My Father’s Models

By James D. Macdonald

My father, W. Douglas Macdonald, was a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer. Most of his life he worked for building materials companies, including Glidden Paint, US Plywood, and Eucatex. He died entirely too young—at 72, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him. (Note to everyone: If you smoke, quit right now.) I miss him very much.

That was his professional life. His hobby was model making, specifically ships and model railroads. He won contests in the 1920s for his model railroad cars. Back when I was young, he let me help him with his model making (talk about your fatherly love: the help of six-year-olds can be a challenge). That was where I learned model work, which I still enjoy.

All the arts are related, model work and novel-writing not excepted. Both of them center on making a world in miniature, a false seeming that convinces the viewer/reader of its reality.

Herewith are some lessons I took away from my father’s model making, and use in my own works:

  • No matter how good your model is, it won’t be perfect. No matter how much praise you get, no matter what awards you win, you’ll never be able to look at that model and see anything but its imperfections.
  • No one counts the rivets on a moving car.
  • If you suggest detail, the viewer will add his own details.
  • Painted plastic, painted wood, and painted metal all look the same.
  • A frame makes the model seem more real than it otherwise would appear.
  • Don’t put things square on bases; use diagonal lines. They suggest motion.
  • Let the paint dry before you touch it.
  • Sometimes the best model for a thing is the thing itself: Nothing looks so more like a load of coal in a hopper car than crushed coal in a hopper car.
  • It isn’t a model until you add people. Before that, it’s a clever machine, perhaps, or a toy. Characters bring their own reality with them, and pull the person looking at the model into the story. Your models tell stories; if you have a car that’s got mud on it, or rust, or scrapes and dents, it has a history. The viewer won’t know what the dent came from, but he’ll know that the car has been places and done things, and subconsciously won’t think of it as just an object from a model maker’s workbench.
  • If you can’t see the world you can’t model it.

*  *  * 

I haven’t built model railroads, though I love doing model ships and model houses. 

Herewith are some exercises for all of you; they’re not too expensive, and again (I promise!) they will help you with your novel writing. (Or, anyway, they’ve helped mine.) 

First off, get yourself a nice HO scale paper model house. Two I’ve done are Cut and Assemble Victorian Cottage and Cut and Assemble Victorian Shingle-Style House, both by Edmund V. Gillon, Jr., both published by Dover. Of the two, the latter has the greater story possibilities. 

Build one of the houses. In the building of it, add one interior room. (If you want, you can open doors and windows with your X-acto knife to give other people a chance to see it, or not.) Note: While the instructions don’t say to do so, paint the insides of the chimneys black! If you leave them white, the illusion is broken. If you blacken them, the illusion is strengthened. Remember: Anything that doesn’t add to the illusion, detracts from it.

Now place the model on a base. Landscape it. (Landscaping can cover a multitude of sins.) Spring, summer, autumn, winter scenes all have different feels.

Add people. These tell your story. If you put in a group of folks having a garden party, the model tells a different story than the model that has a police car and an ambulance pulled up out front of the house, with detectives, dogs, uniformed police, and a stretcher with a sheeted form being wheeled out through the front door.

Don’t skimp on the people. In my model of the shingle-sided house, one figure (of several) cost more than the rest of the materials combined. I found it in a hobby shop, and knew that this was the figure I needed. The more realistic the little plastic people, the more real the entire model will appear.

Another thing: In my father’s models there were always hidden details, stuff that only the model maker knew about. These things made the model real to him, and if it was real to him, it would be real to the viewers. For example, once we made a model of the submarine USS George Washington. This was a plastic model with a hinged side that could be opened to show the interior. One of the interior spaces had a door that led to the food storage reefer. My dad built and painted scale model hams, hung them in the walk-in refrigerator area, then continued with the model, sealing that area off where it would never be seen.

Also: Even if a viewer can only see three sides of the model house, he will assume—because he knows what houses generally look like, and because you made the angles correctly—that there is a fourth side. This may not be true—you may not have a fourth side on that model house, but the viewer will supply it.

The viewer will also supply an interior to that house, even though the interior may quite literally not exist . . . that’s why I suggest that you build at least one interior room in your model house. You will know that it’s there, and your knowledge will be transmitted to the people who see your model, through your increased confidence.

Similarly, if you know who your heroine’s best friend was in fifth grade, and where she went on vacation in the summer between fifth and sixth grade—even if you never show these things to your readers—your character will be consistent in her later actions in the story that you’re telling.

That’s it. Learn to see the world. Discover that tree trunks aren’t brown; they’re grey. See how the same basic, off the rack things, when arranged in various ways, with you choosing the arrangement, make different, unique, artistic stories. Discover that when you mix paint for your Pullman cars using paint chips taken from real Pullman cars, that they look too dark—you have to lighten the paint to make it look right. Looking right is more important than being right.

The models don’t look like much until you have them all put together, landscaped, populated, and framed. Then . . . they’re magic.

James D. Macdonald and his frequent collaborator Dr. Debra Doyle have written many books together. Their books include the Mageworlds series (Tor) and the Circle of Magic series (Troll Books), as well as Lincoln’s Sword, Mist and Snow and The Apocalypse Door. Macdonald has been known to cross out dictionary definitions and write in his own, and he displays a mutant talent of making opinions sound like facts. He teaches at the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle’s Website here.