Dyed-in-the-Wool Fan

The Historical Fiction of Diana Gabaldon

Tartan Day is a national holiday in Scotland, commemorating the deaths of Scottish Army soldiers under the command of Prince Charles Stuart at the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746. Most of the valiant Highlanders were slaughtered and their second attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne of Scotland failed. The holiday had escaped my notice until this year. April 16 means something to me now because I'm personally acquainted with people who fought there, people whose lives were forever altered by that tragic battle. They are Claire and Jamie Fraser, fictional characters brought to vibrant life in a series of books by historical novelist Diana Gabaldon. In the tradition of historical fiction pioneer Sir Walter Scott who built novels around Scotland's Rob Roy McGregor and England's Lord Ivanhoe, Gabaldon has taken real people and events, skillfully woven fictional characters and stories around them, illuminating history with her compelling characters. The magnitude of the devastation at Culloden and its aftermath are very real to me now.

I resisted Gabaldon's books the first few times my best friend offered them to me because she said they involved time travel and romance. I envisioned schlocky genre fiction filled with cardboard characters; headstrong nubile heroines, fainting as their bodices were ripped by rapacious heroes with turgid, engorged members. My friend's devotion to the books and her powers of persuasion finally won me over. In a two-week period, I devoured Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager, neglecting both work and sleep. Curious to know what happened to the Frasers after they washed up on the Georgia shore, I was hungry for the newest title, Drums of Autumn (Delacorte, $25.95 hard). I am now totally abashed and admit my mistake. Diana Gabaldon is no formula genre queen. Her historical fiction is meticulously researched and eminently involving. With skill equal to enduring favorites Sir Walter Scott and Jules Verne, Gabaldon weaves rich, bold literary tapestries that could become treasured keepsakes.

Gabaldon is a former college professor with a Ph.D., a husband, and two children, who lives in Arizona. She's not Scottish and had never seen that country's Highlands until after her first two books became popular. "When I finally visited there on a book tour," she recalled in a recent telephone interview, "the most common question I got from fans was where had I lived in Scotland before moving to Arizona? I'm proud of that." The key to Gabaldon's faithful recreation of the Scottish Highlands inhabited by the Fraser and McKenzie clans is painstaking research. In fact, it was her advanced computer research skills that prompted the former scientific researcher to choose an historical novel for her first foray into fiction.

After years of technical writing and a busy freelance career turning out articles for computer magazines, Gabaldon decided to try her hand at something new. "I was reviewing some Compu-Serve software for a magazine piece and used the free online time to visit the chat rooms in their literary forum," she recounts, "just paying attention to what other writers said and occasionally asking questions." Mystery was her first choice but she was unsure about the plotting. The author was confident in her research skills, however, and determined that her "trial run" novel would be historical. She chose Scotland as a setting after watching an episode of the PBS program Dr. Who which featured a kilted young Highlander discussing the Jacobite uprising of 1745. "Something about a handsome young man in a kilt really appealed to me," she laughs, "and I had to start somewhere."

Gabaldon reports that for her, the research and the writing are done concurrently. "I never knew where I was going, have never had an outline," she assured me, "I just write scenes or kernels where I sense some movement in the story." Several months into the "trail run" book, she posted a scene she'd written on the literary forum bulletin board and received favorable response and encouragement from other writers. At that point, she began gathering information from the forum's published authors about securing the representation of a literary agent. When an author whose work she admired offered an introduction to his agent, she enthusiastically agreed and sent her manuscript. Within a matter of days, she not only had an agent, she had a hefty three-book contract and was well on her way to publication.

The original novel about the World War II nurse/accidental time traveler Claire Beauchamp and her dashing lover, 18th century Scots Highlander Jamie Fraser, wasn't begun as the first book of a series. However, Gabaldon realized she had much more story to tell before she finished Outlander in 1991. That book grew into Dragonfly in Amber (1992) and by the time she was well into Voyager (1994), both her agent and her editor at Delacorte were accustomed to hearing that Gabaldon had yet another 1,000-page opus up her sleeve. The first three books are a trilogy illuminating mid-18th century political intrigues in Scotland and France and detailing their impact on the Frasers and their loved ones, past and present.

1997's Drums of Autumn finds the intrepid Frasers where they've washed up on the Georgia shore and sets the stage for their new life in the American colonies. "About half the way through Drums," Diana Gabaldon recalls, "I had the overwhelming sensation of trying to pour five pounds of sugar into a one-pound sack. I knew then there would be one and possibly two more books." The fulcrum of the second trilogy is the American Revolution, where Claire's surgical skills and the leadership capabilities inherent in Jamie's character will engage them in historical events. Though addicted fans clamor for the next installment, the fifth book will not be published until late 1998. The author is finally working on the mystery she wanted to write all along, and fans will have to content themselves with The Outlandish Companion, a book of character profiles, genealogical charts of the Fraser and McKenzie clans, and translations of Gaelic words and phrases that is due out later this year.

While Diana Gabaldon's works are very popular with romance readers, she herself is adamant that they are not romance novels. After reading them, I can understand their appeal to readers in that segment of the market though they sell extremely well as historical fiction in the U.S. and other parts of the world. In addition to painting a vivid historical picture of every detail of daily life in the second half of the 18th century, Gabaldon also delivers the history of a great love and a working marriage. Claire Beauchamp is a blunt, insightful, independent career woman of the mid-20th century who finds herself married to Jamie Fraser, an educated and cultured man by the standards of his era but with definite 18th-century sensibilities. It's a pairing that makes for fireworks. They find each other in the past and sacrifice their happiness in order to save their daughter, only to be miraculously reunited. Their union is wonderfully alive, seasoned with an overwhelming physical attraction and deliciously bawdy sense of humor.

The enduring foundation of their union is honesty, both characters admitting that they are only able to be truly themselves with each other, and that ultimately creates a connection that unites them over a distance of 200 years. "Just once," it leaves the reader longing, "I wish someone would love me like that."

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