Writer Resources (1): Bestiaries and Compendiums for Fantasy Writers

Writer Resources Series #1

Bestiaries and Compendiums for Fantasy Writers

Once a month, I will be posting a new entry in a ‘Resources for Writers’ series on my blog.  Most of these entries will be about books for writers, but, some of them will be writing tips from established authors, information about upcoming conferences, etc.

For my first post, I’m talking about Bestiaries and Compendiums of Mythical Creatures! For fantasy writers looking to branch out beyond dwarves and dragons, or situate magical creatures within specific cultural contexts, these guides can be an excellent resource. Paging through them can also provide a source of inspiration when you’re feeling a little bit stuck. Plus many feature TERRIFIC illustrations and vivid depictions, so they are worth looking at for a unique reading experience in themselves. When I was working on Unicorn Tracks, I had to use many resources like these in order to research all the mythical creatures Mnemba encounters while leading her tour groups on safari.  I definitely feel that at least one physical guide to mythical creatures and the fantastic is a must for any fantasy writer’s shelf!

While there are dozens of titles, many are not easily available or prohibitively expensive. Of those works easily acquired at a reasonable price, here are a few of my top picks:

(1)    The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black, E.B. Hudspeth: Quirk Books, Philadelphia, 2013.  


 Top Pick for: Anatomical Drawings, Readability.


(1) Beautiful, anatomical drawings of hominid creatures, produced by a 19th century doctor. The drawings have all the detail you’d expect of a medical study, accompanied by Dr. Spencer’s theories on the genetic mutations and anomalies that led to the individual’s condition.

(2) E.B. Hudspeth has written this book as a biography. It’s easy to read, fluid, and gives a lot of information about Dr. Spencer’s life and the cultural reaction to his studies, publications and later carnival exhibitions. The book does a fantastic job of capturing conflicting Victorian sensibilities – on the one hand, a lust for scientific understanding, on the other, a perverse fascination with unexplainable curiosities and monstrosities. Dr. Spencer Black has many characteristics of a historical Dr. Frankenstein and a wild imagination.  As a result, I think it’s a great resource for anyone trying to write a steampunk fantasy, a paranormal Victorian novel or looking to create hominoid creatures that are not vampires, werewolves or angels. This book is intended to be read like a story, rather than consulted only as a reference.

(3) After the biographical section, E.B Hudspeth has reproduced some of Spencer’s lexicon in an encyclopaedic format. As you’d expect from a scientist, he uses a very scientific classification system, and really seeks to explain the biological origins of the creatures he details. His drawings show the muscle structure, skeleton and ligaments, and how they build on each other.  It’s clear that not only was Dr. Spencer intimately familiar with the workings of a human body, but that he knew about animal structure as well. His drawings almost make you believe such creatures could exist.



(4) His illustrations of Harpies, demonstrating the increased capacity of their lungs relative to normal humans are especially impressive!


(2)    The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Hendersen: Granta Publications, London, 2012.  



Top Pick for: History Buffs and Nerds, Writing Style.


(1) Caspar Hendersen follows in the tradition of Medieval bestiaries and the work of Luis Borges, to create an original historical compendium.

(2) Each of his articles feature extensive historical, as well as scientific, research – he tells you which cultural traditions feature each creature, where they are represented in historical sources and how they were culturally received. He also provides analogues from biology, examining real creatures that share some of the fantastical traits of the beast, in order to explain the basis for imagining the creatures.

(3) Illustrations are quite basic, but have leave the fascinating impression of being based simultaneously on medieval manuscript illuminations and on scientific drawings (see above). Really capture the style of the book – a collision of history, philosophy and modern biology to reconcile the fantastic.

(4) I think that as a resource, this book is for writers looking to achieve that mashup effect of history/biology/fantasy .. .the style of it is helpful in itself. If you’re trying to write a book in the style of Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, this is probably for you. However, I think that as far as getting an overview of mythical creatures, it’s perhaps too dense to be used as a quick resource or encyclopaedia. The history provided is very extensive and each entry is several thousand words long – chapter length.


(3)    The Book of Beasties: A Scottish Bestiary of Old, Belle Robertson/Larry McDougall: Mirror and Comb Publishing, Edinburgh, 2015.


        Top Pick for: Spectacular Illustrations, Accessibility.


(1) This book is BRAND NEW and it is beautiful. I got a copy through work and it’s quickly become one of my all-time favourites in the genre. The illustrations are spectacular and were done by the artist who illustrated many of The Lord of the Rings film guides.   Think gruesome charcoal renders, presented in the style of an artist’s sketchbook. The book features stunning tartan interior covers, fake newspaper snippets, poems and historical trivia, as well as brief but poignant descriptions of each creature listed.



(2) A quick read and much shorter than the other guides. Also region specific to Scotland, but would be accurate for other Gaelic traditions – such as Ireland. In addition to creature descriptions, the book also describes their habitats and the Scottish landscapes that gave birth to the mythology.

(3) A must for writers working on manuscripts featuring Medieval Scotland, also a great book for anyone writing a Medieval European based fantasy wanting more of a Celtic/Gaelic twist on the creatures rather than Norman or Norse tradition.  

(4) Would also make a terrific gift because of the way it’s been laid out/styled. Definitely a more accessible book all around than the other guides, reading level appropriate for older children/teens as well as adults and short enough to keep their interest.


(4)    Breverton’s Phantasmagoria, Terry Breverton: Quercus, 2014.



Top Pick for: Fantasy Writers!, Encyclopaedia Resource.


(1)    Overall, this book is my top pick for fantasy writers looking for a catch-all resource to keep handy on their desks. This book is a truly fantastic little resource, featuring encyclopaedia style entries on more than three hundred creatures, mythic gods and magical places. The entries are short and to the point, featuring a plethora of historical drawings, pictures and factual snippets. You could literally page through this book and develop an entire plot: location, creatures, mythic characters … all jumping out of this pristine little volume and into your imagination.

(2)    Every ten pages or so, there is an inset with very detailed drawings of particular creatures in black and white. These are beautiful and inspiring.

(3)     Could accompany a more detailed resource like Caspar Henderson’s, because the entries are so short that if you did decide on a particular mythic tradition or group of creatures, this book probably wouldn’t give you enough information to be your only source.

(4) Part of a series: Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities just came out a few weeks ago, focusing on sea creatures and maritime myth.


I have a hardback copy of the amazing Book of Beasties to Giveaway! Shipping to UK, Ireland, Continental Europe, US only.

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3 thoughts on “Writer Resources (1): Bestiaries and Compendiums for Fantasy Writers

  1. This post is amazing! Besteries are my all-time favourite research tool (heck, they’re awesome even when I’m NOT reading for writing purposes!), but you’re right – they can be so ridiculously expensive. I have to check these out!

    1. I love paging through them as well. Some of the hardback vintage ones are hundreds of dollars, though! And HEAVY. Not super practical for the writer on the go.

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