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Diana Gabaldon's 'Outlander' Series
Wednesday, October 18, 2000
"I merely wanted to write a novel to learn how," best-selling author Diana Gabaldon says of the genesis of her "Outlander" series. "And it seemed to me that the easiest sort of novel might be a historical novel."
At the time she began writing fiction, Gabaldon - who holds a Master's degree in marine biology and a PhD in quantitative ecology - held a university teaching position and was writing freelance for several publications. With her strong background in educational research and a huge university library at her disposal, Gabaldon quickly found a historical time period for her setting from a late-night viewing of the campy British science fiction series, "Dr. Who." "This character (on the show) wore a kilt," Gabaldon says. "And I thought that rather fetching."
From such unlikely sources, Gabaldon has created a small publishing empire, with four best-selling books completed out of an intended six-book series: "Outlander," "Dragonfly in Amber," "Voyager" and "Drums of Autumn." Mixing elements of romance, time-travel adventure, fantasy, and sweeping historical epic, the books follow the adventures of Claire Randall, a woman with a husband in the 20th century and a lover in the 18th. Gabaldon has also taken the time to compile "The Outlandish Companion," which answers readers' questions about the many characters and situations in the novels. Coming soon is "The Fiery Cross," the fifth novel in the series.
Moderator: Welcome to Viewpoint with our guest, Diana Gabaldon. Diana, we're pleased to have you with us today, and let's begin.
Des Moines, Iowa: Hi Diana, I want to thank you for all the wonderful hours I have had reading your books. I have read them four times. My question is not when is the next book is out, but when will they become a movie? My friends and I would like to see Jamie and Claire on screen and hear them talk. We will just have to wait 'till you are done. The process sounds long. Take a deep breath, kiss your husband,and keep on going. Thank you.
Diana Gabaldon: Thanks! Glad to be here, and thanks very much to all the people with interesting questions!
I thought that I might just mention that quite a few people are interested in the same primary question -- i.e., WHEN is the next book in the series going to be out? So I thought I'd answer that one right away, to save people typing it in again and again.
Okay. I hope (God willing and the creek don't rise) to finish the manuscript for FIERY CROSS (or whatever it ends up being called) somewhere near the end of this year ("end" being loosely defined as anything up 'till about Feb. 28, say). Once I've finished, then the book goes to the publisher for production and scheduling, which means that it's up to them as to when the book actually appears on the shelves. So all I could tell you for sure is that you will get it sometime after the new year -- but I can't tell you when. Believe me, though, as soon as I get a pub date, I'll post it on my Web page! (And thank you for wanting to know!)
Kennesaw, Georgia: First, I'd like to say "Thank you" for all the books, they're wonderful!! And, my heartfelt condolences on the loss of Max. My question, Davina Porter has done an outstanding job of "reading" all four books on audiocassette. Do you know if she has been contacted to read FC when it's published so the audiobook will hopefully be out shortly thereafter?
Diana Gabaldon: While "When is the next book?" is always the most-frequently asked question, this one is generally #2. The answer is that we've optioned the books to film companies a couple of times, but so far that's as far as the process has gone. (Someone told me that of all the books published in a given year, only 3 percent are optioned. Of those, maybe one-tenth of ONE percent make it to film.)
Now, we are talking right now with a very nice company who are wanting to do a mini-series of OUTLANDER, but we haven't concluded anything as yet. Again -- once anything definite is known, I'll be sure to tell you!
Reut, Israel: I loved all four books, and have recommended them to my friends. However, I do have some friends who would not read a 1000 page book in English. Why don't they translate them to Hebrew? I know of many people who would love them just as much as I did.
I even visited Scotland last month, because the books made me so interested in Scotland.
P.S. Looking forward to book #5.
Diana Gabaldon: Why don't they translate the books to Hebrew? Er ... well, because so far an Israeli publisher hasn't expressed any urge to do so. If you know a good Israeli publishing company (or one of any other nationality), feel free to nag them to contact my foreign-rights agent, Danny Baror of Baror International, Inc.
The books have so far been translated into English (UK, as opposed to American English ), Swedish, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Korean, Italian, Polish ... I may be forgetting one or two ... oh, and we had a contract with a Russian publisher, but we haven't heard anything from them in the last three years, so I don't know about that.
Reading, PA: How has being a scientist influenced your creative writing?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, it got me used to writing on demand, you might say. Though I will say that grant proposals and scholarly articles are not quite as much fun as novels.
Really, science and art are just two sides of the same coin, though -- both rest on the ability (and desire!) to distinguish patterns from chaos. It's just that when you write fiction, you get to create your own chaos.
But it's more that scientific and fictional writing are both just different facets of the way my mind naturally works, than that they're fundamentally separate endeavors.
Columbus, Ohio: Just wanted to say that I love the "Outlander" series. Did it take you by surprise when the books took off the way they did? I've read them eight times and I am getting ready for a reread. There are many of us out here.
Diana Gabaldon: Well, yes, I have been surprised -- and VERY gratified! -- by the popular response to the books. It wasn't entirely an overnight success -- OUTLANDER started off rather slowly (always hard to market a book when you can't tell people exactly what sort of book it is), but sales have picked up remarkably with each succeeding book -- to the point that when DRUMS OF AUTUMN was released, it came out at #1 on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. The next day, a reporter from the WSJ called, essentially asking, "Who the heck ARE you? We've never heard of you before!" That's what I get for only writing a book every two or three years, I suppose.
Thornton, CO: Is the fact that Roger is circumcised and Bonnet is not a clue as to Jemmy's paternity? (Come on -- throw us some scraps!)
Diana Gabaldon: Back up, there. I never said Roger was circumcised in the first place. It's Frank who was -- but you don't officially know even that, because it was mentioned in a scene that was never included in any of the published books.
However, even assuming for the sake of argument that he was, what on earth difference could it possibly make to the putative offspring?
As for clues to Jemmy's paternity ... wait and see.
Really, I suppose this is a good opportunity to say that I get a lot of questions along the lines of "Will we find out ... [piece of information]?" or "Will we see more of X?"
Well, see, I don't plan these books out ahead of time. So I don't generally know exactly what you'll find out, or when. Some events and incidents I know about -- but not all of 'em, by any means. So just come along with me for the ride, and we'll both be surprised together.
(You are, of course, assuming that I know who Jemmy's father is. As a matter of fact, I do, but I don't plan to tell anyone just yet. )
Tucson, Arizona: Thank you so much for this series of books. They've made me believe in lifelong love and romance again. In your response to the first question, you mentioned that you have a Web site. What is the Web site address? I'm so look forward to the next book and am very happy to find out there is a place I can check on the status.
Diana Gabaldon: Thanks! The Web site is built and maintained for me by the wonderful Rosana Madrid Gatti -- who works for Caltech. Which means that the site address is a horrible enormous long URL full of slashes and dots. I'll type it here (to the best of my memory!), but really, the best way to find my Web page is just to do a quick search on "Diana AND Gabaldon" and it'll pop right up at the top of the list. But fwiw ...
Wauconda, Il: I have enjoyed all your books but also enjoy listening to them from RecordedBooks with Davina Porter's wonderful narration. The characters live in my memory. I can't imagine how anyone could live up to it on the screen or faithfully reproduce the books. Again, thank you for the books.
Diana Gabaldon: Yes, isn't Davina WONDERFUL! I just love the unabridged versions from RecordedBooks.
Now, Geraldine James, who did the abridged versions (from Bantam) is also a wonderful actress, and did a fine job with the tapes -- but there's only about one-fifth of each book on those tapes! I'm just thrilled that RecordedBooks wanted to take the chance on doing OUTLANDER -- which they told me is (or was ) the second-longest book they'd ever recorded. (ULYSSES, by James Joyce, was longer -- but I don't know if that one is longer than DRUMS.)
Bright's Grove, Ont.: With your Spanish heritage, did you ever think of setting the story in Spain, and if so ... do you think the books would have been as popular?
Dia0na Gabaldon: Well ... no. Actually, that never occurred to me, and if it had, I doubt I would have done it.
I chose Scotland on a whim, inspired by a "Dr. Who" rerun on TV. Essentially, I just wanted a time and place in which to set a historical novel, because I thought that was the easiest kind to write for practice. I wasn't planning to show it to anyone!
Fwiw, though -- I do have two contemporary mysteries under contract, and those are set in the American Southwest, and will involve the Hispanic culture here. (It's been about 500 years since the first Gabaldon settled in New Mexico; I sort of don't feel any strong emotional attachments to Spain, I'm afraid. )
Washington, D.C.: It says at the top of this page: "I merely wanted to write a novel to learn how," best-selling author Diana Gabaldon says of the genesis of her "Outlander" series. So how do you write a novel? Creatively, how do you come up with plots and characters and scenes? What sort of things did you research before you began writing? When you started on your first novel, did you write it full time or in your spare time? In short, how do you write a novel?
Diana Gabaldon: Gee, how much time do you have?
There are lots of things I could -- and do -- say about how to write a novel. Enough that I've begun keeping notes for an eventual how-to book called THE CANNIBAL'S ART (which is what I think writing fiction is ). I also do a monthly (more or less) feature on my Web page, called "Writer's Corner," where I try to answer this sort of question, and others that writers send to me.
But let me try to answer these questions very briefly, and then give you the Real Secret to Writing Novels.
As to coming up with plots, scenes, and characters ... I sit there and stare at the wall, and eventually I see things. Writers write in all sorts of ways; about half the writers I know are "linear" in approach -- they profit from careful planning, they like outlines and timelines and notes, they keep character sheets, they write from the beginning to the end, and so on. Roughly half are what I call "piecers" -- they don't write in a straight line, they don't plan things ahead of time, and they leap around in their story, adding bits and pieces where they feel the urge.
You want to guess which half I fall into?
I not only don't write with an outline -- I don't write in a straight line. I write wherever I can "see" something -- a vivid image, a line of dialogue, an emotional ambience..if I can sense something very clearly, then I can write a sentence or a paragraph about it. That's my "kernel" for the scene; I use it like an oyster uses a grain of sand, and write backwards and forwards from that point, laying down layers.
This is pretty slow -- by the time I've finished a scene, I will have been through it literally hundreds of times, fiddling and moving and deleting and tweaking and adding. So while some writers like to race through a first draft, and then go back and polish, I just sort of rewrite-while-writing. Once a scene is finished, it's essentially finished; I won't touch it again until I begin to assemble the bits and pieces.
As I write more and more disjointed bits, they eventually begin to stick together in bigger bits. Then these begin to form bigger bits, and eventually I end up with what I call "chunks" -- pieces of the story that may range from 40 pages to 150 or so.
Once I have chunks, then I'll pretty much know what the "shape" of the book is (I can't really describe it better than that. It isn't a plot, really ... it's the rise and fall and rhythm, and ... er ... shape.) At that point, I can line up my chunks in roughly chronological order, and then the writing gets easier, because I'm doing more filling of holes than discovering of strands.
When you say "what sort of things did you research before writing?," I'm not sure whether you're referring to my previous career as a research scientist (in which case, the answer is "Nest site selection by Pinyon Jays, Agonistic Behavior by Hermit Crabs, Oxygen Consumption in Boxfish, Habitat Selection by Four-eyed Fish, and a few other esoteric things, or what did/do I research for the novels?
If the latter ... I don't and didn't do research before writing. A lot of people do, but it seems to me to be really dangerous; after all, how do you decide when you've done enough research? There's always more you can find out. So the danger is that you'll just go on researching and never write!
With that in mind, I began to write immediately, and did the research concurrently. That seems to work, so I still do it that way.
Okay. I'd better stop with the details or I won't get to the next questions. So here it is -- the real "rules" for successful novel-writing:
3. DON'T STOP!!
Greensboro, North Carolina: Do you actually write two different books at the same time?? We all know that you are currently working on Fiery Cross, but are you also working on your mysteries at the same time?
My condolences on your father-in-law. And thank you for all your wonderful writing and for being such a beautiful person inside and out!!!!!!!!
Diana Gabaldon: Well, thank you very much! Both for myself, and for Max's family.
Yes, I do write two (or more) books at the same time, though at the moment, I'm trying to concentrate exclusively on FIERY CROSS, in order to finish it!
By and large, though, I find that working on multiple projects is a really good way both of preventing writer's block and of keeping one's productivity up. If you're stuck on one book ... shift over to the other and keep going!
Arlington, VA: I read all four books last year, and I have to say I admire the way the characters were allowed to mature and age. Will the next book focus more on Brianna and company, or will there be more of Jamie and Claire?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, my view of this series is that the whole thing is Jamie and Claire's story. However, as one gets older, marries, has kids, etc., said kids naturally become part of one's life -- and part of the ongoing relationship between spouses.
Consequently, Roger and Brianna (whose own story is interesting in its own right) are part of Jamie and Claire's story. So they have a substantial part in these latter books -- but the main story is still Claire and Jamie's.
Ephrata, Pennsylvania: Will the fifth and sixth books be released in both paperback and hard cover when they are first released? I thoroughly enjoyed the novels, but I enjoy reading paperback much more! Thanks!
Diana Gabaldon: I like paperbacks, too -- so much less traumatic when you drop them in the tub.
Yes, the books will be released in both formats -- but not simultaneously. Publishers almost always release the hardcover first, with the paperback following a year or so later. (And, for people wanting to know why, in that case, the COMPANION is not yet out in paperback -- because that one is sort of a special book, lavishing illustrated and with a lot of graphic elements, like heraldry and so on. It looks a lot better in hardcover, and so the publisher is inclined to keep it in that format only, as long as it continues to sell respectably. At some point in the future, I'm sure they'll release that one also in paperback, but they haven't informed me yet of any date for doing so.)
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: In reading the "Outlander" series, I am constantly amazed at how vivid each character is - even minor ones. I wanted to know if any of the characters, when you were developing their personalities, were written with someone in mind - whether that be someone you know or a person you know of.
Thanks in advance.
Diana Gabaldon: Not usually. Most characters either pop up by themselves and begin behaving, or else are painstakingly constructed to suit the needs of the story.
There are two exceptions to this, though -- one is the historical characters. Charles Stuart and Louis XV were real people, after all , though I'm obliged to come up with fictionalized depictions of them.
The other exception is that there are a few people -- close friends of mine -- whom I wrote into the stories as minor characters, by way of a personal joke. I hasten to say that this was done with the knowledge and consent of the people involved!
I should also say that while I used the names and general physical appearances of my friends, I didn't, by and large, use their personalities. So, while Margaret Campbell and John Myers (to name two of them) are real people, and look more or less as described (give or take a few teeth and a beard or so), they don't necessarily share any real personality aspects with their fictional counterparts.
Frankfurt/Germany: Why is Brianna, daughter of two exciting characters like Jamie and Claire, such a bore ? Instead of being a wild child of the sixties she is a chaste Catholic virgin with the temper of a saint. Instead of being a woman of today she has the moral and attitude of a woman of the past. Why haven't you made her character a bit more thrilling?
Diana Gabaldon: I'm always fascinated by reader's responses to Brianna -- to read them, you'd never think they were talking about the same character!
You think she has the "temper of a saint" -- any number of older female readers write to tell me she's "a spoiled brat!" And male readers, so far as I can tell, adore her to a man.
Essentially, Brianna is who she is, that's all. She's the product of her parents (Claire, Jamie, and Frank), and her upbringing. I couldn't oblige her to be a "wild child of the '60s", if that's not who she was -- and she wasn't.
Holly, MI: Would you call Jenny's efforts to see Jamie married after Culloden meddling?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, I might. On the other hand, I might also call them a sincere concern for her brother's emotional well-being, and the result of fear for his soul.
Richmond, VA: When plot lines don't fit together the way you feel they should, do you do major reworking, save them, junk them?
Diana Gabaldon: See the answer above, as to how I write. I don't have plot lines ahead of time; the plot sort of evolves as the natural result of my jig-saw approach to construction.
So no, I don't either junk plotlines or rework them. I do occasionally have a single scene that I decide I don't really need, or that doesn't fit the context where it's placed. In those (relatively rare ) instances, I just pull the scene, and save it, in case it works better in another book (the scene with Mayer the coin-dealer, which appears in VOYAGER, was originally written for DRAGONFLY, for instance).
Ocala, Florida: When you first visited Scotland and saw the countryside you describe in "Outlander," did it live up to your expectations when you saw it in reality?
Diana Gabaldon: Yes. I was amazed, in fact, in that it did look almost exactly as I'd been imagining it. Beyond that, there was a very odd sensation to it -- as though I were coming home.
Boulder, CO: I'd like to know when Faith was conceived. This has been the source of much discussion and speculation here at the Ladies of Lallybroch. Some say it was at Lallybroch; some say it was the night of the "exorcism"; some say it was the night at the hot springs. Are any of us right?
Diana Gabaldon: No, you aren't.
It isn't indicated in the book itself, but since I happen to know that myself , I'll tell you. It was sometime after the exorcism, on the night when Jamie came to Claire's bed, asking crossly whether she was going to let him in, as he had no clothes on and it was perishing in the corridor.
Abilene,Texas: When you started writing "Outlander" did you know the story would continue into as many books as it has? (Btw,I love long stories!)
Diana Gabaldon: Ha. I didn't even know it would be one book! I just meant to write a novel, in order to learn how. Once I'd "practiced," then I figured I'd plan and write a real book, which I might try to get published.
As it was, though, I got an agent before I had finished writing OUTLANDER (I was introduced to him by one of his existing clients). By the time I had finished (six months later), I could tell that there was more to the story. I told the agent as much, adding that I thought I should stop while I could still lift the book, but that there was more, if anyone turned out to be interested.
Fortunately, several publishers were interested, and when he began to negotiate for OUTLANDER, a couple of them said, "She has MORE? Great! Trilogies are very popular right now, can she write three?"
Being a good agent, he replied circumspectly that he thought I could. And they gave me a three-book contract. At that point, I had no idea that I had exactly three books -- I just knew there was more. And there was!
Charleston, West Virginia: I keep hearing Lord John NOT say who his step father is becasue it is "of no consequence" I keep thinking it perhpas is very much of consequence. Any hints, tidbits or spoilers you are of amind to give this fien fall day?
Diana Gabaldon: You are assuming that I know. In this case, I don't. But if and when I find out, I'll probably tell you, too.
Dallas, Texas: Diana as everyone else I want to thank you for Jamie and Clair. They (as you) have become a major part of your reader's lives.
What I was wondering is how you have managed to age the mindset of Jamie so perfectly?
His attitude fits right in to all men I have ever known. Are you using someone as a model? Hubby maybe?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, see, I like men. Owing to my unorthodox choices of career, I spent about twenty years of professional life in fields where almost all my close colleagues were male. I appreciate men deeply, and I like the way they think and the ways in which they see things.
So Jamie isn't purposely "based" on anyone (though my husband _is_ 6'3", with red hair ; I really like tall red-heads!); I just listen to him, and he talks to me.
Concord, N.C.: Your books are great! The characters seem to leap right off the page, and you forget you're reading. How do you manage to make them so real?
Diana Gabaldon: Again, that could be a pretty long, involved answer. To keep it short, though -- in part, it's that I see the characters.
To me, writing is a lot like walking along next to a big field in which all kinds of things are happening. Some of them are close, some are far away. And in between me and the people in the field is a big sheet of plastic. The plastic is clear in some places, and I can see and hear perfectly; in others, it's opaque, like a garbage bag, and I can only see occasional bumps and bulges as people on the other side brush against it.
In those spots, I have to get up close to the plastic, press my ear against it to hear the muffled voices, and feel with my hands to make out shapes. Once I've seen or heard or otherwise "felt" the characters, though -- after that, it's a matter of technique.
In short, you use dialogue, body language, and what I call "underpainting" (an unobtrusive and very tedious method of adding depth to a scene by means of slight background details) to get them from your head to the page.
Livonia, Michigan: Diana,
Since Claire & Frank were married 20 years or more -- and Frank being interested in his family history, why didn't Frank or Claire look for a marriage record for Jamie & Claire? They were married at the same church, AND the Rev. Wakefield seems to have had all those church registers in his possession!
Diana Gabaldon: Boy, you think Claire and Frank talked about it?!? Ho.
Claire explains that she didn't look, on purpose. She was back in her own time, with a baby and a husband. Jamie was dead; there couldn't be anything but pain in looking back (and why on earth would she look for her own marriage record? She knew she'd been married, after all).
As for Frank ... well, we don't really know what Frank might have done, do we? At least not yet.
Bend, OR: Diana, Since Jamie and Claire spend much time out of doors, I was wondering why there is no mention in DOA about the wonderful birds of NC -- especially the cardinals, the nuthatches, titmice and the Carolina wren that likes to roost in your door wreath or hanging plant or any other handy spots around the house? We used to live in the Smokies, and the birds were a great joy. Thanks! Chris (Lady Ruby)
Diana Gabaldon: Well, in fact, there are mentions of the birds. They're just folded in with the other details of the setting, though; the only birds I made a specific point of were the ravens, since they have a certain mystical significance in both Scottish and Native American cultures.
I'll stick a few nuthatches in the next book, though, just for you.
Fairfax, VA: Your narrative has such a wonderful rhythm ... writing in a Scotish brogue must have been a challenge when you first started to write. You must have almost had to hear it in your head as you wrote it. How did your research prepare you for getting it down so well?
Diana Gabaldon: Thank you! I just listened to any Scottish speakers I could find -- TV actors, tapes of live performances by Scottish musical groups (the performers often talk between numbers), etc. -- and I read all the novels I could get my hands on that were either set in Scotland, or (more importantly) written by Scots. Scots is an honest-to-goodness dialect of English, and it has identifiable patterns of sentence structure, as well as idiom.
Fairfax, VA: Your novels are so "real" -- when I talk about them to someone who hasn't read them, they always ask, "Did those people really live?" Considering your own feelings of having "come home" when you first visited Scotland, can you amplify some on how you have been able to "see" the story of Jamie and Claire ... and have you ever considered the possibility that you may have lived some portion of the events in a past life?
Diana Gabaldon: Thanks!
Well, being a practicing Roman Catholic, I think I am not really allowed to believe in reincarnation.
As for the rest ... I don't know. I've always had stories in my head, for as long as I can remember. I hear other people, characters in the mystery I'm writing, as clearly as I do Jamie, Claire, and friends. I don't know where these guys come from -- but I hope they never leave me.
Toulouse - France: Dear Diana,
Absolutely delighted with your books, I read them first in French and got recently Cross Stitch and DIA. Do you know large parts of your text have been cut in the French version, and important ones, such as the day after wedding when J&C go fishing and lay in the ferns? What do you think about it ? And have you any "power" to avoid that if your next books come one day in French ?
Love from France.
Diana Gabaldon: Well, I object, of course. If I wrote it, I thought it belonged in the book.
No, I didn't know the French publisher had been cutting the text, though I thought it possible, just looking at the relative size of the English and French editions. Foreign publishers often do such things, figuring the author will never find out.
As to power ... sometimes. It depends whether there's a new book that the publisher wants to buy. If so, then yes, I have a certain amount of power as to what goes into the contract, specifying what they may and may not do. For a book already under contract, unless the contract did specify that they couldn't cut the book, then no, I don't.
Minneapolis, MN: Can you explain what Geillis meant by her "so it's possible" comment to Claire when they were both in the thieves hole? What is possible? And thanks for the great books!
Diana Gabaldon: She didn't tell me for sure what she meant. (Geillis is very secretive.) I think she was referring to the concept of love for another -- that being rather a foreign notion to the lady herself.
Calgary, Alberta (Canada): There are a number of things that may lead one to believe that Jenny is NOT the biological daughter of Ellen Mackenzie. Her physical appearance is so distinctly different from Ellen and Jamie's and I don't recall a comparison ever being made to her resembling any of the Mackenzie attributes. Jenny also points out that she is unlike her mom in reference to Ellen's artistic ability. Any possibility that Jenny's parentage may be in question? (Murtagh wouldn't figure into the equation somehow ... would he-g-?)Thanks!
Diana Gabaldon: Well, that's a really ingenious observation, but no, I'm quite sure that Jenny is the daughter of Ellen MacKenzie and Brian Fraser -- who, you might recall, had "black hair, like a silkie's." As does Jenny.
Diana Gabaldon: Whew! It looks like we're about out of time, here (and my typos are getting more frequent), so I'll have to stop.
Thanks so much, all of you, for the interesting questions and the opportunity to talk with you! I love to talk to readers, and hear what they think (whether I agree with it or not).
I'm delighted that so many of you have been enjoying the books, and I really hope you'll enjoy THE FIERY CROSS (and the mystery, and the next Lord John story, etc.) as soon as it's available.
Moderator: Our thanks to Diana Gabaldon, RecordedBooks.com and all who participated.