I have a question, and my guess is you’ll know the answer. Who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic? If you said Charles Lindbergh, then step to the front of the class.
Now, who was the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic? That question isn’t as easy to answer, which is my point.
A key lesson in the writing business (or any other, for that matter) is to be first. If you want your story to stand out and connect with editors—and ultimately, readers—don’t look at what’s on the bestseller lists today. Instead of following a current trend, identify a new one. You want to have written the Harry Potter books, not one of their many imitations. Learn to recognize incipient trends and incorporate them into your fiction or you’ll be playing a constant game of catch-up.
So where and how do you find trends in the making? The evidence is all around you. It tends to show up first in mass media because these are the vehicles that reveal what people are thinking and feeling—our shared desires.
Here are seven clues to help you start your research.
1. WHAT’S HAPPENING IN ENGLAND?
Trends in North America often begin “across the pond.” Some of the most popular TV series in England have subsequently become successful programs in the United States, from “American Idol” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to “Antiques Road Show” and “The Office.” Here’s another example: So-called “category” or “series” romance novels were first published in England by Mills & Boon—a company later bought by a Canadian publisher named Harlequin Enterprises. English readers devoured these romances years before they found their way to our shores. For a more recent example, look at chick-lit, which arguably began with the work of British writer Helen Fielding, author of the Bridget Jones stories. It’s a trend that’s run its course, but what comes next? Try to keep abreast of new and upcoming British fiction, nonfiction and, of course, TV—and try to identify what interests they reflect.
Take a close look at the series premiering every September. Make a list of these new shows and keep track of them. Which are the most successful? Are there any consistent themes? Do a number of programs focus on a certain aspect of American culture? Watch for little-known shows that become surprise hits, such as “World Poker Tour” or “Trading Spaces.” And who would’ve believed the Food Network would take off? The chefs have become celebrities in their own rights, with magazines, bestselling cookbooks and even memoirs and talk shows. Each new program shows us something that’s important in our culture right now—something that could be the early stages of a trend, one that hasn’t yet begun to appear in popular fiction. Look, too, at the shows that are continuing long and successful runs, from “Law and Order” to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” In fact, make note of what Oprah’s talking about at any given time, what causes she’s espousing and what issues she’s scrutinizing. Long-running shows tell us a lot about people’s enduring interests and concerns—and how they evolve over the years.
Study the movies Hollywood has chosen to develop, especially ones that have become unexpectedly popular. And keep an eye on the classics that are being reissued on DVD. Pay attention to the remakes of old movies and television series turned into movies, such as “Bewitched.” Consider what that says about the appeal of “oldies but goodies.” As the baby boomers age, there’s a definite nostalgia for simpler, happier times (even if those simpler, happier times existed only in our imaginations or on our TV screens). Also, use industry magazines and websites to learn about movies already in production or slated to be produced. These sources will show what trends producers and studios are betting on.
People often ask how I came up with the idea for Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, the three angels in one of my book series. Well, I read Psalm 23 that morning, but that’s only part of the story. I’d been flipping through catalogs and was astonished by the number of angel figurines, yet I’d seen virtually no recent popular fiction with angels. Detecting trends is a matter of finding repetition in everyday places, such as catalogs, magazines and talk shows. I’d seen the angel merchandise, then happened to read that psalm (“Surely goodness and mercy … ”) and my story suddenly fell into place. The key to using catalogs is to identify items that pop up frequently. Try to figure out why they’re there and what emotional needs they meet. If you’re casually tossing away catalogs, you might be junking a golden opportunity.
I love it when I’m at the salon, in a waiting room at the doctor’s office or even in line at the supermarket. This doesn’t have to be wasted time. Think of it as a chance to do some trend watching. One of my guilty pleasures is the gossip magazines. People in the public eye—and those who want to be—regularly turn up on the pages. We learn what celebrities are wearing, who they’re dating, what scandals they’re entangled in and what their passions and pastimes are. How can you glean story ideas from the activities of movie stars? If you keep seeing the same things, whether it’s some worthy cause or the latest approach to fitness, you’re probably observing a trend, and it may be something you can take advantage of in your writing. Examine any new magazines hitting the shelves and note their subject matter. I’m a longtime knitter, but when I noticed how many knitting magazines were out there, I came up with the idea of using a yarn store as the basis for my next series, starting with The Shop on Blossom Street. (A Good Yarn, the second book in the Blossom Street series, became my first New York Times bestselling hardcover.) Browsing your local chain bookstores, with their huge magazine selections, will give you a chance to view a large spectrum of publications. Study each type, buy several and see what you can discern about emerging trends.
6. THE NEWS
This one’s obvious but worth mentioning. Stories that are ripped from the headlines can have a real advantage because people are already interested in them. Look for stories that have a strong human element, engage the public emotionally and involve months of ongoing interest. You shouldn’t simply retell a particular news story, but rather recognize the inherent potential within it. Combine that idea with other background information you’ve accumulated and characters you’ve created. Work the news!
7. THE INTERNET
Blogs, MySpace and YouTube, to name a few, are all sources of potential trends. Check out which postings are especially popular and see what you can discover from those. (As a side note, pay attention to the paid advertisements that pop up on the page when you log in.) An example is a website that lets you link up with high school friends or “find the perfect match.” The popular use of technological innovations is a trend in its own right. You could base a plot on that, or you could glean a social trend from the actual content.
I’ve given you seven suggestions for identifying trends that you can exploit to create dynamic and salable fiction. The best way to unlock new trends, though, is to keep your eyes open and observe the interests of others—particularly interests that are new and growing. Pay attention to the preoccupations and concerns revealed by mass media. Interpret what you’ve observed and figure out what it means, what needs it meets or expresses, and how you can use that in your story. Look for new trends and leap on them.
By the way, the name of the second man to fly solo across the Atlantic is Bert Hinkler. He was a better pilot, he chose a better route, flew faster and consumed less fuel, but he remains an obscure figure. Don’t be a Bert.