A Holiday Buying Guide for Writers


‘Tis the season to cast about desperately for gifts for those we love, right?  Well, I thought that perhaps this would be a good time to suggest a few gifts for the writer on your holiday shopping list.  Or, if you’re the writer on other people’s shopping lists, then perhaps this would be a good time to give you ideas that you can then pass along to generous friends and relatives….

I should add here, that all of these are books that I own and use myself.

Let’s start with a series of books that are designed specifically for genre writers:  There’s a set of volumes put out by Writer’s Digest Books that are published under the heading “The Howdunit Series.”  These are books that would be most useful to writers of contemporary mysteries, but I use them all the time in writing medieval fantasy, so you might find them helpful, too.  Among the titles:  Deadly Doses:  A Writer’s Guide to Poisons; Scene of the Crime:  A Writer’s Guide to Crime Scene Investigations; Cause of Death:  A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder, and Forensic Medicine; and Body Trauma:  A Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries.  All right, these aren’t the cheeriest titles in the world, and some of the illustrations and essays are downright gruesome.  But they’re written for writers, by people who actually know what they’re talking about, in clear language that will enable you to torment and kill your characters in realistic ways.  They also have the virtue of being relatively inexpensive (less than $20.00 per title).

For those of you working on contemporary fantasies and looking for helpful information about magic, I recommend the following books which all are published by Llewellyn Publications of St Paul, MN.  The first three are written by Scott Cunningham.  Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs; Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem and Metal Magic; and Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews.  The fourth book is written by Bill Whitcomb and is called The Magician’s Companion:  A Practical and Encyclopedic Guide to Magical and Religious Symbolism.  The Cunningham books are less than $20.00 apiece; the Whitcomb book is closer to $25.00.  These books are not geared toward writers.  They’re written for people who are into magic themselves — not performance magic, but rather ritualistic and personal magic.  I make no judgments, but you should understand going in what the books are intended to do.  That said, I’ve found all of them helpful at one point or another, some in very concrete ways, others just in terms of sparking ideas for my own magic systems.  Cunningham also has books on Wicca, earth power, and natural magic.  I happen to own all of them, but I haven’t worked with any of them enough to render a judgement.

One of my favorite sources of information is a beautiful coffee table book called Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden.  It’s written by Rob Talbot and Robin Whiteman, and it was a bit pricey when first in print ($30.00), but well worth the price.  For those of you who don’t know the name Brother Cadfael, he was the fictional main character in Ellis Peters’ marvelous mysteries which were re-published at one point under the title The Brother Cadfael Chronicles.  Cadfael was a monk in twelfth century Shrewsbury, England who solved mysteries.  The books were made into a wonderful PBS “Mystery!” series starring Derek Jacobi in the title role.  I don’t know if the book is still in print, but you might find it on EBay or from an online used book dealer.

Need some quick information about ancient weaponry or armor?  You’re going to laugh at me, but my favorite reference was actually written for gamers.  It’s called The Compendium of Weapons, Armour and Castles, written by Matthew Balent, and published by Palladium Books.  It’s somewhat crudely illustrated and sparsely annotated — mostly the book gives numerical gaming ratings for each weapon.   But every bladed weapon you can imagine is in this thing, as are illustrations of all sorts of armor.

For more detailed information on castles I actually turn to two books written for children:  One is called Castle, and it’s part of the Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections series ($16.95)  The other is also called Castle, and it’s by David Macaulay ($8.95)  Both are great in that they offer very basic information in easy-to-follow language, with terrific illustrations.

For historical information on the development of technologies over time, I use a book I mentioned in my post about anachronism:  Ancient Inventions, by Peter Hames and Nick Thorpe (Ballantine, $20.00).   There’s also a book that focuses on the development of military tactics through first hand accounts of battles and such called, Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey (Avon, $15.00).   Also mentioned in my anachronism post was a book on the development of language called English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh (Writer’s Digest Books, $25.00).

Finally, for more general writing guidance I use several standard reference books.  Do you have a good dictionary?  The industry standard is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (hardcover, unabridged).  I have the Eleventh Edition, but they might be up to number twelve now.  Why do you need this dictionary?  Well, for one thing it gives lots of helpful information, including the year each word entered the language, again helpful for avoiding anachronisms in your medieval fantasy.  Also, as I said, it’s the industry standard.  It’s what copyeditors use to choose between various spellings of certain words and that sort of thing.  A dictionary or idioms or proverbs can also be helpful — there are several out there worth buying.  There’s also the Chicago Manual of Style, which can be quite helpful in preparing manuscripts, interpreting copyediting symbols, and making your own markings on an edited manuscript.  Finally, a good baby name book can be a great gift for a writer who needs help naming his or her characters, although take it from me — buying one at your local bookstore can set tongues a-waggin’!


11 comments to A Holiday Buying Guide for Writers

  • *laughs* David, I swear I think you were looking at my bookshelf when you made this post! I own 3/4 of the titles you listed, and I couldn’t agree more with your suggestions. In fact, when I bought Deadly Doses, I was so fascinated with the descriptions, I went around for weeks regaling people with all the gory details. I’m still hoping to someday write a book in which I can kill someone by making him swallow a battery. It’s a wonder I’m not on some government watch list by now. 😀

    I’d recommend Stephen King’s “On Writing” – it’s the best aspects of a how-to and a memoir combined. King speaks to the reader the way I’d imagine he would if we were sitting together at his kitchen table.

  • And I forgot to mention…I almost got to meet Ellis Peters when I was in England. My best friend and I were huge Brother Cadfael fans, and we were touring Shrewsbury Cathedral when a reporter from BBC Radio asked to interview us. We chatted with her about our love of Brother Cadfael, and she told us that Mrs Pargeter (Ellis Peters’ real name) loved to meet her fans. She actually called the house to see if we could come by, but alas, Mrs Pargeter was in London that day.

  • David,
    Totally great listing! I am printing it out, highlighting the ones I don’t have, and sending it to my book guy.
    I also recommend the Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery and her Don’t Sabotage Your Submission. Chris was an acquisition editor for years and now is a book doctor. Her books are practical and concise. (And the fact that my AKA is used as an example of the way to do back-story and flashbacks properly has no bearing on my recommendation. No, really! None at all! *grins*)

  • Thanks for the additional ideas!

    And Misty, darlin’, if you think you ought to be on a government watch list, it’s likely that you already are…

    Nancy and I (and my older daughter when she was all of two months old) visited Shrewsbury Cathedral in 1995, which I believe was the year Mrs. Pargeter died. We didn’t see her, but it was a beautiful spot and a lovely, friendly town.

  • Beatriz

    Uhm, Captain–

    Which of those books don’t you own that you’d like to add to your collection?

  • Oooooo! Good question, B! Misty, I sense a gift in your future….

  • Okay, not that I’m asking for a present, but the only books on David’s list that I don’t own are English Through the Ages, The Compendium of Weapons and The Magician’s Companion.

    Great minds read alike… 😀

  • mikaela

    This post reminded me that I need to update my researchshelf. I really need a book about magic, and weapons would be good to.
    As for clothing, I have one tip: Check out Dover’s coloring books. They are a treasure trove, cheap, and you can color them yourself. Not to mention the rest of the books. If only they were e-books… oh well.

  • Thanks for the tip, Mikaela. I’ve been looking for some clothing sources.

  • This is great. My wish list is now full!

  • Glad to help, Kristine!