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'Outlander' TV series based on Gabaldon novels explores Scotland past and present

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GLASGOW, Scotland - If Diana Gabaldon wants to know how her life will change now that her "Outlander" novels have been turned into a TV series, all she has to do is ask "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin.

This won't be a problem. The two have breakfast together every other month.

"He lives in Santa Fe (New Mexico) full time and my husband and I have a small place there," says Gabaldon. "Every other month or so, I'll have breakfast with George."

The two authors — who each have sold tens of millions of books — are neighbours in another way now: "Game of Thrones" shoots in Ireland while "Outlander" is based in Scotland, where Gabaldon's first novel starts. The period drama takes advantage of Scotland's green, rolling hills as well as centuries-old castles and other heritage landmarks.

Like "Thrones," "Outlander" is a historical epic but with a sci-fi twist. The series, which premieres Sunday night at 10 p.m. on Showcase, follows the adventures of Claire Randall (played by Irish actress Caitriona Balfe). We first meet Randall as a field nurse patching up soldiers on Second World War battlefields. The end of the war reunites her with her detached, spymaster hubby Frank (Tobias Menzies, from "Game of Thrones").

Their second honeymoon is cut short, however, when Claire mysteriously tumbles back into 18th-century Scotland. There she falls in with a clan of broadsword-wielding highlanders fighting for Scottish independence. The nurse in her stitches together wounded warrior Jamie (Scottish actor Sam Heughan), and before she can say "haggis" she's forced into a sizzling second marriage.

The series has already been renewed for a second season by the originating U.S. cable broadcaster Starz, which premiered "Outlander" a few weeks ago.

Gabaldon, who does not look her 62 years, says her own career as a best-selling author is a "sheer accident." Her father Tony, an Arizona state senator, felt she was such a poor judge of character she'd wind up "marrying some bum" and urged her to get a good education. She earned several degrees in science, including a PhD in behavioural ecology.

She became a full-time assistant professor at Arizona State University but was getting bored writing software reviews and technical articles. "I liked research, but I knew I was actually supposed to be a novelist, and so when I turned 35 I said to myself, 'Well, you know, Mozart was dead at 36, maybe you'd better get a move on here.'"

She decided to start writing a book by her next birthday, just for practice. At first she thought she'd tackle a mystery but then thought, "No, mysteries have plots." Gabaldon, a research professor, thought the easiest book she could write would be a historical novel. "It seemed easier to look things up than to make them up," she figured, "and if I have no imagination, I could steal things from the historical records."

Gabaldon hit upon the idea to drop a smart-alecky modern woman into an earlier century and settled on the 1700s after catching a "Doctor Who" episode. She didn't want her nurse Claire to be too modern, however, relying on MRI machines or other 20th-century advances. Her research told her antibiotics, anesthesia and antisepsis all came into wide use during the Second World War and battle-tested Claire was born.

Dressed in an enormous skirt and other period garb while greeting a few reporters, Gabaldon is being sneaked into her own show as an extra. She has her two lines down pat and marvels at how the set designers and costumers have made the world she created come to life. The ceremonial scene is set inside a great hall of a castle, where she takes her place among dozens of others.

"The nice thing about seeing it made in visual terms is that I recognize the bones of the story," she says. "Many of the scenes are taken straight out of the book."

The original plan for the first book, "Outlander," published in 1991, was to turn it into a movie. It was optioned four times. As the story widened across several books, Gabaldon was "in terror" somebody would succeed in cramming it all into a two-hour feature.

Once the TV landscape shifted toward grand, historical miniseries, such as "Game of Thrones," "Vikings" and "Downton Abbey," plans to turn the novels into a series came into focus.

Especially when Ronald D. Moore — who pursued the rights for four years — came on board as executive producer. A veteran of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," Moore is revered in the fantasy/sci-fi universe as a genre Jedi.

That he has traded Klingon for kilts works for Gabaldon. When she read his "Outlander" pilot, she told him, "This is the only script ever written based on my work that didn't make me either turn white or burst into flames!"

Moore feels Gabaldon's heroine will easily pull audiences into this romantic time travel trip.

"She's a modern character, even though she's from the '40s," he says. From the corsets to the language (some of it spoken by the actors in Gaelic), Claire is essentially in a world that is completely alien to her. "We get to go on that journey too and we can play the 18th century as it was, which was a fairly odd place."


While in Scotland, Bill Brioux was a guest of Showcase. He is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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