “elusive.” Some of the suggested 19 adverbs that could modify this word are deceptively, abominably, subtly, alarmingly, and treacherously. If the word being looked up is a noun, the Word Finder will list adjectives and verbs that can be used with that noun. For example, for “piety” there are 20 adjectives that can describe it, including intense, fervent, humble, tempered, and celestial. In addition, this book shows 20 verbs that can precede or follow piety. Some of the suggested verbs to precede piety are display, feign, instill. “Inspires” is one of the verbs that follows piety.

Now, for some of the fun references that are nonessential:

Dictionary of First Names. The Wordsworth paperback version I own only cost about $5. It s fairly comparable to compilations of baby names. I prefer the dictionaries that give the origin of a name, as well as when it came into use. I wouldn't give any credence to a historical writer who gave a character a name like Cheryl, which clearly did not come into use until the 20th century. These books are an excellent source for pairing a character to a fitting name.

Similes Dictionary. A cop out, I know. But sometimes a good, fresh simile or metaphor just won’t come without a little help. I invested in a 1998 edition, but the similes compiled here are much too modern for my historicals. Example: gone like a flushed toilet. (In case you re wondering, that was attributed to Houston writer Max Apple.) There are some simile dictionaries that are more traditional, though mine does have some of the masters, ie., anger smoldered within her like an unwholesome fire, from Charles Dickens. Metaphors dictionaries are also available. Even if you don't wish to lift another author's well-honed line, reading one may inspire you to vary it to suit your WIP. For example, my Similes Dictionary has cling like a wart. For a historical I might modify it by saying cling like the pox.

Writers Phrase Book. Like the last one, I might not wish to steal a line but can use this reference to modify one to suit my work. This paperback ($9) is divided into sections for the following: physical characteristics (hair, face, other for males and females), body movements (fingers, hands, arms, head motions, sitting, standing, turns, shrugs, leaning, motion), facial expressions (jaws, brows, mouth, smiles), humor, eyes (expression, color, movement), voices (types, speech, responses), emotions (happiness, confidence, determination, defiance, surprise, annoyance, irritation, confusion, fear, anxiety, tension, caution, insecurity, uneasiness, anger, rage, humiliation, embarrassment, despair, anguish, defeat, tears, unhappiness, disappointment), sex (desire, attraction, touching, embracing, kisses, lovemaking) and colors. To be honest, the examples in this book aren't all that great. Example: Something in his manner soothed her.

Pocket-sized Atlas. I keep one of these on my desk to quickly look up spellings of countries or cities and to verify that I've got the right place.

Desk Encyclopedia. I still believe I can look up something, like, say, the spelling of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's name, quicker in this small encyclopedia than I can on the internet.

I'll leave you with a quote from William Safire: “I am happy to champion, defend, patronize, espouse, stand up for, recommend, sing the praises of, tout and hype...the new edition of The Synonym Finder.”

This article first appeared in Happily Ever After, March, 2006.

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