Weekly Musing: Reference This

In the past I’ve talked about a variety of resources I found helpful at the time. Re-reading it I realized how much my idea of what is useful has changed. Some of the tools I listed I no longer use. Either outgrew them or decided to try others.

One of the biggest changes has been in the kinds of books I consider to be valuable reference materials. I’ve expanded my scope beyond grammar and editing books to books on such topics as superstitions, what various traumas to the body actually look like, to how to better write emotions. No matter what genre you write, be it general fiction, mystery, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. below I’ve listed a few books I think every write should have on the bookshelf.

Story Elements and Novel Writing – Writer’s Digest produces several books on story elements.  These are great for strengthening your strengths and providing help on weaker areas. For example, I think my biggest strength is dialogue yet I still have a book on it. I also have a book on characters, emotions, and viewpoint. Never know when characters might start sounding alike or when I struggle to find the right “voice” for a character.

What I personally focus on is having multiple books on my weak areas. For me I believe that it is setting and descriptions as well as plot and structure. I struggle to translate the world and people I see in my head onto paper. Also, since I consider myself more character-driven, making sure the plot makes sense and has scenes that support it I struggle with.

I think every writer should have at least one book on beginnings, middles, and endings since very few writers, if any, are proficient in all three. I think it’s also great to have a book on these since I see so much emphasis placed on the first sentence, opening chapter, or first 50 pages that it’s no wonder books fall apart in the middle and sputter to an end. If we want our readers to keep coming back we need to look at our manuscripts as a whole.

And like any writer, I have a few books on how to write a novel. There’s an overwhelming amount of books out there. Some claim you can write a draft of one in as little as a month, others set more realistic goals (unless you’re slow like me) of 90 days. Still others focus on how to write the kind of novel that will get people’s attention. I decided to go with a couple because too much information can be a bad thing.

Emotions and Personality Types – I was naturally born with a gift/curse to empathize with both real and fictional people. In my head and heart their emotions tend to be felt as much as if they were my own. Yet I frequently struggle to set those emotions on paper. This makes me feel as if I’m not doing the characters justice.

I heard about a book called The Emotion Thesaurus via an article. What I really appreciate about this book and the subsequent follow-ups The Negative Emotion Thesaurus and The Positive Emotion Thesaurus is that they aim to help writers get out of the rut of describing the same emotions in the same way. In the original book the authors include physical signs, what a particular emotion feels like internally, and mental responses to name a few of the categories. In the two follow up books they take things further. They include associated thoughts, behaviors and attitudes, related secondary emotions, positive and negative aspects, and even examples from TV and film.

Another book I’ve found useful is the Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. Unlike the emotion thesaurus series, this books provides deeper analysis. In addition to listing various personality types, the author offers how personality differs in children and adolescent. Other features which appeal to me are discussions on psychological disorders, criminal types, creating a family, and love, marriage and other kinds of relationships.

The Human Body – I’m not necessarily referring to having Grey’s Anatomy nearby, but I do think it is important to have books dealing with the human body. For example, I have a book on poisons, body trauma, and more than a few books on weapons. Although not quite related, I even have a book on survival. Never know when a character will wind up on their own in the woods or desert or ocean.

If you think only crime and mystery writers need these kinds of books, think about this way. Say you write historical fiction and have a scene involving a battle. The time period dictates the weapons and equipment involved, but you’ll want to make sure injuries and deaths inflicted are plausible.

Or if you write fantasy, perhaps the book on poisons can be of use. Maybe your protagonist likes to coat a particular kind his or her weapon of choice. What would using poison plus their weapon of choice due to a body? Again, having a book on body trauma can be helpful for describing the wound.

Myths, Symbols, Superstitions, and Legends – Again, no matter what genre you write in, why not consider adding a few of these books? While I’ve yet to use my books on superstitions, symbols and signs, and mythology, I feel they are valuable. Who knows, maybe I could have a character obsessed with Nordic mythology who uses it guide his or her life.

Think only fantasy or horror writers would benefit from these? Think of it like this. Say you write mystery. Perhaps the bad person leaves behind a series of symbols. Maybe instead of using the most recognizable symbols in your country, you cast your net wider and look to another part of the world. What does this say about the antagonist? Is he or she from that area? A person obsessed with the culture? How do you go about narrowing your field of suspects? Maybe your cast includes an archeologist who has worked in that region, an anthropologist specializing in that culture, and a native of that region. Maybe the real culprit is none of them and is someone who wants to frame one of those people for an unrelated personal reason.


Having a variety of reference books beyond the usual writerly ones is a great way to get inspired. If you’re stuck in your story, consider perusing through a book of superstitions. Or when you’re editing and want a better way to describe a character being sad. Grab your books on emotions. Not only does it add more realism, it can make our work more interesting and unique. And you don’t need a ton of books to help you. All the books I listed are condensed and brief, general information. Many of these are geared toward writers and are easy to understand. Their just jumping off points and can be used in conjunction with websites and other books.


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