• “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

April 16, 1746

Today is the 265th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden. In honor of that, I thought I’d just post links to the two blogposts I did a couple of years ago, when I was privileged to attend the dedication of the new Visitors Centre at Culloden.



Urram do na mairbh.

The Ides of April – or, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

In honor of the date, a song of the American Revolution:

A Junto Song

‘Tis money makes the members vote
And sanctifies our ways,
It makes the patriot turn his coat
And money we must raise, and
A-taxing we will go, will go
And a-taxing we will go.

More taxes we must sure impose
To raise the civil list;
Also pay our ayes and noes,
And make opposers hist, and
A-taxing we will go, &c.

The power supreme of Parliament
Our purpose did assist.
And taxing laws abroad were sent
Which rebels do resist, and
A -taxing we will go, &c.

Boston we shall in ashes lay,
It is a nest of knaves;
We’ll make them soon for mercy pray
Or send them to their graves, and
A-taxing we will go, &c.

Each colony, we will propose,
Shall raise an ample sum;
Which well applied, under the rose,
May bribe them—as at home, and
A-taxing we will go &c,

We’ll force and fraud in one unite,
To bring them to our hands;
Then lay a tax on the sun’s light
And king’s tax on their lands, and
A -taxing we will go, &c.

From Songbook of the American Revolution, Rabson
Note: in 1775, Britain sent a “Junto” of three generals, Clinton
Howe and Burgoyne, to th colonies to put the rebellious
colonists in their place.

DG Note: I particularly recommend “Music of the American Colonies” by Anne and Ridley Enslow, for an excellent performance of this song, as well as many others. In case you wondered what kind of music I listen to while writing. {g}

Historical Sex Scenes

Historical Sex Scenes

Now, don’t start hyperventilating. This isn’t about how to write historical sex scenes (though I might show you a sort-of one, in a bit*). It’s a solicitation. {g}

I was going to start out by saying that I have no idea how this happened, except that I do. I just don’t remember who to blame for it. What did happen was that six(ish) years ago, the Historical Novel Society (of which I am a member) held its biannual conference in Albany. It was the first conference of the HNS that I’d attended, and in my usual amiable way, I’d told the organizers that I’d be happy to do whatever they liked, in the way of panels, etc.

So they put me on three or four panels, and one of those was a panel on writing sex scenes. There were six people assigned to the panel—which is kind of a lot, really; you get a great variety of input, but with such a large number, it’s hard to have a good discussion.

Anyway, the six of us conferred via email as to the best way of managing the panel, traffic-wise, and someone (actually I think it may have been me, maybe I am to blame for this, what a horrifying thought…) said that it’s really hard to talk about the techniques involved in sex scenes without having examples to refer to.

So someone (and it may have been Chris Humphreys…then again, it might have been me…) suggested that since there was no conceivable way in which six people could read sex scenes in an hour, and then have any time in which to talk about them, that we see if the conference would allow us a separate session, outside the regular programming, during which any panelists who liked to could read one or two samples. That way, attendees who really didn’t want to hear sex scenes could avoid them and just hear about techniques, whereas those who wanted the…er…full experience (so to speak), could listen to the samples, which we would then talk about the next day.

Well, the organizers were willing (and it was Chris Humphreys who suggested it to them, I know that much), and they scheduled the Saturday Night Late-Night Sex-Scene Reading, after the official banquet.

I think five of the six panelists agreed to read sex-scenes—a couple of us came in nightwear (I almost always change into a yukata covered with cranes—I have three, in different colors—after the official part of a conference day, because while I’m happy to go on socializing into the wee hours, I’m not doing it in an underwired bra and high heeled boots, after wearing such clothes all day); Chris wore a suit, I seem to recall—or it may have been the pirate shirt open to the waist.

Anyway, two-thirds of the conference attendees came, and a Very Good Time was had by all, let’s put it that way. {cough} (The hotel kindly kept the bar in the dining-room open for this event, and when I staggered up afterward for a glass of much-needed wine, the bar-staff applauded and insisted on giving me the drink for free, which was nice of them.)

Anyway, the long-term effect of this public spectacle was that I’ve been urged (and/or dragooned) into doing it twice more—once as another team effort for the last HNS conference in Illinois, and a solo appearance for The Poisoned Pen bookstore—and now find myself not only booked for a reprise at this year’s HNS conference in San Diego, but charged with running the event.

Chris (that’s C.C. Humphreys, btw, whose Jack Absolute series is on my Methadone List, and I recommend it highly for fans of the 18th century, the British army, adventure, and/or Mohawks) tells me that he and Gillian Bagwell (MY DARLING STRUMPET—which I also really enjoyed (life of Nell Gwyn), and gave a cover quote to) want to do a team-reading of a scene from her book, which he described as “one of the best blow-jobs in fiction.” (Bear in mind that as well as being an excellent author, Chris is also a professional actor. I’m looking forward to this. He did just say “reading,” mind…)

To get to the point here, though—

In order to insure variety and the increased pleasure of the audience {cough, cough}, we’ll need a few participants besides Chris, Gillian, and me. SO—

If you are

1) A published author of historical fiction (traditional publication, please, not self-published)

2) Who will be attending this year’s HNS conference, and

3) Has a good sex-scene (the scene can be from an unpublished manuscript, if you like), and

4) Relatively few inhibitions about reading it aloud in public (costuming (including mask) optional)…

Let me know. {g} Email me at dgabaldon@aol.com, or find me on the Compuserve Books and Writers Community board.

I don’t think we will have to hold auditions {g}, but we’ll see how many volunteers we get.

*You’re sure you want to see one? Well, OK. I’m going to put it here, because not everyone likes to read excerpts. This is—I think—the beginning of SCOTTISH PRISONER, even though my husband, who read it, wrote in the margin, “Are you sure you can print this?!?”


I’m delighted to announce that we now have a German-language version of the Diana Gabaldon official website!

Thanks to Jeremy Tolbert for the design, and to Barbara Schnell, who is the German translator for the Outlander novels, for not only translating the relevant information from this site, but adding a lot of special bits, such as the many photographs she’s taken of German book-tours, fans, and readings (Barbara is also a wonderful photo-journalist; be sure to check out her own website at www.bschnell.de for her gorgeous horse photography!).

Even those of you who don’t speak German may want to visit the new site to check out the great visuals. {g} And for those who do speak German—Willkommen!

Oh–there’s upposed to be  a German flag on the home page that will take you to the German site.  If it’s not there yet, though, here’s the URL:




Last year, I mentioned Sam Sykes’s first book, THE TOME OF THE UNDERGATES. BLACK HALO is the second book in the AEON’S GATE trilogy, and even better than the first.

These books are epic fantasy. Meaning—I’m told—that characters and storylines are writ large. This is certainly true of BLACK HALO, which includes the most striking assemblage of vivid misfits ever to try to save the world (or at least themselves) from demons—and a jaw-dropping array of creepy opponents, ranging from six-foot purple-faced female elite troops and jewel-wielding sexual sadists to the Akaneed, a giant cross between jelly-fish and sea-serpent, especially dangerous when mating. Add in the Omens, a chorus of harpy-like doom-sayers, giant cockroaches with rainbow-colored farts, and green Schicts (don’t ask), and you can be reasonably sure that Our Heroes are in for adventure on a grand scale.

Add in the heroes’ personal problems—Asper, a priestess with a lethal left (not as in a talent for boxing; as in, people she touches with her left hand suddenly aren’t there anymore), Dreadaleon, a young wizard whose illicit use of magic causes his body to begin to break down (one of the more striking symptoms being flammable urine), Kataria, a Schict in love with a human but who has been taught to regard humanity as a disease, Lenk, the human in question, who is in love with Kataria but can’t pursue his feelings because there’s an ancient warrior inside his head who won’t have it, Denaos, a self-professed coward and professional assassin, whose dreams are more dangerous than anything he meets while awake, and Gariath, a red dragon-man who can’t quite figure out what he’s doing in the company of these morons but can’t bring himself to abandon them, either—and you have a True Epic, believe me.

I won’t even try to describe the plot, cool as it is. What you have here is a world of Highly Original fantasy, populated by people so real you occasionally want to punch them in the nose—when you aren’t rolling on the floor laughing at the things they say to each other.

You can read an excerpt from BLACK HALO here,

And here is an entertaining interview with Mr. Sykes.*

(Excerpt from interview):

What is it about your work that you would recommend to someone who had never read you before?

Sam Sykes: Vigor. Imagination. Energy.

The nicest thing anyone ever said about my writing was Scott Lynch suggesting I swing for the fences every time I write a sentence. I take this to be high praise of my skills with a baseball bat (shortly after saying this, he asked me to go hit people with said instrument) and also interpret it like this:

I don’t see a big reason not to do whatever the hell I want in writing. This entire genre was born on that idea and I have absolutely no qualms throwing everything I have into what I’m writing about, from the weirdest things with the deepest emotions to the mundane things twisted by their own philosophy.

To summarize it: I wrote a section in which a dragonman, driven to suicidal impulse by the sudden extinction of his species, takes a man’s failure to kill him as a personal insult and promptly stomps the poor fool’s crotch in.

You know you want it.

If you do want it,  click here for the Amazon link;  autographed copies are available from the Poisoned Pen bookstore–email patrick@poisonedpen.com .

Amended here to note that Sam just called to tell me that his first book, TOME OF THE UNDERGATES, has been short-listed for the David Gemmel Award for Best Fantasy Debut!  Yay, Sam!!

*Given that interview, I’m not sure I should admit this, but in the interests of Full Disclosure—Mr. Sykes has fifty percent of my DNA, which may have something to do with his style, if not his subject matter.

As Seen on TV!

Many thanks to whichever nice reader is a scriptwriter for “General Hospital”! Earlier this month, a number of people called my attention to the fact that one show featured a young girl bringing books to her older sister in the hospital—at one point, pulling a copy of the trade paperback edition of OUTLANDER out of her bag and saying, “It’s really long—but really good!” {g}

I did have someone ask whether this was product placement by the publisher, but I can assure you it wasn’t. With the dire state of publishing these days, nobody has ¬that kind of money, even if they thought it would be a good idea (which I kind of doubt). Random House does have a lot of great promotional ideas—they’re giving away mass-market copies of OUTLANDER in all kinds of venues, in anticipation of the new 20th-anniversary edition (more about that in a separate post, a little later), doing Google-TV ads, and other entertaining things—but I’m sure they would have told me if they’d figured out how to get the book on “General Hospital”. {g}

This isn’t my first brush with screen-fame, though. One of my books—I think it was DRUMS OF AUTUMN—was visible on Eddie Murphy’s nightstand in the movie “Dr. Doolittle.” (Or so I’m told. I never watch television, and see movies mostly on DVD years after release—have just now started watching the Matt Smith first season of “Dr. Who”.)

I do get the occasional shout-out from someone else’s book, too—always appreciated! Both Dana Stabenow (the Kate Shugak series) and John Sandford (BAD BLOOD) have had characters reading a Diana Gabaldon novel. {g} I get by with a little help from my friends!

Thank you!!

Language, Language….(Part I)

It doesn’t happen often, but I do occasionally get email from people asking—always very politely (well, almost always very politely)—whether I have ever considered producing a bowdlerized edition of my books.

Mind, none of them uses the word “bowdlerized”; I doubt most people under the age of forty have ever heard it. It comes from:

Thomas Bowdler (pronounced /ˈbaʊdlər/) (11 July 1754 – 24 February 1825), who was an English physician who published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare’s work, edited by his sister Harriet, intended to be more appropriate for 19th century women and children than the original.

He similarly published an edited version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His edition was the subject of some criticism and ridicule and, through the eponym bowdlerise (or bowdlerize),[1] his name is now associated with censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programmes.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Now, what these readers would like me to expurgate from my own work, in order to accommodate their desires and sensibilities, ranges from sex-scenes (one very nice woman wrote to ask if I could produce an edition of OUTLANDER from which all the sex scenes were removed, because she was very eager to be able to discuss the book with her fifteen-year-old daughter, but didn’t think her girl was quite ready for the original. By biting my thumb rather hard (she was very nice, and meant well), I was able to refrain from writing back and asking her whether it might not be a trifle simpler just to wait a year or two for her daughter to be ready for the notion that married people have sex, than for me edit and republish a 700-page book–always assuming that I could convince any publisher that there was a market for such a thing? (My guess is that unless her daughter has been living under a rock for the last five years, she knows a lot more than I’ve ever thought of putting in a book, but possibly her mother doesn’t let her watch television)) to Bad Words in general (“I notice people say “Fuck” a lot in your more recent books,” one reader wrote, rather censoriously. “Jamie doesn’t even know what that word means in OUTLANDER!” Well…he’s probably picked up a few expressions from Claire over the last twenty years. But Jamie’s not usually the one saying that word, even in the later books. It would be pretty common to Roger, though, as well as to some of the coarse folk who live in the backwoods), to—very specifically—the use of the Lord’s name (only “Jesus” or “Christ,” evidently. “God” doesn’t appear to bother these particular readers in this context, let alone local variants like “the Holy Spirit”.).

OK. Approaching these concerns from last to first:

I have every sympathy for someone whose religious sensibilities make them uncomfortable with blasphemy, whether casual or heart-felt. I personally am very disturbed by people who curse or use profanity and crude language in restaurants, and a terrible lot of people do these days. (I don’t think it’s just the places I eat in…)

On the other hand, I’m kind of bemused that not one of the people who take the Third Commandment so much to heart that they are horrified at seeing it broken in print are evidently bothered in the slightest by the shattering of the other nine commandments that goes on in these novels. Graven images, skipping church on Sunday, dishonoring one’s parents, bearing false witness, coveting oxen, asses, wives…theft, murder, fornication, adultery–yeah, we don’t mind seeing any of that. The J-word, though….

(Let me pause for a moment of didacticism here, in which I will attempt to explain the subtleties of the terms blasphemy, profanity, and obscenity. To wit:


Show Spelled[blas-fuh-mee] Show IPA
–noun, plural -mies.
impious utterance or action concerning god or sacred things.
Judaism .
an act of cursing or reviling God.
pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) in the original, now forbidden manner instead of using a substitute pronunciation such as Adonai.
Theology . the crime of assuming to oneself the rights or qualities of God.
irreverent behavior toward anything held sacred, priceless, etc.: He uttered blasphemies against life itself.

Show Spelled[pruh-fan-i-tee, proh-] Show IPA
–noun, plural -ties for 2.
the quality of being profane; irreverence.
profane conduct or language; a profane act or utterance.
obscenity ( defs. 2, 3 ) .

characterized by irreverence or contempt for god or sacred principles or things; irreligious.
not devoted to holy or religious purposes; unconsecrated; secular ( opposed to sacred).
unholy; heathen; pagan: profane rites.
not initiated into religious rites or mysteries, as persons.
common or vulgar.
–verb (used with object)
to misuse (anything that should be held in reverence or respect); defile; debase; employ basely or unworthily.
to treat (anything sacred) with irreverence or contempt; violate the sanctity of: to profane a shrine.

- 5 dictionary results
Show Spelled[uh b-sen-i-tee, -see-ni-] Show IPA
–noun, plural -ties for 2, 3.
the character or quality of being obscene; indecency; lewdness.
something obscene, as a picture or story.
an obscene word or expression, especially when used as an invective.

[Source for all of the above: dictionary.com])

Let me state for the record that no one in any of my books has ever pronounced the Tetragrammaton in the original. Not once.

And Jamie Fraser is on record as stating that he only _felt_ like God (while having sex with his wife); he never said he _was_. So I think we’re clear on those particular charges of blasphemy. I’ll get back to the question of impious utterances in a bit.

Now, if you read further on the dictionary.com site (and others), you’ll find that blasphemy, profanity, and obscenity are often used as synonyms for each other—and they often overlap, depending on usage–but there are differences.

The F-word (I’m sorry, I was raised as a Catholic and I have considerable trouble saying that word out loud. Fortunately most of the people in my books have no such scruples) is often obscene, and quite possibly profane, but not blasphemous. I.e., there’s no mention of God or anything sacred (well, not in the word itself. If you started applying it to sacred concepts—which a good many cultures do, in terms of insult (French-Canadian Catholics, for one)—then that’s different). (Ulster Protestants given to tattooing such sentiments as “F— the Pope” on their foreheads (no, I’m not kidding; some of these people feel strongly about their sectarian sensibilities) are not committing blasphemy _per se_, as while the Pope may be a person of reverence, he isn’t God. “F the P” is therefore mere profanity.)

Profanity can also be blasphemous, if an invocation of God is involved—but if you leave God out of it, profanity is not usually blasphemy. It’s just irreverence, and that’s pretty firmly in the eye of the beholder and the standards of the times. Go to, thou saucy fellow!

As for obscenity…the Supreme Court couldn’t do better than, “we know it when we see it,” and I don’t propose to try to top that.

Anyway, the point here is that it’s only blasphemy (or what is perceived as blasphemy) that concerns the “I do wish you would not take the Lord’s Name in vain” letters. One reader informed me that she had gone through my books with a black marker and obliterated all such usages, so that she could read the books in comfort. I congratulated her on her helpful ingenuity; genius often lies in simplicity.

But let’s look at that. Does any use of the C-word (the six-letter one) or the J-word that is not portrayed as a prayer or a scriptural reference constitute blasphemy?

I don’t think so.

Here we come to the “impious utterances” definition of blasphemy. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Well…what is “in vain”?

When we did catechism class back in the day, we were taught that “in vain” meant that you mustn’t use God’s name to curse somebody, in the “You g_d_ son of a four-legged what-not..!” kind of way. (Catholics, btw, do include “God” (and the Holy Spirit, for that matter) as being “the Lord’s name.”). Using God’s name as a casual interjection—“Jesus, it’s hot,” or “God, I’d kill for a beer,” was crude and thoughtless and a well-brought-up person ought not to do it—but it wasn’t blasphemy, either.

People in my books do in fact use this sort of casual reference fairly often—because men in certain professions (soldiering, for one) and in the exclusive company of other men, very frequently _do_ do that. (You notice that the women in my books don’t do this.)

In my experience (owing to unorthodox career choices, most of my colleagues and close friends were men, up to my early forties), men who do this are customarily calling unconsciously upon God to witness something, asking for casual assistance in a moment of stress, or merely expressing an intensification of emotion (amazement, shock, anger), and do not actually intend offense to their comrades or impiety toward the Almighty.

Now, plainly opinions differ on just what’s an impious utterance and what’s not. That being so, though, we’ve got a few different considerations going here:

1. The notion that a writer ought to try never to offend anyone’s conception of morality or decency.

2. Whether a writer should or should not portray offensive behavior (i.e., behavior condemned by a majority of the populace), and if so, under what circumstances?

3. The question of how far historic speech might differ from modern speech, and whether an historical novelist should take that into account?

OK, #1 is simple. Putting aside aesthetics and the moral imperatives of art, it’s flat-out physically impossible to write something that won’t offend somebody. Ergo, the notion that a writer should try to do so is ludicrous.

#2 is also pretty simple. People don’t always behave well; the briefest glance at the television news makes that pretty clear. If art (whether novels, photographs, or anything else) is going to serve as a reflection of or a reflection on humanity, it’s going to show people doing stuff that may not be moral by anybody’s compass. The essence of art is conflict. Conflict may be difficult to look at (or utterly fascinating. Sometimes both at once), but you can’t do without it and make art.

#3. Now, historicity. Language evolves, and so does social custom. What is obscene or blasphemous in one time often isn’t, in another. If you called a man a fig-licker today, he would probably merely blink at you, whereas them was duelin’ words in the 18th century.**
A writer dealing with historical settings has a lot of things to consider, and one of these is how much “historical” language or figures of speech to use, and how to portray historical characters in such a way that they seem realistic and empathetic to a modern audience, but still belong plainly to their own time.

Well, one of the ways in which you do this is to use figures of speech that are extremely common, and likely always have been, as well as those particular to a specific age. And calling upon the name of the Almighty in moments of strong emotion and/or casual conversation has probably been part of human speech since people discovered the concept of a deity.

Now, I could go on and on (well…even more on and on {g}) about this business, because I find it fascinating, but I do have work to do. I think the best I can do here may be to quote a bit from THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION. This letter was written as part of an exchange with a courteous gentleman who’d written to object to the F-word, which emerged from one of the audiobooks as he was driving with his four-year-old grand-daughter, and is included in the “Controversy” section of the COMPANION:

“ Well, I have children myself (11, 13, and 15 at the moment), and we try not to expose them to “bad language,” either, in spite of the fact that they all know all the words already (there’s still some point to insisting that these are not suitable for civilized conversation, after all).

The thing is, though–my books are definitely written (and carefully written at that) for adults. When I do use bad language in the books (oddly enough, I never use it, personally; never), it’s because it seems to me to be called for, by the circumstances and character. In the case of the F-word in DRUMS (I did use that same word in all the other books, by the way, though sparingly), it’s used by a young man in the grip of angry (and sexually motivated) passion, in the late 1960s. Given this character, this time period, and this set of circumstances, his language seemed entirely appropriate.

Now, one reason for insisting that bad language not be used in everyday discourse is, of course, that it’s low-class and offensive. One other reason–equally important, in my opinion–is that such language does have its own legitimate purpose; that is, to express feeling that is also beyond the limits of normal civilized discourse. To use such words casually deprives them of their impact.

You can see that, in the scene in question in DRUMS. If Roger normally spoke like that, the reader wouldn’t have (what I hope is) the impression of a man driven almost beyond endurance, and holding on to his notions of decent behavior with great effort.

Okay. So, the point is that when I do use strong language, I have a specific reason for doing so. It really doesn’t seem reasonable to me to eradicate such language–chosen and used carefully, to a purpose–on the grounds that someone might someday wish to listen to a taped version of an adult book in the presence of a small child.”

(My correspondent very graciously thanked me for hearing his concern, btw, and agreed with my conclusion.)

Right. Well, moving backward from blasphemy and Rude Speech, we come back to the inclusion of sex in my books. I can honestly say that of a thousand letters I get that mention this, 999 readers think there should be more sex. {g}. But there is the occasional one who thinks that the inclusion of sex lowers the tone, impairs my literary reputation, or should be omitted so as to make the books more…um…acceptable {cough} to younger (or possibly older; you wouldn’t believe how many people think their elderly parents or grandparents would enjoy my books but be put off by the sex*) readers.

Well, I think my literary reputation will have to take care of itself; I can’t do anything but write the best books I can, and history and the readers will make of them what they want to.

I do think that the sex scenes are both necessary and integral to the story, or they wouldn’t be there. These aren’t romance novels, but they are (among other things) the story of a very long and complex marriage. Now, there may possibly be long and successful marriages that don’t include sex, but I don’t personally know of any.

Neither are any sex-scenes included for the sake of gratuitous titillation (any titillating that happens is purely fortuitous, I assure you), nor are any of them just about sex. They have structural and emotional reasons for being where they are, and the book would not be the same story, nor have the same complexity, without them.

Still, the bottom line here is the Eye of the Beholder. There is no book that will say the same thing to all readers. A good book will say something different each time it’s read, even by the same person. And each reader brings his or her experience, background, prejudices, desires, and perceptions to the reading.

That being true, there’s little point in bowdlerization. What offends one person will be revelation and elevation to the next. That’s why we have a great variety of books.

“If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,” seems a trifle extreme here as a response—but if there are particular things in my books that annoy or offend a reader as an individual, the ultimate power to control these does lie with the reader, not with me.***

Thank you for reading!

*(I am irresistibly reminded here of a book-signing event in Chicago, where I signed books for a grandmother, her daughter, and grand-daughter (intergenerational—and multi-gender–trios are pretty common at my signings). I was chatting with the grandmother while signing a book for her grand-daughter, and she said, “You know, I was in the middle of VOYAGER and I turned to my grand-daughter and said, ‘I’ve just had the most terrible thought! We’re both lusting after the same man!’”)

**To save you looking it up, the modern equivalent slang would be “muff-diver.” Weirdly enough, I don’t think there’s a female slang version of this epithet, though there is a purely formal descriptive term. But when was the last (or the first, for that matter) time you heard someone called a fellatrix?

*** A good-quality Sharpie costs about $1.79.


Let me be clear about this: I didn’t even see the naked man when I took a picture of him.

“Did you just take a picture of that naked man?!?” my husband said, startled.

“What naked man?” said I, more startled still.

“That one,” he said, pointing over my shoulder at the shore. Sure enough.

I _had_ been taking a picture of the picturesquely-thatched boat-rental place from which we’d just departed, embarked upon a cruise up Jamaica’s Black River (so called, according to the guide, because of a thick layer of decomposing peat moss at the bottom; the water is clear, he said—the bottom is black. It also releases methane gas as it decomposes, which is temporarily trapped under the water. When this gas bubbles suddenly up, it’s often ignited by lightning, which (the guide said) “burns down the whole swamp several times a year.” I don’t suppose the crocodiles care, one way or the other, but it must be a nuisance to the people who live next to it).

However, right next to the boat-rental place was a short break in the shoreline, before the bulrushes and mangroves began. In this break was a small shed of some kind, a boat pulled up on shore, and…a naked man. I don’t know whether he had just been pushing his boat up on land, swimming, or possibly doing his laundry, but there he was. A very nice-looking man, too, very tall and muscular, fairly young, and quite well–, um. Let us just say that Lord John would have admired him exceedingly.

I didn’t see him at all when I took the picture, and wasn’t sure he was actually in the photograph, until I had a chance to look at it later. He certainly contributed a lot to the conversation over dinner that night, though.

The Black River (with all its interesting flora and {cough} fauna) was the first stop on a day of adventure. The Black River Safari, as they call it, is pretty much like Disneyland’s Jungle Boat ride, only with real crocodiles. (Well, no head-hunters or giant pythons, either, but you can’t have everything.) And the guides don’t fire toy pistols at the reptiles; they sidle up, cut the motor, and lure the crocodiles closer with handfuls of raw chicken (all the while assuring you that they don’t give the crocodiles so much that they’ll give up hunting. Not so sure about that; the crocodiles have names (that’s Josephine up above and—I think—George below) and plainly know that when a boat pulls up alongside their basking spot, lunch is served.)

It may have had to do with the time of year, but there was surprisingly little bird-life on the river. We saw a Little Blue Heron and a few egrets (though we were informed that come nightfall, there would be something like 40,000 egrets roosting in the mangroves along the river), but that’s about it. Did see one heck of a lot of mangroves, though—a few shots of which I include, not merely out of scenic interest, but as reference to the part of VOYAGER in which Claire comes ashore in a mangrove swamp.

This is the sort of thing she would have been faced with—though fortunately she encountered only four-eyed fish (and the odd Jewish natural philosopher), and not crocodiles.

Yes, there are a lot of crocodiles in the Black River. Also (they said) tarpon that get up to 250 pounds, because they don’t taste good, so people don’t fish for them. However (they said), tarpon don’t bother people (I don’t care; I don’t want to meet anything in dark water that weighs 250 pounds, up to and including Hulk Hogan), and crocodiles require warmth to digest their food, so are not dangerous during the day (like anybody’s going swimming in something called the Black River at night? Riiiiiiight….).

Owing to the fact that Jamaica has very few road signs, you really need a driver if you’re going to go sight-seeing and not end up in the Great Morass (this being pretty much what it sounds like: a very deep, narrow valley full of jungle and sugar-cane fields, edged by a narrow, twisty road). We had the great good fortune to have a driver named Tony, who’s been working for the Tensing Pen resort (the lovely place where we were staying) for thirty years, and not only knew where we were going, but where one could conveniently stop to go to the bathroom along the way (a tiny convenience store in Whitehouse, where I encountered one of the 75% of non-working Jamaican toilets), and where to find a quick lunch (“Juici Patties,” this being a fast-food establishment specializing in patties—these being a staple of Jamaican cuisine, resembling empanadas or turnovers, filled with cheese, beef, chicken or lobster, often curried. These were excellent—the ambiance of the place also enhanced by a decrepit car in the parking lot with giant speakers (ancient, but in good operating condition) wired to the roof, which blasted out, “I WANNA BE A BILLIONAIRE SO FUCKIN’ BAAAD” at a thousand decibels or so just as I emerged from our car next to them), and notes on the passing roadside scene (every town had a roadside market, consisting of a few dozen tiny stalls stocking the local specialties. Whitehouse, Tony said, is where most of the fish came in—cooks from the resorts would get up at 3 AM and drive to Whitehouse to get lobsters and fish from the boats coming in at dawn. “That’s a good kingfish,” he noted approvingly, as we passed a woman sitting on a box, filleting knife in hand, the kingfish in question lying invitingly on her lap).

It’s a good long drive from Negril, where the resort is, to the Black River, so we saw a good bit of roadside Jamaica, including innumerable tiny eating-places. There are (of course) a few regular restaurants, both stand-alone and associated with resorts, but there are thousands—really, thousands–of tiny shacks with a picnic table or two, selling the ubiquitous jerk chicken, brown stew, conch salad and Red Stripe Beer. Especially along the sea-coast, anyone with a foothold of even a few feet on the shore has a table and a grill.

As we got higher into the mountains, the food changed somewhat, and we began to see clusters of what Tony called “shrimp-ladies” along the road; women who fish the river for crawfish, boil them with spices (they’re called “hot pepper-shrimp”), then sit by the road holding buckets and cardboard cones of these crustaceans to sell to passersby. While normally up for sampling the local delicacies (I have, on occasion, eaten both sea-urchin and jellyfish—the latter being a lot like eating fried rubber-bands, the former being mushy but tasty), we passed on the crawfish, being a) not hungry, and b) eager to get on, as the Black River was only the first adventure of the day.

Next up was the YS Falls:

They’re called the YS Falls because they occur in the YS River—but nobody knows why the river is called that, though one supposition is that it’s from the Gaelic “wyes” meaning “twisty or winding”. (There were a good many Gaelic-speaking Scots on Jamaica back in the 18th-century, some having been transported as convict labor, others working as overseers on plantations.)
You pay admission at an office, and are loaded into a jitney—this being an aged tractor, hitched to a flatbed trailer equipped with bench seats and a roof for shade—and are trundled up a road that winds along beside the river, through a number of beautiful fields full of Red Polled cattle (we asked what kind of cattle they were, having not seen that variety before. My late father-in-law, Max, was a cattle-man, and wherever we went with him, cows were a magnet. He could find cows anywhere, and in consequence, we always notice them when we travel).

In addition to the Falls, there’s a zipline concession. Don’t know if you’ve ever seen a zipline close up—I hadn’t. The theory is that the punters assume protective clothing (padded jacket and helmet) in case of collision with trees, are attached via a sort of pulley to a heavy-duty clothesline running from some high point through the jungle to a lower point, and are then pushed off a platform, to go hurtling through space.

No, we didn’t. {g} My sense of adventure has its limits. Did enjoy watching the fauna at the Falls, though (it has three limpid pools, suitable for swimming), including the Very Large Gentleman in the Very Small Speedo, the Ladies Who Forgot to Put Sunscreen on Their Backs, and the occasional shrieking zipliner hurtling past overhead.

We didn’t stay long at the Falls. Shared an extremely good Haagen-Daaz) ice-cream bar (it was a warm day), then on to the final stop of the day—the Appleton Estate Rum Tour.

Now, I don’t expect that Lord John will be ziplining during his tour of duty as Governor of Jamaica, but I was pleased to find that the Appleton Estate has been making rum on Jamaica since 1749, and thus would certainly have been in a position to present His Excellency with a cask or two. (As in, you bet it’s research!)

The Rum Tour begins (reasonably enough) at the public bar, where you’re presented with a complimentary cup of Rum Punch (and very good it is, too. The recipe is proprietary, but a tasting strongly suggests that it’s a mix of cider and orange juice, rum added to taste), before being taken through the grounds by a guide.

Said grounds are strewn with antique rum-distilling equipment—including a few working pieces, like the early 19th-century sugar-cane mill, driven by a donkey named Paz (“peace”). We got to taste raw sugar-cane juice, and also the “muscado”—the result of boiling sugar-cane juice in huge iron vats: a mixture of thick, aromatic molasses and grainy brown sugar. Delicious!

Actually, both the process and the machinery for making rum are much like those for making whisky, once you reach the fermentation stage. I.e., the goo (whether muscado or mash) is fermented for a period of time, then put through the distillation process that removes the alcohol, which is then casked and aged.

After touring the fermentation and distilling facilities (and seeing raw rum being siphoned into a tank truck for transport to another, larger aging facility), we viewed the oldest aging building, containing some eight thousand casks—and then the guide turned to us, beaming, and said, “Now…we get drunk!”

Next stop was a tiny private bar, on which all the Appleton rum products were lined up (a dozen or so, from ten-year-old rum to CocoMania (a coconut-flavored rum liqueur, and very good, too) to Rum Cream Liqueur and something called “overproof rum,” which is essentially rotgut (i.e., unaged, raw rum, very alcoholic). Dozens of tiny plastic tasting cups were provided, and we were invited to taste as much as we liked of anything. So we did—then went across to the shop and bought a bottle of the ten-year-old rum (research) and one of CocoMania (this being a present for our host and hostess at the resort). Then we went back to the public bar for another Rum Punch, before rolling out to find Tony and make our way back to Negril through the late afternoon.

All the school-kids were coming out, all dressed in tidy uniforms, and the shrimp-ladies had sold their stock and disappeared, as had most of the market stall-holders. The small towns, like Maggoty, are for the most part collections of small stucco buildings, with a few of the tin-roofed wooden houses like those you see on the coast—most of them painted in gum-drop colors, fading into one another in the late afternoon light and looking like half-ripe fruit amid the surrounding jungle.

The jungle was doing a bit more than surrounding, for that matter—it was quietly reclaiming anything left alone for more than a week or two. All along the way, you could see houses, cars—once a school bus, its front wheels already sunk into the earth—silently melting back into the jungle. The small farmers wage a constant battle to keep their fields and houses from simply being swallowed up.

(Not that I want to Start Anything here, but the people who keep carrying on about how people are Destroying the Planet do not, I think, have a real good idea of just how powerful said planet is. People can certainly destroy themselves, yes, and a few other species along the way, but the planet? Ha.)

One final note on the journey home: One of the small hamlets up there in the mountains is called Accompong. This was the name of the maroon leader of one of Jamaica’s slave rebellions (there were five, during the 17th and 18th centuries). This was pretty interesting to me, as I’d used that gentleman in “Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” (which, I’ve just been told, will be published this October (!) in an anthology titled DOWN THESE STRANGE STREETS), and was pleased to see this memorial to him. I also used those mountains in the story, and was more than impressed at the effort it must have taken to get up there on foot, through the jungle.

(Speaking of “foot”….our hostess at Tensing Pen told us that their American guests occasionally go jogging up the road, to the amazement of the Jamaicans along the way, who call out, “What the fuck you runnin’ for, mon? Who’s chasin’ you?” Which rather neatly sums up the cultural differences there.)

[No, I’m not posting a picture of the naked man (he did turn out to be in the background of the picture I’d taken, and while not really obvious, was definitely still naked. When I enlarged the picture somewhat, it was also obvious that he’d seen me pointing a camera in his direction; he had his face turned away, arm outflung, and clearly had no intent of auditioning for a NatGeo special on Jamaica. So even though I didn’t photograph him on purpose, it really wouldn’t do to compromise the poor man’s privacy further.]

A Pleasant Sunday in Paradise

The gecko is in his usual place, clinging to the slanted wooden ceiling twelve feet above my head. The living room of our cottage is open in front, and I’m looking out into a blackness filled with the sound of the sea. People who live next to it probably get used to it; I don’t think I ever would.

I’m thinking the gecko could be a bit more proactive in his hunting; I’ve been gnawed by mosquitoes the last two days, and I see them now, tiny things casually floating around, pretending to be bits of dust. Our charming hostess has given me a bottle of oil of citronella, though, and this seems to help, though I don’t know whether the scent puts them off (luckily my husband finds it attractive; also luckily, he has nothing whatever in common with a mosquito), or whether they find the oil impenetrable.

If oil gums up their little probosces, so much the better. I had a massage this afternoon, in the massage hut—a small, circular stone hut, open to the sea (which is about fifteen feet away, crashing

(A big black cat has just leapt silently into the living room and set about eating a bag of CheeseZillas (a cross between your ordinary cheesy-poof and a styrofoam packing peanut) someone left on the coffee table. He’s welcome to them. Most of the Jamaican delicacies we’ve tried have been marvelous, from the ubiquitous jerk chicken—sold everywhere from upscale restaurants to the equally ubiquitous road-side grills, these being independent enterprises consisting of a proprietor with an oil-drum sawed in half and converted to a smoker/grill—to the grilled lobster tail soused in garlic butter I had for dinner tonight—but CheeseZillas are not among the marvelous)

…crashing on the rocks. This isn’t a beach resort; the ocean laps at the foot of limestone cliffs, and you drop into the water (turquoise over the inshore reef, a dark blue further out) from a blue iron ladder. There are places where one could climb up or down the rocks into the water—save that the underwater rocks are a) sharp coral/limestone rock, b) the surge of the surf scrapes you across said rocks, and c) said rocks are covered with an interesting variety of sea-life, including assorted tunicates, anemones, chitons…and an immense population of sea urchins. Ask me how I know this.

(If one happens to set foot or hand unwarily on a sea-urchin—no, I didn’t; my poor husband was not so fortunate—a goodly number of its sharp little spines penetrate your flesh AND BREAK OFF. They do eventually emerge again, encouraged by regular applications of spirits of ammonia (or urine. Everyone urged my husband—and another male guest who’d been much more severely punctured—to pee on the site). Luckily one does not pee on abrasions—I have three or four small ones on my lower legs—as women are really not constructed for logistical peeing.)

Anyway, being rubbed while lying face-down on a towel-covered massage table, looking down (when one can be bothered to open one’s eyes) at a charmingly artistic arrangement of green leaves, bougainvillaea flowers (pink, red, white, and orange) and small bits of white coral (along with a bleached sea-urchin skeleton) lying on the ground under the headrest and listening to the regular thud of the surf is pretty relaxing—even when the massage involves “Deep Tissue” manipulations by the redoubtable Nadine, a lovely (and muscular) Jamaican lady who told me assorted things in such a strong accent that I only understood two of them: “That de pectoralis muscle. It’s always tender in a wooman, stronger in a man,” (this in response to a high-pitched noise that emerged involuntarily when she drove her entire weight, centered on the edge of her hand, through said pectoralis), and “You got a lotta tension in you eye-sockets.” (Oddly enough, I don’t believe I have ever had my eye-sockets massaged before.) I emerged from this sensual experience pureed and covered thickly in aromatic oils, which I doubt that even the most intrepid mosquito could penetrate. I can also move my neck, which is a Good Thing.

(The cat has given up on the CheezeZillas and leapt silently back into the blackness from whence it came, a part of the night once more.)

It’s been a relaxing day, all in all. This morning we went, with our hosts and another couple, to church. St.Paul’s, an old plantation church, out in the middle of a sugar-cane field, surrounded by the bleached white bones of its graveyard, with monuments and stones carved from the local limestone. (Houses here are built on the basis of one of two strategies: solid limestone and mortar, basic bunker construction—or shacks made of such flimsy wood that you could push them over with a good shove. Both strategies are a response to hurricanes. It’s perhaps worth noting that many of the seaside bunker-type houses and inns are deserted, while the brightly-painted shacks are all inhabited and thriving.)

St. Paul’s is an Anglican church (Jamaica must have Catholic churches here and there, but none in close proximity to Negril), whose very small congregation (about 25 elderly black gentlemen and ladies—the ladies all dignified by large, proper church hats) welcomed us warmly to worship with them.

It’s a big, lovely church, airy and well-proportioned, with evidence of the donations of wealthy past parishioners—a beautiful old (the church was built in 1863) stained-glass window behind the altar, mahogany paneling in the sanctuary, and a clay-tiled ornamental panel inset into the aisle, reading, “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me,” in gothic lettering. (Two little children were in fact present, a boy and a girl, obviously lugged in by their grandparents.)

Like many churches these days, St. Paul’s has a circuit-riding parson—a minister who tends several churches, and therefore isn’t able to preside over every service. Today was the 5th Sunday of the month, so the service was a modest “Matins and Sermon,” according to the notice-board out front, rather than the “Sung Eucharist and Sermon” that one gets on the 2nd or 4th Sunday, when the priest is there.

Both service and sermon were conducted with great conviction by the ladies of the parish, supported intermittently by a very elderly cassocked gentleman on the organ, who appeared to have a slight difficulty in coordinating the manual and pedal keyboards, but grimly pursued each hymn through its many verses, hunting it to a triumphant conclusion as the congregation at last managed to sync with him in time to come down hard on the last three notes.

You definitely get value for money at St. Paul’s; services ran two hours, including a rousing sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, and a blessing of the 50th anniversary of Brother and Sister Lynch’s wedding vows, wherein the Lynches came down the aisle to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride,” the bride beaming over a lovely bouquet of small palm fronds and deep blue flowers.

It wasn’t our usual ritual, of course, but it was both soothing—with a gentle breeze sweeping through the open doors, rustling the pages of the open hymnals and sweeping small leaves and dried blossoms across the “Suffer the Little Children” tiles—and uplifting, and we were most grateful to the congregation for their welcome of us to their worship.

The gecko has worked its way up to the topmost rafters and is hiding in the shadows, and the black cat is likely out having acute indigestion in the shrubbery, so it’s probably time for bed. I hope you all had a pleasant Sunday, too!



Mostly to Dana Stabenow, but also to those of you planning to attend her book-launch at The Poisoned Pen on Feb. 1st, for her new book, THOUGH NOT DEAD (which is a great book, btw—one of her best!).

I was scheduled to be at the launch as well, to interview Dana about the book, but had an unexpected conflict (well, I got invited to go to Jamaica, and totally forgot that I was supposed to be doing this, is what happened. I’d already booked the tickets before I realized, though). So I unfortunately won’t be at The Poisoned Pen on Feb. 2nd.

I strongly urge you to go, though. Dana’s book is wonderful, but Dana herself is a treat not to be missed. {g}

(And for those who might be wanting signed copies of my books, I’m going by the Pen this afternoon to sign all their stock, so there should be plenty of everything available. I’ll also leave them with a number of signed bookplates, just in case.)

If you can’t make it to the launch, but want a signed book–either Dana’s or mine–you can contact The Poisoned Pen at patrick@poisonedpen.com , or at 480-947-2974.   They’ll be happy to ship a book to you, anywhere in the world!

And for those who can make it to the launch on Feb. 1st–the address of the bookstore is:

4014 N Goldwater Blvd # 101
Scottsdale, AZ 85251-4344

Have a good time, and say hello to Dana for me!