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What’s in Your Five?–Research Books

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Last week, I posted about my five favorite writing-craft books. But just as important—maybe even more so—are research books. Obviously, this list will change from year to year as I move from one project to another. But there are some that I have read and highlighted and Post-it-Noted until they’re almost sad looking . . . and then I read them again! Once again, this is a hard list to narrow down, so I’ll call this my Favorite Five from the past year to eighteen months.

5. All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding by Carol Wallace. Okay, so maybe I lied about these all being from the last eighteen months, because it’s been a couple of years since I pulled this one off the shelf. But this book was invaluable to get inside the head of Anne Hawthorne, my wedding-planner heroine in Happy Endings Inc.

    From Booklist:
    Wallace takes a fascinating backward glance at the transformation of the American wedding. Evolving from a simple family ceremony into an unbelievably expensive and often garish extravaganza, the distinctive American wedding has become a ritual that in many ways defines our tendency toward cultural excess. Analyzing exactly how and why the ceremony began to supplant the idea of the marriage itself, the author provides delightful details of a wide spectrum of weddings through the decades. Along the way, the social significance of sex, class, money, and all the singularly American ritualistic trimmings are examined in depth. Given the constant barrage of media attention accorded to contemporary weddings, this captivating slice of American popular culture will appeal to a broad spectrum of wedding watchers. Margaret Flanagan, Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved.

4. A Sea of Words, Third Edition: A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian by Dean King, John B. Hattendorf, and J. Worth Estes. This book has been such a treasure for me when it comes to making sure I’m not only using the correct terminology in dialogue and descriptions of the ship, but in making sure I understand exactly what those terms mean and I’m not just using something because I heard it in a movie or read it in one of O’Brian’s or Forrester’s books.

    Book Description from 
    This comprehensive lexicon provides definitions of nautical terms, historical entries describing the people and political events that shaped the period, and detailed explanations of the scientific, medical, and biblical references that appear in the novels.

3. Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World by Chris Chant, David Miller, Clive Wilkinson, and Richard O’Neill. Even moreso than the book listed above, this book is my constant companion when writing about anything to do with the Royal Navy in my Ransome trilogy. It’s a large (not quite coffee-table size) hardcover book with slick paper covered with all sorts of fabulous art, diagrams, charts, and tables that explain pretty much everything I’m ever going to need to know about ships and sailors for my book.

    From Publishers Weekly
    Both visually impressive and highly informative, this large-format introduction to Napoleonic naval warfare focuses on Patrick O’Brian’s splendid Jack Aubrey saga, which it presents as a major work of English literature. In fact, parts of this book (including the material on Lord Cochrane, the original model for Jack Aubrey’s character) will be more useful to O’Brian’s fans than to the lay reader. However, the book also depicts, in words and pictures, the political background of the Napoleonic Wars, the development of the major navies, the sailors’ life at sea (where weather and disease killed far more men than battles did) and the design and construction of the wooden sailing warship. The volume also details the training of officers, fleet actions, frigate actions (prominent in the career of both Cochrane and his avatar) and the role of piracy, slave trading and mutiny in the maritime history of the era. Although not uniformly well reproduced, the illustrations are outstanding, including many period items, and the book as a whole makes a fine treat O’Brian’s many fans.
    Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

2. The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute by Michael Ruhlman. I am currently in the process of reading this . . . and even if I weren’t writing a chef as a main character right now, I’d be enjoying it. Journalist Michael Ruhlman attended the Culinary Institute of America and wrote a nearly blow-by-blow (or should that be bowl-by-bowl?) description of what chefs-in-training have to go through. It’s given me a whole new perspective not only on some of my favorite shows (like Top Chef and Iron Chef America), but on my character, Major O’Hara.

    Book Description from
    Now in paperback, the eye-opening book that was nominated for a 1998 James Beard Foundation award in the Writing on Food category. In the winter of 1996, Michael Ruhlman donned hounds-tooth-check pants and a chef’s jacket and entered the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, to learn the art of cooking. His vivid and energetic record of that experience, The Making of a Chef, takes us to the heart of this food-knowledge mecca. Here we meet a coterie of talented chefs, an astonishing and driven breed. Ruhlman learns fundamental skills and information about the behavior of food that make cooking anything possible. Ultimately, he propels himself and his readers through a score of kitchens and classrooms, from Asian and American regional cuisines to lunch cookery and even table waiting, in search of the elusive, unnameable elements of great cooking.

1. Jane Austen: A Companion by Josephine Ross. This is the be-all and end-all book for anyone wanting to know what life was like in the Georgian era (also commonly referred to as “Regency,” though the true Regency era didn’t start until 1811). With chapters covering all aspects of life—from daily routine to fashion to books to husbands and lovers—this single volume has given me more insight on what life would really have been like for my characters in 1814, not just the rosy picture of it we usually see in the BBC movies, or even in Austen’s own novels. This book is great for anyone who’s an Austen lover or who is interested in knowing more about the Georgian era in England.

    Book Description from
    This illuminating, entertaining, up-to-date companion is the only general guide to Jane Austen, her work, and her world. Josephine Ross explores the literary scene during the time Austen’s works first appeared: the books considered classics then, the “horrid novels” and romances, and the grasping publishers. She looks at the architecture and decor of Austen’s era that made up “the profusion and elegance of modern taste”: Regency houses for instance, Chippendale furniture, “picturesque scenery.” On the smaller scale she answers questions that may baffle modern readers of Austen’s work. What, for example, was “hartshorn”? How did Lizzy Bennet “let down” her gown to hide her muddy petticoat? Ross shows us the fashions, and the subtle ways Jane Austen used clothes to express character. Courtship, marriage, adultery, class and “rank,” mundane tasks of ordinary life, all appear, as does the wider political and military world–especially the navy, in which her brothers served. This book will add depth to all readers’ enjoyment of Jane Austen, whether confirmed addicts or newcomers wanting to know what all the fuss is about.
  1. Wednesday, October 10, 2007 10:01 am

    Well, I’m still one of those, “newcomers wanting to know what all the fuss is about.”

    I suppose that makes me some kind of heretic here. Sorry– shall I curl up in a little ball and become invisible?

    My stories are, well, I currently call them logical fantasies. “Logical” b/c their fantastic elements fit within an established history of order.

    Eh, it means something to me.

    You didn’t ask outright what our research materials are, but I’ll offer my (current) two biggies:
    Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia, and Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth.

    I *love* these. They’re actually what you would call scholarly: based on research (through literature and historical records) and not just a collection of one person’s ideas of things.


  2. Wednesday, October 10, 2007 11:02 am

    I LOVE research books!

    Currently, I’m reading Harvest of Grief by Annette Atkins, (Minnesota’s public response to the Grasshopper plagues of the 1870’s) Gentlemen from England by Maud and Delos Lovelace (This is the same lady who wrote the Betsy-Tacy books, and this book is about the British settlement created at Fairmont, Minnesota in the 1870’s and how it fared during the plagues.) and Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped The American Frontier, by Jefffrey A. Lockwood.


  3. Wednesday, October 10, 2007 1:54 pm

    Hmm, let me see….

    The Russian Army During World War I by Nik Cornish and a TimeLife book on Every Day Life in Imperial Russia

    Gulag by Anne Applebaum

    Shadow Warriors by Tom Clancy (a history of special forces)

    And I’ve got another book on WW1 from the late 70’s that I haven’t dived into yet, but it’s at the very top of my list. Found it at the Burbank Public Library back in June. And to think I almost didn’t go in that room!

    I’m still searching for my seemingly impossible-to-find Russian WW1 POW info. I’ll take it any way I can get it! If I can just FIND it!


  4. Wednesday, October 10, 2007 3:27 pm

    I’m so not brilliant at research. But my most favorite book recently was The Sociopath Next Door.

    Wow, just reading through the comments you can tell who writes what!



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