On Reference Books (and Zombies)

Sarah Graves

Sunday’s column about writers’ books got me thinking about what else is on my bookshelves. Like most writers, I have a small collection of old faithful volumes that I turn to for bits of detail, facts my characters know but I don’t or ones I need to know to have the plot work out right (and prevent finger-wagging from readers!). But mostly I use reference works for a reason that might not seem obvious at first: to bolster the point of view.

Because look: I’m no botanist, so when I see a tree, I think ‘tree.’ But if my botanist character sees a tree, he’s going to think about it in an entirely different way, one that I may be able to impersonate just by using specific words. And where, you may ask, do I find these words? Why, in a small paperback book called TREE FINDER by May Theilgaard Watts, that’s where.


Words, words – using the right one, in my opinion, means thinking like my character, first of all, since I’m not just looking out through his or her eyes, feeling with the point-of-view character’s skin, experiencing the same desires. If I want to give the reader the character’s point of view I’ve got to get inside the head – that is, know what the character knows in the way he or she knows it.

Let’s say my POV character is a 1980s-era homicide detective. In that case, she’s going to do – and think – things that I can find correctly described (and gruesomely pictured) in the 1983 edition of PRACTICAL HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION by Vernon Geberth, although if she’s a modern cop I’ll be better off with the fourth edition, from 2006. I might have fun contrasting what the cop thinks of those books with what her boyfriend thinks when he finds them on her bedside table, too; in fact, if I do I’ll be having fun not only with the boyfriend (who’s a sailor, and whose specific thoughts might come out of, say, THE ESSENTIAL KNOT BOOK by Colin Jarman) but with the whole idea of – you guessed it – point of view.


Really old books can not only help shape a character’s point of view; they can provide the seed for a whole new book entirely. I’m looking right now, for instance, at a copy of SQUIBB’S MATERIA MEDICAL FOR THE PHYSICIAN AND THE SURGEON. This 1919 edition lists all the materials the sold by the pharmaceutical company back then, everything from absinthium (“very bitter taste”) to zinc bromide (“antispasmodic…for epilepsy and chorea”). And I can’t help thinking…


Well. What if, after the zombie uprising when there’s no more scientific medicine being practiced, someone who survived finds this book and a storehouse of those old medicines. Say, in a museum or something. And he or she begins reading, and identifying the old bottles, and has to start trying to heal other survivors. And then she has to try healing her one true love, who’s been bitten by a zombie. And –

You get the idea: books. Sometimes they can save your POV character. And sometimes… Yeah. Reference books. Because you just never know when one of those might come in really handy.







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3 Responses to On Reference Books (and Zombies)

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Such important observations, Sarah. I also have my copy of the Geberth book. I think he had a sick thing for naked women, though, given the illustrations. Maybe they’ve cleaned it up since my edition.

    Learning to see the world through a character’s eyes is a real challenge. Some years ago, I decided to write a book with an architect as the main character. I spent a lot of time taking architects out to lunch and asking them questions like, “Did you play with blocks when you were a child?” and “When you walk into a house, what do you see?” It took a long time for this character to emerge, since I’m absolutely a word oriented person, but one day, I started seeing the world through her eyes and it was great. All the time I was writing that book, I saw the world differently.

    I collect old books of etiquette. Probably not as useful in the event of a zombie invasion…but it is interesting to know that if your guest is too fat to bend over, he may appropriately ask the hostess to tie his shoes, or that you should always be prepared to offer a married couple separate bedrooms, since you cannot assume they sleep together.

  2. In her book Komarr, Lois McMaster Bujold has an investigator ask to see the entire contents of suspiciously-missing person’s library. When asked why, he says (paraphrasing) “The shape of a man’s library reveals the shape of his mind.”

    Also, Sarah, I’m encouraged to see another Maine household thinking ahead to the zombie apocalypse. You can never be too prepared.

    • Sarah Graves says:

      The etiquette books get me going on an idea for yet another novel, in which people literally don’t know how to behave, and they consult old etiquette books to find out how to do everything.

      As for the zombie apocalypse, my big question lately is whether or not thinking ahead is still actually the requirement.

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