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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 February 2010

Research Books You Can't Get Enough Of


Every one of my reference books has its own story to tell. Most of them entered my house to help a specific book but some came because I simply couldn’t live without it. And the books I’ll buy most often, whether or not I need them at that moment, are the ones about words.

I have a hardcopy edition of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus (American Edition), plus the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus that resides on my computer. Yes, I know there are websites but what happens when you can’t reach the Internet? Been there, done that, gotten so messed up! When it comes to dictionaries, I’m a girl who insists on having backups for her backups.


I love foreign language dictionaries, too. Big, fat ones for commonly met languages like French and Spanish and German. Lots of smaller dictionaries on the same language – needed to ensure full coverage, of course – like Irish, Scots, and Galician Gaelic. If I ever found a dictionary for Breton (a distant relative of Gaelic), I’d probably invent a Breton character just so I’d have an excuse to use it.


One of the vast advantages to writing western historical is that it gives me an excuse to snatch up books on Old West lingo. Ramon Adams’ Western Words: A Dictionary of the Old West provides lovely definitions (including suggestions for alternatives) for words sometimes familiar and sometimes startlingly unusual.


As you might guess, I enjoy researching word histories. Well, it does come in handy when writing historicals! The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories graces my shelves, full of concise life stories. Chambers’ Dictionary of Etymology goes far deeper into words’ ancestry and development, especially when they came from foreign languages. I particularly enjoy its discussion of pronunciation.
One of my favorites is William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages, which organizes words according to when they were in use. It’s therefore very easy to figure out what vocabulary a fourteenth century character would use, as opposed to a nineteenth century persona. This is far simpler than the more typical research technique of picking one’s brain for a word, then fumbling through a series of dictionaries and thesauri to see if it was in use – and meant the right thing – during that era. It’s also fascinating to get at least a hint of each era’s cadence, based on its proposed vocabulary.

Personally, I find phrase origins harder to research, probably because I seem to fumble for what’s the most historically important word in the phrase. But books about their lineage are endlessly fascinating, like Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. It boasts a delightful selection of characters from popular culture of all eras, as well as phrases. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins neatly sums up phrase after phrase and frequently suggests alternative or linked phrases.


And then there are the books, which select alternative ways to state something. It’s rare to find a thesaurus for phrases, like Jean Kent and Candace Shelton’s The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book.


But my true obsession is finding a good thesaurus. Great definition, who used it and when, plus suggestions for alternatives – heaven on earth! Alan Richter’s Sexual Slang differentiates very neatly by era, gender, and sexual preference, unlike most in its sub-genre, which makes it very helpful. Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words gives the story behind a large number of unprintable terms, dating from Anglo-Saxon times to the present. Oh yes, it also gives era and suggests alternate usage, which can be very handy.


A previous employer of mine gave everyone access to all of the OED dictionaries – quotations, different languages, legal, etc. I could browse those darlings for hours, exploring the obscure paths that popped from apparently innocuous searches. One day, they will all be mine again…


What research books do you lust after? Have you ever shattered your budget on a reference book and, if so, which one?

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10 Comments:

Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

I'm crazy for research books as well, Diane! I have a 1970 edition of "A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English" by Eric Partridge that, next to "English Through the Ages" is my favorite word source. And my go-to for English to French and visa versa is "Cassell's New French Dictionary," circa 1930 by Funk & Wagnalls.

5:56 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Oh, Joanna - a 1930 edition of Cassell's New French Dictionary? I'm jealous! I've got a recent one but yours sounds much more interesting. As for your Partridge's "ictionary of Slang and Unconventional English" - well, I was afraid this post would build up my enormous to-buy list.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Diane! When I graduated from college, some lovely family friends gave me a check to spend on something writing-related. I used it to splurge on a book I'd been lusting after at the Stanford Bookstore--A Lady of Fashion: Barbara Johnson's Alum of Styles and Fabrics. It's a reproduction of an 18th/19th century woman's fashion notebook, with prints and beautiful color reproductions of fabric swatches.

I have a two volume annotated OED that my mom and I got when we were writing together that was definitely an investment but well worth it--we use it all the time. We were lucky to find a reasonable copy of the Partrige book in a used bookstore.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Most of my truly expensive books I found on the cheap by pure luck.

I got a “new” (as in untouched by human hands, never been take out of its original shipping box) set of The German Single Leaf Woodcut: 1500-1550 from The Strand in NY for $130 about five years ago. Currently this set is $1200+ used on Amazon.

I also got the coffee table version of The Kyoto Costume Institute’s Fashion from them for $50, and I love that book!

I think my most pawed over books are Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion series. Her Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlocked might be the biggest splurge I’ve ever made (if you don’t count Moden 1790-1840 which is in Danish, which I don’t speak, and on which I spent over $100 just to have the pictures).

Tracy, I still don’t have the Barbara Johnson book cause I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to fork over the money for it . . .

12:20 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

My, Tracy, do I want your bookshelf or what? The Barbara Johnson book sounds awesome!

Kalen - how did you find that copy of THE GERMAN SINGLE LEAF WOODCUT? Can you take me with you the next time you go to The Strand in New York? (Or maybe not; I'm not sure I could afford it.)

I'm building my collection of Janet Arnold's PATTERNS OF FASHIONS series. Such inspirations!

My biggest hope is to one day find a good set of references for La Belle Epoque men's wardrobe, from the skin out, including the fabrics. Accessories, too, would be nice. I'm afraid budget will fly out the window whenever I lay my hands on such a delight.

3:05 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I don't think any such book exists, Diane. Though you could make a pretty good stab at it with 20,000 Years of Fashion, Nineteenth-Century Costume in Detail, The Male Image, and The Cut of Men's Clothes. You could also troll the various vintage apparel websites and create your own “bible”, which is pretty much what I do for Late-Georgian garments.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Great. Just what I needed. MORE books to add to my filebox entitled RESEARCH BOOKS I NEED !! And of course I NEED them. They are an absolute necessity!I already troll eBay constantly looking for research books. One I happened upon strictly by accident is The Rise of Design - Design and the Domestic Interior in Eighteenth-Century England by Charles Suamarez Smith. I entered a search for something fairly broad on eBay and this book came up. I got it for next to nothing and it is absolutely fascinating. A real gem.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Kalen - how did you find that copy of THE GERMAN SINGLE LEAF WOODCUT? Can you take me with you the next time you go to The Strand in New York? (Or maybe not; I'm not sure I could afford it.)

A friend found it on ABE Books. They had five copies and we bought them all!

12:06 PM  
Blogger Miranda Neville said...

I love the OED Online - horribly expensive but worth very penny since my eyes are no longer up to the microprint edition. My other favorite reference book may be The London Encyclopedia edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Terrific post, Diane! Although I don't own the compendium as an actual book (I believe it runs to several hefty volumes), but subscribe online, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has been invaluable to my fiction and nonfiction research, particularly when I am researching those scandalous British royals, their lovers, spouses, and confidants.

8:56 AM  

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