April 14, 1997 12:00 PM

DIANA GABALDON INSPIRES DEEP devotion in her fans. There are readers who gather to discuss her Outlander series—romantic sci-fi epics about a modern Englishwoman who time-travels back to 18th-century Scotland—while wearing tartans and nibbling shortbread. But what pleases her most is when people think she’s a Highland lass herself. “I get mail from Scotland,” says the Arizona-bred author, “asking, ‘How long did you live here before moving to Arizona?’ ”

In fact, Gabaldon had never set foot on Scottish soil before starting to write Outlander in 1988, a detail that hasn’t affected her success. Together there are more than 2 million copies in print of Outlander and its sequels Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager and her latest, Drums of Autumn, which was an instant bestseller. Her secret? Meticulous research.

It’s what she was trained for. The daughter of Flagstaff schoolteachers, Gabaldon, now 45, got a Ph.D. in ecology and wrote software to “analyze bird gizzards” at Arizona State University. Inspired by an episode of PBS’s Dr. Who that featured a male time traveler “who looked good in a kilt,” she says, she immersed herself in Scottish history. After she posted excerpts of Outlander on a CompuServe literary forum, a reader put her in touch with an agent. Soon she landed a contract.

Gabaldon writes about 3 hours a day at the sprawling Scottsdale home she shares with husband Doug Watkins, 46, a property developer, and their children Laura, 14, Samuel, 12, and Jennifer, 10. But back in 1990, she did manage a trip to Scotland. “It was just the way I imagined it,” Gabaldon says. “It felt like coming home.”

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