Guest post from Lisa A. Margulies
I recently had the opportunity to visit several sites in North Carolina, tracing the steps of the 18th Century historical figures, James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser and his wife, Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser. What? They are NOT real historical figures? Don’t tell that to the fans of Diana Gabaldon’s writing. To us, they are as real as the locations the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources brought the author to this last weekend in April.
My journey began in Iowa with a flight from Des Moines to Raleigh, NC. I drove to the historical town of New Bern on the eastern coastal region to kick off my tour. Tryon Palace would be the first to host Diana’s visit so I decided to familiarize myself with the Palace and the community in which it is centered.
The Palace as described in the Diana’s Outlander series is indeed like the grand opulence on display today. The first NC Governor’s state of residence was completed in 1770 and occupied by Governor Tryon until 1771 when a new Governor, Josiah Martin replaced him. Tryon went to great lengths to document the construction and furnishings of his mansion. This proved invaluable for the 1959 reconstruction of the Palace. All but the original stables were destroyed by fire just 28 years after its completion in 1798. The Governor had hired an English architect to create a place of residence worthy of King George III and Queen Charlotte of England, one that could support visits of royalty and promote the affairs and the Crown’s dominion. It is easy to imagine the pages of The Fiery Cross come to life and to understand the the Regulator’s points of view regarding unfair use of tax payer’s dollars! The Palace is definitely fit for a King! No wonder Governor Tryon “got out of Dodge” (or accepted the commission of Governor of the State of New York taking his furnishings with him in late 1771) before the backlash of his spending could ignite a Revolutionary War. Wait, in a way, it did. The grievances aired by North Carolinians to their government became seeds of revolutionary discontent. Thus, history as we know it.
The beauty of the Tryon Palace was used as a backdrop for Diana Gabaldon and the two events for which she was the guest of honor. The first, “An Evening with Diana Gabaldon,” began with a small group and cocktails at a private historical residence in New Bern and then moved to the North Carolina Historical Museum adjacent to the Palace for a lavishly Outlander themed dinner with seventy plus in attendance. The event had been planned for the South Lawn of the Palace Gardens but due to inclement weather was moved indoors.
Diana was escorted in by her husband, Doug Watkins, with accompaniment from a local bagpiper playing the Skye Boat Song . The attendees were seated, (well, actually standing at that point), around ten tables, pumped to hear all that she had to share. Introductions were given by various members of the North Carolina State Government and Diana was given platform to speak for approximately 30 minutes before taking questions from her followers. Our character-themed dinner and dessert followed the conclusion of the Q&A session.
So what did Diana share? She began by addressing her writing connection to North Carolina and the importance of the Regulator history in the story of Jamie and Claire, and now, Murtagh, in the TV series. This storyline, by the way, was her suggestion and she is pleased with the conflict it sets up going forward in the adaptation. While she does see the scripts and is allowed notes upon them, Diana does NOT have complete control of every detail. Sometimes her voice is heard, sometimes not. She joked that the NC of the show is NOT geographically accurate and that the powers that be are counting on viewers not having been to the actual state of North Carolina! She further added, that having seen the dailies from season 5, at least the wigs are a lot better! (Cheers from all!)
Back to the subject of writing and specifically why it takes so long for Diana to complete a book… The average novel is 100,000 words. Outlander, the shortest book in the series is 300,000 words. It takes at least 2 1/2 years to write a book with all the research that she puts into each novel. This led to Diana’s reasoning for not having an assistant. She could tell someone to go to the store and pick up hotdogs and beans but if she went to the store, she might see other interesting ingredients. Thus changing, adapting, creating a whole new menu at the end of the day. DG has many times described her writing style as nonlinear in fashion. Her example illustrates this as well. Needless to say, none of her adoring fans will be hired as a personal research assistant anytime soon. (Sigh.)
Diana also looks for first person historical accounts to weave in the details of her storytelling. She cited the Battle of King’s Mountain and the historical account of an actual soldier’s experience for this. The Battle will be included in the ninth book. Watch for details about tree bark flying from bullet spray and the aftermath of other sights, sounds, and smells experienced by a character in Bees. “History is not what happened, it’s what people wrote down about it.” Diana went on to share other consultant and script-writing anecdotes. She told the story of Jamie’s missing hat in an early season four episode. It was written that after the misplaced hat had been found in the pig’s pen the hat was to be thrown away in the trash can. Diana had to step in and explain the value of the leather and that nothing would be thrown away in that time period, especially in a wastebasket because that didn’t even exist! The scene was rewritten and the hat was then placed on an upper shelf. Script writers think dialogue first then what people are actually doing last!
Overall, DG’s experience with the series, writing and being on the set has been most enjoyable. Everyone is always joking around! Diana made us all want to stow away in her luggage next trip to the set.
Six questions were answered from the audience during the last part of the formal programming and before dinner. Diana was asked about how much input she has in the casting process and she told the story of finding the leads Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe. Diana has no say in the hiring and remembered thinking Sam was a chameleon actor, he looked different in every role he had played so far. Diana was shown “grotesque” pictures of him but the tape sent to her was “Jamie.” The standing joke was that Jamie would probably turn out to be the UPS man, but Sam was found quickly in the selection process! Finding Claire proved to be the difficult one. Down to the wire in time, everyone was sent home with the reject pile and told to find her. Caitriona was then unanimously selected from that pile based upon her own self tape with an episode 1 scene, “Help, he’s going over!”
Other questions were also answered:
Q: Has there been any talk about a spin off Lord John series?
A: Although lots of interest has been expressed by many sources, no official conversations have been had.
Q: How has Diana’s Catholic upbringing influenced the characters and her writing?
A: Diana has knowledge, for one, (unlike many of the show’s script writers). Also, Celtic Catholics/Christians have an interesting take on religion. They tend to incorporate incantations, charms, rituals into their beliefs and daily lives, lending to a more natural process. The issue of killing was discussed and the introduction of other characters such as Quakers help to give the story balance here.
Q: Does Diana know what her characters will be and do? How do her characters come to her?
A: The pace and process take shape from a kernel, scene by scene. Diana went on to describe this process of her writing from the kernel in her mind’s eye of a Scottish crystal goblet.
The final question of the evening revolved around the origin of her writing and 1st novel. Her practice novel had to be historical because if she couldn’t come up with original stories, at least she’d have something to fall back on. Many of us have heard this telling of the Doctor Who episode that sparked the flame for an 18th-century man in a kilt who would become our beloved Jamie. Her English character, Claire, wasn’t having any of that 18th-century vibe though, and Diana knew from her voice and that first cottage introduction that Claire would be a modern woman having gone back in time, thus creating the sci-fi aspect. This origin of Outlander is a pleasure to hear in Diana‘s voice anytime.
On a personal note, I was given the opportunity to mingle a few minutes at the end of the evening. After bit of fangirling, I recovered my senses enough to ask this final question: If she could remove Herself as author and just be a fan of The Fiery Cross, what three moments would she most like to transfer to the visual medium of season five? Diana responded with the scene that involves Claire in the windowsill in the middle of the night. Jamie comes in to find her with goosebumps on her arms. What transpires then is a very intimate moment that Diana is really pushing for inclusion this season. (Fingers crossed!) The next scene she described to me I will only say, for spoiler reasons, is a moment of great impact on Roger and his character. She would want to include that and also the poignant aftermath with his son.
Of course I was thrilled to have had this interaction with my all-time favorite author. So, along with my thanks for her insight and time that evening, I told Diana I would be following her as she traveled across the state over the next few days. (Now cemented in the mind of Diana Gabaldon is the image of me as a stalker. Great.)
This incredible “Evening with Diana Gabaldon” transpired over four plus hours and was made possible by the coordinated efforts of Bill McCrea, Executive Director of Tryon Palace, Susi Hamilton, NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary and their amazing team members. Many thanks and much praise to everyone involved.
Thank you so much Lisa for sharing your “Evening with Diana Gabaldon” at Tryon Palace with us!
Tryon Palace is a great place to visit, as well as the adjoining NC History Center, with informative and interactive exhibits–it’s fun and educational! We appreciate the folks at the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources bringing this amazing event to eastern North Carolina in support of historic New Bern. All proceeds went towards continuing repairs at Tryon Palace from Hurricane Florence in September 2018.