The Elf in the Kitchen

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Once upon a time, I read a book about an ordinary woman in everyday contemporary society who wakes up to find an elf in her kitchen.  She says, “Hey, what are you?” and he says, “Me?  I’m an elf.”  They proceed to have coffee and chit-chat, as if nothing at all is out of the ordinary. 

Now, there’s a fantasy novel where that could happen — where people regularly confront the supernatural, where they have no understanding of boundaries in their natural history, where the extraordinary is absolutely ordinary.

But there was nothing about this book that made me believe that the kitchen-owner lived in such a world.  Every aspect of her world was presented as identical to the one that I live in.  And I can tell you that if an elf showed up in my kitchen — be he a tall, glamorous, Tolkien-ish elf, or a small, green-and-red Santa-ish elf — I would not settle down to java and gossip. 

I would pinch myself.  I would question my sanity.  I would find a mirror and make sure that I was still myself.  I would phone a friend and ask if I sounded normal.  I would reach out (tentatively, I’m sure), to touch the elf and make sure that he was real. 

I would question the existence of the elf with every one of my sense and all my mental faculties.  And even after I confirmed the existence of the elf, I would continue to ponder what it meant that he was in my kitchen.  Even if he joined me for a cup of caffeine, I would constantly be circling back, in my own mind, about what this extraordinary event meant.

Ever since reading that book (or, more accurately, reading the first 25 pages of that book — I threw it across the room after the second chapter), I’ve used “elf in the kitchen” as shorthand for extraordinary events that our ordinary narrator tends not to notice.  This isn’t a phenomenon limited to speculative fiction.  In a recent episode of CALL THE MIDWIFE, the nuns and nurses complete fail to react to the fact that  (SPOILERS AHEAD, STOP READING NOW, IF YOU CARE) one of their patients lives in a polygynous marriage.  In London’s East End.  In the late 1950s.  I can’t imagine that at least one nun wouldn’t clutch at her cross.  Or that at least one nurse might not speculate about how the trio manages their daily (and nightly) life.  But no — the facts are recited (“two women walked into a church; they walked out with a man between them”) and nothing more is said.  Really?  The priest just married the trio?  Without a word?  HUH?!?

It was an elf in the kitchen moment.  And it threw me out of the story.

So, do you find elves in your literary kitchen?  What strategies do you use to normalize the unusual?  To show your characters adapting?  Are there authors who you read who do this particularly well?

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24 comments to The Elf in the Kitchen

  • Mindy, I would have tossed that book too. Gack.

    However, personally, I find it easier to do (and harder to keep the sense of surprise in a character) in an ongoing series where the magical is already present. New magic, new supernatural characters, should still present *some* sort of surprise. And I’ll read back over a scene and want to toss my own book across the room.

  • There are times in my current work where I wonder why Bethany’s parents didn’t question some strange behavior from her boyfriend I go, “Didn’t they notice that?” I just hope that during the 2nd round edits I can find a way to deal with it without looking like I’m trying to make them know something they shouldn’t.
    There is a scene where Bethany is caught hanging out with her old druggie crowd and Matt, the boyfriend is waiting on the porch for her when she returns and her parents rush out of the house to greet her and punish her for being out so late. It’s a big wordy brawl but Bethany mentions that Matt’s hands are hairy and that he may be changing to his wolf at this moment. And I think if she can see that, why would everyone else ignore it? It always strikes me funny every time I re-read. But I did use the fact that is was dark, no moon looked through the trees and she was close on him but when her parents come out of the house, they should be able to see it even if her friend who are in the car can’t so, I still have a dilemma.

    It’ll be a bastard to edit but, hey……….. Those are the little embarrassing moment you hope no one else would know about.:)

  • On the flipside, I think it’s a balancing act (so…I guess, not the flipside, but the edge?). You want to eventually get to the story. Too much freaking out may bog down the telling of the story and have the reader tossing the book because the writer’s not getting to the point. I’ve read the opposite and found myself shouting at the writer, “Okay, I get it, they’re having issues dealing! Get on with it!” I think there’s a point in the human psyche when you just sort of accept the situation, become acclimated to it, instead of going off the deep end for multiple pages with every new encounter. Sort of a, “Well, I finally accepted there was an elf in my kitchen, so…yep…it’s a faerie dragon alright.” Or, “Oh yeah…it’s another zombie.”

    Actually, I’d say in the end it depends upon each individual. It’s very true, on first encounter I might wonder how much I drank last night or whether someone slipped me something while I wasn’t looking, but I also don’t think I’d have a breakdown over it. A few minutes of disbelief (a couple paragraphs or so), then a few questions as to whether I’m hallucinating or if he’s really there and my mind would be moving on. Then again, I also already believe certain things and have a very open mind, so, that plays into it as well. Course, if an elf appeared in my kitchen and I accepted that, I’d want to do a lot more than just have coffee. Where’s my sword? I’m ready for adventure! LET’S GO SLAY SOME MONSTERS AND SAVE SOME KINGDOMS! 😉

    In Jasper, the MC’s modeled after my daughter, but a little older (8 or so, I haven’t fully decided), and I think young children have an easier time accepting the magical than adults do (which I mention within the story). Their heads are already filled with wonder and magic and I try to bring some of our beliefs to the table as well when she asks questions. Plus, she’s sort of thrust into things at the beginning, so she’s kind of forced to accept that the sprite who saved her is the real deal and that there’s really that magic and such out there that daddy always talks about. Still, that’s not to say I don’t have her questioning things when they happen, but it usually ends up coming down to her putting on her brave face and encountering it head on.

    On the other hand, my noir MC still isn’t fully acclimated to his situation, which comes up from time to time throughout the book in one way or another. But he’s a driven character, so has to push his feelings aside, lest they consume him and keep him from doing what he has to do to solve the case of his friend’s disappearance. I’m reminded of a season of 24, where Jack does just insane things to save the day and at the end he gets in his vehicle and breaks down. That’s how I picture my noir MC.

    And my absolute favorite reaction to an encounter out of the ordinary is Nick Frost’s character when he meets Paul for the first time. I couldn’t stop laughing. Had to rewind it several times.

  • I woke up one morning and found an elf in my kitchen. I went back to bed.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Because I tend to remember movies more clearly: A movie I think handled this stuff quite well was Zathura, in part because they present a good range of responses. Kids play a game and their house ends up in outerspace: they freak out at first, but it’s also kinda cool, because they’re kids. Big sister wakes up into this crazy new environment, and the first freak-out words out of her mouth are “You guys actually set the house on fire!”, something which really has pretty mundane context. Then we get her freak-outs to everything else, and because everyone else, characters and viewers, have already acclimated, she accomplishes comedy and realistic character development at the same time.

  • Hep – And that was probably the best I’ve actually seen that girl act.

  • Faith – I can’t tell you how often I want to toss my own book :-) (And yes, it’s harder to balance the ongoing sense of astonishment and surprise…)

    WaitforHim – Having not read your ms, of course, I wonder if Matt can immediately shove his hands in his pockets, trying to hide his hair? (Or does he just not care?) If he is pocket-bound, that can lend its own sense of humor or frustration… In general, I’ve found that the things that bug me when I’m writing are the things I ultimately end up deleting. I’m getting better at biting the bullet and doing it the *first* time my attention is pulled away…

    Daniel – Yep, it’s definitely all a balancing act. Too much introspection on *anything* becomes tiresome. I’m willing to have a character say, “Crazy as it seemed, I just had to focus on the real matter at hand, saving the world.” (Or, you know. Whatever the real matter is.) Personally, I think I’d actually adapt pretty quickly to the elf. But I’d still notice that I was adapting quickly… (Oh, and Nick Frost? I don’t know the source for that…)

    Lyn – Have I got a book for you! ::grin::

    Hepseba – I haven’t seen the movie, but I think this elf problem is something that *can* be better handled when there are multiple characters, so that one can maintain FreakOut Mode while the others get on with the business of storytelling (after a satisfying acknowledgement that the world is a strange place). It sounds like that’s what’s going on in the movie!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @Daniel – so showing that excellent source material counts for a lot.

  • Mindy, you’ve not seen the movie Paul?! Sounds like you need a movie night of Paul and Zathura. 😉

  • deborahblake

    I want to toss books like that too. And some TV shows.

    I’m having to walk that line carefully in my current novels, where the action is set in our world, with magic that most people don’t know about. My magical characters can take things for granted–my regular humans better be pinching themselves.

  • One more vote for Paul, Mindy! Great movie. :)

    Hm. Is “I plunge them into the thick of things and make them learn fast in the face of adversity” an acceptable answer? In my UF, my main character enters the story with her own secret (that she can see and speak to ghosts), and it’s one she’s lived with for her entire life, but when she’s faced with other paranormal phenomena, she’s still capable of being clueless and unnerved. For her, the ghost-speaking stuff is her “normal”, but that part of her was rationalized long ago. Until now, she’s never stopped to think about it. I don’t have her spend too much time dwelling, though. She processes, but she does it as she goes. The plot (and her attempt to achieve her goals) force her to accept weird things pretty quickly.

  • Mindy, this is why I could never have one of those Elf on the Shelf toys…I’d come into my kitchen some morning, pre-coffee, and lose my ever-loving mind!

  • I did that in a draft of my novel about berserkers in Buffalo NY. I thought I had done a good job establishing how they lived and functioned in society, but one of the first questions a Beta asked about the ending was “They KILLED a DRAGON! In the middle of an industrial plant? Where are all the police? the scientists? Where’s the body?” She was so right.

    Misty – LOL!

  • It makes me think of the “magical realism” stories that were popular in 90s TV shows. (Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, Due South, etc.) In these shows, supernatural things happened, but the characters didn’t seem incredibly phased by them. It makes for a charming story when done well, but it’s not everyone’s cup of elf tea.

  • I love this! Elf in the Kitchen will forever be part of my shorthand for critiques. Thank you! And yes, when I encounter this in books or TV shows, it bugs the hell out of me.

  • quillet

    Super extra late to this party, but I love this. I’m with David: Elf in the Kitchen will be in my personal lexicon from now on.

  • Daniel – time to add a movie to my Netflix queue!

    Deborah – I actually think that showing different reactions is a *great* way to indicate how magic works in your world! If your magic-handler doesn’t react, but your novice does… We see a lot more about how the world functions.

    Laura – Just to clarify, I don’t have any problem with a character who has supernatural abilities using those powers and being comfortable and non-reactive to them. My problem is when ordinary people just say, “huh, magic.” and keep going on with their lives. If a character already knows there is Other in the world, I’d expect her to adapt quickly.

    Misty – Do *not* get me started with Elf on the Shelf. Hate, hate, hate!

    Sarah – I’ve had more than a few of those moments with my first readers — things I thought I’d handled *so* well, torn apart. That’s why we love those betas, right? Right?!?

    DeepForestGreen – Elf tea. Now *that’s* an image :-) Interesting view on the TV shows — I never watched DUE SOUTH, but I definitely watched TWIN PEAKS. (And I found some of the magic realism to be the weakest parts of the show, but that’s a personal taste thing, I suppose ::wry grin::)

    David – Glad to have been of service :-)

    Quillet – Glad to have you at the party, any time :-) And pleased to be spreading the elf word!

  • That makes sense. Thanks for clarifying, Mindy!

  • Mindy – Elves and pink elephanrs are good indicators that I haven’t yet reached the hangover. Is your book recommendation along those lines? :-)

  • I’m reminded of this gem, from the wires of United Press International, dated September 18, 1980:

    Police in Laurel, Mississippi report receiving a call from a woman who told them she had been attacked by a band of elves. Investigating officers were dubious to begin with, and the woman didn’t help her credibility by pointing to a blank wall whenever she was talking about the window the alleged elves came through. When one of the officers pointed out that there was no window where the woman kept pointing, she reportedly told them the elves had taken it with them.

    Happens I was on DJ duty at KGLT-FM in Bozeman MT when this came over our teletype… unfortunately the elves never did show up to defend their honor.

  • Megan B.

    Interesting topic! My question is, what’s the trick to doing magical realism well? How do you signal to your readers that the elf in the kitchen is an acceptable phenomenon in this world (a world that is otherwise just like our own)?

    Incidentally, another great TV show for magical realism is Carnivale. I highly recommend it.

  • Lyn – I’ve often wondered where pink elephants entered our lexicon for hangovers and drinking…

    Reziac – Of *course* the elves didn’t show up! They couldn’t stand being arrested and put behind iron bars!

    Megan – You know, I don’t have the secret to magic realism — at all. As an English major and an avid reader of “literature”, I’ve read a lot of it, but I think it’s really hard to carry off effectively. (For some reason, I think it fares better in translation; we’re more willing to accept Marquez or Kundera or Whoever, rather than someone writing in an American idiom…) I *do* think that for genre purposes, you can tell your reader, “She woke up and there was an elf in the kitchen, so she made them both cups of tea”, and you’ve conveyed that in this world, there’s nothing odd about elves. My problem is when the plot of the book is so clearly structured to say elves are rare, but characters don’t seem to notice that… (And I’ve thought about Carnivale — so many things to watch. Oh, so little time ::wry grin::)

  • Megan B.

    Actually, I think you are onto something with that made-up quote (“She woke up and there was an elf in the kitchen, so she made them both cups of tea”). I think that degree of summary sort of conveys that the reader is meant to accept it and move on. It also reminds me of the way many fairy tales begin, with a simple statement which could be described as ‘telling, not showing’ but which is acceptable in that genre.

    When I have seen magical realism done well, it often begins with such a sentence. Example: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

    Maybe getting the ‘magical’ part in upfront is also part of it. You don’t have time to think the story is set in a realistic world, because the very first thing that happens is incredible.

  • Megan – I *do* think that those matter-of-fact statements often set the tone for magic realism. They tell the reader, right off the bat, that they’re “not in Kansas anymore”…