• “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.”
    —ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

Building Scenes


Somebody had asked me (well, and everybody else), on the Compuserve forum, what the “legos” of building a scene are. How do you do it?

Given that there are undoubtedly as many answers to that as there are writers…this is a brief example of how _I_ do it. Fwiw. [g]


[Section ? God Willing and the Creek Don't Rise]

OK, I began this—oddly enough –with the first line. I had a good-sized chunk—25,000 words or so—written and assembled, which (again, oddly) begins the book. That was neatly tied off, in structural terms, though. So I needed a way into Whatever Happens Next.

So I began with the worms. Claire’s generally the default voice for me, and since at least part of What Happens Next would be on the Ridge, unless I specifically “heard” Jamie or Young Ian, it would likely be her explaining what the state of the wicket was. So I began to sink into her. Well, I knew it was now spring, because we’d been waiting for the snow to melt when I finished the earlier chunk.

This being Claire, she didn’t say, “It was spring.” She said, “Spring had sprung.”

So what happens on a mountain in the spring time? The snow melts. You get water. Hence, the first line:

Spring had sprung, and the creek was rising.

(Which of course brought to mind the old country saying, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” which I at once put up top, knowing a good chapter or section title when one shows up .)

So at once I have the notion of a rising creek, fed by snow-melt. So that’s where I began to dig, feeling my way into the descriptive details.

Spring had sprung, and the creek was rising. Swelled by melting snow and fed by hundreds of tiny waterfalls that trickled and leapt down the mountain’s face, it roared past my feet, exuberant with spray. I could feel it cold on my face, and knew that I’d be wet to the knees within minutes, but it didn’t matter. The fresh green of arrowhead and [ ] rimmed the banks, some plants dragged out of the soil by the rising water and whirled downstream, more hanging on by their roots for dear life, leaves trailing in the racing wash. Dark mats of cress swirled under the water, close by the sheltering banks.

Now, I’m writing this slowly, picking and choosing words, reshaping sentences, while re-entering the personal memories I have of snow-fed mountain creeks and adjusting these for the different vegetation patterns of North Carolina (my memories being of Northern Arizona ). And then—a toadstool popped up.

And fresh greens were what I wanted.

Well, of course she does. A) this is Claire, who would almost never be outdoors without taking note of what might be edible or useful in her surroundings, and B) it is spring, which means we’re just coming out of a winter with no fresh food. You bet she wants fresh greens.

So I started thinking along those lines—she’s not just watching the creek, she’s out gathering. What’s she gathering? How? I see the watercress in the creek; I know she wants it.

My gathering-basket was half full of [ginseng roots?] fiddleheads, ramp shoots [ck.] and wild asparagus [ck.]. A nice big lot of tender new cress, crisp and cold from the stream, would top off the winter’s Vitamin C deficiency very well. I took off my shoes and stockings, and after a moment’s hesitation, took off my gown and jacket as well and hung them over a tree-branch. The air was chilly in the shade of the silver birches that overhung the creek here, and I shivered a bit, but ignored the cold, kirtling up my shift before wading into the stream.

That cold was harder to ignore. I gasped, and nearly dropped the basket, but found my footing among the slippery rocks, and made my way toward the nearest mat of tempting dark green. Within seconds, my legs were numb, and I’d lost any sense of cold in the enthusiasm of forager’s frenzy and salad-hunger.

Now, again, I’m writing this very slowly, integrating the information (what kind(s) of plants are likely to be there) with the sensory aspects, balancing sentences, choosing the paragraph break (not positive yet on that. It’s a little longer paragraph than I prefer, especially when being descriptive; I might go back and break it after “tree-branch,” but I do like beginning the next paragraph with the simple declarative sentence ” That cold was harder to ignore.” The rhythm is better.

That I can mess with some more next time I go back and forth through here. For the moment….

She’s moving, she’s doing something, and I’ve got well stuck into the sensory impressions of the scene; if I need backstory/explanation, this would be the place to do it (remember the comic-book model; you have the intro panel which establishes the character and situation, and then you have the 2/3/4 small panels beneath to do any backstory needed, after which the character(s) must be in motion).

So, a quick recap, for the benefit both of readers for whom this is the first book, and for those who don’t necessarily reread the whole series before a new one comes out.

A good deal of our stored food had been saved from the fire, as it was kept in the outbuildings: the springhouse, corncrib, and smoking-shed. The root-cellar had been destroyed, though, and with it, not only the carrots, onions, garlic, and potatoes, but most of my carefully gathered stock of dried apples and wild yams, and the big hanging clusters of raisins, all meant to keep us from the ravages of scurvy. The herbs, of course, had gone up in smoke, along with the rest of my surgery. True, a large quantity of pumpkins and squashes had escaped, these having been piled in the barn, but one grows tired of squash-pie and succotash after a couple of months–well, after a couple of days, speaking personally.

The next bit I just heard, as I was inside Claire’s head (that “speaking personally” kind of pulls you in there), and this is what she was thinking:

Not for the first time, I mourned Mrs. Bug’s abilities as a cook, though of course I did miss her for her own sake. Amy McCallum Higgins had been raised in a crofter’s cottage in the Highlands of Scotland and was, as she put it, “a good plain cook.” Essentially, that meant she could bake bannocks, boil porridge, and fry fish simultaneously, without burning any of it. No mean feat, but a trifle monotonous, in terms of diet.

My own piece-de-resistance was stew–which lacking onions, garlic, carrots, and potatoes, had devolved into a grim sort of pottage consisting of venison or turkey stewed with cracked corn, barley, and possibly chunks of stale bread. Ian, surprisingly, had turned out to be a passable cook; the succotash and squash-pie were his contribution to the communal menu. I did wonder who had taught him to make them, but thought it wiser not to ask.

So no one had starved, nor yet lost any teeth, but by mid-March, I would have been willing to wade neck-deep in freezing torrents in order to acquire something both edible and green.

OK. Young Ian’s in her head, and given what’s happened in the previous chunk of story, she’d be paying particular attention to him. I can’t (of course ) tell you what did happen , but this is what she’s thinking:

Ian had, thank goodness, gone on breathing. And after a week or so, had ceased acting quite so shell-shocked, eventually regaining something like his normal manner. But I noticed Jamie’s eyes follow him now and then, and Rollo had taken to sleeping with his head on Ian’s chest, a new habit. I wondered whether he really sensed the pain in Ian’s heart, or whether it was simply a response to the sleeping conditions in the cabin.

Hm. OK. Well, now, here I have a choice: I’ve opened the door to describing the sleeping conditions in the cabin, and I sort of want to do that, both for backstory and what you might call “forestory” (because I have another, partial scene that takes place in spring on the mountain, and think it may link up with this one)—but we’ve been doing backstory long enough. I need to pop back out of Claire’s memories and into her physical present.

I stretched my back, hearing the small pops between my vertebrae.

OK, we’re back. Now what? Well, we’ve just been looking back—let’s look forward, as I don’t see anything vivid happening right in the moment.

Now that the snow-melt had come, I could hardly wait for our departure. I would miss the Ridge and everyone on it–well, almost everyone. Possibly not Hiram Crombie, so much. Or the Chisholms, or–I short-circuited this list before it became uncharitable.

At which point Claire said:

“On the other hand,” I said firmly to myself, “think of beds.”

I left the sleeping conditions unexplored, but evidently she’s still thinking about them, though willing to go along in the forward-looking with me:

Granted, we would be spending a good many nights on the road, sleeping rough–but eventually, we would reach civilization. Inns. With food. And beds. I closed my eyes momentarily, envisioning the absolute bliss of a mattress. I didn’t even aspire to a feather-bed; anything that promised more than an inch of padding between myself and the floor would be paradise. And, of course, if it came with a modicum of privacy…even better.

OK. Interesting practical question; given that we have ten or twelve people crammed into Roger and Bree’s old cabin, and the weather prevents any outdoor forays, and we assume that Claire and Jamie weren’t willing to go for three or four months without sex—what were they doing?

Jamie and I had not been completely celibate since December. Lust aside–and it wasn’t–we needed the comfort and warmth of each other’s body. Still, covert congress under a quilt, with Rollo’s yellow eyes fixed upon us from two feet away was less than ideal, even assuming that Young Ian was invariably asleep, which I didn’t think he was, even though he was sufficiently tactful as to pretend.

At this point, my innate sense of rhythm and pacing is getting restless and thinking, “Enough with the backstory, description, and thoughts—something should happen!” So it does:

A hideous shriek split the air, and I jerked, dropping the basket.

Another toadstool. Fine—but what now? Do we find out immediately who shrieked and why?

No, this is Claire, she’s after food—and she didn’t just hear a shriek, she dropped her basket! So–

I flung myself after it, barely snatching the handle before it was whirled away on the flood, and stood up dripping and trembling, heart hammering as I waited to see whether the scream would be repeated.

Well, only two alternatives here: either the scream will be repeated, or it won’t. If not, though, she’s going to have to go looking for what made it. The story’s focus is fixed, at this point—you can’t ignore the scream and do more backstory or interior monologue or whatever—you have to deal with the scream. (Now, by this time, I do myself know what the scream was—remember, I know where and when we are—so the next bits were written with a knowledge of what was coming—which I didn’t have when I began the scene.)

It was–followed in short order by an equally piercing screech, but one deeper in timbre and recognizable to my well-trained ears as the sort of noise made by a Scottish Highlander suddenly immersed in freezing water. Fainter, higher-pitched shrieks, and a breathless “Fook!” spoken in a Dorset accent indicated that the gentlemen of the household were taking their spring bath.

OK. Well, now we have fairly clear sailing for a bit, because of course we want to go and watch. The only thing to bother with, really, is simple craft things like description, detail, sensory impressions, imagery, and emotional undertow. (And I think I need to revise the next bit to include her wringing out her wet skirt and getting her shawl, but leave that, for now…)

There are few things more enjoyable than sitting in relative warmth and comfort while watching fellow human beings soused in cold water. If said human beings present a complete review of the nude male form, so much the better. I made my way through a small growth of fresh-budding river willows, found a conveniently-screened rock and spread out the damp skirt of my shift, enjoying both the bright sun on my shoulders and the sight before me.

Jamie was standing in the pool, nearly shoulder-deep, his hair slicked back like a russet seal. Bobby stood on the bank, and picking up Aidan with a grunt, threw him to Jamie in a pinwheel of flailing limbs and piercing shrieks of delighted fright.

“Me-me-me-_me_!” Orrie was dancing around his stepfather’s black-furred legs, his chubby bottom bouncing up and down among the reeds like a little pink balloon.

Bobby laughed, bent and hoisted him up, holding him for a moment high overhead as he squealed like a seared pig, then flung him in a shallow arc out over the pool.

He hit the water with a tremendous splash and Jamie grabbed him, laughing, and pulled him to the surface, whence he emerged with a look of open-mouthed stupefaction that made them all hoot like gibbons. Aidan and Rollo were both dog-paddling round in circles by now, shouting and barking.

I looked across to the opposite side of the pool and saw Ian, evidently answering this invitation, rush naked down the small hill and leap like a salmon into the pool, uttering one of his best Mohawk war-cries. This was cut off abruptly by the cold water, and he vanished with scarcely a splash.

I waited–as did the others–for him to pop back up, but he didn’t. Jamie looked suspiciously behind him, in case of a sneak attack, but an instant later, Ian shot out of the water directly in front of Bobby with a blood-curdling yell, grabbed him by the leg and yanked him in.

Matters thereafter became generally chaotic, with a great deal of promiscuous splashing, yelling, hooting, and jumping off of rocks, which gave me the opportunity to reflect on just how delightful naked men are. Not that I hadn’t seen a good many of them in my time, but aside from Frank and Jamie, most men I’d seen undressed usually had been either ill or injured, and were encountered in such circumstances as to prevent a leisurely appreciation of their finer attributes.

From Orrie’s round bottom and Aidan’s spidery, winter-white limbs to Bobby’s chunky, black-furred torso and neat little flat behind, the McCallum-Higginses were as entertaining to watch as a cageful of monkeys.

Ian and Jamie were something different–baboons, perhaps, or mandrills. They didn’t really resemble each other in any attribute other than height, and yet were plainly cut from the same cloth. Watching Jamie squatting on a rock above the pool, thighs tensing for a leap, I could easily see him preparing to attack a leopard, while Ian stretched himself glistening in the sun, warming his dangly bits while keeping an alert watch for intruders. All they needed were purple bottoms, and they could have walked straight onto the African veldt, no questions asked.

They were all lovely, in their wildly various ways, but it was Jamie my gaze returned to, over and over again. He was battered and scarred, his muscles roped and knotted, and age had grooved the hollows between them. The thick welt of the bayonet scar writhed up his thigh, wide and ugly, while the thinner white line of the scar left by my treatment of a rattlesnake’s bite was nearly invisible, clouded by the thick fuzz of his body-hair, this beginning to dry now and stand out from his skin. The scimitar-shaped swordcut across his ribs had healed well, no more than a hair-thin white line by now.

He turned round and bent to pick up a cake of soap from the rock, and my insides turned over. It wasn’t purple, but could not otherwise have been improved on, being high, round, delicately dusted with red-gold, and with a delightful muscular concavity to the sides. His balls, just visible from behind, were purple with the cold, and gave me a strong urge to creep up behind him and cup them in my rock-warmed hands.

I have some reservations about the rhythm of the next bit, but this is what she thought:

I clapped a handful of shawl to my mouth to muffle the snort of amusement at thought of the standing broad-jump that would likely result if I did.

OK, the preceding several paragraphs have all been internal description, but the broad-jump sentence—whether I keep it or not—has pulled me back into Claire’s mind—and I catch the implied thread of the “sleeping conditions” issue from above.

It occurred to me, with a small sense of shock, that I was so struck by him because I had not, in fact, seen him naked–or even substantially undressed–in several months. Owing to the weather and the cramped and semi-public nature of our accommodation since the Big House had burned, what lovemaking we had managed had been mostly accomplished at dead of night, mostly clothed, and under a blanket.

But now…I threw back my head, closing my eyes against the brilliant spring sun, enjoying the tickle of my own fresh-washed hair against my shoulder-blades. The snow was gone, the weather was good–and the whole outdoors beckoned invitingly, filled with places where privacy could be assured, bar the odd skunk.

OK. That’s probably the end of this scene; we’ll jump and take up further matters with a new one, because I don’t feel anything of a dramatic nature happening with the guys bathing in the creek. But we’ll see.

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55 Responses »

  1. Dear luann–

    [sigh] I get this all the time. Look…

    If someone came in and handed me an object that was clearly very old, and that I’d never seen before, and it had “Diana Jean Gabaldon” burned into the lid–

    I would probably not pipe up, “Oh, that’s _me_!!”

    I would probably…[lifting hands in expectant prompt]…say…

    “WHO’S THAT?!?”

    Which is exactly what Brianna said. Geez, guys. Particularly since they then _open_ the box, which is full of stuff from Jamie and Clarie–WHO THE HECK ELSE WOULD JEREMIAH BE?

    That clear it up enough that I don’t need to put a Special Explanatory Note in the beginning of the next book? Or a scene in which Roger says, “Oh, dear–you remember a few months ago when we found this box? Why were you confused about the name on it?” And Brianna then gives him a look and says, “What do you mean, confused?”
    “Well, you said, ‘Who’s that?’ when you saw it…so I thought…”

    Real gripping stuff, that.

    I’m sorry–I’m sure this sounds as though I’m being cranky at you, and I’m really not. And plainly there are a lot of people who were confused–as I say, people ask me this same question All The Time.

    It just seemed (and seems) perfectly obvious to _me_. But then, it would, I suppose. [wry g]

  2. AH-HA!!! The light comes on! Now I understand..thanks SO much and NO you don’t sound cranky lol. It just seemed like a cliffhanger ending the book that way…I scrambled back thru the books in search for Jemmy’s full name to make sure it was him and not perhaps one of his decendants. I just can’t wait to find out what happens next!

  3. Okay, that was great, Diana! I could just see her sneaking up behind him and cupping him by the balls! Totally cracked me up as it reminded me of a few times that I have snuck up behind my hubby and done something like that! I know, I’m evil. But it’s such fun. ;o)

  4. Hi Diana,
    Thanks for sharing your writing! I love your style of writing! I was just wondering though, why are so many people crammed into the cabin? I know that the Big House has burned down, but, for example, doesn’t Young Ian have his own cabin?
    Can’t wait for the next book to come out!

  5. Hi Diana!
    Awesome, as usual!!! Thanks so much for sharing your “building scenes” info with us…as well as another visit with Jamie and Claire! Writing has been a bit more of a challenge lately for me… besides life, work, a DH with a bone infection in his knee and on IV antibiotics… we got a kitten a few weeks ago. She is about 2 1/2 mo. old now… and loves to jump onto the keyboard in the way when I try to write! Remids me of Adso!!! ; )

  6. Dear Vicki–

    Yowch! A bone infection sounds Very Nasty; hope your husband’s feeling better soon!

  7. Thanks Diana!
    Hope Doug is feeling better!!!
    Randy’s problem started almost 4 yrs ago. He broke his leg on Sept. 11, 2004 at a Cub Scout Campout Obstacle course. It was a rope swing. Someone tied up the rope wrong and there was slack in the rope. When he swung out he came down on his leg. He broke a chunk off the tibia plateau and put a bunch of vertical cracks across the bone. Now he has no cartilage left and the joint is a mess. He had to get the 2 plates and 12 screws out in preparation for a knee replacement. That surgery was in July. When it finally stopped bleeding and seemed healed (a month later), he started feeling like he got the flu and it then began to seep. Like always, it was over a weekend. He saw the knee doctor, who sent him to an Infectious disease doctor. They started him on the antibiotics… 2 by IV. He had an allergic reaction to one of them and ended up in the ER from anaphylactic shock. He is doing better. They did an MRI too. We have to go to the knee doctor on Tues. to see what to do next. Too bad… it seems neither maggots or leeches will help at this time. He said “No Thanks!” when I mentioned it! ; )

    I did manage to write a little piece for the SiWC contest. I have to finish editing and email it.

    BTW, the Trail of Tears/Trial of Courage/Trail of Death was also in Indiana. It affected the Pottawatomi Indians here.
    Take Care!

  8. On the subject of rope swings, I had a friend in college on a biology field trip which somehow also included swinging out over a river on a rope swing with too much slack, thus causing her shoulder to be neatly dislocated. Because they were in a remote location, the only doctor they could find fixed her up with a cast/contraption/torture device that apparently was last used in the 1930′s in Outer Slovenia (this according to the orthopedic surgeon she saw when she got home three weeks later). It looked like a plaster tube top with one shoulder strap. My friend instisted on remaining with the group for the rest of the trip, despite her discomfort, but had to endure being called “fossil bra” the whole time.

  9. Beths,
    Well, my DH did think he dislocated his knee at first… well, he DID dislocate a big chunk of bone. Your friend was lucky! I am sure she was in a lot of pain tho! ‘Fossil Bra’.. that is funny!!!!

    Vicki (aka Piper Mom from the LOL boards)

  10. wow. this was amazing to read how you think when you write!

    i am not a writes by profession, but purely for fun.

    i have admired your books since only two were there, and have enjoyed each one deeply. and now getting to read your blog is a special treat. you become more human, and wonderful

    thanks for sharing!!! this was wonderful to see how your mind travels along a path.

  11. Thank you for the insight into how you work your magic!

    Any word on when the excerpts you mentioned earlier might be posted? Sorry to be pushy, but even kind people tend to be a little crazy about their addictions. :)

  12. Vicki: I think the take-home message is to stay off of rope swings. I am sorry for all of your troubles. If my fossil-bra story made you feel better, should I tell you that the second part of the biology trip saga involved hordes of seed ticks invading places that only a very close friend should be asked to reach?

  13. Beths:
    Yes, gotta watch those rope swings. Maybe Diana can work that into a story! : )

    Ah yes… seed ticks. I have worked several summers outdoors (in the past) I had a tick in a very personal and private place one time. Ouch!

  14. Oh My Goodness that was so marvelous. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing your thought processes as you wrote that scene. It’s always amazed me, as I’ve read your books, that you’ve not only been able to create a pleasing visual picture, but also an emotional one, a linear one (presenting then, now and what’s to come), and with each character’s voice so clear and discernable. Wonderful!

    These characters are so full and rich and inhabit such a warm place in my heart, thanks for sharing your process in bringing them to life for me. Of particular endearment, for me, is feeling Claire and Jaime growing older and feeling their love deepen and mature, while still getting lost in their physical connection. It’s so beautiful to read.

    Thanks for allowing us to be a fly on the wall and watch you as you work your craft.

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