Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a peek into what makes good writing like this book work.
Chapter 17: We Meet a Beggar
Summary: The next day, Jamie and Claire head off into the woods again, but in a different direction. There’s a spot Jamie wants to show Claire, but it takes a long time to get to. Along the way, they stop at some pools carved out by glaciers called tarns. A bunch of plovers crying beside their nests are there too, and Jamie calms one, then sends it fleeing off into the woods. He tells Claire when she asks that, according to myth, plovers are inhabited by the souls of young mothers who died in childbirth, which is why they cry beside their nests. Claire realizes he had his own experience with such a mother, his own mother, when he was eight.
They climb higher up the mountain and rest once more. Jamie confesses to not being able to stop wanting Claire. He asks if his feelings are normal, and Claire says something like it is normal but there is something different between them.
Finally, they ascend to a rocky outcrop that overlooks the valley. They can see the inn and road from there. While admiring the scenery, someone shoots an arrow at them. Jamie hastens Claire down, then sees the arrow’s fletching. It belongs to an old friend named Hugh Munro.
Munro comes up to catch up. He wears layers of rags and has been granted permission to beg in multiple parishes because of the wounds and torment he suffered in Turkey for Christendom, among them the loss of his tongue. He uses sign language to communicate, which Jamie can understand and Claire cannot. He and Jamie catch up. Hugh is also recently married. Jamie gets Hugh to send a message for him to Horrocks, an English deserter who was supposed to meet Jamie where it’s no longer safe, where Captain Randall and the Black Watch have gone. Hugh will get Horrocks to change their meeting place so Jamie needn’t fear capture.
After, Jamie and Claire return to the inn. Dougal has returned and teases Jamie, but Jamie and Claire retreat to their room for lovemaking.
Writer Comments: Like the previous honeymooning chapter, this one doesn’t have as much action or tension. It reveals information and does small things to set up later events. We learn of Jamie losing his mother at age eight. We learn of Hugh and, through him, Gabaldon reminds us about Horrocks. We see Jamie and Claire being consumed by a passion that is sure to get them into trouble when Claire returns to her own time, or at least tries to. And we learn that Murtagh, the man who initially captured Claire, is a Fraser and one of Jamie’s cousins. He’s also the man among their group Jamie trusts.
Normally in my writer comments, I try to steer toward what a writer does well because, as writers, we ought to emulate those good points. I also prefer to stay on the positive. However, there are a few things I’d like to point out in this chapter that should generally be avoided.
First, in the previous chapter, Jamie caught a fish for Claire and said they’d eat it for breakfast the next morning. However, instead, he and Claire and up eating bread and cheese for breakfast. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to that fish. It’s important as an author to keep track of your details and make sure everything in consistent. Unless there’s a very good reason, in this case like Dougal stealing their fish for his own breakfast, the story and its details, even minor ones, should be logical and consistent. Editors and beta readers are wonderful for helping writers out with this.
Second, low tension. Yes, it’s true that many authors get away with the occasional low tension scene. If everything else is down well, most readers will sit through the scene and patiently wait for the excitement to pick back up. However, this makes the second chapter in a row with low tension. The only real risk felt is that Captain Randall will soon expect Claire and that maybe the Black Watch might take notice of Jamie if they happen upon him. However, these details are so background and ephemeral that they don’t contribute to the scenes in these chapters. Tension and conflict are like oxygen for a story. They’re absolutely crucial and must be taken in near constantly. Without them, a writer risks boring her readers, and I confess that, much as I enjoy this book, this chapter was a bit tedious.
Third, handing the characters something easily should be avoided. It’s one thing to make something easy on a character only to turn it on its head and reveal it actually creates a bigger problem. However, in this chapter, shortly after Claire and Jamie discuss the need for someone else to meet Horrocks, someone conveniently appears to do just that. It stretches believability and weakens the impact of the characters and scene.
On the other hand, Gabaldon’s audience, for the most part, might be more tolerant of all this. Her audience is primarily composed of female readers who enjoy romance. This chapter includes passion, a few honeymoon trysts that certainly fall under the category of wish fulfillment, and a hero who can’t stop wanting to have his way with the heroine. All this plays to the escapism and wish fulfillment motivations of many romance readers. But, even with that, the chapter would have been stronger with much more tension and conflict.