Outlander's Diana Gabaldon On Setting World War II As Claire's Backstory

Why a World War II combat nurse? That was one of the questions on my mind as I sat down with Outlander author Diana Gabaldon during the press roundtables at Comic-Con last week. Gabaldon's novel has been turned into a series, and having the opportunity to pick her brain about the book and the TV show, I jumped at the chance to find out why she'd selected this very specific setting for her protagonist's background. After all, there are other wars and other time periods that might have helped shaped the character of Claire Randall, a British nurse who's on vacation with her husband after World War II when she finds herself thrown back through time to 18th Century Scotland.

This is a question that applies to the book and the series as well, as Ronald D. Moore's adaptation includes this very relevant piece of Claire's story. Diana Gabaldon answered this question so thoroughly that I wanted to share it in its entirety. This is what she said when I asked why she chose World War II and the 1940s as Claire's time:

All I knew was that she was relatively modern, because of the way she talked and that's why there's time travel to start with. But then I had to figure out, where did she come from? And so I was thinking, If I were a time traveler, what sort of skills would I want to have? And I thought maybe I'd like to be something in the medical line, so that i could keep people alive, including myself. So I said, maybe she's a doctor, does that seem right? And thinking, well it can't be a modern doctor because modern medicine is so technological and mechanical. I don't want somebody to be finding a wounded man on a battlefield and thinking, oh my God, if only I had an MRI to put him through. I wanted someone who would fall to her knees and start putting him back together. So, fairly rough and ready but with hands on sorts of skills.And so I was thinking a little more primitive. At the same time, I wanted her to be empathetic with the modern mindset insofar as medicine went. That is to share our assumptions and knowledge as to germ theory and things like that. Well, there's three basic pillars that modern medicine rests on, and that's antisepsis -- which is germ theory -- antibiotics and anesthesia. And if you have all of those three, it's cognizant to a modern mind. That's what we all assume we know. And I looked back through history. Well, all of those things were actually discovered either in the late nineteenth century or the early twentieth century. But all three of them came into common use in the general population during World War II, because of their use in the battlefield.And then it came back in civilian life when the war ended. So I said, ok that's where she came from. That's why she can put someone back together. Because also, I knew quite a bit about World War II, and you know the women who worked in it. Those were tough ladies. I said, yeah ok, I don't want some ninny who's going to run around having a fit because it's a privy and not a toilet. She lived rough. She's not thrown by being in rough circumstances.

So, there you have it. Making Claire a World War II combat nurse gave her a lot of skills and a modern mindset, which would affect her behavior, abilities and choices when she found herself trapped in the 18th century. Outlander was published in 1991, so Gabaldon might have chosen a more modern time period for her lead character's background, but that might have made Claire too reliant on medical technology to be as prepared for the 18th Century as she was. Her experience with medicine and in the battlefield certainly made her better prepared for the kind of challenges she was to face later in the story. As Gabaldon puts it, Claire's lived rough and she can handle rough circumstances.

We'll have more to share from the cast and showrunner Ronald D. Moore about Starz's Outlander series, not to mention a review of the first handful of episodes, leading up to the August 9 premiere, so keep an eye out for that! In the meantime, check out our breakdown of the Outlander world premiere event at Comic-Con here. And you can watch the Q&A from that after the jump...

Next up, watch the actual panel that took place at Comic-Con...

Kelly West
Assistant Managing Editor

Kelly joined CinemaBlend as a freelance TV news writer in 2006 and went on to serve as the site’s TV Editor before moving over to other roles on the site. At present, she’s an Assistant Managing Editor who spends much of her time brainstorming and editing feature content on the site.