Outlander author Diana Gabaldon explains why she chose a Fraser for her hero

We are extremely grateful to Diana for taking the time to explain why she chose Clan Fraser for her hero Jamie:



I’m often asked (and not only by people named Fraser) why, when I decided to write a historical novel for practice, and–on a whim–set it in 18th-century Scotland, did I choose to have a Fraser clansman as the hero?

Unlike a lot of things in my books, for which there’s no answer other than it seemed like fun at the time, there actually is a reason for this.

First, see “on a whim,” above. I’d been wanting to be a novelist since I was about eight years old, and when I turned thirty-five, I said to myself, “Mozart was dead at thirty-six. Maybe you’d best get a move on.” So I decided to write a novel, in order to learn how. I didn’t intend to try to publish this novel (I had no reason to think it would be any good, for one thing…), nor did I mean to tell anyone what I was doing.

While that was very freeing, it wasn’t yet a basis for starting anything. So the obvious first question was: what sort of book ought I to write, for practice?

I thought about that for a bit, and after contemplating crime novels (my favorite default genre, though in fact I will read—and have read—absolutely anything), decided that I had no idea how to construct a plot, as such. Surely there was something easier?

Well, yes, there was. While I was at the time a university professor (in the sciences: I have a Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology (this is animal behavior with a lot of statistics, don’t worry about it…), an M.S. in Marine Biology and a B.S. in Zoology), I had only two noticeable qualifications to write a novel: I understood what a sentence was, and I was a Research Professor; I knew my way around a library.

So obviously, I should write historical fiction, I thought. After all, if I turned out to have no imagination, I could steal things from the historical record. (This actually works quite well…)

Right. Historical fiction. Ummm….what part of history? I mean, there’s a lot of it…

So I began turning things over in my mind, thinking of different entertaining periods that might be fertile ground for a novel: Venice under the Borgias? American Civil War? The War of Jenkins’ Ear? Ypres? All good, ripe stuff, no doubt, but how to choose?

Well, while in this malleable frame of mind, I happened to see a Really Old episode of “Doctor Who” on TV. By “Really Old,” I mean we were on the second doctor (played by Patrick Troughton. What are we up to now? The Fourteenth Doctor or so?). It was an episode of the serial called “War Games”, originally aired in 1969 (at which time I would have been twelve, so this was Quite Some Time ago).

Just in case we have some visitors here who are not familiar with “Doctor Who”—it’s a very long-running British television show, dealing with the adventures of the Doctor, who is a Time-Lord from the planet Gallifrey, who goes about space and time running into all sorts, usually in the company of one, two or three Earthlings, as the Doctor finds humans to be funny, loyal and well…deeply human, which is a nice change from some of the other things he encounters.

So. In the sixth season of the show, the Doctor had picked up (off the battlefield at Culloden) a young Highland Scot named Jamie MacCrimmon—an appealing young man who appeared in his kilt.

“Well, that’s fetching,” I said (to myself, as my husband was also watching the show). Sufficiently so, that I found myself still thinking about this the next day. In church. (Mind, I don’t claim Divine Intervention or anything, but I was in church…)

And coming out of said church, I said to myself, “Well, you want to write a book and the important thing is just to start somewhere, isn’t it? All right, then—Scotland, eighteenth century.”

So that’s where I began: I knew nothing about Scotland or the eighteenth century, and I had no outline, no plot and no characters—nothing, in fact, save a man in a kilt. Which seemed like a reasonable place to start, and I did. (I don’t, by the way, work with an outline, nor do I write in a straight line; I write where I can see things happening.

Now, at this point, I’d encountered quite a few people who also wanted to write historical fiction.  This was 1985; the Internet (as such) didn’t yet exist, and Google had never been heard of, but there were three “Information Services,” as they were called : Delphi, Genie, and Compuserve.

Allow me to digress for a moment (there’s a reason why I write long books; it’s because I really like digressions) to explain how I ended up on Compuserve (which actually has a lot to do with how I wrote what I did and got published).  I was, as I said, an Assistant Research Professor at the time, and Assistant Research Professors in the biological sciences are/were paid somewhat less than street sweepers and sanitation workers.  I had a husband who was starting his own business (which later became quite successful, but wasn’t bringing in that much to start with), and three children, aged 6, 4, and 2.  Obviously, we needed a bit more money.

And so (not to make this any longer than necessary by explaining how I happened to have the expertise to do this—it had to do with bird gizzards), I ended up writing freelance articles for the computer press.  And one day, Byte magazine sent me an assignment, and with it, a floppy disk (this was a looong time ago…) with a trial membership to Compuserve; the notion being that the software I was to review had <gasp> online help and support for their software (nobody else had ever done this) and they wanted that feature mentioned in the review.

So I obligingly logged on to Compuserve, found the software Forum, checked it out—and then I still had four hours of free connect time.  At this time, everything was still dial-up at 300 baud and they charged you $30/hr. to be connected.  So I thought, well, I’m not wasting $120 (no, I’m not Scottish, why do you ask?), and started poking about to see what else was available in Compuserve.   Which is how I came to stumble into a group called the Literary Forum (this still exists, but no longer on Compuserve, which was resorbed into the Internet some years ago): these were people who liked books.  Some writers—some professional, some aspiring—and many readers, but overall, people who loved books and talking about them.  For someone with two full-time jobs and three small children, this was the ideal social life.

So I joined up, and began hanging around, listening to writers talk and asking questions.   And, as I say, I encountered a lot of people who wanted to write historical fiction.  And one thing that I noticed repeatedly was that many people who want to write historical fiction don’t ever get around to actually writing anything, because they’re too busy doing research.

“All right,” I thought.  “The point here is to learn to write a novel, not to learn everything there is to know about Scotland and the eighteenth century.”  At the same time, I was an academic; I wanted whatever I wrote to be as accurate as possible.   So I started writing immediately, and the next day I went to the University Library and looked for books on Scotland in the 18th century.  There were roughly 400 titles available (I mean, there’s no dearth of information about Scotland), so I tiptoed along and took out anything that looked interesting, and…that’s where I started.

Writing and researching at the same time has been really effective, and that’s still how I work.

Well, the only thing I had, to begin with, was a man in a kilt.  So that’s where I started.  I named my protagonist “Jamie” in compliment to Jamie MacCrimmon, but for several months, he had no last name.  I realized that I knew nothing (yet) about clan politics in 18th century Scotland, and didn’t want to name him something that would limit his actions, or involve him in things I didn’t want to deal with.  So he was just Jamie [blank] for quite a long time.

But I’d been researching right along—and having decided pretty quickly that I’d use the Jacobite Rebellion, for assorted reasons (the DisKilting act of 1746 being only one of them…), one day I was reading Eric Linklater’s book The Prince in the Heather, which recounts the details of Charles Edward Stuart’s flight to France, following the defeat of his troops at Culloden.

The book naturally dealt (briefly) with that defeat, and mentioned the fates of some of the men involved.  I was struck by one particular passage:

“After the battle, nineteen Jacobite officers took refuge in a nearby farmhouse.  Here they lay for two days, in pain, their wounds untended.  At the end of this time, they were taken out and shot.  One man, a Fraser of the Master of Lovat’s regiment, survived the slaughter.  The rest are buried in the field nearby.”

At this point in the writing, I had already realized that the story would continue past Culloden, so I shrugged and said, “Well, if I expect him to be around for the next book, I suppose his last name had better be Fraser.”*1,2,3

And that’s why Fraser.  My deepest gratitude to Clan Fraser for their graciousness about my grafting an illegitimate sprout to their family tree!

Le meas agus,

–Diana Gabaldon




*1.  Several years later (and still doing research), I discovered a further account of the man who had escaped execution at Culloden.  He had (the story says) managed to return to his own land, but being a traitor, was hunted by the English and thus lived in a cave for several years.  He was known in the area as “the Dunbonnet,” to prevent his tenants inadvertently giving him away.

  1. And a few years further on, I read a separate account of the Fraser Dunbonnet, which gave his true name.  Which, interestingly enough…was James.

3.  There are other accounts of Jacobite fugitives living in caves: Cluny MacPherson and Hugh Fraser of Foyles being two of them.  Also, there’s an account of a James Fraser surviving a firing-squad execution of a group of Jacobites in front of St. Stephen’s church in Inverness.  No telling how much overlap there may be among such accounts, as most aren’t documented by any primary source.