AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Diana Gabaldon, part 3

She doesn’t plot in advance, has no compunction at all over plunging forward into a scene without knowing how it will end up, and doesn’t worry about “the market” . . . she trusts in her readers. Fearlessness is Diana Gabaldon’s secret weapon when it comes to her writing. With a slew of bestsellers and more on the way, Gabaldon doesn’t waste any time handwringing. She just gets down to business and trusts that the magic will happen through the writing. For me as a writer, it’s been incredibly inspiring and reassuring. (Missed parts one and two? Click HERE)

Enjoy the final installment of our interview with Diana Gabaldon.

Q: You’ve written your books in both first and third person. What’s the deciding factor for you in choosing POV?

DG: It’s just a matter of who’s talking to me. I wrote OUTLANDER as a first-person narrative, both because Claire Randall seemed to want to talk that way and because it seemed like the easiest thing to do—I wrote that book for practice, in order to learn what it took to write a novel, and didn’t see any point in making things more complicated than necessary.

First person has substantial advantages, in terms of intimacy and immediacy, but there are a couple of minor limitations—the main one being the difficulty of describing events that take place outside the narrator’s presence. There are technical ways of getting around that, though. And if you use more than one point of view in a novel, it really doesn’t matter that much whether these are all first, third, or a mixture.

Claire is the only character in the OUTLANDER universe who does speak in first person—but I use multiple third-person POV’s (in fact, someone recently pointed out to me that I’d been adding one new POV per book, which I hadn’t consciously realized), as needed.

Now, the protagonist of a contemporary crime novel that I’ve had cooking (slowly) for some time also speaks to me in first person, though Tom Kolodzi’s voice is different than Claire’s:


Copyright 2008 Diana Gabaldon

The ringing phone interrupted my stupor. I went inside to answer it, thinking it might be someone from either the paper or the police.

“Go-oood evening, sir!” said a chirpy female voice. “We’rerunningaspecialsurverywe’renotsellinganythingitwon’tcostyouanythingbutafewminutesofyourtimeanditwouldbeveryhelpfulinestablishingnewmarketingtrendsdoyouthinkyoucouldspareusjustafewminutes?”

I reached out and pulled open the freezer door. There was an unopened bottle of Woiwora, that my sister had sent me–in blithe disregard of postal regulations–as a housewarming present, under the impression that decent Polish vodka would be unavailable in the wild West. It was the only thing in the freezer.

“Sure,” I said, reaching for the bottle. “Shoot.”

“Oh, thank you!” she said, sounding relieved. “Now–” settling down to business, “do you eat ice-cream?”

“Nah,” I said. “Freezes my dentures. Hurts the roof of my mouth.” I scraped the frost off the seal with my thumbnail, and groped in the cupboard for a glass. I knew I had one. I tucked the phone into my shoulder, in order to search with both hands.

“Oh. Er…well, do you consume alcoholic beverages on a regular basis?”

“Nope. Joined AA back in ’84, coming up onto twenty-five years of sobriety now. You a boozer, sweetheart? Take my advice, get sober.” Now I remembered; I’d left the glass in the bathroom. I pulled out the mug with the copulating hippopotamuses and poured two fingers, changed my mind and filled it to the brim.

“Ah…no. No, I’m not. Ummm…let’s see.” I sipped as she ran her finger down her list, searching for possibilities. It’s not true that vodka has no smell; you just need to be close.

“Do you–eat breakfast cereal?” she asked cautiously.

“Oh, bet your patootie,” I said cheerfully. “All Bran. Best thing in the world for the bowels. Regular as clockwork, every morning, eight-thirty on the dot. Why, you could set your watch by my–“

“Have you ever eaten flavored breakfast cereals?” she asked loudly.

“Why, All-Bran’s got flavor,” I said. “‘Specially if you put a little something on it.” Like ketchup, maybe. I had a friend once named Howie Samuelson, who ate ketchup on ice-cream. At least he did in the fifth grade; his wife might have made him quit.

“Something on it. Like cinnamon?” She pounced before I could deny eating cinnamon. “Well, now tell me, in terms of cinnamon-flavored breakfast cereal, would you be Likely to Buy some in the next month, Somewhat Likely to Buy, Might Buy and Might Not, Somewhat Unlikely to Buy, or Very Unlikely to Buy?”

“Run that by me again?” I took a sip, closed my eyes, and let the vodka run slowly down the back of my throat. You freeze good vodka, you get a liquid the consistency of clear cough syrup. It thaws on the way down.

The voice sighed audibly, then began doggedly repeating. She must get paid by the hour, not the call.

By the time we had established that I would never buy any breakfast cereal, past, present, or future, containing any foreign substance, from cinnamon to marshmallows to dried prunes, in any store, large, small, or medium-sized, at any time of day, morning, afternoon, or evening, under any imaginable circumstances, I was sitting on the floor with my back against the refrigerator, pleasantly numb from the nostrils down.

“And for statistical purposes only, sir–” she took a deep gulp of air, the end at last in sight, “–could I ask how old you are?”

“Twelve,” I said, and set the receiver gently down.

I sat very still for awhile, listening to the muted roar of Telemundo coming through the wall, then decided that I was drunk enough to call home.

Q: What should writers be mindful of when creating characters and plotlines?

DG: Err….everything? Speaking from a nuts and bolts perspective, there isn’t anything in a book but characters and plotlines. Let’s see—this is either going to have to be a very general Statement of Purpose, or it’s going on for several pages, and probably neither of us has that kind of time right now. So we’ll aim for short and pithy, shall we?

OK. A good novel has a sense of internal logic, which is unique to that book. The characters must support that logic, and the plot must not contradict it.

If you have, for instance, a book that’s an exploration of the concept of personal honor, you may certainly have characters who exemplify that trait or who don’t, but you probably ought not to have a major character whose chief observable trait is that he gets nervous in mixed company and shouts at women because he was sexually abused as a child. You may certainly have an honorable character act dishonorably—but he can’t do it for a stupid reason. What characters do is the plot, and they do that, rather than something else, because of who they are. Motivation and action needn’t be congruent, but they do need to be logical, which means that they must make sense in the context of this particular book.

Q: Which writer’s craft books are helpful to you?

DG: Don’t read ’em. I did read Stephen King’s ON WRITING, but for the fascination of his autobiography; his working style is different from mine—though frankly, any writer’s methods will overlap with all others to some extent.

Writing successfully is a matter of figuring out how your own brain works, and doing that—not trying to adopt someone else’s methods. And in all honesty, I think an observant person would learn much more from extensive reading of novels, than reading how-to-write books. Remember though, that the only thing that counts is getting words on the page. Anything that allows you to do that is the right thing to do.

Q: Your daily routine of getting up at midnight to write for two or three hours is pretty unique. Is this still your preferred method?

DG: Yeah. It suits my biorhythm, and satisfies the need for solitude, while still letting me be available to my family. I do also write in the daytime, btw—but it’s good (for me) to get a foothold of sorts on the day’s work, and then have that to mull over in the back of my mind, return to it in the afternoon for more exploration, bury it back in the compost heap while I do gardening and errands and exercise and dinner, sleep for a bit to let the subconscious do what it will—and then see what’s there when I go up to work by candlelight.

Mind, writing depends on hard work and having a routine of some sort. It should go without saying that one doesn’t just sit around waiting for inspiration (I mean, really—do ballet dancers wait for inspiration? Cello players? Athletes? CPA’s? Why in God’s name do people think artists do that? First, you work; then the magic happens.).

At at the same time, there really is a mysterious element to what we do. We aren’t spinning straw into gold; we’re making something out of nothing at all. And to me, moonlight, stars, and frogs and crickets calling are a more aesthetic background for that kind of magic than sirens and phones ringing—not that I haven’t written in places from (literally) Grand Central Station to airports, public restrooms, and the back rows of conference rooms. I just like peace and quiet better.

Q: What writers inspire you at the moment?

DG: Oh, let me see…well, kind of depends on what you mean by “inspire.” I just read Stuart MacBride’s latest, FLESH HOUSE, and was inspired by a number of things, revulsion being right up there (it’s a police procedural set in Aberdeen, with a serial killer who’s a cannibal. Gross does not begin to describe it). Wonderful characters, dialogue, terrific atmosphere, excellent plot—and one heck of a hand with violence. (MacBride’s one of the “violent wee buggers” I mention as among my favorites; these being authors of Scottish or Irish extraction, a poetic sensibility, and no squeamishness whatever. Ian Rankin and Aidan McKinty are on that list, too.)

I should really add James Lee Burke, though I don’t know about his ethnic background. SWAN PEAK was terrific—not that I’ve ever met a Burke book I didn’t like. Wonderful language, as well as that elusive quality people call “literary”—which essentially means that while it’s a great story about fascinating people, it manages also to comment (sometimes subtly, sometimes pretty dang overtly) on the despair and greatness inherent in the human condition.

Speaking of which—Marian Keyes is a marvelous writer (Irish, too, oddly enough), whose novels are superbly funny, rather than violent, but who also has the gift of wonderful dialogue and real characters, and that same ability to comment on the Larger Picture, if a little more gently.

And I liked Pet Petterson’s OUT STEALING HORSES. Lovely restrained, economical bit of art. I can’t do it , but I admire it.

And this week, I’ve been interspersing the biography of Benedict Arnold I’ve been reading for research (an excellent piece of work in itself) with a re-read of Dorothy L. Sayers’s MURDER MUST ADVERTISE. Sayers is one of my five literary role models (people I tried consciously to emulate when I began writing fiction); the others being Robert Louis Stevenson, John D. MacDonald, Charles Dickens, and P.G. Wodehouse.

I read all the time, and there are literally dozens of wonderful writers whose work I admire as well as enjoy—but which ones come to mind is just a matter of what I’ve been reading within the last month or so.

Q: What’s next for you?

I’m pretty much just going to sit here and write until I’ve finished AN ECHO IN THE BONE—that’ll be the seventh (but not the last) of the main OUTLANDER novels. With luck, I’ll finish it within the next few months, and it will be published sometime in Fall of 2009.

Now, I do also have a graphic novel—based on OUTLANDER, but not a straight adaptation of it—but not sure whether that will be out just before or just after ECHO. And there are a few short anthology pieces that I’ve written during the last few months, which will be appearing between spring of 2009 and spring of 2010—one of these is a contemporary crime anthology titled PHOENIX NOIR (I have a short story in this one, titled “Dirty Scottsdale”—starring Tom Kolodzi, who you met briefly above), another is a multi-genre anthology titled WARRIORS (I have a Lord John novella in that one, titled “The Custom of the Army”), and a fantasy anthology titled DRAGONS (for which I’m coauthoring a novella with my son, Samuel Sykes).

AN ECHO IN THE BONE will be the next novel out, though.

Wasn’t that great? Thank you, Diana!

All of Diana’s books are available at all online and bricks n’ mortars stores.


About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.


  1. says

    I really loved what she had to say about developing your own writing style and method, rather than trying to adopt anyone else’s. I think that’s what I’m struggling with. Like many in my generation, we want the answer key so we can study it and copy it and succeed. But life — or at least a writing life — doesn’t seem to work that way. So I’m muddling through my own “biorhythms” and trying to figure out what works.

    Thanks for the insight!