What Writers Can Learn From Diana Gabaldon

learning from Diana Gabaldon
Last Friday I posted “Loving Diana Gabaldon.”  It was general praise and admiration of the sort you might expect from that title. Today I want to cite some specific ways that writers would do well to follow her example. In particular, I will focus on vivid language. We have all heard or read that we should use fresh, vivid language and strong verbs. Here’s how.


For one thing, Gabaldon is a very sensory writer.

She uses all the senses, and often more than one in the same sentence or phrase. I notice particularly that she uses smell more often than most.


 The following line is made stronger by the unexpected juxtaposition of “smelled delectably” with road dust and sweat.
He smelled delectably of road dust and dried sweat and the deep musk of a man who has just enjoyed himself thoroughly.
Delectable is more expected here, but overall very concrete and specific.
The smell of cut, dry hay was mingled with the delectable scent of barbecue that had been simmering underground overnight, the fresh bread, and the heady tang of Mrs. Bug’s cider.

More sensory details

. . . swept me into an exuberant embrace, redolent of hay, horses, and sweat.
Would I wake again to the thick warm smell of central heating and Frank’s Old Spice? And when I fell asleep again to the scent of woodsmoke and the musk of Jamie’s skin, would feel a faint, surprised regret.
It [cider] was wonderful, a dark, cloudy amber, sweet and pungent and with the bite of a particularly subtle serpent to it.

She describes a white marble mausoleum:

. . . a white smear on the night…

Note strong verb and simile.

. . . his skin shivered suddenly, like a horse shedding flies.
. . . it [hair] was writhing off merrily in all directions, à la Medusa.
Her description of the hair is so much fresher than “flying out in all directions.”
. . . kissing me with sun-dusty enthusiasm and sandpaper whiskers.
. . . the lines of his face were cut deep with fatigue, the flesh beneath his eyes sagging and smudged.
. . . I was sloshing back and forth to the kitchen, kicking up the water so it sparkled like the cut-glass olive dish.
. . .they poured into the dooryard, bedraggled, sweat-soaked, and thirsty as sponges.
. . . with thin grizzled hair that he wore strained back in a plait so tight that i thought he must find it hard to blink.
. . . [bread pudding with honey] bursting sweet and creamy on the tongue…
 This simile is much fresher than sober as a judge!
. . . sober as a sheep at the time.
We climbed through a stand of quivering aspen, whose light dappled us with green and silver, and paused to scrape a blob of the crimson from a paper-white trunk.
She merely smiled at that, wide mouth curving in a way that suggested untold volumes of wicked enterprise.

Gabaldon reveals emotions exceptionally well.

[Food] had formed a solid mass that lay like iron in his stomach.
…the last of the whisky lighting his blood…
Fear snaked up her spine…
…felt his bones strain in his flesh, urgent with desire to hunt and kill the man…
…goosebumps of revulsion rose on my shoulders…
…a small uneasy feeling skittering down my backbone…
…my mind felt soggy and incapable of thought…
…comforted by the fleshy, monotonous thump [of his heart]…
…a rich tide of color surged into her face…
In A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Gabaldon writes a scene in which Claire is telling Jamie how a hoard of grasshoppers caused her to burn a field of ripe barley. I found it stunning. Here are some of the vivid images from that scene.
Diana Gabaldon quote, flew up like sparks

Advice to Writers

Pick up any book by Diana Gabaldon, read any ten pages, and learn from her language!
Diana Gabaldon Outlander Series, The Fiery Cross

Loving Diana Gabaldon

Loving Diana Gabaldon, photo by Adam Austin
Yesterday I finished reading the fifth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series—The Fiery Cross—for the second time.
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, book five in the Outlander series
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon


This is the one that begins in 1770, with Clare, Jamie, et al., in North Carolina—embroiled in the War of Regulation, early conflicts preceding the Revolutionary War. As with all the Gabaldon novels, it is an intriguing blend of romance, adventure, time travel, and history, with touches of the supernatural and—for want of a better word—magic. At 979 printed pages, it’s also typical Gabaldon length!


Apart from Virginia Is For Mysteries Volume II authors, Gabaldon is the only fiction writer I’ve read in months. A fellow writer at Nimrod Hall last summer, Frances Birch, was reading one of the novels and recommended it. I love series, and so when I returned home, I ordered the Outlander series on Kindle.


First I read all eight of what Gabaldon calls “The Big, Enormous Books that have no discernible genre (or all of them).” Then I started over, this time including what she calls “The Shorter, Less Indescribable Novels that are more or less historical mysteries (though dealing also with battles, eels, and mildly deviant sexual practices),” as well as “The Bulges—These being short(er) pieces that fit somewhere inside the story lines of the novels. . . These deal frequently—but not exclusively—with secondary characters, are prequels or sequels, and/or fill some lacuna left in the original story lines.” These quotes, and the reading order I followed, are on Gabaldon’s website under Chronology of the Outlander Series.


Why spend so much precious reading time on one author—let alone rereading such tomes? I reread very few authors—the exceptions being Jane Austen, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Edgar Allan Poe. But Gabaldon has mastered the combination that hooks me: intriguing, convoluted plot twists; fresh, vivid language; fascinating characters; realistic details; and emotional appeal. I could go on, but you get the idea.


Then I picked up The Outlandish Companion and became fascinated by the woman herself.


The Outlandish Companion by Diana Gabaldon, a companion book in the Outlander series
The Outlandish Companion by Diana Gabaldon


Gabaldon holds a B.S. in zoology, an M.S. in marine biology, and a Ph.D. in ecology—all of which, I believe, add richness to the amazing amount of natural history that permeates her writing. Her varied career included “butchering” seabirds, “torturing boxfish,” and writing Fortran programs to analyze the contents of bird gizzards. But the deep-seated urge to write fiction never died. It reminds me of myself, who tried my hand at poetry, humorous plays, etc. in high school but never wrote fiction again till after more than twenty-five years as a psychologist and academic!


The Outlandish Companion, Volume 2 by Diana Gabaldon, companion book in the Outlander series
The Outlandish Companion, Volume II by Diana Gabaldon


As a writer, I am amazed that Gabaldon can write such intricate plots. She has a cast of thousands—figuratively speaking. In actuality, it’s merely scores! But she manages to make characters individuals. They often disappear for a bit, but come back vividly—and still very much as they were—often as things go from bad to worse for the main character(s). She is able to cue readers to remember the character and/or relevant event without being boringly repetitious. Her historical research seems impeccable. And she has absolutely mastered flashbacks!


I admire Gabaldon for breaking all the rules. She didn’t “learn” to write fiction; she just did it. She paid no attention to genre constraints, page counts, or how she “ought to” go about it. She doesn’t start at the beginning and she doesn’t know the end when she starts. Perhaps that’s why her writing seems so fresh.


My advice to readers and writers

Get involved with Diana Gabaldon! Read her fiction, go behind the scenes in the Outlandish Companion volumes, and visit her online.
Outlander: Ep 201 - Through A Glass, Darkly
Outlander: Ep 201 – Through A Glass, Darkly
You might have heard that Starz made a television series of Outlander. Season two begins tomorrow, April 9th, with “Through a Glass, Darkly.”  It’s inspired by the events in the second book, A Dragonfly in Amber. There are lots of events going on to celebrate the books and the new series. For a short time, you can watch all the first season’s episodes for free. But I still recommend reading the books.
Diana Gabaldon at Drover's Pass in Scotland. Rothiemurchus Estate. Photo © Barbara Schnell.
Diana Gabaldon being blown over the Drover’s Pass in Scotland. Rothiemurchus Estate. Photo © Barbara Schnell. Photo shared from Diana Gabaldon’s website. Click here to visit Diana online.