No. 1 Writing Tool

No. 1 Writing Tool

Me and My Dictionary(ies)

Dictionary. Hardcopy. The kind you can run your fingers up and down the pages. Trust me when I tell you a physical dictionary and an internet or digital dictionary can be universes apart regarding the quality of information. Really, trust me, and get your hands on the real thing, preferably one that does not respond to voice commands (okay, that’s my personal bias).

Never Too Many Definitions

In my home at this very moment, I have 30+ dictionaries, occupying one of my newly crafted 8-ft. long bookshelves. The oldest dictionary I have is an 1828 reprint and the most recent is dated 2014.

Yes, I know, I’m ten years behind ‘current definitions’, depending on how you define ‘current’. I will purchase a more recent dictionary soon, I promise, but probably not before I acquire yet another older, much older, one. Meanings change over time, right? So, let’s cover our bases with a few older dictionaries in the mix.

Of course there are also specialty dictionaries, such as Dictionary of Symbolism, Dictionary of the Old West, Words of Rhyme, Word Origins and Word Histories. And my reference collection is not limited to dictionaries but includes thesauri and encyclopedias as well, which are not included in the aforementioned tally of 30+.

Dictionaries Inspire Writer Creativity

You don’t have to have 30 dictionaries to understand the value of one. Even for synonyms, I consult a dictionary, almost always, before a thesaurus. A good dictionary is worth far more than its weight to a writer and it truly is my number one tool, not just in writing, but in life. You may already know this—and if so, hooray for sure!—but its use extends far beyond spellings, definitions, and grammatical sense. The information provided in a dictionary can indeed inspire creativity and help develop memorable characters and entrancing story ideas. Who knew? I did. Let me show you what I do.

A Process to Take You from Two Words to Story Idea

I want to write a speculative fiction piece. Beyond that I have no direction, so let me start with developing a character. Not sure it will be a protagonist, an antagonist, or become my personal nemesis, but it’s a simple place to get the creative juices going.

And I have learned to start by coming up with two words—two words only—to describe this character. Use AI or pull words out of a hat, but one word must be a noun and the other word its descriptor. For this exercise, I choose … … … … a recovered hermit. No idea what that means to me or the story—yet.

‘Recovered Hermit’

Enter the dictionary. I will use my most recent dictionary, the 2014 one (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition).

I begin my process by copying the definition verbatim for each of my two words. Then I pay close attention to what catches my eye, my ear, my mind as I am reproducing the words. So you can see which words draw me in, I will italicize and make them bold. These will be concepts or words that hook me and eventually will guide my story.

The Process in Action–Live! (almost)

Word Definitions

Remember, our original word combination was ‘recovered hermit’.


1a. one that retires from society and lives in solitude, especially for religious reasons : RECLUSE


2. A spiced molasses cookie

Yum. I love spiced molasses cookies, but what I am most fascinated with in this definition of ‘hermit’ is the word ‘beadsman’. So it will be the next word I learn more about.


(archaic) one who prays for another

“Counting pukas” instantly comes to mind—don’t chide me; I’m following my subconscious.  😊

Also keep in mind the purpose is to learn from the dictionary definitions—not simply apply what we think we already know.


1. to get back : REGAIN

2a. to bring back to a normal position or condition

2b. (archaic) RESCUE

3a. to make up for

3b. to gain legal process

4. (archaic) REACH

5. find or identify again

6a. to obtain from an ore, a waste product, or a by-product

6b. to save from loss and restore usefulness : RECLAIM

After these first three definitions, I have a distinct interest in developing a story around a beadsman, who ritualistically counts puka shells and seeks to save themselves from loss and or restore their usefulness to something yet to be determined.

I am excited to see where this is going, and I would love to hear what you think. But let’s carry on a little further now that we have taken our character from a recovered hermit to a beadsman seeking to recover from some loss and restore their usefulness, although I am not seeing the specific usefulness yet or what the loss might be.

After a few minutes of savoring what we have so far, I have conceived that the beadsman wants to wield the power of influence, which means I have a few more words to consult my dictionary about, particularly, influence and power.


1a. an ethereal fluid held to flow from the stars and to affect the actions of humans

1b. an emanation of occult power held to derive from the stars

2. an emanation of spiritual or moral force

3a. an act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command

3b. corrupt interference with authority for personal gain

4. the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways : SWAY

5. one that exerts influence

I am 110% sold on “an ethereal fluid held to flow from the stars and to affect the actions of humans” and “an emanation of occult power held to derive from the stars” and “corrupt interference.”

I did not know that these were even definitions of influence; did you?

And now, “the corruption of stardust” occupies my mind.

I hope those of you reading this can capture some part of what I am experiencing as I go through this process. I am reeling with possibilities. All from two words that grew … from a dictionary.


1a. (1) ability to act or produce an effect; (2) ability to get extra-base hits; (3) capacity for being acted upon or undergoing an effect

1b. legal or official authority, capacity, or right

2a. possession of control, authority or influence over others

2b. one having such power, specifically a sovereign state

2c. a controlling group : ESTABLISHMENT – often used in the phrase the powers that be

2d. (archaic) a force of armed men

2e. (chiefly dialectical) a large number or quantity

3a. physical might

3b. mental or moral efficacy

3c. political control or influence

4. an order of angels – see CELESTIAL HIERARCHY

5a. the number of times as indicated by an exponent that a number occurs as a factor in a product


6a. source of means of supplying energy, especially ELECTRICITY


6c. the time rate at which work is done or energy emitted or transferred

Of course, I grabbed ‘celestial hierarchy’; wouldn’t you? Did you know ‘power’ referred to angelology? I sure didn’t.

celestial hierarchy

(1768) a traditional hierarchy of angels ranked from lowest to highest in the following orders:

angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim

The Story Idea Emerges

Okay, okay. This is what I am thinking, and it’s more than a

A recovered beadsman, who I’m thinking will either be she or non-binary, abandons their isolation to save their soul or return to their usefulness (whatever that turns out to be). Maybe they are seeking to restore the effectiveness of their prayers. This restoration somehow involves acquiring/stealing/finding sacred stardust, because that sacred stardust is the stuff that can alter the order of angels. And the order of angels must be altered so our beadsman’s prayers can once again work—on who or what remains to be seen. The beadsman’s obstacle is not acquiring the stardust so much as is gaining access to the angels.

Those are my thoughts here and now. A story idea evolving from two words—recovered hermit. Did you see it coming? I sure didn’t.

Example of the Difference Between Using a Physical Dictionary and an Online Dictionary

And I’m not sure I would be so excited about where I’m headed had I used an online dictionary, rather than a physical dictionary. I offer one example to support that skepticism.

I typed “define influence” into the search bar of an internet browser, and the top response I received was:




the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

“the influence of television violence”

I do not believe I would have come up with the ‘sacred stardust’ element from this limited definition of ‘influence’. It is not a wrong definition, but it is not the only definition, and leaves out so much.

The physical pages of my dictionary may be thin and display small print,  but isn’t that just testament to how much more information it offers than an abbreviated digital version?


Champing at the Bit

I am desperately trying to keep my excitement at bay. I’m champing at the bit to develop this, but my purpose here was to share my process. Just one way the dictionary is my favorite writing tool.

By simply looking up words in a dictionary, a story forms. And my immediate thoughts are to grow this speculative fiction concept into a work of flash fiction, as in 500 words or fewer.

To Be Continued

I will post the final work, and if you are interested, I will share more of this specific process along the way—we can learn together.

If I live a day without learning something, I have not lived a very good day. Today has been exceptional. Thank you for joining me on my journey, and I hope you have a good dictionary to accompany you on your own journey.

Please scroll to the bottom of this page and let me know what you think. Do you own a physical dictionary? How do you use a dictionary as a writing tool? I hope you will comment below on how this blog post helped or fell short of helping you write. We’re on this planet together; let’s make it work.


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