I stumbled across The Word Finder/The Synonym Finder 2-book set by J.I. Rodale at a yard sale and they were the best find EVER. The Word Finder appears to be out of print, but if you can find a copy it's worthwhile to get it. The Synonym Finder is available in paperback, so you're in luck there.
Here's a sample of what the entries look like:
The Word Finder:
delightful; gleeful; unconscious; passionate; drunken; increasong; intoxicated; idolatrous; hilarious; airy; fanatical; reckless; universal; insane; humourous; bird-like; wild; childish; desolate; mystic; sensual; cruel; wanton; natural; boyish; typical; joyful; delirious; carefree; ecstatic.
ABANDON (v )
shamelessly; ingloriously; regretfully; dramatically; definitely ; recklessly; simultaneously; reluctantly; prudently; despairingly; eventually; inhumanly; cravenly; wantonly; childishly; temporarily; pusillanimously; faint-heartedly; pitiably; haplessly; remorsefully; ruefully; sullenly; woefully; wretchedly; contritely; dejectedly; dolefully; mournfully; dispiritedly; mirthlessly; tragically.
(See repudiate, forsaken, waive, surrender)
The Synonym Finder:
abandon (v) 1. forsake, desert, leave behind, throw over, jilt, run out on, Inf. turn one's back on , Sl. give the deep six; ignore, cut off, neglect, ostracize, leave, depart, quit, go away from, vacate, evacuate.
2. discard, cast off, jettison, throw away, get rid of, toss out, (of cards) throw in Inf. ditch Inf. chuck, Sl. deep six.
3. discontinue, give up, retire from, withdraw from, stop, end, cease, Inf. quit cold; throw up, lose hope of, despair of, forbear, desist from, drop, forgo, do or go without, despense with, waive, lay aside.
Okay, there are three more subsections on abandon, the verb, plus a section on abandon, the noun, but you get the idea. Both of these books are 1300+ pages of fairly small print, so you get an idea of how comprehensive they are. And best of all, no requirement to flip back and forth. I love these books.
Every writer should have a reverse dictionary. Mine is Bernstein's Reverse Dictionary by Theodore M. Bernstein. This is the book I pull out when I know there's a word for something but I can't think of it or I don't know the technical term. Examples are the best way to illustrate, so here are a few related to sailing (a subject I know little about):
sail of triangular shape ahead of the foremast: JIB
sailboat with a single mast and fore and aft rigging: SLOOP
sailboat's mast or boom: SPAR
sailing close to the wind: LUFF
sailor who is veteran, old salt: SHELLBACK
sailor's bag for belongings: DITTY BAG
Reader's Digest Illustrated Reverse Dictionary: Find the Words at the Tip of Your Tongue This has some of the qualities of a reverse dictionary, but what makes this different and valuable are the pictures and charts (hence the "Illustrated" in the title.)
If you want to know the visual difference between, say, a 19th century whaler and a clipper ship, there's a page full of illustrations of various ships. All labeled of course because it wouldn't be much good without it. Need to know the names of various parts of a saddle? There's a illustration with the parts labeled. What if you need the name of a purple gemstone, something other than an amethyst? How about an almandine, garnet, or spinel? You'll find that in a chart.
Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary (Writers Library) (Facts on File Writer's Library) is great if you have a subject of interest and need to know the vocabulary that applies. It's broken down by topic (Animals, Architecture, Clothing, Electronics, etc.) Each topic is broken into subtopics, and sometimes broken down again. For instance, Livestock is one of the subtopics of animals, which is, in turn, broken down into cattle, goat, pig, and sheep breeds. Clothing is broken down by era until the 16th century. After that, it's broken down by century. The 20th century is broken down even further by clothing type.
Foreign Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers by Lewis Herman and Margaret Shalett Herman (along with American Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers) is a wonderful resource. I used both books extensively when I was first trying to pin down how to get my characters' voice to sound distinct. If you have a character who has a foreign accent, this book is invaluable. For instance, I have a supporting character (a French supermodel) who I want to use in future book. I want her to sound French but not in a trite stereotypical way. This is a sample of what this book says about the French language.
The French language is spoken in a pitch that is the highest of all the Romance languages. Italian and Spanish both have the same excitable quality which tends to make the voice shrill--but they possess certain other features which soften them. The Italians, for instance, lengthen their vowels and introduce the aspirate "uh" abundantly. The Spanish people soften their consonants and use the aspirate "uh" occasionally. The French use none of the softening features.
Consequently, the French dialect is brisk and sharp and is spoken with almost staccato effect. This does not mean that they race through their words. On the contrary, they give each word its full, clear value. But they do break off each word cleanly and they do not linger on the vowel sounds. To achieve this staccato effect, it is necessary to break the sentences into small groups of words, for the French will vigorously stress several words in a sentence while the Americans will, possibly, stress two and those lightly.
There is a long section (relatively) that is aimed at actors to help them capture the sound and cadence of French accented English. This isn't vital to an author, although I do think it's useful because being able to hear the cadence in your head will make your word choices stronger.
This is followed by a section on grammar that is very useful. FREX:
The French almost always insert a definite or indefinite article before each noun, as in:
"We have the book and the paper for the printing."
It goes on to list some other peculiarities of French grammar that commonly show up when the French speak English.
Do you see why I value these books?
In preparing this post, I was delighted to discover that Proverbs, maxims and phrases of all ages : classified subjectively and arranged alphabetically by Robert Christy has been digitalized. I have a physical copy (copyright 1888), but I immediately bought the ebook (for the bargain price of 99 cents) because I can use the search function with kindle for PC, which I think will be handy.
What I like best about this book is that it includes not just famous English proverbs but foreign ones as well. I've used it to stimulate my mind when I wanted to come up with ways of saying something that isn't trite. At other times, I've used it to find a seasoning for a character from another culture.
Here are a sample of what's listed under Laziness:
A lazy sheep thinks its wool is heavy.
To a lazy man every day is a holiday Turk.
To the lazy the way is full of thorns. Ger.
Who is lazy in his youth must work in old age. Ger.
Like most writers, I have more than one baby naming book. So many, in fact, that I refuse to look at that section in used book stores because I know what that will lead to. Here are a few that I find especially interesting because they're more than just lists of names with their meanings and heritage.
I own both Beyond Jennifer & Jason: An Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby and Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana: What to Name Your Baby Now. Why both? Because names have a shelf life, and this helps naming characters of different generations.
What I like about the format is that it lists names by theme. What's popular, what's not. If you're looking for names that have a specific emotional content, this is a good place to look. Got a dorky character whose name should reflect that? You've found the source. Looking for a name with biblical connotations? You'll find a list here. What creative names are celebrities using? That's here, too.
Need a name for a German character? Or a Welsh character? Or a Japanese character? The Best Baby Names in the World by J.M. Congemi is a useful resource because it lists names by country/culture. It's not as vital as it once was because much of this information is online, but if you're the sort who likes working from a paper book as I do and you can pick up a book like this cheap, it's worth doing.
The Guinness Book of Names by Leslie Dunkling addresses first names in a limited way, but it goes beyond that, and that's good for writers. Street names, place names, pub names, nicknames, surnames, these are all things we writers often need names for. This book address how such things have been named historically which can be helpful in coming up with our own versions.
So what are your indispensable reference works?