Outlander author Diana Gabaldon knows how series will end, shares her favorite characters and more

Outlander's Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan Starz

For international best-selling author Diana Gabaldon seeing the characters of her beloved Outlander novels come to life on screen has been a thrilling experience. Gabaldon has immersed herself in the worlds of former World War II combat nurse Claire Randall and rugged Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser for almost 25 years, telling their complex love story over numerous novels. Her books have amassed an incredible fan base and are published in 26 countries and in 23 languages. Her first book — Outlander — is being played out in Season 1 of Starz’s cable series, which returns for eight new episodes beginning Saturday, April 4, 2015 (the first eight episodes debuted in August 2014). The TV series is executive produced by Ronald D. Moore, with Gabaldon serving as an adviser. We sat down with Gabaldon earlier this year to discuss her book’s transition to screen, her fan base, her writing process and more. Here’s what we learned …

The majority of the TV series is taken directly from her novel but deconstruction is necessary and things won’t happen in exact sequences and/or may be different…
Outlander-Key-ArtDiana Gabaldon: I’d say maybe 85 percent is taken from the books — straight lines and everything, but it has to be slightly tweaked in order to achieve that dramatic structure. They will deconstruct the book into all of its separate scenes and all of its separate lines of dialog, and then they move things around. They say, “Well we think we could do this, and in that we can take that piece from over here, but then we need to get back to the main plot line, so we’ll have to write a little piece here that will make that turn back into this.” The overall effect is a realization of Outlander. Anyone who is a fan of the books would recognize it instantly from the show, and love it.
But at the same time, there’s this wonderful feeling of novelty and discovery because things are not going to happen in the exact sequence that you expect them, and they may not happen in the exact way that you expect them. Sometimes a scene will have been deconstructed into two or three separate parts which occur in other places, so you’ll be saying, “Well I missed my favorite line,” but it’s coming, it’s just somewhere else.

The TV series will enrich your experience of the book …
Outlander_bookThere are so many tweaks and adaptations by necessity that people will say, “Oh, it wasn’t like this in the book,” and I said, “Look, if you’re going to watch the show with the book in one hand, you’re not going to enjoy either one.” I said, “It does change, and this is why,” and I explained the adaptation process to them and why it has to change like that. I said, “So, just relax, enjoy the show. It’s not going to take away anything from the book; it will probably enrich your experience of the book, and vice versa. If you’ve been watching the show, the book will give you a much fuller explanation on everything that’s going on.”

Television doesn’t have the same freedoms that Gabaldon enjoys — like infinite room to tell the story…
When I’m writing a book I’m God, essentially. The climaxes can be where I want; the other pacing is just what I like, because I have infinite room, essentially. They don’t have that for a TV show, they have 55 minutes, then good luck. Sixteen of them, which is unheard-of generosity for a TV series, but still, it is limited room. There’s only so much you can do, and also, an episode has to have its own little dramatic arc, it has to be watchable on its own and separate from all the others. You can’t just have one that’s all explication because you’re going to do the climax in the next one. You can’t expect people to tune in next week if you haven’t given them something to enjoy here.

Gabaldon appreciates her passionate fan base and celebrates them by sharing fan mail, photos and posts from them on her website. She isn’t, however, going to be influenced by opinions on storylines for the future direction of the series …
I wrote Outlander for practice and I did not tell anyone what I was doing partly because I didn’t want people saying, “Why aren’t you finished yet?” Or making absurd assumptions about, “Oh well you’ll finish the book and get a million dollars for it,” because I knew this wouldn’t happen. Most of all, I didn’t want anyone telling what I was doing wrong until I had figured it out for myself. I said, “I’m just going to write by myself.”
That’s a very freeing experience when you have the liberty to try things. Maybe you make mistakes, maybe you change your mind, but you have total liberty. You’re not giving somebody a chapter and they’re saying, “Oh, I love this,” and then the next week you have rewritten it as something else and they’re saying, “Well I don’t like this,” and you’re saying, “Well I like that.” I mean I don’t want arguments. Having written with that mindset, I intend to just continue doing that, and I have because if you have more than one reader, you’re never going to please them all, so why even think about it? I never have.

Now penning the ninth book in the series, Gabaldon says she has thought of how it will all end …
Well, I mean, I know what the last scene is, but that doesn’t mean I have any idea how we get there! … I know what the last scene is, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. It’s sort of like the prologues of the book; so I know what happens there, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how we will get there.

Gabaldon doesn’t use an outline when writing her books, she lets each of the novels take their own shape developing it in bits and pieces and a lot of fiddling…
Each book determines its own shape, and the series has a much bigger shape of itself. As I get more and more pieces of a book, then I can see the ultimate shape. I’m getting to the point where I can see the ultimate shape of the series. I still don’t have any idea what’s in the book I’m writing specifically, but I can sort of see the shape of it. What it has to achieve in an emotional, as well as a historical and plot-wise kind of way.
That’s kind of underlying whatever I’m doing. I don’t outline books. I don’t plan them out ahead of time, because this would not be fun. I don’t write in a straight line. I write in little bits and pieces where I can see things happening. Sometimes those things are stimulated by the research or by something I’ve overheard or some bit of interesting trivia that someone’s sent me. Things like that, and so just little by little.
I can’t predict any of that, but what I can do is take it and execute a scene. The scene itself talks to me while I’m working, so I work very slowly, back and forth, and back and forth. I don’t write rough drafts, I just fiddle a lot until it’s as good as I can make it. Then if I know what happens next, I’ll write that, if I don’t I’ll go write something else.

Each book takes years to write and each book is carefully managed to avoid too much backstory.
It takes about three years to write one of the big main books … with all of the research and the construction work because the books have to be engineered so that a person who is picking up this book, say in an airport bookshop, and does not know that there are seven enormous books preceding it, will still be able to enjoy this book on its own terms.
At the same time, it can’t have so much backstory that it bores people who have read the preceding seven books. That’s a very delicate feat of engineering, which actually takes quite a lot of time to work out.
The baseline rule of dealing with backstory is don’t ever tell the readers anything until they have to know it.

Outlander's Caitriona Balfe and Sam HeughanStarzOutside of Claire and Jamie, naming her top 5 other characters she’s added along the way proved challenging …

Oh, I’m extremely fond of all of them, but I guess my favorites would be Murtagh  (Jamie’s godfather), I’m very fond of. Let’s see … Roger MacKenzie. John Grey who also will be introduced in Season 2, or book two; though he doesn’t really come into his own until the third season, and so forth. That’s three of them. Let’s see. Just amongst my favorites that are pleasure to write with, yeah, Colum and Dougal I love them dearly, but they’re much more difficult to write.

Setting the book in Scotland and the TV series filming in Scotland has resulted in a boost in the economy. Gabaldon is even credited for saving a local weaving mill thanks to the costuming needed  …
My husband joked saying: “So, you’ve boosted the Scottish economy. You’ve saved the local weaving industry, and you’ve preserved the Gaelic language. What are you going to do for an encore? Oh, that’s right. You’re going to act.”

Gabaldon is overly modest when it comes to intervening in the production and filming of the TV series, so much so that when it came to a historical inaccuracy it was actually her husband who interjected on set …
There was actually only one very minor thing. I was at one point outside the set talking to my husband who had made friends with all the technicians, learning how all the equipment works, so he was having a ball. We were watching one of the scenes that were being shot and it was of the oath taking when Dougal is giving Colum his oath and so forth. He put his hands in Colum’s, and Colum raised them and kissed his hands. I said, “That’s not right, it’s the other way around,” and Doug said, “Well shouldn’t you tell them?” I said, “Well I’m kind of embarrassed to.” He said, “I’ll tell them,” so he tapped the nearest technician and he said, “She says ….” and so they stopped everything and hauled out the director, or the director of photography and the writer. I was going, “Dear God, I don’t mean to be so particular, but just so you know …”
Anyway, they re-shot it, which was very nice of them.

27 Comments

  1. Like all these other fine ladies I am also a huge fan and can’t wait for the next book. I have read many different books by different authors, however the outlander books are the only books that actually made me laugh OR cry openly ( my husband has thought I lost my mind more than once as we will he in bed reading and out of no where I am either busting out laughing hysterically, or start crying ) . like others have said the characters come to life, as does the scenery around them and the words transport me to where they are.
    For some one who suffers from two rare and painful debilitating conditions/diseases and often finds myself trapped in bed at home, or in hospitals these books are often my escape from it all and I will bury my nose in them and read for hours. While I can’t wait for,the next books, I also dread reading the page in which Jamie and Claire die. I know I sound crazy, but it will feel like I lost real life friends when that happens.

  2. Hi there
    I was curious about why the lovely new lady was cast as Jamie’s ex, in the books there was no one of much significance in his past. Is this just some spicy artistic licence?
    Thanks,
    Love it all
    Beth

  3. Many years ago I was eavesdropping over the shoulder of a couple at Barnes and Noble, who commented that since there were “the first four of them there, and you know they won’t be here next time we look,” they grabbed the four and hurried off. I had to see what was so important. It was the first four of the Outlander series, new to me. Not to be left behind, I grabbed those four, and have never looked back. I have read the current 8 many times, and am enjoying the TV series immensely. This octogenarian hopes to live long enuf to see the final scenes, and the ghost resolved. Write on, Diana!

  4. I have read a lot of books in my life but none so great as Diana’s Outlander. I have read each one 3 times and can read them again. If I try to read something else now, the words on the pages are just words, Diana’s are not just words but they really transport you to another time and place. Thank you Diana for your ability to do this. I love the sex scenes because they are between a married couple who really love each other and that is the way it was meant to be.

  5. I’ve read all 8 books and really like that they are not predictable. Just when I think you are heading one way . It’s refreshing

  6. Ms. Gabaldon, you single-handedly made me fall in love with the Scottish culture. By reading all 8 “Outlander” novels, I have traveled to Scotland and back in time to the 18th century. Thank you.

  7. I for one am not particularly put off by the sex scenes, even at the ripe old age of 72. As a retired teacher, I happen to know that many teenagers are very well educaterd in the wide variety of sex shown in the episodes so far. I think it is very well done and is necessary to the context of the story as it helps portray the growth of Jamie and Claire’s relationship. I am always amazed by the beautiful and loving comments coming from one so young and still a virgin at 23. Not many mature men in the 21st century would be comfortable saying to their significant other that he or she is his world, that he thought his heart would burst or any of the other pronouncements that make Jamie the good and true man that he is.

    • I red allthe books twice and love them all. I am 71 and I a love the sex scenes but most of all I have always love what Jamie says to Claire the love that he feels for her is so amazing I can’t wait do the final book please don’t take too long I really need it thank you for such a beautiful story.

  8. I absolutely love your books and have gotten the series as an anniversary present dvd s from my 3 sons and wives. They are now also watching the series. My one son calls them the Bawdy series lol However I cannot tell you how disappointed and disgusted I am with the second series on Starz placing so much time and emphasis on the sexual scenes and especially this weeks! They seem to think that the more pornography they show the more people who will watch! It is sickening and considering that there are teens who also watch the program, entirely unnecessary! All that time would be better used in the beautiful story you have written. Please relay to the powers that be they are ruining your beautiful stories and some of your audience will begin to “opt out” and just read the books.

    • You do realize that in porn they are actually having sex? And these actors are not. Outlander is NOT PORN! Also how many sex scenes were in episode 10???? Yep just 1! And how long was that scene? Oh a long hot minute. Please go back and reread. They are a newly married couple discovering each other. And in all the books that is one of the ways they have reconnected with each other. The scenes in the book s are sensual and beautiful and that is how they are handled on screen. It’s not sick! And it’s 9:00 pm on cable. If a teen is watching it then I’m sure they are mature enough. It’s an adult book with adult themes and now an amazing adult show.

    • Maria, you say you’ve read the books? Have you ever actually noticed how much sex is in them?? A LOT! Or how randy Clair and Jamie are? VERY! Seeing that translated on screen can be a bit shocking at first but it’s all there in the books (all of which I’ve read many times). Secondly, this series AND books are NOT for young teenagers!! I honestly don’t think they are suitable for anyone under 17, maybe even 18 (depending on maturity). It’s a parents job to judge what is suitable for their children, not just let them watch it and hope for the best.

      • I believe that 17-year old girls today could teach me a few things about sex, and I’m 80-years old.
        I have all the Gabaldon books in hard cover and in mass market and soft cover. I lend the soft covers out because it is cheaper to replace them when one of my friends “forgets” to return them. I’ve also seen all the TV movies. Diana is a master at what she writes, and I don’t think it is easy for her.
        I love some of the mysticism in the later books.
        My only question that doesn’t seem to have been answered (at least I can’t find it) Was that Jamie in the first book as a ghost looking up into her room? Will this phenomenon be answered before the end of the books?

        • Arlene,
          Diana has already written the explanation of ghost Jamie but it won’t appear until the last book, and even Diana doesn’t know yet when she’ll be writing the last book. Apparently Book 9, now in progress, might not be the last one. There _could_ be a book 10, too.

          • OH GOD….I hope there is another book after 9 !!!! I have watched every episode and am re-reading the books again…I love the feeling of being taken to another world, so to speak…..Diana is an amazing writer….I am so excited to read book 9 when it is complete !!!!!

    • Maria,
      While I agree with Taraneh that the really explicit sex scenes are not actually pornography because the actors are ‘acting,’ after watching the final two episodes of the 2nd series on Starz, I was (as were a number of our friends and, my husband) very disappointed in the Producer/Director/Writer dragging out the rape and torture scenes involving Jamie in the prison cell with B.J. Randall.

      Up until those last 2 episodes most of the sex and violence were really part of telling the story (well, with exception of the dozen+ times over many episodes that we had to keep watching the horrible scene of Jamie being flogged practically to death – again, by B.J.R.).

      It’s like the beauty and R. beauty and Moore and the Director and Writer had captured in all of the previous episodes went out the window and about 2/3rds (or more) of those last 2 episodes were just long, drawn out (and yes, over sensationalized) scenes of Jamie being raped and tortured. While D.G. in the book, spent as much time on the following scenes where Claire helps Jamie to reclaim his soul and will to live – while at the monastery, to balance out the horrific and sickening things that Randall did to Jamie in the prison, Moore gave us about 10 minutes or less of those very essential scenes.

      My husband and several friends were so turned off by that ‘cop out,’ that they do not intend to watch season 2 (from the Dragonfly in Amber book). I’m personally on the fence for now. But I do hope that Moore and company will not continue to over emphasize the extremely violent scenes in the upcoming series – it just reduces the integrity of the story itself.

      My husband is a Doctor and helps patients who’ve been traumatized in unfathomable ways in real life and he also felt that Moore et al, exploited those awful scenes to ‘shock’ the audience – when in fact, they could have shown half of that footage in those 2 final episodes and everyone would have still ‘gotten it.’

      • PS *** The 3rd paragraph, first sentence, should have stated, “It’s like the beauty and sincerity that R. Moore, the Director, and Writer, had captured in all of the previous episodes went out the window…”

      • I agree with you on the final 2 episodes. To be honest I never watched Wentworth (torture episode) and was disappointed about Ransom a Mans soul (Abbey, monks, healing journey etc) especially the final love scene in the hot springs cave…. I have read the series twice now and love the books. I get leaving some things out as the story content of the book is hard to sum up in 16 episodes.. but too much was emphasized and almost defined Jamie through the torture scene.. they missed it..

  9. I’m LMAO over here because I’ve reached the age where I probably shouldn’t buy green bananas, yet I pre-order books, and wait breathlessly — oh, wait, I do everything breathlessly due to my COPD — or wait perched on the edge of my chair waiting for the next book in a beloved series. Which the Outlander Saga certainly is. Yes, I must live long enough to read that final episode, even if I can’t do anything else.

    There’s an advantage to perching on the edge of a chair, too. It’s so much easier to get up.

  10. I, like Gail masse am getting older, and too, hope for the release of Book 9, before i get too much older, as i’m sure i’ll be hoping for the release of each book after that until i meet my maker! Thanks to Diana for giving to each and every reader of this sensational series, the opportunity to get lost within the pages, to live along side her wonderful characters, and to share the adventures, and the lives of Jamie & Claire, and the other people and family who come to life on those pages. i have been reading for over 60yrs now and Diana Gabaldon’s fictional stories, have been alive for me!

  11. Gail masse says what i frequently think. i’m getting older, but i have to stick around for the next book. Hopefully i’ll feel this way after the release of book 9. That must be an incredible achievement Diana, that fans of your books have to extend their lifetime just to be around for the next release. Says so much!! thanks for the trip. The joy, the tears, the inclusion into the beloved characters lives.

  12. Diana.
    First of all, I applaud your wonderful talents as a writer and weaver of tales. Your ability to bring characters to life and to express emotions and scenery in its visual and aural form is most captivating.
    I was quite intrigued you worked so hard on your Phd. and then gave up being a professor to writer, especially since your degree was in the sciences! I love to write, but teaching is my first and foremost love. I applaud you for being able to balance the right and left side of your creative self and to choose the one that brings you the most joy.
    The series has now been delightfully added to my repertoire as a favorite and when reading the stories now, I hear Sam and Cait’s voices as Jamie’s and Claires. I am not usually a fan of mainstream fiction having been a Literature teacher now for 16 years, but am enjoying your work immensely and applaud you most heartily.
    It would be nice for Jamie to enter the stones and for them to travel more together across time in other books. I am not really interested in any other characters than these two, truth be told.

  13. I’ve got to say that since watching the series I find I am really liking Frank/BJR I was never a fan before. Tobias is an excellent actor and able to bring so much to the role.

  14. Brianna is my favorite because of her courage and her support of Roger. I know she wasn’t the easiest to write but she is the most unique of all the characters.

  15. I have read all 8 books. Enjoyed every one of them. Outlander was by accident, one day when I was looking for another book at Borders Books. They didn’t have it and another costumer talked me into the book ” Outlander ”
    I’m only hoping that the 9 th book comes out sooner than later as I’m getting older and hoping to read the end before I die. I’m 71 years old this June. Thanks for a great read to get lost in another world. Gail

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