• “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. Diana,
    I’m tired after that one! ; ) At least I just have 2 to chase after and run around to places, well 3 if you count the hubby! But I can relate. This weekend I wrote some, but also spent a lot of time knocking down plaster in our bedroom. We decided to take the room down to the studs and do it right. House was built in the 1920′s. But, it did give me time to decide what to do about the unexpected turn of events in my story. I pulled down some ceiling tiles, then when the hubby took the older son to the driving range, I finished then sat down at the computer to write. The younger son went upstairs to play X-box. I am still tying to decide the fate of the slave who was beaten with a chair leg…and what to do about the overseer who almost beat him to death. The slave is the master joiner and the overseer is a bad guy…. like most. My main character doesn’t like slavery, but at this point doesn’t know how to change that… he is only 19 and his older brother is off to war. I am sure it will come to me. We also went to buy a new bed yesterday afternoon, ate stopped at the mall and Menards to buy more stuff for remodel. I have a student who requested a recommendation for a scholorship that I have to finish… today! It is due tomorrow… nothing like him asking me over a busy weekend. Oh, gotta go set up for labs today too.
    Guess I better get on it!

    Take care!

  2. Dear Diana,

    Thank you for the “throwing the basket chair down the stairs” comment. That is part of it – is it not? Balancing Lives 1 & 2!!! I always enjoy your honesty!


  3. This is a little off topic, but I’m dying of curiosity. I was channel surfing the other day and paused on “Scariest Places on Earth” because I heard the term “the White Witch.” Intrigued, I learned that Rose Hall in Jamaica is haunted by this woman, who can get very very angry and is apparently very Evil. I missed a lot of the back story and only caught the tail end of it, but now I need to know: did you know of this ghost story before you wrote Voyager?

  4. Dear mstold,

    Why “VOYAGER”? “La dame blanche” (The white which) appears also in “DRAGONFLY IN AMBER”.

  5. Well, Sarah, I was connecting the two separate ideas, the White Witch and Rose Hall, both which appear in Voyager. But you’re right, maybe she knew about it before.

  6. Dear mstold,

    I don’t know if she knew about Rose Hall before “Dragonfly in Amber” or “Voyager” or if she knows it, but know I understand what you meant. [s]I thought you were only talking about “La dame blanche” and was a bit confused why you asked if she knew it before Voyager and not before Dragonfly in Amber .

  7. I’m sorry, this is completely off-topic (mostly, anyways) but I had to share.

    This week is Scotland week! It will be celebrated in major cities like Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and more (I’m not sure how far it extends in North America).

    I’m going to go fish out my Newfoundland Tartan and make some bannock to celebrate!

  8. you are awesome! :D… feels good to know its possible to live through such days and still be sane
    BTW…. i had something I thought the scientist in you might like… we were shown this in a Molecular biology lecture this semester.
    the video (seen on high, whatever high is) is reallly nice… makes me feel sophisticated to know all that stuff going on :)

  9. I am so excited to see this blog. I am a diehard Diana Gabaldon fan. On my slow days at work, I spend time keeping up with a couple of DG discussion groups. Now, I can subsidize them with this blog.

    BTW, I would have sworn you were just reporting on historical figures; your characters are so real to me.

    I look fowrad to hearing more about your process and whatever is happening in the life of your characters as they are developed.

  10. Thanks for sharing this. It's easy to think that no one else has days like this. To see your day spelled out so completely, knowing what you've been able to accomplish…well it's very encouraging and I appreciate it:-)


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