I should’ve done this a long, long time ago. The other day while minding my 20-month-old girl, my thoughts drifted to my current WIP, and I wondered how I could make the most of my limited writing time to get more done. For me one of the things that eats a lot of that time is brainstorming words, which is obviously normal when you write, but it feels like I take longer than most people.
I’ve read about other authors keeping their own dictionaries. Notebooks filled with words they’ve discovered, or beautiful phrases they’ve found. Word images that are unique or convey a very specific tone and mood that they want to use or adapt later.
I am fairly content with the dictionaries I have. I also use The Synonym Finder, which I’m reasonably happy with. I use my built-in dictionaries and thesaurus on my iMac often and even expanded them after reading this wonderful article where they spoke about the 1913 version of Webster’s Dictionary, and you’d think it boring, but go read it. Utterly fascinating on how certain words just sound richer and deeper. Let me put it this way, the 1913 version of Webster gives poetic context to the meaning of a word. The article even has a download link and instructions on how to install it on your Mac, iPhone, Android, and Kindle.
But I’m never a 100% satisfied. When I write I create images in my mind and I want those images transplanted onto the page intact in all their visceral splendor. The right words don’t always present themselves when I need them and sometimes I have to shuffle a few to see which one fits best. It amounts to word-hunting, and that can take time.
A few weeks ago I discovered this article showing a quick look inside Nick Cave’s handwritten dictionary. It made me curious so I googled to see how common it is for writers to collect their own words. I didn’t try very hard and so I didn’t find very much. I tried different combinations of search terms but the results were nothing worth blogging about. I know I’ve read somewhere about authors and their homemade dictionaries, but it was a while ago. Just a pity I can’t remember where I read it.
Coming back to the reason for today’s post, all of this germinated a seed planted long ago and I’ve now decided to build my own custom dictionary. Instead of organizing it by alphabet I will do it by scene. Most of my notebooks and journals are already in use, but I found the one above which only has half a dozen pages or so scribbled on. It is leather-bound so it should last me a long time. Whenever I read a book I will have this notebook close by so I can copy words and phrases that impress me or that I think convey a certain kind of tone or that is scene specific.
I made a joke the other day on Facebook that I want to build a dictionary that I shall call Dietrich’s Great Harem of Words. It brought out some chuckles, but there is a remarkable truth to that joke. I want words readily available to me and my dictionary will serve that purpose. It is one thing to go hunting in an ordinary dictionary or thesaurus, but if you have your own collection readily available, nicely organized according to scene, emotion and setting, you’ll find it will save a lot of time. I suspect the process of jotting down words and referencing them when you write will broaden your vocabulary, which is the second reason why I want to do this.
I’m pretty excited about tackling this project and will update you on my progress later in the year. By then I should have an indication of whether this is a practical thing or not. In the meantime, let me know in the comments what steps you’ve taken to expand your vocabulary.
Also, I might have some news for you soon about that secret project I’m collaborating on.
4 thoughts on “Homemade Dictionary (aka Dietrich’s Great Harem of Words)”
Good morning, Woelf. You might also enjoy Roget’s “Thesaurus of Phrases,” over 10,000 common little word strings to help you avoid clichés and repetition. From Buckle Down [apply oneself; get serious; plunge into; put one’s hand to the plow; put one’s nose to the grindstone; swing into action; take the bull by the horns] to Sports Arena [amphitheater; athletic field; ballpark; bowl; coliseum; dome; field; gymnasium; hippodrome; playing field; rink; sports dome; sports ground; sports venue; stadium; track; turf], and all points between and beyond, this thing is not just a reference book, but a launch pad for tossing your imagination into new directions.
I know, that sounds like an ad, but it’s a great book, and since I didn’t write it, I’m not even blushing.
Have a great day!
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I have heard great things about Roget’s. When I wanted a thesaurus I had to choose between The Synonym Finder and Roget’s, and of course I chose the aforementioned for reasons I no longer remember. Thanks for commenting.
This inspires me to be a little more organized. I have things scribbled all over the place, on bits of paper, on napkins, on my phone…etc. Much of it gets lots. Although occasionally I’ll find little jewels in the most random of places. That is kind of fun.
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I’m the same, but I’m hoping to fix that somewhat with this project. I’m happy you liked the post, thanks.
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