Alison McMahan: Mystery Writer and Filmmaker

 Alison McMahan has trudged through the jungles of Honduras and Cambodia, through the favelas of Brazil and from race tracks to drag strips in the U.S. in search of footage for her
documentaries. Her most recent film is Bare Hands and Wooden Limbs (2010) narrated by Sam Waterston, which won Best Directed, short form documentary; at the Santiago
Alvarez in Memoriam Film Festival in Santiago, Cuba.
Her historical mystery novel, The Saffron Crocus (Black Opal Books, 2014), won the Rosemary Award for Best YA Historical and the Florida Writers Association’s Royal Palm Literary Award. On top of that, she’s written numerous other short stories and non-fiction anthologies. 
 Between writing and filmmaking, I managed to pin Alison down and ask her a few questions about her life and her craft. D.A. Bartley: Do I remember correctly that you lived in Spain as a child? If so, how do you think that has affected your writing? I grew up in a fishing village about eighty kilometers south of Barcelona, a place of great natural beauty, during the last years of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. My village is in Catalonia, but at the time the Catalan language and most aspects of Catalan culture were banned. The recent drive for Catalonian independence is just one aspect of the rebellion fomented by that repression. Growing up an American expat in that environment politicized me while I was still very young. The village where I grew up was formerly the Roman province of Tarraco. Every day on my way to school I went past a Roman triumphal arch, a Roman amphitheater, and my high school was nestled inside of Roman walls. The musical conservatory where I studied solfege had a foundation laid in the Celtic era, walls from the Roman era, and the upper stories dated back to the Renaissance. The village church I attended was built before the U.S. became a country. Anyone who grows up in a place like that is bound to become a history buff! My siblings and I attended Spanish schools, so I’m bilingual. Charles V is quoted as saying something like German was for military talk, Italian for friends, French for lovers and Spanish for God. I think he knew what he was talking about. Spanish is the language of the ineffable, its DNA is poetry, its aspirations divine. No wonder the first magical realists were writers who wrote in Spanish. D.A. Bartley:  The Saffron Crocus is categorized as an historical mystery romance set in 17th century Venice. Stopping right there, I’m already intrigued. Can you tell us a little about the story? Alison: The story is set in Venice in 1643, that is, about eight years after the city was decimated by the black plague. The heroine, Isabella, is fifteen, and wants to sing in Monteverdi's choir in San Marco’s Basilica. But only boys are allowed to sing there. Her singing teacher, Margherita, convinces her to tryout for this new thing called opera, but just as Isabella is about to do that she finds her singing teacher murdered. Now she and Margherita’s handsome rogue of a son, Rafaele, have to solve Margherita’s murder, before the killer gets to them. I’ve visited Venice about eight times over the years and came to love the city. I also love opera. The story is carefully researched. Yes, coffee was the drug of choice in the seventeenth century,comparable to how we see pot now. And yes, when a chorus needed sopranos, they preferred to castrate young boys rather than to let girls sing in public. Most of the plot twists were inspired by little-known historical facts. D.A. Bartley: Your writing background is as broad as it is long. What advice would you give someone just starting out? Alison: If you are starting out as a fiction writer, then turn off your TV, stop going to movies, and read. Then read some more. Keep reading. I’m fairly new to fiction writing myself (I got serious about it just a few years ago), but here are the main craft skills I’ve identified that I think every writer needs to know:

  • CHARACTER: You need to put down your cell phone and learn how to observe and engage with people. That’s really hard, I know; I’m more introverted than most. But you have to do it. You need to know how to create interesting characters, characters that automatically conflict and complement each other. YOU CAN’T PANTS A CHARACTER. Writers are mostly boring people (at least on the outside) so don’t just base a character on yourself. Stretch yourself. Imagine the inner life of the homeless person who sleeps in your bank foyer or the woman who makes your coffee at Starbucks or the Russian businessman sitting next to you on the plane. This skill set is essential to writing good dialogue. Nothing matters more than built-in character opposition. Really observing people — really looking at them, really listening — often pays off in magical ways. People are frail and strong, beautiful and revolting, cruel and tender. Can you capture that? Because that’s your job. To capture that.
  • SCENES: Another skill you can learn from a good screenwriting course is how to structure a scene. I’ve done my share of judging for various contests and it just amazes me how often I read fiction where the writer starts a scene, then leaves it to start another scene before anything has happened. A scene is your novel in miniature: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, at least two characters who come into conflict and by the end of the scene someone has won something and someone has lost. Yes, every single scene. Seventy two to eighty scenes to a novel at today’s word counts. That’s your job. To write scenes. You need to know how to write action. The only way to write action is to know how to do action. David Morrell is a great example of this. He goes out and learns race car driving or spends thirty days in the wild before he writes a book with those elements. He’s a master. Learn from him. I studied fencing while I was writing The Saffron Crocus, as there are swordfights in that book, as well as studying seventeenth century fencing manuals. If you are writing an action scene that involves something you can’t do, like fly a plane, then talk to someone who can. Don’t worry, they love talking to writers.
  • WRITE: Write a complete rough draft of your novel before you start editing it. Ignore the voice of your inner editor until you are done. If your internal editor is telling you “this novel sucks,” you can ignore her during the editing process too. Learn something about reading levels. In general, reader comprehension is dropping. It used to be that we could assume eight grade reading levels were the norm. Studies show that now we can only assume a fourth grade reading comprehension level across the board. I’m not saying dumb it down. I’m saying be aware. Personally, I have found it works better to have beta readers than to be in a writing group. A writing group develops a competitive dynamic, it quickly becomes not about the writing. Your beta reader will do their best for you so you will give them the best beta read you can when it’s their turn. Make sure at least one of those beta readers is a “typical audience” reader, not another writer. They often give the best feedback. Bonus advice: write short stories (2500 words or less) and read them in public. You learn a lot about what works, and what doesn’t work, with an audience.


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