Category : Miniatures

Maddie Porter: A Day in the Life

Preteen Maddie Porter, of the Miniature Mysteries by Margaret Grace, often steals the show in the 9 novels of the series. Here’s the inside scoop on a typical day, in her own words.

The newest adventure of Maddie Porter

A Day in my Life with Grandma Gerry Porter

I’m Maddie Porter. I’m 11 and 3/4, and my grandma is Gerry Porter.

People are asking Grandma to talk about a day in her life. But she’s very shy when it comes to talking about herself. She taught high school for years and years, but she claims that’s different. She knows a lot about English—that means all kinds of reading and writing, like, even old stuff, Shakespeare, and all—and she loves to pass it on, she says. But if it’s about her personal life, she keeps it quiet.

So it’s up to me to do it for her. Talk about her day, I mean.

When I was a kid, I didn’t spend as much time with Grandma and Grandpa because I lived far away in Los Angeles. But now I live in Palo Alto, California, which is very close to Lincoln Point and I have my own bedroom in Grandma’s house. Grandpa was sick for a long time and then he died but I still remember a little bit about him. He was an architect and that’s what I might want to be. Either that, or I’ll get a job building dollhouses because that’s my favorite thing to do with Grandma. She has lots of friends and they come over and work on projects that they give away. Like to kids in shelters. I guess that means that they can’t afford real homes. The kids, I mean.

I’m very lucky that I have 2 homes, almost. My best friend in Lincoln Point is Taylor. Taylor’s grandpa, Henry, and my grandma are going to get married soon.

Or else, I might be a cop, like my first-cousin-once-removed Skip, but I can tell nobody wants me to do that, because . . .

Uh-oh, I think I’m doing that unfocused thing my teachers are always ragging on me about. I’m supposed to be talking about a day in Grandma’s life. But I only know about the days I’m with her, so what can I do?

Maybe I’ll just tell you about last Saturday, even though it was the worst day of my life. I did something really stupid and Grandma got mad at me. And she never gets mad, even when my ‘rents are really mad at me, so you know it must have been bad.

I’ll try to explain why it happened. I was at soccer practice with Taylor and when Henry took us back to Grandma’s house she was all upset. The place where their wedding was going to be, I forget her name, called and said someone died in their pool! Then it turned out the dead person was Grandma’s friend Mr. Templeton’s wife! He’s part of Grandma’s group that comes and builds dollhouses with us.

The second best thing I like to do, well maybe it’s the first, is help my cousin Skip solve cases like this. I know a lot about computers and I might be a computer specialist when I get to college. It’s hard to decide.

So, everyone’s trying to figure out why Mrs. Templeton, the dead lady, was even at the place where Grandma and Henry were going to get married, plus who pushed her into the pool? It’s like a hotel but they call it Bee and Bee, I think. I don’t know why.

Why Grandma was mad at me: I had an idea for how to find out something about one of the suspects. I was only trying to help, but it turned out to be not a good idea because I could have gotten hurt and some other people might have gotten hurt, too.

I don’t have time to explain it all, but I just wanted to tell you about that one day in Grandma’s life when I thought she didn’t love me anymore. Everything’s okay now, though. The end.

[Note from Gerry: Maddie wants me to correct her essay before she submits it, but I'm leaving it as is. I'm not even going to read it. I hope she didn't reveal too many family secrets!]

[Note from Margaret Grace: For the full story of Maddie's misbehavior, read Matrimony in Miniature, released September 9, 2016!]

Bloody Stories

A recent blog site topic invited us to compare American and British writers. Here is my response, reproduced.

Wouldn’t it be considered unpatriotic if I said I prefer British mysteries, as if I wished we had lost the Revolutionary War? From a native Bostonian yet, where it all began?

As I thought about the nationalities of writers I love, it turns out I have favorites from many countries. Karin Fossim from Norway. Pierre Lemaitre from France (How can I resist a male cop named Camille?) The recently deceased Umberto Eco from Italy. An American or two, like Thomas H. Cook and John Verdon. I thought I had a few British favorites, too, but it turns out Peter Robinson is Canadian and Peter May is a Scot. I’m one of the few readers unimpressed by the work of Denise Mina or Val Mcdermid, but Brit Mo Hayder makes up for them.

A couple of years ago, I became a British writer. Well, to be exact, a UK magazine asked me to write a short story. I was (and am) thrilled. The story, Majesty in Miniature, was published in parts over 3 months in The Dolls House Magazine.

I set the story at Windsor, the home of Queen Mary’s famous dolls house, sending my protagonists Gerry Porter and her granddaughter, Maddie, on a tour of the majestic house.

Although I’ve never seen the house in person, I knew all about it from books and videos. I knew about its running water (the cisterns housed in the basement), electric lighting, and working lifts, its miniature crown jewels and special tea services.

I was sure I could capture the essence of the dolls house; what I worried about was the language of the British characters, especially the British docent. I agonized over using “bloody”—too mild? too wild?—and finally checked in with my friend Simon Wood, who agreed to vet the story.

There was only one language problem that neither Simon nor I could have predicted.

“Docent?” a UK contact from the magazine asked me. “We’re not sure what that is.”

What? I’d been concerned about the docent’s dialogue, not the definition of the word. And isn’t the UK the home of the OED?

I figured the person was too young for an old word, or she was a foreign intern serving across the pond.

In the end, we settled on changing “docent” to “guide” and the story made it through the rest of the process.

MATRIMONY IN MINIATURE

The 9th miniature mystery is set for release next week. For once I can tell you the ending without being a spoiler — the title says it all: MATRIMONY IN MINIATURE.

Of course, things go wrong; otherwise, it wouldn’t be under “Crime Fiction” in bookstores and libraries.

Here’s how amazon describes it:

When murder happens in the small town of Lincoln Point CA, there aren’t many degrees of separation between the victim and retired teacher Gerry Porter. How can she stay away from the investigation when the crime scene is the venue for her marriage to Henry Baker? But this time, nephew Detective Skip Gowen tries to discourage Gerry’s and granddaughter Maddie’s efforts to solve “The Case.” He couldn’t live with himself if the murderer learns of their efforts and comes after them.

M is for Mini

Here’s a slightly tweaked blog that appeared on Chris Verstraete’s site a couple of months ago.

What’s in a name? Could mine have predisposed me to a life-long miniatures hobby and a string of mystery novels about a miniaturist? It makes as much sense as anything.

I don’t remember how long it took me to learn to spell my name—in my day, kids entered first grade with virtually a clean slate. We were lucky to be able to count to 10 (on our fingers) and know the way to the corner store. There were no public kindergartens, let alone pre-schools, pre-pre-schools, and so on. Our mothers didn’t read to us, explain the world to us constantly, or teach us anything but to be seen and not heard. At least, that’s how it was in my neighborhood.

So it might have taken a couple of grades for me to master CAMILLE MINICHINO, the 16 letters that make up my name.

Meanwhile, I played with the one “toy” I had, which was a dollhouse my father built for me. Along with my favorite cousin, I turned everything into minis. We cut up old greeting cards and “framed” a bird or a flower or a bicycle to decorate the walls of my mini house. We sliced pieces of straw from a broom and made spaghetti. We covered sponges with scraps of fabric and made beds and easy chairs.

Corner of mini post office. Marker for scale.

We had a whole life in miniature.

I kept that hobby through my adult years. At one time or other, nearly everyone I know has received a miniature “something.” A small sewing scene for my quilt-making friend, a tiny cluttered dorm room for one stepdaughter, a miniature stable for another. In my home I have a post office, a 6-level museum, and a funeral parlor, all in miniature. My embalming room and post office are pictured here.

Mini embalming room. For scale: the orange waste container was a pill container.

To give my hobby even wider distribution, I created Geraldine Porter and her granddaughter, Maddie (there’s that M again) and set them free to make minis and solve murders in a slew of mysteries—nine novels and one short story so far. That meant I had to come up enough M’s for the titles: Murder, Mayhem, Malice, Mourning, Monster, Mix-up, Madness, Majesty, and Manhattan are out in paper and e-book formats. Matrimony in Miniature will be released in September 2016.

Anyone have an M for the next one?

A model by any other name

Fictional model of the world

On my crafts table is a room box, newly painted, waiting to be furnished. On my computer is my latest novel, newly crafted, waiting to be furnished.

Adding a descriptive passage to emphasize a point in a scene is like dropping that tiny string of pearls onto m’lady’s dresser in the Victorian dollhouse mansion. Cutting a paragraph from a chapter in a novel translates into removing a too-large scatter rug that overpowers the rest of the kitchen furnishings in a modern dollhouse.

I change a verb for a more powerful statement; I change the draperies in the dollhouse dining room for the same reason.

For a miniature scene or room box, after I choose the colors and assemble the pieces, I leave it on my crafts table for a while, living with it, looking at it from different angles over the course of a week or so, to be sure all the elements fit together nicely. Only when a particular design has stood the test of time, do I glue all the parts in place.

I do the same for my novels, leaving each chapter or day’s work to sit for a while. When I come back later, I see the flaws. I notice phrases or sentences or plot elements that don’t work well together, and make the changes. Only then do I consider it “finished” and metaphorically glue it in place.

I have the most fun when I can combine my two favorite crafts, making miniature scenes and writing mystery novels. At writing conferences and meetings I donate miniature scenes for charity auctions, often including miniature replicas of books that are featured on the panels. Here’s one put together for a recent conference.

Miniature model of the world

In each case—making a miniature scene or writing a novel—I’m creating a model of reality, a fictional world where things can be easier and often make more sense than in the life-size world.

Both endeavors also involve cheating!

When I put a roof on a dollhouse I don’t have to worry about the materials really being weatherproof. Dollhouse admirers assume all will be well if it rains. When I move my characters about in a novel, I’m not concerned about filling their cars with gas or giving them a rest stop on a long journey, unless it’s crucial to the plot. Readers assume the mundane things are being taken care of.

This house has no kitchen. Cute, huh?

In the world of dollhouses, there’s no laundry to do, and a houseful of carpeting can be changed in a matter of minutes. In my mystery novels, the good guys always win and justice is always served.

What could be more satisfying?

Is It Real Or Is It A Dollhouse?

A real crime scene?

Many people assume that, since I’m into dollhouses, I also love dolls. Not!

I do love dollhouses. It’s people I can’t stand. Not all people, just the ones that inhabit dollhouses; i.e., dolls.

You should be able to take a picture of any room in a dollhouse and have it be indistinguishable from a real house, unless there’s a ruler or a coin in the photo.

But as soon as you put a doll in the house, it no longer looks “real.”

I know there are “realistic” dolls of the right size for a dollhouse, but no matter how expensive and “lifelike” they are, they still stare into space and are usually capable of only one expression on their faces. Sure, some are “poseable,” but until there’s a living, breathing doll that can move around on the one-inch-to-one-foot scale, I’ll stick to vacant houses. I’m thinking of putting a SALE PENDING sign on my latest cottage so no one will be tempted to give me dolls.

There’s a way to have a dollhouse look like people live there, without having to deal with the faux people. To that end, I crumple small pieces of paper and put the “trash” on the desk and floor of a miniature office, toss clothes on the floor in the kid’s room, strew laundry around the basement and crumbs on the kitchen counter. I even plant cobwebs (thread) in the attic.

It’s enough that people have been there; you don’t have to see them.

The UK calls them “dollshouses.” I don’t like this spelling, because it implies that dolls live in the houses, whereas I live in them. I live in the Victorians and Tudors and room boxes I build and decorate, and even in the much nicer houses I visit at miniature shows and museums.

I imagine myself putting away groceries in the tiny kitchen of one of my dollhouses, resting on the living room couch, eating at the six-inch dining room table, climbing the stairs to lavish bedrooms and even cleaning the tiny bathrooms. (I can help you make a tiny plunger using a toothpick and a small piece of crafts clay.)

Before you get ready to cart me away, let me explain that you’d have to lock up entire communities of miniaturists if you’re worried about this tripping out, imagining we live in our tiny houses. There are sound reasons for the flight of fancy.

In fact, they’re the same reasons readers give when they escape into a novel.

You know those discussions authors and readers have about “fiction” vs. “reality”? Should writers be super-careful about one-way streets if they’re using a real city as a setting? Should historical writers check every detail to be sure they’re not off by a few days of the invention of ink or zippers? TV viewers complain about how “off” CSI is as it relates to the daily life of a real crime scene tech, but it’s still one of the most popular shows on the air.

It’s fiction. Does it matter?

Miniaturists have the same kind of discussion. How realistic should dollhouse furniture be? Should dresser drawers open? If you can open the oven door, should there be a rack with a tray of cookies in there? A light? Should we spray chocolate fragrance?

It’s fiction. Does it matter?

Why Write About Crime?

Even some of my miniatures end up as crime scenes.

Most of my friends in the mystery writers community have been asked at least once:  Why do you write about murder? Why not romance? Or biography? Or comics?

A few answers to a question in the words of others:

1) The old familiar:

Because All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— Leo Tolstoy

2) A strange comment from Agatha Christie:

A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no awe, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.

Well, not my mother, but are we to believe that all of Christie’s work represents mothers’ fighting for their children? Hmm, does this mean that even happy families might involve crime?

3) A new one, paraphrasing Michael Connelly in his NYT review of THE WHITES by Richard Price, 2/15/15:

the crime novel [is] something more than a puzzle and an entertainment; [it is] societal reflection, documentation, and investigation

That’s as good a reason as any why I write and read crime fiction.

A Miniature World

Open air playhouse

Here’s my latest dollhouse, shown with its master builder, my 11-year-old friend, Carmen. Carmen is the daughter of bestselling author (and assistant builder), Diana Orgain.

Over the next couple of months, we’ll decorate the house for Christmas and donate it to a raffle at a local school, an annual project for me.

Technically, this house is a PLAYHOUSE, not an official DOLLHOUSE, the difference being that one couldn’t really live in a house with a partial roof and rooms not enclosed by walls. Not that you could live in a dollhouse, but it looks like you could!

The rooms in a playhouse are easily accessible to young hands, to toddlers who might want to move things around. A dollhouse is more of a showpiece, meant to draw you in so that you feel you have entered a different environment. You can imagine yourself sitting at the table, taking a nap on the bed.

A Tudor you can live in

A suburban home that's been burgled!

Eventually the playhouse in the photo will be on its way and I’ll be ready for another dollhouse!

Long may she wave

A tour of my crafts corner to commemorate Independence Day.

Thanks to AC, the flag waves next to my model post office.

A look inside the miniature post office.

Reading a series

It’s officially released — the 8th book in the Miniature Mystery series. I’m often asked whether a reader should start with the first in the series.

Short answer: no!

Long answer: here it is.

Say you have a new friend. She’s well into middle age, and so are you (maybe). You go to lunch or to a meeting and by the way, you learn her backstory. She reveals it little by little, or a lot by a lot, depending on the circumstances. You bond over things you have in common now.

Do you feel deprived that you didn’t meet right out of the womb?

In case you don’t see where I’m going with this – and why would you?—I feel the same way about a series protagonist. In other words, I don’t have to start with A is for . . .  to enjoy my friend.

I can feel a shiver through the computer: I’m thinking of those who wouldn’t dream of launching into a series without starting at the beginning.

There has even been talk of publishers putting numbers on the spines of books for convenience. After all, who wants to start inadvertently reading a series at number 3?

But it’s no different from meeting a friend in the middle of her life. You can always go back and find out what she’s been doing before she met you. You can “track her growth” through stories, even when they’re told out of order.

Here’s why I always go for the last book of a series first.

1. Any author worth reading gets better with each book. It stands to reason that the latest book will be the best. It’s better to get hooked on the protagonist through the best book, and then go back to earlier ones. I’m more likely to forgive a few flaws in the early books if I’m already committed to the characters.

2. It’s better for the author! The publishing industry is all about “what have you done for me today?” Sales of that new book are what count. In fact, print runs are determined largely by PRE-orders. So, if book 4 is out now and I decide to go back and read book 1 first, it’s likely all over for that author/series.

3. I like to stay current. I want to read what everyone is talking about. Fellow writers, readers, reviewers will be discussing the newest book, not book 1.

4. Sometimes early books go out of print. Why deprive myself of a good book just because the series may not be complete on my shelves?

5. I’m a fan of the Fibonacci series. You can start anywhere in the series and generate other numbers in either direction.

{Fibonacci Refresher: Starting with 0 and 1, each new number in the series is simply the sum of the two before it.

}

If it’s good enough for Fibonacci . . .