Dreams are a somewhat unfashionable trope in fiction. Perhaps it seems like a lazy shortcut into the subconscious of a character, so a lot of writers avoid them. Or maybe they are simply passé. It’s a truism, after all, that listening to other people’s dreams is boring – and not just in fiction.
But there is a certain irony here, because without dreams – waking dreams at least, reverie, and imagination – how would a novel ever be written?
Perhaps the most famous literary dream occurred near Lake Geneva in 1816, when after an evening of ghost stories, Mary Shelley’s imagination conjured up Frankenstein and his creature. Nightmares must lend themselves well to Gothic horror. In 1880, Bram Stoker wrote in his notes of a vivid fever-dream. His vision, of a vampire king rising from his tomb, was one of the sparks that lit the fuse for Dracula.
These dreams were merely catalysts. Frankenstein did not appear until 1818, while Dracula took seven long years to complete. Stoker engaged in extensive research, his notes show meticulous enquiry into history and folklore. The dreams may not have done the hard work, but they set something in motion. They altered the author’s thinking a little, or opened a door to some hidden vault.
This is all to say that I feel in good company when I admit that Dead Man Talking began with a dream. Or perhaps a nightmare, though not a conventional one. In it, I was immortal. But this was not a powerful or romantic immortality. It was just vaguely depressing. I don’t want to dwell on it – dreams are boring, after all – but I awoke with an intense memory of that feeling. It was a sensation of being alone, unutterably alone in a way that could never be shared. And somehow I knew the root of it all: the vampire-like condition that had caused this, and cast this dream-version of myself out of society and into damnation and darkness. What could be more Gothic than that? I’m sure Shelley and Stoker would agree. Straightaway it seemed like a great basis for a character, and the idea for a novel began to grow.
As with those giants of the genre, the dream was no more than a starting point. Writing a novel was still a considerable amount of work. I had to research. What does Transylvania look like? How does a shark hunt? What happens if you try to jump through a window? It was more than just putting flesh on the bones. But at least I had the bones. The legacy of the dream was a surprisingly intricate grasp of a completely made up condition. That certainly helped in conceiving, writing, revising and editing my story.
The other thing that helped was my daydreams. It’s a bit cliché to say I’d always dreamt of writing a novel, but the thought of completing it certainly sustained me. Imagining the closure, the cover, the launch event, the adulation and the movie adaptation… well, I’m dreaming again, but you get the picture. The dreams I had gave me the motivation to keep going.
So, there’s more than one way to dream. There are dreams we follow, the ones we use to scaffold our goals and ambitions. Then there are the nighttime sort, the neurological, psychological mysteries that we might choose to advance or ignore. And perhaps it’s helpful for authors at least to allow themselves to indulge in those, even if we deprive our characters from doing so…