A Writer’s Reference Books

Edith on retreat in Vermont, on a glorious summer morning.

Daddy, aka Allan Maxwell, JR, at the dinner table. 1923-1985. I still miss his gentle humor, keen sense of justice, and his devotion to finding the facts even during dinner.

We all know Mr. Google is our friend, much of the time. But for reference books, nothing beats sitting down and leafing through some real pages made out of paper. My dear departed father was famous for leaping up from the family dinner table when one of his four children asked a question. He’d let his food cool while he brought back the appropriate reference book from our extensive shelves laden with multiple encyclopedias and dictionaries. He’d find the answer and read it out loud.

I have a shelf full of writing reference volumes, not counting my American Heritage Dictionary. I need to get back to my WIP this morning, so I’m not going to list them all out, but I think you can see them pretty clearly. I have books on poison. On revision and manuscript submission. On what police officers know and do.


I have books on the craft of writing mysteries (including Hallie Ephron‘s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel), general fiction, and memoir. Books on forensic linguistics. More about police procedure.


And I have the Emotion Thesaurus, the Dictionary of Idioms, and several valuable sources of historical information for the late 1800s.


That’s not all the reference books, of course, but it’s the core. I couldn’t write without them! If there are any you can read the title or author for, just ask.

Readers: Your favorite reference books for whatever you do?

31 Thoughts

  1. Edith, Love the story of your father jumping up from the table to look up answers to questions!

    I enjoyed seeing which books you chose to have handy for reference. I have three hard copies for reference on my reading table right now. They are The Salem Witch Trials; A Day by Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege by Marilynn K. Roach; Architecture in Salem by Bryant F. Tolles, Jr.; and the one I use most — A Guide to Massachusetts Local History: Being a Bibliographic Index to the Literature of the Towns, Cities and Counties of the State, Including Books, Pamphlets, Articles in Periodicals and Collected Works, Books in Preparation, Historical Manuscripts, NE by Charles Allcott Flagg.

      1. I mention it, because it might be the sort of resource that could connect you to an expanded list of source material in places that might be seen as more esoteric and therefore overlooked. Well… not to be pushy. Just a thought…

  2. My favorite is “Don’t Sabotage Your Submission” by Chris Roerden. I’ve read it from cover to cover several times. It’s an expanded version of her book “Don’t Murder Your Mystery.” No one should submit a manuscript without reading it.

  3. How to be a Victorian, eh? Pretty funny!
    I’ll echo Grace’s recommendation of Chris Roerdon’s how-to books, both Sabotage Your Submission and Murder Your Mystery. I’m a huge, huge fan of Jessica Page Morrell’s advice books for Writer’s Digest. Between the Lines is an insightful look at finesse in writing fiction, and Bullies, Bastards & Bitches is terrific for help in writing bad guys.
    Your dad had a great smile, Edith.

    1. Love the sound of that last one, Ramona! And he sure did have a big smile. I got it directed at me a lot. Lost him way, way too early, back in 1985…

  4. I have my father’s copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations–it’s out of date, of course, but I love to leaf through it looking for title inspiration.

  5. I always mention this one but it’s my favorite The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide To Writing Fiction by John Dufresne. It’s well loved and I also have The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale. It’s dog eared and falling apart.

  6. I have a shelf full of things at home, from plotting help to police procedure. And a long list of things I want to buy on my Amazon Wish List.

  7. Thanks, Edith — I’m thrilled to be on your shelves! I’ve got quite a few of the same references close at hand, but also often use Garner’s Modern American Usage and, these days, Hemphill’s Spice and Herb Bible!

  8. So is this where I have to confess I don’t think I have a reference book in the condo? I do have a dictionary, but that’s about it.

  9. Love seeing all of these. My niece is interested in forensic linguistics as a career; she graduates with an English degree next spring and I am planning to start gifting her with writer’s reference books, possibly starting with her birthday at the end of this month. I now have a place to start my shopping with your photos!

    1. I should have included that she also wants to be a novelist, hence the writing book gift idea.

  10. The Writers Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, a psychologist, came out in 1999 and is out of print, but I frequently refer to it when I want to be sure my characters are behaving in a consistent way but aren’t becoming caricatures. The book is broken down by personality types with lots of fascinating examples. Waaaay back when I first started writing, there was a how-to written by Phyllis A. Whitney. Her method was to write a detailed outline and plan everything out in advance. This could explain why I don’t have many writing books in my library. Lots on poisonous herbs, though, and shelves full of books on all aspects of life in 16th century England.


  11. I love to use Tarot for Writers by Corrine Kenner. I find it to be a great way to plot and character build in a playful manner. I also really like Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer. Both of these books tap into the visual to spark the written. I find taking a break from the written word and opening up to imagery is an effective way for me to start nodding a new project or to get unstuck if I am experiencing troubles with one already in progress.

Comments are closed.