The surest way to irk Diana Gabaldon, whose latest novel, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, debuted atop the New York Times best-seller list last week, is to call her a romance writer. If so accused, she'll counter that her books are historical mysteries tinged with science-fiction, and that the love scenes are secondary. She has a point: There aren't too many Harlequin titles that include winking references to the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett. Still, Gabaldon doesn't skimp on the heaving bosoms and heavy breathing. How did she turn her odd mishmash of high culture and low into a No. 1 best seller?
It helps that Gabaldon was a computer geek before she took up writing in her late 30s. A Breath of Snow and Ashes is the sixth book in Gabaldon's Outlander series, which follows the adventures of a truly mismatched couple: a time-traveling English nurse from the 1940s and her husband, an 18th-century Scotsman. Back when Gabaldon was working on the first installment in the late 1980s, she went online to help build her fan base. * Gabaldon, who at the time was writing Fortran programs as an Arizona State University research professor, actually posted chapters from her first book, Outlander, to a CompuServe forum; positive feedback from her fellow geeks convinced her to seek a literary agent, and the book was published by Delacorte in 1991. Gabaldon's CompuServe fans spread the word on electronic bulletin boards, and Gabaldon (with the assistance of a friend at Caltech) built one of the first-ever author's Web sites. By the mid-1990s, when Slate was still just a twinkle in Michael Kinsley's eye, Gabaldon's site was attracting thousands of hits every day. They came to read her witty accounts of the writer's life, take sneak peeks at forthcoming books, and order free Gabaldon-designed bookplates—the literary nerd's equivalent of a heavy-metal T-shirt.
Despite Gabaldon's insistence that her books aren't romances, her earliest readers were, in fact, bodice-ripper fans—or, at the very least, people who enjoy juicy descriptions of bedroom gymnastics. Outlander actually won 1991's "Best Romance of the Year" award from the Romance Writers of America, an honor that Gabaldon claims was probably undeserved. For new authors, there are few richer markets to target than romance readers, who have a great hunger for new material: According to the RWA, 52 percent of all paperbacks published in the United States are romances, and the industry rakes in $1 billion per year.
Gabaldon's books do include the elements required to appeal to this vast market. True, they're brainier than anything featuring Fabio on the cover, but the Outlander series follows the genre's basic rules, as described in Janice Radway's Reading the Romance: Two lovers obviously meant for each other overcome terrible hardship—in this case, the hardships of being born in different centuries, Scottish-English animosity, and the heartthrob's fondness for kilts—and wind up in each other's arms. Jamie Fraser, the series' tough-but-tender male protagonist, has become a sex symbol for those who like their men a little older, hairier, and more Scottish than the typical Hollywood stud. In response to a 1997 Vancouver Sun article attempting explain Gabaldon's success, a woman wrote to the newspaper's editor: "I am sure I speak for a good portion of the female population in the Lower Mainland. … We have all fallen in love with Jamie Fraser, although many of us are happily married." Lovestruck fans can relish A Breath of Snow and Ashes' steamy bedroom scenes, which are detailed in prose that borders on purple. How else to describe an erotic encounter that begins with the line, "I made love to him at first like a sneak thief, hasty strokes and tiny kisses, stealing scent and touch and warmth and salty taste"?
Yet Gabaldon has been able to reach well beyond the straightforward romance market, which is dominated by $6 paperbacks with titles like Intimate Betrayal and The Redhead and the Preacher. The Outlander series has enough historical twists and highbrow touches to attract mainstream readers, which is why Delacorte and Gabaldon have tirelessly pressured bookstores to stock the books in the general-fiction section, rather than the romance aisle; otherwise, the Outlander series might have gotten lost amidst thousands of tomes with bare-chested Adonises on the cover. (The cover for A Breath of Snow and Ashes features only a tasteful snowflake on a silver background.) Gabaldon's books are in fact so assiduously researched that they're sold at British souvenir shops as accurate depictions of 18th-century Highlander life. This is all the more impressive considering that Gabaldon had never visited Scotland prior to writing the first Outlander installment; all her knowledge came from library books. The series contains big words aplenty, a Dickensian surfeit of characters, and scenes of chilling brutality; A Breath of Snow and Ashes features a post-mortem Caesarean section, for example, that is not for the faint of heart. Even the sexual horseplay has an intellectual bent: Leave it to Gabaldon, the onetime university professor with a Ph.D. in ecology, to describe a woman's response to getting her ass squeezed as "dissentient."
Layering such erudition atop a simple romantic framework creates a literary style that may be particularly appealing for readers who share Gabaldon's demographic profile: women ages 45 to 54, with college degrees or better and household incomes above $75,000. According to a 2004 report from the National Endowment of the Arts, these are the exact characteristics of the most avid literature readers in the United States. In other words, A Breath of Snow and Ashes is targeted, whether intentionally or not, at the group of Americans most likely to drop $28 on a 979-page hardcover. They're also the folks who apparently don't blanch at passages that refer to "the warm, musky weight" of a fiftysomething Scotsman's testicles.
*Correction, Oct. 24, 2005: Due to an editing error, this piece originally said that Gabaldon used the World Wide Web to help build her fan base in the late 1980s. The CompuServe forums Gabaldon used were not part of the World Wide Web, which was not officially introduced until 1991. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.