Researching cherries for Shades of Milk and Honey

When I was in high school on the debate team, and then again in college, my coaches emphasized the importance of finding primary sources. My debate partner and I had that particular lesson hammered home when we lost a round because we had relied on a secondary source, a newspaper article. It was reliable, the Wall Street Journal, but our opponents had gone back to the primary source — the study quoted in the article — and was able to produce two different quotes that showed ours was out of context and in fact represented the opposite of what we had presented it as. It was humiliating.

So, when I’m researching now for a show or a story, I’ll follow the bibliography trail back as far as I can trying to find my way back to the primary source. This has lead to everything from realizing that in fact we had picked the wrong sacred tree for a show set in India, to discovering that a historical character in a story had a death in the family during the period I was writing about them. That moment of discovery is wonderful and leads to richer stories.

Now, it’s not always possible to get primary sources, but a whole slew of reliable secondary sources will often do the trick.

But my favorite of all sources is called, “the expert witness.”

For instance: I’ve been trying to find out what fake cherries would have been made out of for millinary purposes. I have a scene in which Jane is trimming a bonnet. It’s a small detail, but I wanted to know. I checked online first, because it’s easy. Then I headed to the library. Loads of stuff on period hats and how they were trimmed, but nothing on what artificial cherries were made of. It was very frustrating.

This meant it was time to contact an expert witness since I had exhausted my other availble avenues. I wrote to Mr. Keith Dansey at Hat Works Museum and explained my question.

He just wrote back and has given me permission to excerpt his answer here.

We do have at least one hat in our display collection trimmed with imitation red currants, not precisely the same fruit, to be sure, and dated 1920 somewhat later than the period you have focused on. These are made of glass and possibly exemplify a millinery tradition encompassing the early 19th century.

Additionally, an 18th century German chemist by the name of J. Strasser developed a method if making imitation gems from ‘paste’ which is a lead glass compound. Possibly imitation fruits might be made from this. On the basis of this flimsy evidence, my money would be on some kind of glass. Other malleable materials, say, wax or plaster present with obvious problems.

His flimsy evidence beats anything else I’ve got. So now, not only do I have my answer for the scene I’m writing, I have a great detail for a later scene in which the hat reappears. It gets thrown to the ground on a marble floor. I’ve got glass cherries on it. Making a cherry crack on impact is the perfect accent to the emotion of the moment. I’m delighted on so many levels.

Expert witnesses are wonderful.

Did you know you can support Mary Robinette on Patreon!

10 Responses

  1. momk

    Could cherries on hats have been made of wood? Two of my auties had a millinery store in the 30s, and that is what I remember (sort of). Would grandmother Jackson be an original source, Mary?

  2. Melissa Mead

    I have a children’s book from around 1900 called Ruby and Ruthy. In it, Ruthy remembers trying to eat the cherries on her aunt’s hat and getting very fine shards of glass in her mouth. The cherries shattered easily.

  3. Mary Robinette Kowal

    MomK: I didn’t think about wood. I considered papier-mache as a possible.

    Melissa: Ooo! Thank you!

    The story is set in 1814, which is part of what made finding original sources somewhat difficult.

  4. Melissa Mead

    (Oh, and the story is supposed to have taken place in an earlier generation, and it’s implied that the hat is older than Ruthy, so the time period might be right for your story.)

  5. Tricia V

    Seems like solid glass would be very heavy, but a plasterlike core painted red and then coated over with glass might work. I feel like I’ve seen broken ornamental cherries before, in a junk heap from a house up the street when someone died.