Devil in the Details Redux: China Dolls and Chandlers

February 11th, 2007

Blame National Geographic.

When I was twelve or so, staying over at my grandparents with a cold, I read an issue of National Geographic which gave the history of gemcutting, the history and provenance of the various cuts–the emerald cut, the sapphire cut, the diamond cut, the rose, the brilliant and so forth–and I happily commited all this to memory, along with the rough dates of when each was developed and became popular.  Which of course some years later totally ruined a television show for me, “The Wizard,” 1986, because while I could deal with the concept of a four-foot-tall mad inventor MacGuyver type, when he pulled out the ancient Incan emerald and it was not only faceted but cut in the brilliant cut that wasn’t invented for diamonds until about the 19th century?  And it was the size of a baseball but flawless which is likewise impossible for an emerald?  The suspenders of disbelief were snapped.

Yes, I know, we’re supposed to look the other way and not raise our eyebrows.  No one seriously believed that Yul Brenner was Thai either, no matter how much tape he put on his eyelids.  And Al Jolson was not really black.

That all said, there’s a big step between “Imagine if you will” theatricality and simply getting stuff wrong, and in a big way too.

I haven’t read the book, but I recently saw the movie Eragon.  I can swallow dragons, metaphorically at least.  The fully racially integrated fantasy revolutionaries?  The Keshia Knight Pulliam version of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” violently burst that cherry long ago, so I’m not going to complain other than mentioning it here.  And the fantasy farmboys looking like they just came off a Ren Faire catwalk, with their hair done by whoever used to work on Charlie’s Angels?  I can deal with that too, though I will snicker.

But when the set dresser raids a modern mall aromatherapy store for the candles, which appear in just about every scene, I’m going, I’m sorry, what’s the tech level here?  Don’t the poor ever use rushdips?  Are you simply drowning in beeswax and bayberries that everyone can afford these, or do the dragons crap paraffin?

Actually, if the dragons crapped paraffin, even that wouldn’t explain it, since they’re down to only one dragon by the start of the movie and the evil dragonrider king would have a lock on the dragoncrap candle market.

I know, I should remember to breathe.  But I have trouble believing in a fantasy world which is all kings, dragonriders, revolutionaries and oracles without any chandlers.  If you’ve got candles everywhere, surely there’s someone who makes them.

More than that, it’s the details you show that imply the tech level of the world.  If candles are cheap and plentiful, then that shows you something.  Your audience takes cues from what they see or read.

I was helping someone with a manuscript yesterday, and there was one of these details on the page: a china doll head on a rubbish heap.  I mentioned that this told me we were dealing with a post-industrial society, circa 1910 or so, because china doll heads were not made commonly until about 1860,  and even then were fairly valuable and would be recycled, so you wouldn’t find one out in the garbage until at least 1910.  I then went into a fairly long aside about the history of European porcelain, the Elector of Saxony’s alchemist, Bottger, and the founding of the Dresden china works, relative to the trade of Chinese porcelain.

Which is a long way of going round to say that even what you might consider throwaway details or things on the periphery are nonetheless crucial to the story.

24 Responses to “Devil in the Details Redux: China Dolls and Chandlers”

  1. Danion 11 Feb 2007 at 5:41 pm

    believing in a fantasy world which is all kings, dragonriders, revolutionaries and oracles without any chandlers.

    YES! I understand why the SCA assumes everyone’s a member of the landed gentry (afterall, who’s want to role play a slave or serf for their weekend relaxation?), but a novel needs to correctly capture/reflect the world within.

    Some I expect is because people want to avoid sensative topics like slaves, but mostly I think it’s because modern people (Americans at least) have no idea what it’s really, truly like to live in a world without a cell phone and a 7-11 down the street.

  2. James Engeon 11 Feb 2007 at 6:48 pm

    I’m with you, I think, but there is a difference between historical reality and historical necessity. Just because a development played out one way in our world doesn’t mean it couldn’t play out differently in another one. But I’m not saying this excuses ignorance or bad worldmaking.

    Kept waiting for the Philip Marlowe reference, and then I realized…

  3. Madeleine Robinson 11 Feb 2007 at 7:22 pm

    I knew that I was having a beneficial effect on my husband when, watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he leaned over to me and muttered, “Call me crazy, but I didn’t think they had Spandex in the 1890s.” A piece of dumb-gloss thinking can throw me out of a story or film faster than anything. And I’m a deeply forgiving audience–I want to be swept away. So if you do something stupid and knock me out of the story, I’m gonna be damned cranky about it.

  4. Sherwood Smithon 11 Feb 2007 at 8:49 pm

    I cut movies a lot more slack than I do books, because so much of set decoration is mood as well as eyecandy. Those bazillion candles don’t bother me.

    But books featuring desert cities of several hundred thousand do when no one mentions where the heck they are getting their water. Or people walk into rooms that seem to be lit by electric lights, but we know there isn’t any electricity in this world. And of course we’ve all heard about fifty-mile-an-hour horses that just run all day long.

    Anyway, I really want to read the story about the dragoncrap candles. Talk about stinking worse than tallow! Unless they feed the dragons honey and bayberries?

  5. Kate Elliotton 11 Feb 2007 at 9:09 pm

    Ren faire catwalk

    I love it.

    Mad – hah. What you said. I want to be swept away, and I’m pretty forgiving, so it really pisses me off when I’m not because of a stupid careless lazy detail.

    There are reasons the main plot might focus on the movers and shakers of any given world, but if there is no sense at all of the underpinnings, then – well – usually you’ve got a writer who hasn’t thought through the mechanics of life. Or who is building from misunderstood cliches.

    My husband, a Mesoamerican archaeologist, finally saw Apocolypto, the Mel Gibson movie, and one thing that bugged him – although this is a slightly different issue than the one Kevin is discussing – is the suggestion that everything was done with large scale slavery. Simply not true, not even (I think) in Aztec society. Definitely not true of Maya society. But it’s cheap, and easy, and makes for a quick flash-shot understanding by the viewer (yes, they are Evil and Corrupted, therefore the Good must defeat them and they will Fall).

  6. Lois Tiltonon 11 Feb 2007 at 9:48 pm

    Oh, yeah!

    Of course, pointing this sort of thing out in stories is actually my business now. I remember the story where the atmosphere was doing OK, until a character spit the pit out of a fig. Down it all came crashing.

    Because, up to that point, I was willing to give him to benefit of the doubt, but after that, I was skeptical about every detail.

  7. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 12 Feb 2007 at 4:50 am

    Good god, a pit in a fig?

    Problem is, I think I know how this atrocity happened. I’ve read other novels where all the characters, despite being from many different parts of the country, different cultural and ethnic group and so on, and traveling to many different parts of the United States not only all ate the same things but liked the same things. Which is beyond unrealistic because just recall the trouble you have trying to order a pizza with a group.

    What I guess happened is that the author was called on the fact that, previous to the fig pit incident, s/he’d been having all his/her characters like the same things, probably the same thing the author liked. But in an attempt to vary it, the author had described some character eating something s/he’d never eaten and consequently gotten it completely wrong.

    Which is really pretty sad, both from the standpoint of the author being unadventurous enough to not try something so easily available, at least in dried form, but also from him/her being too lazy to get as simple a referrence book as The Joy of Cooking to get a basic description of what a foodstuff contains.

  8. Lois Tiltonon 12 Feb 2007 at 11:39 am

    If I were to speculate, I’d say he probably meant it to be a date, but wrote “fig” instead. Who knows why? It was unfortunate because detailed descriptions of food were an important part of the atmosphere he was evoking.

    And this is why, as I have so often said, it’s a shame that the copyeditor seems to have become as the dodo.

  9. Michael Adkinson 12 Feb 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Well, Kevin, I tried to read Eragon, but stopped about 40 pages in because it sounded like it was written by a teenage boy with visions of majestic dragons and pretty maidens in his head. And guess what? I was right. But until the movie, I didn’t know the boys were pretty too.

    (Mind you, anyone who finishes writing a book has my respect . . . doesn’t mean I have to finish reading it.)

  10. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 12 Feb 2007 at 12:16 pm


    Depending on the publisher, I might blame the publisher and copyeditor for that fig/date thing, leaving the author completely out of it. My first novel, I had a scene in Vienna and had a few words in German. The copyeditor thoughtfully (NOT!) decided to translate them into Spanish, I kid you not, because everyone knows they speak so much Spanish in Vienna and they were printed because the publisher had a quick deadline and didn’t think that copyeditors could be insane.

    Unless that’s what you meant by “dodo,” which is also entirely possible.

  11. Mary Freyon 12 Feb 2007 at 5:05 pm

    …everyone knows they speak so much Spanish in Vienna …

    Must have something to do with that Spanish Riding School that everyone knows is in Vienna. [grin]

  12. Lois Tiltonon 12 Feb 2007 at 9:52 pm

    “dodo” as in “extinct” as in “they don’t seem to exist anymore” as in “there are too damn many errors appearing in print that any marginally competent editor should have caught”.

  13. Gyp Orienson 13 Feb 2007 at 2:37 am

    Maybe I should become a copyeditor! Looks like there’s a market for those.

  14. ehjoneson 13 Feb 2007 at 2:10 pm

    More bothersome to me than those small details are glaring mistakes, particularly in technology. I once critiqued a short story in which the main character, a blacksmith, forged “the strongest and finest blade ever made” by melting some iron and pouring it into a mold. That’s it. Just a mold. No forming an iron bar, no folding in carbon, no hammering into shape, nothing. He poured liquid metal into a ceramic mold, let it cool for a few days, and then took out this perfect, sharp, shining sword. And this was in a world where other characters walked around with “mirror-bright blades of fine steel”, giving the impression that the technology for making good steel was there.
    When I was working on my own novel, I had a passage that I wanted in there in which a sea captain teaches our young hero how to use a sextant for navigation. I have never held, touched, or seen a sextant other than in photos. I spent several weeks researching the use of the sextant and getting a basic idea of how one was used, and even then I got it wrong. But thanks to a friend who sent me a link to Nova Online, I was finally able to get the passage to be fairly accurate, even though I had to play a little loose with the descriptions of the calculations involved.
    That’s what irks me most, I think. If you’re unfamiliar with a specific activity or item that plays a major part in your book, or even a single scene, then research it, and most especially, vet it with someone who know what he’s talking about! It takes only a tiny bit of effort to learn what you need to in order to make your text believable, and yet many authors choose the lazy path of thinking they know it all already. My lesson in celestial navigation may not be as detailed as I’d hoped (since it’s far more complex than I’d imagined), but at least what I put in there is accurate enough for a layman.

  15. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 13 Feb 2007 at 3:40 pm

    I hear you on the blacksmith angle. I’ve a story (published) where one of the semi- important peripheral bits was glassmaking. Unfortunately, I got a detail wrong about a process, which I realized a couple years later when I watched a documentary about the Blenko glassworks.

    Of course, things can always be corrected in later publications and versions. My short story currently being adapted for film, “Clove Smoke,” had an incorrect military uniform detail in the published text, but the producer, on consultation with wardrobe (which included a military history buff), had an easy fix simply by changing wars from Vietnam to Iraq, where the detail fit, the detail being camouflage uniforms.

  16. Debbie Whiteon 13 Feb 2007 at 4:43 pm

    Ah, yes, blacksmithing. *sigh* I’m a journeyman blacksmith. I’ve even dabbled in bladesmithing. One nit-pick that never ceases to annoy me is when writers talk about a smith swinging his sledgehammer. Yes, big, heavy hammers are occasionally used in smithing, but only rarely. The reason you heat the metal is to make it malleable. It doesn’t take a huge amount of strength or a super-heavy hammer. Women and kids can blacksmith.

    The other thing that really gets me is occassionally reading of a hero feeding his horse only grain. If you don’t feed your horse a ration consisting of at least 50% grass/hay (by dry weight), then your horse is going to colic and die on you. Also, even the best endurance horse can’t canter for hours on end. For long distance riding (like in competitions), most of the riding is done at a trot.

    And so on.

    I try my best to actually try any activity that is a major part of my story, including the upkeep and use of a sword/bow/staff/dagger/armor, glassworking, blacksmithing, horseback riding, camel riding, basket weaving, baking, etc. I’m lucky to live near an area where historical skills are preserved and taught, so I can at least consult with an expert even if I haven’t done something myself. Yet I still despair the number of small details I’m probably getting wrong. Worse still, sometimes I know that people are going to think I wrote something wrong just because the incorrect information about a subject has become such ‘common knowledge.’ Ah, well.

  17. Sabrinaon 13 Feb 2007 at 5:24 pm

    This brings to mind a book I’m reading. The 1996 edition of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Dianne Wynne Jones. It’s like a humorous encyclopedia for every aspect of a “traditional” fantasy novel. One of the topics she keeps touching on is the lack of most insects (peple wear silk, but there’s no mention of processing it from silkworms) nor animals like sheep and cattle or wild animals in the forest or other terrain. People wear leather, but there’s no tannery, etc. On the one hand, the reader generally assumes these things exist so maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but on the other, an author should include some of the smaller details to give the fantastical world a sense of realism.

    And I love that line, “The suspenders of disbelief were snapped.”

  18. Constance Ashon 13 Feb 2007 at 10:29 pm

    Well, everyone knows that Austria was long a part of the Spanish empire, i.e. the Spanish Riding School.

    Was that the reason? For speaking Spanish in Vienna, I mean?

    Love, C.

  19. Kate Elliotton 13 Feb 2007 at 10:30 pm

    “Common knowledge” is the bane of fantasy writers! Especially when readers (or, in cases I’ve heard of, copy editors) think they know what they do not know.

    I recall a complaint of Crown of Stars, in which the reviewer ridiculed the tiny armies, noting the much larger Roman legions and Germanic hordes, or whatever. Only I was doing my best to be true to the times I was writing about (based on early medieval Europe).

    But I too despair, knowing I will never get all the details right.

  20. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 13 Feb 2007 at 11:43 pm


    Hell if I know. The scene had the characters going to the opera house and the two mooks, Frick and Frack (Vienna in joke), were wearing black tuxedos, properly termed Smoking in German but esmoquin in Spanish.

    I’m guessing the copyeditor proudly remembered his/her European tour and changed the word to what s/he’d heard, rather than have me use the word Smoking which sounds so dreadfully English, even if it’s proper German (as both my German mother and her college German literature professor stressed to me).

    This is the same book where I had the ghost of Guy Fawkes call Dr. John Dee “A wicked old nigromancer” (the proper term for Fawkes’ era) and the copyeditor, being from Atlanta, changed it to the period alternate “negromancer,” which may not look like the dreaded N-word, but sure as hell looks like an embarrassing typo. The same copyeditor changed the Cockney girl’s “mingy” to “mangy.”

    This experience led me to reinvent the wheel and send a cover letter to the copyeditor including all variant spellings, punctuation, regional and historical dialect and whatnot I was using throughout a work. Thankfully the next copyeditor I dealt with was nice and sane, and even sent me a personal note thanking me for the style sheet.

  21. Muneravenon 14 Feb 2007 at 10:50 am

    First of all, I do sympathize with the frustration of getting shucked right out of a tale by unbelievable details. It has happened to me as well, and I don’t like it either. But I think the demands on a writer to get every detail perfect often goes too far.

    How long do we expect writers to take in writing a book in order to get every detail correct and how much expertise are they required to have?

    I attended a Con last year where an author was literally beseiged by readers who only wanted to debate the veracity of the details in his latest book. It was AWFUL. I am not a fan of this particular writer, but I wanted to save him from his own fans, you know? It was so weird. It was like these readers read his work exclusively so that they could find his mistakes and then come to a public forum and point out every possible niggling detail he got wrong. I have two kids with high-functioning autism who have special interests and obsessions and tack-sharp memories, and this Con event looked for all the world to me like some demented Roman entertainment where a writer is thrown to the Aspies. Good lord! Did anyone notice the characters or the story itself? Apparently not. All these readers were wrapped up in their various lists of supposed errors.

    At some point I think the reader bears some responsibility for not getting distracted by details that may not be absolutely correct. A gaping plot hole is hard to read around, but really, if a reader is unable to overlook one or two minor inaccurate details, is the problem really the writer or is the reader coming to the book with a skewed set of expectations?

    I do think the writer should try very hard to get the details right. However, I for one will NEVER come to a reading or panel and nit-pick a writer to death over his or her errors. I won’t do it in my blog, either. Writers work hard, often writing as a second job, and get paid crap so that readers (in America) can still get a paperback for less than ten bucks. Frankly I feel lucky that anyone is writing books at all. So if a writer doesn’t get every detail right, well, I try to forgive that.

  22. Muse of Ireon 13 Mar 2007 at 3:13 pm

    But when the set dresser raids a modern mall aromatherapy store for the candles, which appear in just about every scene, I’m going, I’m sorry, what’s the tech level here? Don’t the poor ever use rushdips? Are you simply drowning in beeswax and bayberries that everyone can afford these, or do the dragons crap paraffin?

    I laughed myself sick at a Masterpiece Theater version of Moll Flanders in which Moll makes love surrounded by a sea of candles. Such a 20th century notion — in Defoe’s day, those candles would have cost more than Moll could ever have made in a lifetime of whoring.

    Conversely, I was also annoyed in the opening scenes of the movie Elizabeth (well, the whole movie was one vast anachronism and generally wrong-headed) when they portrayed Mary’s court as lit by one or two feeble candles. I’m sure it was a metaphor, but for God’s sake. Mary might not have been the best queen, but she had enough money to light her palace properly!

    The thing is, I can forgive these lapses if they’re isolated examples in an otherwise entertaining work, but usually they are symptomatic of a general overall carelessness or (to repeat myself) wrong-headedness.

  23. salllyon 22 May 2009 at 8:22 am

    soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooscary how can sum one read the 12 china doll story? can u if u do beware ill be watchin u AHHHHHHHHHH mwuhahahahh

  24. salllyon 22 May 2009 at 8:25 am

    im watchingu evan

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