I like to write and I'm always conjuring story ideas. I pull ideas from real-life experiences or simply imagine scenarios and ask myself "what if?" questions about them. But it's said that truth is stranger than fiction, and I have to agree.
A few years ago, while driving my usual route home from work, I had a "what if?" moment when I reached the exit ramp. It's a circular ramp, which is common in Michigan. There are no trees or thick bushes in the center of this particular ramp. You can tell it's somewhat marshy because there are cattails standing behind tall grasses, but there's nothing eerie or unusual about the area. When I drove by that day, I started thinking "what if a body was lying in there" somewhere beyond the center of that circular ramp, hidden beneath all the cattails and tall grasses?
The next step in my head was to try to figure out why it would be there. Nothing I could pull together made sense. A murder story didn't sound right; no murderer would dump a body there. It's too public, too open. (Yes, fiction writers can have macabre imaginations.) I never even considered any sort of accident story. It's a freeway, after all. If there'd been an accident, someone would notice. It was a bad idea for a plotline, pure and simple. There was no story to be found there. So I put it out of my mind, forgetting all about it by the time I got home.
But I had the same thought when I drove past that same spot the next day. And then the day after that. This happened time and again. Day after day I drove by with the same thought striking me. All I had to do was drive onto that ramp and it was like someone flipped a switch to put that idea into my head again.
After several months of this, I was driving home as usual one day and started to anticipate exiting when I saw flashing lights. My exit ramp was blocked by police cars and a very large black van. As I drew closer, I saw the words "mobile command unit" painted on the side of the van. I hadn't reached the exit yet, so my "idea switch" hadn't triggered. My first thought was that maybe there had been an escape from the small prison up the road. But my first thought was very wrong.
Yes, you've guessed it. Someone had found a body. I learned on the news the next day that a worker cutting down some of those tall grasses and cattails found skeletal remains right where I'd imagined a body might be hidden. Eventually, the news reported they'd been the remains of a man who'd gone missing the previous winter. He'd abandoned his broken down car on the freeway during a snow storm. How he ended up in that particular spot remains a mystery, but when he reached it, he collapsed. It wasn't long before he became covered by snow. As winter turned to spring, the snow melted but the cattails continued to shield him. Then came summer, and...well, eventually the worker found him.
Had his ghost been shouting at me all those days, desperate to get discovered so he could finally be put to rest? Was I the only one who heard without knowing how to listen? And if so, why me? I have never been sensitive to ghostly presences. Sometimes I think I don't sense ghosts because I was introduced to their existence from the womb--I was conceived and raised in a haunted house. Other times I think my active imagination holds the key, and I just need to figure out the difference between true imagination and ghostly whispers planting thoughts in my head. Often when I'm writing it's almost as though I'm channeling the words. After I've produced some of my best work, I tend to stare at the words in amazement, wondering how on earth I came up with them. A recent example involves a poem in which I used phrases like: "milked from the moon" and "minnows swimming skyward."
With all that said, I wish I *could* hear ghosts, at least when they need for me to. I feel terrible about ignoring that poor ghost when he'd been trying so hard to get me to hear him.
By the way... That particular "idea switch" never did turn on again after that day with the police cars and mobile command unit. Now the exit ramp is just another exit ramp.