Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we examine techniques a bestselling author uses to create a riveting story. Click here to catch up or review previous parts of this read.
Part Two: On the Road
Chapter 11: Conversations with a Lawyer
Summary: At last, Claire is free of Castle Leoch. However, she’s still accompanied by Dougal, Jamie, a lawyer named Ned Gowan, and twenty-odd men-at-arms. Fortunately, the sizable guard isn’t for her benefit, but to protect the rents the men will collect.
On the road the first day, she talks with Mr. Gowan, a well educated solicitor from Edinburgh. He seems a pleasant enough man, one who, despite his age, still has a taste for adventure, and who takes no offense whatsoever that Claire doesn’t fall for his offer of a discrete advisor. Claire isn’t fool enough to think he won’t blab to Colum everything she says, and Mr. Gowan merely finds her grasping this amusing.
However, he explains much more of the backstory behind Colum, Dougal, and a little bit about Jamie. Colum appeared normal physically until he was eighteen, then, after a couple bad falls, was never the same again. Dougal had proved himself hotheaded and rash, and their sister had married Jamie’s father with some sort of scandal, which Gowan does not explain. Following much deliberation, after Colum’s and Dougal’s father passes away, the clan agrees to allow Colum as laird and Dougal as war chief. Though Mr. Gowan makes no claim to this scheme originating with him, it’s clear to Claire that his clever expertise secured Colum the lairdship despite his physical challenges.
Writer Comments: Had Gabaldon introduced all this backstory earlier, it would have come off as, at best, vaguely interesting. More likely, it would have seemed dull and tedious. However, as handled here, Gabaldon has spent chapters hinting at details and snagging reader interest. Here she delivers some satisfying details and drops in new intriguing tidbits. Essentially, Gabaldon understands that a reader must first care before an author can deliver backstory.
Summary: Over the next week, Claire accompanies Dougal as he collects rents from the MacKenzie tacksmen. At a less run down collection of hovels, Dougal buys the men who stay later ale and riles them up with a speech in Gaelic. In the midst of it, he rips Jamie’s shirt off to display the scars from when Jamie was beaten. Unwarned and angered by this, Jamie hastily leaves the tavern.
After this, men start contributing money, and Claire realizes that Dougal, and perhaps Colum, are Jacobites and wanting capital to fund a rebellion. At the end of the collections, Claire lets Dougal know that she disapproves of his methods. He finds it curious that she doesn’t object to him collecting money for a sovereign who challenges her own.
Writer Comments: Generally, I’ve liked Dougal, but I agree with Claire here. He can certainly be a jerk.
So why does this scene work? Every scene must have a source of tension and conflict. In this case, Gabaldon sets up conflict in previous chapters. Readers know by now that Jamie does not like people to see his back because all they’ll see when they look at him after that will be the scars, not him. Here, what Dougal does is a deep, personal violation. With our previous knowledge of Jamie, we know this and feel pain with him. In such a way, Gabaldon creates conflict: Jamie’s pain and reader desire for that pain to be relieved. That is what drives us onto the next scene and eventually the next chapter.
Beyond that, this scene has some great banter.
Dougal stood up and stretched, looking moderately satisfied, looking like a cat that has dined at least on milk, if not cream. He weighed the smaller pouch, and tossed it back to Ned Gowan for safekeeping.
“Aye, well enough,” he remarked. “Canna expect a great deal from such a small place. But manage enough of the same, and it will be a respectable sum.”
“ ‘Respectable’ is not quite the word I’d use,” I said, rising stiffly from my lurking place.
Dougal turned, as though noticing me for the first time.
“No?” he said, mouth curling in amusement. “Why not? Have ye an objection to loyal subjects contributing their mite in support of their sovereign?”
“None,” I said, meeting his stare. “No matter which sovereign it is. It’s your collection methods I don’t care for.”
Dougal studied me carefully, as though my features might tell him something. “No matter which sovereign it is?” he repeated softly. “I thought you had no Gaelic.”
“I haven’t,” I said shortly. “But I’ve the sense I was born with, and two ears in good working order. And whatever ‘King George’s health’ may be in Gaelic, I doubt very much that it sounds like ‘Bragh Stuart.’ “
He tossed back his head and laughed. “That it doesna,” he agreed. “I’d tell ye the proper Gaelic for your liege lord and ruler, but it isna a word suitable for the lips of a lady, Sassenach or no.”
Stooping, he plucked the balled-up shirt out of the ashes of the hearth and shook the worst of the shoot off it.
“Since ye dinna care for my methods, perhaps ye’d wish to remedy them,” he suggested, thrusting the ruined shirt into my hands. “Get a needle from the lady of the house and mend it.”
“Mend it yourself!” I shoved it back into his arms and turned to leave.
“Suit yourself,” Dougal said pleasantly from behind me. “Jamie can mend his own shirt, then, if you’re not disposed to help.”
I stopped, then turned reluctantly, hand out. -- page 154
Good banter is a joy to read. It can take work to construct or can come to a writer naturally. In either case, the finished product should flow seamlessly. It’s best to have a beta reader or critique partner go over scenes like this to ensure the banter achieves the desired impact.
Summary: That night, unable to sleep in the stifling, smelly, noisy cottage she’s given to bed down in, Claire slips out for fresh, cool air and a better bed on the ground. As she snuggles into her nest, she overhears Dougal and Jamie arguing. Dougal dismisses Jamie’s objections to the use of his back and insists that, since Jamie swore obedience to Colum as long as he’s on MacKenzie land, Dougal can tell Jamie to do whatever he wants.
After the argument, Jamie sits popping his knuckles in fury. He tells Claire that he knows she’s there and to come out if she wants. She does, and advises him to hit something to make himself feel better. He punches a cherry tree and finds a resulting ease to his frustrations.
Claire asks if he really intends to let Dougal use him like that, to which Jamie answers, “For now.” -- page 159
Writer Comments: Take a look at Jamie’s last line, which is also the last line of this scene: “For now.” These two words possess no inherent power of their own. They’re rather innocuous and plain. However, in this context, they gain force and ominousness.
How? They stand in contrast to Jamie’s oath. Within themselves, they imply contrast and conflict. Jamie is kin to Dougal. The MacKenzies are providing Jamie with shelter and protection. Jamie has more advantages fighting against the current English rule. Yet these two words suggest at some point he may turn his back against all that. Such an inner struggle and such implied future conflict creates tension, and that makes “For now” the perfect, powerful scene ending phrase. Never neglect context when it comes to word choice.
Summary: After several nights of Dougal using Jamie to help gather money for a rebellion, someone goes too far. A man makes a snide comment in Gaelic, a language Claire is starting to get hints of meaning in. Jamie launches himself at the men, and a brawl ensues, three against Jamie. The other men lay bets on who will win, and when Claire suggests someone should help Jamie, she’s met with confusion. Apparently, three against one berzerking, large warrior is considered fair odds.
Eventually, Jamie claims the upper hand and wins, but he’s much the worse for wear. Claire patches him up. Despite many bruises, two loosened teeth, a swollen nose, and numerous other injuries, Jamie is cheerful and relaxed for the first time since Dougal started using him.
As Claire finishes patching him up, Murtagh, one of the other men with Dougal, comes in to deliver Jamie’s share of the winnings. He tells Jamie, and the two have a mysterious conversation.
A glance passed between the two men, with a message I didn’t understand. Jamie blew his breath out softly through his teeth, nodding slowly to himself.
“When?” he asked.
“A week. Ten days, perhaps. Near a place called Lag Cruime. You’ll know it?”
Jamie nodded again, looking more content than I’d seen him in some time. “I know it.” -- page 163
Writer Comments: The plot thickens, literally apparently. Claire intends to flee back home. Dougal is plotting to help raise a rebellion that Colum may or may not support. Jamie has a mysterious past and a rivalry with Captain Randal. And now, a scheme appears to be brewing behind Dougal’s back that involves Jamie and at least one other man. It’s enough to provide a nicely complicated intrigue.
No matter the genre, novels should have multiple things unraveling at once. The protagonist isn’t the only character making decisions and impacting the plot, and life isn’t so simple as to provide only one or two complications at a time. Fiction should include a variety of complications and subplots. The trick is to tie them all together in the climax and to have them impact each other along the way.
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.
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