The Missouri Reader Vol. 43, Issue 2 - Page 10


EDITOR’s NOTE: Carla Killough McClafferty is an award-winning author of nonfiction for children, writing mostly about science and history. She has been awarded The International Literacy Association’s Children's Book Award for Intermediate Nonfiction to her book Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium. The National Council of Teachers of English gave a 2008 Orbis Pictus Recommended book designation to In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry. As a public speaker she has been featured on CSpan 2, Book TV, and Mount Vernon’s Ford Book Talk Series. She presents teacher professional development workshops, school author visits, and interactive videoconferences with students all over the nation. Carla was asked to provide some insight into how she so vividly and accurately portrays the subjects and settings of her books. She gave us this look into the research and writing of her latest book, Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon


As I developed the concept for my newest book Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, I didn’t want to write about slavery in general. I wanted to write biographies of real people who lived, worked, and were enslaved by the Washington family at Mount Vernon.

I understood the challenges ahead of me. I’ve written several biographies and in each one, I used words written by my subjects, as well as images of them. But that would not be possible in this case because the enslaved people I wrote about did not leave a written record of their lives. And there are no images of them. So how could I write about them in a way that is accurate when I didn’t know how they felt or what they said?

One method I used was to put them in historical context. In other words, I had to put these individuals firmly in the actual place and time of their lives. For example, in Buried Lives, I wrote about a man who was owned by George Washington named Hercules. He worked as a cook at Mount Vernon. When President Washington moved his family to the nation’s capital in Philadelphia, he took Hercules with him to serve as chief cook.

To add to the facts I knew about Hercules’s work there, I used some great quotes about him written by Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted readers to see and feel what it was like for Hercules to run the kitchen of the President’s House. To do that, I had to know some things before I could accurately place Hercules in that kitchen.

I did some research to find out what Hercules cooked and found primary sources that recorded the massive amounts of food cooked in the President’s House. I studied maps of 18th century Philadelphia and knew Hercules would have bought food, as all of people of Philadelphia did, at the covered food market located a couple of blocks from the President’s House. I found out what local food was available in Philadelphia at the time, and what was being imported. I also researched the basics of hearth cooking (full disclosure-I did not actually cook on a hearth) to get a basic understanding of how it was done.

Although these details and facts are interesting, they would be boring unless I wove them smoothly into the true story of Hercules. I had to write it so that the reader could picture Hercules in Philadelphia and almost feel the merciless heat of the hearth as he cooks.

Now that I’ve explained why these details are important to the book, next you will see the finished text. Taken from the Hercules chapter of Buried Lives these sections relate to the time he spent as chief cook.


Weaving Time and Place into the Facts:

Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon


Carla Killough McClafferty

Rebekah E. Piper

Laurie A. Sharp, Ed.D.

Roberta D. Raymond, Ed.D.

Mary Jo Fresch