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Fantasy Writer’s Resources

Elements of Style (cover)I think it is fair to say that every writer has a bookshelf containing well-thumbed, go-to resources. Odds are that shelf contains a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a style guide such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. And while these resources can help every writer find the right word or phrasing, fantasy writers have additional, more specific needs. They need to design richly detailed worlds filled with people, cultures, monsters, and magic—all while avoiding cliché. Here are a few books fantasy writers can rely on to meet those needs.

Worldbuilding

When I pick up a new fantasy novel, I love pouring over the details found in that inside-cover map. But that’s just the beginning. A really great fantasy novel will portray a world crammed full of details: history, culture, religion, economics, classes, trades, and more. In other words, even though the world is fictional, it will feel real and grounded. Here are some sources to help your story’s world come to life.

Civilzation and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life by Fernand Braudel and Siân Reynold. This volume discusses what people ate, how they dressed, what jobs they worked, what tools they used, and how the economy functioned in a pre-industrial society.

Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England (cover)The Time Traveler’s Guide To Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer. If the above book is too academic for your tastes, give this one a try: it’s written in a more engaging, tongue-in-cheek style. But like the above book, it will help writers understand a world that is far different from the one we know. And there is a companion volume for Elizabethan England if that is more appropriate for your story.

What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume From Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society by Melissa Leventon. Finally, for you visual learners, here is a great resource for dressing your characters. This book will give you a sense of proportion, material, and color from cultures around the world. Additionally, it will probably also expand your clothing vocabulary dramatically.

Monsters and Magic

Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (cover)Not only do I look for a well-built world, but I also want to read about creative monsters and magical systems. And while I love greybeard wizards, snarling werewolves, and corpse-like vampires as much as anyone, I prefer reading stories that introduce me to a new monster or new magic, or put a unique spin on an old classic.

Although books such as Irish Fairy and Folk Tales by W.B. Yeats as well as the The Prose and The Poetic Edda will provide a solid foundation of myth and magic, I think books that provide a global collection might be of more value to fantasy writers. Books such as the Oxford Companion to World Mythology provide a single-volume of collection of gods, goddesses, myths, monsters, and magic that many writers and readers will have never heard of.

Themes, Foreshadowing, and Other Details

Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (cover)Zooming in a little, I also love fantasy novels that make use of themes and foreshadowing, especially if the author employs symbols or items that are rich with secondary and tertiary meanings. Even if every reader does not pick up on this subtle trail of hidden Easter eggs, those that do will enjoy your story even more.

The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols is a great tool for this task. Just as a bouquet of flowers used to convey pages of subtext through clever and careful choosing of flowers, a writer could employ this book to populate a novel with seemingly every day items that will tickle a reader’s subconscious.

Avoiding Clichés

Finally, a fantasy writer should also have a good understanding of what not to write. The best way to do this is to read every other fantasy novel out there. Obviously, as every fan’s “to read” pile can attest, this is an impossible task. Thankfully, there are a couple of shortcuts.

Tough Guide to Fantasyland (cover)The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel by Diana Wynne Jones is a list of just about every cliché in the fantasy genre. You’ll never read about horses, swords, armor, or stew the same way.

I almost included the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual in the monsters and magic section, but, I think it as more useful as a guide to stock characters to avoid. Perhaps writers should use it as a starting point: with a few twists, a clichéd character can become something entirely new.

This list is, of course, incomplete. My hope is that it will provide fantasy writers with sources that they may not be familiar with, but that might be as useful as a dictionary is to every other types of writers. My hope is that these books might help create richer, more detailed, and more original stories. And if you are looking for a convenient, online version of many of these books, I would suggest checking out TVTropes.org. And finally, if you know of a resource that is not on this list, please post it in the comments below and share it with the other fans and writers of Fantasy-Faction.

Title image by Deborah DeWit.

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16 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Really good article, Eric. I have read both the ‘The Time Traveler’s Guide To Medieval England’ and ‘The Elements of Style’. I really, really enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Guide – I thought it was incredibly vivid, the description of the towns was amazing. I truly felt I’d learned a lot about the time I like to base my stories in after reading it. Elements of Style probably doesn’t need much more talking up – it is pretty much ‘THE’ book to read regarding style. It’s short, to the point and will make your writing better.

    I’ve not read any of the others, but seeing as you’ve recommended two of my top books I’ll be sure to check out the rest. First one will be What People Wore When 🙂

  2. I’ve been anti-Strunk & White for years. Aside from the fact that it contradicts itself (in usages, as well as the using what it considers errors in its own writing), it’s both dated and can result in twisted, hard to understand constructions if applied to any serious extent. It is also more suited to formal or scholarly prose than fiction, and that of several decades ago. I think it keeps hanging on because people don’t consider the possibility that this emperor’s clothes may have been missing for years.

    Not that I have an opinion on it, or anything. 😉

    I would also add “Guns, Germs and Steel” for a good understanding of how big a role disease and illness (among other things) play in history and culture. Likewise, a good Etymology dictionary is handy, especially if you want to make sure your word of choice fits/isn’t too modern for the time period you are (roughly) emulating. Baby name books are also wonderful resources when it comes to finding names, or finding realistic names you can tweak to make new ones.

    • It’s late. I realized I didn’t transition well into the third paragraph. Those suggestions are meant to be offered as additional resources for writers. As it is, they just kind of drop in out of the sky. Sorry.

      • Avatar Eric C. says:

        I agree, there are more modern and more less-formal, less-academic style guides out there. I have a soft spot for S&W because it’s a quick read, and it covers many of the fundamentals of grammar.

        Of course, the moment I start writing dialogue and such, those rules go out the window, but at least I am aware of the rules I am breaking, and I can make decisions accordingly.

  3. Avatar Den Patrick says:

    Loved reading this. Nice to see the Dictionary of Symbols. I might spend an hour procrastinating and dip into it this afternoon.

  4. Avatar Anne Lyle says:

    I love “The Rough Guide to Fantasyland” – I think I’m on my second or third copy, as I keep lending it out and not always getting it back!

    I also have “The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England”, of course, though it was a Christmas present that I didn’t receive until my trilogy was mostly written. Still, it’s a lot of fun – as is “Shakespeare’s London on Five Groats a Day” 🙂

  5. Avatar Davieboy says:

    A good, interesting article, thanks.

    Am I the only reader who finds the white text on black background pretty horrible to read? It’s a real effort. I guess at 56 I’m probably one of the older fantasy readers out there (everybody else my age has “grown up” no doubt). It must be my tired old eyes…

  6. Avatar Phil says:

    I’d like to see some books that I can use as a resource for writing my fantasy novel with its setting that’s based somewhat on 1920’s rural America.

  7. Avatar Eric C. says:

    I’m glad to hear it. I have a love/hate relationship with research, but these books should help a bit.

  8. Avatar KJ Braxton says:

    Felt quite pleased when I saw time travellers guide & Diana Wynne Jones, got the latter at the recommendation of my prose tutor at university, apparently it’s quite difficult to find now but we’ll worth a look. Shall red look into the others on the list.

  9. Avatar George Poles says:

    I can definitely endorse The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – a really useful general guide for anyone planning to write a pseudo-medieval fantasy. For those interested in the knightly/mercenary life as well as the medieval world in general Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders is not just a great cultural history but also an unputdownable read.

  10. Avatar Bruce McKnight says:

    Another great fantasy resource is What King’s Ate and Wizards Drank by Krista D. Ball. Awesome insights for small bits of realism in storytelling. It’s an entertaining read on top of it.

  11. Avatar Nate says:

    Hi Eric,

    Some great resources here. I’ll definitely have to check out the World Building ones. One of my favourite resources is The World Builders Guidebook from Dungeons & Dragons. I think it’s out of print now but I managed to get myself a copy from Amazon (it is a little pricey tho)

    All the best,

    Nate
    The World Building School

  12. […] August of last year, I wrote about a variety of resources that might be useful to fantasy writers. Recently, I came across […]

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