Sherri — a regular reader at my weblog — asked me recently what books I’d recommend to somebody who has just started writing fiction. It’s a reasonable question, as there are about a bazillion how-to-write-a best-selling-novel-and-get-published books out there.
There are several distinct subcategories of the writing-related how-to books — craft, theory, inspiration, marketing/sales, reference, exercise — and in each of these there are good and bad (that is, less than useful) books. I personally am primarily interested in books that fall into the areas of craft, inspiration, and reference.
Reference books aimed directly at writers have to be approached with great caution. Some of them are expertly put together. For example:
Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons is widely considered to be of great use — though recent reviews at Amazon.com indicate that it might be in need of updating. Of course, if you’re story is set in Caligula’s Rome, that’s not going to be a big worry. On the other hand,
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England covers too big a time period to be reliably useful. The Regency (Jane Austen) and Victorian (Charles Dickens) were so distinct from one another, something is going to get the short end of the stick. In this case, it’s Jane. You wouldn’t know that, would you, unless you happen to be an expert on these periods in English history, and thus you need to approach all such books with caution. This is one case where Amazon reader reviews — read closely — might be of some use.
My own experience is that there are better ways to get the kind of atmospheric/social and cultural information you would need to write about Boston in 1865 or Maine in 1785 or London 1960. The internet has made one excellent resource widely available, but few writers seem to know about the revolution in the way diaries and journals are being made available. Two examples I’m especially fond of:
Do History, a website that provides Martha Ballard’s diary in minute detail. Martha was a midwife in Maine between about 1785 and 1812, and she kept a close diary that was ignored by (male) historians for a couple hundred years until Laurel Ulrich came along and actually read the thing closely. It’s hard to imagine a better source of information about village life in the post-revolutionary period. The website is almost overwhelming in its wealth of related material, but I would recommend that anybody seriously interested in women’s history start with Ulrich’s book itself:
Pepys was born in England in 1633, and he is known primarily as a man who kept a detailed diary. The diary itself might be of limited use to you, unless you’ve also got an edition that is heavily commentated by a good historian. You can sit down and read through it, as it is available in its entirely online, here. Or you can go to the website, which is a marvel of modern technology and enough to make any historical novelist’s heart race. Each day’s entry is included, and here’s the kicker: names of people and places are annotated. When Pepys writes about “Up and to the office, where all the morning sitting. “ you don’t have to wonder what he means by that.. There’s an explanation right there about the Navy Office, as well as a map of where it was in Pepys’ London. And if that weren’t enough, there are many notations contributed by scholars and historians and plain old Pepys enthusiasts which provide closer detail, wider perspective, and analysis.
I would call that an embarrassment of riches.
Next month I’ll talk about craft-related how-to books for writers. A much more contentious topic, with the potential for fireworks.