I happily confess that I am a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books. Her plots are intricate and clever, her historical context is fascinating, her dialogue is realistic and witty, and her characters are vividly drawn. Then there is the love story of Jamie and Claire; theirs is surely one of the strongest bonds in literature, and so passionate.
While Diana has long had a loyal following of readers, the recent televisation of the first novel, with the fantastic (and very attractive) actors Sam Heugha and Caitriona Balfe, has brought the story and characters to the public’s attention – and deservedly so. I await Series 2, due to launch in April, most impatiently!
I love the Outlander books as a reader. But I love them even more as a writer. Diana Gabaldon has famously shared the origins of Book 1, Outlander (source: Scotland Now):
I was thinking a historical novel might be the easiest kind of book to write for practice when I happened to see a really old Doctor Who re-run.
Jamie struck me with his attitude and male gallantry and I thought the kilt was rather fetching.
I was thinking about that the next day in church and decided to set the book in Scotland in the 18th century.
I had no plot, nothing, just this notion of a man in a kilt.
I called my man Jamie but otherwise he has nothing in common with Jamie from Doctor Who.
From there, she began writing – and encountered she who would become the heroine of the series:
On the third day of writing I introduced this English woman, no idea what she was doing or how she got into the plot.
But I introduced her to a cottage full of Scotsmen to see what she would do.
They were all sitting around the hearth muttering and when one of them drew himself up and said, ‘My name is Dougall Mackenzie and who might you be?’, without stopping to think I just typed, ‘My name’s Claire Elizabeth Beecham and who the hell are you?’
I said, ‘You don’t sound at all like an 18th century person’ so I fought with her for several pages trying to beat her into shape and get her to talk like an 18th century person.
She wasn’t having any of it.
She kept making smart ass modern remarks and she took over and started telling the story herself and I thought, ‘Go ahead being modern and I’ll figure out why later’.
So it’s her fault there is time travel in the book.
Diana told Scottish Memories magazine:
I didn’t really know anything whatever about Scotland at the time, save that men wore kilts, which seemed plenty to be going on with. When I began writing, I had no plot, no outline, no characters, and knew nothing about Scotland and the 18th century. All I had was the rather vague images conjured up by a man in a kilt. Which is, of course, a very powerful and compelling image! Scotland grew on me quickly, as I did research and began to sense the personality of the place and its people.
Diana’s writing process differs from mine: I don’t begin writing and see where the characters and story take me; I plan my stories carefully before setting pen to paper. But her journey with inspiration resonates deeply with me:
- I find inspiration from all kinds of places, including the visual arts. Often, like Diana, the inspiration is abstract – just a fleeting moment or a concept that strikes a chord. A person, whether in real life or on the screen, can also light the flame. For Indiscretion it was a gypsy I saw on a French beach that made me dream.
- When I open myself up to the muse, a story idea evolves rapidly. I tend to be accosted by ideas day and night, and over the years I have learned to accept this as natural in the creative process. Within days, the story is knitting together and the characters are materialising.
- The hero comes first! To write romance, I need to be feeling the romance, and that means being a little in love with the hero myself. Quite honestly, dreaming up the hero is the very best part of being a romance novelist!
- The heroine has to take form early on. Once I have a firm sense of who she is – how she looks, talks and feels –then the plot begins to make sense. I recall the day Coral, heroine of my debut novel Burning Embers, walked into my head; it was like making a new friend for life.
- All of my books are set a little way back in history, but like in Outlander, the heroines stand out in their eras as strong, feisty women. When I’m planning a book, I dream up all kinds of scenarios and plunge my heroine into them, to see how she will react. Often, like Diana’s experience of Claire meeting Dougall, the resulting exchange is very illuminating!
- Story also comes first for me, before historical context. Clearly, for Outlander the author did very detailed and thorough research and interwove that into the story. This is what I endeavor to achieve in my own writing as well. Once I have planned the plot and got to know the characters, I research the setting and era carefully through a variety of mediums, from reading books and watching documentaries to listening to music and eating the local cuisine – and, of course, travelling to gain first-hand experiences.
I find the background of how writers create their works fascinating. Are there any ‘stories behind the stories’ that inspire you? Do you admire Diana Gabaldon’s process? Perhaps you hope the same series of inspirational flashes will happen to you? I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
Recently, writer Kevin Pickard wrote an article for Electric Literature entitled ‘Should Fiction Be Timeless? Pop Culture References in Contemporary Novels’. In it, he explored the enduring debate in literary circles over whether it is acceptable – preferable, even – to interweave popular culture references in a novel, or whether writers should avoid doing so at all costs.
The argument against cultural references centres on the idea that they date a work of fiction. If your protagonist is singing along to Adele’s ‘Hello’ on the radio, if she’s cooking from Ella Woodward’s cookbook, if she’s on a date at the cinema watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a new release, then the story is firmly rooted in early 2016 in Britain: these are elements of culture that are current and in the future they will be associated with this time. That, according to some writers, is not desirable – what if a reader in ten years cannot identify with the story because it feels out of step with the modern time?
For those who advocate so-called ‘timeless fiction’, there is the sense that popular culture somehow cheapens writing. Then there is the warning: ‘Don’t alienate your readers!’ If in my novel the protagonist listens to Adele on the radio, do I risk alienating a reader who doesn’t like Adele? Will the reader give up on the story because he or she feels unable to settle comfortably into the culture? Stick to generic references, goes the advice: the protagonist listened to a love song on the radio.
But generic references do not root a story in its cultural time, and they do not give a vivid sense of characterisation and story. In my own writing, my aim is always to transport my reader to a place and time, to immerse him or her in my fictional world. To do that, I weave in as much detail as possible, from the quality of light to the scent in the air to the taste of bitter coffee on the tongue – and yes, the occasional subtle nod to the culture of the place and time, such as a song playing in the background.
I do not wish my fiction to be timeless in the sense of being read as applying to any modern or recent time; I want my stories to be authentic. Take these reviews of my novels:
- Burning Embers: ‘Using her travel experiences, [Hannah] is able to weave a wonderful written image of Kenya and the time period so that I felt as if I was truly in Africa.’ (Unwrapping Romance)
- The Echoes of Love: ‘I still have that feeling that I was there, but I’ve never been in Venice or in Italy.’(Books Are My Life)
- Indiscretion: ‘I could almost feel the heat of the Spanish sun on my face and hear the sound of flamenco guitars as I was reading…’ (Amazon review)
My readers enjoy visiting the time periods and places in which I set my stories, and occasional references to popular culture help to build the setting.
The operative word here is ‘occasional’. I don’t pepper references to songs and television shows and so on in my writing; I don’t drown out the story. I think a little goes a very long way, because that risk of alienating the reader is real if you go too far. The story and the characters must be the focus, not the setting and time.
As with most things in life, the answer is to strike a balance – and to always be genuine.
Once upon a time… those four simple words evoke such wonderful memories for me. I remember being a little girl, bathed and ready for bed, sitting by my governess, Zula, as she read to me the tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Nightingale’, ‘The Snow Queen’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’, ‘Cinderella’,‘Rapunzel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Snow White’ – I was entirely enthralled by these stories, and so many more.
Reading fairy tales at bedtime was pivotal in inspiring a lifelong love of reading, and of course of romance, for my favourite stories were those centered on love and with a happy-ever-after ending. But it was when Zula closed the book that I was most captivated. A wonderfully creative and imaginative woman, she would re-tell the traditional stories with new, inventive twists, and share stories of her own imaginings. I would gaze up at her face, mesmerised by the faraway look in her eyes and the rich timbre of her voice, and be transported to magical worlds.
In telling me stories, rather than just reading them, Zula was following a tradition dating back as far as language itself. It has long been known that those who first authored fairy tales, like Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century, were not the creators of the tales: they were putting into print stories told orally at the firesidefor generations.
Take the fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, for example, one of my longtime favourites. It was first written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740 as ‘La Belle et la Bête’. Recently, researchers from the universities of Durham and Lisbon published a paper in which they traced the origins of this story back 4,000 years, ‘long before the emergence of the literary record’ (source: The Guardian). That means stories like this one predate modern languages like English; they were, according to the researchers, ‘probably told in an extinct Indo-European language’. Of course, since ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was put down on paper in 1740, the story has continued to be told and reimagined across various mediums, from literature to theatre to music to film.
What is it about fairy tales that makes them endure in this way? Folklorist Sara Graça da Silva explains that: ‘the motifs present in fairytales are timeless and fairly universal, comprising dichotomies such as good and evil; right and wrong, punishment and reward, moral and immoral, male and female.’No matter how society changes, how people evolve, these stories are relevant.
As a result, there are fairy tales all around us. Many works of fiction draw upon these old tales. The surprise smash hit movie Frozen, for example, is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Snow Queen’. Academics have argued that all literature can be stripped back to only seven core stories (see my blog post http://hannahfielding.net/drawing-upon-the-seven-core-stories/), and these core stories are to be found in timeless fairy tales.
Fairy tales are, therefore, a firm foundation for writers. I was very lucky to have Zula read the tales to me; but I was luckier still that she went a step further and embroidered upon the tales, using them as a basis for new, magical stories of her own.The idea that one could devise stories for oneself was immensely stirring to me, and I have no doubt that the seeds for my future writing career were sown through Zula’s storytelling.
I will leave you with my favourite quote from Albert Einstein: ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’
Regular readers of my blog will know that I like to keep up to date with writing, publishing and reading-related news. This week, my favourite story relates to George RR Martin, author of the wildly popular ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ series, on which the equally successful Game of Thrones TV show is based.
At the start of the month, George announced to fans via his website that he had missed his end-of-2015 deadline for his sixth novel, The Winds of Winter, which his fans have been eagerly anticipating. No doubt he was nervous to make the declaration, because he has faced criticism before for his pace of writing. But he was delighted to find an outpouring of understanding and encouragement from his fans, in more than 1,000 comments on his blog post. The message is clear: the readers love his work, respect his creative process, and will wait as long as they need to wait.
This story highlights a new culture in readership.
First, there is the fact that readers carry some clout! The author feels under pressure to deliver his manuscript, so that he can keep pace with the release of a new series of Game of Thrones in the spring – the television show will now be now running ahead of the story in the novels (but it is also divergent in many ways). Of course readers – we purists who honour book over adaptation – want to read any plot point before seeing it televised. Hence the pressure to please the readers.
But who is creating the pressure? Not the readers themselves, it would seem, so much as the machinery that powers the publishing process. In our modern culture, we demand more, more, more and now, now, now, and there is a fear that if a trend has begun, if something has become popular, one must drive forwards that trend or it will die a death. But George RR Martin’s fans are clearly loyal,and prepared to be patient.
The author responded to his supportive readers thus:
Enjoy the show. Enjoy the books. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing. Chapter at a time. Page at a time. Word at a time. That’s all I know how to do.[Source]
I think he perfectly encapsulates the reality of writing. Good writing takes as long as it takes. You move forwards, always – you cannot stand still. But some books take longer to write than others. And what matters most of all is that the book is the best it can be – which is always the product of long hours, and never the product of rushing under pressure. In sum, quality matters far more than speed.
This news story is a perfect example of something I’ve noticed myself in recent years: readers are becoming intrinsic to the writing and publishing process. A couple of decades ago, you wrote a book (in isolation), handed it over to a publisher and perhaps, if you were lucky, received some personal correspondence from readers via your agent/publisher. Now, though, readers are much more involved – and important. Beta readers give opinions on drafts. Book bloggers spotlight and discuss books online. Many readers posts reviews on popular sites like Amazon. And with authors now active online, there are all kinds of reader–author interactions.
I have found, like George RR Martin, that readers are a wonderfully supportive group. While I began my writing journey writing purely for myself, thanks to readers I now write for many people worldwide as well, which is a pleasure and a privilege. Thank you to every one of you who supports me!
One of my favourite sites for online window-shopping is The Literary Gift Company at www.theliterarygiftcompany.com. They sell all sorts of essentials, luxuries and quirky delights for the book lover. And their latest is wonderfully innovative:
This ‘fictional map of London’ is described as:
A navigable plan of London streets, parks, gardens, prisons, hospitals, courts, squares, rivers, railways, vistas and commutes; as mentioned on well over 600 novels, plays and poems. It features a huge range of genres and form, and over 400 different authors including Angela Carter, Agatha Christie, Neil Gaiman, Shirley Conran, Douglas Adams, Charles Dickens, Lee Child, Iris Murdoch, Geoff Ryman and many many more. A portable pocket-sized map for literary journeys around London, complete with a comprehensive and detailed index.
I love the idea of wandering around London and seeing not the city as it is but the city as writers have imagined it. But functionality aside, the map strikes me as thing of beauty in and of itself. At £5.99, it was easy to justify as a little January treat!