With the amazing “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon being made into a television mini-series this fall, I thought it might be a great time to revisit “The Outlandish Companion” for some writing tips.
The “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon is one of my all-time favorite reading experiences. The main character, Claire Beauchamp Randall is smart, strong and witty. And…the books are often set in atmospheric 18th century Scotland. Two plusses right there. Did I mention the rugged kilt-wearing men and non-stop adventure? The first book, “Outlander,” begins by stranding English WWII nurse , Claire Randall, in 1740’s Scotland. Sight-seeing near a Scottish stone circle at the wrong time, Claire is mysteriously transported back through time. She arrives before the Battle of Culloden for Scotland’s independence. Finding herself suspected by both the English and the Scottish as being a spy, she makes a desperate alliance and marries a rebellious young Scot with a very complex background.
This is quality Historical/Romantic/ Fantasy /Adventure writing, and as Gabaldon is an academic holding a PhD in Science, the historical and medical facts are both juicy and accurate. Not only set in Scotland; you travel with the characters to France and revolutionary America while mixing with real historical figures like Benjamin Franklin or the King of France. The male hero, Jamie Fraser, narrowly avoids capture from several governments and individuals while promoting Scotland’s and America’s independence. Because the books sustain suspense and maintain fantastic characters throughout 7 books so far, these books are the series that friends give friends when they are going through difficult transitions. You can spend a few months reading them through and giving your mind a brief respite from breakups and other troubling things. If you’ve only read the first two books in the series, you’ll find the latest ones just as exciting.
Diana Gabaldon is now about to release her 8th book in the series called, “Written In My Own Heart’s Blood,” and there is also a television series being cast right now by the director of “Battlestar Galactica.” Shooting is expected to begin in Scotland in October of this year.
I thought it would be worthwhile to see what Gabaldon says about writing in “The Outlandish Companion”, the book she put out a few years ago, answering questions that she often gets about her writing process. The “Companion” is 577 pages of 4 book synopses, essays on character development, genealogy of Jamie and Claire, research tips, and bibliographies on topics such as Ghosts, Magic, and Medicine.
In the book, she states that, “No, I don’t use an outline. Of course, I also don’t write in a straight line; I write in lots of little pieces and then glue them together like a jigsaw puzzle.”
She also states that “I’m extremely slow and snail-like, and I rewrite and edit as I go, word by word, sentence by sentence…then go back and change the words again. I average maybe two to three pages a day, except at the end of the book.”
In regards to research, she says that she doesn’t do a bunch of research before she starts writing because “I never know what’s going to happen, I wouldn’t know where to stop.” She adds, “I read and research during all the time I’m writing, and I begin writing immediately.”
Apparently, when she gets to a spot without a researched detail she just adds a bracket. Then after she has finished writing the manuscript, she goes back in and fills in those places.
About her style of writing novels, she says, “All writers are different in their approaches to writing, but for me, it’s a very organic sort of process, though with its own internal logic.”
There is a wonderful chapter about character development in the “Companion.” In it she describes the different ways that characters present themselves to her. There are mushrooms (characters that pop up easily), onions (characters that develop slowly with the addition of multiple layers of personality) and hard nuts (a character that you have to have in the story to make the plot line work, but is hard to crack and that requires using lots of patience and exercises to bring out into the open.) Diana Gabaldon devotes several pages to describing ways to reveal these character types.
Finally, if you haven’t read this hilarious essay on a day in the writing life of Diana Gabaldon, I urge you to go there now and read it. http://www.dianagabaldon.com/2008/03/how-i-write-part-iiia-example/
You follow her throughout the day as she juggles children, chores, calls, deliveries while her mind is on the danger her character has gotten into. It is brilliant and funny and inspirational.
She says at the end of the piece, after we’ve seen her baking cookies, falling asleep while writing her novel, then realizing she still has to type some homework for her daughter, “Net result, writing‑wise, being that I have maybe 300 words actually _written_, which would be discouraging (and is) in view of my 2,000 word goal, but I _do_know a heck of a lot more about what’s going on than I did in the morning, and in fact, I didn’t stop writing all day.
So I’ll get there, eventually. If I don’t die first. And that’s the truth about writing: A good day is any day when you get words on the page. A bad day is when you don’t.”
When it comes to my writing heroes, hopefully you can see why Diana Gabaldon is one of my very top favorites!