Author Diana Gabaldon, famous for her popular series of books and Starz TV series Outlander, came to the TV Critics tour to participant in a discussion on writing for the PBS show The Great American Read, which spotlights the top 100 of
America’s favorite novels.
Coincidentally, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander starts its 4th season on November 4th, 2018. The show continues the story of time-traveling 20th century doctor Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) and her 18th century Highlander husband, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) as they make a home for themselves in America.
Outlander 401 - Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan
Outlander, 401 – Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) on Wilmington thoroughfare ©2017 Starz Entertainment

You were a best-selling writer long before Starz adapted Outlander.


But I know people who have now read all of your books because they saw one season of Outlander. Do you think television can make people read books?

Oh, totally it can, if there’s a book to be read that’s associated with it. Though, sometimes a TV show that is centered on a certain premise or a certain environment will cause people to read other books that the series is not based on.

As a novelist, you can’t have a better advertisement than a hit TV show.

Outlander Season 4 - Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan
Outlander Season 4 – Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) in the woods ©2017 Starz Entertainment

When you were writing Outlander did you start off with the love story or with the mythic quality of the show?

Neither one. They tend to overlap a lot. I don’t write in a straight line and I don’t plan stories out ahead of time. I, in fact, don’t actually know what’s going to happen in a book.

I began writing Outlander for practice. I knew I was supposed to be a novelist, but I didn’t know how; and I decided the way to learn was to actually write a novel.

So, Outlander was my practice book. I was never going to show it to anyone, so it didn’t matter what I did with it. It didn’t have to have a genre, so I used anything that I liked.

I’ve been reading since I was three years old. I like a lot of stuff, and I used it all.

When I read a Harry Potter book, I see Daniel Radcliffe. Do you feel like the image of the actors who have been chosen for the work now supersedes in your own mind what that character looks like?

Outlander - Caitriona Balfe, Ronald D Moore, Diana Gabaldon and Sam Heughan
Outlander – Caitriona Balfe, Ronald D. Moore, Diana Gabaldon, and Sam Heughan  before a Starz TCA panel in January 2015 ©2015 Starz, photo by Matt Sayles/Invision for Starz/AP Images

I know that for a number of readers, because they say so on my Facebook page, the vision of the actors does, in fact, supersede their original vision of what the characters looked like.

It doesn’t for me. They still look the same way they’ve always looked. That said, what an actor does is magic. It’s pretty much what we do but in a different venue. Their magic is to embody somebody that they aren’t.

First time I saw Sam Heughan, they sent me his audition tape for Jamie Fraser, and I was looking up his pictures on my way to wherever I was going.

He has a very limited filmography, not many pictures, and, frankly, the ones that he had up were strange. So, when I saw the audition, I didn’t know what to expect.

He appeared, and in five seconds into it, I was saying he doesn’t look anything like his photos. He looks fine. Five seconds more, he was gone, and it was just Jamie Fraser right there. I recognized him immediately.

Outlander Season 4 - Sam Heughan
Outlander Season 4 – Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) ©2018 Starz Entertainment

What is your writing regimen like?

As I said, I don’t plan books out ahead of time. I don’t work in a straight line, which is useful because if I’m working on something and it’s not working, I just switch to another scene and work on that until it comes loose.

When I decided to write a novel, I had two full?time jobs and three children under the age of six. So I don’t want anyone telling me they don’t have time to write a book. I learned to work in the middle of the night, and I still do that.

Usually I’ll tuck my husband in bed around 9:00 pm, and then the dogs and I lie down on the couch for a bit. I’ll fall asleep for an hour or two. And then I get up and the dogs get a bone. I get a Diet Coke. We go back to work until 4:00 am in the morning.

So that’s the main time. I can write at other times of the day, it’s just that’s when people leave me alone.

Outlander Season 4 - Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan
Outlander Season 4 – Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) ©2017 Starz Entertainment

Do you ever get writer’s block?

I learned how to not have writer’s block when I was writing my PhD dissertation, because I did have terrible writer’s block on that, as anyone would. It was entitled “Nest Site Selection of the Pinyon Jay, Gymnorhinus Cyanocephalus.” Or, as my husband says, “Why birds build nests where they do and who cares anyway.”

(It was) the only time in my life I have ever had depression. I started keeping a journal at this point also for the first time in my life. If I could write down progress, if I could analyze the data for figure 2.2, I would feel this surge of positive reinforcement.

So, I learned to force myself to write in order to report on it, as it were. So, I keep track of every single word I write. When I stop and go to the bathroom or whatever, I write at the top of my file how many words are in that file since the last time I logged off. And you can see the total mounting up little by little.

Some days it’s 40 words. Some days it’s 1500, it’s whether I’m working on that scene or on several scenes at once. It’s which ones are working. Sometimes they just cut loose. Sometimes they don’t. Basically, the only bottom line is you just keep writing.

Diana Gabaldon Soundbyte – favorite novel

Diana was asked to choose her favorite American novel from the 100 listed in the PBS series – click here to listen to her answer…

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.