Gone With The Wind: Lessons for Would-Be Writers
"I'll think of it all tomorrow at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day." — Scarlet O'Hara
When Margaret Mitchell's friend heard that Margaret was going to write a novel, she exclaimed: "Imagine, anyone as silly as Peggy writing a book!" ("Peggy" is Margaret's nickname.)
The novel, Gone With The Wind, which Margaret wrote, became an instant New York Times bestseller, selling one million copies in its first 6 months and the rest, as they say, is history.
With more than 30 million copies sold, Gone With The Wind was, for a long time, the 2nd best-selling novel in history, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An American film version, released in 1939, also became the highest-grossing film in Hollywood's history at that time, receiving a record-breaking 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. For the movie rights, Margaret received $50,000, the highest price ever paid for a first novel at the time.
In 1936, the year her novel was published, Margaret won the National Book Award for "Most Distinguished Novel" and in the following year, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Gone With The Wind has sold more copies than any other hard-cover book, second only to the Bible. It continues to sell over 200,000 copies a year, and has never been out of print.
What Gone With The Wind is All About
"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father." (Opening sentences of "Gone With The Wind")
Set in April 1861 on the eve of the American Civil War, the story begins at the palatial Southern estate of Tara where Scarlett O'Hara, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, hears that Ashley Wilkes, her casual beau, is planning to marry "mealy mouthed" Melanie Hamilton. She plans to throw herself at Ashley at an upcoming barbecue party, despite being warned against doing so by her father and her faithful servant, Mammy,
Alone with Ashley at the barbecue party, Scarlett goes into a fit. Witnessing the row, Rhett Butler, the black sheep of a wealthy Charleston family, is instantly attracted to the hot-tempered, impulsive, and thoroughly self-centered Scarlett. "We're bad lots, both of us", he told her.
Scarlett's adventure begins, upon the announcement of the American Civil War. She marries Charles Hamilton to spite Ashley. Unfortunately for her, Charles dies almost immediately, after going away to fight the Yankees. Left a widow, she returns to Atlanta, after she discovers that she is pregnant.
Scarlett's life begins to change dramatically when the Civil War starts to become dangerous, and it is for her to save herself.
How the Book Got Written
In 1926, Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone With The Wind, while bedridden and nursing a broken ankle that refused to heal, arthritis having set in.
To amuse Margaret, her husband, John Marsh, borrowed books by the armfuls from the Atlanta's Carnegie Library, for her to read. One day, John told her: "Peggy, you have read everything but the maths and sciences. If you want another book, why don't you write her own?" When Margaret asked him what she should write about, he replied: "Write what you know".
Margaret drew upon her encyclopedic knowledge of the American Civil War, as her childhood had been spent in the laps of her maternal relatives who had lived through the war and the years that followed. She began by writing the novel's final moments first, where "Rhett Butler wasn't going to care that much, and that Scarlett was going to live for another day". Margaret then wrote the events that led up to the finale in a haphazard manner, as chapters occurred to her.
By 1929, Margaret's ankle had healed, most of the book had been written, and she had lost any further interest in pursuing it until a fateful visit from Howard Latham, a MacMillan publisher, to Atlanta in 1935. At the request of a friend who was working for Howard, Margaret had agreed to escort him around Atlanta to scout for promising new Southern writers. Unable to find any and enchanted with Margaret, Howard asked her if she had ever written a book. Margaret demurred. "Well, IF you ever do write a book, please show it to me first!" Howard implored.
Later that day, Margaret's friend, having heard this conversation, laughed: "Imagine, anyone as silly as Peggy writing a book!" Stewing over her comment, Margaret went home and gathered her disjointed manuscripts and arrived at The Georgian Terrace Hotel, just as Howard was preparing to depart. "Here, take this before I change my mind!", she said.
When Margaret reached home, she was horrified over her impetuous act and immediately telegrammed Howard: "Have changed my mind. Send manuscript back." It was too late. Howard had read enough pages to realize that he had a blockbuster in his hands.
Margaret spent six months editing the novel and rewrote the missing opening chapter several times. Her husband, John Marsh, a copy editor by trade, co-edited the final version of the novel which was completed in March 1936. Publication soon followed.
Some Interesting Lessons About the Writing of the Novel for Would-Be Writers
What was your impression of Margaret's friend when she exclaimed: "Imagine, anyone as silly as Peggy writing a book!"? For all you know, she may well be right.
- Personal qualities of an author: Margaret Mitchell occurs to me to be very scatterbrained, very disorganized, and very accident-prone... a very unlikely character to become a bestselling author, what more, a practically matchless bestselling author. The moral of the story is that no matter who you are, no matter what weaknesses you have, so long as you've a passion for writing, you can potentially be a bestselling author. You may very well succeed in churning out a very unique novel, precisely BECAUSE of your idiosyncrasies, and not in spite of it!
- Everyone has a story to tell: Most novels are, in part, autobiographical. In writing Gone With The Wind, Margaret not only drew inspiration from the stories told to her by people who remembered the Civil War, but also from her own life. Atlanta was her hometown, and Clayton County was where she spent her childhood. Margaret was studying in Massachusetts, but returned to Atlanta in 1918, after her mother died during the great flu pandemic. She used this pivotal scene to dramatize Scarlett's discovery of her mother's death from typhoid, when Scarlett returns to Tara.
- No one-best-way to write a novel: Margaret did not prepare an outline in writing for her novel, much of which went on inside her head. Neither did she write sequentially, starting with Chapter 1. On the contrary, she started her writing with the novel's final moments first, before writing the events that led up to it. Even so, she did it in a very haphazard manner, as and when the chapters occurred to her, and at an inconstant pace, due to her spells of poor health. As Margaret knew by heart the historical setting that she was writing, she did not even bother to do any organized research. However, she did read books about the Civil War, such as Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body and Mary Johnston's Cease Firing. Using her reading of these books more for inspiration rather than for literal adaptation, Margaret hardly made any notes of what she read. The only notes she ever took were when an idea came to her in the middle of the night, when she didn't feel like getting out of bed to work on her manuscript.
- Using simple English: Descended from a family of lawyers whom, Margaret claimed, were famous for writing wills that even a child could understand, Margaret used the technique as her guide. She meticulously eliminated verbiage that did not develop a character or further the plot. "I sweat blood to make my style simple and stripped bare," she said.
- Using real people as characters: Although Margaret denied that her Gone with the Wind characters were based on real people, modern researchers have found otherwise. Martha Bulloch, the mother of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, might have been an inspiration for the Scarlett O'Hara character. As a matter of fact, Scarlett is also a lot like Margaret in that she is extraordinarily energetic, witty, intelligent, and practical. The similarity, however, ends there. Unlike the mercurial Scarlett, Margaret is a home-loving. Some believe that Rhett Butler was based on Margaret's first husband, Berrien “Red” Upshaw.
- Start with a tentative title and names of characters: Many of us agonize over a perfect title and character names before we even start our stories. Margaret tentatively titled her novel as Tomorrow is Another Day, from its last line. She finally chose Gone With The Wind, when she wondered if her home in Tara was still standing or if it had "gone with the wind." When Margaret began writing in 1926, her heroine was named "Pansy O'Hara", not "Scarlet O'Hara", and "Tara" was "Fontenoy Hall."
- Edit, edit, and edit: After finishing a chapter, Margaret would let her drafts sit and then edit them later. "Put your work up for two months and then when you take it out again, the errors will fairly leap out at you till you wonder why you ever thought it was good," she advised other writers.
- Having talent is not enough, you must be aware of it: It's quite obvious that Margaret did not know that she could write a bestseller. Had it been otherwise, she would have suggested to Howard Latham to publish her novel, rather than saying: "Here, take this before I change my mind!"
- A "proper" place to write: Margaret wrote her novel in her tiny apartment comprising only of a parlor and a bedroom. The bedroom closet was converted into a kitchen. Margaret wrote on a wooden desk, angled in a corner of the parlor. Of this, Michael Rose, executive vice president of the Atlanta History center, says: "I think most people are surprised by how small and plain and unimportant this little folding desk is."
- Collaborative effort: Margaret had requested hubby John Marsh, to destroy her manuscripts, if she dies first. She rejected would-be biographers and did not want her working papers to be examined, either. Why? I can only suspect that there must have been a substantial difference between the final published novel and the manuscripts. In other words, there could possibly be a ghostwriter to help Margaret string all her disjointed manuscripts together into a coherent whole. As it is, most of Margaret's chapters were incomplete at the time when MacMillan intended to publish her novel.
- An element of luck: In any endeavor, a certain element of luck helps immensely. What if Howard Latham did not go to Atlanta? What if Margaret's friend had not asked her to escort Howard? And what if Margaret's other friend had not made the remark that made her stewed? But what if you've no luck? You still can succeed, albeit with much effort, as Robert M. Pirsig shows. His Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values entered the Guinness Book of Records, after being rejected by 121 publishers, more than any other bestselling book. The novel eventually sold 5 million copies worldwide.