Roundtable on Non-Fiction

What non-fiction books/magazines/journals have you found particularly valuable? This could be in terms of researching a novel, for understanding literature (genre or non), for teaching, or for general insights about the world.

Gardner Dozois, Cecelia Holland, Elizabeth Hand, Karen Lord, Ellen Klages, Guy Gavriel Kay, Peter Straub, Cat Rambo, John Clute and others chime in with their thoughts. As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.

Gardner Dozois

I’ll mostly leave this question to the academics. I never read a whole lot of theoretical stuff in my early days.  Remember reading the Advent versions of Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder and Alexis Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension, although I think I learned as much from sitting in the critique circle at Milford Conferences as I ever learned from any book.  Although I didn’t read it until later, when I was already established, Robert Silverberg’s anthology Worlds of Wonder strikes me as an excellent and practical teaching anthology.

Cecelia Holland

When I was working up to writing Pillar of the Sky, which is about Stonehenge, I was trying to incorporate some ideas from Giorgio D Santillana’s Hamlet’s Mill, but nothing would gel. I read an article in Scientific American that said in a joking way, well, maybe Stonehenge was just an open air cemetery. Whizbang, that really got things rolling.

Elizabeth Hand

I love research, it’s almost my favorite part of writing. So I’m very excited to see what folks suggest. I’m away from home till next week, so unfortunately I can’t put my hands on all the reference books I use. These are some whose titles I can remember off the top of my head:

For general reference, I use the compact OED, an ancient Roget’s Thesaurus, the Enclyopedia of Science Fiction and the Encyclopedia of Fantasy.

For insights into supernatural fiction, Jack Sullivan’s Elegant Nightmares remains indispensable to me after several decades.  I recommend it to my MFA students, and they love it as well.

Katherine Brigg’s 4-volume A Dictionary of British Folktales in the English Language is an amazing reference work.  Her one-volume An Encyclopedia of Fairies is also terrific and easier to find.

Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is a good boilerplate reference — I’ve used the same copy since I was in 8th grade.

Jane Harrison’s A Prolegomena to a Study of Greek Religion is my go-to reference for anything pertaining to Greek myth.

There’s a multi-volume set of source material on various world mythologies, published I think by the University of Chicago, but I don’t know the exact title.

Miranda Green’s various scholarly works on ancient Celtic ritual and archaeology are a great resource.

So are Ronald Hutton’s The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles; The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain; and Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there for the nonce!

Karen Lord

I’d say The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, and parts of A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural by Peter Berger and Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue by Paul Tillich, editor D. Mackenzie Brown. That’s physics, astronomy and cosmology; sociology and transcendence; and systematic theology. National Geographic magazines old and new are absolutely brilliant. I can’t build new worlds without a good understanding of the one that I live in.

I also keep folders for bookmarks of interesting news or science articles online. For the book I’m doing now I have folders labelled Transhumanism, Culture/Geography, Physics/Astronomy, Genes and Evolution, Mind, Gender, and Language. There are some National Geographic links in there too, but the majority are news sites like the Guardian, BBC, WSJ and Reuters and tech sites like ArsTechnica.

I love The Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage by Richard Allsopp.

Years ago, I used The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (two versions, Brewer’s and Oxford), but I haven’t used them much recently (hah – since the Internet and Wikipedia, now that I think about it).

Also – a friend has just loaned me Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley. I’m about a quarter of the way through and finding it far more interesting and useful than the lit course I took as an undergrad.

Ellen Klages

I’m with Liz — I live for research. I’ll research more for a short story than a lot of people do for a novel. This may be a virtue or a vice….

My favorite historical research tool is old magazines, which not only give me the information that was available to my characters, but also gives me a tangible piece of that past. Holding a 1946 issue of Popular Mechanics, or Seventeen, or LIFE in my hands is like a little bit of time travel. Besides the content, the ads are amazing — the colors are different, the typefaces are different, the products may or may not still exist. And the Letters columns (or, in Seventeen, the jokes column) gives me insight into how ordinary people write, what’s funny, what slang is really used.

For the same reason, I love old postcards. Not just the views — in a detailed photo of a Main Street, taken 70 years ago, I can read signs and, with a magnifying glass, see items for sale in store windows — but the messages people wrote on the back —  “The city is nice, but this hotel isn’t so clean.” — are more candid than what filters down through most historian’s sifting.

Paul Di Filippo

Writers looking for a source of visual inspiration–weird paintings to inspire narrative visions–need to always have a fresh copy of Juxtapoz magazine by their keyboards.  It’s like having Richard Powers sitting on your shoulder, whispering dreams in your ear.

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6 thoughts on “Roundtable on Non-Fiction

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  • March 15, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    Mr. Letson,
    What are the Advent titles, Tuck Encyclopedia ,the old Day-MITSF-NESFA Indexes and the Bill Contento’s newer work you are referring to ? I am only beginning my SF research hobby and I am curious about these books.
    Can you please provide more information, such as full titles and the authors names.Thanks.

  • March 16, 2012 at 6:54 am

    James–Reaching to and reading from the shelves I can see from my keyboard:

    Donald Tuck, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 3 vols. The ur-encyclopedia, a monument of amateur scholarship, and now superceded by generations of later work. Still, it was a Very Big Deal back in the 1970s and 80s.

    The rest of the books are various indexes to fiction published in the magazines and anthologies. Donald B. Day produced his pioneering Index of Science Fiction Magazines, 1926-1950 in 1952. G.K. Hall published a corrected edition in 1982. Neither is easy to find now.

    The follow-ups includedThe MIT Science Fiction Society’s [MITSF] Index to the S-F Magazines, 1951-1965 (1966) and Norm Metcalfe’s Index of Science Fiction Magazines, 1951-1960 (1968), and a long series of year-by-year indexes from NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association). The Bill Contento got rolling with his Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections (G.K. Hall, 1978) and a follow-up covering 1977-83 (Hall, 1984), and then a long series of annual indexes in collaboration with Charles Brown: Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror: [year] (Locus Press, 1984-).

    If you’re serious about SF bibliography, hunt down a copy of the late Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder–the last edition is the 5th. What’s wonderful about these books is that, with the exception of the Anatomy, they were compiled by amateur scholars and researchers. (There were bibliographies and studies produced by literary academics in those early days, but that’s a different list and a different story. Nor have I mentioned the incredible work of E.F. Bleiler.)

  • March 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    Every aspiring SF&F author should read Ursula Le Guin’s critical essays on the uses and purpose of fantasy, especially those collected in “The Language of the Night” (1979). If nothing else, just read the essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” to see how to differentiate real fantasy from faux fantasy in your writing.

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