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I'm not precious about research, and I don't believe in making the reader suffer through my research the way I have suffered through it, by leaving large info-dumps of the stuff all over my novels. However, getting things wrong in a novel comes across like a coloratura soprano singing off-key in an opera. And a scantly-researched novel has all the flavor of boiled sawdust, because specificity and veracity are part of what make a fictional story come to life. So unless I stick to writing only what I already know well (which would certainly make my overall body of work a tad monotonous), I need to do research.

My research for a novel tends to be some combination of books, magazine articles, websites, blogs, maps and pictures, lectures, documentaries on DVD, museum visits, radio programs or podcasts, and interviews that I conduct online or in person if I need specific information that I can't find (or if I'm lucky enough to get access to an expert).

It's also very helpful to do hands-on research when possible, for example, by going in-person to the location of a novel's setting, or experimenting with experiences and skills that you're describing in the novel. (Does your character use a bow and arrow? A gun? A sword? Go take a few lessons, if you can. Do your characters live in a medieval castle? Visit a few castles in person, if you can.)

However, despite the many great resources available, all of which are well worth accessing, books still continue to be a writer's best friend when it comes to research. And since I am indebted to various writers over the years who've shared their research recommendations, now I'm sharing mine. I write about things which aren't always that easy to research (how to fight with a sword; how to summon a demon; what to do if there's a zombie in your bathroom; how to propitiate a volcano goddess; etc.), and so discovering most of these books took me time and effort that I am happy to spare you, if you need to learn about any of the same subjects.

I'm not listing everything here, but rather just the books that I have found the most useful. These are the titles which, when asked by another writer for research recommendations, I am the most inclined to name. Use the menu below if you're looking for something specific; otherwise, just scroll down and browse!


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Research and Reference Books, By Topic

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General Reference Books


These are my all-rounders, the  books I've been relying on for years, no matter what I'm writing on any given day—urban fantasy, traditional fantasy, romance, short fiction, or non-fiction.

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*My favorite general dictionary is Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. I've currently got the 11th edition. I've used Webster's Collegiate since 1988 and will accept no substitutes.

*The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale (Warner Books, 1978). I tried several books of this nature very early in my career, none of which I liked. Then I then found this one in 1989, and we have been inseparable ever since.  Sometimes I realize I've used the same word four times on one page, and the repetition is clunky; but I'm either too tired or too ignorant to think of a synonym. Hence my need for this book—which volume has never let me down!

*For my encyclopedia, I use Worldbook and Encyclopedia Britannica on CD-ROM. It's best to start your research with an authoritative sources such as these, since (brace yourself for a shock) not all online sources are factually reliable.

*I have an edition of the King James Bible (the translation that we all know and quote); the New Jerusalem Bible (supposedly a more accurate translation); the Children's Bible in 365 Stories (because sometimes I just want a quick, easy-to-read reminder or summary of something in the Bible); and Brush Up Your Bible! by Michael Macrone (which is even better for quick reminders and summaries).

*I have dog-eared copies of the Dictionary of Classical, Biblical, and Literary Allusions; the (Penguin) Dictionary of Saints; and The Concise Mythological Dictionary. These may well not be books that every writer needs, but I use them a lot (see: "dog-eared").

*I have a Complete Works of William Shakespeare (I just make sure it's an edition whose print I can read; my requirements aren't more esoteric than that) and, for shortcuts, Michael Macrone's Brush Up Your Shakespeare!

*I have almost twenty (20!) books of quotations, sayings, and proverbs. I don't recommend anyone bother getting books like this unless you actually use them (I do) since, like everything else, they take up shelf space and have to be dusted.

*I have two baby-naming books that I bought about twenty years ago, to help me make up character names. These days, there are plenty of websites for that, too. Some characters are born in my head with their names already attached; but in many cases, I have to hunt around for their names. This is particularly true in a big traditional fantasy novel with dozens of exotically-named characters. And I find baby-naming guides helpful for that. These books live right next to my Rodale synonym finder and my Webster's dictionary, about two feet from my keyboard.

*The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. There are many editions of this classic style guide. I've still got the one I bought in college, when it was required for a freshman English class (also required). It taught me more about writing than any college professor ever did (and more than several of my editors, too). I haven't actually referred to it in years, but I keep it two feet away from my keyboard—with my dictionary, synonym finder, and baby-name books—like a safety blanket.

*An Incomplete Education by Judy Jones and William Wilson (Ballantine Books, 2006). I've got the third edition of this extremely handy general reference. This well-organized volume fills in the gaps (or compensates for the memory lapses) of a lot of stuff that I don't know or can't remember, on a wide variety of subjects.

*The World's Religions by Huston Smith (there are a bunch of editions of this book; I've got Harpercollins 1991). Excellent primer or reference on the contemporary world's five major religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism). Very readable, digestible, and well-organized.

*The Constitution of the United States. I've got a little pocket edition that cost me maybe $3 twenty years ago, and it's amazing how many times since then I've needed to refer to it. It should probably just be incorporated, in full, into An Incomplete Education.

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Research-Book Series

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*Several publishers do "Daily Life" series, and these can be terrific starting places or general reference. A company in England called Greenwood Press publishes an excellent "Daily Life Through History" series with more than sixty volumes in it, of which I've got several (ex. Daily Life During the Holocaust, Daily Life in 18th-Century England, etc.). Writers Digest Books also published a "Writer's Guide to Everyday Life" series of books, which covered a wide range of periods and subjects. (Unfortunately, I can't find a web link for the series; but if you type that series name in a bookseller search engine, you should get hits.)

*Oxford University Press publishes the excellent A Very Short Introduction series. Each book offers a compact, reliable overview of a subject, making these volumes a good place to start one's research on a new topic. With well over 200 titles already published, and more being released every month, the series covers a huge range of subjects, from human rights to French literature, from astronomy to witchcraft, from African history to Celtic druids.

*Writers Digest Books published the terrific "Howdunit" series of reference books for anyone writing novels with a contemporary crime, action, or suspense element. I've got most of the books in the series, and I've found them useful on many occasions. For example, there's one on police procedure in an investigation, one on causes of death, one on weapons, one on poisons, and so on. There's a similar Writers Digest series called "Behind the Scenes" which is also very good.

*I'm a fan of the For Dummies, the Complete Idiot's Guide, and the Everything Book series. Some individual installments may be better than others, but overall, there's a reliable level of quality, and the books in these series are coherent and well-organized starting-place books on a wide variety of subjects (including vampires, voodoo, the Book of Revelations, modern paganism, psychic phenomena, organized crime, the Middle East, etc.).

*Osprey Books specializes in publishing series of well-researched military history books that are produced in a short, extensively-illustrated format that's specific to the publisher. If you're writing anything that includes a military event, setting, or person, Osprey is a great starting place for your research.

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Traditional Weapons and Combat

*Weapons: A Pictorial History by Edwin Tunis (World Publishing, 1972). This out-of-print young adult nonfiction book is one of my favorite references. A well-written, well-illustrated, broad survey of weapons and their uses, from pre-history to the 20th century.

*A Collectors' Guide to Swords, Daggers, and Cutlasses by Gerald Weland (Cartwell Books, 1991). Beautifully illustrated, this is a good general primer if you need to know the difference between a rapier, a cutlass, and a scimitar, or what the parts of a sword are called.

*The Complete Martial Arts by Paul Crompton (Bloomsbury Books, 1989). This general survey includes lots of good illustrations of actual fighting moves and exotic weapons.

*Iai: The Art of Drawing the Sword (alternate title: Iai-Jitsu: Center of the Circle) by Darrell Craig (Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1981). How do you choose, fight with, and care for a sword that you use as a real weapon in your daily life? Read on.

*The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship: A Manual of Eishin-Ryu Iaido by Nicklaus Suino (Weatherhill, 1995). Step-by-step instructions, with basic illustrations, for using a sword in combat.

*Sword Fighting Basics by Michael Shire and Rob Valentine (Unicom Graphics, 2003). I picked up this little manual at a convention or festival somewhere. Reenactment societies and serious hobbyists are a great resource for research material. The book is chock full of specific European-style sword-combat techniques and illustrations.

*Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth Century Manual of Swordfighting and Close Quarter Combat by Hans Talhoffer; trans. Mark Rector (Barnes & Noble, 2006; reprint). This is an extensively-illustrated manual of step-by-step instructions for armed and unarmed combat for the late-medieval European soldier or man-at-arms.

*Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight: An Illustrated History of Weapons in the Middle Ages by David Edge and John Miles Paddock (Bison Books, 1988). I've done maybe half a dozen short stories set in the Middle Ages, and, boy, did this book come in handy.

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Occult, Mysticism, amd Magic

 

*A Pictorial Anthology of Witchcraft, Magic, & Alchemy by Grillot de Givry; trans. by  J. Courtenay Locke (University Books, 1958; reprint edition). This is a fascinating reference book, with wonderful illustrations, on all sorts of esoteric arts. I found it in a big old dust-filled second-hand shop, which sort of  bookstore is a good place to haunt for research reading.

*Fallen Angels and the Spirits of the Dark by Robert Masello (Perigree/Berkley, 1994). Little novelty-size reference book on demons, creatures, and apparitions. I really like it as a starting-place to get a clear definition or description of  something I'm researching, such as doppelgangers or vampires.

*Signs, Symbols, and Omens: An Illustrated Guide to Magical and Spiritual Symbolism by Raymond Buckland (Llewellyn Publications, 2003). This is my favorite and most-used of the references I've got on symbols. It's well organized, with good explanatory text and crisp illustrations.

*Encyclopedia of the Strange, Mystical, and Unexplained by Rosemary Ellen Guiley (Gramercy Books, 2001; reprint edition). Good reference book to have on hand for paranormal, magical, and mystical subjects.

*Magic, Mystery, and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization by Dan Burton and David Grandy (Indiana University Press, 2004). Informative reference work on paranormal and mystical subjects. Good book for reading a particular chapter on whatever subject you're researching at the time.

*The History of Magic and the Occult by Kurt Seligman (Gramercy Books, 1997; reprint edition). A well-organized and nicely-illustrated reference for various magic and occult beliefs up through the 18th century.

*Occultism: Its Theory and Practice by Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah (Dorset Press, 1993).  This is a compendium of spells, invocations, recipes, and rituals.

*Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses, Devils and Demons by Manfred Lurker (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987; trans. and reprint).

*An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures by Kathryn Briggs (Pantheon Books, 1977).

*The Encyclopedia of Monsters by Daniel Cohen (Dorset Press, 1982).

*Monsters: An Investigator's Guide To Magical Beings by John Michael Greer (Llewellyn Publications, 2002).

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Vamparazzi (Vampires and Underground New York)

 

*Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber (Yale University Press, 1988). Interesting academic account of traditional vampire folklore and how it differs from the fiction-based vampire tropes that we're familiar with in modern America. Includes historic instances of official vampire investigations.

*The Complete Idiot's Guide To Vampires by Jay Stevenson, Ph.D. (2009).

*The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires From Nosferatu to Count Chocula by Eric Nuzum (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007). Funny yet informative exploration of our fascination with vampires.

*Piercing the Darkness: Undercover with Vampires in America Today by Katherine Ramsland (HarperPaperbacks, 1999). Journalistic account of the vampire subculture—people who are obsessed with vampires, who want to meet one, or who claim to be one.

*The Science of Vampires by Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D. (Berkley, 2002).

*Vampires by Nigel Suckling (Facts, Figures, and Fun, 2006). Handy little reference that includes all sorts of fun and odd facts.

*Vampire: The Complete Guide to the World of the Undead by Manuela Dunn Mascetti (Viking Studio Books, 1992).

*Vampiro: The Vampire Bat in Fact and Fantasy by David E. Brown (University of Utah Press, 1999).

*New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City by Julia Solis (Routledge, 2005). Good photos and illustrations.

*Forgotten New York: The Ultimate Urban Explorer's Guide to All Five Boroughs by Kevin Walsh (HarperCollins, 2006). Detailed, offbeat guidebook.

*Access All Areas: A User's Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration by Ninjalicious (Infilpress, 2005). A serious handbook for urban explorers.

 

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Unsympathetic Magic (Voodoo and Harlem)

 

*Witchcraft, Mysticism, and Magic in the Black World by James Haskins (Doubleday, 1974). Aimed at young adults, this is a good introduction to the subject of how West African religions developed into syncretic faiths in the New World.

*The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Journey Into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic by Wade Davis (Touchstone, 1997). An ethnobotanist explores the phenomenon of zombiism in Haiti, searching for scientic cause and effect, while learning about vodou.

*The Complete Idiot's Guide to Voodoo by Shannon R. Turlington (2002).

*Mama Lola: Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown (University of California Press, 2001). A look at how this rural, Caribbean religion is transplanted to urban New York.

*Vodou by Manuela Dunn Mascetti (Chronicle Books, 2002). This is a little novelty book with good text and terrific illustrations.

*Faces in the Smoke by Douchan Gersi (St. Martin's Press, 1991). An account of the author's experiences with mysticism and magic in various cultures, including Voodoo in Haiti.

*Spirit of Harlem: A Portrait of American's Most Exciting Neighborhood by Craig Marberry and Michael Cunningham (Doubleday, 2003). This photobook with personal essays really brings the neighborhood to life in a positive way, with colorful characters, interesting businesses, and living history.

*Touring Historic Harlem: Four Walks in Northern Manhattan by Andrew S. Dolkart and Gretchen S. Sorin (New York Landmarks Conservancy, 1999). This book helped make my on-site visit to Harlem a lot more productive, and it's also a good reference for someone who can't go there.

*Hip Hoptionary: The Dictionary of Hip Hop Terminology by Alonzo Westbrook (Broadway Books, 2002). Well-organized and concise.

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Doppelgangster (Mafia & Wiseguys)

 

*The Way of the Wiseguy by Joe D. Pistone (Running Press, 2005). Good general primer on wiseguy subculture.

*Donnie Brasco by Joseph D. Pistone (Signet, 1997). Autobiographical account of the author's years as an FBI agent working undercover in the mob.

*Octopus: The Long Reach of the International Sicilian Mafia by Claire Sterling (Touchstone, 1991; reprint).

*Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi (Pocket, 1990). Crime reporter's account of life in the mob, as told to him by a former Lucchese family soldier who'd entered the Federal Witness Protection Program.

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Disappearing Nightly
(Supernatural Disappearances and Professional Actors)

 

*Supernatural Vanishings: Otherworldly Disappearances by Rodney Davies (sterling, 1996). Many anecdotes about purportedly supernatural disappearances, as well as an ample supply of theories about the phenomenon.

*How To Be A Working Actor by Mari Henry and Lynne Rogers (Backstage Books, 2000; later editions are available).

*Making It On Broadway: Actors' Tales of Climbing to the Top by David Wienir and Jodie Langel (Allworth Press, 2004). Eye-opening and engaging account of life on (and off) Broadway.

*An Actors Guide: Making It In New York City by Glenn Alterman (Allworth Press, 2002).

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Fallen From Grace 
(Prostitution, Street Kids, and High-Priced Escorts)

 

There are now quite a few nonfiction books about/by male escorts; this was not the case when I was researching the subject back in 2001-2002. So if you're researching it now, go wild; there are plenty of new nonfiction books available. Meanwhile, when I wrote Fallen From Grace, here are some books that I found particularly useful.

 

*Working Sex: An Odyssey Into Our Cultural Underworld by Marianne Macy (Carroll & Graff, 1996). Female journalist infiltrates the world of sex workers, from porn stars to prostitutes.

*The Male Escort's Handbook: Your Guide To Getting Rich the Hard Way by Aaron Lawrence (Late Night Press, 2000). The author worked strictly for male clients, but the book was an excellent resource for practical issues, such as dealing with clients, dealing with an agency, personal health and hygiene, paying taxes, getting arrested, etc.

*Suburban Hustler: Stories of a Hi-Tech Callboy (Late Night Press, 1999) by Aaron Lawrence. Same author as previous book. Autobiographical and anecdotal account of  his years as a gay male escort.

*Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows by Sydney Biddle Barrows (Arbor House, 1986). Autobiography of the madam of a high-priced escort agency. Useful details about running the business.

*Young Men In the Street: Help-Seeking Behavior of Young Male Prostitutes by Cudore L. Snell (Praeger, 1995). This academic study looks at living conditions on the street and what factors will get a streetboy to seek (or to accept) help from professionals, programs, and agencies.