It’s part of Diana Gabaldon lore that she wrote her first novel OUTLANDER for practice, little dreaming it would end up published, let alone a best-selling phenomenon. Would that anyone’s first novel land on the bestseller lists rather than the dustbin, but it’s a testament to Gabaldon’s skill as a natural storyteller that her novice effort captivated millions of readers world-wide.
Perhaps that’s why Gabaldon is content to let the plot unfold as she writes, rather than plot extensively in advance. For Gabaldon, the story reveals itself organically, and she doesn’t panic if a resolution or plot twist steers the story in another direction entirely. The result is a book that keeps the reader on edge wondering and worrying where their beloved characters will end up.
Gabaldon also has a gift for weaving history into her story so that we are treated with not only a great yarn but an informative excursion into the 18th century with blood, grime, smells and less than stellar dentistry.
We are pleased to present part two of our interview with Diana Gabaldon (missed part one? Click HERE).
Q: Your books are extremely detailed with period detail ranging from the big macro world of politics to the smallest everyday moment. What research method works best for you? What are some tips you could give writers to use historical resources to their fullest?
DG: It would be stretching things to dignify the way I do research as one “method,” let alone several. Hmm. Well, let’s see—for one thing, I do the research and the writing concurrently, and they feed off each other. That is, I may be writing along and discover that I need to know X. I go and look for X—but along the way, I happen to find out something utterly fascinating about Y (which I would never have thought of looking for in the first place), which in turn gives me the kernel for a new scene. Which I write, and in the process, need to find material regarding Z. And in the process of researching Z… it’s a positive feedback loop.
Beyond that…well, let’s do a brief example.
The historical framework I’m using at the moment is the American Revolution, generally speaking. And the time frame I’ve got makes me think I want to use the Battle of Saratoga in some form in this book. I know nothing about it. So—Google and the Web being what they are now (they didn’t exist at all in their present form when I began writing novels, mind)—I have a quick look there, which tells me when the battle occurred (and the fact that there were in fact two battles, separated by a stretch of several days), where the battle occurred, and the names of the principal generals and officers involved. I want a little more, and searching on “Battle of Saratoga order of battle” (the order of battle being a description of which specific troops were involves and how they were positioned) turn up a website that gives me that.
OK, this is all very useful preliminary stuff—but it is preliminary. The Web is wide but shallow, unless you’re very specific about what you’re searching for (see “order of battle”) and/or lucky. If you actually want historical depth, accuracy and credibility, you use books. (My “core” reference collection numbers about 1500 volumes at the moment; I generally acquire a couple of hundred additional books during the research connected with each new novel—though by this time, I have a good collection on the general time periods I’m working with, so don’t need quite so much new stuff.)
So anyway, I now know the Battle of Saratoga took place in the early autumn, in upstate New York. OK. I’ve been in upstate New York; the place is absolutely covered with trees. I don’t suppose it was that different in the eighteenth century (though when describing vegetation, you do need to check to be sure the plant you’re talking about wasn’t introduced during the 19th century—traveling botanists and collectors introduced all kinds of things everywhere then—but one of the Peterson or Audubon nature guides or one of the herbal reference books will usually tell me that). And I do know that there was that ten or so day stretch between the battles. If I wanted to write a scene involving Claire, Jamie, or Young Ian during that time, I could reasonably use my sense of what eastern woods are like—backed up by the three or four natural-history guides I have specifically for eastern US forests. So I might start there.
But what’s going on in this scene? Is it purely personal—in which case, I probably know what I need to—or will there be reference to the battle that ended a few days earlier, or the one that hasn’t yet started…and do the people encamped there know there’s going to be another battle? Probably not, but let’s go look…that isn’t something that’s going to pop up easily on the Web (though you might find someone’s journal that includes the battle period; that might be worth looking for—and in fact, I’d probably want to do that anyway, since first-person accounts invariably give you enormous quantities of excellent details that you wouldn’t think of looking for on your own)…but I’ve come across several mentions of a book titled SARATOGA, by Richard M. Ketchum, which is touted as the most comprehensive and accurate account of the battle and its historical context.
So I order the Ketchum book from Amazon, but in the meantime….we’re between battles, are we? Well, so; presumably we have people who were wounded in the first battle, and Claire being who she is, her medical skills are likely being called upon. So…what’s she doing? Because I don’t need to know exactly what happened in the first battle in order to know what kind of wounds resulted; I know what weapons were being used and the kind of carnage that generally resulted (and I have quite a few 18th-century references on armory and medicine, and a 1967 Merck Manual for backup (1967 being the limit of Claire’s medical knowledge), just in case).
We’re in an army encampment of some six thousand people. So…I can imagine what the effect on the terrain likely was (imagine the latrines alone…)—clouds of dust when it isn’t raining, seas of mud when it is, the woods stripped of anything burnable, but large predators like wolves drawn to the source of food (one of the first-person accounts I read describes the howling of wolves during the nights between the battles, as they dug up and devoured the bodies of casualties who had been buried in a shallow trench)…and I have several useful how-to manuals written for re-enactors that detail exactly what a Revolutionary-era camp kettle looked like, how to build a camp-kitchen, what a bed-sack was (a canvas bag with a slit in it that could be rolled up and carried easily, but then unrolled and stuffed (ideally) with dry grass or hay to sleep on at night; the British soldiers all had them as standard equipment), and so on.
So I can be happily writing about what Claire’s doing between the battles, while waiting for the more detailed stuff to catch up with me—but once I get the Ketchum book, and find out a little more about just what happened (and to whom) during that battle…those initial scenes expand a good deal. For one thing, I discover that Benedict Arnold (still on the American side) was a significant force during the second battle. Now, how could I pass up at least a peripheral mention of him, given that Claire knows what’s going to happen to him? (Now, how do we handle that?…could just play it straight, but could also use it to mess with the Morality of Time-Travelers/Paradoxes of Time-Travel threads I’ve got going.) (The thing about using historical characters is that you need to remember that interesting as they are, the novel is rarely about them. If you’re going to use one, he or she has to have some personal relevance to the people the novel is about.)
In addition, I also had the opportunity to go and walk the battlefield at Saratoga; I’ve seen a replica of the farmhouse in which the Continental officers held their meetings, and I know how close the river is, and what the air smells like….and all those things find their way into what I’m writing, too (no, you don’t have to go do on-the-spot physical research, but it’s certainly nice if you have the chance).
And…in conversation with one of the NPS personnel who was working as a re-enactor on the battlefield (who not only allowed me to heft his Brown Bess musket and showed me the loading drill, but also answered my nosy questions about what kind of underwear he was wearing—none, as it turned out), I learned fortuitously that when the Park Service excavated what was believed to be the grave of Brigadier Simon Fraser in the Great Redoubt a few years ago…it was empty. A button or two, but no sign of a body—and evidently there would have been, even after 250 years. Which bit of information gave me the plot twist for something I’d been looking for for months. I.e., I knew that I required some people to go from point A to point B, but didn’t know just how, when, or why. Hearing about Simon Fraser’s empty grave suddenly revealed all those things.
And of course, while I’m working on all this, I’m thinking—as is Claire—about what did happen during that first battle. I become convinced that Jamie Fraser was slightly wounded in that battle. How? What was he doing? Luckily, the Ketchum book has arrived by now, and is just awash in detail and first-person quotes, so I can easily place Jamie in that battle—as well as discovering where he had to have been when Simon Fraser was killed during the second battle. Which leads me to a consideration of that second battle—in which Benedict Arnold played a very striking role. And so…
It’s just messy. But then, so is life.
Tips? Geez. Well, yes; when you’re just starting on your research and need a quick overview of your period—go look in the kid’s section of the library. Children’s books are a fast read, and by their nature have to be entertaining. This means they’re brief and simple in outline—but also include any number of the kind of picturesque details that are catnip to a novelist.
Beyond that…imagine yourself thoroughly into a scene, body and mind. That will tell you what kind of details you need to know. And I guarantee that when you go to look for them, you’ll find out something cool—whether it’s what you were looking for or not. Don’t depend entirely on the Web for your research. Go to libraries (university libraries, for preference; public libraries are excellent institutions, but their remit causes them to stock books that will be generally popular, rather than the specialist kinds of things a historical novelist wants)—and in addition to combing the stacks, ask the librarians to guide you to resources; modern university libraries have huge online reference facilities that you’d have trouble either finding or accessing on your own.
Q: Have you ever had a plot change because you’ve run across something in your research too juicy to ignore?
DG: This question seems to assume that I have a plot to begin with; that I either work from an outline, or in a linear fashion, so that I’d have a predictable sequence (predictable by me, I mean, not the reader) which then might change in response to cool research findings.
I, um, don’t. I don’t plan the books in advance, I don’t work from an outline—and I don’t write linearly. I also do the research concurrently with the writing. (See answer to Question 6, above.)
This being the case, the plot always “changes” in response to just about anything I read, see, or think. Though “change” is probably not the right word, because the plot doesn’t really exist prior to the bits of inspiration that generate it.
Q: Now that you have six titles in your OUTLANDER series and half as many in the LORD JOHN books, the pantheon of characters is growing. Are so many characters a burden or a help? Is it strange to have readers enthralled with certain characters?
DG: Goodness, there are more than five hundred named characters just in the first four books of the OUTLANDER series (I know, because I had to list them all—with brief descriptions—for one feature in the THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION). No idea how many there are now, but I suppose we’ll find out when I do THE OC, VOLUME II.
I can’t see why they’d be either a burden or a help, really; they’re there when needed, but don’t just stand around getting in the way. I mean, if I don’t require one of them for something, I just don’t write about them.
Oh, wait—do you mean having a number of major characters? If so, then yes, I can see upsides and downsides to it. On the up, you have much less chance of boring the pants off your readers by following the minutiae of a single person’s life while she discovers every significant cultural advance of the Neolithic world, since you can shift from one storyline to another and back, thus skipping the potentially boring parts in all of them. By the same token, you’re less likely to have writer’s block, since if you have no idea what So-and-so should do next, you can always go write a bit of Such-and-such.
On the down side, you do have to insure that all these storylines make sense, both internally and externally. That is, each major character must have an arc of some kind within the story, and the various storylines must in fact have something to do with each other.
As to strange…well, now. On the one hand, I certainly hope readers are enthralled with various of the characters; no point in reading the books if they aren’t. And after all, I’m fairly enthralled by them myself.
On the other hand, readers’ responses to the books and characters certainly makes the arrival of the daily mail more interesting—you never know what’s going to turn up next. Last week, I got a big box from the members of the Soapdish Forum (which I hadn’t previously heard of)—an online group devoted to the manufacture of hand-made cosmetics and toiletries (among other things). They had, they explained, chosen to base their monthly projects on my books and characters, since many of their members were fans of the books—and thought I might enjoy samples of their efforts. Which I certainly did: the contents of the box included “La Dame Blanche” silken body powder, “Dragonfly AND Amber” soaps (two soaps packaged together—one amber-scented, the other a pale blue swirl with a floral fragrance, stamped with a gold dragonfly), lavender revivifying spray “for the discerning dragoon” and a number of other fascinating substances and items.
The next day brought an envelope containing the lyrics and music to a song composed by a reader, based on her reactions to the main characters—and a cassette of herself singing it.
I’ve had race-horses, show-dogs, cars and housing developments named after characters and places in my books. Received gifts of scented candles, handwoven shawls, knitted bagpipers (really), and 200 rolls of toilet paper from around the world (no, really. A fan from the Ladies of Lallybroch (an online fan group) asked me a question while I was finishing a book, and I replied that I’d be glad to tell her the answer, but ask me next week, because I had only two brain cells left at the moment, and one of those was trying to remember to buy toilet paper. Three days later, the FedEx truck backs up to my house…).
Well, yeah, maybe some of them are a little strange. I love them all, though.
Q: How did fans react to the LORD JOHN novels when they first came out? Was there surprise that you took time out from the OUTLANDER series to write a new story?
DG: Well, they reacted predictably. Whenever an author with a successful series writes something else, half the audience will be thrilled with the new stuff (“At last! She’s writing about something besides those creaky old sex-fiends!”) and the other half will insist the author is “wasting” his or her time (“I only want to read about Jamie and Claire; I could care less about some homo…”). I’d say a good deal more than half the OUTLANDER readers have bought the Lord John books, though (and liked them, luckily)—and (again, predictably) the fan base for those books is growing steadily with each new novel; which is exactly what happened with the main series.
The Lord John books really aren’t a departure from the series, though; they fit into the overall OUTLANDER series (albeit in a sort of perpendicular fashion). They intersect with and supplement the storylines of the main books, filling some of the larger lacunae there. And while these novels are focused on the character of Lord John Grey, they do both reference and directly involve the main characters from the OUTLANDER novels (Jamie Fraser is an important, though minor, character in BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE, just as Lord John is an important but minor character in several of the main books).
And in the deeper layers of historical fiction—using Lord John in this way gives us the English perspective in conflicts like the Jacobite Rising and the American Revolution, thus providing a richer (and more accurate overall) impression of the period and events.
There are a few readers who are uncomfortable with what they persist in calling Lord John’s “lifestyle” (as a gay male friend of mine once remarked, “Yes, I just woke up one morning and said to myself, ‘Oh, I think I’ll embark on a lifestyle that severely limits my potential partners, exposes me to the risk of fatal disease, and will get me kicked in the head if I go into the wrong bar—just for fun.'”).
That’s perfectly legitimate; not all books are for all people. Still, many more readers seem much more comfortable with John Grey, now that they’ve seen him in his own context and learned more of his own life and character.
And from a purely technical point of view, Lord John is an excellent character to work with, because of his built-in conflicts. He was a homosexual man in a time and culture when homosexuality was a capital offense. Ergo, he lives constantly with the danger of exposure. At the same time, he exemplifies the virtues of his time: he’s honorable, dutiful, devoted to family, King, and country, a skilled and courageous soldier—and he’s very self-aware, an Enlightenment man with an interest in logic and science, who therefore accepts his own nature as a matter of nature, rather than of theology. Consider what kind of strength of character it must take to know and accept yourself—and essentially to put your life on the line for your country and culture–when said country and culture informs you that you’re a pervert, damned to hell, and a social reprobate?
Click HERE for part 3 of our interview, when Gabaldon shares a snippet from an upcoming novel. As is true to form with her, it’s completely different from anything readers might expect. Don’t miss it!