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Monday, October 13, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 9

Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here we enjoy a great book and examine the techniques Gabaldon uses to improve our own writing.

To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.



Chapter 9: The Gathering

Summary: Castle Leoch, and with them Claire, prepare for the coming Gathering, an important event of which Claire is still largely ignorant. However, she helps other castle girls pick cherries and apricots in preparation to feed so many. She works in the garden, sometimes in the kitchen, and, when needed, as castle doctor.

On her first expedition into the orchards, she asks one of the girls she has become friendly with how many come to the Gatherings. The girl isn’t certain, but she figures it’ll be more than the ten score men that came the last time Leoch hosted a Gathering, plus their families.

Claire frequents the stables and the impromptu fair set up for the event in hopes of catching a horse and a chance to escape.

Writer Comments: This scene accomplishes two primary functions: scene setting and the passage of time. Let’s look at those separately.

Scene Setting:

The Gathering is clearing an important even in the story, and based on the fact that the next section of the book follows it, I’m assuming it will be a significant turning point for Claire. Thus, Gabaldon needs to establish a shift in setting. No, Leoch isn’t going anywhere, at least not at this point in history, but the castle undergoes a change in atmosphere, inhabitants, and focus. Establishing this through a brief scene like this builds anticipation for the coming big event and helps establish the look, feel, scent, taste, and atmosphere readers will need to fully experience the coming events.

To accomplish this, Gabaldon provides rich, textured exposition. She utilizes all five senses heavily, and this keeps the scene from being boring. She talks of sweet cherries and apricots, both of which I can almost taste while I read. She mentions smoke, which I can smell. She talks of wet leaves in misty morning, which I can feel on my skin. Claire has a brief conversation with a girl at the orchard, providing sound. Activity is described from work in the garden, preparing meat, carting in ale and flour, picking fruit. All this provides a sense of motion, which also safeguards against dullness.

The Passage of Time:

No author should write everything that happens during the course of a story. That would make the narrative drag on in long boring stretches. By the time a reader reached an interesting part, assuming he were patient enough to get that far, his brain would be so dulled that the impact and excitement of the interesting scene would lose its power. This necessitates the skipping or summarizing of time and information at strategic points in a story. This is when “telling” has its uses.

In this instance, Gabaldon quickly summarizes how Claire passes her days. Since it’s brief, she doesn’t risk becoming boring. Then she utilizes a technique that helps with the scene setting I mentioned above: motion.

Motion automatically carries with it the passage of time. It’s a basic rule of the universe. The fourth dimension is time. If something moves, we understand time to have passed. So by describing various activities in progress, Gabaldon automatically creates a sense of time’s passage.

Yet she does not linger on details. She includes rich verbs, nouns, and carefully chosen adjectives to provide texture and interest. Because she employs such vivid language, even when she “tells” what’s happening, it seems more like “showing.” The combination of vividness and motion creates the sense of action playing out before the reader and thus being “shown.” This is really when the two concepts of show and tell blend in a productive way.

So when a writer needs to summarize and show the passage of time, employing textured, colorful language, motion, and being brief can keep transition scenes like this interesting and effective.

Summary: On another fruit collecting expedition, Claire spots a useful mushroom and begins collecting it. However, a woman name Geillis Duncan, stops her, claiming the mushrooms are poisonous. Claire explains she knows this, but that the mushrooms are good for stopping bleeding once dried and applied topically.

This initiates the beginnings of a friendship. Geillis, a wealth of knowledge concerning herbs and healing herself, shows Claire places where certain herbs and mushrooms grow. She’s cynical but cheerful, and though she frequently teases Claire, Claire finds her a pleasant companion.

But Geillis isn’t just a purveyor of medicinal lore. She’s a gossip as well. One of the juicy tidbits she shares with Claire is the belief that Colum’s son is not actually his. She and many others claim the boy’s actual father is none other than Jamie MacTavish.

Writer Comments: Geillis is fun to read. She adds an energy to the page that no other character thus far has managed. She must have been fun to write as well. In fact, that’s the secret to making characters fun to read. They first have to be enjoyable to write.

Beyond that, Geillis provides another mouthpiece for sharing information with readers. Whether Jamie is really the boy’s father or not, it’s clearly an important belief Gabaldon must get across. I presume it will come into play for Claire later on. Regardless, as before, we have another minor character providing key information, but she isn’t just a talking head. She has personality and provides more to the story than mere knowledge and rumor. She clearly offers Claire the possibility of friendship and a peer. In a world where she’s very much the outsider, such might become precious to Claire. At the very least, it’s a need all readers can understand. We get the idea of loneliness and the need to fill out lives with those we enjoy.

But notice that Gabaldon does not spend pages and pages examining Claire’s loneliness. I believe she has only used the word alone, or some variant, once. A character does not need to philosophize about his inner working for an author to imply their existence. Emotions and mental states can be demonstrated in all sorts of indirect and powerful, though sometimes subtle, ways. Claire is constantly reminded of her alienness to this world. She’s cheerful about her predicament and naturally leans toward optimism, which means she’s unlikely to brood or monologue about her troubles. But Gabaldon uses situations and the contrast between Claire and this new world to demonstrate her inner emotions. She uses action in how Claire interacts with the people of Castle Leoch to reveal inner conflict. Only occasionally does she resort to exposition to explain Claire. Remember that navel gazing is not a requirement for revealing a character’s inner struggle.

Now, let’s take a step sideways to Jamie. Why does Gabaldon reveal this gossip about him now? It accomplishes a whole score of things, but they all come down to two things: they add conflict and they give Jamie greater value in the stakes of the story and in the other characters’ eyes.

Like in gardening, conflict must be planted like seeds before it can grow and reach satisfying maturity. And like a seedling or older plant, an author must water conflict by adding to it, by revealing more dimensions of it, and by increasing the stakes of the story, thus the value of what that conflict threatens or impacts. As to the exact conflict Gabaldon has in mind, I don’t know, but the mere possibility of Jamie being the father of the laird’s heir is enough to make it interesting. It’s enough to create delicious complications for other conflicts as well, such as the romance Gabaldon is clearly implying will develop between Claire and Jamie. Such as the relationship between Colum and Jamie, perhaps even between Dougal and Jamie. The possibilities are endless.

Summary: When Claire returns to the orchard, Magdalen, another women she’s friendly with, is waiting for her in some state of fright for what happened to her. Magdalen lets slip that Colum has given orders that Claire be watched, but Claire already suspected this.

The next day, a surge of food poisoning strikes the castle, and Claire is too busy tending the sick and tracking down the source of the bad food to go picking fruit. She finally discovers that a bad cow carcass is the result of all the trouble. While laying into the man in charge of meat preservation, Dougal finds her and invites her to accompany him into the village. He has business to handle, and she needs certain herbs for the sick, which she should be able to procure from Geillis. Claire jumps at the chance to escape the castle, even for just a little while.

Writer Comments: I have to wonder if Dougal and Colum are testing Claire by allowing her to ride into the village. Will she try to run away or not? But then, this is yet another small step or escalation in the subtle conflict between Claire and the MacKenzies. Even if Gabaldon doesn’t intend to pique my suspicions in this manner, setting up that conflict earlier allow them fertile ground, and that’s what helps generate interest in the story.

Too, by starting this section, barely a page long, with Magdalen slipping about Colum having Claire watched and ending it with this offer from Dougal, Gabaldon naturally pairs the two. Again, whether on purpose or by following her subconscious muse, the result is engaging and deft.

Summary: Geillie is delighted to have Claire visit and quickly whisks her off to the stillroom to help prepare herbs. While there, a commotion outside draws Claire’s attention. A tanner’s boy has been accused of thievery, and the priest and a good crowd bring him to Geillie’s husband for judgment.

Claire inquires after what’s likely to happen. Geillie tells her it depends on her husband’s mood. If he’s in good spirits, the boy will probably merely receive a whipping. If he’s not feeling well, he might order the lad’s ear or hand cut off. Claire is appalled. She asks Geillie to interfere on the boy’s behalf and ask her husband for mercy. At first, Geillie finds this peculiar, but she promises to do her best as Claire is a friend.

Claire waits in the stillroom, pounding rosemary and in great anxiety over the situation. She recognizes that, if she were to get directly involved as an outsider, she would probably make the situation far worse. However, Geillie does not disappoint. When she returns, she tells Claire about how dramatic she was, the image of matronly concern for the boy, and how she convinced her husband to show leniency. Rather than a whipping or losing an appendage,the boy will merely have his ear nailed to the pillory and be required to stay there for an hour. This hardly seems lenient to Claire, but she tries to make her peace with it.

As dusk draws near, Jamie comes to fetch her back to the castle. Geillie sends a whole chest of herbs with them. However, before mounting the horses, Claire finds out that the reason the boy is still at the pillory is because he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to jerk the nail from his ear, a gruesome task he must accomplish alone.

Quietly, so as not to draw anyone’s notice, she asks Jamie to pull the nail for the boy. Jamie’s up for the mischief but asks her to create a distraction so no one will suspect he interfered.

Together, they come to the lad to inspect his ear and give advise on his predicament. Jamie offers to jerk the boy’s head for him so the nail will rip out the side of his ear, but the boy is terrified at the suggestion. At this cue, Claire pretends to grow dizzy. She intentionally steps on the toes of the person behind her, stumbles, grabs people to keep her balance, and then, pretending a final swoon into unconsciousness, pitching headfirst off the pillory, taking a girl with her.

The crowd turns to her aid, giving Jamie time to surreptitiously pull the nail from the pillory and the boy’s ear. Claire is borne back to Geillie’s house and plied with drinks, blankets, and sympathy. At last, Jamie insists they must leave and carries her out.

They ride back to the castle, and Claire thanks him for his help and insists that, when she originally asked, she had no notion it might put him in danger. He shrugs off her concern and insists that he wasn’t about to be less bold than a Sassenach woman. And with all this, Claire sense a deeper friendship forming between them.

Writer Comments: First, let me say, “Ouch!” A nail through the ear! While I understand it rather trifling compared to many historical punishments, it’s still enough to make one cringe. I’m sure many other readers did the same at this point in the novel, giving testimony to the fact that Gabaldon is good at making her readers feel what the characters feel.

Hurrying past that uncomfortable incident, however, take a look at the pages dedicated to Claire and Jamie’s interactions. Whenever the two of them get together on the page, there’s definitely chemistry. They certainly have a propensity for mischief, which makes them more fun, but there’s a certain something in the way Gabaldon writes them that gives scenes energy and interest. I cannot point out quite how she manages this except to say it’s all in the characters themselves. Just like in a movie, the audience can tell if characters have chemistry or not. Just because an author invents two people does not mean they’ll work well together.

Before I go into two specific passages that highlight crucial points of the seen, note how Gabaldon is taking Jamie and Claire’s relationship to a new level. They are by no means romantically involved at this point, though other characters have implied that they might be. However, this seen solidifies affection, trust, and a kindredness between them. That alone drives them closer.

Now, to those two passages. The first occurs shortly after Claire arrives in the village with Dougal:

In fact, I had amused myself on the ride to the smithy by imagining an aerial view of the village as a representation of a skeletal forearm and hand; the High Street was the radius, along which lay the shops and businesses and residences of the more well-to-do. St. Margaret’s Lane was the ulna, a narrower street running parallel with the High, tenanted by smithy, tannery, and less genteel artisans and businesses. The village square (which,  like all village squares I had ever seen, was not square at all, but roughly oblong) formed the carpals and metacarpals of the hand, while the several lines of cottages made up the phalangeal joints of the fingers. -- page 121

This is a fantastic example of an extended simile. It works so well because it’s original and it fits Claire perfectly as someone who often thinks in medicinal terms. When choosing similes and metaphors, ensure they fit the voice of your point-of-view character and go for original. Too many cliches are made with old, threadbare similes and metaphors.

Now, take a look at the second quote. This second is from when Claire stands at the window watching the crowd, waiting to see how successful Geillie will be in getting mercy for the tanner’s boy.

Looking down at the assembly, standing patiently in the drizzle awaiting a verdict; I suddenly had a vivid understanding of something. Like so many, I had heard, appalled, the reports that trickled out of postwar Germany; the stories of deportations and mass murder, of concentration camps and burnings. And like so many others had done, and would do so, for many years to come, I had asked myself, “How could the people let it happen? They must have known, must have seen the trucks, the coming and going, the fences and smoke. How could they stand by and do nothing?” Well, now I knew. 
The stakes were not even life or death in this case. And Colum’s patronage would likely prevent any physical attack on me. But my hands grew clammy around the porcelain bowl as I thought of myself stepping out, alone and powerless, to confront that mob of solid and virtuous citizens, avid for the excitement of punishment and blood to alleviate the tedium of existence. 
People are gregarious by necessity. Since the days of the first cave dwellers, humans--hairless, weak, and helpless save for cunning--have survived by joining together in groups; knowing, as so many edible creatures have found, that there is protection in numbers. And that knowledge, bred in the bone, is what lies behind mob rule. Because to step outside the group, let alone to stand against it, was for uncounted thousands of years death to the creature who dared it. To stand against a crowd would take something more than ordinary courage; something that went beyond human instinct. And I feared I did not have it, and fearing, was ashamed. -- page 123

What a powerful passage. This is an example of where internal narration is the best choice. This has emotion and impact. Yes, it uses the tools of exposition and “telling,” but it’s far from boring. In fact, conflict overflows from this passage, and that conflict draws us in. The dilemma Claire faces is universal. We all know the fear of contradicting the crowd. But Gabaldon heightens the conflict by placing it on the same stage as one of the greatest atrocities of the modern era, the Holocaust. This works because it’s something Claire would known and understand and because it’s something reader know.

But look at the last lines:

To stand against a crowd would take something more than ordinary courage; something that went beyond human instinct. And I feared I did not have it, and fearing, was ashamed. -- page 123

This is the crux of the conflict as well as the apex of this particular character revelation. Even though Claire believes she should possess the quality to stand against a mob to fight for what she believes is right, she comes to the realization that she does not have that quality. She is ashamed. I don’t know about you, but I can very much understand this. I’ve felt shame for not being able to find the courage to do what I know is right, and sometimes that type of shame can haunt a person. This is also a conflict.

So Claire has multiple conflicts occurring at once. The conflict of the boy’s fate. The conflict of her desires against the crowd’s. The conflict that comes from realizing she hasn’t the strength of character she hoped. Three conflicts in such a short space help make this passage rich and dense.

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 for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

To see other books I've broken down for writing tips, click here.


  1. Oh my, what a well considered post about Outlander and writing. I really enjoyed it. I love those books and the Starz series. I'll be checking back for more, and when I get a chance I'll see about the older posts. http://flossiebentonrogers.com

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Flossie. Welcome to the blog. :-)