‘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’!