Books for Authors
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. It’s
much more comprehensive than a thesaurus. For example, if one looks up
“stingy” on the computer word processor’s
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
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 you’re
looking up. For example, let’s
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
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.