This is a short introduction to the main instruments the aspiring writer of history in the English language (or, rather, any writer) should be familiar with – ideally, have on his desk at all times.
Why not simply use Wikipedia, many would ask? There are indeed a few drawbacks. One is that without a personal basis of general knowledge, the prospective author cannot truly judge whether what the Wiki article says is holy writ or questionable. There are many issues which are hotly discussed – but Wiki always feels it must present a “middle” point of view, which, however may be tainted because the Wiki editors themselves, who are as fallible as the next pope, cannot get everything “right” – naturally – because “rightness” does not exist in our field.
A second factor in favour of these old-fashioned “encyclopedia” type of books is that we find ourselves leafing through them, scrolling and browsing, which we seldom do on Wiki. While I browse through Wiki an hour or more every day using the “Random Article” button, I am aware that not everybody has the time or inclination to do so. Naturally, the useful habit again depends somewhat on the extent of your basic knowledge of wordly, historical, geographical and intellectual affairs – for the greater they are, the more sense you can make of the new information you are confronted with by simply browsing through.
Since the writing of history demands different qualities than the description of fictitious events, we need to build on a foundation of our own life experience and the underlying facts of the subject – or at least reasonable likelyhood.
In your romance, action or detective story you may invent persons or localities, give them the characteristics you feel necessary for the plot, kill them when they served their function or let them suffer every fate you see fit. Not so in our field.
In addition, history is subject to both official and inofficial peer review – for you will find out in a hurry that if your presentation, deductions and conclusions are debatable, you will realize, and be told, that you have may engaged, willingly or not, in propaganda – which is an entirely different field.
So is speculation. On Facebook, there are “History” groups who specialize in this exercise – military history mainly, in which there occurs a lot of discussion what would have happened if general X had ordered army Y to move to Z and so forth. Quite interesting at times – but somewhat off the mark unless it serves the inquiry why the general made the decision the specified way and not any other. The “What if?” scenario can be fascinating, but we must recall it is not history.
But now to the sine-qua-non list:
This list enumerates the standard books in print form – many similar compilations are to be found for free in the internet and may function as replacements. However, most of the works mentioned are to be found easily at very little cost ( I acquired mine usually under $ 5) at sellers of used books and their acquisition is strongly suggested. Here’s a link to a comparison of the best online shops for used books.
In order of importance:
I. ROGET’s INTERNATIONAL THESAURUS 7th Edition or newer, Collins Reference (HarperCollins Publishers) ISBN 978-0-06-171523-5 (thumb-indexed)
II. OXFORD DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS 7th Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-9237717-3,
History comes alive in winged words …
III. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – COMPLETE WORKS – The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Modern Library, New York (Random House modernlibrary.com) , ISBN 978-0-679-64295-4,
The cradle of Modern English …
IV. DICTIONARY OF FOREIGN WORDS AND PHRASES 2nd Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, Andrew Delahunty (Ed.), ISBN 978-0-19-954368-7,
Nix speaking Frencho, nay?
V. LATIN CONCISE DICTIONARY – HarperResource, ISBN 0-06-053690-X,
… with Supplements on Roman History and Culture …
VI. OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ALLUSIONS, Second Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-860919-3,
Jehoshabeath – who?
VII. THE READER’S COMPANION TO WORLD LITERATURE, Second Edition or newer, Signet Classics, ISBN 978-0-451-52841-4,
Basic info about the masterpieces of writing in one small collection …
VIII. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE ABBREVIATIONS DICTIONARY, Third Edition or newer, Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-618-62123-7,
Especially useful for scientific texts with abbreviations galore …
ADDENDUM: A LIST OF THE FUNDAMENTAL WORKS OF HISTORY EVERY WRITER SHOULD BE AWARE OF – with a slight Anglo-American bias:
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)