An Unexpected Voyage

"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.  The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."  ~Sylvia Plath

Diana Gabaldon's road to writing Outlander is one of the most entertaining stories I ever read, almost as entertaining as her books.

Ms. Gabaldon knew she was meant to be a novelist from an early age (about 8 years old). She used to tell stories to her sister while they were growing up, complicated stories with lots of characters and story lines. But she never wrote them down. And because of her financially conservative background, she thought she needed a more dependable source of income. 

So she chose a career in science and ultimately became a doctor of Ecology at Northern Arizona University, where her natural abilities at tracking facts and figures (and characters and plots) led her into research. She became a self-taught expert in the field of scientific computation, locating, organizing, and analyzing data from all over the world. 

But the urge to write was still there. Along the way, Ms. Gabaldon wrote Walt Disney comic books, founded a scientific journal, and authored reviews of scientific software. In March 1988, she decided to "write a novel for practice, in order to learn how to write a novel." 

In her interview in January Magazine's 2002 interview, she talks about what brought her to write about Scotland and the 18th Century: 
"That was an accident. I mean, everything was an accident, amazingly. I wanted to write a book for practice, to learn how to write novels. And I was thinking what would be the easiest possible kind of thing to write and I thought maybe a mystery, because I read more of those than anything. And then I thought, 'Well, mysteries have plots. I'm not sure I can do that.' 
"And I thought perhaps that would be a historical novel because I was a research professor. Well, I was a scientist but I did know how to use the library and it's easier to look things up than to make them up entirely. So I said, 'OK. I'll write a historical novel. Where shall I put this?' I had no formal background in history, so any time would do."
At that time she happened to see a rerun of a Dr. Who episode on television. It was one of the early episodes, and the Doctor had there a young Scots lad in his kilt, one he'd picked up in 1745. The Scot's name in that episode was Jamie MacCrimmon, played by the actor Frazer Hines. 

Ms. Gabaldon elaborates on her reaction to the young Jamie on her blog: 

"Well, that's rather doesn't matter where I set this book; I'm going to have to look everything up anyway. The important thing is to pick a place and start in." So I said, "Scotland in the 18th century. That's where I'll start." 
And so she began creating the book that became Outlander, and its leading man who became Jamie Fraser. Other than the kilt and the first name, though, there's no resemblance between Jamie MacCrimmon and James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. The fact that the actor was named Frazer had nothing to do with Jamie's last name, because she didn't know the actor's name until some years later.

At that time it was meant to be a historical novel only, but on the third day of writing Ms. Gabalon decided to have a female character 
"to play off all these men in kilts. And given that we're dealing with the Jacobite rising, perhaps I should make her an Englishwoman, that way we'll have lots of conflict built in." 

So she did, but then this female had a mind of her own: 
"She refused to talk like an 18th-century person. She immediately started making smartass modern remarks and she also started telling the story herself. And I said, 'Well, if you're going to fight me all through this book, go ahead and be modern and I'll figure out how you got there later.' So it's all her fault that there's time travel in it."

Ms. Gabaldon never intended to show her text to anyone. After all, it was just a practice. But during one of her jobs at the University she stumbled upon the CompuServe Literary Forum, which was a group of people who liked to read, write, and discuss it online  an early kind of computer blog. Diana had a discussion with a forum colleague about what it feels like to be pregnant. In her own words: 
"He said, 'Oh, I know what that's like. My wife has had three children.' And I laughed electronically and said, 'Well buster, I've had three children.' So he said, 'Can you tell me what it's like?' And I said, 'Well, actually I can. It's a little complicated to explain in a short message, but I have this piece that I wrote recently in which a woman explains to her brother in some detail what it's like because he's curious.' I told him I'd put it up on the electronic library there so he could read it. So I put it up and everyone who had been following the argument went and read the piece. They all came rushing back and said, 'This is great. What is it?' And I said, 'Well, I don't know.' They asked where the beginning was, and I said, 'Well, I haven't written it yet.' They asked me to put up some more, 'this is fascinating.' So I did, a bit at a time." 
And eventually all those bits and pieces came together into one of the most amazing book series I have ever read. And her chance encounter with Jamie MacCrimmon inspired the Highland warrior whom legions of fans have come to adore.

Image sources: Dr. Who and Crazy Horse Woman blog. 

Ms. Gabaldon is amusing, sharp, and articulate in her speaking as well as her writing, and it's a real treat to listen to her describe her unorthodox writing style.  
"…I don’t keep the narrative on track, I mean. I’m kind of a four-wheel drive sort of writer." ( 

She does not write her stories from beginning to end, she writes bits and chunks. 
"In its own good time, the first sentence will come along and you can put it where it belongs."
A phrase or an image can inspire her to write down a scene. Then when it is ready, she stores the scene on her computer (to make room in her brain for more bits and pieces), where she ignores it until she gets to a point in her current story where she needs it.

"See, when I'm writing, I'm essentially constructing an n-dimensional object in the hyperspace of my head. Certainly it has a structure, it's a lot more like a DNA  molecule than a straight line, and it really doesn't matter which pieces are written first or last; each one kind of gathers others unto itself to make little vortices of plot, and these then begin to agglomerate into bigger chunks,'s kind of organic." (

To me, her writing style sounds like she is putting together a jigsaw puzzle. She has to find (write) all the pieces, figure out how and where they fit together, and when she is finished, I look at it and — wow! The most amazing story unfolds before me!  

"You are my courage, as I am your conscience," he whispered. "You are my heart — and  I your compassion. We are neither of us whole, alone. Do ye not know that, Sassenach?"
~Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn


  1. I love this, Merit! I was only sorry when it ended. Great post!

  2. I'll never forget how shocked I was when you told me how she got the idea for these books and Jamie. So amazing that such a seemingly random event brought Jamie and Claire to us!

  3. Inspiring, fascinating to read all the various sources (personal, pop culture, academic) that inform Gabaldon's writing. Thank you!!!

    1. Isn't she fascinating? Gabaldon just amazes me, the way she can keep so many details straight in her head and figure out how to weave them all together. She has a mind like a sponge with a steel trap around it. (I, on the other hand, can't remember why I just walked into a room.) And she uses all those tidbits in such interesting ways. I find her writing methods inspiring, that she can create all she has by writing one little piece at a time.

  4. What Donna said. I think you've just put the Outlander books on my to be read list.

    Great post! I don't think I've ever heard so much detail about how a writer got started and what their process is. I know each one does things a little bit differently. Interesting to see the connection between her former job and being an author.

  5. Fantastic post Merit. I have nearly finished reading Outlander and loving it. Jamie Fraser is definitely on my radar now. Veronica, they are very well written and a real joy to read, something researched so well.

    This was a really fascinating post to see how the author came up with the ideas for the book. I love the fact the Dr Who helped kick start the idea of Jamie. It sounds like a real nod to her scientific mind to be able to pull all the different pieces together to make a coherent and rivetting story.

    1. Ms Gabaldon is very intelligent and articulate speaker,she really made it easy for me.Thank you guys.


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