When author Nicholas Griffin started to write his first historical novel, he wanted to bring as much authenticity to the story as possible. It was important to him, especially because the story was inspired by an ancestor whom Griffin has learned was a pirate.
The book itself, The Requiem Shark, was based on the final voyage of Black Bart, the most successful captain in the history of piracy. The story is told by a pampered young Welshman, William Williams, who was forced into service.
The book was well received, but the story behind it is equally fascinating. Griffin never meant to write a novel. His father had simply asked him to research a pirate who he felt disgraced the family in the early 18th century. That man was Phineas Bunch.
“In a way, maybe this was the easiest way to start off a career in writing. So much of the plot belonged to the records that I knew I couldn’t go too far adrift,” says Griffin. “The downside, of course, is that you’re writing about pirates. By which, I mean everyone you know thinks they know a thing or two about pirates, having worn a patch sometimes as a child.”
In order to make the story fly, Griffin set out to do something few people do before writing a book. He didn’t just research the settings and his ancestors, he signed on to spend some time aboard a replica 18th century sailing vessel in the Caribbean.
Naturally, Griffin wasn’t aboard a pirate ship, but having a copy of Black Bart’s diary and a little imagination made all the difference. Griffin learned what it might have been like looking for dolphins swimming under the bowsprit, tending the sails, catching wind as the canvas billows overhead, and pulling into the port of one tiny island after the next. It was the experience of a lifetime.
Reconnecting Family History With Firsthand Experience.
While I haven’t come across any pirates in my family lineage, I was fortunate enough to share a few experiences of my ancestors. I used to spend some summers at a family lake cottage in northern Wisconsin before it was eventually sold, so I have a better idea than most.
On a near daily basis, my grandfather would take me out “minnowing” at hidden streams, fishing in spots no one else seemed to know, and berry picking along the best spots on the paths well off the main roads. He did other things too, like drawing sap from trees to make homemade maple syrup. But I never had a chance to learn about them all.
His grandfather had taught him many of these life lessons, connections that span several generations. They weren’t random activities either, but skill sets that connected to something else, even when the intent was unspoken. He didn’t learn these things for recreation like I did. He needed to learn them so his family could hold on to a few things during the Great Depression. So they fished, hunted, picked berries, and kept a garden.
Looking back in time, I might find other activities or experiences too. For example, my brother-in-law decided to try an ancestral experience a few years ago. Being part Native American, he decided to find out if he could shoot a bow and arrow.
In the short span of a few short months, his natural affinity for the sport (and genetic 20/10 vision) quickly put him on the leader board in several semi-professional competitions, usually first place. But even if he hadn’t won, it would have been worth it. He shared an experience with his ancestors.
Whether referring to a handful of activities passed from one generation to the next or something as grand as the experiences Griffin pursued to write his first book, maybe following in our ancestral footsteps might make a better bucket list than anything we could dream up on our own. The inspiration might come from anywhere.
Did your ancestors ride horses in the American West? Did they shoot a flintlock rifle in the American Revolution? Did they knit or make quilts out of necessity? Did they see a New York City different than the one that exists today (the subject of another Griffin novel, Dizzy City)? Or maybe they did something else, like fly in a biplane or cross the Atlantic by ship or any number of experiences that can be duplicated, if not precisely, close enough to make a lasting connection — something that could be passed on to future generations.
Richard Becker is the CTO of Celebrating Legacy and president of Copywrite, Ink. He is a creative strategist and writer who has made dozens of contributions to companies, government agencies, and communities for more than two decades. His byline has also appeared in the Denver Post, Los Angeles Times, and several publications by Simon & Schuster, among others.