There are a lot of writing books on the market – I mean, a lot. Every famous (and not-so-famous) author feels the need to ring in on the “one true way” to write well.
There is a lot of merit in reading these craft guides from time to time, but the information they contain can become repetitive. Many new writers will also spend too much time reading these craft guides and neglect the most important way to improve their writing skills: actually writing.
Today, I have a list of 4 non-writing books for writers. All four are non-fiction books. I read once (though I don’t remember where, if you know, please leave a comment) that while most writers read works of fiction critically, with an eye for improving their craft, non-fiction is the writer’s playground – from it we get ideas and inspiration.
Baby Name Books
Baby name books are invaluable for naming characters. Most of them are organized in alphabetical order (with separate sections for girl names and boy names). They generally include the language/country of origin, and always include the name’s meaning.
I love using baby-name books to name my characters. It’s especially helpful when I have a character with a specific heritage, but I’m not sure what to call them. I just flip through the pages and write down any names that strike me and their meanings, then I decide which one I like best.
As a funny aside, I’m always taking baby name books home from the library where I work– once, I took so many that the other library staff thought I was pregnant!
There are scores and scores of baby name books out there, and honestly, I don’t think any of them are any better than any others – come on, they’re just lists of names! Go to your local thrift shop, I’m sure you’ll find at least a few. Don’t worry about them being “out of date.”
Psychology books can include both abnormal psychology (books about serial killers, various mental disorders, The DSM) and normal psychology (developmental psychology, sociology, etc.)
It’s especially important to do your research if one of your characters falls into the former category, lest you inadvertently write a stereotypical caricature of someone with a mental disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the accepted authority on mental illness, and is used by all psychologists and psychiatrists to help diagnose their patients. They update it every so often to reflect changes in the field. Edition 5, the latest edition, is available used on Amazon for around $30, but you can find edition 4 for fraction of that.
Even if your character doesn’t suffer from a mental illness, normal psychology and sociology books can help you write realistic, believable characters with lots of depth.
Tip: try to not use the jargon you learn in psychology books in your writing. It’s too obvious, and your readers might not understand what you mean. Just because you understand why your characters do what they do doesn’t mean you need to spell it out for your readers! The idea is to understand your character’s psychology better so you can more accurately depict how they act and react.
If you think history books are boring, you’re reading the wrong ones. There’s so many fascinating tidbits about society and culture that you probably never knew (for example: did you know that in the Victorian era, having rotted, black teeth was considered attractive because it meant that you could afford to eat sugar regularly? People even began using cosmetics to blacken their own smiles. True story.). These are facts you can use to inform your own work.
Biographies are also really great for this. (Give Cleopatra: A Life a try.) Try to stay away from History textbooks, though, because tend to leave out the juiciest, most interesting details. Never, ever force yourself to read something you find boring, – that’s a waste of time. That goes double for you “But I hate not finishing books!” types. If you find yourself falling asleep, please, but down the book and go find something more interesting!
If you like podcasts, I suggest listening to Stuff You Missed in History Class, which focuses on the more interesting and obscure facts of history.
Science books are great for both informing and inspiring our stories. Obviously you want the events in your story to hold up under scientific scrutiny as much as possible (unbelievable science is a big turnoff for readers. Even if they know the events in your story aren’t possible, they still want you to make it sound like it could happen. Michael Crighton lends a good example of how to pull off pseudo-science in fiction.).
Speculative science is also great for inspiring possible story lines (Think Carl Sagan’s Contact).
Don’t forget to read about social science, economics, and medicine as well. Two entertaining examples include Collapse: How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, and Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything co-authored by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. There’s also a Freakonomics podcast that’s hugely entertaining. And everyone needs a copy of Grey’s Anatomy!
There you go – 4 non-writing Books for Writers! Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!