Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we discern and learn the techniques of a successful novel to better our own writing. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.
Chapter 5: The MacKenzie
Summary: Mistress FitzGibbons wakes Claire later and hurries her into a decent state of dress and stuffs her with a modicum of food. However, Claire is too nervous to eat much. She goes along with Mrs. Fitz’s ministrations because it gives her time to construct the story and its necessary lies that the MacKenzie will surely demand.
She’s taken to a tower room richly adorned. On one wall are casement windows, a far cry from the narrow slits in most of the rest of the castle. An enormous birdcage fills part of the room from floor to ceiling, complete with potted trees and a collection of energetic birds. Colum MacKenzie enters and greets Claire, and she’s shocked to find him every bit as impressive as his brother Dougal, except for his bent and stunted legs. However, MacKenzie is clearly used to his state and allows Claire the necessary time to conceal her surprise.
Claire feeds him her constructed story, sticking as close to the truth as possible, a trick she learned from Frank. She claims she’s a widowed lady of Oxfordshire and was on her way to relatives in France. She was set upon by highwaymen and barely escaped, only to find herself run afoul of Captain Randall, who attempted to rape her. MacKenzie is clearly skeptical, but he does not accuse her outright. Instead, he informs her that she’s a welcome guest, but hovering in the air is the implication that she will be so only until he finds out who she really is.
Writing Comments: Incorporating setting details can be a challenge, especially when, ideally, authors want to make them appear seamless with the story and not bog down the plot or overshadow characters. Take a look at how Gabaldon manages in this chapter when it comes to period dress:
Mistress FitzGibbons had a cup of hot broth waiting; I sipped it, feeling like the survivor of some major bombing raid, as she laid out a pile of garments on the bed. There was a long yellowish linen chemise, with a thin edging of lace, a petticoat of fine cotton, two overskirts in shades of brown, and a pale lemon-yellow bodice. Brown striped stockings of wool and a pair of yellow slippers completed the ensemble. Brooking no protests, the dame bustled me out of my inadequate garments and oversaw my dressing from the skin out. She stood back, surveying her work with satisfaction. “The yellow suits ye, lass; I thought it would. Goes well wi’ that brown hair, and it brings out the gold in your eyes. Stay, though, ye’ll need a wee bit o’ ribbon.” Turning out a pocket like a gunnysack, she produced a handful of ribbons and bits of jewelry. Too stunned to resist, I let her dress my hair, tying back the sidelocks with primrose ribbon, clucking over the unfeminine unbecomingness of my shoulder-length bob. “Goodness, me dear, whatever were ye thinkin’, to cut your hair so short? Were ye in disguise, like? I’ve heard o’ some lasses doin’ so, to hide their sex while travelin’, same as to be safe from they dratted redcoats. ‘Tis a sad day, says I, when leddies canna travel the roads in safety.” She ran on, patting me here and there, tucking in a curl or arranging a fold. Finally I was arrayed to her satisfaction. -- page 67
Gabaldon at no point steps aside from the action of the story to explain the period’s fashion. Instead, she relays it in the characters’ actions. From this passage alone, we learn the names of the garments a woman wore, colors, how hair might be dressed, that pockets existed, and that Claire’s shoulder-length bob is considered quite unbecoming. This way of relaying information about setting is ideal because the action of the story isn’t broken, and the details are conveyed in a more interesting manner than a dry lecture.
Later on in the chapter, during the conversation between Claire and Colum MacKenzie, the laird leaves the room to attend some other business. This business is never explained, but it lets readers know more is going on than Claire’s plight. This tale takes place in a dramatic point in history and thus must concern itself with more than one girl’s misfortunes. However, even if the story were set in a more restricted setting or a duller time, an author must consider and incorporate more than the protagonist’s trials. All characters have their own lives, struggles, and motivations. Even if they do not play a major role in a story, they should still inform it. If nothing else, their perspectives and plights will color their interactions with the protagonist.
Going back to the excerpt I quoted, take a look at the dialect Gabaldon provides for her Scottish characters.
“The yellow suits ye, lass; I thought it would. Goes well wi’ that brown hair, and it brings out the gold in your eyes. Stay, though, ye’ll need a wee bit o’ ribbon.” -- page 67
“Goodness, me dear, whatever were ye thinkin’, to cut your hair so short? Were ye in disguise, like? I’ve heard o’ some lasses doin’ so, to hide their sex while travelin’, same as to be safe from they dratted redcoats. ‘Tis a sad day, says I, when leddies canna travel the roads in safety.” -- page 67
Dialect is a tricky thing to convey in fiction. Some writers advocate for leaving it out save to mention in the exposition that someone has a certain accent. The logic behind this is that it avoids making a reader struggle through misspelled and butchered words. On the other hand, many authors love implying dialect through word order, word choice, misspellings, cut up words, and various other means. Unfortunately, there’s no final way to decide the dispute. It is, when you come down to it, purely a point of preference.
However, if a writer chooses to imply dialect in a manner similar to Gabaldon, caution should be exercised. In this segment, Gabaldon uses just enough manipulation of the dialogue to suggest dialect without mutilating meaning. Personally, I can’t help but read it with the Scottish brogue singing through my head, and were I to read it aloud, I’d undoubtedly slip into the accent. For my taste, I enjoy this method of dialect. It’s fun, adds tons of character, and is relatively easy to read. But it would be easy to take this too far and end up with a product so illegible that a reader was yanked from the story, getting hung up on trying to figure out what a character was saying.
To that end, my best advice is to find an author who writes with the dialect you want to use, especially one who does it well, and copy their techniques. Gabaldon is a good example of Scottish dialect in a novel. Beyond that, don’t overdo it and be consistent. Read it aloud. If you trip over the words while reading your own story, you can be sure a reader, who will have neither your love nor patience for the writing, will get fed up with the dialogue.
Lastly, I’d like to address how Gabaldon describes Colum MacKenzie. As I’m no expert in Scottish history, I don’t know how much she pulled out of actual history in creating his character. However, as a writer, she handles the introduction of his disability perfectly, namely with respect. Naturally, Claire’s reaction and description fit her character, but because Gabaldon describes MacKenzie’s reactions and actions as resilient to any shock and managing quite well with his difficulties, she at no point comes off as problematic. In fact, she makes MacKenzie all the more admirable for compensating for his deficiencies. If you choose to give a character any form of disability, be sure to handle the subject respectfully.
Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.
To check out other novels, like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures and Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey, that I’ve broken down for their writer gems, click here.