Jo Beverley here. For a slight twist on the regular What We’re Reading blog, this month we’re highlighting some of our favorite research books. Some of the ones we use a lot are a bit dry or obscure, so we’ve each picked one or two that we think some Wenchly readers might enjoy, including some available on line.
May I take a moment to weep silently over this question? After wearing out my local library with interlibrary loans, I spent decades collecting an enormous reference library, grabbing wonderful volumes anywhere I traveled. If I was in a gift shop, I headed straight for the “local books” section. I went home from conferences with entire suitcases of reference finds.
And then I moved from a house with wall-to-wall shelves in every room to a cottage with almost no walls at all. Needless to say, I had to choose the books I valued most. This is an impossible job. I’m down to one bookcase of reference material in my office. I had to keep my fashion books because on-line resources simply aren’t as comprehensive. Nancy Bradfield’s COSTUME IN DETAIL shows me how gowns were constructed. I’ve had to tape together R. Turner Wilcox’s THE MODE IN COSTUME because I’ve worn it out. It not only gives me a wide variety of illustrations, but a detailed list of fabrics, accessories, and hair styles—all on a single page or two. I’ve yet to find an internet resource as easy to use.
(Jo: you can look at some sample pages of Wilcox here.
I think I mostly saved books like that—ones I can open and flip right to the details I need. Or ones with in-depth information that online resources don’t provide. I’m blessed to have Google, but I still miss all those esoteric small town booklets and histories!
I find myself doing a lot of research online these days . . . being a pantser, I tend to have broad concepts, and then fill in the little details as I start writing. (What sort of miltary saddle would an officer have in 1811 while fighting on the Peninsula, what kind of golf clubs would a Regency player have . . . that sort of thing, which these days can be found at the touch of the keyboard.) I tend to go off in so many arcane little explorations that my house would quickly be packed to the gills with books if I bought ones on all the quirky things that interest me. (Okay, okay, I admit that in spite of that resolve, the piles keep growing!) That said, I do love my go-to reference volume, The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson. It’s such a rich and meaty compendium of so many aspects of life in the first part of the 19th century. I always find wonderful tidbits that point me in directions to dig deeper. (Jo: There’s a Kindle edition, but print copies are available second hand.)
As for reference books I wish I could own—the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary is high on the wish list. Currently it’s listed on Amazon for $995. so alas, it’s not likely to sit on my shelves any time soon! I know it’s available online from most public libraries, but I still pine to have a hard copy. For me, there’s something magical about paging—on paper and ink!—through the words and all their meanings and histories.
(Jo: have you found this through your public library? Would you rather have the print version? I confess to loving the ease of the on-line one, plus it has a historical thesaurus!)
Mary Jo Putney
I second Cara/Andrea’s recommendation of Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern, which is full of wonderful details about life in different countries at the same time. There’s great information of things like transportation and postal deliver. Another Big Fat Research book I love is The London Encyclopedia, edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert.
There are amazing listings of streets and buildings and how they’ve changed through time. Do you want to know about Gunter’s Tea Shop in Berkeley Square? There it is, the name in fancy type to indicate that it no longer exists, followed by details from the date of its founding to when it closed in 1956. (I used that information in my two more recent books, Not Quite a Wife and Not Always a Saint.) Lastly, not quite as elevated but very useful, is A World of Baby Names by Teresa Norman, which sits right next to The London Encyclopedia on my desk.
Over 30,000 names are collected from around the world, then divided by origin and gender. Writing a book set in Portugal? (Why, yes, I am.) Go to “Portuguese Names” to find first male names, then female. And if you want to know how they vary from Spanish names (why, yes, I do), just flip to the Spanish section. This book was invaluable when I’ve written books set in India, Central Asia, Africa, and other exotic places. I just checked and see that it’s still available in print and now in e-book as well. A great resource for writers and people about to have babies and anyone who is a name buff. It’s all here, from Aaron to Zoe and beyond. <G>
My bookshelves are crammed with favorite research books and resources and I’ve written in time periods from 11th to 19th centuries, so the essential favorites depend on what I’m writing.
I have an assortment of old AA guides to Britain that I’ve consulted for all my books. I’ve found these in used bookstores, and they’re a great help when I’m deciding on story locations and inventing places for my characters to inhabit (and handy for actual places too, when the story needs it). I can find spots to plunk down a fictional castle, and work out travel routes as well, particularly good for medieval stories, where the resources can be difficult to find. For 19th century and Regency, there are reprints of contemporary guidebooks that are quite useful. (Jo: I use these, too, and the big road atlases are produced every year, so the previous year’s edition are sold off very cheap through book clearance places on line.)
I’m also very partial to place name books, but I’m trying to limit my choices here…
I’d never give up my Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland by John Keay and Julia Keay — I’ve gone there quite often for information on behalf of my Scottish historicals, and that info leads me elsewhere. The range of the other resources that are discovered in the research process, the references that become essential to individual books, that make the research so fun and exciting. Once I embark on a new topic, I never know where it’s going to lead. The Keays’ book has initiated many of those research journeys, so I’d drag this one to a desert island. A bit of a doorstopper to pack, though.
Name books, as Mary Jo also points out, are absolutely essential, and I have a bookshelf crammed full of them. And my favorite name book is my very tattered copy of E.G. Withycombe’s Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, which is particularly good for medieval name usage and popularity. How else would I know that Tiffany was a popular medieval name (from Theophania, or epiphany)? So it’s fine for a medieval heroine, right – oh wait, common sense trumps authenticity. This is definitely one of my most essential reference books. (Jo: This seems to be out of print, but readily available used and cheap.)
June was a month of nonfiction reads. Like everybody else I’ve been going through my shelves of research books, thinning out the less useful ones, sorting the ‘savers’ more elegantly. Maybe June is the ‘spring cleaning’ month for books.
One of my savers is Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard, a 1994 biography of Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox. I read large portions of this a while back, but the nature of research books is that one reads them bit by bit, mentally noting what might come in useful someday. I picked up *Aristocrats* again for an hour or two, enjoyed the lively writing, and carefully put it back on the research shelves for future use. The aristocrats are the Lennox sisters — daughter of one duke, sisters of another. They were the leaders of the haut ton in Eighteenth Century Britain. This most excellent biography is drawn from the thousands of letters they exchanged. The real Eighteenth Century ton is an alien world. My favorite random quote — Caroline, writing about Sarah’s impending marriage. “Happily for her she is not the least in love.”
I’ve not yet written a story that travels into that territory, but who knows? Maybe someday I will. I offer this as a readable and reliable account of an all-too-human family in a Strange Land. I seem to have talked endlessly about Aristocrats. Let me pick a short, simple second book.
Barbara Kipfer’s 14,000 Things to be Happy About, which I’m going to defend as a ‘reference book’ since it’s a book where you open it and look things up. 14,000 things is — no surprise here — a list of stuff to be grateful for.
Page 306 begins …
bodies of water that collect on upturned mugs in the dishwasher
the basic Vermont meal: a piece of cheddar, a glass of cold milk, ans a
stack of common crackers
So, anyhow … I put that one back on the research shelf too because you never know when you’ll have to look this up.
I’m in the process of trying to thin out my research library and it’s a hopeless job. I can’t bring myself to part with any books no matter how obscure or specialised. I’ve built the collection up over many years and love dipping into all the books. If I spent as much time reading them as I would like I’d never get anything else done. Plus of course the internet has such a wealth of information available that I get even more distracted!
One of my favourite reference books is The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency by J B Priestley, which I’ve referred to a lot over the years for a clear, broad-brush chronological view of the Regency period. (Jo: a very readable book, out of print but available used and cheap.) Another is Up and Down the Stairs by Jeremy Musson, which I have found an invaluable guide to the lives and roles of servants throughout history.
There are two books that have been on my wish list for a long time but are too expensive. One is “Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815” by Elizabeth Sparrow and the other is “The Black Legend of Prince Rupert’s Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda during the English Civil War“ by Mark Stoyle. I’m still saving up for those!
When we were moving I thinned out my books, but there are some I’d never part with. I have a set of Annual Registers for the Regency. These are books published each year with an overview of events, weather, books published etc. There’s also a monthly chronicle for a snapshot of what was important that month. They are available on line now, but I like having my print copies, in part because people of the time will have handled the books just as I do.
Another I’d never give up is my A-Z of Regency London. This is exactly what it says — a street map of London with an index at the back, so I can look up locations I find mentioned, and check that the names of places I’m making up don’t conflict with real ones. I’m not sure how Richard Horwood got such detail of house shapes, back yards and alleys, but it gives me the feeling of walking the streets. You can see the stickers I used as I tracked where Hermione was walking when she went in search of the Curious Creatures in Too Dangerous for a Lady. Click on the image for a larger view.)
I’ve been told for years that it’s out of print and that copies are horrendously expensive, but for this blog I checked. It’s still available from the publisher, Harry Margery. Click on the title link above to go to their site. It’s £26, so not cheap, but worth every penny in my opinion. Unfortunately the mailing cost outside of the UK is going to just about double the price.
Do any of these appeal to you?
Do you have a reference book that you’d never part with?
Is there one you lust after?
A copy of Too Dangerous for a Lady goes to one commenter.