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From the March/April 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Not-So-Trivial Pursuits

Tasting the Past

by Laurie Halse Anderson

hen I started researching Forge, I thought I knew how to do the work. My guiding truth was the use of primary sources as foundation stones. All of my historical novels lean heavily on written documentation such as letters, newspapers, account books, journals, military and political records, and recipes.

Take A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier. Published in 1830, it was written by Joseph Plumb Martin, who enlisted at age fifteen. Martin served in the Continental Army for most of the American Revolution and later wrote an account of his service that has become a vital document for historians. At Valley Forge, half-starved and freezing, Martin stole a pumpkin and cooked it on a flat rock. That was a fact from a primary source, and a few years ago I might have left it at that, simply incorporating the detail into my story.

But the more I read about Valley Forge, the more astounded I was at the sacrifices made by the soldiers there. I found myself driven to seek a deeper understanding of their experiences. So I went into the woods and built a fire. I put a flat rock in the middle of the flames. When the rock was hot, I cut an acorn squash in half (it wasn’t pumpkin season) and cooked it on the rock the way Joseph Martin had. It was a tasty meal. After that, the writing of chapter 21 was easy.

I wrote Forge in a small cabin in the northern woods, heated by wood that I split and carried. Some nights I wrote by candlelight. I cooked and tasted (and loathed) fire cake, a staple of the Continental army during lean times. I walked the hills of Valley Forge and Saratoga to understand the topography of the camp and battlefield. I kept a rotation of fife and drum pieces playing in the background. I tasted gunpowder. It was almost as nasty as the fire cake.

But the most powerful experience I had was the simplest. On a five-degree February day, I dressed in the clothes of a Continental soldier, minus the boots. I walked in stocking feet across the snow. My feet were cold, then uncomfortable, then incredibly painful. I kept walking until they went numb. At that point my husband declared the experiment finished. I hobbled inside, sat with my feet propped in front of the fire, and wrote.

Is it possible to write historical fiction based only on the reading of primary sources? Of course it is. But for me, walking in the footsteps of people from the past adds vibrancy to their words. It’s one thing to read about a fire, quite another to smell the smoke and hear the wood pop and sizzle.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s newest book is Forge (Atheneum).

From the March/April 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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