What Outlander Taught Me about Writing

Outlander!Three weeks ago I dove headlong into my newest book and read with abandon. I’ve done little else since then. I barely noticed what was going on around me because, once again, I was living in the 18th century with Jamie and Claire Fraser. I’m sure most of you have guessed that I’m reading Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. Just as her other books, beginning with Outlander, captivated me, this one has plunged me happily into the past through the imaginary standing stones at Craigh na dun in Scotland and into the American Revolutionary War.

Diana’s books defy description and genre. They are a mix of history, romance, and fantasy, categorized as time-travel romance according to some people. Reading this latest installment has been a wonderful way to spend the last bit of my summer before school starts once again, and I have to turn my attention to work rather than my own reading and writing. Sigh. Mind you, I haven’t neglected my writing while I’ve been reading. I’ve actually learned a lot from reading these books, particularly this one, mainly because I’ve been paying attention!

1. Use interesting vocabulary. Here are just a few memorable ones from this book of the Outlander series.

  • hoik–to pick up of heave something.
  • gobsmacked–astonished, astounded
  • mizzle–misty drizzle
  • buckram–stiff cotton fabric used in book bindings
  • erstwhile–former, previous

Using interesting vocabulary might seem obvious, but we tend to use the same words repeatedly. Paying attention to our choices is important.

2. Make sure readers learn something as they read.

Gabaldon is a research professor, and her vast research shows ! Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser is the main character of the series. She is a nurse and then later a doctor.  We learn through Claire about what amputations are like, how surgeries conducted without anesthesia feel, how to set broken bones, treatment of burns, gathering of medicinal herbs and too many other tasks to count. We also learn a great deal about herbs and plants and their medicinal uses through Claire’s medical practice also. One such example of an interesting tidbit occurs when Claire is shot in this latest book. When her friend has to retrieve the bullet, Claire is awake but under the influence of laudanum. When she discovers that a French general of the Continental Army has sent her some Roquefort cheese to tempt her in her recovery, she has the surgeon pack her wound with Roquefort cheese because the compound the cheese contains is the same one penicillin is made from!

3. Appeal to the senses. I can’t possibly cite the whole book here, but I could. Here is just a sample of marvelous imagery from Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. “We slept that night in the public room of an ordinary in Langhorne. Bodies were sprawled on tables and benches, curled under tables, and laid in haphazard arrangements on pallets, folded cloaks, and saddlebags, as far away from the hearth as they could get. The fire was banked, but it still radiated considerable heat. The room was filled with the bitter scents of burning wood and boiling bodies.”

4. Trouble on every page! To start with, the book begins with Claire married to Lord John (Jamie Fraser’s and Claire’s friend) because she thinks Jamie is dead, drowned on the voyage to America. Lord John is gay, however, and only marries her to keep her from being arrested. Jamie isn’t dead and turns up at Lord John’s house in Philadelphia. While Jamie is at Lord John’s talking to Claire, his bastard son, William, whom Lord John raised as his own son, returns home, sees Jamie Fraser–he is the spitting image of him–and concludes rightly that Jamie is his father. He thought Lord John was his father. William proceeds to punch walls, knock down chandeliers, and break the front door in his anger at having been lied to. Jamie kidnaps Lord John…. Get the idea? 🙂

5. Give your characters jobs. Diana Gabaldon shows us Claire’s character through her profession as a physician. She responds to situations as a physician, often putting herself in danger to save others. Jamie is a warrior and farmer. Those two professions define who he is and what happens to him. Brianna, Jamie and Claire’s daughter, is an artist and an engineer. Roger McKenzie, Brianna’s husband is a musician and singer, then becomes a pastor. Fergus, Jamie’s adopted son, is a printer. The “jobs” the characters have are much more than just their activities; their jobs affect what happens to them and also what their reactions to trouble are, and trouble abounds in these novels!

6. Give your characters quirks. Claire uses a peculiar turn of phrase. When she is upset or surprised or taken aback she says “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.” Certainly not ordinary swearing. It’s memorable and endearing, not to mention odd. Jamie, on the other hand, has a couple of quirks. He rubs the bridge of his nose when he’s making a decision and he drums his fingers on the table or on his leg when he’s agitated. He also calls Claire Sassenach, the Gaelic word for an outlander or outsider.

These are only a few of the lessons I’ve learned from reading Diana’s books. There are many. If you’ve never heard of Diana Gabaldon, you should go right now to your local book shop or library and check out the first novel in the series, Outlander. These are hefty books. The one I’m currently reading contains 825 pages, so if you love a long book that transports you to a world with unforgettable characters, these books are for you! After reading, you should  watch the new series on TV! That’s right. The STARRZ network is producing Outlander, a show based on Diana’s books. I don’t get cable out here in the boonies where I live in Wisconsin, but I can get Netflix and will so I can watch this story come to life! Here is a trailer for you! Enjoy!

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3 thoughts on “What Outlander Taught Me about Writing

  1. I read the first book but was so immersed that I didn’t stop to consider why. Diana Gabaldon’s attention to detail propels the read to another world rich with both color and character. I enjoyed this post. Great summary of what has made this series such a best seller.

    • Thanks for stopping by to read my blog! I have read all the Outlander books including Gabaldon’s most recent one, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and have enjoyed each one of them immensely. I hadn’t given much thought to what worked either until this last one. I tried, and let me emphasize tried, to notice as I went things in her writing that particularly resonated with me. As you say, however, she propels the reader along so skillfully that we never notice her, only the wonderful characters that people her novels and the events that happen along the way. It’s a wonderful escape to just read, but is also a wonderful lesson in writing if you pay attention! Thanks again for stopping by!

  2. Great summary of the elements that have made this series a best seller. Diana Gabaldon’s attention to detail transports the reader to a world rich with both color and character. Thanks for highlighting what works. I was so engrossed in her first book I didn’t stop to consider why.

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