Saturday, December 08, 2007

What I Learned From Reading Fiction

When I was a teenager, I learned an awful lot of British history from reading Mary Renault, Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Catherine Gaskin. I also learned about shipping dynasties and Cornwall mining from Winston Graham. I started reading fantasy based on the Arthurian story when I discovered Mary Stewart, and who wasn't introduced to dragons via Anne McCaffrey? Of course, my passion for crime writing started early too. I had a teacher at high school who offloaded her old books onto me (thanks forever, Kay) and my early reading included Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain and Raymond Chandler. If you still like reading those books and want more, the Goldfields Library has a great page of "If you like this writer, other writers like this are..."

These days, we are often expected to read nonfiction if we want "reliable" information, yet I know many fiction writers who research their material just as deeply as nonfiction writers do. I commented recently on a book by William Dietrich about Attilla the Hun. While I was away, I read a crime novel by Barry Maitland - Silvermeadow. It told me a huge amount about modern shopping centres or malls, how and why they are constructed (leading to demise of the high street shops) and the theory behind them.

Silvermeadow is a fictional shopping centre that could be any huge centre near you. There is quite a bit of information about the Gruen transfer theory, and the following is from Wikipedia:

In shopping mall design, the Gruen transfer refers to the moment when consumers respond to "scripted disorientation" cues in the environment. It is named for Austrian architect Victor Gruen (who disavowed such manipulative techniques) and lately popularized by Douglas Rushkoff.
The consumer's decision-making consciousness subsides and he or she is more likely to make an impulse purchase because of unconscious influences of lighting, ambient sound and music, spatial choices, visual detail, mirrored and polished surfaces, climate control, and the sequence and order of interior storefronts, etc.
The effect is marked by a slower walking pace and glazed eyes.

Being a crime novel, of course there is a murder and a body found in the rubbish compactor at the back of the centre, but the information in there about how huge shopping centres are designed to be like little cities, with everything planned to lull people into a sense of wellbeing so that they give in to impulse buying ... well, it sure made me think twice about what I do when I go into one! This is the kind of thing that fiction does so well. By creating characters you care about, you also become interested in the information they discover along the way.

As writers, we have to avoid info dumps and shovelling in huge dollops of the factual material we slaved so hard to discover in order to make our stories "real". But by giving the info through the character, having a character who needs to find out this stuff, it makes the job easier.

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