• “The smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting 'Scrooge McDuck' comics.”—Salon.com
  • A time-hopping, continent-spanning salmagundi of genres.”
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

HOW I WRITE – Part IIIA – Example

Well, so I _did_ manage to write 1500 words of the “noir” piece (I’d aimed for 1000), and did read half the novel. Also walked six miles (the weather is still beautiful for walking outdoors–especially in the evening) and spent an hour researching hotels on the Isle of Man, to say nothing of going wih my husband to buy a sofa. What I _didn’t_ get to were about forty emails awaiting attention, but hey, you can’t do everything. What you _can_ do, though…

The following piece was originally written as a letter to a friend; later, when a magazine asked me to do an essay on what was either my Best Day or my Worst Day as a writer, I tidied it up a bit for the purpose.

Busy Day

Copyright 2008 Diana Gabaldon

[This was originally a letter to a friend, later rewritten as an essay for a writers' magazine.]

The Best and/or Worst Day of my writing career? Geez. Well, I’ve been doing this for nearly fifteen years now, so we have a wide array of days to choose from.

There’s the day I finished writing my first novel. Like giving birth, but no stitches, and you get to sleep as long as you want afterward. _Tres_ cool.

There’s the day my agent called to tell me that of the five editors he’d sent the manuscript to, three had called back with offers. Definitely a Good Day–though in fact, I was so flabbergasted that I felt as though I’d been slugged with a sandbag, and went around feeling surreal for about a week.

There’s the day one of my books first hit the NYT list–though I heard the news from my husband when I staggered off a plane from a three-week book-tour, and was therefore somewhat too fogged to thoroughly enjoy it.

“Yeah?” I said (as I recall). “Oh. Good. Who am I?”

Bad days. Hmm. Well, I distinctly recall throwing a basket-chair down the staircase a few years ago, while bellowing, “Will you all just LET ME ALONE FOR _FIVE MINUTES_!?!”, though I don’t recall the specific occasion.

And there was last week, when I arrived at JFK from a book-tour through Germany, Amsterdam, Sweden, and Finland, totally exhausted, and experienced forty-five minutes of being the ball in a game of Mousetrap–with half the pieces missing. (I’m _never_ landing in that place again, never!)

And then there’s tonight, when I returned from a long day of booksigning at 11:30 PM–to discover that Room Service’s “All Day Dining” ceases at 11:00.

Really, though, most days in a writer’s life don’t consist of Big News or Major Annoyances. Most are more like…

…one of THOSE Days, beginning with angst and trauma in the morning when the little one couldn’t find her violin

and the middle one was so conked his father couldn’t rouse him and

had to call for assistance (I have a secret method; I toss back the

covers and get him by the feet, then play “This Little Piggie” on

his toes. This aggravates him enough to get him upright and

snarling, at which point he can be levered out of bed and into his

closet), and the big one wasn’t happy with the way her hair looked.

Having gone to bed at 3 AM the night before, getting up at 7:15 left me a hair short, even on my usual rations of sleep. I also ached in every limb, having fallen off the staircase the day before (don’t ask; it had to do with the FAX machine and the fact that I’d been writing. I was still writing in my mind when I came down and‑‑apparently‑‑not aware that I couldn’t levitate. Actually, I apparently _did_ levitate for a short distance, as I ended up on

knee and elbow some six feet from the foot of the staircase) and

freshly strained my shoulder reaching for something.

I rallied round, though‑‑found the violin (by the simple

expedient‑‑which drives everyone in my family completely mad‑‑of

asking “Where did you see it last?”), combed the big one’s hair

into a ponytail (had to make her sit down on the edge of the bath

to do it; she’s four inches taller than I am), tied the middle

one’s shoes, and ran upstairs to write notes to two of his teachers

(he had the flu, on and off, and missed six days of school, with

consequent assignments. Problem is, he’s too shy to go up and ask

any of his teachers for a list of what’s missing).

The boys from next‑door‑but‑one came and knocked‑‑they’d

missed their bus, could I take them to school? (no good asking

where _their_ bloody parents are. There’s a reason they live

_here_ half the time). Loaded up everybody, picked up my purse to

get in the car, when the housekeeper beetled out and said we’re out

of X,Y,Z, especially washing powder.

Dropped the kids‑‑adjuring Sam sternly to be sure to deliver

notes to his teachers‑‑went to the drug store, where I got all the

cleaning supplies and checked for the homeopathic flu cure my friend John recommended (felt a sore throat coming on). While driving to and fro, kept thinking of snow (no good reason, it’s about 85 F. here). Went home, delivered the window cleaner et al, came upstairs and spent my usual hour having breakfast (Diet Coke and Milky Way Dark) and reading/answering messages and E‑mail, seeing in the back of my mind footprints dark on the snow, and heaped wet leaves, crusted with ice, the dark furrow in the leaves where someone had been lying under the shelter of a log.

Set in to work as usual at 10, stoked to the gills with

Vitamin C and occilococcinum. Read through a half‑done scene in

progress, added a couple of paragraphs, then was overcome by a new,

vivid image‑‑I was following the footprints in the snow, and there

was a dead hare, caught in a snare, furred with ice crystals, stiff

across the path. Switched to a new document and started the new scene, to get it underway. Fell into the state of mind in which I walked off the staircase, feeling the worry of the woman following the footprints. Why didn’t he stop for the hare? Where is he?

Settled nicely into the first paragraph, when comes the

dreaded summons from the foot of my stairs, “_Es un hombre a la


Hombres at the puerta are always an intrusion, but usually

brief, as in Fed Ex or UPS, now and then the exterminator or the

man from the feed store delivering horse pellets (this is a _large_

nuisance, as I have to go collect all the dogs and shut them in the

garage, then go round and open the big gates into the backyard for

the truck to come through).

This time it was an hombre from the phone company, come to fix

the FAX machine’s line (cf. staircase, above). Showed him the

miscreant FAX, helped him track the phone line‑‑which had been

installed by one of my husband’s programmer employees, back when he

had his office in that room‑‑then left him to it.

Reminded of phones, checked for messages (only one phone in

the house rings, for reasons I won’t go into; this means I normally

don’t hear it from my office‑‑a Good Thing, on the whole‑‑so I’m in

the habit of checking the voice mail once every hour or so).

Message from my father, wanting to know when girls are off school

so my stepmother (bless her heart) can take them to have their hair

cut. Message from person wanting to sell my house for me (ignore).

Message from person wanting to come and demonstrate anti‑burglary

system (ignore. Inside dogs have finally quit barking at phone

person, but he’s gone outside, and outside dogs are now having

hysterics. There’s a reason we’ve never had burglars, aside from

the fact that we haven’t got a lot of stuff anyone would think

worth stealing, unless you count the collection of PlayStations and GameCubes. If anyone wants to come steal my ancient XT clone, they’re welcome to it; it’s insured). Message from librarian in Salt Lake City, wanting to confirm that I am coming to speak at a conference in Snowbird at end of May, and can I do the dinner speech, too, they’ll pay me extra.

Minor panic. _Did_ I agree to go and talk to people in Utah

in May? Rustle through tray of speaking/workshop engagements.

Evidently I agreed conditionally (hint: never throw anything away,

and when you talk to people on the phone, write down on their

letter what it is you told them), provided I didn’t have to go to

BookExpo. Think suddenly that I don’t _know_ whether I have to go to BookExpo.

Telephone editor, who is out, but get her assistant, who

promises to find out for me about BookExpo. Return to work, get as far as lyrical description of shadows lengthening under the trees,

turning from vanilla to chilly violet and then cold blue on the

snow as the sun goes down. Get up to open balcony door, as it’s

getting rather warm in office. Phone hombre comes inside to ask

where main phone‑line panel is. Luckily I know this (from earlier

phone adventures in this house) and go show him.

Go upstairs. Come downstairs at once, as Airborne Express

hombre has arrived with parcel to be signed for. This proves to

contain a dust jacket proof for new book causing mingled

interest and panic (said book being in a state of severe

incompletion upstairs). Set proof on kitchen table and stare at it

for awhile in attempt to decide whether I like it or not, while

feeding bloodworms to fish and newts who live on table. Put fresh

seed and water in parakeets’ cups (if the dogs don’t announce a

burglar, the birds will, noisy things).

Leave cover proof to marinate in my subconscious and go

upstairs. Finish sentence about shadows, start worrying about the

man out hunting, why hasn’t he come back? Is he walking his

trapline? Go look at book on animal tracks, find out what hare

tracks look like in snow. Take passing note of ferret tracks,

various bird prints. Check Roger Tory Peterson field guide

(pausing to wonder whether constant exposure to this in my field‑

work days is where I got the name “Roger.” Hope not, as I’ve met

RTP, who at the time was rather a pompous old geek) to be sure that

kind of bird would be in North Carolina in winter.

Federal Express hombre arrives, bearing mysterious box labeled

“Norm’s Gourmet Mushroom Garden.” Unable to put this aside, open

it to discover that my sister has sent me…a mushroom garden for

Christmas. Roughly a foot‑square chunk of rot, oozing brown liquid

inside a plastic bag. I am assured (by the enclosed directions)

that if I remove the plastic, spray this object with water, set it

in a pan of same atop a chunk of wood and leave it in a quiet, cool

place where it gets roughly 6‑8 hours a day of diffuse light, it

will sprout shiitake mushrooms.

Put mushroom garden on downstairs desk, where I will not

forget it (next to large pile of bookplates waiting to be signed,

which I will make every effort to forget, but my husband’s secretary is coming round Monday to make sure I don’t), and go upstairs, feeling pleased that I have ordered an Archie McPhee potato gun for my sister for Christmas.

Sit down and re‑read the six sentences I have onscreen,

sinking back into scene. How long will I/she wait before setting

out to look for the missing man? It’s dark outside, it’s getting

colder. She’s stoked up the fire, but her hands are still cold.

Dinner is cooking, but she doesn’t feel hungry, and the scent of

food doesn’t comfort her. If he’s had an accident…Phone rings

and I hear it, for a wonder. Editorial assistant, informing me

that they don’t know yet whether I should go to BookExpo, but they’ve changed the date and it isn’t ’til mid‑June, so I can go to Utah if I want.

Meanwhile, husband arrives downstairs, complaining of acute

pain in foot, asking a) did I remember to buy him wart remover, and

b) do I want to go and eat a hot dog with him? Answer yes to both,

and go to eat Polish sausages with sauerkraut and mustard, while

discussing whether I should go to Utah in May. Upon finding out

that they’re offering me $1000 to come and talk to them, husband

agrees that I should, and remarks casually that he has always

wanted to build a kit plane.

Return (in car, I find myself crouched behind a screen of

rocks and twigs. There are Indians I don’t recognize, passing in

single file through the wood a few feet away. Their faces are

painted, and they’re moving in the direction of the house I just

left) to find that another Federal Express hombre has come by, but

missed the housekeeper, and instead left a delivery notice on the

door. Go upstairs, quickly download and skim messages, then sit,

list in hand, and try to organize rest of day. Phone rings; in‑

laws inviting us to come over for dessert after supper. Phone

rings; woman in Alabama wanting to get hold of autographed copy of

new book for Christmas present for sister. Explain politely that it isn’t finished yet, suppressing various uncharitable remarks that come to mind when she exclaims, “But why NOT?”

Little one comes home from school. Have five minutes to make

her a snack, listen to her report of her day, and sympathize with

her teeth (she needs orthodontia, and we’ve just had the first

spacers put in yesterday), then go to collect the older kids from

their school.

Discover that son hasn’t given teachers their notes. Grasp

him metaphorically by ear and drag him off to beard teachers in

their dens. Extract lists of missing assignments from two, but find

third one has already left for day.

Decant everyone at home, distribute food and drink all round,

load up little one, who wants to come with me, and set off for

afternoon errands‑‑feedstore, to buy nosebag and two hundredweight

of oats for elderly horse who isn’t getting his share of the

pellets, Alphagraphics, for new shipment of bookplates, and grocery

store, because we are out of necessities like milk and tunafish,

and because little one is holding a Christmas party next day

(that’s TODAY), at which she and six friends intend to decorate

cookies, among other things.

Return home, having discovered in the car that the Indians are

indeed sinister, being Mohawk far from their home range, raiding

for purposes unknown (has this got anything to do with Father

Alexandre, the Jesuit missionary whose flesh is weak, and whom

we’ll meet a good deal further on?). Cook dinner, slug down more

homeopathic flu remedy and Vitamin C, go off to dessert at in‑laws.

Return (she’s found him, denned up in a cavity under a pile of

brush. The Mohawk are being stealthily followed by a small band of

Tuscarora Indians that they _do_ recognize). Superintend massive

homework while baking ten dozen sugar cookies (“You know,” remarks

my little one, who is (haha) “helping” me bake cookies, “I feel

kind of bad.” “Your teeth still hurt?” I ask. “No,” she says,

“but I was just thinking, I’ll be in bed in a little while, and

you’ll still be baking cookies. I feel kind of guilty about that.”

While feeling gratified at this evidence of developing conscience,

I assure her that that’s perfectly all right, I _like_ baking (I

do, but), and dash upstairs to find Sam a black marker with which

to prepare visual aids for a presentation on current events).

Oldest daughter comes out to ask whether I can type her

Constitution for the nation she is designing in school, as she is

a very slow typist and overwhelmed with work tonight. Assure her

that I can, and take document up to park by computer, where I will

not forget it.

Tuck people in bed. Take more anti‑flu stuff, while listening

to husband tell me how exhausted he is. Tuck him in bed, eat a

bowl of rice and leftover Chinese beef from dinner, drink more Diet

Coke, and go upstairs to work at midnight.

Answer a few messages, play one game of Solitaire, discover I

am falling asleep, lie down on floor and nap for an hour. Wake up,

but can’t stay awake‑‑get a sentence or two down, but discover it

doesn’t make sense. Decide flesh and blood has limits, and stagger

downstairs to lock up, check kids and animals, turn off lights,

feed rabbits and hamsters, etc. Heading for bedroom when I realize

I have not typed Laura’s Constitution, which she urgently requires

for class next morning.

Unlock office, go upstairs…came down at 2:30, took more

Vitamin C and passed out. Net result, writing‑wise, being that I

have maybe 300 words actually _written_, which would be

discouraging (and is) in view of my 2,000 word goal, but I _do_

know a heck of a lot more about what’s going on than I did in the

morning, and in fact, I didn’t stop writing all day.

So I’ll get there, eventually. If I don’t die first.

And that’s the truth about writing: A good day is any day when you get words on the page. A bad day is when you don’t.

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30 Responses »

  1. That’s awesome! (I especially liked the part about sleeping on the floor.) Now I think I understand a little more about Claire’s strength…if YOU can cram all that in one day, then what she accomplishes in those “moments” is really possible..

  2. Just a hint – if it’s not the Sefton, Claremont or Mount Murray Hotel in the Isle of Man then don’t bother! :)

  3. You took me through the gamut, laughter, groaning, frustration…I’ve had days that are similar albeit not nearly as crammed full of the book related stuff but still, I can understand how you would ‘pass out’ at the end of the day.

    And yet, you still find the time for all of us, to which I’m sure I can speak for us all, we are eternally grateful.


  4. You have talked about that in one of your podcasts,haven’t you?

  5. I give you great amounts of credit to survive such a day! If I had even one day like that, never mind days that, to you, are status quo, I’d’ve used the gun … on myself! The only reason I write fiction is to live vicariously through it, but I manage to keep it out of my life. I guess I’m into the Zen of peace, quiet and calm.

    Best of luck living. I will send you some peace, if only for a moment.


  6. Diana:

    Two things come to mind — You are Claire. No, it’s actually the other way around. And I now know where that looonnngggg day at The Gathering came from in FC.

    While having both an autistic child and a neuro-typical child has given me a run for my money, I still haven’t had a day such as one of yours. Well, maybe when said autistic child had his California mission report to complete the same day younger, NT (as we “normals” are called by autistic folk) child had to go to the ER to have his appendix removed….. that was hairy.


    Thank you for continuing to write through it all.

  7. I’m exhausted just reading about your day. Wow.

    Much admiration for taking time to interact on the forum as much as you do!

  8. I’ve seen this before, and still marvel that with all you have going on, you manage to make time to write at all on days like that. And I think Midge is right about that verrrrry long day in FIERY CROSS [g]. It’s just amazing how much can be packed into 24 hours, if you really try. It makes me exhausted just reading about it.

    This is a good example of a “kernel”, isn’t it? The footprints in the snow, which eventually developed into the scene where Claire finds Jamie in the snow and she tells him the story of “A Christmas Carol”. I love that whole sequence; it’s one of my favorites in DRUMS [g].


  9. Phew!I now can say I admire(from a distance)your energy, creativity, and stamina, but I do not envy you.It took me years to understand that I’m not wired that way.  My husband was a  Type A personality (age has mellowed him alot) who went full speed from sun up to sun down.  Me on the other hand thought if I got out of bed I had  accomplished a miracle.   I had to fight the guilt that was instilled in me as a small child that you took care of your home, husband, and children first. Don’t even think about setting down and reading a book. Let me tell you, that guilt is now long gone. Of course, having my children grown helps. I’m at the point now if I want to read for hours (Outlander Series)and let my bathroom ferment and grow mushrooms on the tile, fine. It will eventually get de-toxed.
    You just keep on doing what you do and I will reap the rewards of your hard earned work. Thank you for entertaining me throughly.

  10. WHEW!!!

    Diana: I have to agree with MerryMags…I have always thought that “you are Claire”, or vice/versa….

    You are such a great inspiration…I enjoy your posts almost as much as your books, and I am forever grateful that you share with us these little insights into your life as a writer/mom/wife/friend/sister/daughter/woman…

    I remember reading another of your posts a while back…maybe sometime in February, where you gave us an example of a typical day and night…and I was extremely impressed to find that you read your Bible every day. (Something you have now inspired me to get back to doing again myself.) I had neglected this aspect of my life for the past 3 or 4 years, though it used to be a very important part of my life. Now that I am back to daily (Bible)reading, I am reminded how much more can be accomplished when there is a positive outlook on life, when you feel at peace within yourself, and when you give freely of your time…(which you continue to do with all of us, no matter how busy your life already is!!) I absolutely love and admire you for being so open and honest with us…thank you, thank you, thank you! As Nightsmusic said, we are eternally grateful!

  11. I bet _your_ husband never comes home and asks you what _you_ did all day. (Or if he once did, he doesn’t anymore!)

  12. Thank you for writing, you have given so much to so many people.

  13. Thanks again for the reminder that unlike the rest of the world, we writers live in more than one place at the same time.

    “Multitasking” on a level most folks would cringe and cower if asked to do.

    Once again, I love the way your mind works and the way the bits and pieces come together.

  14. I loved following the creation of the snow tracking episode. And I sooooo agree with comments about the long day in Fiery Cross (which I”m in the middle of rereading … and wondering if the sun will ever come out again as Claire and Jamie discuss Bonnet). I would love to follow the creation process for the weather that day on Mount Helicon!

    Thanks for thousands of pages of my favorite story…

    Penny in San Diego

  15. This post has exhausted me. But beyond the multi-tasking of a writer (that I do not know), you also have the multi-tasking of a mother (a reality that I can relate to).

  16. wow. that is incredible. Will you give us a window of another more recent day? btw, everyone! I would like to announce that audio book version Drums of Autumn is now available at Audible.com in the unabridged version! YAY!!!

  17. I always need a nap after I read about one of your days! :-)

  18. I always need a nap after I read about one of your days! :-)

  19. WOW! I can relate, having five kids myself, a needy husband (what man isn’t?), numerous animals etc, etc.

    The one thing that I envy is you have a HOUSEKEEPER! I can’t imagine you having time to clean with everything else you do.


  20. Dear Diana,

    That’s why Claire can describe so good how it is to work _and_ to have a baby/child at home!

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