Category : Miniatures

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 . . .

Travel Warnings

Who doesn’t have travel stories?

Sleeping on the linoleum at Chicago’s O’Hare in the middle of a blizzard ✓; being stuck on the hotel corridor where a wedding party occupies all the other rooms and you have an 8 am presentation ✓; inspecting a nuclear power plant in a town where “good restaurant” means a choice of vending machines in the lobby of the motel, the kind of establishment where you sleep with your clothes on and your purse under your pillow ✓.

Luggage lost ✓, luggage stolen ✓.

Until my latest (April, 2015) Miniature Mystery, Manhattan in Miniature, I’ve never given any of my characters a bad travel experience. Maybe because I think every reader would be able to say: I’ve been there, and I can top that.

In fact my characters have hardly traveled at all.

It took four books to get Gloria Lamerino of the Periodic Table series out of Revere, Massachusetts. In seven books, Geraldine Porter of the Miniature Mysteries never leaves fictional Lincoln Point, California. Sophie Knowles of the Professor Sophie Knowles mysteries stayed put in the Boston area through four books, except for a jaunt to New Hampshire, which hardly counts as travel.

In Manhattan in Miniature, Gerry finally returns to her roots in New York City. Here’s a taste of one of her less pleasant moments.


I still felt a little jet-lagged and tired enough to grab a few minutes of sleep. If a cab could be a phone booth, why not a bed? We were traveling slowly enough in midtown rush hour traffic. I scrunched down a bit, got comfortable, head back, legs stretched out as far as possible, volume turned to zero on the video display in front of me, then . . .


A flat tire? In the middle of the crowded Lexington Avenue? From the quick stop and words from the cabbie, words that were directed to an SUV driver and not fit for Maddie’s journal, I guessed No, not a flat, but a fender bender. At a rate lower than the speedometer could register, I’d hardly felt the jolt, which was less violent than what I remembered from operating the bumper cars on the boardwalk at Coney Island.

“You okay back there?” my driver asked, opening the door to exit and examine the damage. He sounded more like a man who hoped to avoid the inconvenience of an injured passenger than one who was concerned for my wellbeing.

“I’m fine,” I said, as he slammed the door. A light changed somewhere and traffic started to flow, but without us.


I’ll leave it you to read about dealing with a killer, the other unpleasant moments.

Little Things

Last Saturday I visited Shellie’s Miniature Mania in San Carlos, CA – my favorite store! She’s always willing to let me drag along my newest Miniature Mystery and join whatever other fun is happening—this time her annual Easter Egg Hunt.  (Shellie is so anxious to please her customers that if they don’t find an egg within a minute or two, she directs them to the nearest one.)

Here are a few of the treasures I picked up:


Is this the smallest “quart” you’ve ever seen? I think so!


Peanut butter & jelly, or Chinese takeout? As long as you’re not too hungry.

Next time you’re in the area, check out Shellie’s!

Lucky number 20?


It’s always exciting when a new book comes out. MANHATTAN IN MINIATURE is my 20th traditionally published mystery. Was the arrival of this book on my doorstep as exciting as when THE HYDROGEN MURDER arrived 18 years ago? Hard to say.

I don’t dance around the room with it and prop it up at the foot of my bed as with #1. I’m a little more blasé

However, in a way, I like this 20th book better. At least I hope it is; I’ve learned a great deal with each book, so this one should be 20 times better than the first, right?

MANHATTAN IN MINIATURE will get a lot more of my attention than the first book. Back then, there was no Facebook. There was no way to e-promote; there were no blogs.

I did something I haven’t done before in MANHATTAN – I pulled a character out of another series and included him in this one. THE OXYGEN MURDER, also set in Manhattan, introduced an NYPD cop whom Gloria Lamerino and Detective Matt Gennaro help solve a case. He’s Buzz Arnold, who’s never without a Yogi Berra quote. I’ve brought him back in this new book—an inside joke, if you will.

Meanwhile, I’m working on the 9th miniature mystery, MATRIMONY IN MINIATURE. You guessed it: Gerry Porter and Henry Baker are ready to call it a marriage.


Comment here by March 16 to enter a drawing for an advance copy of MANHATTAN IN MINIATURE. I’ll announce the winner on St. Patrick’s Day.