Monday, June 30, 2014

Wordcraft -- Timeless appeal of men in kilts

“Could you tell me, please, what is the appeal of a man in a kilt?” a German interviewer once asked Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander series, soon to be Starz TV series, about her books featuring--you guessed it--men in kilts.

The questioner was a male interviewer, assumed the fans packing the expanded venue for Gabaldon’s appearance last week in Dallas to promote her latest book in the series, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. Because although men were far from lacking in the audience of more than 1,200 viewing Gabaldon in person and on simulcast, the majority were women. (A man waiting in the overflow crowd--with his wife, of course--insisted he reads the books--eight of them so far, not counting spin-offs--for the maps.)

The male bagpipe band that opened Gabaldon’s appearance managed to keep straight faces as she reported her answer to the interviewer‘s question. The answer, which I fear to reveal in this family-friendly venue, caused Outlander TV series lead Sam Heughan “to turn white, then red,” Gabaldon reported. “Then he started wearing his kilt everywhere.”

The initial novel, Outlander, took the book world by storm in 1991, dealt with the strange experience of World War II combat nurse Claire Beauchamp Randall. While taking a delayed second honeymoon with her husband Frank in the Scottish Highlands, Claire walks through a circle of standing stones. She disappears from the twentieth century, to find herself in Scotland in the year 1743, as the country spirals toward war with its English overlords. Fearing she will never be able to return to Frank and the twentieth century, Clair marries the eighteenth-century love of her life, Jamie Fraser. And the Outlander saga begins.

For her twenty-first century audience, Gabaldon recounted her own strange saga from biologist to computer geek to bestselling author of historical fiction. 

“I had known from an early age that I was supposed to be a novelist,” she told her audience. But coming from a family background that didn’t encourage artistic endeavors, she chose a career as a biologist.  Biology seemed more practical, but Gabaldon never forgot her first love. “At age thirty-five, I realized that Mozart was dead at thirty-six, and if I wanted to write a novel, I’d better get on with it. I said, I’m not going to try to publish. It’s just to learn how to write.”

Her husband was starting a business, she was working two jobs as a biology professor and a computer software freelancer, and with three children under the age of six (“so I don’t want any of you telling me they don’t have time to write”), she searched for a fictional genre and period.

She settled on historical fiction because her work as a biologist had already given her experience in doing research.  And the period?  “I happened to see a really old episode of Dr. Who that featured a young man in a kilt. It was very fetching.” And although she knew nothing about Scottish history, she began to write.

She doesn’t, she insists, “write with an outline and I don’t write in a straight line.” She first shared her scenes, in the dark 1980’s before the internet, on a CompuServe literary forum found while researching an article for a software magazine.

Forum readers urged her to publish. An already-published author at the forum gave her an introduction to an agent who “took on very long books in unorthodox genres.” The rest is history.

Besides being a longtime resident of bestseller lists, Gabaldon has won a Quill Award for series book A Breath of Snow and Ashes and the Corine International Book Prize, which won her an interview with the clueless German interviewer mentioned earlier.

The latest Outlander series book is Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, which traces the Claire and Jamie saga to Revolutionary War America, appropriately in time for this week’s Fourth of July celebrations. The Starz TV series, whose publicity poster illustrates this post, debuts August 9.

(Next Monday, bestselling thriller author Taylor Stevens visits the Dallas Mystery Writers)

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