More on Diana Gabaldon
Published: May 30, 2008
|Portland, Ore., writer Jessica Page Morrell interviewed novelist Diana Gabaldon for the July 2008 issue of The Writer. Following are some additional insights from Gabaldon:|
Why did you choose to stage events surrounding the Revolutionary War in the southern United States, particularly North Carolina? Because this area has not been written about much in fiction during this era, the locale seems to breathe fresh life into these events.
The reason is partly historical and partly contrarian. By staging the war in the South you're not dealing with this huge weight of preconception about what happened. There's been a terrible lot of stuff written about the war in the North and so why rehash all that when there's so much interesting stuff going on in the South? The other thing is that there is just the force of history. That's where the Scots went after they immigrated following Culloden [a great battle in Scotland in 1746]. Some of them went all the way up the coast to Nova Scotia and we'll meet them in the next book. But many of them just went up the Cape Fear River into the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee because it reminded them of home. And because there were a lot of Scots already living there from a previous exodus.
I heard that you started in the comic-book industry writing for Disney. How does that translate into writing complicated novels like the Outlander stories? Or doesn't it?
There is definitely a relationship here. The front page of a comic book is set up as a large single panel, plus four small panels. The main character has to show up in that first panel. If it's a Donald Duck story, Donald Duck is there in some situation that has to do with the premise of the story. It can be about Donald Duck being in conflict with his nephews about their bee-raising project. So it will show Donald reading a newspaper and suddenly seeing a bee fly across his line of sight.
Then the first three of the four panels underneath can be used to explain background or setup. But by the final panel on the page the characters must be up and about on their adventure. Which is a really good way of telling people how to start a book. Writers often have the problem of wanting to tell how the character got to the point where you start. This eliminates all the backstory that you don't need.
And this continues; you just provide an explanation as you need it in a comic book. You keep the story moving. There is constant action. You can do rich background, but you just keep explanation moving along with the action. You can redeem a paragraph of static explanation if it just has one line of action in it.
Could you comment on switching from a science career to fiction-writing? It seems like a giant leap, or is there common ground in the sense that both require a great deal of analysis?
Both good science and good art rest on the ability to perceive patterns. When you do science, you set the limits of your study in terms of physical parameters: such as nest-site selection by Pinyon Jays, say (the subject of my doctoral dissertation). Anyway, what you're looking at is all the chaos that falls within the limits you've set. You then proceed to make observations, gather preliminary data and form a hypothesis, on the basis of what patterns you think you're seeing. You then devise a means of testing this hypothesis to see whether the patterns might in fact be there or not.
OK, when you write a novel, you also limit the chaos. You choose a setting and characters, but you're entitled to use not only the factual chaos that pertains to your setting and the imaginary chaos that your character inhabits, but also your own internal chaos. It's boring and inaccurate to assume that writers can only write about their own lives. But it is true that writers use themselves; their emotions, their experiences, their perceptions of the world—all those form part of the experiential chaos that you use as raw material. But then, you look for the patterns—the thematic material of the novel is your hypothesis, and the novel itself is the experiment. When you release a novel to the world and it finds its readers, you see whether or not your hypothesis is supported.
What is your best advice for writers, especially those interested in writing historical fiction?
The basic advice for any writer is to keep doing it. My basic rules are: Read, write, and don't stop. As far as historical fiction, you shouldn't write historical fiction unless you have a taste for research and are fascinated by the past. It's a lot of work and a labor of love. If you just want to write a book, there are a lot easier kinds of ways to approach a novel than doing historical research. I also advise that you have a taste for accuracy.
What is the most difficult part of writing and how do you overcome it?
Beginning, every day. The fact that I knew how to do this yesterday does not mean I have any idea how to do it today. How do I overcome it? Sit down and start anyway.
J.K. Rowling is famous for knowing how her Harry Potter series was going to end as she wrote it. Do you have that same knowledge about your ending?
I know a few things. But because I concentrate on the story to such an extent and because I do such a lot of research, the patterns become evident to me. I'll have these little lightning revelations. So I know just these little bits, but I never know how they're going to happen, or where they're going to happen, or what their prominence will be in the story.
To use another metaphor, it's like looking out over this trackless sea, and you see a little volcano coming up with lava rolling down the sides. And over here there is another one popping up, spraying sparks and steam. If you get three or four of these popping up, and as the lava rolls down hissing into the water, these mountains begin to rise. And as you look, you begin to see that the slope of one mountain goes down here; the slope of the other mountain goes down there. You can see where they're going have to intersect even though that part is still below the water.
Well, essentially what you're doing when you're writing is raising this continent by adding this scene and so on and so forth. As the continent rises you get these mountains, you see the foothills. and finally, when you have the whole thing brought up, you still have low-lying water forming the streams and lakes and so forth in your landscape. That water is the remaining ambiguity in your story and if the reader gets close enough and looks into the water, he should see his own face looking back.
--Posted May 30, 2008