Friday, October 31, 2008

Ghost Story

Well, it being Halloween--one of my favorite holidays--I thought I'd post something suitable. [g]

Now, you'd think that I'd meet a lot of ghosts, what with my habit of walking battlefields, handling historical artifacts, touring ancient castles and houses, etc., but noooooo.

In fact, I've only met two ghosts in my life (I did have one that haunted my house for awhile, but she wasn't conscious of me, so no interaction there)--and the only strange thing about both occurrences is how utterly normal they both seemed. About fifteen years ago, though, a friend asked me to write up the first encounter for a newsletter published by the "Psychic Writers Network" (no, I haven't the slightest idea), so I did. Later, a website called asked for permission to use it as well. So some of you may have seen this piece before. But for all of you--


Copyright 1994 Diana Gabaldon

In May of 1990, I was at a writer's conference in San Antonio, staying at the Menger Hotel, a rather charming old place built in the late 1800's. It's also located across the street from the Alamo, which now stands in a little botanical park, full of trees and shrubs, each with a little metal label bearing its name.
A friend had driven up from Houston to see me, and he suggested that we go walk through the Alamo, he being a botanist and therefore interested in the plants. He also thought I might find the building interesting. He said he'd been there several times as a child, and had found it "evocative." So we strolled through the garden, looking at plants, and then went inside.
The present memorial is the single main church building, which is essentially no more than a gutted masonry shell. There's nothing at all in the church proper a stone floor and stone walls, bearing the marks of hundreds of thousands of bullets; the stone looks chewed. There are a couple of smaller semi open rooms at the front of the church where the baptismal font and a small chapel used to be originally separated from the main room by stone pillars and partial walls.
Around the edges of the main room are a few museum display cases, holding such artifacts of the defenders as the Daughters of Texas have managed to scrape together rather a pitiful collection, including spoons, buttons, and (scraping the bottom of the barrel, if you ask me) a diploma certifying that one of the defenders had graduated from law school (this, like a number of other artifacts, wasn't present in the Alamo, but was obtained later from the family of the man to whom it belonged).
The walls are lined with perfectly _horrible_ oil paintings, showing various of the defenders in assorted "heroic" poses. I suspect them all of having been executed by the Daughters of Texas in a special arts and crafts class held for the purpose, though I admit that I might be maligning the D of T by this supposition. At any rate, as museums go, this one doesn't.
It is quiet owing to the presence of the woman waving the "Silence,Please! THIS IS A SHRINE!" sign in the middle of the room but is not otherwise either spooky or reverent in atmosphere. It's just a big, empty room. My friend and I cruised slowly around the room, making _sotto voce_ remarks about the paintings and looking at the artifacts.
And then I walked into a ghost. He was near the front of the main room, about ten feet in from the wall, near the smaller room on the left (as you enter the church). I was very surprised by the encounter, since I hadn't expected to meet a ghost, and if I had, he wasn't what I would have expected.
I saw nothing, experienced no chill or feeling of oppression or malaise. The air felt slightly warmer where I stood, but not so much as to be really noticeable. The only really distinct feeling was one of...communication. Very distinct communication. I _knew_ he was there--and he certainly knew _I_ was. It was the feeling you get when you meet the eyes of a stranger and know at once this is someone you'd like.
I wasn't frightened in the least; just intensely surprised. I had a strong urge to continue standing there, "talking" (as it were; there were no words exchanged then) to this man. Because it _was_ a man; I could "feel" him distinctly, and had a strong sense of his personality. I rather naturally assumed that I was imagining this, and turned to find my friend, to re establish a sense of reality. He was about six feet away, and I started to walk toward him. Within a couple of feet, I lost contact with the ghost; couldn't feel him anymore. It was like leaving someone at a bus stop; a sense of broken communication.
Without speaking to my friend, I turned and went back to the spot where I had encountered the ghost. There he was. Again, he was quite conscious of me, too, though he didn't say anything in words. It was a feeling of "Oh, there you are!" on both parts.
I tried the experiment two or three more times stepping away and coming back with similar results each time. If I moved away, I couldn't feel him; if I moved back, I could. By this time, my friend was becoming understandably curious. He came over and whispered, "Is this what a writer does?", meaning to be funny. Since he evidently didn't sense the ghost he was standing approximately where I had been I didn't say anything about it, but merely smiled and went on outside with him, where we continued our botanical investigations.
The whole occurrence struck me as so very odd while at the same time feeling utterly "normal" that I went back to the Alamo alone, this time on each of the next two days. Same thing; he was there, in the same spot, and he knew me. Each time, I would just stand there, engaged in what I can only call mental communication. As soon as I left the spot it was an area maybe two to three feet square I couldn't sense him anymore.
I did wonder who he was, of course. There are brass plates at intervals around the walls of the church, listing the vital statistics of all the Alamo defenders, and I'd strolled along looking at these, trying to see if any of them "rang a bell," so to speak. None did.
Now, I did mention the occurrence to a few of the writers at the conference, all of whom were very interested. I don't think any of them went to the Alamo themselves if they did, they didn't tell me but more than one of them suggested that perhaps the ghost wanted me to tell his story, I being a writer and all. I said dubiously that I didn't _think_ that's what he wanted, but the next and last time I went to the Alamo, I did ask him, in so many words.
I stood there and thought consciously, in words "What do you want? I can't really do anything for you. All I can give you is the knowledge that I know you're there; I care that you lived and I care that you died here."
And he _said_ not out loud, but I heard the words distinctly inside my head; it was the only time he spoke he said "That's enough."
At once, I had a feeling of completion. It _was_ enough; that's all he wanted. I turned and went away. This time, I took a slightly different path out of the church, because there was a group of tourists in my way. Instead of leaving in a straight line to the door, I passed around the pillar dividing the main church from one of the smaller rooms. There was a small brass plate in the angle of the wall there, not visible from the main room.
The plate said that the smaller room had been used as a powder magazine during the defense of the fort. During the last hours of the siege, when it became apparent that the fort would fall, one of the defenders had made an effort to blow up the magazine, in order to destroy the fort and take as many of the attackers as possible with it. However, the man had been shot and killed just outside the smaller room, before he could succeed in his mission more or less on the spot where I met the ghost.
So I don't know for sure; he didn't tell me his name, and I got no clear idea of his appearance just a general impression that he was fairly tall; he spoke "down" to me, somehow. But for what it's worth, the man who was killed trying to blow up the powder magazine was named Robert Evans; one of the survivors of the Alamo described him as being "black haired, blue eyed, nearly six feet tall, and always merry." That last bit sounds like the man I met, all right, but there's no telling. I got this description, by the way, from a book titled ALAMO DEFENDERS, which I bought in the museum bookshop as I was leaving. I had never heard of Robert Evans or the powder magazine before.
And that's the whole story.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008


THIN AIR – Appearance/book-signing in Flagstaff - November 14th!

Interviewers always ask, "How has your life changed, now that you're a best-selling author instead of a scientist?" My impulse is usually to answer, "Well…now I write books instead of doing research or teaching classes. You know…duh." Being a naturally polite person (no, really. I mean, usually…well, if I'm not worn to a frazz on a book tour, at least…) and understanding that thinking up good interview questions is not the easiest thing in the world to do, so far I haven't done this.

In fact, my life has changed a lot (well, look, I've lived more than half a century; naturally it's going to change; everybody's does), but the details are by and large either too complicated or too boring to make a good answer.

One of the ways in which it's changed, though, is that I now have the opportunity to consort with all kinds of Really Interesting People, and to be involved in all kinds of entertaining projects, beyond the limits of just the stuff I personally write.

One of these entertaining projects (staffed by Really Interesting People ) is Thin Air. This is the literary magazine produced, edited, and published by an enterprising (and most creative) group of students at Northern Arizona University. (NAU is my old alma mater, in Flagstaff—which is 7000 feet above sea level. "Thin air," geddit?)

I have the honor to be "consulting editor" for this excellent magazine—which basically means that I help support their printing costs and drop by now and then to talk with the staff and hear all about the neat things they're doing.

On one recent visit to NAU, I was invited to visit an advanced Creative Writing seminar to talk about graphic novels: what they are (this being a college class, they already knew that), how they're put together, what a script looks like, how collaboration with the artist works, what the business side (contracts, etc.) is like, and so on. Well, the editor-in-chief of Thin Air was part of this class, and asked whether I'd be willing to do an interview for the magazine, covering some of the high points of this presentation. Sure, I said.

Well, you know how one thing sort of leads to another? (Or at least it certainly does around here…) We ended up with what I think is probably an interesting interview, illustrated not only with a page of my working script, but with the "pencil page" (the preliminary sketch) of the artwork for that page, and the finished (not necessarily final; there's always tweaking) full-color art of the same page (page 48, I think. It's part of the scene where Claire tends Jamie's shoulder on the road and he tells Dougal to find him a clean shirt and take the lassie off his chest). Many thanks to Hoang Nguyen, the artist, and Betsy Mitchell, the Ballantine editor, for letting us use these!

In addition to the interview, I'll also be doing a fund-raising appearance for the magazine at Northern Arizona University on November 14th. This will be in the afternoon—3:00 PM—and I'll be talking (about graphic novels, to start with, though I imagine other things will be talked about, and I'll certainly be reading a few bits of this and that—excerpts from AN ECHO IN THE BONE, that sort of thing…) for a couple of hours and signing books. (Books will be available for sale there, but you're certainly welcome to bring your own for signing, if you'd like.)

For more details—or to order tickets for the talk—or to order a copy of the magazine itself—
go to . And I'll see you in Flagstaff in two weeks!

Monday, October 20, 2008



Well, good news! I finally know what the shape of AN ECHO IN THE BONE is!

I think I've explained a little before, about how I write: to wit, not with an outline, and not in a straight line. [g] I write in bits and pieces, doing the research more or less concurrently with the writing (meaning that assorted bits of plot or new scenes may pop up unexpectedly as the result of my stumbling across something too entertaining to pass up).

As I work, some of these bits and pieces will begin to stick together, forming larger chunks. For example, I'll write a scene, and realize that it explains why what happened in a scene written several months ago happened. Ergo, the later scene probably ought to precede the first, already-written scene. So I haul both scenes into the same document, read through this larger chunk, and at that point, sometimes will see what has to happen next. (Sometimes not.) If so, then I can proceed to write the next bit. If not, I go look for another kernel (what I call the bits of inspiration that offer me a foothold on a new scene), and write something else.

Anyway, this process of agglomeration continues, and I begin to see the underlying patterns of the book. I get larger chunks. And all the time, I'm evolving a rough timeline in my head, against which I can line up these chunks in rough order (E.g., the battle of Saratoga—which is in this book—was actually two battles, fought by the same armies on the same ground. But the dates of those battles are fixed: September 19th and October 7th, 1777. Some specific historical events occurred and specific historical persons were present in each of those two battles. Ergo, if I have assorted personal events that take place in the fictional characters' lives, and various scenes dealing with those, I can tell that logically, X must have taken place after the first battle, because there's a wounded man in that scene, while Y has to take place after the second battle, because the death of a particular person (who died in the second battle) precipitates Y. Meanwhile, Z clearly takes place between the battles, because there's a field hospital involved, but there's no fighting going on. Like that.)

Now, at a certain point in this chunking process (and I've been chunking for awhile now on ECHO; in fact, I've sent my German translator two largish chunks already, to begin translating), I discern the underlying "shape" of the book. This is Important.

All my books have a shape, and once I've seen what it is, the book comes together much more quickly, because I can then see approximately what-all is included, how it's organized, and where the missing pieces (most of them, anyway) are.

OUTLANDER, for instance, is shaped like three overlapping triangles: the action rises naturally toward three climaxes: Claire's decision at Craig na Dun to stay in the past, Claire's rescue of Jamie from Wentworth, and her saving of his soul at the Abbey.

DRAGONFLY IN AMBER is shaped like a dumbbell (no, really [g]). The framing story, set in 1968 (or 1969; there's a copyediting glitch in there that has to do with differences between the US and UK editions of OUTLANDER, but we won't go into that now), forms the caps on the ends of the dumbbell. The first arc of the main story is the French background, the plots and intrigue (and personal complications) leading toward the Rising. Then there's a relatively flat stretch of calm and domestic peace at Lallybroch, followed by the second major arc, the Rising itself. And the final end-cap of the framing story. All very symmetrical.

VOYAGER looks like a braided horse-tail: the first third of the book consists of a three-part braided narrative: Jamie's third-person narrative runs forward in time; Claire's first-person narrative goes backward in time (as she explains things to Roger and Brianna), and Roger's third-person narrative sections form the present-time turning points between Claire's and Jamie's stories. After Claire's return to the past, though, the story then drops into the multi-stranded but linear first-person narrative (moving forward) that we're used to.

DRUMS OF AUTUMN…well, that one's a little more free-form, but it does have a shape. It's shaped like a curving, leafy stem, with a big, showy rose at the end, but with two side-stems, each with a large bud (these being Roger and Brianna's independent part of the story, and the Jocasta/Hector/Ulysses/Duncan/Phaedre part).

THE FIERY CROSS looks either like a rainbow or a shower of fireworks, depending how you want to look at it. [g] There are a number of separate storylines that arc through the book—but every single one of them has its origin and root in that Very Long Day at the Gathering where the book begins. Each storyline then has its own arc, which comes down at a different point toward the end of the book.

A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES…Well, probably you've seen that very well-known Hokusai print, titled "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa." (In case you haven't, here's a link.) When I happened to see this print while assembling the chunks for this book, I emailed my agent in great excitement, to tell him I'd seen the shape of the book. "It looks like the Great Wave," I said. "Only there are two of them!" [g] Notice, if you will, the little boats full of people, about to be swamped by the wave—these are the characters whose fate is affected by the onrush of events. And in the middle of the print, we see Mt. Fuji in the distance, small but immovable, unaffected by the wave. That's the love between Claire and Jamie, which endures through both physical and emotional upheaval. (The waves are the escalating tides of events/violence that remove Claire and Jamie from the Ridge.)

So that leads us to the current book. And, as I say, I've just recently seen the "shape" of AN ECHO IN THE BONE. It's a caltrop.


OK, normally I'd make y'all look it up [g], but the only person to whom I announced this revelation (husband, literary agents, editors, children) who already knew what a caltrop is, was my elder daughter (who is unusually well-read). So, all right—this is a caltrop (so's this, which is very elegant, I think), and this is the definition thereof.

Nasty-looking little bugger, isn't it? (And if you think this image presages something regarding the effect of this book, you are very likely right. Enjoy. [g])