• “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

My Writing Process

March 20, 2016

Over the years, I’ve done hundreds (literally) of interviews, and frankly, most of them consist of the same six or seven questions, over and over (and over and overandoverandover)—with the excuse, "Of course, I know you’ve probably (oh, you think?) answered some (ha) of these questions before, but these are things we think our readers would like to know." (Perfectly legit assumption. That’s why all those answers are in the "FAQ" section of my website… and on my Wikipedia page (or at least I hope they’re still there)… and in THE OUTLANDISH COMPANIONS.)

"So…. how did you get the idea to write these books?"

But never mind; they have their job and I have mine. (Yes, I admit that these interviews give the books visibility, and I appreciate the attention. That’s why I go on answering those six or seven questions with a reasonably convincing appearance of gracious enthusiasm (I’ve seen myself do it several times on video, that’s how I know…). Still, once in awhile you get an interesting interviewer, who makes you think—and that’s a great thing, both for me and the people who read the interview. The NPR interviewers are absolutely wonderful; it’s great fun (both for me and—I hope—the listeners) to work with one of them. But there are quite a few good print journalists, as well, and I thought I might post a few excerpts from some of those interviews here. Feel free to ask your own questions, too <g>—I’ll answer what I can.

So—these questions are from a wattpad interview done with Molly Rogers, about five years ago. The complete interview is probably still available on wattpad, but I thought some of the later questions and answers were more interesting (and it’s a looong-ish interview; too long for a good post).

12. Your books require a large amount of research. How did you do that in the beginning when you were just starting out and how is it different now that you are a full-time writer? Do you plan out what research you will need to do for a scene you are writing or do you just write until you need to look something up and then stop and hit the books?

Since I generally have no particular idea what’s in a scene until I finish writing it… Well, let’s see. It’s not a very tidy process, let’s put it that way.

Speaking just generally, I read several "overview" books or accounts covering the general period (of years) and/or particular events (like battles) that I know will be of relevance. Doing any kind of research is like grabbing the end of a long piece of yarn and pulling— you don’t know what the other end is attached to, and you may end up in convoluted tangles—but you can be sure there’s something there. I find a lot of something. There is logic to it—and sometimes I really am looking for a specific bit of information—but for the most part, the writing and the research are done concurrently; they feed off each other.

Let’s see if I can show you a rough notion of how that works:

I may realize that I need to know quite a bit about, say, the Battle of Saratoga, because I know that takes place during the story. So I go and read Richard M. Ketchum’s excellent book, SARATOGA, and in that, learn that Brigadier General Simon Fraser was killed by a sharp-shooter during one of the battles. Plainly, General Fraser must be a relative of Jamie Fraser’s, and this death would be important to him. I learned also the circumstances of the death—that the General died slowly, over the course of a night. So there would be time for Jamie to come to bid him farewell. And I began to see Jamie at the death-bed of Simon Fraser. But I also saw William—Jamie’s illegitimate son—at the other side of the bed. All right, very dramatic. But how might he have come to be there? So I go back to other references, and trace the major events of the life of Simon Fraser—and find a place where William might have become his aide.

(In the process, I also learn that Simon Fraser was involved in the great adventure prior to the Battle of Quebec, when the Highlanders climbed the impassable cliff at night to make a way for the British army to arrive on the Plains of Abraham at dawn. Now, there’s a cool story <g>— and it (and Simon Fraser) turned up in a novella I wrote, titled "The Custom of the Army.")

An Echo in the Bone coverBut coming back to AN ECHO IN THE BONE… I walked the battlefield at Saratoga three times over the years before I wrote the book, and during one conversation with a park ranger, learned that while General Fraser had told his men he wanted to be buried in the Great Redoubt, and many accounts that I’ve seen say that he was— when the Park Service excavated the Great Redoubt, there was no sign of a body. A couple of buttons, but no imprint or other sign that a body had lain there— and the map of the field showed Gen. Fraser’s grave as being near the river.

I asked where it was, as I’d like to see it, and the ranger said that in fact, they didn’t know. It wasn’t marked; they just had an account saying that the body had been moved near the river—probably as a temporary measure—but nobody knew exactly what had become of it. "Really?" said I to myself. "Well…. what if….?"

Because I knew I needed a way for Jamie to go back to Scotland. He couldn’t just leave the army and go, for no apparent reason. But what if his cousin Simon had asked him to take his body back to Scotland? I knew further from SARATOGA that the negotiations between General Burgoyne and General Gates after the final battle were prolonged and complicated. I also knew that Burgoyne was close to Simon Fraser and saddened by his death. So… what is more reasonable than that General Burgoyne would ask, during these negotiations, that General Gates send Jamie (and his wife, of course) to return Simon Fraser’s body to Scotland? Or that General Gates, tired of the hassle, would want to do this small courtesy for Burgoyne in hopes of easing the negotiations?

So there it was; I knew how and why William came to be at the death-bed (and thus to meet Jamie—briefly—face-to-face, but in traumatic circumstances that would prevent his realizing who he was), and how Jamie got to Scotland.

Later, I was in Scotland, and decided to see if I could find a suitable spot where Simon Fraser might have been buried. So I went back to the research material and found the general area—Balnain—where his family home had been, and my husband and I went driving, poking around there, just to get an idea of the countryside, so I could describe his funeral. But while doing this, I realized that we were near an ancient tomb called Corriemony, and told my husband I wanted to see it.

I was thinking vaguely that Simon might have been buried close enough that Claire could come across the tomb, and I could use it for something atmospheric or poetic— but in reading the explanatory material posted at the site, I learned that:

  1. The original burial (of which there were still traces) had vanished—perhaps stolen—and
  2. When the tomb was opened in modern times, there was a body in it—but it wasn’t an ancient body; it had been placed there sometime in the previous 200 years. "Oh, HO," I said. "So now I know where Simon Fraser was really buried!" <g>

Anyway—this all started because I could see William and Jamie kneeling on opposite sides of Simon Fraser’s deathbed, Jamie knowing, and William not knowing.

This is how books evolve for me; I "see" things, here and there, and I write them, and then many other things gradually come about because of those…. anchors, I suppose you could call them. I do what research I seem to need in the writing of these bits, and then—invariably—find things in the research that stimulate other scenes, either directly or indirectly connected.

13. You’ve said before that your writing style is to write all the scenes and then piece them together in order when you’ve gotten them all done. Do you only do this for novels or does it apply to your short stories and novellas as well? Why is this method so effective for you and do you ever try writing in a straight line just for the fun of it?

What fun would that be? <puzzled look> It would take forever to do it that way, since I couldn’t start writing until I’d figured out the entire story, and if I’d done that, it wouldn’t be fun at all to write it.

Anyway, yes; I write just about everything piecemeal, including nonfiction articles, book reviews and essays. It’s effective because it works; I’m never held up stewing about What Comes Next— I don’t care what comes next, I just care about something I can see happening. The order of the happening has a logic to it (often, more than one), and that will become clear to me as I work.

14. How do you approach the crafting of your characters and manage to get them to a point where they seem like real people? Is there one of your characters that you consider your favorite and why?

What a very peculiar notion of writing—though I do realize it’s a common one. Possibly some people really do that, but I can’t imagine how.

Look. It’s not like Legos. You (well, I) don’t start with a crude outline of a character and then start putting little blocks—alcoholic mother, abused as child, has sister he doesn’t get along with, INTJ personality type (whatever that may mean; I do know writers who use psychological personality tests on their characters, which seems truly bizarre—but probably no stranger than the way anybody else does it; whatever works, I mean…)— together according to this plan, to make a three-dimensional golem which you then zap with electricity.

For me, characters are onions, mushrooms, or Hard Nuts:

  • An onion is a person whose essence I apprehend immediately, but the more I work with him or her (by "work with," I mean, "write stuff involving them"), the more layers they develop, and the more rounded and pungent they become.
  • Mushrooms are the characters who simply pop up out of nowhere and walk off with any scene they’re in.
  • And Hard Nuts tend to be the people I’m stuck with—rather than the ones who just show up in my head—either for plot reasons (I had a woman pregnant at the end of one book, so when I rejoined her twenty years later, obviously I had a young adult in addition to deal with), or because they were real historical people who were present during an event or period. Them I just hammer on until they break open and reveal something of their inner selves to me.

15. What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

I like complexity. <g>

16. What is the underlying geometric principle that you use when you are writing your books and how do you apply that to your writing? (Interviewer’s note: I’m really curious about this! It sounds so fascinating but I can’t quite figure out how you apply geometry to writing in practice.)

Well, it’s not a geometric principle— it’s just that I think in geometric shapes. Let’s see <groping for a decent metaphor>…

You know how a kaleidoscope works, right? (To save any of your readers having to Google it— essentially, you have a tube with two or three rectangular mirrors in it, oriented at angles, which make multiple symmetric reflections of whatever colored objects you put at the front end of the tube.) Well, imagine that I have a three-mirrored kaleidoscope: one mirror is the historical plane of reflection—the events, the timeline, the cultural/intellectual milieu, the physical settings and constraints. The second is the plane of reflection that concerns the characters—who they are, their motivations, their personal histories. And the third is my own plane of reflection—the background, experiences, perceptions, and personality that make me unique.

OK. So say I have a handful of these disparate scenes. Placed in the space formed by my three mirrors, they form patterns. And if I rotate the tube (so to speak), this causes the pieces inside to fall into a different relationship to each other, and I see different patterns. Some patterns are naturally more pleasing than others, and I use the ones that seem most aesthetically logical. (Occasionally I do have a piece that just isn’t necessary in the overall pattern, in which case I take it out and hang onto it—it generally "goes" somewhere in the next book.)

Hearing about this process does, btw, infuriate people who write linearly. I once had a woman sitting on a panel on writing processes with me inform me that I couldn’t possibly do this, because "you have to have a logical foundation! You can’t put the roof on your building unless you’ve built solid walls to hold it up, can you?"

"Of course I can," I replied. "There’s no gravity in the mind, after all. I can make the roof and just leave it hanging there until I have time to build walls under it. You don’t have to write a book from beginning to end, just because that’s how people will read it." She Wasn’t Pleased, but the point here is that people’s minds are wired up differently, and a good deal of writing successfully lies in figuring out how your own mind works best, and using it that way. There is no "right" way to write a book. Anything that lets you get words on the page is the right thing to do.

[There is, btw, a longish essay, titled "The Shape of Things," in the extra goodies at the back of the OUTLANDER 20th Anniversary Edition, that goes into the question of shapes— and analyzes the shapes underlying all the main books in the series. I think I put this in one of the OUTLANDISH COMPANION volumes, too…]

Your comments to my blog posts are welcomed! Click on the "Comments" link. Note that your comment will not appear automatically and immediately, and you may receive a message saying it is “awaiting moderation.” This means that your comment is waiting for me to read and approve it. Depending on my schedule, that may take a few days (or longer). No comments will appear until I have read them.

This blog was originally posted on my official Facebook page on March 20, 2016.

23 Responses »

  1. Diana – Thank you for enabling me to experience vicariously the life and times of my ancestors from Outlander to An Echo in the Bone, which I am currently reading. My maternal grandparents family trees were faithfully documented from generation to generation and I grew up ~ Canadian ~ hearing the stories of family involvement in Scottish intrigue with high profile murder during the time of Mary, Queen of Scots, and again assisting Jacobites fleeing after Culloden. My direct ancestor left Scotland for Jamaica where he stayed for some time (Voyager) before suddenly moving his family to North Carolina in the late 1800′s and finally settling in Vancouver, Canada (though many of the descendants still remain in NC). On my paternal side I have several ancestors who served in the Revolutionary Army and one (my line) who came to Ontario, Canada as a Loyalist.

    So, through your hard work, a responsibility that I was dreading as the designated family historian has become a true passion. The names, locations,dates and begats now have flesh and bones and I have infinite respect for what they accomplished. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for bringing this personal history alive for me.

    Carolyn Groves

  2. I have listened to a few of your interviews on line. They are very interesting. I must say I think poor Jamie and Claire must have the strongest hearts to survive the amount of trouble they get into. Also luck. So you start with 2 people, put them somewhere, decide they will fall in love , and then what? Do you see them having a big fight and then decide to flesh it out. Then put that away till you need it or not. At what point in your thinking did Jamie become a Laird with land of his own? Sorry about all this, but when I read I’m always wondering WHY.WHY. As in why does Claire never do as she is told, why does Jamie have to get involved in every dog fight going. All his life. As you can see I’m not a writer so please forgive my stupidity. I love your books and I also love the TV version. Great casting. I don’t have pay TV so have to wait till I can buy the 2nd. series. Best wishes from Judy .

  3. Excellent! Thank you for revealing some of your process. I have a mixed way or writing. Sometimes scenes pop into my head and I have to write the whole thing out immediately to weave together later-other times a good exchange of dialog between the characters leads to something really cool. However you do it, Diana, I enjoy the end product immensely. Thank you.

  4. Great to read this…that’s why I find your writing so engaging and deeper …different from other historical fiction which I usually avoid. I hate knowing how the historical factual history will end things…there seems to only be so many ways things can happen…but maybe because you have the scenes first the people and the lives are more to the fore. You always manage to surprise me in what happens next because you are not caught into the factual history first!!

  5. You are a visionary, truly. I thank ye for it. E’en my wife thanks ye for it. You’ve inspired me to write and pursue writing with diligence and passion no less.

    Don’t stop writing whilst the passion burns.

  6. This was quite interesting. This certainly shows that writers can think ” outside the box”. I can imagine being told that one has to think logically to be a writer!

    I loved the part of about viewing your characters as onions, mushrooms or hard nuts. Just goes to show that creative people solve problems differently-they just don’t follow rules.

    I love this Outlander series! It’s truly a great read. Thank you.

  7. Dear Diana,

    This add may have nothing to do with the writing process you are so kind to reveal us in this post; however it has to do with the adaptation of your books in the TV scripts, that have been so close to the original so far (in the first season) and I hope you had kept a close eye to see your books’ characters be as you created them.
    I’m just wondering, after first seven episodes of season two, why Jamie, so strong and intelligent and common sense in the books, looks so over weighted by Claire in TV scripts. Why did you allow to be put Jamie’s ideas from the book into Claire’s mouth, thus altering the perception upon the characters?
    Why do I have the impression that in Starz series the message of Claire as a strong and intelligent woman is strengthen so much so that we could see that indeed, the film is just about Claire and her saga? Part of my fascination about the books was that, after stepping into past and marrying to save her life, Claire becomes so senses filled by Jamie that she doesn’t pay attention anymore to her surroundings(as she explains to herself) – because she don’t has to. Because of his intelligence and capacity to protect her (not only by sword but also by logical thinking and clearly open mind)she fells in love and she gives up to 20th century progress.
    I can’t see all Jamie’s features from the books in the TV second season and I hope very much that it is only my impression on the first seven episodes. I like very much both actors and I’m pretty sure that the scripts skipped some parts and omitted some actions of Jamie just to put strength on Claire as woman, which is not the impression I got from the books.
    I praise the idea of strong women in our society but I just have the feeling that TV Claire expresses so far much more that the book “Dragonfly on Amber” Claire does, in the detriment of Jamie’s character on TV and this because of the adaptation
    Please let me know what is your opinion

  8. You mentioned writing on two new novellas. Do you plan for them to be included in a collection of your own “shorter” stories or be included in someone else’s collection? Have you plans of finishing writing a novella or longer book about Raymond?

  9. I have all of the Claire and Jamie books and have heard somewhere that you are working on another one. If that is true, do you have any idea when it will be published?

    I bought the DVD version of Season One, Volume One and have been very pleased with how closely it follows the book. So many times that is not the case. I’m glad I read the book first.

  10. This is fascinating to read, as much to get an explanation of how someone else’s mind works (very, very differently from my own, as it happens, which is of course why it’s so fascinating) as to follow your process for writing. I love that you take the time to write it all out so that others can benefit from your observance of your craft. It’s a very generous thing to do. Thank you.

  11. Dear Diana,

    I love your approach to writing. It’s so organic. I teach writing and literature to high school male omadhauns.

    Believe it or not, they don’t think linearly, and sometimes they don’t think at all. I avoid teaching intro paragraph, body paragraphs, conclusion because sometimes the thesis doesn’t occur to them until they’ve written a bit and had a chance to prime the pump. “Is it really OK to write things out of order?” they ask. “Well the way I see it is no one asks you “how” they ask you “if”. This actually has calmed some jitters, but makes other students, the ones who are good in math, shake and shiver. So I make a deal with them too, “Go ahead and write it in logical order, and I won’t ask you how you did it…I see if you did it.



  12. Diana,
    Have only recently discovered your Outlander books (am starting Book 4) and the TV series (have seen the first 4 episodes of season 1). Also just read your blog about your writing process. Regardless of your technique, I find your books to be absolutely fabulous. The writing is so descriptive and I especially like that you do not leave many loose ends, even if some aren’t explained until much later or even in the next book (I don’t know if you’ve ever explained whatever happened to Mary Hawkins after marrying Jack Randall, other than we know Frank Randall was her descendent).

    Thank you so much for your literary contributions–I am totally captivated. /mg

  13. Hi Diana,
    I became a fan of the show and then the brilliant books written by a seriously smart lady surviving on 4 hours sleep. I love the way that you changed the genre at signings depending on the age/gender of the questioner. I have successfully enlisted my wife ( as well as numerous pals) to the Outlander cause.
    Your father appeared to be right about you being the major breadwinner! I like to think that Jamie is inspired by your husband, and that you are more romantic than your compilation of PHd’s would suggest. I love that one of your kids (all born before the acedemic break in college, so organised) married a Scot, art and life.

    I am from Dublin, same as Caitriona Balfe and would love to hear you speak if you ever in the Emerald Isle.

    Keep up the good work.

    Ed Mooney

  14. Happy Anniversary and thank you for your wonderful novels. I look forward to another 25 years of your extraordinary writing! Melinda

  15. Just wanted to say how very much I enjoy and admire your books (and the screen version). You have a marvelous mind and awesome imagination. I love how you write “your way” and pay no mind to others’ opinions. Bravo!
    I am a baby boomer from North Carolina and I have been amazed how well you captured our manner of speaking, use of strange words or phrases, odd habits and our other unique ways. We have a mixed dialect, indeed. Some of the phrases you have used I have heard my grandparents use many times.
    Thank you for being who you are and treating us with such wonderful entertainment. God bless!
    Shannon Guirkins
    Washington, North Carolina

  16. What’s up, yes this piece of writing is really
    fastidious and I have learned lot of things from it concerning blogging.

  17. I have tried to start writing a novel and felt it had to be done mostly linearly, and got stumped so i never made it over the hump. I can see exactly what you mean with these different processes, they make so much sense! It gives me inspiration to try again. Thanks for sharing!!!

  18. I’ve just come from Edinburgh back home to Fife, a journey of approx. two and a half hours by bus. This may seem king but when your travelling companion reads from the story she’s writing, which touches on so many things we’ve just viewed at the museum, the time slips away quickly.

    We discussed writing, and research and of course your name came up often. I was very curious about your research and writing style which brought me to this blog post. It’s a delicate balance to bring in historical, medical fact and all the daily minutea while weaving a complex story around many characters in a way that doesn’t disrupt the thread of the story, which you do so well.

    Anyhoo, thank you Diana for many many delightful hours spent devouring the pages of your books, and the joy of anticipation knowing another was being written. Your books were always on the top of my Christmas wish list, and many a turkey dinner suffered for my attention to them if received.


  19. I was so excited to read this interview! My natural writing habit is very like yours, and I have been trying to train myself out of it for the past six years under what I now think may be the mistaken belief that I needed an outline. This outline has become the bane of my existence, and has completely overshadowed the book itself. The outline has replaced the book. I have so many diligent notes that I will never have the time to actually write the material they pertain to and, exactly as you said, once I detailed everything out in the outline, I lost interest in writing them.

    And then I have the completed scenes, glowing and alive, that I have been told will eventually have to be scrapped when I get down to cases and *really* write (in a linear form). The thing is, I’ve always known this is not true. The characters were already fully formed in my mind when I wrote those scenes. I’ve learned more about them over time, but they are the same people.

    Over the course of those years, I can think of any number of useful scenes I could have written instead of wasting my time figuring out where those scenes belong in the outline and adding the specifics to my notes on the characters. And then NOT ACTUALLY WRITING.

    Anyway, thank you so much for writing with such clarity about your process. It was a breath of fresh air!

  20. Several years ago, I read an excerpt or interview you had done wherein you described the process by which you wrote individual scenes. It was something like you started with an idea, then thought of what the characters would smell, or what they would see, or what they might feel, and use that information to flesh out a scene. I cannot find this now, and while I don’t specifically *need* it, I would really like to read it again.

    I am in my mid-50s, in school to finally finish my first bachelor’s degree (first degree of any type, really), and majoring in English & Creative Writing (that’s all one major, not two). My current class requires me to write a short story, and I find looking at a blank page and trying to write the story linearly just isn’t working for me. I like the way you describe your writing process using geometric terms, and how you say there is no gravity in your mind, so you can hang a roof then build the walls later. That makes sense to me, and I really like to try this process to see if it makes sense in practice as well as theory. I hope *that* makes sense. :D

    Thanks for any help you can give. It is deeply appreciated.


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