Friday, March 7, 2008

How I Write - Part I

Sorry to neglect y'all. I hadn't much heart to write for a bit, and then was overtaken by the usual fierce rush of events. Haven't forgotten you, though. [g] I had in fact just been about to answer Midge's questions about how I write, so figured I might as well resume with that:

It's almost impossible (I know from experience) for me to describe coherently what's going on my mind when I write--but fwiw, both sides of my brain seem to work at once.

No, I don't plan out the structure--of a sex scene, or any other kind of scene, let alone the book. [wry g]

I start with a "kernel"--a line of dialogue, a sense of emotional ambiance, an object whose details I can "see"--anything that I can sense concretely. Then I write a line or two describing that, as best I can.

Then I sit and stare at it for awhile.

I put words in and I take them out. I divide the sentence in half and insert a new clause. Decide I don’t like that one entirely, but don’t want to throw it away, so drop it down a line or two and try something else. Move the gerund phrase from the beginning of the sentence to the middle. Etc., etc.—just trying to cast this “kernel” (whatever it is) for maximum clarity and elegance, just in terms of the craft.

OK. While this sort of mechanical work is going on, the back of my mind is busy throwing up a shower of little questions, like a dog digging in sand: Whose viewpoint is this? Where are we? What time of year is it? Are we inside or outside? How is the light falling? Is a storm coming? Am I hot? What am I wearing? Why is my foot tapping? Did someone just say something? What’s that in my hand? I see a face…

And the scene begins to take shape—slowly. Sometimes I have a specific purpose in mind for a scene—I know that William, say, is doing intelligence work, so we need to see him doing a bit of it. So I may think that’s what’s going to happen here…but not necessarily.

Having that rather vague notion in mind, I began looking for a kernel with which to start the writing (the kernel is where I start writing; this doesn’t mean it’s the beginning of the scene; sometimes the writing goes backward as well as forward from the kernel). I know where Willie starts—North Carolina—and I sort of know where he’s supposed to end up--with General Howe (if he gets there. Will he? I have no idea), but I don’t yet know where Howe was at this specific point in time—because I have no idea what the date is when this happens.

Meanwhile, however, I’ve wandered over to my giant built-in bookshelf (where I keep the five or six hundred books of my central reference collection plus the two or three dozen most important references (so far) for this book) to stare blankly at the collection of Interesting Objects scattered along the shelves (lots of crystals, mineral spheres, psychically active (supposedly) stones, a miniature cannon, a tiny crystal castle, a hand-blown medicine bottle with a glass snake wrapped around it, an antique bronze mortar (full of pens), a reproduction 18th-century inkstand with quills, a (real) powder-flask from a set of 18th-century dueling pistols, six pocket-knives, a beanbag octopus, the dried jaws of a small shark…and I happen to spot one of the books, titled THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY.

Well, I read this book some time ago, and frankly, it’s not all that good—not well organized, and the writing is tedious—but just the name “The Great Dismal Swamp”…well, there’s a thing to conjure with.

And I have my kernel—almost. OK. Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp. I have no idea why, mind you, but we can figure that out as we go. What I need now, though, is a concrete image that I can write down in a sentence or two.

Rather than read the tedious book again (at least not yet), I go and google “Great Dismal Swamp natural history”—and pop up an entertaining article with a lot of detail regarding the flora and fauna of the swamp (and a bit of historical detail concerning Lake Drummond, which is dramatic, so I tuck that away in a spare cerebral recess for future reference)…from which I choose the image of swarms of “tiny yellow horseflies, whose eyes reflect rainbows when you get close to them.”

Now, I do recollect from the tedious book—and check it to be sure—that during one or more of the attempts to drain the swamp, a road was built. Excellent. And so…

“ William marveled at the road. True, there were only a few miles of it, but the miracle of being able to ride straight into the Great Dismal, through a place where he vividly recalled having had to swim his horse on a previous visit, all the while dodging snapping-turtles and venomous snakes--the convenience of it was astonishing. The horse seemed of similar mind, picking up its feet in a light-hearted way, outpacing the clouds of tiny yellow horseflies that tried to swarm them, the insects' eyes glinting like tiny rainbows when they drew close. “

Now, mind, this is what the paragraph looks like now. It took me probably fifteen or twenty minutes of fiddling before it got this way—and I may yet mess with it more later, but for now, it’s the best I can do.

What happens next? Well, it’s 4:15 AM, so right now, I’m going to bed. [g] Tomorrow, though, we’ll find out (maybe) why Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp, and how I discovered that.


  1. Diana:

    First off, welcome back. It is good to see evidence that your heart is healing and you are well. And thank you for continuing to blog with us.

    In your post, you've revealed to us the fact that there is no mystery to your writing. It comes to you, sometimes coherently, other times as a vague bit, but the work involved is real, it can be tedious. But Diana, it's always magical at its end and that's what's different. In asking you to define your process, I was hoping to latch on to that one, tangible, "thing" that makes your writing remarkable among others -- and you cannot define it because it's genesis is You. I know that sounds obvious, but You make the difference. It's your God-given, family nurtured talent. Dammit! I was hoping you could teach a master class and we'd all get it!


  2. I missed you very much, and am very glad to hear your voice again. I hope you are feeling like your old self!

    I just have to say after reading "How I Write- Part l", that I feel guilty for secretly rushing you along to finish Echo! :)

    I love that you write this way, I can relate to that type of creativity. I do not write but I do other bits of creative things and like you with the kernal, I start.

  3. Gee, and all I do is close my eyes and type out the movie I see playing behind them! lol

    You truly have given me a much better appreciation for why I have to wait 'so darned long!' for the next book! ;-) And I'm loving these glimpses into your process.

    Nice to have you back, by the way. You've been missed :heart:

  4. This is why there is only ONE Diana Gabaldon!

    I have read so many novels that make me think of you, only they are all lacking that certain something. I think it's that DG magic, that only you have the ability to put into print. No one else comes even remotely close.

    All I can say is WOW...

    Welcome back, BTW.


  5. Diana,your descriptions of the surroundings constantly amaze me. You are able to place me there at that moment, I can feel the air and hear the insects. I truely appreciate how you can take a thought and turn it into an actual moment in time.

    I don't write at all, but I have such respect for you that do. It is a gift to us that read your thoughts.

    Glad to see you back, hope your family is feeling better.

  6. May I ask a question about point of view? _Outlander_ is your only book told from the first-person point of view--everything is seen through Claire's eyes. In the rest of them we see things from various characters' points of view, but never in the first person. Was Claire such a strong character that she just took over the first book? Or did you make a conscious decision to shift the POV for the rest?

  7. Hi Diana,
    You have so many different dialects and languages in your books. I have a question on how you do dialogue in different tongues. Do you write in English what you essentially want the speaker to say, then have someone who knows the dialect go over the draft? Or have you become so familiar with the Scottish brogue that you draft much of it yourself?


    P.S. Welcome back!
    P.P.S. You are such a beautiful person and beautiful writer. I'm really glad I found your books and your blog! :)

    Best wishes!

  8. Denine--

    Thank you! [s]

    No, I write the Scots dialect myself. I spent a _lot_ of time immersing myself in it, when I was writing OUTLANDER--and to be honest, it isn't terribly difficult; there are strong and easily discernible patterns to it. (Though also to be honest, a lot of people confuse the concepts of dialect, accent, and idiom--all three of which contribute to the representation of Scottish speech.)

    In the end, it's a matter of rhythm and euphony; what people say has to _sound_ right, and that kind of takes an "ear." Which you develop from reading, listening, and practice, I reckon.

  9. Dear Sue--

    Well, I wrote OUTLANDER for practice, is the essential answer. I didn't intend to show it to anyone, let alone publish it; I just wanted to learn what it took to write a novel.

    Well, so, stuff happened [g], and about the third day of writing, I figured I should introduce a female character to play off the Scotsmen (I had to have a number of Scotsmen because of the kilts), and for maximum conflict, made her an Englishwoman.

    So I loosed this Englishwoman into a cottage full of Scotsmen, to see what she'd do. [shrug] Well, she started making smart-ass modern remarks about everything, and she also took over and started telling the story herself. So after a few pages of trying to beat her into shape and make her talk like an 18th-century person, I said, "Heck with this. I'm not going to fight with _you_ all the way through this book. Nobody's ever going to see this; it doesn't matter _what_ bizarre thing I do--go ahead and be modern. I'll figure out how you got there later."

    So essentially I used her first-person viewpoint because it was the easiest thing to do. [shrug]

    Having done it, though...well, I really don't like to repeat myself, or do something I've already done. I like to try new things, in terms of literary technique, device, structure, approach, whatever. So I began to use an additional, third-person POV in the framing story of DRAGONFLY, alternating with Claire's first-person narrative (which then occupies the main part of the book). And a third POV (Jamie's) in VOYAGER. I've pretty much added an additional major point of view with each book--which in turn gives me more flexibility (and much more challenge) in how the story can be structured.

    But in answer to your question--Claire is the only person in _these_ books who talks to me as "I." (The (male) protagonist of RED ANT'S HEAD also talks in first-person, and so does Master Raymond, oddly enough, in the small bits I have so far of _his_ book. But they're the only ones; I just hear Roger, Jamie, Bree, Lord John, etc., from a third-person perspective. It's just natural to them.)

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  11. I just finished a "re-listen" of ABOSAA, and found myself paying much closer attention this time to the scenes near the end with William, Lord John, and Brianna. So far, the impression we've had of William has focused largely on his physical resemblance to Jamie (and Bree). But surely there must be many differences as well. (Some of which you are no doubt still in the process of discovering for yourself.) As much as we all enjoy those little jolts of recognition when we see Willie unconsciously make some gesture that is unmistakably Jamie's, I am equally interested in seeing the ways in which his personality, temperament, mannerisms, speech, even his way of thinking, differ from Jamie's. After all, he's not a clone of his father, but a person in his own right, shaped by his own unique experiences (of which we have seen only the barest glimpse so far). I'm particularly looking forward to seeing what influence Lord John has had on him [g].

    About the Great Dismal Swamp: I first heard about it shortly after I moved to NC nearly 25 years ago, but I've never been there. It's always sounded to me like an intriguing place, if somewhat spooky [g]. It's fascinating to me the way you can make these places that you may only have read about in your research come alive in such vivid detail.


  12. Diana:

    Just a quick story about dialect, idiom, and accent: I was asked to read a pre-publication galley by an acquaintance who spent nine, long years researching the history of Ireland. The prologue takes place there whereas the body of the novel occurs in America during the 1860's, a la Gangs of New York.

    I cannot recall exactly when in Ireland the prologue occurs but it's after Christianity has its foothold -- sometime in the 6th century A.D., and there is conflict. People are warring all over the place but it was good stuff. At the prologue's end, the leaders of the opposition rape of a young village girl in order to incite a final, decisive conflict. After that, she is crucified -- and immediately battle begins......

    After recovering from the shock, I began the first chapter. It took several pages before I realized something was wrong. I knew the story switched time and place but I couldn't wrap my head around it. After some thought, I finally figured it out. The accents, idioms and dialect were wrong. Supposedly, the Irish inhabitants of New York spoke with a sort of Bronx accent. His characters had no accent. The idioms were contrived and the dialect, or what represented one, was so awkward as to be unreadable.

    I had to disappoint this person with the truth. Now, here's the good part, Diana -- I suggested he read your books to get a feel for capturing dialect, etc. He says (this is absolute truth - no bullshit here), "F*@k Gabaldon. All I hear about is Gabaldon!"

    Needless to say, he ended up self-publishing.

    PS: I was given a copy of his book -- would you like to read it? *EG*

  13. I am sorry to bother you all with this again...but someone really needs to help me figure out how to subscribe to the posts correctly...
    The only way I get it to work is if I post a comment myself, and click on the "mail follow up comments" box...which works fine for follow up posts...BUT, when Diana posts a NEW blog, I never see anything in my email, or in my "Feed". It always says (0 New) yet if I actually go into the Voyager Blog page, there ARE new ones!! (and of course, then I am playing catch-up)
    What am I doing wrong?

    Welcome back, I was so sorry to hear about your dog...
    Thank you so much for freely giving us your time...and the descriptions of your writing process, I appreciate every single glimpse you share with us.

    Too bad your "acquaintance" can't handle constructive criticism! I can't think of any other author out there who I would want to learn from. I think that is why we all enjoy her posts so much; not only are we constantly entertained and updated by Diana, she freely offers advice for all of us who wish to learn: I will gladly read anything she ever has to say about (her) writing process.


  14. Sharon:

    I know for myself that I cringe when I read most stories that have a Scots person in it. More often than not, the accent, dialect, and idioms don't work.

    I remember when reading Outlander the first time how captivated I was by Diana getting it just right, what with the B&B owner "Hoovering" outside F & C's bedroom, the reference to the old way of perming, etc. That was before C's time travel. Then, there's the obvious difference in speech between C and BJR, C and the MacKenzies, etc. It had that unmistakable feeling of correctness. I was not distracted by it.

    That's how far on the other end of the spectrum Rick's writing was -- it was soooo wrong that it was painful. BTW, would you like to read his book? Another EG!

    Oh, and I LOVE the music at your website. Good stuff.


  15. sharonj

    If you go all the way to the very bottom of Diana's blog page, you'll see this:

    Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)

    Click on the Posts (Atom) and it should take you to your reader page. Mine is Google and when it takes me there, I have the option of adding it to my Google Front Page or my Google Reader. I choose Google Reader.

    I also use FireFox which, for me, is ever so much more user friendly than IE.

    Anyway, once you add it to your reader page, your reader should show you that you have new feeds and will show all on the current blog page.

    Sorry, Diana! Didn't know how else to answer her.

  16. I have to say that I made an embarrassing squeal when I saw a new post. Good to see you back!

    Your writing style seems so specially unique, it's awesome to see how you sit down and get to it.

    And I agree with Karen on this one; I'm so eager to see who William is, how much of him is Jamie and how much is Lord John, and his own distinct self as well. I can't help but imagine him being a little Mini Jamie, though [g]. The mind wanders... blissfully.

    This might seem strange, but I was wondering how you organize (or don't organize) your writings, physically. Are they millions of little word files lying around in the depths of your computer? I write in scenes and pieces and I hate the clutter it creates.

  17. I guess it's kinda like asking Picasso how he paints.

    Truly, it's a God-given gift. I write, clumsily, slowly, but I plug on. I'd much rather be able to see a kernel and then make it blossom, but it just doesn't happen that way for me - and that's ok. One thing that Diana has taught me via the net is that there is no wrong way to write, no matter what anyone else has told you. The world needs karaoke singers as well as opera singers. I'm just glad that I get to go the opera. Thanks Diana.

  18. Nightsmusic:
    That is how I originally subscribed to the "feed" but I don't seem to have the same choices you have...
    Even though I do have google as my homepage, I didn't see anything regarding google reader or anywhere I could add it to google front page...I guess it may have something to do with "firefox" versus IE...I deleted the feed and re-added it, maybe there was a glitch...My only other option is to open up VOA every morning and read whatever is new! I hate it when I miss a DG Post! Thanks for helping me though!

    Ever since reading the Outlander books I have been drawn to anything Scottish and Celtic...I love the music, the history, the accents! The artist on my webpage is HEVIA. I agree with you about how DG gets it so perfect. I have read other books with so called Scots' accents, something is off just a bit.
    I'm not so sure I would want to read this book you speak of, but please tell me what is EG? Sorry to be so ignorant of the abbreviations, I am not that great at "texting" either...BTW my kids laugh at me all the time! You know; bff, roflol, wtf, (did I just say that?)OMG!


  19. Sharon:

    "EG" would be "evil grin" :-)


  20. Sharon, do you have IE7? IE6 doesn't have a feed option. IE7 puts your feeds under Favorites so you'd have to check your favorites every day, which is the same as checking here every day, which is why I like FireFox. Any time I have a new feed, a little icon at the bottom of the browser window lights up so I'm notified throughout the day.

    Sorry I couldn't be of more help.

  21. Melissa:

    I wonder, too, how Diana organizes her notes... can you imagine what her office could look like?!? Yikes!

    Diana did mention that she was checking out a new writing program made for Mac -- so sorry that I cannot exactly recall the name (if you scroll through her previous posts, you'll find it but it's in an early post.) It's a cool program.


    The only abbreviations I know are the ones from LOL, and I have to ask for translation every so often. I HATE texting. IMHO (!) it is one of the major contributors towards illiteracy among our youth. Add to that, half the kids are texting during class so they're not learning anyway. Grrrr.


  22. That's fantastic. I've always wondered how great writers do it.

    Can I ask a question?

    Where do you come up with the names for your characters? Not necessarily J&C, but just the random "players" in your books.

    (I was at a signing a couple of years ago and really wanted to ask you that, but didn't have the guts.) ;)

  23. Nightsmusic:

    I do have IE 7, so yes, I have figured it out...I have to check my favorites every day, and that is where it was saying (0 New) feeds. I changed it to be updated more often per day, maybe that will work. I am tempted to install FireFox...but a little nervous to switch anything on my computer...sometimes change makes them go bonkers!
    And you have been helpful! Thanks!


    I really hate texting too; it takes me more time than an actual phone call would take...and speaking of the illiteracy of our youth, our grand daughter (4th grade) has brought home graded papers with obvious misspelled words that the teacher has NOT marked wrong. I guess the teachers these days are too afraid the children will suffer from low self-esteem if they point out their errors. :P Don't get me started about the education system!


  24. Karen-henry:

    EG--- aha!
    I never would have gotten that one!

    (thanks for the info!)
    Sharon ☺

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  26. Does somebody know between which ribs you have to stab someone,when you want to hurt the heart and the lung?
    No,I don't want to kill someone,I just need that for a story I write.I hope someone can help me with that.

  27. Last comment on this but,


    I have firefox on all my computers and I wouldn't have anything else. It installs like a charm, has a great interface and a bazillion add-ons to make it exactly what I want.

    I have to say, Diana (may I call you that? I feel odd doing that) I can hear my gran and grandsire when I read the dialect in your books. It brings back a lot of memories :)

  28. Sharon--

    It's also possible that the teacher didn't mark misspellings because s/he didn't recognize them _as_ misspellings.

    I know it's not PC these days to criticize people for not being able to spell (it's all genetic, presumably, so it's "unfair" to expect people without the spelling gene to learn how)--but dang.

    I used to correct misspellings in the permission notes my kids brought home _all the time_ (which I doubt endeared me to the teachers, but on the other hand--all my kids _can_ spell, and had noted the errors themselves. Couldn't very well say, "Well, that's OK, since she's the teacher." [cough])

    Man, though, watching the news-crawl or the closed-captioning on TV shows...[clutching head]. All right, the occasional typo is unavoidable, but "ice sickels"? Come on!

  29. Dear Midge--

    Oh, it _is_ magic. Not the slightest doubt about that.

    It's just that you do the hard work _first_, and _then_ the magic happens. [g]

  30. Sunflowerfairy--

    Names...well, sometimes a person just kind of "comes" with a name. Other times, I sort of cast around, trying things on for rhythm, ethnic plausibility, symbolic value (like "Ishmael," the _houngan_ in VOYAGER--that's a double-handed reference, both to the Ishmael of the Old Testament (the vengeful outsider, the wanderer), and to MOBY-DICK [g]).

    Some characters come straight out of the historical reference material. The one-armed slave named "Temeraire" was real, for instance, as was M. Forez, the hangman from DRAGONFLY. There are a lot of bit-players in the books with real names (Arch Bug, for instance, was a real Scottish immigrant; his name, and the description of him as a man "aged 69" was on the manifest of a ship sailing from Scotland to North Carolina. His history, though, is mine [g]).

    Other names come from the several books of names I have; SCOTTISH CHRISTIAN NAMES, by Dunkling, or SCOTTISH SURNAMES, or one of several baby-naming books.

    Worst comes to worst, there's always the phone book. [g]

  31. My daughter's teacher has a master's degree and she had 'niece' misspelled on the board the other day. Similarly, when my daughter was in kindergarten, there was something grammatically incorrect on the board, and I called their attention to it, and a group of teachers gathered in the room to try to figure it out!

  32. Diana:
    It felt like withdrawal while you were gone.... so glad to have you back.

    When you mentioned William with reference to the Great Dismal, I had to look it up (I also lived in Virginia for 15 years). I found the most fascinating diary of William Byrd about surveying the swamp in the early 1770s. Especially his comments about the settlers in North Carolina. You must be familiar with it if you're exploring the swamp for storyline. I recommend it for your other fans who might be interested in colonial history.


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  34. FYI :) As a person who has taught in K-4 classrooms at one point or another, teachers do not always "catch" misspelled words in student work because maybe certain spelling patterns have not been taught or the teacher's focus may be on a particular writing concept or the teacher is examining the misspellings for clues on how much to teach a phonics or grammar concept. (Sigh) And then again, you can not believe how difficult it is to get students to understand, "i" before "e" except after "c" :)

  35. Well, now, isn't this a very exciting and pleasant surprise?! :) I stumbled upon the news that you had started a blog, and was so excited to find it! I look forward to being a regular visitor. I find it so fascinating to learn the "how" of your writing! Thank you for choosing to communicate with us this way.
    I just began my "umpteenth" re-read (I've lost count!) It is my tradition to reread the entire series before a new installment comes out, and having just finished the latest Lord John books, I couldn't quite bring myself to leave that world. I also justified my guilty pleasure by deciding that with three kids, I may need all that time to get through all of them again before "An Echo in the Bone" arrives in my mailbox!
    Again, thank you! This discovery made my day!

  36. Hi Everyone

    I'm new to this blog and have read a great deal of it with interest. Sorry to hear about your dog, Diana - I just had to have one of my 2 cats put down and it is quite a wrench after 14 years.

    BTW, I liked the picture of Claire, even though I thought the bottom of her face should be just a tiny bit fatter - not much, just a tiny bit - but, as you say, it is simply one picture of many more to come, so let's all wait and see how the images develop. The important thing is that it is YOUR picture of what Claire looks like, not ours,and ultimately this is what counts.

    On another note, I have just come back from a week away in the Highlands (not far for me, as I live in St Andrews - yes, the home of golf(sigh) but also the home of a nearly 600 year old university (yesss!) originally modelled on the same lines as the one in Paris that Jamie attended in his youth). Whilst there I visited Cullloden - or rather, re-visited it, having been there before the new Visitor Centre was constructed. It must be exciting to have an invitation to go to the official opening on the anniversary of the battle but I DO hope you are not disappointed. I won't say much more, as you must make up your own mind but suffice to say that I was a bit disappointed for various reasons, some of which are still gelling in my mind as I write this. Oh, and be prepared for snow - we were snowed in for the first 2 days of our visit, which is not so usual for mid-April - snow showers yes, but not heavy snow as we experienced.

    Anyway, keep working on the books - they are wonderful and thoroughly absorbing; also, thanks for being so thorough with your research (but only to be expected from someone such as yourself) - it really matters to some of us that historical details are correct bearing in mind current research, which rarely stands still.

    Have a good trip to Scotland - and call into St Andrews if you have the time!

    All the best

    Wol the Wise

  37. I must've had my head elsewhere, as i've just heard about the Outlander series, and cannot put the first volume down!

    I found this blog through your website and saw that this was a place to put comments...

    Seeing the image of Claire for the graphic novel is incredible, and my suggestion for Jamie is this: Make him look like Gerard Butler, and I will surely swoon!

    Keep up the great work, I love my first dive into Outlander books and simply can't read fast enough.

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