The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Anything obscure in your novel? Consider a glossary.

Books written in dialect, say Doric Scots, often include a glossary of words, meanings and pronunciations, in the front if it’s short and in the back if it’s long. One of my novels referred used words pertaining to flax and making flax linen, so I included a glossary of weaving terms in the back.

My more recent “Conjure Woman’s Cat” not only used conjure terms, but was filled with references to old-time blues, boogie woogie and jazz of the 1930s-1950s. I didn’t think a lot of modern readers would be familiar with all of that, so again, I created another glossary about performers, songs and root worker spells.

As I write this, I’m listening to the blues of Ida Goodson, a performer I mentioned often in “Conjure Woman’s Cat” Unless you’re deep into blues, you probably don’t know who that is. I didn’t think my readers would either. So here’s a sample glossary entry, one that doesn’t sound like it came out of a doctoral dissertation:


The last thing one wants to do with a highly readable novel is making the giving the reader think it’s going to be hard to read by including footnotes, appendices, tables charts and grafts. Even a glossary can be off-putting if it looks long or technical.

I like keeping the alphabetized entries short and written in the same style a feature writer might use in a popular magazine or web site. Make sure the glossary is included in the table of contents so people know it’s there. You can even mention it in an author’s note in the front of the book.

In one of my audio books, the narrator read the glossary; in another one, she didn’t. I don’t mind the glossary being part of the audiobook, yet it’s not as useful since an audiobook is linear and people either won’t hear it until after they’ve finished the book or–should they discover it–it won’t be easy to flip back and forth between the story and the entries like you can in a paperback or e-book.

Most books don’t need glossaries. But if you book does, it’s an extra bit of effort that many of your readers will appreciate. Those who need it will like it; those who don’t can ignore it.

It might even be an additional selling point in the books B&N and Amazon descriptions and in your other promotional materials.


You can visit my website here.


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