• “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

THE SHAPE OF THINGS

THE SHAPE OF THINGS

Well, good news! I finally know what the shape of AN ECHO IN THE BONE is!

I think I’ve explained a little before, about how I write: to wit, not with an outline, and not in a straight line. [g] I write in bits and pieces, doing the research more or less concurrently with the writing (meaning that assorted bits of plot or new scenes may pop up unexpectedly as the result of my stumbling across something too entertaining to pass up).

As I work, some of these bits and pieces will begin to stick together, forming larger chunks. For example, I’ll write a scene, and realize that it explains why what happened in a scene written several months ago happened. Ergo, the later scene probably ought to precede the first, already-written scene. So I haul both scenes into the same document, read through this larger chunk, and at that point, sometimes will see what has to happen next. (Sometimes not.) If so, then I can proceed to write the next bit. If not, I go look for another kernel (what I call the bits of inspiration that offer me a foothold on a new scene), and write something else.

Anyway, this process of agglomeration continues, and I begin to see the underlying patterns of the book. I get larger chunks. And all the time, I’m evolving a rough timeline in my head, against which I can line up these chunks in rough order (E.g., the battle of Saratoga—which is in this book—was actually two battles, fought by the same armies on the same ground. But the dates of those battles are fixed: September 19th and October 7th, 1777. Some specific historical events occurred and specific historical persons were present in each of those two battles. Ergo, if I have assorted personal events that take place in the fictional characters’ lives, and various scenes dealing with those, I can tell that logically, X must have taken place after the first battle, because there’s a wounded man in that scene, while Y has to take place after the second battle, because the death of a particular person (who died in the second battle) precipitates Y. Meanwhile, Z clearly takes place between the battles, because there’s a field hospital involved, but there’s no fighting going on. Like that.)

Now, at a certain point in this chunking process (and I’ve been chunking for awhile now on ECHO; in fact, I’ve sent my German translator two largish chunks already, to begin translating), I discern the underlying “shape” of the book. This is Important.

All my books have a shape, and once I’ve seen what it is, the book comes together much more quickly, because I can then see approximately what-all is included, how it’s organized, and where the missing pieces (most of them, anyway) are.

OUTLANDER, for instance, is shaped like three overlapping triangles: the action rises naturally toward three climaxes: Claire’s decision at Craig na Dun to stay in the past, Claire’s rescue of Jamie from Wentworth, and her saving of his soul at the Abbey.

DRAGONFLY IN AMBER is shaped like a dumbbell (no, really [g]). The framing story, set in 1968 (or 1969; there’s a copyediting glitch in there that has to do with differences between the US and UK editions of OUTLANDER, but we won’t go into that now), forms the caps on the ends of the dumbbell. The first arc of the main story is the French background, the plots and intrigue (and personal complications) leading toward the Rising. Then there’s a relatively flat stretch of calm and domestic peace at Lallybroch, followed by the second major arc, the Rising itself. And the final end-cap of the framing story. All very symmetrical.

VOYAGER looks like a braided horse-tail: the first third of the book consists of a three-part braided narrative: Jamie’s third-person narrative runs forward in time; Claire’s first-person narrative goes backward in time (as she explains things to Roger and Brianna), and Roger’s third-person narrative sections form the present-time turning points between Claire’s and Jamie’s stories. After Claire’s return to the past, though, the story then drops into the multi-stranded but linear first-person narrative (moving forward) that we’re used to.

DRUMS OF AUTUMN…well, that one’s a little more free-form, but it does have a shape. It’s shaped like a curving, leafy stem, with a big, showy rose at the end, but with two side-stems, each with a large bud (these being Roger and Brianna’s independent part of the story, and the Jocasta/Hector/Ulysses/Duncan/Phaedre part).

THE FIERY CROSS looks either like a rainbow or a shower of fireworks, depending how you want to look at it. [g] There are a number of separate storylines that arc through the book—but every single one of them has its origin and root in that Very Long Day at the Gathering where the book begins. Each storyline then has its own arc, which comes down at a different point toward the end of the book.

A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES…Well, probably you’ve seen that very well-known Hokusai print, titled “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” (In case you haven’t, here’s a link.) When I happened to see this print while assembling the chunks for this book, I emailed my agent in great excitement, to tell him I’d seen the shape of the book. “It looks like the Great Wave,” I said. “Only there are two of them!” [g] Notice, if you will, the little boats full of people, about to be swamped by the wave—these are the characters whose fate is affected by the onrush of events. And in the middle of the print, we see Mt. Fuji in the distance, small but immovable, unaffected by the wave. That’s the love between Claire and Jamie, which endures through both physical and emotional upheaval. (The waves are the escalating tides of events/violence that remove Claire and Jamie from the Ridge.)

So that leads us to the current book. And, as I say, I’ve just recently seen the “shape” of AN ECHO IN THE BONE. It’s a caltrop.

[pause]

OK, normally I’d make y’all look it up [g], but the only person to whom I announced this revelation (husband, literary agents, editors, children) who already knew what a caltrop is, was my elder daughter (who is unusually well-read). So, all right—this is a caltrop (so’s this, which is very elegant, I think), and this is the definition thereof.

Nasty-looking little bugger, isn’t it? (And if you think this image presages something regarding the effect of this book, you are very likely right. Enjoy. [g])

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49 Responses »

  1. This shape is a highly effective weapon against bare-feet wearers, as anyone from out West who has stepped on a “goat head” can tell you. Those things are likely to break off under your skin and can penetrate flip flops. Getting stuck in a patch of the things was almost enought to make me wear shoes (but not quite) as a girl in New Mexico.

  2. It is very interesting and I can not wait to see where you take this.

    Deb

  3. Dear Beths–

    Interestingly enough [g], the common name for one of those trailing plants infested with burs is “caltrop.” It gives sheep jaundice if they eat it.

  4. eee! yay, a caltrop!

    using your own analogy, i must say being a newcomer to the outlander series, that i have now devoured almost everything of yours i’ve been able to find. it’s interesting because it’s made the experience very much “onion-like”…

    what i mean is, reading your books was amazing, but then finding your website and seeing how connected you are to your fans and how much you share with us added another layer…then reading the outlandish companion and your blog to know YOUR insights into your own writing, characters and stories adds yet another layer, etc.

    i can see the shapes and appreciate them, being able to see the richness of the content in 3d.

    can’t wait for both the graphic novel and echo, they will be amazing, i am sure, although i agree with the noter who said that it’s sometimes painful to read your books. you can’t stop, but you are afraid at what will happen next or one of the major characters will be killed…because then it will be over =(

    have you ever been to reno, nevada? just curious…i can make it to some place in california to see you. there’s a great independent book store here called “sundance books”.

  5. Dear gemini–

    No, never been to Reno–though my husband has; he says it’s pretty. [g]

    I don’t know what your taste for onions is–but if you want to watch me write (so to speak), drop by the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum. go.community.compuserve.com/Books – or just Google it.

    There’s a “Diana Gabaldon” folder there, and it (the Forum as a whole) has been my long-time electronic hangout.

  6. No problem Diana. The hubby is a Pixar animator and may be there promoting new Cars short films he has directed. I’ll have him get my guest pass just in case. Would never expect you and the Huoang to rush good work.

  7. dear diana,
    thank you so much for the invite! i went and checked it out yesterday and signed up from a link someone else posted on a recent entry.

    it’s interesting to read there, and i am sure you will see something from me there, soon.

    reno is pretty, we even have our own cliche’…being so close to hell we can see sparks =) sparks is the name of the neighboring town.

    take care, now, off to read!

    thanks again for the response.

  8. You’re coming to New Zealand next year!!!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!!

    Why not give that dusty, dry red continent to the left of us a miss and spend longer in New Zealand? [beg]

  9. Oooh, I know what a caltrop is!

    It comes from having played D&D. (g)

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