Does the size of the Renaissance and Reformation Bibliography make your eyes roll up into your head? We're providing this as a guide to a few, reliable, accurate books covering many areas and eras to help you decide if your idea is even workable, while keeping you out of the clutches of cutsey Everyday Life for Nice Children authors, scholars whose prose needs a chain-saw pruning of jargon, or various half-baked cranks. Then, once you've homed in better on a period, you can hit the heavy lists.
Naturally, these consist of the books or authors you will see repeated throughout the bibliographies.
YOU HATED HISTORY CLASSES, BUT YOU LOVE HISTORICAL NOVELS Education is not what it used to be, if it ever was. Many of us here are largely autodidacts, who have studied history from sheer lust for knowledge, when you were watching TV, going to parties, or keeping up on the family gossip out to the unmarried third cousins. Reader's Digest Books publishes Everyday Life Through the Ages as an adult's introduction to the differences between now and then, from cavemen through the 20th century. Do not commit to memory: your later, more specialized research will often give a rather different view. Its researchers give popular versions of history, which are not always accurate versions, but it's close enough to get you grounded, and probably better than your high school textbooks.
FOR HISTORICAL OVERVIEW: Start with the multi-volume encyclopedia -- Britannica (now published in the US), Americana, Colliers, Funk and Wagnalls, whatever. Many have a summary article for a century: Eighteenth Century under E, Ninth Century after Nineteenth. If you want to check out a particular area for that century, or know you want to be in France to use that castle plan you found, but might be in any of three centuries, go to the history section under the national name entry.
Reading these articles will be the equivalent of a 50-page history book for adults, which you can never find between covers otherwise.
Encyclopedias can also provide your basics in topics like language, Medieval armor, seige engines, maps, battles, and thumbnail biographies.
FOR A FIRST HISTORY BOOK: An extremely reliable series, very pictorial, fairly slim, but atlas sized, is The Atlas of Civilization. Some volumes -- The World of Classical Greece, The World of Ancient Egypt, The World of the Vikings -- are culture specific, though often covering centuries. Others like The Cultural Atlas of China (or France or Africa or Russia), take the area up from the earliest hominid remains. They have migrated in American publication from Time-Life to Facts On File. These also provide your inevitable need for good maps.
From about 600 BC to 1815 CE, you can get good detail for most of Europe from the book series, The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. Yeah, there's an earlier volume, "Our Oriental Heritage," about Mesopotamia and such, but it has gotten badly out of date. For that area, read Roux's Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia and Ancient Persian Gulf bibliographies) before the Durants. Durant and Roux provide line maps.
However, while Durant is good on philosophers and philosophy, and in the modern period, in earlier volumes do not memorize what he has to say about culture. He is working off third-hand Victorianisms.
FOR MILITARY HISTORY: For the art of war, 550 BC to 1820 CE or so, we always recommend Delbrueck (see the bibliographies), who covers why European armies are how they are at different periods. Especially recommended if you are thinking of working in the Middle Ages: wars were armoured gang rumbles, not the maneuvring of cavalry that you may be imagining for knights; and they did not charge at the gallop, an anachronism of the nineteenth century. However, he does not cover all battles, only those which illustrate development.
For a chronology of battles, try David Eggenberger's An Encyclopedia of Battles: Accounts of Over 1560 battles from 1479 BC to the Present (1985, Dover Publications).
FOR COSTUME: Some people can identify with men in tights or bedsheets, and some can't. Maybe you want chain armour rather than plate, or vice-versa, or need or must avoid swords on the hip. See the review on costuming lap-breakers (big ol' books). Flipping through one of the better ones may help you zero in on the period you want, or at least the ones you can't take seriously. We are used to having Kohler or Boucher around.
FOR NAMES: In various times and places, gender-mistakes on names can be easier, or virtually impossible. In most of history, family names have been absent or mutable. The three parts of a Chinese name are very different from those of a Classical Roman name, though both cultures are very rule-bound. Maybe your plot idea turns on a character's name's meaning. For accurate information, you will want Ingraham's People's Names (see any bibliography for the arm-long title) which began life as How to Name the Character and retains much of its fiction orientation. Unlike most other name books, she covers family as well as personal names, gendering names, and a slew of other odd material that she caught as it went by in research. All others are specialist as to culture or period, or don't cover family names and their rules to speak of.
Modern baby-name books are a very bad source for historical novelists. They give only contemporary English-American usage of the most modern forms. For example, "Louis" is listed as of Germanic origin, but in the court of the Merovingian kings the name was unknown: the ancestral, Frankish form was "Chlodwig," and King Merovee (modern French rendering) was Merowig. Equally, "Seraphine" may be listed as French, but you won't find it on anyone born much before the reign of Napoleon.
FOR FOOD AND DINING: The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking Through the Ages by Hale, is in most of the bibliographies, including the Asian. The two-volume set has the history in one, the recipes in the other, which makes volume 2 handier in the kitchen. The one-volume version is FAT.
TRANSPORTATION: Peter Bray's Transport Through the Ages (Taplinger, 1971) will cover a lot. Nock's Encyclopedia of Railroads will get you through from the dawn to the twilight of passenger trains. Carriages were really only in use from the early 1700's to the early 1900's, though earlier they were used for short-haul, in-town, ceremonial use only: find their reference in the proper places, especially Lazslo Tarr's History of the Carriage for the early periods and James Arnold's All Drawn by Horses for wagons as well.
There are so many specialist books on aircraft, it is difficult to find one general one. If you are writing about warplanes, you will simply have to sit down and slog, and find out which units were flying what planes. For what your civilians ride in, Airliners by Robert Wall is extremely good for America and Europe
Ships are another area so specialist that a general book is hard to pick. Many emphasize the Great Age of Sail, which some hold to be that of the 19th century clippers, or others put a century earlier. The earliest periods are most ignored, not because the vessels were "too simple," but because information is not easily available. Check websites on "underwater archeology" for reclaimed early vessels. Attilio Cucari's Sailing Ships, illustrated copiously by Guido Canestrari, will do to ground you.
The mass available on cars will make you crazy. Try The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Automobile and its sister, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Motorcycle. The articles are concise, but accurate, on every brand to breathe, however briefly. You can always check the microfilm issues of Popular Mechanics for your years.
MEDICINE AND SURGERY: The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World by Guido Majno, MD, will take you from before Sumeria through the Middle Ages, including India and China. After that, look in the encyclopedia under Medicine, History of. The encyclopedias are always terribly weak in the early period, except to brush over Hippocrates like an out-of-place titan, when he was really no better (and perhaps worse) informed than an Egyptian of his time (but he's had good press).
If you need something more specific than this, or when you've used these, you do need to hit the bibliographies and just cruise.