Well, it was all an accident, is what it was. I wasn't trying to be published; I wasn't even going to show
it to anyone. I just wanted to write a book--any kind of book.
Not actually any
kind of book. Fiction. See, I'm a storyteller. I can't take any particular credit for this--I was born that way. When my sister and I were very young and shared a bedroom, we stayed up far into the night, nearly every night, telling enormous, convoluted, continuing stories, with casts of thousands (like I said, I was born with this).
Still, even though I knew I was a storyteller from an early age, I didn't know quite what to do about it. Writing fiction is not a clearly marked career path, after all. It's not like law, where you do go to school for X years, pass an exam, and bing!
you can charge people two hundred dollars an hour to listen to your expert opinions (my sister's a lawyer). Writers mostly make it up as they go along, and there is no guarantee that if you do certain things, you will get published. Still less is there any guarantee that you'll make a living at it.
Now, I come from a very conservative background (morally and financially, not politically). My parents would take my sister and me out for dinner now and then, and while waiting for the food to be served, would point out the oldest, most harried looking waitress in the place, saying sternly, "Be sure you get a good education, so you don't have to do that
when you're fifty!"
With this sort of nudging going on at home, it's no wonder that I didn't announce that I was moving to London to become a novelist right after high school. Instead, I got a B.S. in zoology, an M.S. in marine biology, a Ph.D. in ecology, and a nice job as a research professor at a large university, complete with fringe benefits, pension plans, etc. The only trouble was that I still wanted to write novels.
Now, I have had rather a varied scientific career, featuring such highlights as the postdoctoral appointment where I was paid to butcher seabirds (I can reduce a full-grown gannet to its component parts in only three hours. Oddly enough, I have yet to find another job requiring this skill), or the job where I tortured boxfish and got interrogated by the FBI (they didn't care about the civil rights of the boxfish; it was the Russian exchange scientist grinding up clams in my laboratory they were after). At the time when my desire to write novels resurfaced, though, I was working at Arizona State University, writing Fortran programs to analyze the contents of bird gizzards.
This was really an accident; I was supposed to be developing a research program dealing with nesting behavior in colonially breeding birds. However, I was the only person in my research center who had (and I quote the director) "a background in computers." At the time, said "background" amounted to one Fortran class, which I had taken in the College of Business in order to keep my husband company. However, as the director logically pointed out, this was 100 percent more computer knowledge than anyone else
in the place had. I was therefore drafted to help with the analysis of ten years' worth of avian dietary data, using punch cards, coding sheets, and the university's mainframe computer. (In other words, this was long before the term "Internet" became a household word.)
At the conclusion of eighteen months of labor--which resulted in a gigantic eight-hundred-page coauthored monograph on the dietary habits of the birds of the Colorado River Valley--I said to myself, You know, there are probably only five other people in the entire world who care about bird gizzards. Still, if they knew about these programs I've written, it would save each one of those five people eighteen months of effort. That's about seven and a half years of wasted work. Why is there no way for me to find those five people and share these programs with them?
The net result of this rhetorical question was a scholarly journal called Science Software,
which I founded, edited, and wrote most of for several years.1 A secondary result was that when my husband quit his job to start his own business and we needed more money, I was in a position to seek freelance writing work with the computer press.
I sent a query letter to the editors of Byte, InfoWorld, PC,
and several other large computer magazines, enclosing both a recent copy of Science Software
and a copy of a Walt Disney comic book I had written.2 The query said roughly, "As you can see from the enclosed, you'll never find anyone better qualified to review scientific and technical software--and at the same time, capable of appealing to a wide popular audience."
By good fortune, the microcomputer revolution had just bloomed, to the point where there actually was
a fair amount of scientific and technical software on the market. And as one of perhaps a dozen "experts" in the newly invented field of scientific computation (it's really pretty easy to be an expert, when there are only twelve people in the world who do what you do), I got immediate assignments. It was in the course of one of these that a software vendor sent me a trial membership to CompuServe, for the purpose of mentioning a support forum the vendor maintained for the software I was reviewing.
I spent half an hour checking out the software support forum, and then--finding myself with several hours of free connect time in hand--set out to see what else might be available in this fascinating new online world. This being the mid-1980s, there was not nearly so much online as there is today (there was no World Wide Web; only the subscription services, such as CompuServe, Genie, and Prodigy. America Online didn't even exist yet). Still, among the resources available then (on CompuServe) was a group called the Literary Forum.
This was a fascinating group of individuals who all liked books. That was the only common denominator; the group included people of every conceivable background and profession--among them, a few published writers, a good many aspiring writers, and a great many nonwriters who simply liked to discuss books and writing. Finding this congenial gathering to be the ideal social life for a busy person with small children--something like a twenty-four-hour electronic cocktail party--I promptly signed up with CompuServe, and began logging on to the Literary Forum several times a day, to read and exchange posted messages with the kindred spirits there.
At this point in my life, I had a full-time job with the university, I was writing part-time for the computer press, and I had three children, ages six, four, and two. I'm not sure quite why I thought this was the ideal time to begin writing my long-intended novel--mania induced by sleep deprivation, perhaps--but I did.
I didn't intend to show this putative novel to anyone. It wasn't for publication; it was for practice. I had come to the conclusion--based on experience--that the only real way of learning to write a novel was probably to write a novel. That's how I learned to write scientific articles, comic books, and softvare reviews, after all. Why should a novel be different?
If I didn't mean to show it to anyone, it wouldn't matter whether what I wrote was bad or not, so I needn't feel self-conscious in the process of writing it; I could just concentrate on the writing. And, if it was just for practice, I needn't worry too much about what kind of novel it was. I made only two rules for myself: One, I would not give up, no matter how bad I thought it was, until I had finished the complete book, and two, I would do my level best in the writing, at all times.
So . . . what kind of novel should this be? Well, I read everything, and lots of it, but perhaps more mysteries than anything else. Fine, I thought, I'd write a mystery.
But then I began to think. Mysteries have plots. I wasn't sure I knew how to do plots. Perhaps I should try something easier for my practice book, then write a mystery when I felt ready for a real
Fine. What was the easiest possible kind of book for me to write, for practice? (I didn't see any point in making things difficult for myself.)
After considerable thought, it seemed to me that perhaps a historical novel would be the easiest thing to try. I was a research professor, after all; I had a huge university library available, and I knew how to use it. I thought it seemed a little easier to look things up than to make them up--and if I turned out to have no imagination, I could steal things from the historical record.3
Okay. Fine. Where to set this historical novel? I have no formal background in history; one time or place would do as well as another.
Enter another accident. I rarely watch TV, but at the time I was in the habit of viewing weekly PBS reruns of Doctor Who
(a British science-fiction serial), because it gave me just enough time to do my nails. 4 So, while pondering the setting for my hypothetical historical novel, I happened to see one very old episode of Doctor Who
featuring a "companion" of the Doctor's--a young Scottish lad named Jamie MacCrimmon, whom the Doctor had picked up in 1745. This character wore a kilt, which I thought rather fetching, and demonstrated--in this particular episode5--a form of pigheaded male gallantry that I've always found endearing: the strong urge on the part of a man to protect a woman, even though he may realize that she's plainly capable of looking after herself.
I was sitting in church the next day, thinking idly about this particular show (no, oddly enough, I don't
remember what the sermon was about that day), when I said suddenly to myself, Well, heck. You want to write a book, you need a historical period, and it doesn't matter where or when. The important thing is just to start, somewhere.
Okay. Fine. Scotland, eighteenth century.
So I went out to my car after Mass, dug a scrap of paper out from under the front seat, and that's where I began to write Outlander
; no outline, no plot, no characters--just a time and a place.
The next stop was plainly the Arizona State University library, where I went the next day. I began my research by typing SCOTLAND HIGHLANDS EIGHTEENTH CENTURY into the card catalog--and one thing led to another.6
I had not the slightest intention of telling my online acquaintances in the Literary Forum what I was up to. I didn't want even the best-intentioned of advice; I wanted simply to figure out how to write a novel, and was convinced that I must do this on my own--I'd never asked anyone how to write a software review or a comic book script, after all, and I didn't want anyone telling me things before I'd worked out for myself what I was doing.
So I didn't say anything. To anybody. I just wrote, a bit every day, in between the other things I was doing, like changing diapers and writing grant proposals.
Some eight months along in this process I found myself one night having an argument with a gentleman in the Literary Forum, about what it felt like to be pregnant.7 He asserted that he knew what this was like; his wife had had three children.
I laughed (electronically) and replied, "Yeah, buster. I've
had three children!"
To which his reply was, "So tell me what you think it's like."
Now, among the fragments of the story that I had so far was one short piece in which a woman (Jenny Murray) tells her curious brother (Jamie Fraser) what it feels like to be pregnant. Since this piece seemed to sum up the experience with more eloquence than I could manage in a brief posted message, I told my correspondent that I had a "piece" explaining the phenomenon, and that I'd put it in the Literary Forum Library.8
Most conversations on CompuServe forums are public; that is, posted messages are visible to everyone, unless they've been marked as private (in which case, they're visible only to the participants). Anyone may enter a "thread" (a series of bulletin-board-like messages and replies on a given topic) as they like.9 A number of people had been following the pregnancy argument, and so when I posted my "piece" in the library, they went and read it.
Several of them came back and left messages to me, saying (in effect), "This is great! What is it?"
To which I cleverly replied, "I don't know."
"Well, where's the beginning?" they asked.
"I haven't written that yet," I answered.
"Well . . . put up more of it!" they said.
So I did. Let me explain that I not only don't write with an outline, I don't write in a straight
line. I write in bits and pieces, and glue them together, like a jigsaw puzzle. So whenever I had a "piece" that seemed to stand on its own, without too much explanation, I'd post it in the library. And gradually, people began to talk about my pieces, and to ask me about the book that was taking shape. Eventually, they said to me, "You know, this stuff is good, you should try to publish it."
"Yeah, right," I said. "It's just for practice, and I don't even know what kind of book it is.
" (What with the time travel and the Loch Ness Monster and a few other things, I sort of didn't think it was a historical novel anymore, but I had no idea what it might be instead.) "On the other hand . . . if I wanted to publish it, what should I do?"
"Get an agent" was the prompt response from several published authors with whom I had become friendly. "An agent can get you read much faster than if you submit the manuscript yourself, and if it does sell, an agent can negotiate a much better contract than you can."
"Fine," I said. "How do I find an agent?"
"Well . . ." they said, "you're nowhere near finished with the book, you say, so you have plenty of time. Why don't you just ask around? Find out which agents handle what, who has a good name in the industry, who you should keep away from, and so on."
So I did. I listened to the stories of published authors, I asked questions, and after several months of such casual research, I thought I had found an agent who was a good prospect. His name was Perry Knowlton, and he appeared to be both reputable and well-known in publishing. Still better, he appeared to have no objection either to unorthodox books or to very long books--both of which, it dawned on me, I had.
However, I had no idea how to approach this man. I had heard that he didn't accept unsolicited queries, and he wasn't available online. Still, I was a long way from finished with the book, so I kept asking questions.
I was conversing one day (via posted messages) with an author I knew casually, named John Stith, who writes scientific fiction/mysteries, and asked him if he could tell me about his agent, if he had one.
John replied that he did have representation--Perry Knowlton. "Would you like me to introduce you to him?" John asked. I know you're nearly ready to look for an agent."
Presented with this gracious offer, I swallowed hard, and said weakly, "Er . . . that'd be nice, John. Thanks!"
John then sent a note to Perry, essentially saying that I might be worth looking at. I followed this with my own query, explaining that I had been selling nonfiction (and comic books) for some years, but that now I was writing fiction and I understood that I really needed a good agent. He had been recommended to me by several writers whose opinions I respected; would he be interested in reading excerpts of this rather long novel I had? (I didn't tell him I wasn't finished writing the thing yet; "excerpts" were all I had.)
Perry kindly called and said yes, he'd read my excerpts. I sent him the miscellaneous chunks I had, with a rough synopsis to bind them together10--and he took me on, on the basis of an unfinished first novel.11
At any rate, I went on writing, and six months later finally finished the book. I sent Perry the manuscript, and also mentioned that I would be in New York the next week, for a scientific conference--perhaps I could come by and meet him face-to-face? When I went up to Perry's office, I was rather apprehensive, since I knew that he had by this time read the manuscript--but I didn't know what he thought about it. Perry himself turned out to be a charming gentleman who did his best to put me at my ease, taking me back to his office and chatting about various of his other clients. It was at this point that I discovered that--in addition to those electronic acquaintances from whom I'd learned of him--Perry also represented such eminent writers as Brian Moore, Ayn Rand (granted, she was dead, but still . . . ), Tony Hillerman, Frederick Forsyth, and Robertson Davies.
If these revelations were not enough to unnerve me, he had my manuscript sitting on his desk, in the enormous orange boxes in which I'd mailed it. I was positive that at some point in the conversation he was going to cough apologetically and tell me that having now seen the whole thing, he was afraid that he really didn't think it was salable, and give it back to me.
However, as I was sitting there listening to him (meanwhile thinking, If you have the nerve to call Robertson Davies "Robbie," you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din), he said instead, "You know, the thing about Freddy Forsyth and Robbie Davies is that both those guys are great storytellers." Then he laid a hand on my manuscript, smiled at me, and said, "And you're another one."
At this point, I really didn't care whether we sold the book or not. I felt as though I'd been beatified. As it was, though, I gathered sufficient presence of mind to ask what he planned to do with the book.
"Oh," he said casually, "I'm sending it to five editors today," and proceeded to tell me about the editor who he thought was the best prospect.12
"Really," I said, swallowing. "And . . . er . . . how long do you think it might take to hear back?" I had, like most aspiring writers, read all the publishing information in Writer's Market,
and knew it often took six, nine, even twelve months to hear from an editor.
"Oh," Perry said, even more casually, "I've told them I want an answer in thirty days." At this point, I decided that I had probably picked the right agent.
So I went home to wait--as patiently as possible--for thirty days. Four days later, though, I came home to find a message waiting on my answering machine. "This is Perry," said a calm voice. "I've just called to update you on your manuscript."
Uh-oh, I said to myself. One of the five took one look at the box and said, "I'm not reading a ten-pound manuscript, take it back." So I called Perry, expecting to hear this.
Instead, he said, "Well, of the five I sent it to, so far three of them have called back with offers."
"Oh," I said, and paused, feeling as though I'd been hit on the head with a blunt instrument. "Ah. That's . . . uh . . . good. Isn't it?"
Perry assured me that it was. He then negotiated among the various editors for two weeks, emerging at that point with comparable offers from two publishers. Everything else being equal, he said, it came down to a choice of editor--and he recommended that we go with Jackie Cantor, at Delacorte Press. Knowing absolutely nothing about editors, I said, "Okay, fine." Which turned out to be the best choice I ever made--other than choosing my husband and my agent.
I had told Perry when I gave him the book that there seemed to be more to this story, but I thought that perhaps I should stop while I could still lift the manuscript. Being a good agent, Perry emerged with a three-book contract. After that . . . well, after that, things got out of hand, and here we are, eight years later.
So where are
we, exactly? As I said above, I don't write with an outline--if I knew what was going to happen, it wouldn't be any fun to write the book, now, would it? However, as I go along, merrily gluing pieces together, I do sometimes get a vague idea as to some events that may take place in the story. So, as I finished Cross Stitch
(my working title for what later became Outlander
),13 I could see that there was more to the story.
With a three-book contract in hand, I started in on the second book, Dragonfly in Amber
. A little over halfway through, though, I began to get this uneasy feeling that perhaps I wouldn't be able to cram the entire American Revolution into one more book, and there would have to be four volumes. I confided this fear to Perry, who said, "Don't tell them that.
Not until the first one is on the shelves, anyway."
Fortunately, by the time we decided to reveal the Awful Truth, the first books had come out and sold decency, and the publisher was happy to make us an offer for the fourth (and presumably final) book in the series. Feeling that this was perhaps the only chance I might get to induce someone to pay me to write a mystery, I got bold and said they could have the fourth book if they'd also give me a contract to write a contemporary mystery. Rather to my surprise, they gave me a contract for two
mysteries--and the fourth of the Outlander
So I set in to write. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote, and after a year and a half of this, I said, I've got a quarter-million words here; why the heck am I not nearly done with this? A little thought revealed the answer; I had (once again) too much story to fit into one book.
Attending a writers' conference at which my editor was also present, I leaned over during the awards banquet and hissed in her ear, "Guess what? There are five of them." To which Jackie, a woman of great presence and equanimity, replied, "Why am I not surprised to hear this?"
Actually, it was worse than I thought. When I removed all the pieces that belonged in the fifth book, I finally realized that what I was looking at was a double trilogy--six books in all. The first three books--Outlander
, Dragonfly in Amber
, and Voyager
--are centered around the Jacobite Rising of 1745. The second three books are centered in a similar way around the American Revolution, which was, in a way, a greatly magnified echo of the earlier conflict that ended at Culloden.
And that leads us in turn to a consideration of just what's going on in these books. Once I realized that I really was a writer, and that I had not one, but a series of books, I had two main intentions.
One was a desire to follow the great social changes of the eighteenth century. This was a time of huge political and social upheaval that saw the transition of the Western world from the last remnants of feudalism into the modern age, in terms of everything from politics and science to art and social custom. The tide of history was changing, flowing from the Old World to the New, borne on the waves of war, and what better way to look at this than through the eyes of a time-traveler?
Now, this is great stuff for the background of a novel, to be sure, but the fact is that good novels are about people. A book that doesn't have an absorbing personal story in the foreground may be good history, or have good ideas--but it won't be good fiction. So what about the personal angle of this story?
The first book was originally marketed as a historical romance because, although the book didn't fit neatly into any
genre (and at the same time was certainly not "literary fiction"), of all the markets that it might conceivably appeal to, romance was by far the biggest. However . . .
Other considerations aside, romance novels are courtship stories. They deal with the forming of a bond between a couple, and once that bond is formed, by marriage and sexual congress (in that order, we hope)--well, the story's over. That was never what I had in mind.
I didn't want to tell the story of what makes two people come together, although that's a theme of great power and universality. I wanted to find out what it takes for two people to stay
together for fifty years--or more. I wanted to tell not the story of a courtship, but the story of a marriage.
Now, to handle adequately themes like the Age of Enlightenment, the fall of monarchy, and the nature of love and marriage, one requires a certain amount of room. One also requires rather a complex story. People now and then say to me, "But aren't you getting tired of writing about the same old characters?" I certainly would be, if these were
the same old characters--but they're not. They grow, and they change. They get older, and their lives become more complex. They develop new depths and facets. While they do--I hope--remain true to their basic personalities, I have to rediscover them with each new book.
And that leads to another question I'm often asked: What is it that people find interesting about the books? For a long time, I replied (honestly), "Beats me," but after years of getting letters and E-mail, I now have some idea of the things readers say
Many of them enjoy the sense of "being there"; the vicarious experience of another place and time. Many like the historical aspects of the books; they enjoy (they say) "learning something" while being entertained. Many like the sense of connection, of rediscovering their own heritage. A good many enjoy the curious details: the botanical medicine, the medical procedures, the how and why of daily life in another time. But by far the most common element that people enjoy in the books is simply the characters--readers care for these people, are interested in them, and want to know more about them.
So, this companion is intended for the readers: a quick reference for those who don't necessarily want to reread a million and a half words in order to refresh their memories as to Who or What; a source of information and (maybe) insight on the characters, a companion for those with an interest in backgrounds and trivia; an auxiliary guide for those with an interest in the eighteenth century and Things Scottish, and finally--a brief glimpse into the working methods of a warped mind.
"True. I have heard the point made, though, that the novelist's skill lies in the artful selection of detail. Do you not suppose that a volume of such length may indicate a lack of discipline in such selection, and hence a lack of skill?"
Fraser considered, sipping the ruby liquid slowly.
"I have seen books where that is the case, to be sure," he said. "An author seeks by sheer inundation of detail to overwhelm the reader into belief. In this case, however, I think it isna so. Each character is most carefully considered, and all the incidents chosen seem necessary to the story. No, I think it is true that some stories simply require a greater space in which to be told."
, chapter 11: "The Torremolinos Gambit"
1. The university and I later sold this pub1ication to John Wiley & Sons, Inc., though I continued to serve as editor. It eventually was sold again, to a small British pub1isher, who merged it with an existing publication called Laboratory Microcomputer.
Last time I looked, I was still listed as a contributing editor, but that was some time ago.
2. Oh, the comic books. Well, my mother taught me to read at an early age, in part by reading me Walt Disney comics. What with one thing and another, I never stopped. At the age of twenty-eight or so, I was reading one of these, and said to myself, You know, this story is pretty bad. I bet I could do better myself.
I found out the name and address of the editor in charge, and sent him a medium-rude letter, saying in essence, "I've been reading your comic books for twenty-five years, and they're getting worse and worse. I don't know that I could do better myself, but I'd like to try. "
Fortunately the editor--Del Connell--was a gentleman with a sense of humor. He wrote back and said, "Okay. Try. "He didn't buy my first attempt, but did something much more valuab1e; he told me what was wrong with it. He bought my second story--one of the Great Thrills of my life--and I wrote for him and for another Disney editor, Tom Golberg, for some three years, until their backlog ob1iged them to stop purchasing freelance scripts.
Between them, Del and Tom taught me most of what I know about story structure. I acknowledge the debt with great gratitude.
3. This is a really sound technique, by the way.
4. Doctor Who
is unfortunately no longer on our local PBS channel, but luckily I can still do my nails on Saturday nights, while watching Mystery Science Theater 3000--which is, in fact, the only TV I do watch on a regular basis. No doubt this explains something, but I couldn't tell you what.
5. It was "War Games, "for those interested in trivia.
6. See "Research".
7. Via posted messages, left bulletin-board style; I've never been in a "chat room" in my life, save as an invited guest for a mass pub1ic interview.
8 "Libraries "are electronic spaces set aside within CompuServe forums for members to post--semipermanently--things they'd like to share: stories, poems, essays, articles, shareware files, etc.
9. Chat rooms and live-time interactions did not exist at the time. CompuServe messages, unlike those of AOL, exist only temporarily, with new messages essentially "pushing" old ones off into the ether.
10. A slightly altered version of this synopsis appears in Part Two.
11. Ignorant as I was at the time, I hadn't realized that agent (and editors) normally want to see a complete manuscript before making a judgment on it--just to be sure that the writer can actually finish the book. Perry, fortunately, was willing to gamb1e that I could.
12. Who, interestingly enough, rejected the manuscript. "It's a great story, "she said, "but it's not really a standard romance novel, and that's what we publish."
13. See "Where Titles Come From (and Other Matters of General Interest)". I just love footnotes, don't you?