I originally wrote this essay for my friends at Parnassus Books but I got to thinking about this novel tonight and thought I would share it with you as well. Are you an Outlander fan? Do share in the comments!
An odd thing happens to me in the months before I begin writing a novel. At some point after finishing one novel and beginning the next, I stumble across a book that changes my theories on how fiction should be written. I always feel the same way after finishing one of these novels: shaken, delighted, in awe. These books become landmarks in my own journey as a writer, and their authors my unknowing mentors.
And while I read upwards of 30 titles between projects, there is always one that rises up and becomes the new standard for my own writing. One book in particular, having found me in that very moldable state prior to beginning a new work, did something quite different. It changed me.
I came to Diana Gabaldon’s groundbreaking novel, Outlander, quite late. It was first published in 1991 but I didn’t find my beloved, now tattered copy until 2012. I’d had opportunities, of course, but sometimes I refuse to read a book simply because it is popular. I’m rather ashamed to say that’s what I did with Outlander. The more my friends recommended it, the more I dug in my heels. I chalk it up to the counter-cultural roots of my childhood. To be honest, I don’t like being told what to do.
That said, Gabaldon caught me at a weak moment and I consumed all 600+ pages ofOutlander in three days and then went on to read the next two books in a matter of weeks. I slowed down only when I realized that I was reading the books faster than she was writing them. At the moment, I am parked quite happily in the middle of book six and have no plans to finish until after I meet my current deadline. I will take my time with the rest of the series, savoring each word, and, though it sounds a bit dramatic, dreading the day it comes to an end.
As a fiction-lover, I learned from Diana Gabaldon what it means to trust an author. She takes her readers to the broken, exhausted, exhilarating point of every emotion. Whether writing a knife fight, a journey, a homecoming, a betrayal, a wedding, or at times even torture, she builds her scenes until the page quivers with tension. Where a lesser writer would have mercy on the reader and cut the scene short, she takes it to the most brutal, unexpected, delightful, and profound conclusion. If her characters suffer — which they do, frequently — she ensures that the reader suffers along with them. Her characters and her readers weep alongside one another. They celebrate together. They are redeemed together. Her devoted, almost rabid following is proof that we invest ourselves entirely in her work. When I pick up an Outlander novel I know that I will be rattled and grateful at the end. But I also know it will cost me more than my time and the price of a hardcover. Diana Gabaldon will take a piece of my heart in exchange for the privilege of living in her fictional world. I make this transaction willingly every time. That, my friends, is trust.
I believe that takes immense courage and emotional fortitude for a writer. Outlander and all its sequels are case studies in how to write with finesse, how to create a world that is compelling and addictive and deeply missed when the book is finished. I have learned so much from them.As a writer, I learned from Diana Gabaldon the importance of patience and restraint. She rushes nothing. Twenty-four years she’s been writing this series, slowly building and expanding the world of Outlander. Every scene, every character, every piece of dialogue serves a purpose — not just to the book in which it resides, but to the overall saga as well. She may introduce a seemingly random character or plot thread at the beginning of one book only to tuck it away so that it emerges three books later as the pivotal twist. Sometimes those twists are a knife to the heart for her readers. And I am fascinated by the fact that Gabaldon does not believe her characters are precious. They are not protected or coddled or indulged. They are treated like real humans and are exposed to all the dangers and joys of a human life.
So it no exaggeration to say that Diana Gabaldon changed the way I read books and she changed the way I write them. I will always adore and respect her for this.