Newsmaker: Diana Gabaldon

Bestselling author of the Outlander series talks about research and the writing process

January 8, 2015

Outlander author Diana Gabaldon. Photo: Elenna Loughlin

Diana Gabaldon reads everything—and lots of it. When she started writing her first book, just for practice, it didn’t even have a genre. More than 20 years and eight books later, the Outlander series is still a cataloging conundrum that fits on a variety of shelves, including sci-fi, romance, historical fiction, military fiction, and fantasy. Last summer, the story also became a hit TV show on Starz and was picked up for a second season, airing in April. Gabaldon spoke with American Libraries about the importance of research to her writing, the impact of the internet, and the differences between Outlander and Game of Thrones.

When you began writing Outlander, you didn’t think anyone would ever see it, but you shared some of what you wrote on literary forums. Can you talk about what role the online literary community played for you as a novelist starting out?

I started showing people a bit of what I was doing on [a literary forum on] CompuServe in order to win an argument with a gentleman about what it feels like to be pregnant. I posted this piece I’d written in which a young woman tells her brother in some detail what it’s like to be pregnant. And people reading the argument came back and asked what it was, where could they get the beginning of it. I said, “I don’t know, I haven’t written that yet.” They said, “This is fascinating. Put up some more.”

I don’t write in a straight line, and I don’t write with an outline. Whenever I would have something that looked like it would stand without a lot of explanation, I would put it up, maybe every two or three months, maybe a five-page thing. By this time, I knew a number of published authors, professionals, and all of them said you should get a literary agent.

I zeroed in on one agent named Perry Knowlton. I had learned that he wasn’t afraid of [the] unorthodox or very long books—both of which it had struck me I had. But he didn’t take unsolicited queries, and I wasn’t finished writing the book. One day, I asked a friend named John Stiff, who writes science fiction mysteries, if he had an agent. He said he did, and by coincidence, his name was Perry Knowlton. John asked if I would like him to recommend me, so I told John to please go ahead. Then I followed that with my own query, saying, “I have this very long historical novel. I don’t want to waste your valuable time. Would you be willing to read excerpts from it?” I didn’t tell him I wasn’t finished writing and excerpts were all I had. But he very kindly called back and said he’d be happy to read my excerpt.

So I hastily wrote a 26-page, single-spaced synopsis about what I thought was going to happen in the book, and I included it with my bundle of excerpts and sent it to him. He took me on, on the basis of an unfinished first novel, which is not usual—but it was very lucky for me. Six months later, I finally finished writing the book, and I sent it to Perry and called to tell him that it was coming. I also said I was going to be in New York for a conference the next week, so we set up a time to meet.

I went up to Perry’s office with some trepidation in mind, because he was the only person in the world who had read the book and I didn’t know yet what he thought about it. At this point I realized that he represented Tony Hillerman, Frederick Forsyth, Robertson Davies, as well as the estate of Ayn Rand. He said, “The thing about Freddie Forsyth and Robbie Davies and those guys is that they’re all great storytellers.” And he put a hand on the box [containing my manuscript], smiled at me, and said, “And you’re another one.” That was so gratifying. And he said, “I’m sending it out today to five editors who I think might like it. I told them I want an answer in 30 days.” I had been reading Writer’s Market and all that, which was saying two years. So I’m thinking, “Boy, you picked the right agent.”

I went home to wait for 30 days. Instead, four days later, we got a call on my answering machine that said, “Hi, this is Perry. I just called to update you about your manuscript.” I was thinking, well, of the five he sent to, at least one of them has said, “I’m not reading a 10-pound book, take it back.” Instead, he said, “Of the five I sent it to, so far three of them have called back with offers to buy.” Two weeks later, he emerged with a three-book contract, and there was the novel.

Everyone has [his or her] own path to publication. There really is no one way.

The thing with posting things online is that nobody can stop you. It’s sort of a built-in forum, so to speak, a showcase. It’s up to you to make people read them. You have to be sufficiently engaging in your interactions that people want to go and read what you’ve written. But it’s right there; it doesn’t cost anything, and the audience is potentially vast. So assuming that you learn how to handle social media in an effective way, it’s a very good tool for an aspiring writer, or for a published one, for that matter.

Was the depth of research involved in developing Outlander overwhelming since you had not been to Scotland?

No, I wrote a book to learn how; essentially, just for practice. Because to this point, I had written all that stuff you write getting a Ph.D. and pursuing an academic career and all the stuff that people would pay me for, as well. But obviously the only way to write a book is to write a book. Nobody has ever shown me how to write any of the other stuff. I just looked at a few examples and tried it; and if it didn’t look right, I poked it until it did. So I said, “What’s the easiest possible sort of book to write?” Because it is practice. I just want to know what [it takes] in terms of your daily commitment, mental discipline, organization, and research. That’s what I needed to know before I made up my mind whether I actually wanted to do this professionally or not. After a bit of thought, I decided historical fiction. I was a research professor. I know my way around a library. It’s much easier to look things up than make them up. If I turn out to have no imagination, I can feel things from the historical records, which actually works pretty well. Where should I set this? I saw a Doctor Who rerun with a young Scotsman in a kilt and the rest is history.

Is the series dependent on the research?

When I began writing Outlander, I had been hanging around on the CompuServe literary forum for a long time. I had noticed a lot of people would come through there and talk about what they were going to do and they would never do it. But I noticed that the people who thought they were writing historical fiction had the best excuse in the world: “I have to do more research before I can start writing.” Subsequently, they would have been doing research for four or five years and never written a word.

I said, well, this is nonsense. The point here is not to learn everything about Scotland in the 18th century; the point is to learn how to write a book. So I’m going to start writing the book and doing the research along with that. If I write something and later in the research I discover that it was wrong, I’ll just change it; it’s just words on a page. What could be easier?

The nature of research is that there’s always more you could find out. With these characters and this background, we’re moving to the second half of the 18th century, which is a time of immense change. Stuff changed all the time, geopolitically, culturally, and in terms of innovation and just in the way people thought. The last book (Written in My Own Heart’s Blood) ended just after the summer of 1779, I think. So that’s where the research for the next book begins. When you get into a new book, it’s always very peck, peck, peck at the beginning. It takes a while for the juice to come back, but it always does. It’s like tightrope walking. You’re not going to get anywhere until you put the first foot on the rope. After that, it may be a little wiggly but you’re on your way, and you just have to keep walking until you get to the other side.

The research is a lot easier these days [with the internet]. At the same time, there’s a lot more available, and that means you need to exercise discrimination in how much time you spend looking for stuff. And then what are you going to do with it? People who’ve gone to a lot of trouble to find out all these fascinating facts want to tell them to you whether it serves the story or not. It takes a lot of discrimination, judgment, and experience to know how much of what you know you should tell people, because I know much more than is ever in the books.

How did you handle any inaccuracies that came up in the process?

I learned from my research that Gaelic was the spoken language of the Highlands. Only the more educated people actually spoke English. But for the purposes of the book, assuming that most people can speak English, just so Claire can go on; but, still, for accuracy and cultural verisimilitude, I needed to have people speak Gaelic. This is 1988 when I’m writing this book. The internet as it is now didn’t exist. There was absolutely no way of finding the sorts of resources that you can get at the push of a button these days. And so I was ultimately obliged to contact a place called Schoenhof’s Foreign Books in Boston, which was recommended to me by one of the local booksellers when I asked in Phoenix, Arizona, “Where would I find a Gaelic-English dictionary?”

So I called Schoenhof’s, and the first question they asked was, “Do you need Scottish Gaelic or Irish Gaelic?” And I said, “Ah, I just found the right place, Scottish please.” They sent me this slender volume, and that’s what I used to do the Gaelic for Outlander. Now, it was a dictionary, not a language guide or anything of the sort. It was just words. So I was cobbling together my bits and pieces.

Well, as I say, I got published, and they paid me quite a reasonable advance for it. I said to my husband, I really must go and see Scotland now that I have two more books to write here. I need to know more. So we did. We left the kids with my parents for two weeks and went to Scotland. We went everywhere and bought every book in sight, including a much improved and much larger Gaelic-English dictionary, which I then used, to what extent I could, in the next book.

Well, following this, I got a very nice letter. This was before the days of mass email, so I was still getting fan mail as mail. I got this nice letter from this gentleman named Ian McKinnon Taylor, and he said, “Ms. Gabaldon, I’ve been reading your books and I’m so thrilled to see Scottish history handled so sensitively and accurately, and your books are exciting and wonderful” and all this. He said, “There’s just this one thing. I was born on the Isle of Harris and am a native Gaelic speaker.” He said, “I can’t help thinking that perhaps you are getting your Gaelic from a dictionary.” And he said, “It’s not that the words you are using are wrong per se, but you’re not using them grammatically or idiomatically the way that a real Gaelic speaker would. Could I offer you my assistance?” I said, “Where have you been all my life, Mr. Taylor?”

So that’s why the Gaelic suddenly got better in the third book—because at that point I had actual language help and not merely what I could make out from a dictionary.

Are you a library patron?

I’ve sort of lived in libraries all my life. I do a lot of library benefits because I could totally be a librarian. They are a cornerstone of civilization. We have to have them.

Has the reading landscape changed for young readers today compared with when you were growing up?

It’s hard to say, because I grew up surrounded by books. My mother taught me to read when I was about three. I remember holding up my first library card. I couldn’t have been older than five. I do remember, I must have been about nine, trying to take a book out of the library. It was The Moon-Spinners or something like that which had been made into a movie, which I had seen was a book and thought, “I want to read the book.” It was an adult book. It was Mary Stewart and all that. The librarian kept taking it out of my pile and putting it under her desk because she didn’t think I should be reading books from the adult section. I told my mother about this, and she went down and had a little talk with the librarian and said, “Let my daughter read anything she wants.” I know this only because I overheard my mother telling it to her bridge group at one point. A woman once caught sight of something I was reading and asked my mother if she knew I was reading that. My mother replied she did and said that if I was old enough to understand what I was reading, I was old enough to read it. And if I was not old enough to understand it, it was not going to do me any harm.

How has the internet affected the way people interact with you, your stories, and other fans?

It’s been entirely positive for me. Some years ago, I was signing books and I had a trio—a grandmother, mother, and daughter—who had all brought their books. I was signing and chatting with the grandmother, and she said, “I turned to my granddaughter the other day and said, ‘I had the most terrible thought. We are both lusting after the same man.’” [laughs] That is a really odd—and welcomed—phenomenon that people who like the books seem impelled to get other people to read them. As my first editor said, these have to be word-of-mouth books because they are too weird to describe to everyone, which is totally true. Two Outlander fans is just instant excitement. And that’s sort of what happened with the television show.

Ron Moore (showrunner and producer of Outlander) says that he was having dinner with his wife and production partner, Merle Davis, [and another couple] after they closed out Battlestar Galactica and was thinking, “What else could I do?” And one of them said, “Have you ever read Outlander? It’s this fabulous story and has all these things that you like: historical fiction, strong female character.” He said, “No, I haven’t read it.” The other woman perked up and she said, “Outlander? You’ll like Outlander.” They sort of forgot Ron. He said, “I was just drinking my martini and glancing from one woman to the other as they carried on and finally said, ‘Do you have a copy of the book?’” He said, “My wife looked at me in exasperation and said, ‘There are 20 copies of that book all over the house. Have you ever noticed?’” She went and got him one and he read it all in one night and basically fell in love with it.

How do you feel about the show being touted as the feminist Game of Thrones?

It’s just media shorthand. Journalism, even on the web, suffers from cramp. [The media] have very constricted space in which to get things across. They figure when we’re dealing with people who have no attention spans, we have to get it across to them in less than a sentence. We need a descriptive phrase, a sound bite, something that will rivet their attention. What’s the most popular show on? Game of Thrones. Well, it is a period piece. In fact, it’s 15th-century England with dragons. What we have to do is compare this to Game of Thrones and people will at least look at it once, and so that’s what [the media] are doing. No one watching Outlander would ever think it was anything like Game of Thrones. But Game of Thrones may get them to watch it in the first place. It’s like having weird covers on your books. Even a horrible cover, if it is striking, will make people pick the book up. After that, the book can speak for itself.


At the Fairfield Woods branch in Connecticut, library volunteer Eric Frisk gives a lesson in the library’s community garden plot.

Not Your Garden-Variety Library

Planting a seed library yields community connections

Mario Rideaux, COHS student at Sacramento Public Library, and Volunteer Services Coordinator Cathy Crosthwaite discuss next steps.

Second Chances

Libraries across nation roll out accredited high school diploma program