What books would you want beside you if you had a lovely, private cottage with your computer on a solar-recharger, a story to write, and lots of time … but no library available? I know which ones I’d want.
I’m not going to list the bare-bones: an Unabridged Dictionary, Bartlett’s Quotations, The Elements of Style, a World Atlas, or Roget’s Thesaurus – almost anyone who’s serious about writing has probably got favorites in that category, and those are essential tools for anybody writing anything, from contemporary horror to the wildest fantasy.
The books I’ll be talking about here are the ones closest to hand on my reference shelf, and they’re the ones I’ve turned to most often in writing m/m historical. They’re the books I would want with me if I had a month to spend on a quiet island with nothing to do but write… what a lovely notion!
1. A Sea of Words (King, Hattendorf, & Estes, Henry Holt, 1995.)
A Sea of Words was written as a companion book to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and it did the job beautifully. It’s also a boon companion to writing Age of Sail – you will find not only explanations of the sea-dog terminology Mr O’Brian used so fluently, but a copy of the dreaded Articles of War – the document that essentially abrogated the civil rights of anyone serving in His Majesty’s Navy. An article on how medicine was practiced, diagrams of the essential bits of a ship, and a brief explanation of how the Royal Navy was organized during the Napoleonic Wars makes this essential for any grass-combing landlubber of a writer who doesn’t know a head from a halyard.
2. Every Man Will Do His Duty (Hattendorf & King (again), Henry Holt, 1997)
This book covers the period of 1793-1815. An excellent selection of first-hand accounts, log entries, and source material drawn on by the likes of CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian, both of whom borrowed heavily from the adventures of Thomas Cochrane, Sir James Gordon, and other real-life naval officers. The excerpts from the memoir of one officer who spent time as a POW in France could spawn any number of plot bunnies all by itself. It isn’t a reference in the strictest sense, but the language gives a feeling for the time that no textbook could.
3. English Through the Ages (Brohaugh, Writer’s Digest Books, 1998 )
Not sure if your 1800 sailor would use the term ‘pile-driver?’ This incredibly useful tome has words indexed and cross-referenced to the page where the word passed into general use… so, given the way the language migrates, you find that you may safely put the word in his mouth, since its pedigree says 1775. But he wouldn’t ask a friend, “Are you okay?” since that wasn’t heard of until 1839.
4. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Rodger, 1986, W.W Norton)
This book deals with a period slightly earlier than the Napoleonic Wars, but it’s the era under which many adults of that age first went to sea as boys, most of them 14 or younger. Wooden World has useful charts – how many guns would you find on a Third-Rate man-o-war? How many lieutenants on a sloop? It also shows how things altered in His Majesty’s Navy over a few decades, from an age where sailors might complain of a bad captain with some hope of relief to a structure where the ordinary seaman could only pray that a bad captain would be killed before he took the whole crew with him.
5. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Grose, Dorset Press, 1992.
As Erastes has posted elsewhere on this blog, a very useful book, and very colorful. If only someone had thought to index it, it would be very much more useful, because in its present condition it gives an interesting browse but a frustrating search. If you happen upon ‘wapping mort,’ you know she’s a whore (tis pity..) but you can’t start with “prostitute” unless you have an hour to search.
6. Colonial American English (Lederer, A Verbatim Book, 1985)
This is a step up from Grose in terms of organization. This contains not only slang, but ordinary terms (eg, ‘fustian,’ that favorite of Heyer, is “a coarse, stout, twilled cotton.”) It also gives hints of how words have changed – “manure” used to mean working a field (a quote from a letter reveals that George Washington once “manured a field and then laid dung on it,”which would seem awfully redundant in the currant usage.)
7. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, (Benet et al, 1st ed 1948, Harper & Row.)
Do you want your character to toss off a reference to a contemporary work but you’re not sure if it had been written yet? This is not only useful for that purpose, it’s interesting to browse through. Where else would you look up “ode” and find you have Pindaric, Horation, and irregular to choose from?
8. Pages Passed from Hand to Hand (Mitchell & Leavitt, Houghton Mifflin,
This book is a collection of what the title says: many of the excerpts in it were not published at all, or published only after the writers’ death. EM Forsters’s Maurice is among them; at the time it was written, censorship prevented its publication. This is another book useful mostly for inspiration and the sense of speech patterns, and ideas. There’s a big, conspicuous time-period missing in this collection; the period between 1757 and 1857, when persecution against “sodomites” was fierce.
9 My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (the indispensable Rictor Norton, Leyland Publications, 1998.)
What can you say about a book that contains snippets of love letters from as long ago as 139 AD to as near as 1960? This is a fascinating window into history and the human soul, and another excellent source of how men spoke and wrote… and an illustration of why ‘happy ever after’ is a bit of a stretch for most historical m/m couples.
10. Debrett’s The Stately Homes of Britain (Flower, Webb & Bower, 1982)
Bless the history-lovers of England and the second-hand stores of Ontario! I’ve found some real gems since moving here, and this is one of them. It’s considerably easier to describe a staircase and gallery (the better to spy from, my dear) if you have a picture of the entryway and stair of Antony House open before you. I would love to someday take a “stately homes” tour, but in the meantime, this book and others like it are a good second-best. Before you can set the scene for a reader, you have to set it for yourself.
Ten books seems a good round number to include in this sort of post – I’d be happy to hear suggestions from anyone out there. You may see another book list from me, or other Macaronis, in the near future.