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Gone With The Wind: Lessons for Would-Be Writers

Updated on September 8, 2014

"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.

Click the below link to see the October 19, 1945 newspaper cutting.
Click the below link to see the October 19, 1945 newspaper cutting. | Source

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.

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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."
  7. 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.
  8. 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!"
  9. 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."
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

Gone With The Wind: Rhett's Proposal

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    • WalterPoon profile image
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      Poon Poi Ming 3 years ago from Malaysia

      PegCole17, Margaret Mitchell wrote only one book before she met her untimely death. Her phenomenal success was good vengeance to her friend's unkindly remark, "Imagine, anyone as silly as Peggy writing a book!" What I find amazing is that the story still has a consistency, even though it was written in a haphazard order, starting with the last chapter first. No wonder Steven Covey said, "Begin with the end in mind."

      PegCole17, according to Silva Mind Control, our mind operates at 21 cycles per second during our wakeful state. 10 cycles/sec is the frequency of creative intelligence, while 6 cycles/sec is the sleep state. When we are about to fall asleep, we pass through 10 cycles per sec as we move from 21 to 6. The same occurs while we are awakening from sleep. That is why some of our best ideas occur just when we are about to fall asleep and when we are about to awaken. In Silva Mind Control, we learn how to enter the 10 cycles/sec and stay there at will. You may want to take a look at the course below.

      http://www.silvalifesystem.com/lp/silva-method-new...

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      My childhood family saw Gone With The Wind at the theater together. It was an incredible story, captivating and moving all those years after its release. Later, I read the book and searched in vain for more of her work to read. This article was more than interesting background of the author. It serves as inspiration for anyone who aspires to write the Great American Novel. I enjoyed reading this about Margaret Mitchell: "The only notes she ever took were when an idea came to her in the middle of the night". I'm a firm believer that some of our best ideas, characters and plots come during our sleeping hours.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Savvydating, Gone With the Wind is second to the Bible in popularity, only as far as HARD-COVER books are concerned. If you include paperbacks, then it's not even third or fifth.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Savvydating, this novel was written with the last chapter first. And the other chapters were written in a haphazard fashion, according to Margaret's whims and fancies, with the last chapter as the focal point. When the novel was sent to the publisher, Chapter 1 was not yet written! How in the world could a novel written in this manner ever become a runaway bestseller? But it did. That's why I am still amazed.

    • savvydating profile image

      savvydating 4 years ago

      Walter Poon, I don't think you need a niche. Your variety of topics are so very fascinating. I loved this hub. Such a remarkable story about Margaret Mitchell and the making of her famous book. I loved the video as well. Seriously, I had no idea that Gone With the Wind is second to the Bible in popularity. Truly amazing... or maybe not. After all, Scarlett is the the most incredible woman.

      Voting up!

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Thelma Alberts, yes, I like the book very much. It's still very refreshing after almost 80 years. As for the movie, I find the pace a tad too fast.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 4 years ago from Germany

      Gone With The Wind was one of my favorite books. I loved reading it ages ago and I have seen the movie, too. I prefer the book but I like the movie because it was very well played by Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable. I think I have seen the movie more than 3 times. Thanks for sharing the information about Margaret Mitchell. I don´t know much about her. Well done. Have a nice weekend!

    • WalterPoon profile image
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      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Mel Carriere, you are American, so you know better. I was thinking that many controversial books have been published and are still being published today. The fact that Gone With The Wind has never been out of print and is still selling very well tell as much.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 4 years ago from San Diego California

      I agree that it is a great book, and I agree with your assessment that we should not hold people from different eras guilty for their different way of thinking, but I maintain my opinion that the book would not be published today in the same form it was published back then. It would have been way too controversial and the publishing houses today would not have taken a chance on it. The controversial portions would have been edited out of the book. I thought Vivian Leigh was great as Scarlett O'Hara, by the way. As an English actress playing a sassy Southern Belle she was fantastic.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Mel Carriere, I do not agree that the book would never be published in today's politically correct world. Many are the controversial books that have been published these days, including Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses." Moreover, the novel depicts a historical setting and reflects the thinking of the time.

      As regards the film, I find the scenes very fast-paced and fleeting. Personally, I agree with many of the critics in that the overall dramatic impact was missing. Franz Hoellering, reviewer for The Nation, said: "The result is a film which is a major event in the history of the industry but only a minor achievement in motion-picture art. " But then again, if you like it, why bother about others, right? Different people have different taste.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 4 years ago from San Diego California

      I love Gone With the Wind, but it would never be published in today's politically correct world without significant changes to one of its basic themes, which was Mitchell's undisguised assertion that the negro was better off being a slave. I am frankly surprised that no one ever brings this up when discussing the book. I disagree that the film version was not up to snuff. I liked it and I thought it captured the setting and emotion of the book quite well.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Travmaj, if you like the film, I'm sure you'll like the book. As Wikipedia says, "the film left too much IN, which many critics felt was to the detriment of the overall dramatic impact."

    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 4 years ago from australia

      Most informative and interesting - I admit to being a huge fan of the film - When I think about it I don't believe I ever read the book. Now I intend to rectify this. Thank you for the reminder...

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Vellur, you're right... there's something there that I still cannot quite understand. Apart from the story of "two bad lots", it's also the language used. I just cannot imagine that something written in 1936 can still be as refreshing a read.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 4 years ago from Dubai

      I have read the book and enjoyed. Once you start reading it just pulls you into the story. Interesting to know how Margaret Mitchell started writing and great tips. Voted up informative, interesting and useful.

    • profile image

      Emily 4 years ago

      Interesting facts about Margaret Mitchell and how she started writing. This is very encouraging for budding writers.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      ThelmaC, many people associate Atlanta with Coca-Cola and the 1996 Olympics but for me, I always associate it with Gone With The Wind. I don't know why. I must be falling in love with one of the most illustrious daughters, not only of Georgia, but also of the world! LOL. I really feel it's a pity she died so young... maybe this is the real reason. But she did live for 13 years longer to enjoy her wealth. For a long time, I was under the misconception that she died soon after Gone With the Wind was published, and that could very possibly be the real reason why I felt so sad for her.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Billybuc, the movie does not do justice to the novel. It really doesn't. The scenes were too fleeting. I agree with critics that the film "left too much in". "The result is a film which is a major event in the history of the industry but only a minor achievement in motion-picture art," says Franz Hoellering, reviewer for The Nation. If I were to watch the movie first, I won't have read the novel. Fortunately, I read the novel first.

    • WalterPoon profile image
      Author

      Poon Poi Ming 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Marcoujor, Gone With The Wind is also my all time favorite book. I don't know why I like this book and I still don't, LOL.

    • ThelmaC profile image

      Thelma Raker Coffone 4 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Walter you can tell that you spent a great deal of time and effort researching this hub. Great job!

      We here in Georgia love our favorite daughter, Margaret Mitchell.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I have a confession to make: I never read this book. I saw the movie many times, but never sat down and read the darned thing.

      Great trivia here and your suggestions are right on. Thanks a lot, Walter...now I feel guilty for having never read it. :)

      bill

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 4 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Another UP and UABI to you, Sir Walter.

      You have taken my all time favorite book and gleaned valuable peals of wisdom for any aspiring author. Awesome job on this!