September always brings a wealth of much anticipated events: a fresh start to college classes, new shows on television, another chance for a winning gridiron season. But this year, millions of fans around the world are focused on a different September experience—they’re finally getting to scratch their “what happens next” itch with the release of An Echo in the Bone, the latest book in Diana Gabaldon’s extraordinarily popular Outlander series.
It’s Gabaldon’s seventh installment of adventures starring the feisty Englishwoman Claire Randall, who was accidentally transported 200 years back in time to 18th-century Scotland. There she met and fell in love with a kilt-wearing Highlander named Jamie Fraser, and the two soon became nearly as star-crossed a couple as Romeo & Juliet.
Speaking from her weekend home in Santa Fe, with her family’s two dachshunds (Homer and JJ) curled up at her feet, Gabaldon is more than a little gleeful at the response she’s sure the new book’s cliffhanger ending will elicit.
“This is the fault of all the people who read A Breath of Snow and Ashes [the previous book in the series] and then wrote to me in droves, whining and moaning about how they were so sad this was the last book and they would miss them so much and wouldn’t I reconsider and do another book, causing me to write back in each case, saying ‘Why do you think this is the last book? Does it say ‘thrilling conclusion’ on the back of the paperback? Of course it’s not the last book!’ Which they all to a man replied, ‘But you tied everything up so neatly.’ I said okay, nobody’s going to reach the end of this book and think that.”
In An Echo in the Bone, Claire and Jamie leave their mountaintop home in North Carolina in 1779, to return to Scotland, a perilous journey made even more difficult by the Revolutionary War raging all about them. Jamie is one of the few survivors of the Jacobite Rebellion’s brutal defeat by the British at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Weary of war, he hopes to fight for America’s liberation from England through his printing press, now stored in Edinburgh. After all, someone must be brave enough to publish the incendiary opinions of the fiery zealots advocating independence from England. People like Thomas Paine—who turns up briefly in the book.
But inevitably Jamie and Claire, and Jamie’s nephew, Ian, are swept up in the conflicts around them, including the two battles at Fort Ticonderoga. They are finally able to leave the colonies by escorting the body of Brigadier General Simon Fraser, one of Jamie’s relatives, back to Scotland for burial.
Mission accomplished, the couple next return Ian to his parents, a vow made in Voyager, the third book in the series, when the 15-year-old boy was abducted from Scotland by pirates and taken to the West Indies. But Ian is no longer a boy; he is a man who has experienced things his parents could never imagine. When Claire gets an urgent request to return to the colonies to operate on a grandchild (Henri-Christian, offspring of Jamie’s foster son, Fergus), Ian accompanies her. Not least of his reasons to return is the love he feels for a Quaker lass named Rachel. Grave matters, however, force Jamie to remain for a time in Scotland, so the couple is separated by an ocean for the first time in many years.
The events related here barely make up a third of the book’s more than 800 pages—a length shared by all seven novels in the series. Characters crop in one book, disappear, and then return two or three books later. Someone barely mentioned in an early book may become pivotal in a later one. Likewise, small events barely touched upon previously often assume much greater significance in a later novel.
Despite the 18-year span since Outlander was published, Gabaldon seems to have little difficulty remembering and retrieving characters or events from the nearly 7,000 pages of prose she’s devoted to Jamie and Claire.
“I don’t write with an outline. In fact, I don’t write in a straight line. I write when I can see things happening. What I need on any given day to start writing is what I call a kernel. A line of dialogue, an emotional ambience, anything I can sense very concretely. I write very painstakingly in these little disconnected bits.
“But as I write these disconnected pieces, and I continue doing research and of course thinking about the book all the time, they begin to stick together. They develop little connections. And I will write something and think, ‘Oh, this explains, finally, why it is what I wrote four monthsago happened.’ Then I can see what has to happen next.”
One of the great joys of reading Gabaldon’s Outlander series is its “history made easy” aspect. Readers not only learn of the pivotal occurrences of the time, they also painlessly absorb the smaller details of life in the 18th century. Gabaldon gleans her major events from the usual sources: history books, biographies, contemporary accounts of the period. But she has also found another source of information in her travels to historical sites.
“I go to national parks and battlefields, partly because the bookshops offer such a selection of historical esoterica. These little national park service book stores sell not only the mainstream titles that deal with that period, but also books privately published by local people who are writing their families’ memoirs or who have great-great grandfather’s account of that particular battle which they’ve chosen to publish. Or an amateur botanist who’s written a treatise on all the local plants which grow or have grown around this particular spot. You can pick up these really weird little things that you won’t find anywhere else.”
She’s also on the lookout for any particularly fascinating quirks sported by the historical characters she brings into each novel. An example is the daily nude “airing of the skin” taken by Benjamin Franklin in An Echo in the Bone.
“That was one of those little kernels that I ran across in my research, and I said, ‘Oh, I have to use that.’ My imagination isn’t good enough to make up something that wonderful.”
One of the most popular storylines in Gabaldon’s series revolves around Jamie’s and Claire’s daughter, Brianna, her husband, Roger, and their two children, Jem and Amanda. Brianna followed her mother back to 18th-century America in an attempt to save her parents’ lives. Roger followed Brianna; they married, and might have stayed in the past until a health issue with their newborn daughter necessitated a return to the 20th century. Gabaldon continues to weave their now 1980s story around the events taking place in the late 1770s in An Echo in the Bone. One reason, she says, she took them ‘back to the future’ was to more fully illuminate what that past/present journey had meant to each.
“It was very interesting, both Roger and Brianna had some difficulty adapting to the past. So I was thinking, having struggled so hard to fit in to the 18th century, if they’re not in the 18th century anymore, can they still use those skills, or will it be all different? As to Roger, he actually found what he thought was his destiny in the 18th century. And so now he has the carpet yanked out from under him yet again, how’s he gonna deal with that? And if I’d left him in the 18th century, he would always, in some extent, be in Jamie’s shadow. I want to see if he can find himself spiritually in this new life as well as he did in the old one.”
Gabaldon says that by the time she was eight years old, she knew she wanted to be a writer. However, her father had different ideas.
“I did come from a very conservative family background, and my father was fond of saying to me, “Well, you’re such a poor judge of character you’re bound to marry some bum, so be sure you get a good education so you can support your children.”
A bachelor’s degree in zoology, a master’s in marine biology and a Ph.D. in ecology fulfilled her father’s edict, but Gabaldon still had the desire to write. She began working on what would become Outlander as a literary exercise, to improve her skills. She posted some of it online and the response to what she’d written was so positive, she contacted an agent. The book sold in three days, and her literary career was launched.
Now, 18 years later, with over 17 million books in print, there’s no doubt that Diana Gabaldon was destined to be a writer. As she’s said, she has no plans to wrap up the adventures of Jamie and Claire anytime soon, as the “now what happens?!” ending to An Echo in the Bone clearly demonstrates. Nor are her legions of fans likely to let her. History, both on and off the page, has proven that regardless of how many ‘loose ends’ she’s tied up, Gabaldon always leaves them wanting more.
Rebecca Bain lives in Nashville.
Author photo © Jennifer Watkins