What We See

by Sheila Connolly

I somehow find myself writing a paranormal romance/mystery series about people who see their dead ancestors. Not everyone in the stories, and not all the time. They don’t see random departed strangers either—only people who are direct lineal ancestors. Like me, my characters have a whole lot of them scattered all over Massachusetts, so it keeps happening. Sometimes it’s unexpected, and sometimes they go looking. They’re still learning how the whole thing works.

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One problem, though (for me, not for them): when I started this series, I thought it would be a single book. My main character Abby Kimball discovers this unusual ability of hers after she moves to Massachusetts, but it’s a big surprise to her, and she doesn’t understand it. Even by the end of the book, she’s still pretty clueless. How handy for me: I didn’t have to explain what was happening to her.

Oops, the series kind of grew, and the fourth book is coming out shortly. Maybe readers don’t care if they don’t know the nuts and bolts of what Abby is experiencing. But I want it to make sense, and I want to play fair with the readers. I mean, as a writer I feel it’s cheating to just pop in a new psychic ability because it’s convenient to the plot. And I also have to make this phenomenon consistent from one book to the next. That means I have to understand what’s going on.

Oh, right, it’s not real. Or is it? There are plenty of reports on psychic sightings, and plenty of people who dismiss them as hysterical or false. That’s kind of interesting. There are supposed pictures of spirits, but then, images are pretty easy to manipulate (more so now than ever). There are television programs where ghost hunters wander around with electronic devices muttering things like “there’s some significant energy here” but are they for real? Does anybody really know? Or are they just giving us an hour’s entertainment?

I’ll admit up front that I have never seen a ghost or a spirit or a reincarnation or whatever you want to call it. I’d like to. I’ve visited places where I’ve felt that there was something unseen going on, but I can’t prove it. I’ve had extraordinary luck tracking down my own ancestors (for genealogy purposes), so much so that I’d like to think that maybe they want to be found and they’re lending an unseen hand. But try to prove that (I’ll be happy to provide a list of those coincidences if you’re interested)!

So all this leads to thinking about things like how we humans, and maybe more important, how other animals “see” things. Dogs can smell scents in minute amounts, far more than we can. Heck, a vulture a couple of hundred feet in the air can smell carrion on the ground below. Cats can see better in the dark than we can. Some animals are said to sense a coming earthquake, which isn’t mystical but is more likely based on sensing tiny tremors or changes in energy that humans miss.

And what about the things humans can’t see? Take color-blindness: some people are physiologically unable to perceive certain colors. We can prove scientifically that infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths exist—but we can’t see them. But some insects and birds can. Dog whistles are inaudible to human ears, but dogs hear them.

And don’t even get me started on dark matter, which is a hypothetical kind of matter that cannot be seen with telescopes but may account for most of the matter in the universe. The existence and properties of dark matter are inferred from its gravitational effects on visible matter, on radiation, and on the large-scale structure of the universe. Dark matter has not been detected directly, making it one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Just this past week, the Boston Globe published an article by Lisa Randall, who has written a book titled Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. In the article she says that the goal of her book “was to illuminate the gap between our limited observations and the many barely perceived phenomena that permeate out reality.” Hooray! I am not alone in wondering about the things we cannot see.

So it is that big a jump to believe that there is some lingering imprint or energy from people who have gone before? Okay, let’s assume they don’t show up fully dressed in clothing of the right period, and start a conversation with whoever is seeing them. But what if we perceive or sense something vague, and our mind adds the details to make those whatever-they-ares more understandable to us?

Four books into this series which wasn’t going to be a series, my protagonist Abigail Kimball is still trying to understand, with the help of a few other people (and now a kitten). In the next book (what? There’s going to be a fifth?) I want my characters to take a look at the science. They may not find answers, but at least they’ll learn something.

A 2013 Harris Poll showed that 42% of Americans believe in ghosts. How about you? Have you ever seen anything you can’t explain? Or felt something odd, without any reason? Don’t worry—I’ll believe you.


Watch for the Dead

The fourth book in the Relatively Dead series, Watch for the Dead, will be released this week, as soon as we get it uploaded.





23 Thoughts

  1. Sheila–Love the premise of ancestor-ghosts! Yes, I’ve seen a real ghost. We lived in a house in Gloucester, MA which was certainly haunted by a previous owner. My kids saw him first, and I chalked it up to nightmares, imagination, etc. That was before he visited me. Full apparition. Solid looking. I found later that my cute house had been built on the foundation of one which had burned down–killing the two people who lived there. In my Witch City books, Lee is a reluctant scryer, seeing scenes of past, present or future in shiny objects. She is still seeing them in book four, and still doesn’t enjoy the “gift” much although she’s learning to use it. I like the way Carolyn Haines has her heroine Sarah Booth interact with her “ghost” in her series. My TBR pile is enormous but I’ll add the Relatively Dead series for sure!

    1. I am so jealous! The house I use for the Orchard Mysteries was built by an ancestor and was for a time a B&B. A former guest reported seeing a woman in her bedroom. I’ve stayed in that same bedroom, but I didn’t get a ghost visit.

  2. Very interesting! When my daughter was three we were in the hall of our home in San Pedro, CA. I was kneeling down hugging her. She looked over her shoulder and said, “There’s a monster behind you.” I turned slowly but didn’t see anything. I’m still convinced she did. I guess that puts me in the believer column!

    1. I read the whole Mary Poppins series when I was a child, and one book (I forget which) included something that I’ve always remembered: the Darling twins were infants in the story, but they could communicate with birds and animals and each other. And if I have it right, Mary Poppins told the older children that babies lose this ability as they grow up–I think they’ve even started by the end of that book. So I believe that children see a lot more than we give them credit for, but that ability gets “socialized” out of them as they grow older and meet more people.

  3. Happy release, Sheila. I read the first book and loved it but have fallen behind on the rest. A cool couple who are professional ghost hunters spoke at Magna Cum Murder this weekend. Sounds interesting to encounter spirits, and I’ve lived in enough houses to, but I think I haven’t let myself open to them because I thought it would be terrifying. I’m starting to rethink that!

    1. My general theory is that those who are dead can’t harm us (unless we let them scare us). I’m always happy when I visit a cemetery, because I think the departed are glad to have visitors.

      Once I was in Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn, looking for one ancestor there. Found him, then started looking for the only other one I knew might be there. Of course I didn’t have a map or anything, and didn’t want to ask the manager, if there was one on site. So I just drove around until I found my great-great-grandfather’s tombstone, which was right next to the road. But then I looked up and realized that there were literally around twenty other tombstones from his family and his wife’s, all ancestors of mine, all in the same plot. Tell me there was no ancestral magnetism going on there–they wanted me to find them.

  4. I don’t believe in ghosts, but many people believe our house in Boothbay Harbor has one. One night, we had a house full of family and Bill, the dog, and I had to sleep in the “haunted” bedroom. The dog paced and whined all night, to the point where no one got any sleep. Finally, we let him out into the hallway where he flopped down and immediately went to sleep. I still maintain there were squirrels in the walls, though no evidence of this was ever found. Others maintain…otherwise.

    1. Our last house had squirrels in the walls. Not the same. I never thought that one was haunted because it had had so many prior owners that none of them ever had time to leave a mark. This one? I’m still not sure, although I think there were family conflicts along the way. I’ve never lived in a colonial-era house, and the odds might be better there.

  5. You can add me to the non-believer in ghosts category. I generally avoid things that feature ghosts, too. I have one or two exceptions, but very few.

    1. I won’t hold it against you (or snub you at Crime Bake!). I’ve never been a woo-woo type of person, and I like explanations. But I do keep finding these odd coincidences in my life. I’d agree that sitting down and holding a conversation with a ghost seems unlikely–that would imply an active intelligence and participation on the ghost’s part, rather than only a lingering residue. See? That’s why I keep trying to create rules.

  6. We had an extraordinary amount of deaths in our family. 12 in a short time. As a result we do have spirits watching over us and I even have a spirit in my car who protects me and has saved me many times. The spirits are around us and a part of our daily lives. I feel sorry for those who do not believe as they are missing out. People that are blocked are missing out on their spirit guides and their ghosts. Currently I live in a 1940s house that has a very friendly spirit!

  7. I especially enjoyed this topic, Shelia. How neat that your book unexpectedly turned into a series! I don’t have any ghost stories to tell, but I do believe in communication with Spirit. My second book features a medium, and recently I attended an event featuring “Monica the Medium,” a 21-year-old college student who delivered healing messages to many in the audience. She has a show on ABC Family. I understand people’s skepticism. If I hadn’t had so many positive, personal experiences beyond current scientific understanding, I might be a skeptic too. Best wishes with the series. 🙂

  8. My grandmother was very much into spirits, and later in her life she attended regular sessions with what we all referred to as her Swami (which was probably a derogatory term). Oddly enough, she never forced her views on anyone else in the family. But she was convinced that various other members of the family had been with her in past lives (I think I was there for her 18th century French court adventure). She used a doll as her go-between. I don’t think I believed any of it, but I didn’t argue with her. She and my mother both told fortunes for their friends with cards (a regular deck, not Tarot), but only rarely. So I guess the idea has always lurked in my head, and only now is it coming out.

  9. I love this series. I have to admit it, but I read it in secret lest others discover my beliefs. Hum,,,, I guess I just outed myself there. Anyway, my psychic experiences go back to childhood, and I have always seen auras, and can feel the others when I touch certain people. Strange? Maybe, but it’s not a gift I’ve asked for, nor one I can use for myself. I like the way you describe it in your books. Very true to my experiences.

    1. I’m probably going to get myself in real trouble if I try to deal with the science (and the genetics) of the phenomena, but it’s been in the back of my head since I have one of my characters in the series his own DNA analysis company (he got in before the CSI boom).

      There was an interesting article in the Boston Globe this past week involving the importance of human touch. It began with the example of the Dalai Lama, who really seems to have a gift for it (and a sense of humor as well!).

  10. I also love this series! I’ve had a few experiences of the benign kind (at least one was probably just a waking dream, the others, both visual and auditory, I was wide awake). And one experience of a bad kind, which is why I have never touched a Ouija board since and will never do so again. And Sheila, I have had a similar experience as you in the Ancestor Magnetism department. My family and I were visiting Plymouth MA a few years ago, and we just started driving, looking around. We ended up at White Horse Cemetery/Burial Hill in Manomet, without consciously looking for it. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&CRid=91861 It turned out to full of my several generations of my ancient Bartlett and other ancestors (maybe some of yours too!). Sheila and I, like most people with deep New England roots, are distant cousins 🙂

    1. Oddly enough I’ve been researching my Bartletts this week–but mine not the Plymouth bunch, but some others who arrived early and ended up in Newton (Cambridge–>Newtown). Although they could have been related back in England. I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t think I’ve ever visited the White Horse Hill cemetery. Add it to the to-do list!

  11. I’ve never seen a ghost, to my knowledge, but I did have a strange experience once that was maybe astral projection. I was finishing up college and living about 100 miles from my parents. One morning, about 2 AM, I woke up because my bed was shaking. My mother was standing at the foot of it saying “wake up, I need you.” I finally went back to sleep. About 7 AM I got a phone call from my mother telling me that at 2 AM she’d had to take my father to the ER with a kidney stone (Cue theme from “The Twilight Zone”).

    1. If we’re happy to accept radio and television transmissions and radar waves, why shouldn’t we believe someone can send an unseen signal, particularly under great stress? I hope your father was fine. Did you ever mention the event to your mother?

      1. He was fine after a couple of very miserable days. I never mentioned it to Mom, because she was a very straightlaced, staunch, conservative Christian who thought that any questions about or interest in the “occult” was a straight path to Hell. She was never very sure why the Bible even mentioned witches.

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