• “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 I

Sorry to neglect y’all. I hadn’t much heart to write for a bit, and then was overtaken by the usual fierce rush of events. Haven’t forgotten you, though. [g] I had in fact just been about to answer Midge’s questions about how I write, so figured I might as well resume with that:

It’s almost impossible (I know from experience) for me to describe coherently what’s going on my mind when I write–but fwiw, both sides of my brain seem to work at once.

No, I don’t plan out the structure–of a sex scene, or any other kind of scene, let alone the book. [wry g]

I start with a “kernel”–a line of dialogue, a sense of emotional ambiance, an object whose details I can “see”–anything that I can sense concretely. Then I write a line or two describing that, as best I can.

Then I sit and stare at it for awhile.

I put words in and I take them out. I divide the sentence in half and insert a new clause. Decide I don’t like that one entirely, but don’t want to throw it away, so drop it down a line or two and try something else. Move the gerund phrase from the beginning of the sentence to the middle. Etc., etc.—just trying to cast this “kernel” (whatever it is) for maximum clarity and elegance, just in terms of the craft.

OK. While this sort of mechanical work is going on, the back of my mind is busy throwing up a shower of little questions, like a dog digging in sand: Whose viewpoint is this? Where are we? What time of year is it? Are we inside or outside? How is the light falling? Is a storm coming? Am I hot? What am I wearing? Why is my foot tapping? Did someone just say something? What’s that in my hand? I see a face…

And the scene begins to take shape—slowly. Sometimes I have a specific purpose in mind for a scene—I know that William, say, is doing intelligence work, so we need to see him doing a bit of it. So I may think that’s what’s going to happen here…but not necessarily.

Having that rather vague notion in mind, I began looking for a kernel with which to start the writing (the kernel is where I start writing; this doesn’t mean it’s the beginning of the scene; sometimes the writing goes backward as well as forward from the kernel). I know where Willie starts—North Carolina—and I sort of know where he’s supposed to end up–with General Howe (if he gets there. Will he? I have no idea), but I don’t yet know where Howe was at this specific point in time—because I have no idea what the date is when this happens.

Meanwhile, however, I’ve wandered over to my giant built-in bookshelf (where I keep the five or six hundred books of my central reference collection plus the two or three dozen most important references (so far) for this book) to stare blankly at the collection of Interesting Objects scattered along the shelves (lots of crystals, mineral spheres, psychically active (supposedly) stones, a miniature cannon, a tiny crystal castle, a hand-blown medicine bottle with a glass snake wrapped around it, an antique bronze mortar (full of pens), a reproduction 18th-century inkstand with quills, a (real) powder-flask from a set of 18th-century dueling pistols, six pocket-knives, a beanbag octopus, the dried jaws of a small shark…and I happen to spot one of the books, titled THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY.

Well, I read this book some time ago, and frankly, it’s not all that good—not well organized, and the writing is tedious—but just the name “The Great Dismal Swamp”…well, there’s a thing to conjure with.

And I have my kernel—almost. OK. Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp. I have no idea why, mind you, but we can figure that out as we go. What I need now, though, is a concrete image that I can write down in a sentence or two.

Rather than read the tedious book again (at least not yet), I go and google “Great Dismal Swamp natural history”—and pop up an entertaining article with a lot of detail regarding the flora and fauna of the swamp (and a bit of historical detail concerning Lake Drummond, which is dramatic, so I tuck that away in a spare cerebral recess for future reference)…from which I choose the image of swarms of “tiny yellow horseflies, whose eyes reflect rainbows when you get close to them.”

Now, I do recollect from the tedious book—and check it to be sure—that during one or more of the attempts to drain the swamp, a road was built. Excellent. And so…

“ William marveled at the road. True, there were only a few miles of it, but the miracle of being able to ride straight into the Great Dismal, through a place where he vividly recalled having had to swim his horse on a previous visit, all the while dodging snapping-turtles and venomous snakes–the convenience of it was astonishing. The horse seemed of similar mind, picking up its feet in a light-hearted way, outpacing the clouds of tiny yellow horseflies that tried to swarm them, the insects’ eyes glinting like tiny rainbows when they drew close. “

Now, mind, this is what the paragraph looks like now. It took me probably fifteen or twenty minutes of fiddling before it got this way—and I may yet mess with it more later, but for now, it’s the best I can do.

What happens next? Well, it’s 4:15 AM, so right now, I’m going to bed. [g] Tomorrow, though, we’ll find out (maybe) why Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp, and how I discovered that.

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34 Responses »

  1. That’s fantastic. I’ve always wondered how great writers do it.

    Can I ask a question?

    Where do you come up with the names for your characters? Not necessarily J&C, but just the random “players” in your books.

    (I was at a signing a couple of years ago and really wanted to ask you that, but didn’t have the guts.) ;)

  2. Nightsmusic:

    I do have IE 7, so yes, I have figured it out…I have to check my favorites every day, and that is where it was saying (0 New) feeds. I changed it to be updated more often per day, maybe that will work. I am tempted to install FireFox…but a little nervous to switch anything on my computer…sometimes change makes them go bonkers!
    And you have been helpful! Thanks!


    I really hate texting too; it takes me more time than an actual phone call would take…and speaking of the illiteracy of our youth, our grand daughter (4th grade) has brought home graded papers with obvious misspelled words that the teacher has NOT marked wrong. I guess the teachers these days are too afraid the children will suffer from low self-esteem if they point out their errors. :P Don’t get me started about the education system!


  3. Karen-henry:

    EG— aha!
    I never would have gotten that one!

    (thanks for the info!)
    Sharon ☺

  4. Does somebody know between which ribs you have to stab someone,when you want to hurt the heart and the lung?
    No,I don’t want to kill someone,I just need that for a story I write.I hope someone can help me with that.

  5. Last comment on this but,


    I have firefox on all my computers and I wouldn’t have anything else. It installs like a charm, has a great interface and a bazillion add-ons to make it exactly what I want.

    I have to say, Diana (may I call you that? I feel odd doing that) I can hear my gran and grandsire when I read the dialect in your books. It brings back a lot of memories :)

  6. Sharon–

    It’s also possible that the teacher didn’t mark misspellings because s/he didn’t recognize them _as_ misspellings.

    I know it’s not PC these days to criticize people for not being able to spell (it’s all genetic, presumably, so it’s “unfair” to expect people without the spelling gene to learn how)–but dang.

    I used to correct misspellings in the permission notes my kids brought home _all the time_ (which I doubt endeared me to the teachers, but on the other hand–all my kids _can_ spell, and had noted the errors themselves. Couldn’t very well say, “Well, that’s OK, since she’s the teacher.” [cough])

    Man, though, watching the news-crawl or the closed-captioning on TV shows…[clutching head]. All right, the occasional typo is unavoidable, but “ice sickels”? Come on!

  7. Dear Midge–

    Oh, it _is_ magic. Not the slightest doubt about that.

    It’s just that you do the hard work _first_, and _then_ the magic happens. [g]

  8. Sunflowerfairy–

    Names…well, sometimes a person just kind of “comes” with a name. Other times, I sort of cast around, trying things on for rhythm, ethnic plausibility, symbolic value (like “Ishmael,” the _houngan_ in VOYAGER–that’s a double-handed reference, both to the Ishmael of the Old Testament (the vengeful outsider, the wanderer), and to MOBY-DICK [g]).

    Some characters come straight out of the historical reference material. The one-armed slave named “Temeraire” was real, for instance, as was M. Forez, the hangman from DRAGONFLY. There are a lot of bit-players in the books with real names (Arch Bug, for instance, was a real Scottish immigrant; his name, and the description of him as a man “aged 69″ was on the manifest of a ship sailing from Scotland to North Carolina. His history, though, is mine [g]).

    Other names come from the several books of names I have; SCOTTISH CHRISTIAN NAMES, by Dunkling, or SCOTTISH SURNAMES, or one of several baby-naming books.

    Worst comes to worst, there’s always the phone book. [g]

  9. My daughter’s teacher has a master’s degree and she had ‘niece’ misspelled on the board the other day. Similarly, when my daughter was in kindergarten, there was something grammatically incorrect on the board, and I called their attention to it, and a group of teachers gathered in the room to try to figure it out!

  10. Diana:
    It felt like withdrawal while you were gone…. so glad to have you back.

    When you mentioned William with reference to the Great Dismal, I had to look it up (I also lived in Virginia for 15 years). I found the most fascinating diary of William Byrd about surveying the swamp in the early 1770s. Especially his comments about the settlers in North Carolina. You must be familiar with it if you’re exploring the swamp for storyline. I recommend it for your other fans who might be interested in colonial history.


  11. FYI :) As a person who has taught in K-4 classrooms at one point or another, teachers do not always “catch” misspelled words in student work because maybe certain spelling patterns have not been taught or the teacher’s focus may be on a particular writing concept or the teacher is examining the misspellings for clues on how much to teach a phonics or grammar concept. (Sigh) And then again, you can not believe how difficult it is to get students to understand, “i” before “e” except after “c” :)

  12. Well, now, isn’t this a very exciting and pleasant surprise?! :) I stumbled upon the news that you had started a blog, and was so excited to find it! I look forward to being a regular visitor. I find it so fascinating to learn the “how” of your writing! Thank you for choosing to communicate with us this way.
    I just began my “umpteenth” re-read (I’ve lost count!) It is my tradition to reread the entire series before a new installment comes out, and having just finished the latest Lord John books, I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave that world. I also justified my guilty pleasure by deciding that with three kids, I may need all that time to get through all of them again before “An Echo in the Bone” arrives in my mailbox!
    Again, thank you! This discovery made my day!

  13. Hi Everyone

    I’m new to this blog and have read a great deal of it with interest. Sorry to hear about your dog, Diana – I just had to have one of my 2 cats put down and it is quite a wrench after 14 years.

    BTW, I liked the picture of Claire, even though I thought the bottom of her face should be just a tiny bit fatter – not much, just a tiny bit – but, as you say, it is simply one picture of many more to come, so let’s all wait and see how the images develop. The important thing is that it is YOUR picture of what Claire looks like, not ours,and ultimately this is what counts.

    On another note, I have just come back from a week away in the Highlands (not far for me, as I live in St Andrews – yes, the home of golf(sigh) but also the home of a nearly 600 year old university (yesss!) originally modelled on the same lines as the one in Paris that Jamie attended in his youth). Whilst there I visited Cullloden – or rather, re-visited it, having been there before the new Visitor Centre was constructed. It must be exciting to have an invitation to go to the official opening on the anniversary of the battle but I DO hope you are not disappointed. I won’t say much more, as you must make up your own mind but suffice to say that I was a bit disappointed for various reasons, some of which are still gelling in my mind as I write this. Oh, and be prepared for snow – we were snowed in for the first 2 days of our visit, which is not so usual for mid-April – snow showers yes, but not heavy snow as we experienced.

    Anyway, keep working on the books – they are wonderful and thoroughly absorbing; also, thanks for being so thorough with your research (but only to be expected from someone such as yourself) – it really matters to some of us that historical details are correct bearing in mind current research, which rarely stands still.

    Have a good trip to Scotland – and call into St Andrews if you have the time!

    All the best

    Wol the Wise

  14. I must’ve had my head elsewhere, as i’ve just heard about the Outlander series, and cannot put the first volume down!

    I found this blog through your website and saw that this was a place to put comments…

    Seeing the image of Claire for the graphic novel is incredible, and my suggestion for Jamie is this: Make him look like Gerard Butler, and I will surely swoon!

    Keep up the great work, I love my first dive into Outlander books and simply can’t read fast enough.

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