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Reference Book Essentials

If you are reading this blog, you are probably comfortable with the internet. You may even consider yourself to be a techie. I love technology. I love blogs. I love FaceBook. I love GoodReads. I absolutely adore Wikipedia. Research has been made unimaginably faster and easier with the availability of online databases and websites. However, there are times when reaching for a good, old-fashioned, printed reference book, can be the fastest, most efficient way to get information. I’ve listed some of my favorites. These are not much further than an arm’s length from my computer when I’m writing. As you look at these, think about the books you have at your workstation. Share with us some of your favorite reference titles and how you use them. Remember the wise words of Groucho Marx, “Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.”

You may be writing a piece of historical fiction and wonder if your character would be more likely to make a phone call or send a telegram. This source will give the dates these came into use. Maybe your short story is set in 1978 and you want the characters to be watching the World Cup finals. Look up who played and what the score was. This one volume tome is thick, but its 10x8 inch format makes it easy to hold, store and use. I like New York Times publications but any one volume encyclopedia could serve this purpose.

My current favorite is the ULTIMATE VISUAL DICTIONARY by DK Publishing, but Facts on File also puts out a good one. Visual dictionaries give details about items that would take a long time to locate on the internet, even for the most adept searcher. For example, if you are writing about a knight, a quick look at the visual dictionary will tell you the breathing slots in the helmet of his armor are called ventails. The part of the armor that covers his thigh is called the cuisse and the part covering the shin is the greave. You’ve now taken your reader to the Round Table in a few sentences, without scanning through the 1,930,000 hits that come up when you Google knights armor.

Should your character have the title Esquire? If your character had an audience with the Pope, where would it take place? These are questions, along with the more traditional manners questions, that will be answered by an etiquette guide. Though I love Miss Manners style and humor, I find Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt more complete and useful. Etiquette guides can be expensive, but they need to be replaced every few years, as customs and protocols change.

Even professional writers have our grammatical demons. Mine is who vs. whom. Currently in its 15th edition, the Chicago Manual of Style has long been the ultimate source for these questions. GARNER’S MODERN AMERICAN USAGE is also a good addition to a writer’s reference library, but Chicago is a must-have.

Tell me about the books you find most useful. Maybe I'll need a bigger bookshelf by my computer.

Jo Klemm has worked as a librarian since 1985, with the exception of the eight years she raised her three girls. She has worked in public, medical school, university, and community college libraries and is currently working at Tarrant County College in Arlington, Texas as a Public Services Librarian and doing coursework on a doctorate. In her spare time, she is a professional storyteller, focusing on western and Texas stories and Arthurian legends. The written and spoken word has always fascinated her and, though she embraces technology, she worries that it is moving us away from appreciation of the power of the written word. In her teaching, storytelling, and writing, she tries to inspire and empower students to learn from great authors, old and new, and to find their own voice on the page. Visit her at

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  1. I got the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual in the mail (preordered) a few weeks ago. And it's pretty, too. A nice pale blu dust jacket with orange accents. I love it!

    Thanks for the advice.

  2. I highly recommend the "Encyclopedia of Arms and Armor" if you write in a genre that involves such things. Very expensive, but you can find used copies at a low price on the web. And the data is never out of date.

    Depending on your needs, there are so many good reference books out there.

  3. Fantasy writers will find Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns and Goblins (an Encyclopedia) by Carol Rose to be really helpful.

  4. I love the Flip Dictionary and the Descriptionary. And my go-to Synonym Finder.

    Hubster wasn't all that enthralled when I added the Book of Poisons to my shelf. And for mystery, Lee Lofland's Police Procedure & Investigation is a winner.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. Jo, as much time as I spend in libraries and as much as I love books, you'd think I'd already by familiar with this NYT Guide to Essential Knowledge. Thanks for great new information.

    I have a whole shelf of reference books in my little office, but the one I pull out most often is my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. I'm hoping someday to have one of those monster dictionaries that requires its own book stand.

  6. Fantastic post, Jo. This actually falls in line with what I discussed on my blog yesterday. I love all the books you mentioned.

  7. Me and Dic are like this. ;) And a thesaurus is good, too. I covet the new CMS, too, with that blue cover. I hear there's lots of online writing info in it this time.


  8. One of these days I'll buy the Chicago Manual of Style. I do own many reference books, but unfortunately, they most often sit on the shelf forgotten and unused.

    Morgan Mandel

  9. Not only writers, but also editors benefit from great reference books. My favorite is the Chicago Manual, followed closely by a good dictionary and comprehensive thesaurus. However, mine are all hard copy. I do on occasion use online dictionaries, typically for translation.

  10. I have two books I consider essential. One is the Illustrated Reverse Dictionary published by Reader's Guide, much like the viusual dictionary you mention and the other is the most unusual book I've ever seen. It's called The Word Menu by Stephen Glazier. It's the best of its kind I've found anywhere. It's a thesaurus and a dictionary, but arranged in categories. Writing without it would be impossible.


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