For fascinating details on how Outlander series author Diana Gabaldon writes scenes and constructs her stories, check out these exclusive outtakes from the January 2012 cover story.
Because you don’t write chronologically, how do you make [all the out-of-order chapters of your novel] piece together? Or is that just sort of the inherent magic?
A little bit of it is magic, I mean, truth be told. But there is actually a conscious aspect to it. It takes me usually two to five days to finish a scene because by the time I have been through it, I will have been through it hundreds and hundreds of times. I don’t write and then revise; it’s a continuous process. But when I finish a scene, it is finished. It’s as good as I can make it then. Well, I don’t usually know what happens next, so I go and look for another kernel somewhere. Often that comes from the research material, sometimes just from the little bits of daily life you’re going through all the time. And so I begin to write these little kernels and do the research at the same time. Usually they’re not connected, so I have these handfuls of disconnected chunks.
As I write, I’m evolving this time line across the back of my mind and picking out those specific historical events that I kind of want to live through, and those that I want to refer to obliquely to anchor the reader in space and time. Things begin to accrete, I write something [and] I think, Oh this explains why that happened. So I put it in front, and I see this longer piece, I know what has to happen next, and I can write that. And so they begin to stick together in larger and larger pieces, and they begin to stick to the events on my time line, and you say, well, this has to have happened before the battle of such and such, and if that’s the case, it has to have been spring.
And so gradually I get these larger chunks, 40-60 contiguous pages that I’m pretty sure won’t change. Well, by the time I’ve got four or five chunks, I also have a pretty good timeline, so I can line these chunks up against that timeline and I know what order they will come in. At that point—it usually takes me at least 18 months to get to that point—but at that point I will see the shape of the book, usually. Now, all my books have an internal geometric shape; it’s not visible to the reader, it’s not meant to be. Though if you had read one of my books and I told you what the shape was, you would be able to see it. But once I’ve seen the shape the writing gets much faster because I see where the story has to go up, and where it needs to come down and what the shape of the missing piece is. … When the shape is complete, the book is done. And once I’ve seen the shape the writing gets a lot faster.
I write usually about 1,000 words a day—[it ’s] kind of my quota through most of the book. But then I hit the final frenzy, which is where I’ve seen the shape, and there’s enough of it there that I know everything about this book. I don’t need to do any more research, I know what happens, and it’s just, how long can I sit at the computer without falling over? So at that point I’m working 12 or 14 hours a day.
This is why I stayed up 38 hours yesterday—I was finishing a book on an airplane. I had hit the frenzy. So people kept saying, “I can’t understand how you can still be coherent.” It’s just straight adrenaline, you know? [Laughs.]
I find it fascinating that you had never been to Scotland when you wrote Outlander. How did you write about the country so vividly?
I was a research professor and knew how to look things up. And there’s a lot of stuff about Scotland. It’s one of the easier places to research because it’s been very civilized for a number of years. People do basically speak English, so all of the material is available. I didn’t have to know medieval French in order to find primary sources. And it is a very remote place, which means that it hasn’t been excessively settled; most of the countryside is just like it’s always been, and also it’s a very beautiful place, which means it’s a tourist place, so there’s endless amounts of visual material available. It was very easy to find out stuff about it.
What do you find to be the biggest challenges of writing a series?
Well, I don’t know because I’ve never not written a series. [Laughs.] It never seemed like a particular challenge to me, it was just as I got toward the end of the first book I realized I could see there was more to it, and I said as much to my agent—I said, “There’s more but I thought I should stop while I could still lift it.” And he told the publishers who were interested, and they said, “Well, trilogies are popular, do you think she could write three?” But I never said it was a trilogy, I just said, “There’s more,” and you know, there still is more. But each book within the series has its own very unique structure, approach and tone. They are different—very different—books.
You do that intentionally, right?
Oh, sure. I’m just not interested in doing stuff I’ve already done. I mean, I do this for my own gratification. [Laughs.] I like to try new things, and consequently each book kind of develops its own sense, and that’s why there are prologues in the books.
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