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.