by Shannon Hart Hudnell

As writers, we often find ourselves stuck on a word, a deeper meaning for our stories, or names for our characters. Using books as fundamental tools rather than depending on technology can ease frustration when finding what we’re looking for. The internet often contains inaccuracies or too many choices, whereas books may be considered more reliable sources. Finding the right books to use as tools is critical in helping your skills as a writer. It is also important to do small exercises to hone those skills.

Here are five must-have books (and exercises) to assist with writing:

1. Thesaurus – Thesauruses force us to learn new words, which increase our vocabulary – a very critical part of being a writer. I’ve been carrying one around since high school and have found that the thesaurus is a wonderful tool when I find myself repeating the same word and want to find one with the same or opposite definition.

For example, I was writing a story and noticed that I kept using the word “said” over and over. I didn’t see the word “said” in my thesaurus until I had a “duh!” moment and realized that I had to look up the infinitive – “say”. The thesaurus gave me more than a handful of other words from which to choose.

Exercise: Choose one word you find yourself using often and research synonyms to use instead.

2. Symbolism book – It is important at times to get to the deeper meaning of an object, color, or place for our stories and symbolism books can often provide us with a new understanding or point of view. For example, if I wanted a particular kind of bird in my story, the symbolism of that bird is very crucial to that particular moment.

One of the best books I have found on this topic is The Encyclopedia of Symbolism by Kevin Todeschi. It’s simple to use and contains an array of meanings from different religions and cultures.

Exercise: Choose an animal and research its symbolism to use in a story.

3. A Baby Name Book – Whether writing fiction or creative nonfiction, many writers have difficulty coming up with new names for their characters. Baby name books are the perfect resolution, as they provide origins and meaning behind names. Name meaning can either fit the character or create irony. For example, one of my characters carries an innocence about her, so I chose the name Kayla, which is a form of Katherine, meaning “pure.”

Exercise: Randomly select a page and choose a name for a character. Consider the name meaning, and write a short paragraph describing the character.

4. Dictionary – This is probably an obvious book on the list, but believe it or not, a lot of people don’t use dictionaries anymore. Before I attended college, I worked a somewhat redundant office job. I made a point of choosing a random word out of the dictionary each week and using it in a sentence. It increased my vocabulary and my boss was impressed with my initiative. Dictionaries are an extremely essential tool for writers. Not only will they help with spelling, but if the thesaurus you’re using recommends an unfamiliar word, you might want to look up its definition.

Exercise: Once a week, choose a random word from the dictionary and use it in your writing.

5. A Journal – Every writer needs a journal! If you are experiencing writer’s block or simply have too many things on your mind to focus on the writing at hand, a journal can be your best friend. It will listen to you without judgment or interruption, and it can provide insight to your innermost thoughts. Even better, there have been studies that show journaling relieves stress.

Exercise: When you wake up or before you go to bed, write at least one to three pages in your journal – every day!

If you’re a writer and you’re not already taking advantage of these books or exercises, start now. They are an inexpensive way to help improve your writing skills. The exercises provided are a simple way of improving some of the techniques of your talent. You can change and increase them to your own liking. Happy writing!


An ex U.S. Army photojournalist, Shannon Hart Hudnell taught English and creative writing at public and private schools before starting her creative business called Abstract Lucidity. She writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has been published in various newspapers, books, and Smithsonian magazine. More about Shannon can be viewed on her website at


walter1I found myself snared by a detective story last week when a stranger e-mailed me from California. He’d found an article I’d written on children’s book author and illustrator Holling Clancy Holling (Paddle-to-the-Sea) and wanted to know if the man had ever served in the Army. I replied that nothing in my research popped up, but I was cc’ing the director of a historical society in Michigan devoted to enshrining Holling in children’s literature.

A daily exchange of e-mails among the Californian, the archivist and me in New Jersey continued for a week as, together, we uncovered the probability that the jacket with the buck sergeant’s chevron was indeed one Holling wore in 1918.

I love these out-of-the-blue queries. There was the National Parks Service employee putting together an exhibit who wanted to know more about my write-up on the actual first shots kicking off the Civil War—not those at Fort Sumter, but a battle at Fort Barrancas, Fla., four months earlier. And another query from an amateur historian—like me—asking about King Philip, who nearly drove the colonists out of New England, “I understand [Philip’s] head was displayed in Plymouth for 25 years. Is there any documentation as to what happened to the head after the display?” (No, and neither do we know what happened to Einstein’s brain after it was dissected and distributed around the world.)

Often, there’s no positive response. One person wrote from Holland, “I think I’m descended from Willem Kieft, the notorious governor of New Amsterdam [who massacred hundreds of Raritan, Wecquaesgeek and Wappinger tribes people].” It’s doubtful, I replied; Kieft was drowned at sea while being recalled to England. Or the high schooler stating, “I’m writing a paper on Bacon’s Rebellion [Virginia, 1675]. Can you tell me everything you know?” No, dammit! Do your homework.

It’s likely that writers welcome the figurative knock on the door that rescues them from the horror of filling a blank screen with captivating words. The unsolicited e-mail certifies the writer as expert, at least in the petitioner’s eyes. Receiving an accolade, like the elusive Pushcart Prize, or being included in an anthology also is validation that we’re doing something right.

But I have a deeper sense of appreciation for readers who respond. A writer’s fiction or non-fiction is broadcast to the world, receiving hundreds of hits on Big Pulp, Bewildering Stories, Military History Online, and other sites. This is information sharing—not communication. It’s akin to winking at a woman in a dark room: You know what you’re doing but not sure if she’s getting the message. Communication only takes place when a reader comments or writes back. And isn’t communication what we’re all searching for? Someone who responds like Holden Caulfield, who says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it”?

Yes! This is what the Internet has given us. A medium that encourages comments and questions to complete the circle of communication. That’s why I write. And respond to readers’ questions and comments. You can e-mail ( anytime and I’ll get back to you. Unless you ask me to do your homework.


Walter Giersbach’s fiction has appeared Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Every Day Fiction, Everyday Weirdness, Lunch Hour Stories, Mouth Full of Bullets, Mystery Authors, OG Short Fiction, Northwoods Journal, Paradigm Journal, Short Fiction World, Southern Fried Weirdness, The Short Humour Site and Written Word.  Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, have been published by Wild Child (  He also served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies.  Walter’s website can be found at

Alexander BurnsRecently I was invited to submit to a new market, and even given a prompt with which to work, but none of my initial attempts were panning out. Then, random perusing of the Internet gave me this interesting bit of trivia – there is a clock tower in Ireland, in Cork, which has four faces, and each face tells a different time. This inspired the thought: “What if, rather than three of those faces being wrong, all four are right?”  Breakthrough!

Wait, and somebody even wrote a poem about this clock? Get outta here! The story practically wrote itself! Seriously, I’m not sure why I showed up that day.

Research can take a number of different forms, each of which serve different purposes, and all of which are invaluable to honing the craft of writing. Here’s a few:

Reading other stories in the genre is research, as you need to see how it’s been done, learn the conventions of the genre, pick up tips, etc. Don’t put blinders on to what’s going on in your chosen field.

Names are important, so don’t just randomly grab a name from a phone book. Make sure characters have period-appropriate names, and be aware of ethnic implications (of surnames in particular). Look out for historical or pop culture significance that might color a reader’s view of a character. There are plenty of resources to check (my personal favorite is Don’t overlook the meanings of names, there’s rich material there for inspiration. I’ve jump-started stories based purely on some interesting meaning of a randomly-generated name.

History matters. It seems silly, but there it is. Even if you’re radically changing the history of a place, it’s important to know what really happened, how the people lived, how they thought. Not just the bare facts of how many people lived in what city, but what their philosophy was, what the issues of the day were, and so forth. What’s the difference between a 20th century hero and a 16th century brigand? How did people talk in the 1200s? Or even last year? A single bit of slang can transport the reader to an entirely different decade.

Technical vocabulary can make or break a story for some readers. Tom Clancy has legions of followers who read his work simply because he can, step by step and with all the right technical terms, describe how a nuclear reactor on board a Russian submarine can melt down. Does the gun in your narrator’s hand use shells or bullets? Was the city hit by a meteor or a meteorite? Is this cop a detective or a constable? Does this patient need blood or plasma? Some portion of the audience, maybe even most of the audience, won’t know the difference, but some will and they’ll nitpick themselves out of enjoying the story. Then they’ll post about it somewhere online.

Research is important to creating realistic and believable people and settings, and just as important in flash fiction as in a novel. Be as familiar with the subject matter as possible, because for your flash piece it needs to be summed up in a sentence, or a few words of dialogue. You won’t have the luxury of a whole chapter to explore the ideas.

Most of all, let research inspire your stories. There’s so much available in the real world that’s interesting, it would be a shame not to take advantage of the free ideas. Research is not a chore. And it gives you a good excuse to check out a lot of cool books.

Alexander Burns lives in Fort Worth, Texas. He writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, A Thousand Faces, 10Flash, and forthcoming from The Future Fire.