Vade Mecum: 6 Reference Books All Writers Need

Vade Mecum, Latin for “go with me” has come to mean any book kept constantly on hand.  I posted an article a few days ago about science fiction novels that every writer must read, but today I thought I would list five reference books absolutely necessary for success in the craft of writing.  These books sit close at hand ready to go with me on my journey through the writing process.  It is my belief that every writer could benefit from having these books in their library.  We must think of the following as tools for building a novel just as a hammer and saw are used to build a house.

1.  Dictionary of Literary Terms – I use the Penguin “Dictionary of Literary Terms & Theory”, but for beginners one of the best is The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms which has some fantastic examples of each of the terms and how to use them effectively.  I use a reference book like this to sprinkle my text with literary devices and to raise the sophistication of the narrative.  Most writing in its basic form consists of flat and straightforward plot development, but this tool helps the writer implant more life and substance into the narrative.  Use of literary devices will cause your text to fly above the ordinary.

2.  Thesaurus – I am sure you may have heard about Stephanie Meyer’s use of the word “glorious” some 180 times in her first novel.  If she were to simply open the priceless pages of Webster’s New Roget’s Thesaurus  she would find: brilliant, gorgeous, magnificent, proud, resplendent, splendid and splendorous.  I use Scrivener’s tool for finding repetitive words and then use the thesaurus to find better ones.  It prevents the writer from using the same tired descriptions and gives the reader a much more varied experience.

3.  Book of Useful Phrases – I use a fantastic book that always helps me to find the right phrase for most anything.  The book is called Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook Of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, And Oratorical … Of Those Persons Who Read, Write, And Speak.  This book has an extremely long title (it was written in the 19th century) but it is probably one of the most amazing books for well turned phrases in existence.  If you are having trouble phrasing something or puzzling over the perfect way to word a sentence, pick up a copy of this book (which also exists as a Kindle book but is harder to flip through as it is not indexed) and find the right phrase.

4.  Dictionary of Symbols – Penguin publishes an affordable copy of this necessary book.  I will often flip through its pages to find the right symbol to use in a certain scene in my novel or to use throughout the plot.  I have also used it to inspire me with a germ of a story that then becomes the central theme of a novel.  It is a treasure trove of the symbols that reach us as a culture and from its own description “draws together folklore, literary and artistic sources, and focuses on the symbolic dimension of every color, number, sound, gesture, expression or character trait that has benefitted from symbolic interpretation. The conscious and unconscious minds are explored, desire and dreams are treated alongside the known and the chronicled.” It is a necessary resource for the writer who desires to create an extra dimension to their narrative.

5.  Dictionary of Synonyms and AntonymsThis book is essential.  When paired with a thesaurus it explains the finer details of meaning that differentiate synonyms.  Many times I have used this handy guide to find the perfect word when the thesaurus runs dry.  It is like having a second thesaurus on hand with antonyms to help me pull together the meaning I most desire.  It is indispensible.  I find myself turning through its pages sometimes out of sheer curiosity.

6.  Punctuation and Style Guide – One of the most used books on my small table is Merriam-Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style.   It is the rule book I use to ensure that my grammar is impeccable.  It contains every grammar rule known to the English language with practical applications for each rule.  It is easy to follow, has a helpful index and is something that challenges my structure on a daily basis.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

9 thoughts on “Vade Mecum: 6 Reference Books All Writers Need

  1. Re: number two above. I’m getting to where if I find myself looking for a synonym for an adjective, I drop the adjective entirely and pick a more evocative noun.

  2. You cannot forget a dictionary of names and meanings….
    Baby name book, or even….
    I never give a character a name without that name having some type of meaning. Either directly or in connotation. ALL names have a meaning, even if it is a cultural connection. Characters named Sarah, Sari, and Shaki will look totally different in the reader’s mind, even without a description.
    This can be done well or it can hit you full in the face. The example I always give is from “Full Eclipse” and the character Adam Garou. Even coming in with no knowledge of the movie, as soon as I saw the character’s name I knew what was going on. If you are unfamiliar with the movie, here is the wiki entry for it:

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