Nobody springs fully formed from the head of Zeus, and none less so than the writer. To attain any skill in writing, we devour thousands of books, write millions of words, and talk endlessly with each other about the act of turning our private thoughts into stories for strangers’ consumption. This list isn’t anywhere near exhaustive, and some of the selections may seem downright strange, but I’m hoping to showcase some books that maybe you haven’t heard of before.
Note: I am a big early/middle medieval guy, so a lot of the history books on this list are centered around that time period, though not all are Eurocentric. If that’s not the time period/culture you’re interested in, I hope you’ll search for the same kind of books in your own research: primary sources when possible, broad modern scholarship when it’s not, and the occasional complete crackpot volume for conspiracy theories and magic systems.
I. The Books I Started With
When I first began writing, I read a lot of How To books. Some were good, some were not, and some I feel are essential to everyone’s development. Most of the books on this list will be fantasy specific, but these aren’t. The building blocks to writing fantasy well are the same as writing anything well.
1. The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White
The granddaddy of grammar and style and the only book to ever clearly define paragraphing and the semicolon for me.
2. Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block
Written by one of my favorite crime writers and a master of “invisible prose,” this book takes the fear out of writing in the long form.
3. Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card
Though I have grave concerns regarding Card’s political and social beliefs, this thin volume details parts of the writing process not covered in most other books on writing. Buy it used from a local bookstore.
II. The Books I Go to (Practically) Every Time I Write
Some books are so good, or contain so much information, that I find myself cracking them open every time I’m working.
1. Food in England, Dorothy Hartley
Put down the turkey leg and the tankard of ale! If you’re looking for authenticity in your fantasy food, this is the book for you. Actual historical cooking practices and recipes, and the reasons behind them.
2. Gary Gygax’s Extraordinary Book of Names, Malcolm Bowers and Gary Gygax
This book contains thousands of names used in nearly as many cultures real, historical, and fantastic. And not just character names! It also has a nice little section on place names and the logic behind many of them. Since it was originally designed for RPGs, it also has dice-rolling generators so you can come up with a bunch of names in a hurry if you want to. Unfortunately, it’s become a bit of a collector’s item, selling for north of $300. But it just shows you can’t always overlook gaming resources as serious writing aids.
3. The Western Mysteries: An Encyclopedic Guide to the Sacred Languages & Magickal Systems of the World, David Allen Hulse
The beauty of writing fantasy is that I don’t have to constrain myself to just reading dry history books to flesh out my fantasy worlds. When I’m working up a magic system, I like to look at historical (and current!) beliefs to get things to resonate. The crazier it is and the more the author believes it the better.
III. War and Conflict
Books usually have conflict in them, and since I write a lot of epic and military fantasy, my conflict tends to be of the violent variety. As such, I like my battles to have realistic tactics, my warriors to carry useable arms and wearable armor, and my wizards to…well, see above for my wizards. But regardless, these are some of the books I use to inspire my troops.
1. Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat, Translated by Mark Rector
Whenever possible, read primary sources. This fifteenth-century Fechtbuch (fight book) is a treasure trove of illustrations and descriptions of the wildest sword, wrestling, and other fighting techniques.
2. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, Donald W. Engels
I almost didn’t recommend this one because it is dry, dry, dry. This is not the epic saga of a young emperor expanding his domain. It’s not even the dramatic retelling of the many battles he fought. No, this is specifically about the logistics of his campaigns, how he fed and clothed his army on the march, and got vital supplies across his wide empire to the troops who needed them. Fascinating stuff to me, but I imagine it’s sawdust to most readers.
3. The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi
Back to primary sources, this one is for those who like their combat more eastern. A seventeenth-century treatise on swordsmanship and life written by a warrior who survived 60 duels, often against more than one opponent.
4. The Renaissance Drill Book, Jacob de Gheyn
This 1607 manual for Dutch troops is a fascinating example of how to train large groups of people to perform the correct actions under fire. Contains musket, pike, and caliver (an early firearm similar to a harquebus) maneuvers, and was so effective it made its way into nearly every nation’s army training regimen.
This is where it really gets interesting to me. When world building, there is almost no limit to how detailed you can get, how deep you can delve, to make your world come alive. Even if very little of it makes it to the page, the depth to which you understand your world will resonate on the page as every society and character will react to the internal logic of the world. Here’s some books I’ve read that helped me shape the societies and cultures that inhabit my worlds.
1. A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman
Published in 1978, this is by no means modern scholarship, but Tuchman is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and it is one of the first big books on medieval history I read. A great breakdown of a tumultuous century.
2 and 3. The Crusades, Thomas Asbridge and The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Amir Maalouf
I like these two as a pair. Asbridge does a nice job of alternating chapters between the Christian and Arab viewpoints, but the Arab side really comes alive in Maalouf’s narrative. Not that their were really “sides” as such. What you get from both books is a sense of how complex and confusing this centuries-long conflict was, with allegiances consistently crossing religious and feudal lines, and how quickly internecine feuds—and the occasional accidental drowning—could ruin the aspirations of kings and commoners alike.
3. The Hammer and The Cross: A New History of the Vikings, Robert Fergusen
The history of early middle ages Europe and Britain was shaped by the Vikings. They took over England a couple of times. Founded a kingdom in Russian. Were given part of France—which apparently wasn’t big enough, because a couple of those Vikings went and conquered Sicily. Oh, did I mention traveling to America? The Hammer and the Cross draws on all the scholarship to bring the conflicting schools of “they were bloodthirsty raiders” and “they were mostly settlers and traders” in line with the truth about this complex, violent, and ultimately highly influential society.
4. The Devil’s Horsemen: the Mongol Invasion of Europe, James Chambers
If the early history of Europe was written by Vikings, the middle history of the East—and large swathes of Eastern Europe and the Arab world—was written by one man and his descendants: Chinggis Khan. This book could also go in the war and conflict section of this list, as it destroys the notion that the Mongol army was a “horde” of maniacal berserkers.
5. The Bright Ages, David Perry and Matt Gabrielle
This book provides a great social underpinning to the movements of armies and the actions of great men, and highlights some lesser-known characters that give the lie to the “dark” in the Dark Ages.
There are so many more books that inform my writing, and I’ll likely write more of these lists as time goes by. But for now, I think I’ll go read.
Want MORE writing advice? Check out my series, How to Write Fantasy Novels.
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