When I was about five years old, I became obsessed with Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. I didn’t know who Captain Kidd was, but I somehow knew he buried his treasure on Long Island, where I lived then and still live.
I also didn’t know then how big Long Island was (it’s long), so I figured that the treasure was buried on Jones Beach, the only beach I knew, where my parents took me most summer weekends. I excavated piles of sand over the years, and I don’t need to report that I never found the treasure chest.
As I got older and wiser, and got a car, I realized there were lots more beaches on Long Island. Also, I did some research and discovered that the likely location of the treasure, if it existed at all, was Gardiners Island, a privately owned island that lies between the North and South forks of Long Island. Not even close to the thousand cubic yards of sand I’d already dug up. Also, it occurred to me that even a stupid pirate wouldn’t bury his treasure right on the beach. Erosion and all that. The treasure — Captain Kidd’s or anyone else’s ill-gotten booty — would be inland, maybe under a big oak tree or near a prominent rock. Obviously, I needed a treasure map. They sell them at gift shops out on the North Fork. Complete with dotted lines, drawings of rocks, trees, and a big X. About five bucks.
Captain Kidd’s treasure is a local legend here on Long Island, but buried treasure, in general, is a universal topic of myth, books, and movies. The idea that there is a fortune buried under the ground, waiting to be found, captures our imaginations and appeals to us (little boys) on several levels. There is, first of all, the history of how it got there — pirates, buccaneers, action, adventure, and probably murder. Also, I think we’re all hardwired to unravel ancient mysteries, to journey out on a quest that will bring us honor and fame, not to mention some loot. On a somewhat higher level, we’re looking for the truth.
Ben Franklin, in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, admonished his fellow citizens to stop wasting their time and energies digging up the countryside to find buried treasure. He pointed out that if these treasure hunters stuck to their trades, they’d be better off financially and so would their families and communities.
Good advice. But like most good advice, it went — and continues to go — unheeded. Everyone wants to turn a quick buck, and digging holes in the ground is not that much work if the reward is a treasure chest brimming with gold and jewels. As long as it doesn’t become an obsession or your day job.
My day job became writing novels, and my weekend treasure hunting ended about the same time I discovered girls. I did, however, continue to collect information about Captain Kidd and his treasure, along with other possible treasure troves along the East Coast and the Caribbean. Sad to say, most of the gold was reputed to be in sunken ships at the bottom of the ocean and not in the backyard of my rented summer house in Sag Harbor.
Write about what you know. So, I did. Captain Kidd’s treasure. The book was titled Plum Island, and you’ll be happy to know that it was a big bestseller, and all that stupid digging in the sand at Jones Beach finally paid off. Okay, that’s a stretch, but as writers, our hobbies and interests, our past jobs, and our obsessions can really be turned into gold, on the page. Fiction writing is the art of making up a lot of crap, but the best fiction is made up of crap we know. Stuff we’ve lived and which probably looks like crap, but if we think about it, it’s really gold. On the page.
Nelson DeMille is the author of By the Rivers of Babylon, Cathedral, The Talbot Odyssey, Word of Honor, The Charm School, The Gold Coast, The General’s Daughter, Spencerville, Plum Island, The Lion’s Game, Up Country, Night Fall, Wild Fire, The Gate House, and The Lion. He also coauthored Mayday with Thomas Block and has contributed short stories, book reviews, and articles to magazines and newspapers. Learn more at www.nelsondemille.net.