“In 1988, I decided to write a novel, just for practice, to learn how to write,” Gabaldon says. “I had no intention of showing it to anyone.” She was a research professor at Arizona State at the time, so she decided a historical novel would be the easiest to research and write.
She had just watched a rerun of the Doctor Who TV series, “He had a young 17-year-old Scots lad that he’d picked up in 1745,” she explains. “He appeared in his kilt, you know. And I thought, well, that’s rather fetching.” It didn’t matter where and when she set the book, she was going to have to look up everything anyway. “So I said, Scotland 18th century it is.”
And the leading male character, Jamie Frasier, was conceived.
She set her handsome Highlander and his Scottish clan as a supporters of the Jacobites, defending his family home against the Protestant English militia.
“About the third day of writing, I decided, ‘I’ll have a female character to play off all these men in kilts. And given that we’re dealing with the Jacobite uprising, perhaps I should make her an Englishwoman. That way, we’ll have lots of conflict built in.”
Gabaldon stops to take a breath and a sip of water. She talks really fast, you have to pay close attention to her Laure Bacall-type throaty voice. And she’s articulate. No “uhs,” “uhms” or pauses to choose her words. The woman is a born story-teller.
“So, I introduced her, and the minute I put her in, she refused to talk like an 18th century person. She immediately started making smartass modern remarks, and she also started telling the story herself. I said, “If you’re going to fight me all the way through the book, go ahead and be modern, and I’ll figure out how you got there later.”
The audience laughs and she adds, “It’s all Claire’s fault that there’s time travel in it.”
From then on, the story centered on Claire, a former combat nurse, who takes a second honeymoon to Scotland in 1946 with her husband, Frank.
Creating a richly layered, multisensory world is important to Gabaldon, and she is really, really good at it. In fact, the attention to detail, including historical facts, is one of the reasons Outlander resonates with so many readers. It makes the books transportive.
She writes with such deep familiarity for the land and people that I was surprised to learn she had never visited Scotland when she wrote Outlander, the first book in her series.
In fact, she was born and raised in Flagstaff. He father, Tony Gabaldon (1931–1998), was an Arizona state senator from Flagstaff for sixteen years and later a supervisor of Coconino County. Her ancestors are not Scottish either. Her father was of Mexican ancestry, and her mother was English.
But Gabaldon’s immersive style propels readers into the world she is describing. “I start with a kernel—an object, a vivid image, a line of dialogue—and I write down a line or two that attempts to capture where that was,” she says. “Writing immersively is a matter of technique but also seeing what’s there that’s having a sensory effect. If you use any three or more of the five senses in a scene, that scene will become three-dimensional, and readers will feel like they’re there.”
It took her about 18 months to write Outlander. Keep in mind, however, the book is 850 pages in trade paperback, or about 213,000 words. You writers out there who despair of ever finishing your novel take heart. Gabaldon, who was working full time during her first novel, with three kids and a spouse, wrote approximately 400 words a day between midnight and 3:00am, slipping in a short nap before she began.
The thing that amazes me is that she writes without a net: no outline, character sketches or plot plan. "I don't write in a straight line at all," she says "I just write bits and pieces and then glue them together."
Her unorthodox approach results in magic. When, during Q&A, I commented that writing without a plan would be terrifying, her reply was pure poetic Diana Gabaldon: "It's like raising new continents. You look out over this vast sea and you see volcanoes popping up here and there. As they rise and lava goes down the sides, mountains form, and then gradually it all becomes clear. You begin to see how one mountain flows down into a valley and up into another. To start with all you see are the mountains, but gradually, you can look below the surface and see the connections."
Gabaldon is currently working on the ninth book in the Outlander series, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone.
The Outlander film series based on the novels is available on Netflix and Starz.