James Patrick Kelly
Well, since Asimov’s is about to run a column I wrote in praise of the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia, let me cite that, in all its incarnations, as a reference I use regularly. Pretty much indispensible, it says here. I have a thing for dictionaries of slang: I own Barron’s American Slang and The Urban Dictionary but my favorite is the venerable Thesaurus of American Slang. Speaking of dictionaries (sort of), the book I have recourse to most often as I write is the visual dictionary What’s What. It’s out of date and may be out of print, but I’ve used it so much that the cover is falling off. I should probably spring for one of the competing versions. For me, knowing what specific parts of things are called is kind of my magic feather for worldbuilding.
Back in the day (here I betray my advanced age!) I used to keep the Sears Catalogue on my reference shelf. More recently, when I need to write about furniture, say, or women’s clothing, I borrow from the glowing descriptions in online shopping sites. Don’t tell the copywriters at Land’s End! There are some useful titles in the Writer’s Digest Science Fiction Writing Series edited by Ben Bova (Time Travel and World Building) although these are in need of updating and the Howdunit Series for mystery writers (Private Eyes and Armed and Dangerous).
Books I recommend to my students from time to time are James Woods How Fiction Works, Nancy Kress’s Beginnings Middles and Ends and a book that helped me when I was starting out, Those Who Can, edited by Robin Scott Wilson in 1973, which is a mix of fiction and craft essays by writers I was reading as a kid. FYI, RSW did a follow-up volume in 1996 called Paragons along the same lines that collected stories and essays by my generation (including, gulp, me).
Jim’s post reminds me that I used to use Victoria’s Secret catalogs for my Playboy stories.
As research, or as inspiration?
Catalog prose style. Seriously.