Holley Hyler is an IT consultant and published freelance writer living in New York.
An Epic That Began as an Experiment
Diana Gabaldon started to write her first book in 1988 as an exercise in learning how to write a novel. She was a natural at it; three years later, Outlander was published. It is the story of an Englishwoman and nurse named Claire Randall who travels back in time, from the year 1946 to the year 1743, and meets the love of her life. Mind you, she is already married in the time she comes from, and she meets her husband's doppelganger in the form of a cruel British officer in 1743. (The doppelganger turns out to be her husband's ancestor.) The love of her life is one James Fraser, a Scottish criminal with a price on his head. She doesn't recognize him as her love right away, but she marries him to avoid being handed over to the Brits. The story develops beautifully from there.
I read the first book in the series (which is currently made up of eight books, the ninth of which is in the works) when I was in my teens, too young to fully appreciate it. I re-read it in my early twenties and enjoyed it much more, although I felt a bit guilty about said enjoyment after reading the Amazon reviews of the book. A lot of people were upset at some of the content in the book, particularly a scene where Jamie has to punish Claire to appease the group of Scots he's with. Claire doesn't quite see the incident that she is punished for or its consequence in the same way that the Scots do, and the story is written from her perspective. While this book is fiction, Gabaldon does a spectacular job at staying true to history and the ways people would have most likely behaved in it. As we know, feminism and women's rights have come a long way since 1743! Jamie may not be a perfect man by our more progressive standards, but he does his best to do the right thing and is never purposely cruel to Claire.
If you just love to read or if you selectively partake in the romance genre and enjoy a healthy dose of suspense and action, and you are a history fan, read on to find out why I recommend Outlander.
1. The Descriptions Are Stellar
As a writer of short fiction myself, I have a difficult time with descriptions. I have no problem with dialogue, but alas, I do not fancy myself a screenplay writer. Descriptions are necessary to turn out a rich, satisfying story. Find a painting, and try to describe it with words. Try to get all the feelings that the painting evokes in you into your words without using "I feel" statements or names of feelings. Make the reader feel the way you feel when you look at that painting, without telling them how to feel. It's not easy, is it? Oh, but also make sure that the description of the painting goes along with a story, that it adds to the plot or characterization somehow...
What makes the descriptions in this series so stellar? Well, for starters, Gabaldon is an American author writing about the Scottish Highlands (and several other places throughout the story) and a different time period. Research and travel notwithstanding, it is an art to be able to incorporate genuine-sounding and detailed descriptions that give the reader the ability to "see" the story unfolding in their mind's eye. She describes settings, what characters are wearing, the looks on their faces, and sounds with vivid detail, all while managing to be faithful to the time period(s) in which the story takes place.
Readers crave these sorts of details to make the story feel more realistic. Of course, a description just for the sake of having one doesn't do; every detail in the novel has to have a purpose for being there (even if only a subtle one) or go along with a motif. This is what I mean about it being an art. Gabaldon weaves this detail in her story masterfully, such that none of it can be spared, as it would take away from the quality of the story if it were.
2. The Characterization and Dialogue Are Believable and Beautiful
Outlander may not have as many characters as Game of Thrones, but it certainly has enough to merit family trees and diagrams, although you may not need them to keep everyone straight. Gabaldon does a great job at providing details to make one sympathize and root for certain characters, while rousing feelings of disgust or fear for the ones that really aren't so nice. The detail she goes into concerning Claire's medical background is impressive, in addition to all the historical information she had to have in order to make the rest of the story believable. But aside from the facts, the characters' personalities stand out and are all unique.
What seems like a small feat to one writer may inspire awe in another, and I used to get a lot of compliments (when I wrote more fiction) about my characterization. I used to think there was nothing special about it, but I have come to understand that when you have several characters, or dozens upon dozens, it becomes harder to make them all distinguishable to the reader. Minor characters add color and flavor to the story, and while you don't need to know as much about them as the main characters, you still need to have enough detail to avoid creating generic, cookie-cutter characters. Too many of those, and it can start to seem like laziness on the part of the writer.
Gabaldon also does an excellent job at weaving the minor characters in to add action to the story, to be integral parts of the plot (not so minor!). But as a reader, you actually feel interested in the characters as more than just plot points - which may be why the spinoff book series about John Grey did well with some readers.
Now, to the dialogue. The connection between Jamie and Claire would not be as apparent to the reader without the words exchanged between them. As I have experienced a profound connection in my real life, I was particularly impressed by the ways the two protagonists express themselves to one another in words. One of my absolute favorites is the following, which is in the third book (Voyager):
"For so many years, for so long, I have been so many things, so many different men. But here in the dark with you, I have no name." - Jamie Fraser
The feeling makes absolute sense to me, given what I have experienced, and communicates the love they share without seeming cheesy or cliche. Things that I wish I knew how to say in real life are in this book, and somehow reading them there makes me feel better. From a writer's perspective, whether you have or have not experienced a connection like this with another person, it truly is amazing what is conveyed in the story's dialogue. I could write a whole article on quotes such as these and take more time to explain their meanings to me, but I will save that for another time.
3. It's Educational and Expansive
No, really! Do you remember how boring history classes were in high school and college? Maybe not, if you had a great teacher, but not everyone is so lucky. It wasn't until just a few years ago that I started to take more of an interest in the news and happenings around the world, so my knowledge of the Jacobite Rebellion (and much of UK History) is severely lacking.
Gabaldon's background as a research professor and attention to detail make her series a very entertaining history teacher, especially considering that many of the fictional details revolve around the factual history. Of course, I don't mean to say that we should substitute historical fiction for cracking open a history book or going to the library, but sometimes history is more palatable when it comes with a human story, something we can relate to. I learned all the dates of the important battles in school, but it was rare that teachers got students to consider the consequences of those battles from a more human standpoint—the lives and love lost as a result of those battles, the horrible things that humans do to each other in power struggles, forgetting that at our core, we are all the same no matter which "side" we are on. I haven't taken a history class for almost a decade now, so maybe they have evolved from rote memorization of dates and names with no substance behind them. However, exploring it through fiction can expand the way we think about it. It isn't so generic anymore when a story is put to it.
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© 2019 Holley Hyler