Category : Miniatures

Addicted to DIY

Make a soda fountain chair from a champagne cage. Instructions obvious?

This blog is about three months late — I should have written it for April 1. Because the follow up to “Managing a DIY Addiction” is: You can’t! April fool!

I can blame my DIY addiction on many things, starting with the lack of toys available when I was a kid. The proliferation of toys now is exponential; they’re found in just about every retail outlet from bookstores to produce stores and even at the dry cleaners. (We wouldn’t want the sweet little tots to be bored while the nanny picks up Mom’s business suits.)

Not that our family could have afforded toys anyway, but I consider myself lucky in both regards – few toys available and little money to buy what there was. I, and my friends, were left to our own imaginations.

My father built me a crude dollhouse and that’s all I needed. I’ve written elsewhere (ad nauseum, you might be thinking) about furnishing that house and probably hundreds more scenes, roomboxes, and houses in the intervening years. Thank goodness for the countless charity auctions that are willing to take the finished products off my hands, or I’d have to have a separate dwelling for my crafts.

DIYing my dollhouse carried over to other areas. Not, I’m sad to say, into major work like painting a life-size house or fixing the plumbing, but to many other crafts. From my earliest days, I would look at something in a store—a greeting card, say, or a skirt, a bookmark, a scarf, a calendar, a paperweight, an ornament—and think, I can make that.

Of course, sometimes the attempts were colossal failures, but enough projects succeeded that I kept on going. From friends and relatives, I learned sewing, knitting, crocheting, drawing . . . whatever it took to make that thing that was in the stores.

One time I took a cartooning class so I could make a comic strip for our Christmas card. The instructor was about 17, and worked on Toy Story! Fun, but that was my last try at that.

Dick (note the pocket protector): How do you like our tree this year? Camille (remember this was 20 years ago): It's our best ever! (And you see the "tree" is really a tv image.)

Crafting as therapy. There's nothing like it. It's impossible to stay stressed and unfocused while trying to glue tiny pieces together.

More miniature scenes are on display in the gallery on my website.

Too Cute to Live

Sewing scene; marker for scale

Here’s a new scene in one of my miniatures corners, inspired by a friend who gave me carpet that she made from cotton thread, and another who gave me sewing equipment. I’m trying to decide whether to turn it into a (mini, of course) crime scene. It’s a thing with me.

One time I found a lovely Vermont country house in half-inch-scale in a local miniatures store. It was so cute—freshly painted, beautifully finished wood floors, a charming porch—I almost didn’t buy it. Too pretty. What could I do with it except place equally adorable tiny furniture in the rooms?

“How come it’s on sale?” I asked the clerk.

“There’s a defect,” she admitted, pointing to a window on the first floor. Sure enough, one pane in a multi-pane window, made of plastic, was split open.

My spirits lifted. “Great,” I said. “That’s where they broke in.”

The clerk gave me a sideways look, but I was happy. I had my crime scene.

In my mind I was already placing small pieces of glass (plastic) on the floor under the window, tipping over the darling living room chairs, smashing the dainty lamp, breaking one leg of the miniature coffee table.

It’s not just miniatures. There’s something about crafts and murder that have a natural connection. Whether it’s knitting needles or utility knives, scissors or toxic paints and resins, our crafts tables are a storehouse of offensive and defensive weapons.

Although most miniaturists I know have elegantly furnished Victorian or Tudor dollhouses or Cape Cod cottages, they sometimes stray from The Cute with risqué scenes. In fact, every miniature show I’ve been to has a few brothels, strategically mounted higher than kids’ eye level. But other than the fascinating CSI thread a few years ago, there aren’t enough miniature crime scenes to enjoy.

One of my heroines in this regard is Frances Glessner Lee, the Chicago heiress who built meticulous miniature crime scenes (even knitting tiny stockings for the background) and used them to teach criminal investigation procedure to cops. It’s worth a look at her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

My most elaborate dollhouse is a mortuary, fashioned after the building where my Periodic Table Series protagonist lives. Gloria tiptoes past mourners on her way to her kitchen and trips over a trocar when she goes down to do her laundry next to the embalming room in the basement. It wasn’t easy to fashion an embalming table out of foil, but I had to DIY, since no miniatures stores seemed to have any in stock.

A Tip for the Miniaturists Among Us

Just to prove I’m not always turning cute into deadly, here’s a bloodless tip to accent your dollhouse or roombox kitchen or living room: lay bell pepper seeds, enough to cover a quarter, on a paper towel and let them dry. Then place the seeds in an old contact lens/bowl, or a similar “found object,” and you have chips ready for munching (by a very small person).

It’s a project fit for family viewing. No crime scene tape needed.

A Special Architecture

A few weeks ago, I got a query from a blogger for the Eichler Network. (Yes, Eichler owners are networked.) He’d heard that the protagonist in my Miniature Mysteries, Gerry Porter, lived in an Eichler, and would I be willing to do an interview on how, why, etc. Eichler? Of course I would.

Briefly: When I planned the series based on a miniaturist who builds dollhouses, I thought she should have an architect for a husband, and she should live in a special kind of house. My good friend, author Margaret Hamilton, had just moved into an Eichler home a couple of miles from me. Perfect!

If you’ve never seen an Eichler, you’re in for a treat. The floor plan is built around this model, with variations, but the main feature is an atrium with plants of your choice and a skylight that can be rolled back to the open sky.

The phone interview with blogger David Weinstein resulted in this fun blog, complete with photos, where all questions are answered.

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.