Compare and contrast

This week, I’ve mainly been doing ‘secondary research’.

Primary research for a story is the stuff I need to swot up on in order to write the first draft. With a short story, this often comes down to finding out if the really great idea I’ve had is actually viable, and it’s often just a case of an afternoon spent trawling the net (how did we manage without it?). For a novel I’ll need additional, deeper investigations, often reading actual paper books. So far, my research for novels has been mainly for world-building, reading up on cultures and locations so I can file the serial numbers off and re-use them in twisted form. (For which I feel the vague guilt of the cultural tourist, though that doesn’t actually stop me.) Secondary research occurs after the first draft is complete, because I ended up writing about something interesting which I hadn’t foreseen and which I’ve winged in order to get the first draft finished, but which I now need to go back and examine in more detail before I can start the rewrite.

In this case, it’s sleep-states and dreams. A massive area, and a fascinating one. I could happily spend several weeks reading up on this, but writing to a deadline doesn’t allow such luxuries. So I picked two books more-or-less at random from the local library’s less than comprehensive selection, and got reading.

It turns out that whilst I haven’t got all the information I wanted (so another trip to a different library may be needed) I have managed to cover the spectrum of available treatments of the subject with just the two books.

Sleepfaring by Jim Horne is obviously aimed by its publishers at the desperate insomniac market, but is actually an up-to-date account of sleep science presented in layman’s terms. It’s given me the grounding I need to understand the processes of the sleeping mind (insofar as anyone understands them). Dreams, however, are dismissed in less than a page as little more than the by-products of random unconscious brain activity.  (In passing I’ve also discovered that women really do sleep longer than men – by about 20 minutes – that I am a ‘moderate evening type’ – which anyone who’s seen me in the morning already knows – and the bizarre origin of the word ‘hangover’ – apparently it’s derived from the unpleasant sleeping conditions in Victorian workhouses where the inmates slept sitting on benches with their arms draped over a taut rope (not sure I believe that one …)).

The second book is Principles of Dreams. Part of a series, so obviously I had to check for Principles of Angels in that series. Happily, no, at least not according to the list inside the front cover, though other books available do include Principles of Your Psychic Potential (uh-oh) and, more disturbingly, Principles of Colonic Irrigation (a whole book on enemas? WTF?). Any science in this book has been caught and shot. Rather than dreams being random electrical impulses, the author here claims that ‘dreams generally display a range of creativity and intelligence that most of us could not achieve even if we were to remain awake 100 years or more.’ So it seems that what I thought was a vague anxiety manifesting itself as a dream of finding myself lost in Tesco’s with no clothes on is actually deep cosmic wisdom. Righty-ho.

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