• “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])

Tagged as:

49 Responses »

  1. Does anyone else find it ironic that one of the origins of the word “caltrop” is star thistle? And it also has to do with herbs…Claire’s specialty?

    Hmmm….

    I LOVE the descriptions of the shapes of the books. SO true. I’m going to have to start re-reading around Christmas. I can’t stay away for too long. :)

    warmest wishes -
    sneece

  2. I find it fascinating that you can write in this haphazard manner Diana, being a very left brained/list making/chronological order kind of girl, I’m envious. But do you have a general idea of the fates of our main and beloved characters? Or is there destiny to be determined by chance?

  3. Also, is there any chance of a tour to Australia to promote AEITB? If not, how about a holiday? [g]

  4. Dear Jess–

    Oddly enough, I’ve just got off the phone with my UK editor, arranging to do a tour in both Australia and New Zealand for ECHO, probably in October of next year.

    As to the fates of various characters…well, I’m in the latter stages of assembly/work on this book, so at the moment, I know quite a lot. [g]

  5. Diana,

    How about a stop in the Little Rock, AR area this time around? I know you can’t promise anything, as it’s not solely up to you where you go on book tours. But I figured I would put a bug in your ear now that the subject has come up.

    I used to live near Huntsville, AL. At that location, I was only a two-hour drive from your usual stop in Nashville. I was fortunate enough to meet you there in October 2003. Alas, now that we have moved west of the Mississippi River again, I have lost any proximity to your tour stops. Also, with 2 young children, it has become more difficult to arrange for a solo jaunt away from home.

    Now, to get back to the subject of this blog, I’ll just say that I really admire how you can visualize the book shapes in such a 3-D manner.

    Regards – Katrina

  6. Dear Katrina–

    Well, each book is an n-dimensional space inside my head; as the pieces materialize (as I write them), they just sort of naturally take a position in that space. Some of them will move around as new pieces move into position, and the overall shape of this n-dimensional polygon flexes and changes with the addition of new piece and changing relations among them. But at some point it does settle into its final shape, even if there are still large chunks missing.

    As for book tours–they're not likely to send me to Little Rock unless you happen to have a large (or smaller, but active) independent bookstore there. That's what largely determines the itinerary–though we do also do some B&N or Borders stores along the way. But you can count on me going to Denver (Tattered Cover), Seattle (Third Place Books), and Naperville (IL) (though I don't recall the name of the bookstore there), and probably Dayton (Joseph Beth books) and/or Nashville (Davis Kidd). Beyond that, it depends on how bad the various sales reps want me in their territory [g], and which of them makes the best case for their accounts–and to some extent on other events that may be happening in an area (I might, for instance, do a signing in Atlanta (even though they no long have a big independent store) if I were also going to do the Stone Mountain Highland Games; or do a signing at The Regulator (which is a very good independent bookstore in Durham, NC) if I were doing a program for the Museum of History in Raleigh (I've done that before). That kind of thing.

  7. How weird; reading your post gave me a feeling of deja vu! My husband had me google caltrop a couple of months ago (it was either on Jeopardy or something he remembered from the military; either way I had no clue what a caltrop was) and those are the two exact images that were burned into my brain from the search results.

    Anyway, no matter what shape your books take, I enjoy them all immensely and I’m sure this one will not be any different!

    Anna

  8. Dear Diana

    I didn’t know what a caltrop was, but I did recognise the first definition (star thistles, or Centaurea colcitrapa) because of a book I’m reading that I only picked up because of your books (well, Claire): Heal Thyself, about Nicholas Culpeper and C17th medicine. He apparently prescribed them for fistulas.

    My easiest (for the characters) guess for that shape is to do with our following one story in the future and three in the past, although I’m fearful that it’s more like three ending and one going on. I’m rather expecting to have got nowhere close, though.

    Kate

  9. Diana:

    I'm keeping my fingers crossed that you do come to the Raleigh or Durham area on your next book tour. I don't travel a lot and that would be just ideal, as far as I'm concerned. <g>

    I missed you when you came through Asheville this summer because I had family coming in from out of town that day, but with enough advance notice, I'm sure that wouldn't be a problem next time.

    Karen

  10. Dear Diana:

    If everyone is starting to put in their requests for you to stop in their local areas, then I’m adding my request. You did a reading and signing at Vroman’s Book Store in Pasadena, California, when FC was released. Though I don’t live in Pasadena, it’s my favorite book store. I would love it if your people could arrange a stop there (they’re independent) during your “Echo” tour. I’ll even make you dinner — I’m a good cook! : )

    Midge

  11. Dear Midge–

    Was forgetting Vroman’s! Yes, they usually do send me there as well.

  12. Diana:

    You explanation about how each of the books has a shape was really interesting and it is funny I totally agree when I think back to all of them. My favorite book is Voyager and your description for that one is just perfect! When will you be in Texas next? Don’t you get tired of all the travel? My husband has to travel for his job and he loves seeing new places but the travel itself gets old really quickly for him.

    Stacey

  13. Diana, you came to the Joseph Beth store in Cleveland (Shaker Heights) for The Fiery Cross and had a huge standing-room-only crowd in a torrential downpour. (We drove from Pittsburgh for it, so I remember it well.) Skipping a book means it’s time to do Cleveland again…(Hint hint).

    As for the book shapes, I will bide my time for the next year rereading all the books, I think. My Amazon Kindle arrives tomorrow and I’ve just found out I can rebuy all your books very cheaply for it. A perfect way to reread the huge babies without having to lug them around on airplanes, etc.

    Can’t wait for the caltrop book.

    Linda

  14. Diana,

    I’ll just put in my yearly request that you come to Boston. Come on, it’s been a bad year for the Sox and now the Pats (altho the Celts did just fine).

    Bedelia

  15. I just have to say YAY! for independent bookstores. :) I grew up in Durham and know The Regulator VERY well.

    DG – We still have some independent bookstores in Atlanta, not many though. We get megastores left and right. They just aren’t as cozy are they? Wordsmith is in Decatur, Charis is another. Granted, if you do visit this area…you might as well come for The Games. Good times at Stone Mountain. :)

  16. The way your mind works is as intricate as your story-lines!

    I am envious.

    :)Terri

  17. I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Echo since it was first mentioned that there would be a 7th in the series. And now that there is a shape to go along with it, I’m even more intrigued!

  18. Your discussion about book shapes is enabling me to understand your books in yet another way – it serves to make the experience that much richer. What’s really interesting to me, though, is how Outlander is shaped in your mind. I understand why you see it as overlapping triangles (don’t ask me why), but I see it as having several other climaxes. You are the author – so it’s your vision, of course, but FWIW, my read of Outlander was different.

  19. Right…! A caltrop!! I can’t wait to read it and see why.

  20. The caltrop was originally used to stop calvery. Since no matter how it is thrown, it will always land with a base of 3 and a spike straight up. This is the symbol that is in the center of the 3rd Marine Division crest.

    Can’t wait for “Echo in the bone”

Leave a Response

Please note: comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.