Welcome to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, like my other reads of books, we take a look at the techniques authors use to effectively tell great stories. To catch up or review previous chapters in this read, click here.
Chapter 7: Davie Beaton’s Closet
Summary: Colum summons Claire to his quarters where the caged birds reside. They speak of polite things, then Colum slides in a comment about Claire’s healing skills as Dougal and Mrs. Fitz testified to him. Claire waves aside their compliments, insisting what she did was not that difficult. But Colum encourages her to take a look through their old healer’s surgery. Castle Leoch has, apparently, been without a healer since this Mr. Beaton died of fever.
Bored from going back and forth between the garden and kitchen, Claire readily accepts, and Colum leader her to the surgery himself. There she finds a large collection of substances, drawers, jars, and so forth covered in dust. In a cabinet, she locates Mr. Beaton’s log book and glances through it. Among the entries, she finds a record for Sarah MacKenzie, whose finger Mr. Beaton had mended. However, when Claire asks Colum how Sarah fared, he informs her that she died. He hopes Claire will demonstrate far greater talents than Mr. Beaton’s; though, he reasons she can hardly be worse.
Colum leaves to request Mrs. Fitz send some girls to clean the room, and for the first time in a while, Claire finds herself alone. Though, she’s not foolish enough to think she’s truly unobserved. Everywhere she has gone, she’s caught someone watching her, a prospect that makes her hopes for escape quite bleak.
However, Claire takes this opportunity for solitude to try and figure out what happened when she went through the stones. On reflection, she decides she definitely resisted something during her passage, like a current. Within the current were impressions almost like thoughts, and some were horrific. She thinks she tried to move away from these, and that leads her to wonder if, somehow, she chose to come out at this particular time in history.
Writer Comments: Colum is a complex character. He is all politeness to Claire, yet she’s seen the brutality in him when he had Jaime beaten in place of the girl. He’s a man struggling with the pain and physical limitations of a chronic disease, yet no one dares cross him. Too, for all we readers have seen of him, he’s not fully fathomable. This complexity makes him interesting and difficult to predict. When it comes to the climax of this story, I’m not sure on what side of the protagonist/antagonist line Colum will fall.
Complex foils to protagonists help keep fiction interesting. If a foil is predicable, he quickly becomes boring and offers no challenge to either the protagonist or the reader. Give your characters layers, inner conflict, motivations, goals, and their own story arcs. This doesn’t mean you must reveal every aspect of these traits, but their existence will give these characters greater life when you write them.
Summary: Later, Claire takes lunch to Jamie again. She asks why he’s on the run, and he explains that he’s an outlaw, wanted for murder. However, Jamie didn’t murder the man he’s blamed for killing, but as he’s murdered plenty of Englishmen since, he supposes it’s not entirely unjust.
As he explains to Claire about having suffered an injury to the head recently, one that robbed him of some memory and landed him in a French monastery, Alec the Master of Horse arrives to lightly chastise Jamie for sloth. Jamie offers Alec part of his lunch instead, and the men sit, eat, and converse about horses, slipping into Gaelic. Claire falls asleep.
When she wakes, the men have returned to English and discuss what decision Jamie will make at the Gathering. Apparently, Jamie must decide if he’ll forsake his true name, which apparently isn’t MacTavish, and become a MacKenzie. Both options have advantages and disadvantages. For example, if Dougal has his way and the Stuarts win whatever it is they’re after, Jamie could get his lands back. The men don’t elaborate on what Dougal’s way might be or exactly what the Stuarts intend to achieve. Too, Alec points out that, if Jamie does become a MacKenzie, he can soon take Alec’s job of Master of Horse and do quite well for himself. Already, the lassies are swooning after him, including Claire, according to Alec.
Claire decides this is a good time to become obviously awake. She doesn’t particularly want to hear where Alec might head the conversation with regards to her. Alec warns her to be careful when she comes to the stables so she doesn’t distract the horses, for they have a lot of work to do. Claire promises to take care, and despite Alec’s obvious dismissal, she pushes to look at Jamie’s shoulder and remove the dressing. But Jamie, who until that point was in no hurry to return to work, bolts up and begs off by claiming he’s too busy.
Claire finds it odd that he’s avoiding her inspection and promises she’ll take a look after supper. On the way back to the castle, she realizes that Jamie has been unusually open with her, a stranger, for a man who’s an outlaw.
Writer Comments: I wonder what Jamie is hiding. Like this, there are many implications in this scene. Jamie implies right and left about the specifics of his earlier adventures while giving few specific details. Alec uses the analogy of the horses to warn Claire about distracting Jamie. And Jamie’s resistance to Claire’s inspection even while he’s open with her about other things implies something’s wrong with him.
Implications are highly useful to the author. While writers must ensure they’re clear, if they state everything plainly, they miss out on the textured world of storytelling, or at least part of it. Storytelling should include a variety of techniques both to maintain interest and because some techniques are more useful for one purpose and others for another. Implication is no different.
Too, if a writer is direct all the time, there’s no mystery to occupy the reader. Part of the enjoyment fiction provides is the uncertainty of the characters’ fates and purposes. Always stating such things plainly robs reads of the pleasure of pondering, fiddling with concepts the story presents, and imagining one outcome or another, constantly adjusting as the story progresses. It’s this very quality that lends fans the opportunity to theorize and participate in animated discussions and occasional arguments.
However, while implication over transparency is a useful and necessary tool for good fiction, a writer must also balance it carefully. Too much implication creates a muddled tale that frustrates. Too little can lead to oversimplification, tedium, boredom, and a sense of talking down to readers, a move that tend to cause a lot of offense. Like every other aspect of storytelling, each author must find the balance that works best for a particular story and for his personal style. Only writing mountains of words, reading tons of books, and being open to critique from others will help a writer find that balance.
Another aspect of this scene worth considering is how Gabaldon provides information. The conversation between Alec and Jamie involves information Claire wouldn’t normally be privy to. However, as the men think she’s asleep, they’re looser with their tongues. Claire overhears, somewhat intentionally, things that would normally be obscured from her. Too, had the men realized her ability to eavesdrop, they probably would not have been so forthright.
Revealing information like this to readers and the point-of-view character can be a real challenge in a first person story. Because first person is so intimate of a point of view, the reader is only allowed information that the narrator, a single narrator, discovers and knows. That’s the biggest challenge with first person POV. While it offers the lovely advantage of deeply experiencing a story, info dropping can be difficult. A third person narrative, which allows for the use of multiple viewpoints, is easier.
However, as Gabaldon demonstrates, there are ways to overcome this hurdle. But notice that she doesn’t casually include eavesdropped conversations. There’s reason for Claire to overhear. She’s not there by accident. Too, the other characters’ reactions when they realize she’s awake are believable. That is, after all, the trick with pulling off the POV-character-eavesdropping technique: It must occur in a believable manner that impacts the characters in the story and has purpose.
Summary: Once cleaned of dust, Claire culls Mr. Beaton’s medical supplies, referencing the book of doctoring she finds--which contains enough disturbing remedies that it’s no wonder Mr. Beaton was so unsuccessful and quite miraculous so many patients survived treatments. When uncertain of a jar’s contents, she uses her own senses to determine its disturbing cache: animal dung, woodlice, and earthworm oil. Too, she references her own knowledge of herbs and medicine. When finished, the discard pile far exceeds the small collection she decides might have useful properties.
Last, she turns to the chest. A horrid stench emerges when she opens it. Within, she finds Mr. Beaton’s surgery instruments, all of which look more suited to carpentry than surgery, and none of which Mr. Beaton appeared inclined to clean. Claire immediately closes the chest and starts shoving it toward the door.
However, a pair of young men enter, one supporting the other who has an injured foot. Claire uses the chest instead as a seat and begins her stint as castle physician.
Writer Comments: As someone interested in the medicinal properties of herbs, I found this section particularly intriguing and horrifying. Among the contents of Mr. Beaton’s medicines include such disturbing ingredients as pigeon blood, powdered human skull, dried snails, toads, millipedes in wine, and dried mouse ears. The stream of nauseating substances was as fascinating as a train wreck. Gabaldon had clearly enjoyed researching such things and relished including them in the story. That sense of enjoyment infused the writing and made it all the more fun for me to read.
No matter the emotion, as writers, we must feel what we write. Whether led by hope, sadness, or the gleeful pleasure of disgusting others, that emotion infuses the prose. It aids in our word choice, sentence structure, and that something mysterious that gives fiction life. After all, if a writer’s own story does not impact him emotionally, he cannot expect a reader to feel connected to it either.
Thank you for joining me for this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume the story next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.
To check out other novels I’ve broken down for the engaging stories and insights into writing, click here.