Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tipping...



I guess I'm a prime example of what Malcolm Gladwell is talking about in his book, The Tipping Point. I've had the book on my shelves for what seems like years but it was only when I read about it recently here that I opened it. We are all waiting for the right kind of information so that we can act. When that information comes at the same time to a lot of us, then that's how something becomes a phenomenon. But it needs to be the right information, and it needs to come from the right source.

Phenomenons generally interest me, so in my latest novel I have a character who works in trend forecasting. Mind you, her job is a relatively small part of the plot - in fact, it hardly forms any part - so it comes back to that old question of just how much research you need to do in all the different aspects of your novel. I do know a little about trend forecasting but do I need to become an expert? My worry is that the more I get interested in the small details, and go off on tangents, the more messier the book will become as I try to fit EVERYTHING in.

But that's a worry I'm trying to hold over until the editing process when I work out what can stay in and what needs to be lopped off. (And, look, this post has just gone off at a tangent.)

Gladwell's book is interesting from another point of view. When I worked in PR, trend forecasting was part of my remit. I was working with high-fashion, quick-moving consumer products so I always needed to know what was coming next. Actually going out and just walking round the shops was part of the job, as jammy as that sounds now. Reading The Tipping Point reminds me of that time, and I started to think how I could apply it to my writing process. It's certainly easy to spend too long isolated at the desk and not enough going out and seeing what's happening in real life. But part of Malcolm Gladwell's thesis is that it's the small things that make the difference. So yes, it's important that my big plot lines are working and my structure is in place, but at the end of the day, it's just as likely to be the way my character unfolds and folds his handkerchief - as I watched a man do several times yesterday - that readers will remember and that give a reality to my bigger picture. Particularly when, for example, I'm trying to build up an obsessional character. So my walking round the shops yesterday has meant that the hanky folding entered the novel last night and fits perfectly - strange though how that man will never know his little habit has been captured in just this way!

One section of The Tipping Point sent shivers down my spine. It's about an experiment which involved 59 couples who had been dating for three months, until, and I quote: 'Half the couples were allowed to stay together, and half were split up, and given a new partner whom they didn't know.' (that was the first shiver - who would join in such an experiment - didn't they mind having to split up!!) Anyway, all the couples - new and old - were then given 64 statements along the lines of 'Midori is a Japanese melon liqueur' each of which had one word underlined. (second shiver - I use to handle the PR for Midori but lets not go off on that tangent).

The couples were allowed to look at these statements for five minutes and then as a pair had to write down as many as they could. The pairs who knew each other remembered substantially more items than those who had the new partners. (oooh, BIG shiver.)

The conclusion is that when people know each other well, they create a joint memory system - based on who is best suited to remember what kind of things.

I'm tremendously excited about this. Just think of the story potential here if we're writing about relationships.

Apparently it's the loss of this kind of memory that makes divorce and presumably widowhood so painful. We lose the 'storage' we've had in our partner. Not just their physical presence, but half our memories have gone.

Given that I'm writing about old people, nearly all of whom have lost their partners, this is the kind of idea which sends me immediately back to the page. I do remember reading that in married couples it is the woman who holds many of the family stories for the next generation, I just hadn't pictured it so effectively as some kind of filing cabinet before.

It's exactly what Gladwell is talking about - we can do something completely different - like, for me, reading a business book - and start to make connections with our work. I find this the most exciting thing of all. Getting inspiration from just everywhere and seeing where the different routes will take me. Heck, it's even quite cool.

5 comments:

jem said...

I totally agree with your closing sentiments. I like to throw my net far and wide for inspiration. I like reading non-fiction that takes me into areas I might not otherwise go. I'm particularly fond of pop.science books (about sleep, death, poisons to name but a few I've read). They often have little facts, ideas or images that stick with you and can be imaginized into your fiction.

Sarah Salway said...

Exactly. I've come across a magazine recently called American Mind (you can get it at the newsagents at Charing Cross) and it's brilliant for all this.

Anonymous Bosch said...

I just finished reading Leading the Dance and enjoyed it very much .
It had the same hold over me as reading Ian McEwans First Love, Last Rites. I couldn't put it down and didn't want it to end.

Sarah Salway said...

Wow, thank you, anonymous. THat's high praise indeed.

Clare Sudbery said...

Ooh yes, fascinating stuff, and I so know what you mean about you wanting to include stuff in your books just cos it's interesting or cos you found it out, and the book getting bloated as a result...

I've gone the other way this time, not making any lists of stuff I want to include in the book like I have done before, but now I'm paranoid it has no substance...