Ah! I just discovered a new writing book that I want to share with you! Love, love, love this one! Actually, it’s not really new—it’s been quietly hiding in my bookcase these last few years, sandwiched between equally wonderful, but louder books like Sol Stein’s How to Grow a Novel and The Art of Fiction by Gardner. It wasn’t until I literally hit a wall in my writing (I needed just the right word to describe the siding on a certain building) that I even remembered buying the book.
The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs is not intended to replace your thesaurus or dictionary but as the author says, it's “for anybody needing quick access to just the right vocabulary for conveying in words some sort of picture. “
The book is divided into categories ranging from “Things” (shapes, patterns and edges; surfaces and textures; light and color, etc.) to “People” (skin and complexion; mouths, lips, and teeth; noses, ears, and jaws; voices; looks and tacit expressions, etc.) Other broad categories include: Buildings and Dwellings; Earth and Sky; and Animals.
What I really love about this book is that Grambs doesn’t just give us lists of words, but actual excerpts from literature, in which the technical terminology augments lovely, descriptive prose. These excerpts from the masters correspond to each separate category. In the “Buildings and Dwellings” section alone Grambs offers seventy-one (!!) different examples from literature. Here are just a few:
The Radley Place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house. Walking south, one faced its porch; the sidewalk turned and ran beside the lot. The house was low, was once white with a deep front porch and green shutters, but had long ago darkened to the color of the slate-gray yard around it. Rain-rotted shingles drooped over the eaves of the veranda; oak trees kept the sun away.
From To Kill a Mockingbird, by HARPER LEE
It sat on a shelf between our lane and the creek, a little higher than the rest of the bottomland, Its board-and-batten sides and its shake roof were weathered silvery as an old rock. To me it has an underwater look—that barnacled silveriness, the way three big live oaks twisted like seaweed above the roof, the still, stained, sunken light.
WALLACE STEGNER, All the Little Live Things
The architects of the Knox Building had wasted no time in trying to make it look taller than its twenty stories, with the result that it looked shorter. They hadn’t bothered trying to make it handsome, either, and so it was ugly: slab-sided and flat-topped, with a narrow pea-green cornice that jutted like the lip of a driven stake.
RICHARD YATES, Revolutionary Road
Built of butter-yellow sandstone blocks hand-hewn in quarries five hundred miles eastward, the house had two stories and was constructed on austerely Georgian lines, with large, many-paned windows and a wide, iron-pillared veranda running all the way around its bottom story.
COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH, The Thornbirds
Through my glasses I saw the slope of a hill interspersed with rare trees and perfectly free from undergrowth. A long decaying building on the summit was half buried in the high grass; the large holes in the peaked roof gaped black from afar; the jungle and the woods made a background. There was no enclosure or fence of any kind; but there had been one apparently, for near the house half-a-dozen slim posts remained in a row, roughly trimmed, and with their upper ends ornamented with round carved balls.
JOSEPH CONRAD, Heart of Darkness
HARPER LEE:To Kill a Mockingbird
WALLACE STEGNER: All the Little Live Things
RICHARD YATES: Revolutionary Road
COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH: The Thornbirds
JOSEPH CONRAD: Heart of Darkness