A (relatively) short list of books that provide information about magic, weapons, culture, and clothing, amongst other things, along with a couple that provide hints of how best to weave all of this together to craft a 'realistic' fictional milieu.
Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, Harcourt Brace, 2000
— a traveller's guide to the imaginary places on Earth, taken from the literature of the world. A great book to inspire the imagination.
Books on Writing Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction, and Horror
Lee Killough, Checking on Culture, AG Press 1993
— a short book with a lot of information about creating cultures with depth and resonance.
Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Writer's Digest Books, 1990
— provides some great ideas for how to craft a believable world with magic that can be used as a positive plot feature
J.N. Williamson (ed.), How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Writer's Digest Books, 1987
— authors include: Ray Bradbury, Dean Koontz, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Colin Wilson, Ramsey Campbell, Robert McCammon, Steve Rasnic Tem.
General Reference Books
Allan Zola Kronzek & Elizabeth Kronzek, The Sorcerer's Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter, Broadway, 2001
— a look at some of the sources J.K. Rowling used as background for her Harry Potter series.
The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference, Writer's Digest Books, 1998
— the publisher describes it as 'an indispensable compendium of myth and magic'. I think it is a good first step to get some idea of the complexity of the job of crafting a completely imaginary world. More at a later date.
Dealing with the Denizens
Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings, Dutton, 1970
— a Beastiary, a sort of dictionary or encyclopaedia of imaginary or mythical creatures that have appeared in ancient texts
John & Caitlin Matthews, The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, Harper Element, 2005
— a very interesting book, the only thing that could have made it better (and more useful to a writer) would have been illustrations as some of the descriptions are a bit sketchy.
For illustrations, and lists of some rather unusual creatures and objects, see:
Dictionary of Holy and Magic Items
Dictionary of the Monster
Dictionary of Demons and Devils
These are all Japanese books (available from Amazon.co.jp) and are interesting because they include a lot of Asian creatures and objects that most Western books leave out, but also from a secondary standpoint in that some of their listings of Western or Middle Eastern creatures, monsters and divinities seems idiosyncratic.
T.H. White, The Bestiary, Perigee Books, 1980
— a very interesting book, done after the fashion of the middle ages, with listings and illustrations for a large number of creatures either mythical, or treated as such by Europeans.
Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies, Penguin Books, 1976
— a compendium of fairy lore.
Magic / The Arcane
Lewis Spence, An Encyclopaedia of Occultism, University Books, 1960
— a true compendium of information on the occult as those who practice it believe it to be. This lists, and describes, all the different methods of divination along with the different branches of magic. It does not, however, list any 'spells'.
Judika Illes, The Element Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells, Harper Element, 2004
— as the title states, 5000 spells listed, cookbook fashion, according to type and with step-by-step instructions and sometimes some commentary.
Historical Accuracy – Culture and Costume
Carl Kohler, A History of Costume, Dover Publications, 1963
— a reprint of a much older book. It talks about, and illustrates, the different types of clothing worn through the ages, in many cases providing patterns to go with the description and illustration. It is divided into period and country/region so that the reader can be sure to get their facts straight.
Frances & Joseph Gies, Life in a Medieval Village, Harper Perennial, 1990
– Life in a Medieval City, Harper Perennial, 1981
— social and cultural histories of medieval times for the lower and middle classes. Lots of illustrations.
Harry Elmer Barnes, An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World, in Three Volumes, 3rd Revised Ed., Dover Publications, 1965
— this work is, unfortunately, becoming fairly rare. It follows the progress of human invention in art, music, architecture, philosophy, and the sciences from Prehistory to the nineteenth century, identifying and discussing the major changes.
Herman Kinder & Werner Hilgemann, The Penguin Atlas of World History, in 2 volumes, Penguin Books, (there are new, updated editions available)
— These books provide a timeline of history for the world. Each country or area is dealt with separately, and there are a plethora of maps and illustrations to show what was going on and who was doing what. The best thing is that the books also provide timelines for inventions and discoveries. This can help to ensure that you don't have anachronisms occurring in your book, such as hot-air balloons in the 16th century.
G.M. Trevelyan, English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria, Pelican Books, 1977
— a great book to see the way English society existed in the late middle ages and early modern period.
Philip Lee Ralph, et al, World Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture, in 2 Volumes, 9th Ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 1997
— volume one, especially, should prove useful to the fantasy writer as it provides a lot of useful cultural insight into the ancient and medieval civilisations. There are also timelines of major events, many illustrations, and useful paragraph notes.
Elizabeth Hallam (ed.), Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry, Welcome Rain, 2000
— an illustrated guide to the Plantagenet dynasty in England. Shows castles and costumes, and talks about the politics of crown and cope in a turbulent period of English history.
The Age of Chivalry, National Geographic Society, 1969
— heavily illustrated, as one would expect from a National Geographic book, talking about the Medieval period but also showing some of the local remnants of those traditions that survive in Europe today.
Rosamond McKitterick, The Times Medieval World, Times Books, 2003
— divided up into regions and periods. Heavily illustrated, and with maps and timelines for most of the world.
Richard Barber, The Knight and Chivalry, Boydell Press, 1995
— a scholarly look at knighthood and the way it was portrayed in medieval literature
Weapons & Warfare
Now, having dealt with society at large, we get into the technical aspect of weapons. Most fantasy books involve the use of weaponry of one sort or another, and it is good to be able to actually describe the weapon, and the moves the fighter makes, with a couple of well-chosen, but more importantly, accurate words.
Stephen N. Fliegel, Arms & Armor, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1998
— a large, beautifully illustrated book covering the arms and armour housed in the museum, but it also has discussion about the history of the different pieces and how they were used.
Leonid Tarassuk & Claude Blair (ads.), The Complete Encyclopedia of Arms & Weapons, Bonanza Books, 1979
— an illustrated encyclopaedia of world armament from all ages with histories of their development. Definitely worth the investment.
David Harding (ads.), Weapons: An International Encyclopedia from 5000 BC to 2000 AD, updated ed., St. Martin's Press, 1990
— illustrated, and with very brief descriptions, it is divided into both periods and types which makes for ease of use. It also has descriptions of construction and use.
Ewart Oakeshott, The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour From Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry, Boydell Press, 1994
— a scholarly look at weapons, with illustrations, looking at the history of their development and importance.
Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword, Dover Publications, 1987
— an easy to read discussion of the history of the sword by one of the nineteenth century's more interesting writers.
Helen Nicholson, Knight Templar: 1120 - 1312, Osprey Publishing, 2004
— a slim volume that gives a brief but illuminating look at the history and precepts of the Knights Templar.
Gordon Warner & Donn F. Draeger, Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique and Practice, Weatherhill, 1999
— a dense book that looks at the Japanese sword and the way in which it is used and looked after, with illustrations.
Hans Talhoffer, Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat, Greenhill Books, 2000
— this is just as the title states. It is an annotated manual for, in the most part, judicial combat between both armoured and unarmoured participants of either sex.
This is only a short list of the books available on these and related topics. It is easy to find similar information on the internet, but, as my uni professors always said, one should use internet resources with some caution. Besides, I'm a bit of a luddite when it comes to books, I love to hold them, to feel the paper between my fingers, to smell the ink, all things that are not possible to do with e-books yet.
If you know of any books not included in this list that you have found of value, please post its title in a comment or email me. Happy researching.