by Chris Mandeville
The other day I was talking to another writer about the young adult time travel story I’m writing. Her first question was, “Do you have the book English Through the Ages?” I didn’t, but at her encouragement I got one immediately. The minute I opened the book it was my favorite writing tool, and I knew I had to tell you about it. Then I got to thinking about all the great writing tools on my bookshelves (both physical and digital), and I thought you might enjoy hearing about those, too. So today I’m sharing with you my favorite books that help me write books, beginning with my newest, English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh.
If you write contemporary or speculative fiction, you might not have a need for English Through the Ages. But if you want to know which came first, the chicken or the egg, stick around because this book has the answer and I’m going to share it. Plus I’ll tell you about other cool tools you might be interested in.
English Through the Ages is a hefty tome that’s kind of like a historical dictionary. It begins with Old English words that were in use in 1150, and then adds words decade by decade as they came into use through 1990. The words in each section are divided into categories like “Technology,” “Fashion,” and “Everyday Life” for easy reference. Plus a full third of the book is an alphabetical index so you can quickly find a particular word you’re curious about.
I use the book in a number of ways to make sure the language I’m using in my story is appropriate to the time period. The chapters I’m writing now take place in the U.S. in the early 1900s. I have one of the characters saying the word “quibble,” but I wasn’t certain if that word was in use then, so I looked it up in the index. Turns out the word has been in use—with the same meaning—since the 1650s, so I’m set! I can use the word with confidence.
Another way I use the book is to browse the decade following the one I’m writing about—these words should NOT be used in my story because they weren’t in common use yet. Example: the word “brassiere” wasn’t commonly used until 1915, and “bra” not until 1935. This could be important to a modern-day girl who finds herself in 1900 (my protagonist), so I did some further research and learned that bras themselves were in use in 1900 but just not called bras. Fascinating and useful, too—it gave me an idea for a scene where my character’s modern bra threatens to give her away as someone who doesn’t belong there…err, then. (Time travel is hard!)
Note that English Through the Ages is out of print and there is no e-book version available. However there are plenty of used copies floating around. Check your local library, used bookstore, or online bookseller. You’re sure to find a copy, and inexpensively to boot. (“To boot” has been in use since 1150.)
Another writing book that’s recently become one of my favorites is Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. I’m not a screenwriter, but after one look at this resource I understood why so many novelists swear by it: the information is awesome (a word that’s been in wide use in this context since the 1980s) and easily applicable to novel writing. For me, the gem in this book is Snyder’s “beat sheet” – a 15-point list of the critical elements that comprise a story’s structure. Not only does the book tell you what elements to include in what order, it specifies where in the story they should occur for maximum impact. When I used the beat sheet to lay out the plot of my current work-in-progress, I discovered a couple of “holes” I needed to fill, plus some areas where I might want to tighten the timing between plot points. As a bonus, if I get stuck while writing the story, I can simply refer to my beat sheet to get back on track. I’ve found this method of story planning to be so helpful, I expect to use it on every novel I write from here on out.
Before I discovered Save the Cat, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey was my constant companion when story planning and plotting. This book takes the groundbreaking work of Joseph Campbell’s “the hero’s journey” and puts it into an accessible, digestible form for writers. Like Blake Snyder, Vogler’s roots are in film, and he draws on his experiences working on The Lion King and Star Wars to provide examples that are both illuminating and relatable. Also like Snyder, Vogler lays out story elements in clear terms, providing guidelines and milestones for great storytelling. I still refer to this book and the “hero’s journey” when story planning (“plan” was a latecomer to the English party, not appearing until the mid- to late-1900s), and I find The Writer’s Journey to be particularly helpful when I’m determining exactly where I should begin my hero’s journey.
My reference shelf holds a number of books I consult when creating characters. My favorite for building a protagonist is The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, Sue Viders. Archetypes (in use since 1545) provide powerful templates from which to craft characters, and Heroes and Heroines serves them up on a platter for writers’ use. For building villains (in use to mean “antagonist” since 1830), my go-to reference is Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction by Jessica Morrell. This book covers all kinds of bad guys—not just bullies, bastards, and bitches but anti-heroes, monsters, and sociopaths, too. It’s a must-have for any writer who wants to graduate from mustache-twirling one-note villains to multi-dimensional antagonists who torment your other characters deliciously and believably.
I recently celebrated a milestone birthday, and as a gift to myself I bought a book I’d been hearing about frequently from other novelists: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman. Thesauri (or thesauruses—equally acceptable) have been around a long time. In fact, the word “thesaurus” entered the lexicon in about 1600. But this thesaurus is different. The Emotion Thesaurus doesn’t provide synonyms for emotions, but rather gives writers an abundance of sources to draw from when s/he wants to depict or describe an emotion. Each entry includes lists of physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and cues that indicate different aspects of that emotion. To indicate dread, for instance, it offers options like giving my character a hunched posture and a drooping head (physical signal), a sluggish heartbeat (internal sensation), and/or an inability to see a positive outcome (mental response). If I want to show cues of suppressed dread, I can have her attempt to escape her problems using distractions, like TV or music. Or to indicate acute or long-term dread, I can have her jump at sudden sounds or seek any excuse to avoid what is to come. For further exploration of this emotion, it’s suggested that acute dread may escalate to anguish or terror, both of which have their own entries in the thesaurus. This book is def (1985) a serious (1985) writing tool, and that’s no spin (1985).
If I had to pick just one writing book that has helped me the most in my career, hands-down (in use since 1870) it would be GMC: Goal, Motivation, & Conflict by Debra Dixon. This book is an all-purpose tool—it works on character, plot, conflict, you-name-it—which is why I refer to it as the “Swiss Army knife of writing tools” in this previous blog that discusses GMC. Once I discovered this powerful tool, it was like the clouds parted and a ray of insight shone down upon my writing. Before I was introduced to Dixon’s book I’d never thought much about what my characters wanted or why they wanted it; this book showed me how to look at my characters in that light, as well as how to create conflict by putting formidable obstacles in my characters’ way. It allowed me understand my protagonists better, build stronger villains, raise the stakes, and increase tension. In short, I’m a better novelist because of this book.
Photo by Stephen W, courtesy of Creative Commons
Okay, here’s what you’ve been waiting for:
Chicken came first. Or at least the word did. According to English Through the Ages, historical records indicate that “chicken” entered in Old English sometime before the year 950. “Egg” doesn’t appear until the early 1300s.
Now you know.
Whatever it is you need to know, remember that books can be our best tools for writing books. I’ve told you my faves (in use since the 1940s). What are yours?
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block.