Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On the tip of my tongue

Last week, I pledged to give up Google (for my writing; I couldn't go an hour without it in my personal life) and instead use good ol' paper reference books. I had the obligatory dictionary and thesaurus, of course, but I also armed myself with these four indispensable writing references:

Random House Word Menu: A dictionary organized by subject matter instead of alphabetically. For example, if you were looking for a type of storm, you'd turn to "Chapter 3: The Earth," then "Weather and Natural Phenomena," sub-category "Storm," and there it is -- monsoon. This book was moderately helpful; probably would've gone Google if I could.

Flip Dictionary: On the surface, this reverse dictionary seems to be a shoe-in for the "most likely to be rendered obsolete by Google award." But after I got the hang of how to use it, I found tremendous value in this weighty book. It's most helpful if you have a phrase in your head, or a description, and you need a specific word. For example, under "country life, relating to," you'll find bucolic, pastoral, rural and rustic.

When writing, often what you really need is an idea, something you didn't know you were looking for. Say you want a synonym for "create." You might stumble across "creation becoming uncontrollable: Frankenstein's monster." Now that's an angle you hadn't thought of; it could take your piece in a whole new direction. And for certain categories, this book has these wonderful lists and groupings. For example, when I Google "cordials and liqueurs," after sorting through ads for BevMo, martini recipes and drunken forums, I still hadn't found anything near Flip Dictionary's tidy list of 50 spirits, from absinthe to Vandermint.

The Ultimate Visual Dictionary: A big, beautiful book that illustrates and labels everything from the dorsal scute of an Anklylosaurs to the touchpiece of a trombone.

The Describer's Dictionary: My favorite of the bunch. I can't even tell you how useful this is; you you have to see it for yourself. Let's say I want an interesting way to describe the color of a house. Go to the "color modifiers" section, and... well, is the paint "washed out" or is it "dazzling?" In my writing, I find it particularly hard to describe people's physical characteristics. Under "Eyes, having bulging or protruding," I find these gems: pop-eyed, banjo-eyed, prominent, protuberant, starting, exophthalmic, hyperthyroid, bug-eyed, proptosed, bulbous and goggle-eyed. I love it! I never would have thought of these on my own.

So, for the results of my experiment. I have to admit, it was agonizing to retrain myself not to open my web browser every time I wanted to look something up. I realized immediately that my skills for quickly locating a word alphabetically have been pushed to the same atrophied part of my cortex that used to remember phone numbers. But once I got used to it, a sort of grade school giddiness enveloped me, and it was -- dare I say -- fun.

The internet is just too vast when you're browsing for something specific; we need boundaries. On the web, you are likely to get distracted by something that's not useful-- like celebrity gossip. But when you're browsing through a book like the Ultimate Visual Dictionary, you discover treasures that are even better than what you were looking for. Say you're searching for an intriguing place to set the climactic scene of your novel. You're thinking of having it in a kayak. But when you thumb through the "Sea and Air" section, there it is in all its glossy glory: a medieval warship with each and every part intricately labeled, from the stemost to the main topgallant mast. Now find THAT on the internet.