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I had told Perry when I gave him the book that there seemed to be more to this story, but I thought that perhaps I should stop while I could still lift the manuscript. Being a good agent, Perry emerged with a three-book contract. After that . . . well, after that, things got out of hand, and here we are, eight years later.
So where are we, exactly? As I said above, I don't write with an outline--if I knew what was going to happen, it wouldn't be any fun to write the book, now, would it? However, as I go along, merrily gluing pieces together, I do sometimes get a vague idea as to some events that may take place in the story. So, as I finished Cross Stitch (my working title for what later became Outlander),13 I could see that there was more to the story.
With a three-book contract in hand, I started in on the second book, Dragonfly in Amber. A little over halfway through, though, I began to get this uneasy feeling that perhaps I wouldn't be able to cram the entire American Revolution into one more book, and there would have to be four volumes. I confided this fear to Perry, who said, "Don't tell them that. Not until the first one is on the shelves, anyway."
Fortunately, by the time we decided to reveal the Awful Truth, the first books had come out and sold decency, and the publisher was happy to make us an offer for the fourth (and presumably final) book in the series. Feeling that this was perhaps the only chance I might get to induce someone to pay me to write a mystery, I got bold and said they could have the fourth book if they'd also give me a contract to write a contemporary mystery. Rather to my surprise, they gave me acontract for two mysteries--and the fourth of the Outlander books.
So I set in to write. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote, and after a year and a half of this, I said, I've got a quarter-million words here; why the heck am I not nearly done with this? A little thought revealed the answer; I had (once again) too much story to fit into one book.
Attending a writers' conference at which my editor was also present, I leaned over during the awards banquet and hissed in her ear, "Guess what? There are five of them." To which Jackie, a woman of great presence and equanimity, replied, "Why am I not surprised to hear this?"
Actually, it was worse than I thought. When I removed all the pieces that belonged in the fifth book, I finally realized that what I was looking at was a double trilogy--six books in all. The first three books--Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager--are centered around the Jacobite Rising of 1745. The second three books are centered in a similar way around the American Revolution, which was, in a way, a greatly magnified echo of the earlier conflict that ended at Culloden.
And that leads us in turn to a consideration of just what's going on in these books. Once I realized that I really was a writer, and that I had not one, but a series of books, I had two main intentions.
One was a desire to follow the great social changes of the eighteenth century. This was a time of huge political and social upheaval that saw the transition of the Western world from the last remnants of feudalism into the modern age, in terms of everything from politics and science to art and social custom. The tide of history was changing, flowing from the Old World to the New, borne on the waves of war, and what better way to look at this than through the eyes of a time-traveler?
Now, this is great stuff for the background of a novel, to be sure, but the fact is that good novels are about people. A book that doesn't have an absorbing personal story in the foreground may be good history, or have good ideas--but it won't be good fiction. So what about the personal angle of this story?
The first book was originally marketed as a historical romance because, although the book didn't fit neatly into any genre (and at the same time was certainly not "literary fiction"), of all the markets that it might conceivably appeal to, romance was by far the biggest. However . . .
Other considerations aside, romance novels are courtship stories. They deal with the forming of a bond between a couple, and once that bond is formed, by marriage and sexual congress (in that order, we hope)--well, the story's over. That was never what I had in mind.
I didn't want to tell the story of what makes two people come together, although that's a theme of great power and universality. I wanted to find out what it takes for two people to stay together for fifty years--or more. I wanted to tell not the story of a courtship, but the story of a marriage.
Now, to handle adequately themes like the Age of Enlightenment, the fall of monarchy, and the nature of love and marriage, one requires a certain amount of room. One also requires rather a complex story. People now and then say to me, "But aren't you getting tired of writing about the same old characters?" I certainly would be, if these were the same old characters--but they're not. They grow, and they change. They get older, and their lives become more complex. They develop new depths and facets. While they do--I hope--remain true to their basic personalities, I have to rediscover them with each new book.
And that leads to another question I'm often asked: What is it that people find interesting about the books? For a long time, I replied (honestly), "Beats me," but after years of getting letters and E-mail, I now have some idea of the things readers say they like.
Many of them enjoy the sense of "being there"; the vicarious experience of another place and time. Many like the historical aspects of the books; they enjoy (they say) "learning something" while being entertained. Many like the sense of connection, of rediscovering their own heritage. A good many enjoy the curious details: the botanical medicine, the medical procedures, the how and why of daily life in another time. But by far the most common element that people enjoy in the books is simply the characters--readers care for these people, are interested in them, and want to know more about them.
So, this companion is intended for the readers: a quick reference for those who don't necessarily want to reread a million and a half words in order to refresh their memories as to Who or What; a source of information and (maybe) insight on the characters, a companion for those with an interest in backgrounds and trivia; an auxiliary guide for those with an interest in the eighteenth century and Things Scottish, and finally--a brief glimpse into the working methods of a warped mind.
"True. I have heard the point made, though, that the novelist's skill lies in the artful selection of detail. Do you not suppose that a volume of such length may indicate a lack of discipline in such selection, and hence a lack of skill?"
Fraser considered, sipping the ruby liquid slowly.
"I have seen books where that is the case, to be sure," he said. "An author seeks by sheer inundation of detail to overwhelm the reader into belief. In this case, however, I think it isna so. Each character is most carefully considered, and all the incidents chosen seem necessary to the story. No, I think it is true that some stories simply require a greater space in which to be told."
--Voyager, chapter 11: "The Torremolinos Gambit"
1. The university and I later sold this pub1ication to John Wiley & Sons, Inc., though I continued to serve as editor. It eventually was sold again, to a small British pub1isher, who merged it with an existing publication called Laboratory Microcomputer. Last time I looked, I was still listed as a contributing editor, but that was some time ago.
2. Oh, the comic books. Well, my mother taught me to read at an early age, in part by reading me Walt Disney comics. What with one thing and another, I never stopped. At the age of twenty-eight or so, I was reading one of these, and said to myself, You know, this story is pretty bad. I bet I could do better myself.
I found out the name and address of the editor in charge, and sent him a medium-rude letter, saying in essence, "I've been reading your comic books for twenty-five years, and they're getting worse and worse. I don't know that I could do better myself, but I'd like to try. "
Fortunately the editor--Del Connell--was a gentleman with a sense of humor. He wrote back and said, "Okay. Try. "He didn't buy my first attempt, but did something much more valuab1e; he told me what was wrong with it. He bought my second story--one of the Great Thrills of my life--and I wrote for him and for another Disney editor, Tom Golberg, for some three years, until their backlog ob1iged them to stop purchasing freelance scripts.
Between them, Del and Tom taught me most of what I know about story structure. I acknowledge the debt with great gratitude.
3. This is a really sound technique, by the way.
4. Doctor Who is unfortunately no longer on our local PBS channel, but luckily I can still do my nails on Saturday nights, while watching Mystery Science Theater 3000--which is, in fact, the only TV I do watch on a regular basis. No doubt this explains something, but I couldn't tell you what.
5. It was "War Games, "for those interested in trivia.
6. See "Research".
7. Via posted messages, left bulletin-board style; I've never been in a "chat room" in my life, save as an invited guest for a mass pub1ic interview.
8 "Libraries "are electronic spaces set aside within CompuServe forums for members to post--semipermanently--things they'd like to share: stories, poems, essays, articles, shareware files, etc.
9. Chat rooms and live-time interactions did not exist at the time. CompuServe messages, unlike those of AOL, exist only temporarily, with new messages essentially "pushing" old ones off into the ether.
10. A slightly altered version of this synopsis appears in Part Two.
11. Ignorant as I was at the time, I hadn't realized that agent (and editors) normally want to see a complete manuscript before making a judgment on it--just to be sure that the writer can actually finish the book. Perry, fortunately, was willing to gamb1e that I could.
12. Who, interestingly enough, rejected the manuscript. "It's a great story, "she said, "but it's not really a standard romance novel, and that's what we publish."
13. See "Where Titles Come From (and Other Matters of General Interest)". I just love footnotes, don't you?