You might not think of folklore as part of historical research, but delving into this area may provide you with inspiration that historical facts can’t.
When my in-laws retired to the coast of North Carolina, I knew we would be visiting them regularly. Since I look on any place I visit as a potential story setting, I began buying books about the history of Beaufort and the surrounding area. I also found a series of books on the legends and folklore of the Outer Banks. Judge Charles Harry Whedbee, a life-long resident of North Carolina, is the author and was at the time of his death in 1990, “the foremost authority on North Carolina’s coastal folklore,” according to the dust jacket of Outer Banks Mysteries & Seaside Stories.
The stories reveal the fears and hopes of the local people. Since most locals made their living from the sea, many of the stories center around it. In “The Gray Man of Hatteras” from Outer Banks Mysteries, a ghostly man dressed in a sou’wester appears “between Cape Point and the Hatteras Lighthouse” whenever a hurricane is approaching. Despite his ghostly appearance, maybe locals were comforted with the idea of some kind of warning before we had accurate weather forecasts.
In “The Dram Tree” from the same book, a member of a ship coming into the harbor in Edenton was supposed to leave a bottle of rum in a hole in a huge cypress tree that grew in the water there. Crews of ships leaving the harbor stopped at the tree and drank from the bottle for good luck. This story demonstrates again the anxiety of living with the unpredictable sea. Blackbeard lived and sailed along this stretch of North Carolina, and some of the stories concern him and piracy, which I think would worry the locals as much as the ocean.
Just about any town that’s existed long enough has tales to tell. The best place to find them, if they have been written down, is the local library or historical society. Many libraries have a local history room with books you cannot find any place else.
Such stories can inspire speculative fiction. Perhaps the crews who drink from the Dram Tree are more successful. Why? Is it luck? Did someone put a magical substance in the rum? What if someone figures out why and tries to steal the bottle from Edenton?
I find stories about local hauntings a good start for mysteries. In the case of the “The Gray Man of Hatteras”, perhaps the legend is just a vague memory of some real crime, and the main character investigates to bring about long-delayed justice. By reading about the stories that have been handed down in an area, I can craft my own and make it sound authentic to the location.
What kind of folklore do you know about where you live or where you have visited?