Wednesday, September 3, 2014

My Outlander Obsession. What makes a novel great?

I've written about Outlander before - about the series of books by Diana Gabaldon that consumed me during a very difficult phase of my life. The same books that sent me to Scotland in search of standing stones and castles an in inhospitable climate. And I think I mentioned that I was anxiously awaiting the debut of the new television series based on those books.

For what it's worth, the series is every bit as intriguing as the books, with the one exception being that I didn't learn enough Gaelic to even begin to understand what they're saying half the time. I wished for subtitles, and then I decided that in the books, Claire didn't know what they were saying either, and the series is filmed from Claire's point of view. So I don't suppose I need to know what they're saying. The message is the same.

What makes these books so enthralling? As an author, I pay attention when something grabs me. That's something I want to replicate in my books, that feeling of wanting to know these characters and live their lives, even in a climate that doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. What is it about these books (and I'm limiting "these" to her first two books, because beyond that I didn't feel the same connection)?

Plain and simple? It's the characters. They were three dimensional, perfectly drawn. We "see" them, from detailed outward descriptions to every facet of their personality. The hero is larger than life, you see him strong, vulnerable, witty, charming, stubborn. He's fiercely loyal, compassionate and an outlaw. And the heroine? Pretty much the same. Tough as nails, beautifully feminine, single-minded, adaptable, witty, out of her element. And that might be why the later books don't work for me. She's no longer out of her element, and because of her strong character, she has mastered her situation.

Then there's the sense of setting. As a reader, I felt the cold in my bones, saw the snow falling, the dark of the forest, the pokes of hay. Those two books described Scotland as desolate with a climate that would scare most people off. And I wanted to go.

Note to self. Characterization and setting are critical.

Another movie that I found to be a perfect example of plot was "Brave." A Disney movie, it demonstrated perfectly how to combine love and hate into one person to create the perfect conflict. When I walked out of that theater, I told my husband, "Now that's how it's done!"

These are things we strive for as authors. To engage our audience, and sometimes it requires using a trope. Sometimes it requires strong characters. I have friends who subscribe to a formula when they write (and I'm not talking about formulaic novels, I'm talking about the process more than the story). That approach leaves me cold. I'm a seat of the pants type writer, following my gut. I'm not going to stop along the way, as a meme I saw recently said, to make sure I inserted the proper elements at the proper points. I tend to follow by example. I know where I need to go, I know how I need to get there. I'm not going to interrupt the process to check the map. I'd rather enjoy the ride.

One last note. I've recently been binge reading books that follow a formula. Victoria Holt followed a formula. I grew up with her books and read every one I could get my hands on. Likewise, I will probably read every book Jill Shalvis writes. I like the formula. And yes, it gets old after a while and I'll need a break eventually, but right now I'm eating them up. The basic plot is the same, with a change in occupation and circumstance. And every one of them has been satisfying to read. (warning: they are Steamy).

I've tucked all this experience away, hoping I can create the same type of magic with the characters I write. I know I've connected with them, and I hope I can write them in such a way that you connect with them, too.

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