Published: 15/08/2014 14:34 - Updated: 22/08/2014 17:53

Diana Gabaldon: The Outlander who feels at home in the Highlands

Diana Gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon

FOR Diana Gabaldon, there are two Highlands — the real Highlands and the one of her imagination.

Fortunately she found that the two were not so different after all.

Gabaldon wrote the first of her bestselling Outlander books as a science professor in Arizona in the late 1980s without ever having visited Scotland for herself, but has more than made up for that since.

"I’ve been writing books for a long time and imagining them even longer than that — you kind of get used to living on multiple levels," Gabaldon said.

"I wrote my first book from library research and I couldn’t tell my husband: ‘I have to go to Scotland, I have to write a book!’ But when I sold the book, I told him we really must go and see the place, and we did. I go back at every opportunity, so I’ve probably been to Scotland 20 times or more.

"When I come over, I feel very much at home. In fact, our younger daughter is married to a Scotsman and they live in Edinburgh, so we take any opportunity to visit."

That first visit did not disappoint.

"I remember standing at Carter Bar with England on one side and Scotland on the other and looking out towards Scotland and thinking: There it is. It’s exactly how I imagined it. It was quite thrilling," she said.

Readers of the multi-million selling saga, which combines historical romance with time-travelling fantasy, will no longer have to work so hard to imagine the Highlands thanks to a big budget television series which just begun screening in the US, but was filmed in Scotland, including sequences shot at Newtonmore and in the Cairngorms.

Yet, if it had not been for television, and Britain’s own Doctor Who, Gabaldon would not have written any of the Outlander series at all.

"I was looking for a time and place to set a historical novel and I happened to see this really old episode of Doctor Who," she explained.

"It was one of the old Patrick Troughton episodes in which the Doctor had picked up a young Scotsman from 1745 by the name of Jamie MacCrimmon, who appeared in his kilt. I thought: Well, that’s rather fetching!

"I found myself thinking about this the next day and thought: if you are going to write a book, it doesn’t matter where you set it — the important thing is to pick a point and get started. So fine. Scotland, 18th century. I wasn’t intending to publish the book or show it to anyone, so from that point, it didn’t matter."

A scientist by training, Gabaldon knew nothing about 18th century Scotland, but did know her way around the university library.

"I went immediately to the library and began looking up Scotland in the 18th century and came up with 30 or 40 titles. So I just went along the shelves and took out anything that looked good," she said.

"It was close enough to our time that the language is legible, even the stuff that is written in Scots dialect.

"Really, the only thing you can’t find out about a place is what it smells like.

"I do the writing and the research more or less concurrently. When I began, my point was not to learn everything about Scotland in the 18th century, it was to learn how to write a novel, so I wanted to begin writing immediately. I’ve always done that. I go on writing and if I come to a spot where I need to know something I’ll pause and look it up and invariably, I’ll find something else fascinating which leads on to another scene. The research and the writing feed off each other and that keeps me going very nicely."

Of course, the internet now makes research much easier and quicker.

"If you need to know what a historical character looks like, you can Google Thomas Paine and an image comes up immediately," she said.

"You can have that in mind when you are bringing a historical character to life. You also want to know what they sound like, so you look for things that they wrote so you can write about them in their own voice."

The first of the novels, published in the UK as Cross Stitch, was set between post-war Britain and the Highlands in the years before the 1745 rebellion.

As the years and series have gone on, the books have also progressed through history with the more recent novels finding Gabaldon’s characters caught up in the American War of Independence, just as many exiled Highlanders were in real life.

"At the time of the American Revolution, one in three American colonists was from Scotland and a great many of those had left Scotland in the wake of the Jacobite rising," Gabaldon pointed out.

"With this background behind them, they had mixed feelings about the American revolution and many of the colonists originally fought for the Government side. It wasn’t that they were in favour of King George by any stretch of the imagination, but they saw what happened when they lost and they didn’t want that to happen again. At the beginning, the revolution did not look like a sure bet. They were under financed and it didn’t seem that they could possibly win.

"What I’m doing with these books is following the entire second half of the 18th century, mainly through the lives of these particular characters, but also the political movements. The 18th century was a time of great intellectual fervour and things changed very rapidly. People who were on one side one year, could be on the other the next. It’s a very exciting time to write about. When you’re writing novels you want conflict."

The novels, which have been published in almost 30 countries, have built up their own devoted fans who call themselves Sassanachs — the term that Gabaldon uses for strangers or "outlanders" in her novels.

Now the fans are beginning to lavish equal devotion on the two leads in the series, Northern Ireland’s Catriona Balfe, who plays Claire, the 20th century nurse who finds herself transported back in time after visiting standing stones near Inverness, and Sam Heughan, who plays Highland warrior Jamie Fraser.

Sam Heughan: already popular with female Outlander fans for some reason.
Sam Heughan: already popular with female Outlander fans for some reason.

A recent screening at Eden Court of independent film Emulsion, which stars Heughan in the lead role, saw several "Heughligans" make the journey to see the young Scottish actor in person, including ones from as far as Australia, North America and Germany.

"I was chatting with Sam Heughan and Catriona back in January when we had this huge fan meet with 2500 fans. I said to them that I have never had a dangerous fan, never been stalked or anything like that," Gabaldon said.

"I think it is because people who are mentally ill don’t have the attention span to read these books because they are very large and complex. I told them: ‘The minute the show goes live, we lose that filter.’"

It looks as though the television series will create a lot more fans of Gabaldon’s world.

The first episode on US cable channel Starz drew in 3.7 million viewers and the show has already been sold to around a dozen countries — but not Britain.

"I actually don’t know why. There are all sorts of rumours that it has to do with Scottish independence. I do have every hope and expectation that it will come to the UK," Gabaldon said.

Some authors approach screen adaptations of their books with caution.

Not Gabaldon, who cheerfully declares herself an "embracer" and delighted with the television series mastermined by producer Ron Moore, who has previously worked on the Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica franchises.

"People have been trying to make a two hour movie of my first book for years, and as I told Ron Moore when he first showed me the script: ‘This is the first treatment that didn’t make me turn white or burst into flames!’ The truth is that you just can’t make a two hour movie of those books," Gabaldon said.

"They are very long, very complex and very tightly structured. A 16 hour television series is a different matter. I’m very pleased with the actors on the show and the scripts and they have been very, very kind about asking my opinion. They don’t have to take it — they have their own artistic vision. But every so often, I’ll look at something and say from my knowledge of the 19th century that you can’t do that and they’ll take it into consideration."

Gabaldon has visited the Scottish set of the television series and can even be spotted making a cameo appearance in one of the episodes.

"It’s an immense thing they have got out at Cumbernauld — they call it Outlanderworld. 400 people out there, all beavering away," she said.

But as for following the example of her friend George R.R. Martin, who has written screenplays for the hit television series based on his fantasy books, Game of Thrones, Gabaldon says she is simply too busy.

"Ron Moore, when he first came to talk to me, asked if I would be interested in writing for the show, but I told him, particularly with this being the first series, I didn’t want to be responsible for screwing things up," she said.

"Beyond that, I was in the final stages of the eighth novel. It’s very demanding because it’s not just the writing. You have to be on set while they are filming because there are so many re-writes. If it goes to second season, which looks quite likely, I’ll at least consider it.

"George worked in television, so for him it was quite natural and he did a couple of scripts through the first two or three seasons of his show."

On the issue of Scottish independence, whether it is impacting on a UK screening or not, Gabaldon remains neutral, although happy to publicise the views of her friends on the set.

She may not want to get involved with Scottish politics, but her books and now the television series have been making an impact on the Scottish tourist industry for a number of years, and VisitScotland recently launched an online Outlander locations map and itinerary, which features Inverness and Loch Ness.

"VisitScotland were kind enough to tell me they should be paying me a bounty for all the people who come to Scotland after reading my books and after reading some of the letters, I think they may be right!" she laughed.

"I’m very pleased so many people have formed an attachment for Scotland after reading my books."

And her fans will be delighted to know there will be more from Claire and Jamie’s story, although having been on the road since the beginning of June, first promoting her latest book and then the television series, Gabaldon has yet to get down to writing the next book in the series.

"I haven’t what you’d call engaged with book nine yet," she said.

"It’s kind of hovering out there and it will be good to get back to it when I get my life back in September."

• Diana Gabaldon will be talking about and signing copies of her most recent book, Written In My Own Heart’s Blood, at The Ironworks, Inverness, on Friday. Doors open 6pm.

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