I love wandering around historical sites when planning a story for children -- from ghost towns in the West to the tenements of New York City's lower Eastside. Rangers have sublime details, such as how to load cannons or what happens when a great white shark rams a row boat.
But some of the best stuff is in the gift shops. When researching the Revolutionary War, I bought a quill pen and ink jug, an American flag with thirteen stars, and fife and drum music from Colonial Williamsburg -- I love a patriotic march! These trinkets and music inspire me when I finally sit down to write. At the cash register in a Pennsylvania store, I found a recipe printed by the Women's Committee of the Valley Forge Historical Society: Martha Washington's Great Cake.
I have trouble following recipes, but this one seemed dangerously simple:
4 pounds butter
4 pounds sugar powdered
5 pounds flour
5 pounds fruit
mace & nutmeg
wine & some fresh brandy
Wait! 40 eggs, really? I checked with the historical society and was told that in Martha's day these were "pullet eggs", about the size of a child's thumb. I didn't dare try the recipe myself, but thought perhaps Abigail could help Mrs. Washington in The Winter of Red Snow.
So in the story, Abby and her sister Elisabeth visit neighbors asking for eggs while Papa waits in the wagon with a crate of wood ashes in which to carry them. The next day -- February 22, 1778 -- is General George Washington's 46th birthday. Not only does he have a very fine cake, it is recorded that he was serenaded by an artillery band with drums and fifes. Some say this was the first public celebration of his birthday.
The moral of the story is to go shopping!