If Walls Could Talk: Polishing Your Pitch ‘Til It’s Perfect

M.H. Norris

“Canada Water Library Shelves” by Barney Moss

Sometimes, writers have to go back to basics. It’s been awhile since I pitched a short story idea cold turkey without having been asked to pitch an idea and I found myself a bit rusty. What do I say in a pitch? What details do I include? Seriously? Just a page?

Let’s preface this post with this, pitches and outlines are two of my least favorite parts of writing but they are necessary.

James, stop chuckling.

Let’s talk about the all-important pitch. You see a short story anthology, you want to be in said anthology. They ask for a one-page summary.

What do you do?

Don’t panic.

Yes, the bottom of that single page can and will feel extremely close.

Yes, you will be forced to cut things and you’ll hate everything because you think the things you are cutting are vitally important and the editor can’t possibly do without and how dare they expect you to limit your brilliance to just one page.

Yes, yes they do.

This pitch is your chance to show the editor, or curator, just what you can do. In approximately 500 words, you must convey a story that will span several thousand.

So here are some tricks.

1) Do include information about the ending

Especially with a mystery. This may seem obvious, but trust me when I say it isn’t. They want a synopsis from start to finish.It should feature every major plot point.

If you’re writing a mystery, be sure to include who did it, maybe insight into the motive (let’s be honest if you have a good long idea for motive you won’t be able to fit it into the pitch – tease them, give them a hint at least, as much as you can).

Part of it is they want to make sure you can finish the story once you start.

2) Do not go over the limit

Yes, yes, I know. You think one or two lines over won’t make a difference.

It will.

Especially if you are trying to break into a franchise anthology or with a bigger publishing house, they are sticklers for the rules.

It’s hard, I know. Trust me, I’m working on a pitch right now for something and I’ve already cut once and I probably have to go cut again (I’m writing this and trying to avoid the fate that awaits me – sigh this reprieve won’t last for long).

But do it. You need to follow the instructions. That doesn’t mean these details are cut from the story; they’re only your synopsis for this pitch.

3) Don’t be afraid to repurpose ideas

Two stories on this one. Because yes, I made it this far without storytime this week. I pitched a short story idea and got rejected. I loved the idea of the idea and found a potential second home for it, but the idea needed to be repurposed. We’ll see if I get to use it this time.

Second story is actually one you can find on the commentary for the pilot of Psych. Steve Franks talks about a scene near the end where Shawn actually calls the cops on himself (yes, he does have a reason but it’s funny to pretend he doesn’t). According to Franks, he’d been trying to fit that gag in to projects for years but it never stuck and he was so happy he actually got to do it.

Sometimes, a story you think is perfect for one thing, actually belongs somewhere else, slightly different.

That has to go with the keep trying and don’t give up advice that I should put in here somewhere.

4) Make sure all your pieces connect and it makes sense

This is hard and a place where I struggle. Especially if I’m limited to something like one page. Badge City: Notches’ pitch was 2-3 pages if memory serves and I could get away with that. But often, that isn’t the case and you have to adapt.

That being said, trying to throw a mystery into a few words and include the who, what, where, when, why, and how is very tricky. Keeping that all intact and staying inside the word limit is even harder.

But it needs to make sense because if it doesn’t, you’re killing your story before it has a chance to shine.

So A goes to B goes to C and when you cut stuff due to space make sure you don’t cut something that makes your plot suddenly not make sense.

It’s a balancing act. Have someone read it over before you send it in to make sure it still makes sense.

5) Do have other details that don’t make it in

Keep in mind, that once accepted, you have to write this story. You cannot give away everything in a pitch. Those gems you cut? Keep them tucked away, just in case. You might get the chance to use them.

6) Do your research

There’s a good chance you’ll have to have some basic knowledge of whatever you happen to be talking about to make your pitch make sense. Granted, I’m one to talk since I pitched for Badge City: Notches using the information I’d learned on Psych about police procedure and murder.

Luckily for me, Steve Franks’ father was a cop. He knew his stuff. And it tended to slot in with my interviews with members of the police force and my stack of reference books.

If you’re writing a historical, those little details can make or break you. This is also the point where I once again point you in the direction of Jon Black’s fabulous blog here on the 18thWall site.

Hint hint, wink wink.

Pitches, synopsis, and outlines aren’t going anywhere in writing. Sad but true facts. Hopefully the things I shared here help you as you search for the perfect place for your idea.

Good luck!

Literary Archeology: Forgotten Festivals

 

Jon Black

“Frost Fair of 1814” by Luke Clenell

Last fortnight’s post dealt with, in part, the Frost Fairs … periodic London revelries occurring whenever the Thames froze solid. A semi-regular part of London life in the 16th – 19th centuries, the Frost Fairs stopped when the global climate warmed and the Thames stopped freezing. Since writing that post, I’ve been curious about other lost or forgotten holidays and festivals that might make a colorful backdrop for historical fiction. Here are five:

Akitu/Zagmuk (Ancient Mesopotamia)

Marduk and Tiamat

The Mesopotamian New Year Celebration, it was known as Akitu in Akkad and Zagmuk in Babylon, its celebration is attested to at least 4,000 years ago. Lasting 12 days and culminating on the Spring Equinox, Zagmuk celebrated the victory of Marduk, god of the city and civilization, over Tiamat, the embodiment of primordial chaos. The centerpiece of Zagmuk was a passion play reenacting Marduk’s triumph, with the role of Marduk played by city-state’s king. In some versions, Marduk was slain by Tiamat on the festival’s first day and resurrected on the 12th day (with obvious similarities to the story of Osiris in Egyptian mythology).

This passion play was accompanied by daily religious rites and pageantry as well as feasting and drinking by the rest of the populace.

Traditionally, planting began on the first day after the conclusion of Zagmuk. Some scholars have suggested that aspects of Zagmuk/Akitu can still be found today in Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Festival of Drunkenness (Ancient Egypt)

Harvesting Grain for Beer

This annual (or possibly biennial) revelry gets points for honesty and cutting to the heart of things. At the end of the day, isn’t this is a big part of what most festivals are really about?

Yet at its heart was the serious purpose of commemorating humanity’s salvation from destruction. To make a long myth as short as possible: the gods were angry with humans (again) and sent the goddess Hathor (in some versions, Sekhmet) to wipe them out. At the last minute, Ra took pity on humanity. He commanded 7,000 jars of beer to be brewed and mixed with hematite so it resembled human blood. Seeing the ruddy beer poured out in a field, Hathor mistook it for human blood (Why? Who knows?) and consumed it all. Becoming intoxicated, she fell asleep and humanity was saved.

To commemorate their deliverance, at the festival Ancient Egyptians would emulate the goddess by getting absolutely sloshed and falling asleep. Other participants would dance wildly with torches in hopes of receiving an ecstatic vision from Hathor. The following morning, revelers were awoken by musicians playing drums and horns (not, I expect, to everyone’s great delight).

Some scholars suggest the festival has its roots in an older agricultural celebration; its biennial occurrence corresponding to the harvesting of summer and winter crops along the Nile.

Plough Monday (England)

Plough Monday

Up through the early 19th century, Plough Monday, celebrated on the Monday of the first full week in January, marked the beginning of the English agricultural calendar. While that might sound relatively dull, many traditions surrounding Plough Monday were not. Villages hosted processions led by a young boy dressed as an old woman (called Bessy) and an old man dressed as an animal (simply known as The Fool). Accompanied by musicians, Bessy and the Fool dragged a plow from house to house while asking for gifts and money for the harvest (It has been suggested that, originally, such gifts were intended as offerings to secure a bountiful harvest).  Celebrations continued until the next morning with drinking and dancing. Some dancing was ritual, in the fashion of Morris Dancing, including a very specific variation, Sword Dancing.

St. Crispin’s Day (England)

Now known primarily through Shakespeare’s Henry V, St. Crispin’s Day (October 25th) once served as a vehicle for social sanction in communities throughout England. In traditions persisting until the 1880s in some areas, on St. Crispin’s day villages fashioned an effigy in the image of a resident who was particularly ill-behaved or notorious over the past year. The dummy would then be hung from a tree, signpost, or other high point as way of expressing communal displeasure with that individual. The effigy was left hanging until November 5th (which happens to be a Guy Fawkes Day, another holiday in which an effigy plays a significant role … so I can’t help wondering if there is a connection).

Evacuation Day (New York and Surrounding Areas)

Let Your Freak Flag Fly (Evacuation Day 1783)

The curiously named Evacuation Day was an annual celebration of British soldiers’ November 25, 1783 withdrawal from New York at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. Evacuation Day was celebrated with parades, martial displays, flying flags, formal dinners, and speeches by local officials.

A more unusual aspect of Evacuation Day, flagpole climbing contests, had its roots in an apocryphal story that the British had left their flag flying over New York but greased the flagpole in hopes of making it impossible for the Americans to remove their banner. After several failed attempts by others, a young man succeeded in shimming up the pole, removing the Union Jack, and raising the Stars and Stripes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Evacuation Day waxed in direct proportion to the increasing popularity of Thanksgiving, another late November holiday. It’s a shame about the flagpole climbing contests, though.

If Walls Could Talk: Remember Why You Write

M.H. Norris

Grab a cup of tea and let me start this week off by telling you a story about a young girl who would one day become your favorite mystery maven.

But at this point, where our story is set, I wasn’t there quite yet. In fact, I hadn’t really written my first mystery at this point. We’re coming around to the point where I maybe was starting to work on “Puzzle Pieces” for The Lemon Herberts.

June 2012

Some of you who follow me on Facebook, or have caught me talking about my writing, might know the significance of that month. That was the month my grandfather passed away. In case you don’t know the significance of that, he is one of the reasons I fell in love with writing. He read everything he could get his hands on. That’s saying something, because he went legally blind and was still reading large print.

His love of reading was contagious. We would read together–especially mysteries.

My love of the genre was already there.

A few weeks after his passing, I discovered the USA Network show, Psych. It became one of my absolute favorite shows. For those of you who haven’t had the privilege, Psych is a show about Shawn Spencer,  a hyper-observant guy with a photographic memory (and was trained by his father his entire childhood) who solves crimes in Santa Barbara California all while posing as a Psychic Detective. Because Shawn has the attention span of the average five-year-old, they tended to only work on murder cases; those were the only cases shiny enough to keep his attention.

January 2014

Fast forward about 19 months. I had the opportunity to write a police procedural, but needed a case. This is also around the time Psych‘s seventh season was airing, and the big announcement that they were closing on their eighth and final season.

While making the decision, I turned to my favorite crime fighting team and saw them solving murders. After spending as much time as I have watching them at work, I thought a murder case was where I would be the most familiar–and thus at least have a foundation between it and my grandfather, the two things that made writing a police procedural even appeal to me.

So there it is, I also talk about this in this week’s episode of The Raconteur Roundtable!

But I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m telling this story, after all, it’s been awhile since I ranted like this. Over this last weekend, I started to rewatch Psych. I figured, since this is partially what inspired me to write my first mystery, maybe I’d find whatever muse was hiding in those eight seasons.

I’m about halfway through Season 1 and I’m having an absolute blast. It’s like revisiting old friends after a long time away.

So here’s my question for all of your and partially why I’m writing this today. What inspired you to write? Who?

We hit a point in our writing careers, or at least I feel like I have, where we seem to maybe step away from that inspiration. We forget that we decided to do this writing thing because we love it.

Somewhere along the way it becomes all about deadlines and the next project and your writing bucket list and what you want to do and where you want to go.

What about those days where you dreamed of writing, of telling your story and having your voice heard?

When was the last time you wrote for fun?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with all of the above, it’s part of what makes up a writing career.

But sometimes, you need to take a step back and find your muse. Find where you started. Sure, if you’re like me you’ve come a long, long, long, long ways since then.

But it’s your start.

What inspired you? What spoke to you then? Maybe it was two guys who constantly make 80s jokes, eat an obsessive amount of pineapple, and solve murders that might otherwise go unsolved in rather untraditional methods.

What is it?

If you’re like me and feel like you’ve been stuck in a writing rut, maybe you should join me in revisiting it and seeing if you can remember what it was that inspired you.

Normally here I give you advice and tell you my two cents worth on how to fix the problem in question. But not this week.

This week I’m going to issue you a challenge.

Find what inspired you

And maybe, take an hour or two this week and write something for the sake of writing.

I’ve done both this week. I think it’s made the world of difference.

If Walls Could Talk: Do Your Due Diligence: Research What You Write

M.H. Norris

Let’s talk this week about a topic that, in the last few days, has become near and dear to my heart.

When writing, do your research

Seriously, take some time, and do your due diligence and make sure you at least know what you’re talking about.

Otherwise, imagine me staring at you with a glare. And then think about what you’ve done.

Your writing without research.

Jon Black does a fabulous blog every other Thursday–right here–where he give you insight and looks into what it takes to write historical fiction. If you haven’t read any of his posts, I suggest you do, because I find them to be quite interesting and he covers things I wouldn’t necessarily think about.

And while I’m plugging him, keep an eye out for his upcoming book, Bel Nemeton which is due out with 18thWall soon.

When I wrote Badge City: Notches, I came in to it not completely sure what it took to write a standalone book, let alone all the ins and outs of a police procedure. The time when I got the assignment, to the due date the publisher set, was less than 16 weeks.

I had my work cut out for me.

To focus, I narrowed everything down to two questions:

How do I write a police procedural?

And what do I need to know to write it?

This launched me into a month-long mass-research session. I grabbed a couple of books off of Amazon, grabbed FBI papers, another scholarly research article on serial killers, a couple of case studies on some of the more well-known examples, documentaries, anything at hand.

And I also binge-watched about eight seasons of Criminal Minds when I couldn’t handle real research. You might have noticed that if you’ve read my stuff, because my protagonists tend to use the term UnSub. I think Rosella even loosely gives the BAU credit for the term in Midnight.

I still have the books, and I’ve gathered more. I’ve got books on police procedure and investigation, forensics, private eyes, weapons, and a couple other topics. Research for Badge City: Notches was the backbone of research I take with me into every mystery I write. Now when I approach Rosella, I can study things in addition to that.

When I started to begin to develop the idea of Dr. Rosella Tassoni, I grabbed a couple of Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan books. I also watched most of Bones (I need to finish the next to last and last season so no spoilers please and thanks–I’m also behind on Criminal Minds though I know a lot of their spoilers).

I even bought a forensic anthropology textbook. Honestly, I’m eyeing another one and might end up caving and spending the money on it eventually.

This isn’t me saying, I know everything. Because trust me, I don’t know about a lot when it comes to the field, but I learn more and more everyday. Google is my friend and I can easily find articles about various topics.

Do you realize just how small the internet has made the world? I can find a journal article from a British publication with one search and then turn around and go to a university on the West Coast with the next.

Different topics, different insights, all help me to get a well-rounded idea of what I’m talking about.

Every writer knows there’s some things you know about your characters, your world, your subject that your readers may never see. Information that you tuck away in case you revisit them or it just never comes up.

But we know.

And just knowing and feeling confident in what you know shines through in your work.

Because, if you don’t, it could drown out everything else in your writing. No amount of solid character development, no amount of carefully planning your plot can help.

We’d like to think otherwise. Shoot, even I’ve said people come for the plot and stay for the characters.

But if you are consistently getting things wrong. That might be all people notice or remember.

So where are some methods to collection information? Sure, we know the internet’s there. But how do you get great, useful information from it?

1) The Internet

Let’s take a moment to note that, yes, using scholarly sources is a good idea. Academic papers or articles are there for free. Others sites built up a reputation or are run by people who compile it into easy to read formats.

These are usually good for quick reference or to get a couple different views on something.

It’s made the world so small and let’s you check out information on far away places. For example, I set Badge City in California and was able to do research on the differences in their laws from what I’m used to and various policies change state to state.

Use the resource. It’s invaluable. Plus, there are other writers who spend their time writing blogs. I keep an eye on a couple, for various things. Here are some James and I especially recommend:

2) Print

Nothing beats an old classic.

And nothing quite beats the smell of books. Trust me, my room is full of them, they’re occupying various nooks and crannies battling it out for space.

But there’s valuable insights to be found and people have taken the time to write reference books on it.

Writer’s Digest has a ton of these resources and I encourage you to take a look. I have a handful of their books that I find to be very useful.

As a crime fiction writer, here are some of my favorites…

  • Police Procedure and Investigation – Lee Lofland
  • Howdunit: Forensics – D.P. Lyle (actually anything by him really – I wander to his blog now and then as well)
  • The Writer’s Guide To Weapons – Bejamin Sobieck
  • The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide – Martin Roth
  • Amateur Detectives – Elaine Raco Chase and Anne Wingate

Sometimes I find stuff at used bookstores, or i pick up other’s from various places. Amazon is your best friend. I once grabbed two books (including an autographed copy of one) for less than 10 bucks (shipping included, if memory serves).

Fiction works along with non-fiction. Like I said above, I grabbed Kathy Reichs and enjoy reading her. Another one I enjoy is Andrew Carmel (see last week’s post).

Another thing that goes hand in hand with this is magazines. Does your character have a specialty with knowledge you might need? Is there a specialized publication for that? Chances are, yes. Then pick up an issue or two or get a subscription. You stay up to date on the field and as a result, so does your character. James’ subscriptions to various archaeology magazines have fed more than a few of my upcoming stories.

3) Ask An Expert

Some have blogs for such a reason as this. Others publish articles for various publications. Maybe you know someone, or the character is inspired after them. I couldn’t have written Badge City: Notches so well without having some friends and family on call to walk me through their day, or answer the questions that come up on a 3AM writing binge.

There’s no source quite like a real person.

And so many professionals would be thrilled to tell you about their work, and answer some basic questions. Just be sure to respect their time–and give them a signed copy of your book when it comes out!

Conclusion

A little research goes a long way when it comes to writing. Just like we strive to grow as writers throughout our careers, we should also strive to know more about our subjects.

After all, writing a novel is a long marathon.

Make sure you train properly. 

Announcement: Meet Our Blog Coordinator, Soph Iles

James Bojaciuk

18thWall Productions is thrilled to announce a new member of our time–the excellent Sophie Iles–who will be taking charge of our blog. She’ll be handling the posts, working with our authors, bringing in new bloggers, and making your 18thyWall blog experience one of your favorite daily website visits!

Get to Know Soph

Sophie Iles is our recent addition to the team as our new Blog Coordinator, and she is British to boot. She’s renowned for constantly wearing odd socks, spiking her short hair to odds-defying heights, and bringing up Doctor Who at any given opportunity.

Lovingly referred to as a ‘Joan of all trades’ by friends, Sophie has been a production assistant, an unqualified teacher, a coffee shop barista, and A Build A Bear mascot—but her real passion is a love of characters, and how they develop in a well-woven tale.

Her worldly knowledge spans a cozylook on animation due to her arts degree to her untamed love of story-telling since she was given a amateur class in mythology by her wizen old grandmother.

Sophie can be reached on her Twitter, Tumblr, and by email. You can also find her currently hiding out in Cardiff, United Kingdom.

Literary Archaeology: Writing the Wind: Weather, Climate, and HistFic

Jon Black

The Frost Fair of 1814 by Luke Clenell

This started out as a post about the promise and peril of writing HisFic in which I used the recent Doctor Who episode “Thin Ice” as a case study. But watching the episode, seeing the Frost Fair over the Thames and the elephant making its way its way across the thick ice, I kept veering off into reflections about the possibilities for using weather and climate in historical fiction. Ultimately, I surrendered to these tangents.

The Frost Fairs, fetes held in concurrence with irregular freezings of the Thames (which largely brought London to a standstill anyway) were a real thing. Even the elephant was liften from the pages of history, homage to an actual pachyderm who bravely crossed river near Blackfriars Bridge in 1814.

Another aspect of the 1814 Frost Far was disappointingly omitted by Dr. Who writers: the production of a commemorative book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State by printer George Davis. As an added gimmick, with modern aficionados of meta will appreciate, all the books were typeset and printed in a stall erected over the frozen river.

The Frost Fairs occurred, in years the Thames froze solidly, across a broad swath of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Unsurprisingly, these dates coincide with a period known as the Little Ice Age when mean seasonal temperatures in most parts of the globe fell significantly.

That makes Frost Fairs the kind of exotic yet specific element that brings historical fiction to life for readers … and is fun for authors to write. The Little Ice Age is hardly the only distinctive weather/climate event with potential for writing HistFic. I have expanded on it, and provided a few others, below.

Event of 535 A.D.

What remains of the Ilopango Volcano today

A brief but devastating period of global cooling and violent weather that is now tied by many scientists to a Volcanic Winter caused by the catastrophic eruption of either El Salvador’s Ilopango Volcano or Indonesia’s Krakatoa.  Consistent cloud cover and cooler temperatures created famine in locations as diverse as China, Ireland, Mesoamerica, and Peru. Famines begat plague as well as touching off a wave of often violent migrations as hungry populations went off en masse search of sustenance. Among the civilizations believed to have fallen or been weakened at least in part by the Event of 535 A.D. are the Byzantine Empire (largely from the Plague of Justinian), India’s Gupta Dynasty, Mexico’s Teotihuacan, sub-Roman Britain (as consequence of the movement of hungry Saxons and Vikings), and the Sassanid Persians.

The Little Ice Age

Depending on the specific location, the Little Ice Age might have begun as early as 1300 or ended as late as 1850.  Several explanations have been advanced for the age and, operating over so long a period, it likely resulted from multiple interrelated factors. Whatever the causes, the effects were dramatic.

That one could sometimes walk from Manhattan to Staten Island over the ice seems unremarkable when the parts of the Bosporus and the Bay of Galveston occasionally froze solid. Snow was taken for granted in Lisbon, Portugal.

Further north, effects were more serious. Frequent flooding altered coastlines and river courses in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. Iceland was isolated, famished, and lost half its population. Norse populations in Greenland vanished entirely. In Asia, China saw its agricultural zones shift southward and its coastal regions battered by intense typhoon activity.

Blame it on the Rain.

All this had profound social consequences. The hungry, displaced, and weary populations of the Little Ice Age have been linked with everything from increased political radicalization (English Civil War, American Revolution, French Revolution, Revolutions of 1848, etc.) to witch hunting panics stretching from Salem to the Harz Mountains.

Of course, every Little Ice Age has its silver lining. A number of musicologists have suggested that that the old, dense woods of Little Ice Age forests may explain (at least in part) the superlative acoustic properties of instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius.

Year Without a Summer (1816)

As with the Event of 535 A.D., the Year without a Summer was caused by a Volcanic Winter, in this case resulting from the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora. Piggybacking on the effects of the Little Ice Age, it overtaxed already strained agricultural systems. Europe saw shortages and food riots in France, Switzerland, and the UK. A typhus outbreak occurred in Ireland. Freezes occurred as late as August while severe storms and torrential rain flooded major rivers. In North America, crops in New England and Canada failed. While there was no widespread famine there, food prices (and social unrest) rose sharply. China saw regional famines accompanied by widespread desertion from the army.

William Turner’s sunset paintings were made possible by a disaster half a world away.

Conversely, the dense atmospheric particulates of the Year Without a Summer led to brilliant sunrises and sunsets, captured in landscape paintings of the period. It also stimulated widespread interest in scientific agriculture such as mechanization and chemical fertilizers.

A few parting thoughts about how climate might play into historical fiction:

First, as the above examples indicate, climate has a significant impact on the rise and fall of civilizations, cultures, and nations. This is true of gradual long term change as well as cataclysmic occurrences like the Event of 535 A.D. or Year without a Summer. With the glacial (see what I did there?) pace of climate change, land is often settled which is cultivatable under favorable climate conditions. When climate shifts again, however, the land proves to be inhospitable. This kind of sudden decline in carrying capacity has been pointed to as a factor in the fall of the Anasazi (or, if you prefer, Ancestral Puebloans), classical Mayan civilization, and civilization’s first blush in Mesopotamia (possibly catalyzed by widespread deforestation).

Don’t Have to Be a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind is Blowing.

Second, humans have always understood weather … but they haven’t always understood meteorology. A Neolithic farmer might actually be a better weather prognosticator over his or her little bit of dirt than a trained 21st century meteorologist. But the Neolithic farmer (and, indeed, most humans until the early 20th century) don’t really see the big picture and don’t understand what drives weather. For much of history, extreme weather is likely to be viewed as divine omen, direct evidence of God’s/gods’ displeasure, or the work of the black magic or infernal forces.

If Walls Could Talk: The Vinyl Detective: Necessary Storytelling Lessons from this Fantastic Mystery

M.H. Norris

As a mystery writer, I love to find a good mystery that not only keeps me on the edge of the seat, but also keeps me guessing from cover to cover.

As a reader, I love to find a novel that makes me want to stay up far longer than my practical side wishes, because I need to know who did it and I need find out what’s at the end of the twists and turns.

Back at L.I Who last November, I discovered a mystery that does both.

If you haven’t picked up a copy of The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel go out and grab one.

Seriously, go.

Now.

I’m not kidding.

Whether you’re writing mysteries or just writing in general, Andrew Cartmel shows off his decades of experience in writing with the best mystery I’ve read in a long time.

The sequel, The Vinyl Detective: The Run-Out Groove, was released yesterday. I’ll have to chat about it at another time because I’m not that fast of a reader (or my deadline for this column isn’t that late–I’ve heard it both ways).

Let’s talk about writing lessons you can learn from Andrew Cartmel and The Vinyl Detective.

Also, in case you missed it, Andrew Cartmel came and hung out with us at the Raconteur Roundtable for this week’s episode. He gives some great insight into his writing process and I highly recommend you take a listen.

Four Lessons You Should Learn From The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax

1) Keeping Your Readers Glued From Cover to Cover

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the Doctor Who episode “Smile,” and how bad pacing ruined the second episode of Series 10.

To make this column as well-rounded as possible, I’m going to point out a good example of pacing so you can see how it’s done correctly.

That example is Written In Dead Wax.

It doesn’t start slow, it throws you right into the story, even if you don’t realize it right away.

Our nameless protagonist, the Vinyl Detective, goes out and looks for albums pressed in vinyl. At some point, he’d made business cards boasting that he would find any album someone asked him to. Someone takes him up on that, asking him to find an extremely rare jazz album from a company who went out of business shortly after making the record.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

We go through his process as he explains it to the character his employers have assigned to tag along.

And every time you feel like you have it figured out, every time it seems like it’s slowing down just a bit, Cartmel throws in another twist, another turn, and off you go again.

Pacing is vital to keeping your story going and with mysteries, it’s hard to find the best pace. You’ve got to plant clues and suspects, backstory, the crime itself, investigation, and guesswork.

On top of that, you’ve got a protagonist who needs to be developed, as well as anyone who is helping them out.

With mysteries, you have to figure out where to insert various pieces that make the puzzle seem to come together.

And Cartmel does it without you realizing he’s doing it.

2) Adding just the right amount of suspense into a story keeps your readers glued to the pages

Let’s all take a moment and be perfectly honest with ourselves, we love mysteries that constantly tell us, “but wait, there’s more.”

And if we didn’t see the more coming, the reveal is so so so satisfying. Ask James, I didn’t see some of the bigger twists coming–and he would get messages as I freaked out, because I was so excited and it surprised me.

I love being surprised like that.

So thank you, Andrew.

Suspense and pacing go hand in hand. Suspense will help your pacing, lack of suspense–lack of forward momentum and the threat of things going wrongly–will kill your pacing.

The perk of mysteries is that they lend themselves to suspense. Who did it? Why did they do it?

I know a couple of mysteries that even kept my grandfather up much, much later than someone his age should have been up. I do have a rather found memory of him sheepishly coming into the dining room the next morning and admitting that he’d stayed up later than either of his much-younger grandchildren, because he couldn’t put a book down.

At least I come by it honestly.

Those are the books we remember, the ones we recommend. And the secret behind those recommendations is the suspense.

Part of what helps build suspense is getting your readers invested in your story. I told this story ages ago, but I’m going to retell it again.

When I was doing research for a project, I read a book about screenwriting and it suggested I watch a show that only ran for one season, Commander in Chief. But the book insisted the writing was good. So good that if a reader had the chance to check it out, they should.

It happened to be on Hulu, so I watched, and the writing was good, but I reached the series finale that turned out to be the series finale…I realized why it only made it one season.

I wasn’t invested in the characters.

As a result, I wasn’t invested in the story.

I didn’t care who won the fight between the protagonist and the antagonist, because I didn’t have any reason to be invested. I still find it odd they managed that.

Which leads me to…

3) well-written characters in a living, breathing world

The Vinyl Detective, even without a name, has quirks, hopes, dreams–methods to his madness that, together, result in a well-developed, well-rounded character.

Characters. I’ve done post after post after post about them. The one thing I take pride on is my characters. They’re fun to create, and sometimes they manage to take on a life of their own.

Earlier today, James and I were talking and he jokingly suggested another short story collection idea for Rosella. One with a terrible, terrible premise that’d make her hate life. After he told me, I looked at him and said “Rosella hates you now.”

And she would.

On top of the protagonist, we have a number of side characters who compliment him.

You can know a lot more about your characters and what makes them tick than what appears on the pages of your book.

Or what to tease and what to reveal fully.

So many options and so much time to have fun…

Regardless, creating compelling characters will drastically increase the success of your book. Check out Cartmel’s book and see how he develops a handful of fun quickly characters that all compliment each other and all contribute to getting the book to it’s end point.

So much of characterization comes from their backstory. Now when I say that I don’t mean their date of birth, first crush, and favorite movie. I mean the things that happened to them previously that are relevant in the current situations. It fills in a character’s aspects, which might not mean much on their own, with meaning and emotion.

The Vinyl Detective is hired by Nevada’s employer to find an extremely rare LP from a West Coast company that went out of business decades ago. So, not only are we getting the quest for the record. We get the story about it. That’s right, backstory applies to MacGruffins too.

Who was involved in the project?

Why was this the company’s last LP?

What happened to them?

Why is the original different from remakes of this LP?

What does “written in dead wax” even mean?

All of these questions are answered. Some of it we didn’t necessarily need to know but Cartmel takes the time for us to understand the importance of the record we are watching our protagonist trying to find. It just lends a little something extra to the book, the backstory, the finer details that Cartmel took the time to write for us.

There’s a fine line between info-dumping for the sake of “backstory,” and weaving it into the story, so that the reader feels glad it was there.

This fine line between info-dump and meaningful backstory has three aspects: relevance, interest, and ability to keep the story moving. 

When the Vinyl Detective meets someone who is involved in vinyl restoration, we learn quite a lot about this character. All of it is relevant to his role in the story; his involvement in

It’s genuinely interesting, while still being connected. And because of both its relevance so far, and how interesting it is, all of the backstory that makes this character a real person also gives Cartmel a way to expand the plot outward. Someday, I might do a spoiler-post on just how this was done.

4) There is something to the saying “Write What You Know”

When he asked Ben Aaronovitch, his friend and author of the Rivers of London series, what the secret of a writing a bestseller is…Aaronovitch responded, “Write what you love.”

Andrew Cartmel loves to collect vinyl. He also has cats. So when he sat down and wrote a novel about a cat-owning vinyl fanatic, he didn’t have to do but so much research to translate that character and his world into The Vinyl Detective.

There’s just a level of something that you get when you know something, and when you love it. Even though you fictionalize things a bit, knowing and loving your stuff helps.

Cartmel’s passion for the subject shines through his story and it kept my interest on a topic I hadn’t considered before. He also chats about it more on the episode that we released yesterday (in case you didn’t take my hint to go listen at the beginning of this–seriously, go, it’s a fantastic interview).

The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax is honestly the best mystery I’ve read in awhile. With fun, compelling characters, fascinating backstory, and twists and turns that kept me up late at night, I enjoyed reading this one.

And I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Seriously.

Go get it.

Now.

The Raconteur Roundtable #8 – Script Doctor (Who) & Vinyl Detective – Andrew Cartmel

Andrew Cartmel, mystery author and former Doctor Who script editor, joins the gang to reflect on his new novel–The Vinyl Detective: the Run-Out Groove (which you need to read immediately), his favorite authors, and his time on Doctor Who. Join us for an extended discussion on the art of novel writing, and the first Vinyl Detective novel, Written in Dead Wax. We take it apart, and see what made it such a great novel. Then we have exclusive information on just what happened to Andrew’s “lost” Torchwood episode, explainations for one of Ghost Light’s enduring mysteries, and the best novel-outline system we’ve heard of. Andrew also compares writing fantasy, of a sort, with his and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London comics vs sci-fi like Doctor Who. Nicole Petit joins the gang for the main interview. All this, and and M.H. and James duel over duels.

The Raconteur Roundtable #7 – Memories, Doctor Who, and Big Finish Competitions – Ian Atkins

A delightful discussion with Ian Atkins on his role at Big Finish Productions, his memories of Paul Spragg, a look back at the first year of the Paul Spragg Memorial Competition and helpful tips for this year’s submissions, what Doctor Who should be, The Second Doctor box set and “The Story of Extinction,” fancy kilt, and Frazier Hines’ puppet show. All this, and Ben Kasson’s best Rick and Morty impression. If that’s not enough for you, M.H. Norris is shocked to silence at one of Ian’s revelation.

Worthy of Stories: Cagliostro, Prince of Quacks?

J Patrick Allen

A new, monthly series by J Patrick Allen–author of Dead West–featuring his investigations into lives and events which are…worthy of stories. It’s your one stop shop for inspiration, and the hankering urge to think, “Hey, I should use that in a story.” Look for it the first Monday of every month, only on 18thwall.com.

There was a legend of a magician, loved by the common people and scorned by the nobility. He traveled all of Europe, collecting a menagerie of hundreds of disciples. He treated the sick and the afflicted free of charge, drawing crowds so thick that the constabulary had to step in. This man knew the secrets of the philosophers and could transmute lead into gold. Born of an exotic origin and knowing of powerful secrets, he came to spread the wealth of his knowledge.

Or did he?

I first hear the name Cagliostro in Hayao Miyazaki’s amazing Lupin The Third adventure, The Castle of Cagliostro. The movie itself was loosely based on the Arsene Lupin novel, La Comtesse Cagliostro or “The Countess Cagliostro.” In truth, Cagliostro had no castle, and his ties to any sort of noble title were tenuous at best. Still, in trying to track down some of the inspirations for one of my favorite Miyazaki movies, I came across some really interesting stuff.

According to his detractors, the “Prince of Quacks” Alessandro Cagliostro was born under the humble name Guiseppe Balsamo. Throughout his history, Cagliostro styled himself as a noble magician and alchemist. Even from an early age he claimed to have secret knowledge of things. At the age of twenty-one he convinced a local silversmith of the existence of a great treasure nearby. All that was needed to acquire it was a small sum of silver to acquire the necessary tools. But when they arrived at the site to begin the dig, Balsamo attacked the silversmith and fled with his money. For his part, the silversmith reasoned that the djinns guarding the treasure must have possessed the young man.

After learning forgery in exchange for an evening with his young wife Serafina, Balsamo took on the name Alessandro di Cagliostro and traveled to London. Here he met the legendary alchemist and occultist, the Comte de Saint-Germain. Here, he was also inducted into the order of Freemasons.

During this time, he spent his days traveling mainland Europe, attempting to win converts to and build lodges for his new style of “Egyptian Freemasonry.” He began acting as a physician for the poor, winning acclaim and adoration from the common folk for refusing to accept payment in exchange for his services. In addition to these small things, he began holding seances. In later years, those seeking to discredit him would lay claim to witness testimonies by disciples and street-children who helped his confidence game by rigging the seances.

One of the episodes for which he is perhaps most famous is a confidence-game plotted in France, involving a lady-thief named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, a desperate jeweler, and even Marie Antoinette herself. The necklace in question had been crafted for a particular noble woman who proved unable or unwilling to purchase the finished product. Having gone nearly bankrupt on material cost alone, the jeweler was desperate to unload the necklace. He soon learned that the only people who could possibly afford it were none-other than the royal couple itself.

Multiple times, Antoinette refused the necklace, stating the money would be better spent elsewhere. Jeanne, pretending to be an intermediary for the queen, conned the jeweler into “selling” her the necklace. She then attempted to pawn off the diamonds individually, but was caught and arrested. There is speculation as to Cagliostro’s participation in the events, or whether this was a convenient moment for the Vatican to implicate him in something. After all, Freemasonry was illegal according to the Catholics.

After fleeing France, Cagliostro was picked up by the Roman Inquisition. He died in prison a short time after, suffering multiple strokes in one day.

Several works and testimonies have been produced in the years afterward, supporting or attacking the assumptions that Cagliostro was the man he claimed to be. In present times we are now quite sure that he was what his enemies claimed: A charlatan and a fake, a confidence artist of a scale one simply does not see anymore. He is certainly a product of his time: An age when mysticism was high, and one with the proper connections and charisma could support themselves as a supposed “adventurer.”

Whether he was what he claimed or not, one certainly has to admit that he led an interesting life—a life worthy of stories.

Tell Me More

How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair by Jonathan Beckman [Da Capo]

“Occultist, Charlatan, Adventurer—Who Was Count Cagliostro?” by Esther Bergdahl [Mental Floss]

“Cagliostro” [Faust]

J Patrick Allen grew up exploring the American West with his family. He climbed mountains, fished, camped, visited the family cattle ranch, and explored a castle. Author of the Dead West series, JP writes about the monsters we take with us. Every week you can listen to JP on the Rocket Punch Radio podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and TuneIn, where he and his friends hold roundtable discussions about all things geeky. In 2016 his story “Dragon Shadow” was awarded Best Short Story from the Pulp Ark New Pulp Awards. When he’s not hard at work, he and his wife can be found curled up with a beer and a book or game. And you can find him at his website, https://www.jpatrickallen.net/.