Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we unravel the techniques she uses to compose such an enduring and engaging story. To catch up or review the previous chapter, click here.
Chapter 2: Standing Stones
Summary: The next morning, Mr. Crook, the elderly gentleman Claire had met at the pub, takes her out to show her the more unusual and rare highland plants. While hunting through the flora, Mr. Crook takes her to see Craigh na Dun, a henge upon a steep hill. As this is right up her husband’s alley, she decides to take him there later to see it.
Writer Comments: To be honest, this scene doesn’t bring about any great changes in character or plot. It’s a setup scene. Gabaldon is readying the way for future events. However, she still has to make the scene engaging, so she employs Claire’s dry wit to accomplish this.
In part of the scene, Gabaldon relates Claire’s previous experience at Stone Henge and go into a few of the theories about the place’s ancient use. One of them is that it was a marketplace, but Claire has an amusing way to refute that theory:
The only thing I could see against that hypothesis was the presence of bodies under the Altar Stone and cremated remains in the Z holes. Unless these were the hapless remains of merchants accused of short-weighing the customers, it seemed a bit unsanitary to be burying people in the marketplace. page 18
At the end of the scene, Gabaldon highlights a bit of irony she weaves throughout these pages, that the elderly gentleman is far more deft on his feet than young Claire.
The gnarled old man gallantly offered me an arm at the top of the hill. I took it, deciding after one look down the precipitous decline that in spite of his age, he was likely steadier on his pins than I was. page 19
Humor is a great tool, especially when it matches the character’s voice, to liven up a scene that might otherwise be slow or lacking in exciting action.
Summary: After seeing the henge, Claire goes to Reverend Wakefield’s to find Frank, who was spending the day with Wakefield unearthing information from a stack of “borrowed” letters from the Historical Society. When she arrives, Frank and Wakefield are in exhalations over information that Frank’s ancestor, Captain Jonathan Randall or Black Jack was known for harassing the Scots, crimes here and there that never led to any severe punishment, and horse thievery.
Claire feigns interest but immediately takes the opportunity for tea in the kitchen with the housekeeper, Mrs. Graham, to escape the gushing men. There, Mrs. Graham reads Claire’s tea leaves and finds them most strange because everything in them contradicts each other. Claire will go on a journey yet stay put. She’ll have many strangers in her life, and one of them is her husband. The leaves are so odd, in fact, that Mrs. Graham asks to read Claire’s hand in addition. But Claire’s hand too is strange. Her lifeline is chopped up and her marriage line forks as if to imply two men simultaneously in her life.
However, the Reverend interrupts all this to collect Claire to hear their latest discoveries. Apparently, Captain Randall was a spy for the Duke of Sandringham and charged with stirring up Jacobite sentiments among the Scots to weed them out. However, the oddity in this is that the Duke himself was suspected of Jacobite sympathies.
Claire feigns attention, and is far more intrigued by the family tree Wakefield has of his nephew, who he has adopted as his son in the wake of the boy’s parents’ deaths during the war, a Roger W. (MacKenzie) Wakefield. The Reverend thought it best for the boy to know his heritage, even with the Reverend giving him the name Wakefield. This stirs sympathy in Claire. After all, there are lots of children who became orphans because of the war. As she and Frank haven’t conceived a child yet, perhaps it would be good of them to adopt.
She suggests the idea to Frank on their walk home, but he dismisses it. He insists that he could not properly love a child that was not his, and while that may make him selfish, he would view the child as an outsider.
Writer Comments: Here, Gabaldon takes the next step in preparing her readers for the main thrust of the novel. In the introductory material and the first line of chapter one, she mentions disappearances. Now, she layers on the foreshadowing through the reading of Claire’s tea leaves and her palm. We don’t yet need to know precisely what’s about to occur, but as that particular event is unusual, Gabaldon is preparing us. She admits through that last word of her introduction and through the oddity of Mrs. Graham’s readings that what’s to come may not have a logical explanation, yet it will come and be dramatic.
Foreshadowing is important for significant events of a plot. However, it must be done carefully. It must suggest without giving away, yet it must also not be too vague, thus leaving readers confused and in the dark, or worse oblivious that anything was foreshadowed at all. The nice thing about foreshadowing is that, if a writer realizes they need more, it’s usually easy to slip it into the story.
Beyond this, Gabaldon sets up future events. Personally, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve only read the book partially through before I decided to do it as a read for this blog. I also resisted the temptation to cheat and read up on the plot on wikipedia. However, I can see Gabaldon setting up potential future conflicts. Here, she establishes Frank’s unwillingness to accept a child that is not of his and Claire’s blood. Does that mean at some later point, Claire will acquire a child, either by another man or by adoption, that Frank will come to hate? Or perhaps the fear of it for Claire will be enough for it to become a problem later. Further, Gabaldon sets up a conflict of love via the forked lifeline on Claire’s hand.
Summary: Despite Claire’s original intention to take Frank to the henge the next day, she and Frank take a tour of Loch Ness, which they had planned in advance. Their guide tells horrific tales of murder, betrayal, and violence around the loch, and they see Urquhart Castle, nothing more than a wall now and cursed, according to their guide.
Only afterward, when they return to Mrs. Baird’s to sleep, does Claire remember the henge. Frank is ecstatic and determines to get up extremely early so they can get there in time to see the witches perform rituals he’s sure they must, for tomorrow is one of the four feast days he’s sure they must observe.
Writer Comments: This is a transition scene and, I suspect, a way for Gabaldon to set up future locales and events. Yet she keeps it simple and straightforward. The scene is brief and focuses on the more interesting aspects of the journey, like this reference to the grisly stories and the cursed castle. It glosses over the parts that might become tedious. Then, at the end, Gabaldon sets her hook for the next scene: a group of witches gathering at an ancient henge for a feast day ritual and our main characters intending to go spy them out.
Summary: Claire and Frank sneak up to Craigh na Dun the next morning before dawn. They find a hidden place to watch the henge, and to their delight, a group of women, led by Mrs. Graham, come. They dawn white robes of bedsheets and perform a dance about and through the stones, ending at last as the first sunlight strikes through their circle and hits a cleaved stone.
Once they leave, Frank immediately starts investigating, trying to figure out how the women knew where and when to turn during the dance, certain there must be marks to indicate directions. But there aren’t. Claire finds an interesting vine at the base of one of the stones, but she and Frank must both abandon their respective investigations, for one of the women returns to fetch a hairpin she dropped and smoke.
Writer Comments: Throughout these first two chapters so far, Gabaldon has been balancing two primary facets of the story’s introduction. First, she’s seeding the ground for the main story, foreshadowing, establishing character, and laying out pieces of scenery. At the sam time, she’s establishing Claire’s life: the small pleasures, her relationship with her husband, her desire for a child, her unique interests. In short, she’s building a little world just enough for us to appreciate Claire’s horror when she destroys it.
Summary: The next day, Claire returns to the henge to further investigate the vine and, at Frank’s request, to look for traces of fire outside the circle as fire, as far as he knows, is always associated with Beltane. However, Claire sees no traces of fire. But when she draws near the cleft in the largest stone, she hears a buzzing noise. She tips her head and touches the stone to see if there’s a beehive inside, and the stone screams. All around her is noise and motion and things too strange to properly describe. Half blinded, she rushes down the hill. When she finds herself at the bottom, she hears battle.
Writer Comments: And here, at last, we have the strange event that Gabaldon referenced at the book’s opening. Or the start of that event.
Here also, we have a wonderful illustration of effective first person narration.
The other stones began to shout. There was a noise of battle and the cries of dying men and shattered horses. I shook my head violently to clear it, but the noise went on. I stumbled to my feet and staggered toward the edge of the circle. The sounds were all around me, making my teeth ache and my head spin. My vision began to blur. I do not know now whether I went toward the cleft in the main stone, or whether it was accidental, a blind drifting through the fog of noise. Once, traveling at night, I fell asleep in the passenger seat of a moving car, lulled by the noise and motion into an illusion of serene weightlessness. The driver of the car took a bridge too fast and lost control, and I woke from my floating dream straight into the glare of headlights and the sickening sensation of falling at high speed. That abrupt transition is as close as I can come describing the feeling I experienced, but it falls woefully short. I could say that my field of vision contracted to a single dark point, then disappeared altogether, leaving not blackness, but a bright void. I could say that I felt as though I were spinning, or as though I were being pulled inside out. All these things are true, yet none of them conveys the sense I had of complete disruption, of being slammed very hard against something that wasn’t there. The truth is that nothing moved, nothing changed, nothing whatsoever appeared to happen and yet I experienced a feeling of elemental terror so great that I lost all sense of who, or what, or where I was. I was in the heart of chaos, and no power of mind or body was of use against it. I cannot really say I lost consciousness, but I was certainly not aware of myself for some time. I “woke,” if that’s the word, when I stumbled on a rock near the bottom of the hill. I half slid the remaining few feet and fetched up on the thick tufted grass at the foot. I felt sick and dizzy. I crawled toward a stand of oak saplings and leaned against one to steady myself. There was a confused noise of shouting nearby, which reminded me of the sounds I had heard, and felt, in the stone circle. The ring of inhuman violence was lacking, though; this was the normal sound of human conflict, and I turned toward it. page 35
Had Gabaldon written in third person, parts of her description of Claire’s experience in the henge would have seemed clumsy, like her skills were failing her and she didn’t actually know how to word things. However, in Claire’s first person voice, the clumsiness fits the character and the moment. Therefore, rather than seeming odd, it simply seems a natural attempt to describe indescribable events.
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.
If you would like to learn about other books I’ve broken down for their nuggets of writing wisdom, click here.