Writing Books We Actually Use

Today, we’re using our group post Wednesday to share some of the writing books and reference books we return to again and again. Not every book works for every writer. You have to try them out and see if the advice resonates. But as we share our favorites, you may find some books to add to your own shelf.

Kate Flora: Many years ago, my mother gave me a bright red Rodale’s Synonym Finder IMG_0084for my birthday. It lives right beside my desk, and I often consult it when I am looking for a descriptive work for weather, a color, a mood, a sensation–you name it. Right now, I’m reading a book suggested by a former student: Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction. I find his answers to so many questions I am asked as a teacher, and a lot of wise advice. For example:

“You must submerge in a novel . . . It must be real to you as you work at it, and the only way I know to make it real is to dive into it at eight in the morning and not emerge until lunchtime. Then, for the space of each working day, it can be as real as the other life you live–the one from lunch to bedtime.

Susan Vaughan: My go-to book is Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict, The Building Blocks of Good Fiction. The character’s goal is what they desire, want, need, or purpose. Motivation is the impetus and drive, the why they want that goal. And the conflict is the trouble or roadblock, sometimes a villain, the reason they can’t have it. GMC is part of my process not only in character development, but in  sharpening scenes, creating secondary characters, and plotting. It’s the foundation of everything that happens in the story world.

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: I’ve never been one for reading how-to books on writing, perhaps because the only ones I found when I first got serious about a writing career back in 1976 stressed techniques that just don’t work for me. A forty page outline before attempting to start writing the book? Please! There is one volume that proved very useful, however, and that’s Linda Edelstein’s Writers’ Guide to Character Traits. At the time I found it, I was working on a mystery featuring two historical figures who, on the surface, seemed to be very much alike. With the help of Edelstein’s book, I found ways to differentiate between them and was able to give realistic motivations to each.

Having admitted that I don’t make use of how-to books, I now have to make a terrible confession: I actually wrote one. How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries: The Art and Adventure of Sleuthing through the Past came out in 2008 in trade paperback and ebook. It is outdated when it comes to the material on selling and marketing, since self-published ebooks had not yet become the major industry they are today, but the rest holds up well, mostly because it is a compilation of good advice from a large number of writer friends who contributed anecdotal material to go along with my suggestions on the basics of research and writing historical mysteries.

Dick Cass: Not strictly speaking a writing book, but one I’ve found very useful, both for myself and my students. Art and Fear debunks scores of the messages society tells us about creating any kind of art. The authors’ view of art is wide and generous and the book explores how creative works get made, why so many people give up, and why we find it so hard to accept that for most of us, the work we do isn’t genius-quality, in fact, not even up to our own standards. It’s a calming voice for writers and other creative types and contains many sensible observations on how and why we make it hard for ourselves and how to do our work with more joy and less angst.


Maureen Milliken: I find a lot of writing books basically say the same things, only in different ways, and the tipping poing for me is how entertaining they are and if they say it in a way it makes the point enough so I recognize it in my own writing. That said, I read a lot more writing books three years ago than I do these days. The one, of course, that kicked my butt into getting started was Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and that’s the one that I refer to mentally when I’m worried I’m not “doing it right” or any of that other stuff that we use to sabotage ourselves.

The best nuts and bolts writing book, my go-to before I get serioiusly started on a book, is  “Don’t Murder Your Mystery,” by Chris Roerdon. It nails bad writing and is great for reminders on those bad habits that can drag writing down.

My biggest go-tos, though, aren’t actual writing books, but true crime books — bad ones, good ones — I can’t get enough of them. My current favorites that have helped with the book I’m writing now is “Erased: Missing women, murdered wives,” by Marilee Strong and “The Sociopath Next Door,” by Martha Stout.

John Clark: Back in the 1990s, I taught creative writing for local adult education programs. I lucked out big time when I chose What If?: Writing exercises for fiction writers. Students loved it and I never did get my first copy back from my friend’s teen daughter when she aspired to write. Every time I see a copy in a used book store, I snag it.


Sandra Neily

My favorite chapter in my favorite book is “Shitty First Drafts.” Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, who says, “good writing is about telling the truth.”

I keep lending this one out and it never comes back and that’s OK with me. Happy to help out. Hooked (Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at the First Page … ) by Les Edgerton. (Developing an inciting incident; tips on how to avoid common opening gaffes like overusing backstory; analysis of great opening lines, and much more.)

When I’m stuck I go here: Writing Mysteries by Sue Grafton. (Amazing!!!)  Sue says,“Make sure everybody on every page wants something.”

 On Writing, by Stephen King is every-line-pithy. Here’s some:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

“If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.”

And some titles from my library covering ground from beginning to end to marketing.

Anything!!!! by Donald Maass: Writing the Breakout Novel, also Writing 21st Century Fiction

David W. Page, MD, Body Trauma, a Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries

Carolyn Howard-Johnson, The Frugal Book Promoter

Christina Katz, Get Known Before the Book Deal

Hallie Ephron, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel

I write better with flowers and an angry looking screen saver that says, “Put Your Butt In the Chair.”

Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript Makeover

Final gem bit of advice, now tacked on my wall: “If the sex scene doesn’t make you want to do it – whatever it is they’re doing – it hasn’t been written right.” Sloan Wilson

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