“I had known since I was 8 years old that I was meant to be a novelist. I was already 36, so I thought I had better get a move on.”
Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander and Lord John Grey historical fiction novels, first met Davina Porter, narrator of the Outlander books, at a library fund-raiser.
“They had asked me to talk about how I write,” says Gabaldon, who was the headline speaker, “and after I did my shtick, Davina read an excerpt of my book-in-progress. She did a spectacular job. The audience rose in a standing ovation.”
For her part, Porter says, “I never imagined, after recording Outlander all those years ago, that I would still have the privilege to be involved. Each fascinating book brings another innovative storyline that I enjoy discovering just like any other reader. I’m delighted that Diana’s wide following have received the audiobooks with such enthusiasm. They are a loyal and committed group, and I am honored to narrate for them.”
Gabaldon is herself an audiobook fan who listens while gardening or walking at home in Arizona. “I get onto ones I particularly like and listen to them repeatedly.” Right now, she’s on her fourth go-round with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, read by the “amazing Patrick Tull.” She also listens to her own books. In addition to applauding Porter’s Outlander narration, she says that Jeff Woodman’s rendition of the Lord John Grey series sounds so much like what she hears when writing that she occasionally listens to them twice.
Gabaldon was a university professor with a doctorate in quantitative behavioral ecology, and three children under the age of six, when she began to write fiction. It’s a decision she explains by saying, “I had known since I was 8 years old that I was meant to be a novelist. I was already 36, so I thought I had better get a move on.”
She decided to start by writing a practice novel. “I said to myself, ‘You’ve been reading novels for thirty-odd years. Surely if you write one, you’ll recognize it.’”
But what type of novel?
“I thought of mysteries, but mysteries have plots. I wasn’t sure I could do that.” She picked historical fiction because, as a research professor, “it seemed easier to look things up than to make them up.”
Fine. But what period should she write about?
“I had just watched an episode of BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’ in which he had an assistant from eighteenth-century Scotland who looked rather nice in a kilt. He stayed in my mind, so I thought, why not eighteenth-century Scotland?”
She also knew that conflict is important in novels. “Well, you don’t have to study that era long before you run smack into Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites. I said, ‘Okay, that looks like plenty of conflict.’”
She quickly realized that she needed a female character to contrast with all the kilts, so she plopped her into a cottage of Scotsmen to see what would happen. The woman said, “My name is Claire Elizabeth Beacham. Who the hell are you?”
“Clearly she wasn’t eighteenth century,” laughs Gabaldon. “I fought with her for several pages, but she kept making smartass remarks. So I said, ‘Go ahead and be modern. I’ll figure out what to do with you later.’”
Twenty-two books and a new STARZ TV show later, it has obviously worked out.
Gabaldon doesn’t plot much in advance, and she researches on the fly, using a core collection of 1,500 books--everything from needlecraft and weaponry encyclopedias to biographies, dictionaries of slang, and Scottish Customs: From the Cradle to the Grave.
About to embark on the ninth Outlander, she says, “I know it will begin in America in late 1778 after the Battle of Monmouth. I’ll start by rereading The World Almanac of the American Revolution; then I’ll dip into the collection looking for something I can sense and see concretely. I’ll write a line. Move words around. Meanwhile, my mind is keeping up a kind of compost. What kind of day is it? What is the weather like? How is the light falling? Is it cold in this room? It is, but my feet are warm. There must be a fire. Oh yes, there is, and there’s someone sitting beside it. It goes on from there.”