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On the Trail of History: A Journey through Diana Gabaldon’s North Carolina Part II

May 15, 2019

Guest post by Lisa Margulies

On a recent North Carolina trek, I followed the historically noted footprints of my favorite author, Diana Gabaldon. The Fiery Cross, “big” Book 5 in the Outlander series, traces the earliest beginnings of unrest prior to the American Revolution in the continuing saga of the Fraser family. The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources planned several events with the author across the state during the last April weekend to promote and raise funds for their historical sites. This second day of my journey brought me to New Bern on the South Lawn of Tryon Palace, a reproduction of the original Governor’s mansion. It was a beautiful day to share Outlander love under a tent with one hundred-plus DG fans all gathered to listen to Herself speak.

William McCrea, Executive Director of Tryon Palace, began the program’s introduction of Diana by way of his familial connection to the author in the early days of her writing. His mother was also in the CompuServe Forum! Their “antiquated” digital friendship began from there and lead to Diana‘s acknowledging McCrea’s family in the Drums of Autumn novel! Susi Hamilton, North Carolina Deputy Secretary of Natural and Cultural Resources and avid DG fan, formally introduce Diana to the crowd. The Deputy Secretary’s job is to tell the story of North Carolina to the general population. This is the gift Diana Gabaldon has given her as she sees it: A STEM education study applied to North Carolina history!

Diana rose to the warm welcome and accolades, immediately telling us of the Jacobean history and rich Scottish connection in North Carolina. This land felt familiar and akin to the homeland many had fled or been forced to leave following the war of cultural eradication. The Battle of Culloden greatly contributed to the Scottish emigration to America. Although many here today could trace their roots back to Scotland, Diana cannot. And with that, the author shared her own ancestry, (which is not it all Scottish), with us! So why Scotland in her books? Basically for the kilts, truth be told!

Diana Gabaldon knew she wanted to be a writer since she was eight years old but as there was no money in this profession, she was encouraged to pursue a different path – science. At 35, she still knew she was supposed to be a novelist, but was writing for scientific publications. She recounted being paid $125 for an instructional piece on how to clean a cow skull. The clean skull still resides in her home today and, as she did such a good job of writing the how-to, other scientific texts and some comic book writing followed. These were her only writing experiences. Her husband, Doug Watkins, had just begun his own entrepreneurial venture so she needed to keep her day job(s), but Diana Gabaldon had to answer her calling and, without telling anyone, began to write that first novel, just for practice. Did I mention they had three small children and she was doing this in the middle of the night?!? History was her starting point, Doctor Who’s man-in-a-kilt character her inspiration, and the rest became her creation and her history, so to speak.

On that note, Diana invited questions from the audience (paraphrased questions and answers):
Q: How will religion and Celtic Christianity play into the story going forward?
A: Pagan rituals continued in spiritual beliefs especially in Highland Catholics. Spells or incantations are very much like prayers. We will see a lot of this with the mix of people on the Ridge in NC. Diana also hopes to have more Gaelic speaking in the upcoming television season for this reason. She is pushing for it in season five.
Q: Do the first person accounts Diana uses in her historical writing come from a secret vault somewhere?
A: The Battle of Kings Mountain will be in the next book (Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone). Diana detailed an historical journal she had used to help write this 15-minute battle into her story. In it, the Militia (Patrick Ferguson) and the Over Mountain Men gave her the material needed to get inside the fighting event and the men involved. Newspaper accounts are available but not always accurate. In the 800+ interviews she has given over the years, only two have been 100% correct! (Suddenly I’m having pangs of nightmares where I’m taking a college final but have never attended the class!)
Q: Are the magic and myth of the stones from documented sources?
A: No, they are her invention. And Diana has it pretty well mapped out at this point. She didn’t even go to Scotland and see standing stones until after her first book was published. This opened up research avenues and the “Gabaldon Theory of Time Travel” evolved. (At this point in the Q & A, a man in full kilt regalia came to the microphone and distracted Diana. A few moments and a glass of water were needed to recover! Seeing Herself in a swoon and flustered sure has a way of making her feel real and endears Diana to her fandom even more. What a great moment!)
On the subject of time travel/science fiction… The first publisher of Outlander needed to label the book and it was decided that romance was the better-selling category. It took three Outlander books on the New York Times best-selling list to move them to general fiction. Even then, Barnes & Noble still had the series in the romance section; and, at eight years out, Diana had to write a very directive letter to the CEO to get them moved!
Q: Any other stories in Diana’s mind?
A: Oh yes, Master Raymond will be a whole other collection for us someday. (Yay, personal fave!)
Q: Why the death of one particular “small” character? (a reference to Written in My Own Heart’s Blood story line)
A: That death was not planned and was shocking to her too. But the story had unfolded that way to Diana and had to be written as such. It was very difficult for her to write that tragedy.
Q: Will Young Ian ever be happy?
A: Yes! That is, until the Mohawk appear to tell him something that knocks your socks off–BEES spoiler!
Q: How does Diana feel about script writing?
A: Well, it’s like being God versus not. Her first script came back with notes all over it. She needed to throttle back on being funny. Too much of a “Diana tone” that didn’t match the rest of the series, she was told. (I think we all picked up on and appreciated that vibe at the time. Can you imagine what the first draft must have been like?)
Also, she wrote a chase scene involving Dougal/Graham McTavish and left it to the stunt team as to how it would be implemented. Graham had to do a lot of his own riding for close-ups, however. His comment to Diana afterwards: “I’ve just been having a conversation with my balls. I’d rather not do that again.“ (We love these stories, don’t we?)
Q: When in North Carolina, it’s vinegar or tomato. Which barbecue taste does Diana prefer?
A: Vinegar
Q: Was the character Black Jack Randall just born bad?
A: People are always asking how the author can possibly write such a despicable character. Well, she tells them to their great surprise, that BJR is part her! Diana retold the shock of this revelation through the story of her yearly Arizona tea where she enlightened those attending with this information. The ladies were all aghast!
Q: Has the show affected DG’s visualization of the story/characters?
A: No, they are two separate entities. Her story has been with her for far, far longer. She thinks the actors are great, though.
Q: Does Diana listen to any musical influences while writing?
A: No. She occasionally listens to Scottish folk music to get a sense of the cadence but not while writing. Words/lyrics interfere with her own mind’s process. During the writing of Voyager, Diana did listen to Carmina Burana. Some music she will listen to for two or three days just for tonal influences.
Q: How will Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan being co-producers influence the show?
A: They will have more time off! No, maybe less (with more responsibility). Diana noticed in the first two weeks of dailies that they had one or two days off each week. However, there are more leading characters and stories to cover this season. She is sure that their new involvement will be a positive for all.
Q: Did DG know that Into the Wilderness author, Rosina Lippi, was going to use the characters of Jamie and Claire in her novel?
A: Yes, in this case Diana gave her permission for the characters to be used in the story because Lippi was not writing the story of Jamie and Claire. She was including them in the same historical space and time, enabling the reference.
Q: A North Carolinian shared that her husband’s ancestor fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain. Does Diana know of him?
A: Yes! The questioner’s husband should be pleased to hear that Colonel Cleveland plays an important role in the upcoming BEES battle. (Well that is exciting for her! Makes me want to do some ancestry searches looking for journals and personal accounts of my long ago family members that I can send off to Diana ASAP!)

So many fans with so many questions–a line formed down the center of the tent at this point.
I’ll give a brief recap of general answers as follows:
~Cross Stitch was the working title for Outlander. Publishers in the UK went with that.
~No thoughts of a “Pottermore”-type website. Diana has “The Methadone List.” Be careful when Googling that! It is Diana’s recommended booklist, NOT something else!
~Characters are all her, not based on family members.
~Davina Porter, audiobook narrator, was a happy accident and will read Diana‘s books up until she (Davina) turns 75. (Oh please be done writing by then!)
~Simon the Fox Fraser had lots of illegitimate children. This was a great find in Diana’s research for her character development.
~Diana is usually not disappointed by scenes left out of the TV series adaptations. It’s mostly stuff added in that can be upsetting!
~As to why her Marine Biology interest knowing she was terrified of the deep water? Diana was drawn to deep sea creatures from her childhood years and the family collection of “All About…” books. It wasn’t until she was serious with a fellow French horn player that she knew she would just have to live in Arizona! To continue to be with now-husband Doug, the scholar Diana changed to the study of Land Biology.
~Diana compared her science background and experience to writing and the creative process. She described it like the conscious versus the subconscious. People often ask how she overcomes writer’s block. Diana has always worked on three or four projects at one time. She vacillates among them; learning to write more than one thing at a time allowed her to overcome “being stuck.“ Thus, she is very productive and prolific!

This speaking of her writing operations led to Diana’s sharing what her husband Doug describes as “the people who open doors have names“ process. The author took us inside her mind’s eye to elaborate. I’ll do my best to relay the incredible mechanization of her mind by paraphrasing here:
Diana works in the front of her mind on craftsmanship and balance, moving words and clauses to and fro. It’s very mechanical work and all the while the back of her mind is murmuring questions. This is all going on together, all of the time. On a cold day with no ideas, she goes to her stacks of historical material looking for a good “kernel.” The kernel gets her into the page but it’s not necessarily having to do with the scene. She picks up a catalog of 18 century Scottish
silver and crystal. Her mind’s eye picks up a beautiful goblet incised with thistles on the side:

“The crystal goblet is made of glass…well everybody knows that, crystal is made of glass. The crystal goblet…light from the side…passing through…how is the light passing through? The light is coming in low and the color is blue…why is the color blue? The color is blue because it’s snowy outside and it’s a late winter afternoon…so the cold blue light of the late winter afternoon fell through the crystal glass…no, no, no goblet. How did it fall through? Did it go splat? There’s something in it refracting light. The cold blue light of the late afternoon fell through the crystal goblet casting a pool of glowing amber…why is it amber? Because there’s something in the glass casting amber light on the polished wood of the table top—now I know where I am. I’m in Jocasta Cameron’s parlor because she’s the only one that would have a glass window, a crystal goblet full of whisky and that’s why the light is amber.”

(Whew! Play that in your mind at the speed of light and you might imagine Diana’s incredible intellect at work just as we all experienced it! Applause, applause!) Read more about Diana’s writing process here.

All mouths were agape after listening to her re-counting, but Diana still took time to answer a couple more questions. She shared again that it is impossible for her to have a research assistant. I think we get an idea of why from the previous detailing. One last interesting question was about the prologue in Drums of Autumn. Who is the voice? It is Brianna’s voice based on Diana‘s personal experience. Mhmm, fascinating.

The author closed the “Tryon Palace Tent Q & A” by reading a passage from Go Tell the Bees… Just listening to Diana Gabaldon voice her own words is such a delight. The passage she shared is about the reading of a modern children’s book. The selection seemed apropos with all the Fraser family of characters gathered under such a calculated mastery of storytelling. Our experience soaking Diana Gabaldon all in on this fine morning under a grand tent on the majestic South Lawn of this historical North Carolina location did, indeed, feel like home.

Many thanks go again to author Diana Gabaldon for her gracious gifting of self and time, the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Tryon Palace, all the representatives of these organizations, and the many residents of New Bern and fans of Outlander that made my weekend experience so memorable! Look for my last stop on The Fiery Cross/North Carolina Tour on the Alamance Battlefield coming to a blog post soon!

Thanks once again, Lisa, for a wonderful recap of your weekend with Diana Gabaldon in North Carolina!

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5 Comments

  • Reply Anne K May 15, 2019 at 9:59 am

    Thank you very much for such an interesting recount of your fascinating weekend.

  • Reply Lisa Margulies May 15, 2019 at 12:56 pm

    You are very welcome! Glad to share my weekend transcript with all willing to listen:)!

  • Reply Alysen May 15, 2019 at 8:38 pm

    Absolutely Amazing .. both Diana’s mindworks and your fascinating paraphrasing! Aren’t we all the lucky recipients of her brilliant mind, I pity those who are not yet ‘enlightened’ …. xoxo

  • Reply Lisa Margulies May 18, 2019 at 7:08 pm

    Thank you! And I agree, sooooo lucky!

  • Reply ‘Outlander’ Sparks New Interest in NC’s Scottish Heritage – Exploring North, Central, and South America May 21, 2019 at 10:18 am

    […] with several additional novellas, short stories and spin-offs in the works, Margulies reported in a second thorough report. The Outlander books have sold more than 20 million copies and have been translated into 20 […]

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