How-to books have been around a long time. The first one I remember reading, a required reading assignment for high school sophomore English was How To Make Friends and Influence People. Afterward, no one begged me to let them be my friend claim that I had anything to do with their success, I'm pretty sure I applied absolutely nothing from that book to my real life. I just needed to know enough about it to pass the book test. A couple+ decades passed by before I picked up another How-To-er. For a book character, I wanted to learn about private detection work and the how-to book on that subject gave me very basic, easy to understand information.
Last week while at a large chain bookstore (maybe the ONLY one remaining in the USA), I meandered to the section of How-To books for writers thinking I'd get one on writing mysteries. I was stunned, stunned I tell you, to see that books about the craft of writing filled four rows of nearly half an aisle, eleven of them dedicated to writing mysteries. Paranormal, Erotic Romance, Bios, Humor, Horror, Children's Lit, YA, Fiction, Sci-Fi, Fantasy were also represented. A little something for just about anyone. It was like looking for my favorite brand of salsa at a grocery store I'm not familiar with. So many choices! I wound up choosing Writing Mysteries; Handbook by The Mystery Writers of America, edited by Sue Grafton, to use as a reference for an area of writing that is brand new to me. I'll let you know--many months from now--how that worked out for me. Or even better, I'll get that mystery published and you can find out for yourself!
In my secondhand bookshop, How-To books don't stay on the shelves long, especially those to do with home repairs and improvements. Some of my favorite non-household ones are: How-To... Talk to your kids so they will listen and listen when kids talk; Knit a Dog (I'm not kidding, this really is a book!); Lie With Statistics; Pay Zero Taxes; Think Like Leonardo da Vinci; How To Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace. (Frank Ahearn co-authored this one.I turned to his books when I wanted a crash course in skip tracing and then had the good fortune to meet him at a Florida Writer's Conference. Excellent resource and fantastic speaker)
How-Tos are like a community-ed course between book covers. They can never replace a face-to-face with an expert in the subject you're studying, but when you don't have access to an expert in say, How To Not Look Fat, How To Eat Like A Vegetarian Even If You Never Want To Be One, How To Yodel, or How to Run the World, they can be be resourceful alternatives.
Do you use how-to books as references for your writing? Any favorites?