Write about What You Know
Most aspiring writers will no doubt have been advised time and time again to write about what they know and there can be no doubt that Margaret Mitchell, who was born into a politically influential family in 1900, and spent her whole lifetime in Atlanta, Georgia, was intimately acquainted with the former Confederate states. She was also incredibly astute, in that not only did she take a geographical area that she could write about in her sleep, but she also chose to set her love story in the time frame for which it was most widely known. Granted, Mitchell could have had no idea when she was penning this epic tale of love and betrayal as to exactly how universally appealing her book would be, or that it would be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster that still reduces grown women to tears almost a century later, but I would hazard a guess that she knew that the American Civil War and struggle for Independence would push the right buttons back home. So there you go: lesson number one. For writers of historical fiction, take a geographical area that you are incredibly familiar with and make your story fit it. If your home town or area isn’t very interesting, then borrow a historical event from elsewhere and mould it into your setting. Fact: in the age of the internet, it is easier to research a long forgotten battle and re-create it, bringing it back to life on your terms than it is to blag about a modern day town or city, where local residents will pounce on every little mistake.
Even the best authors struggle for ideas from time to time, and anyone wishing to write in the contemporary genres but suddenly finding themselves woefully light on plot would be wise to look to the sometimes great, sometimes derided books of yesteryear for inspiration. I am not talking plagiarism here but about using a well-known story as a basic starting point, and then mashing it up until you come out with something that is totally unique, and your own. Great literature comes from real life situations, and Margaret Mitchell, through her vivid and bluntly honest portrayal of Southern American society struggling to come to terms with cataclysmic change made it incredibly easy for Hollywood to turn her writing into cinematic gold.
So how does this relate to indie authors now in 2014? Consider the possibilities if Gone With the Wind were to be written by a contemporary author and set in the Deep South of today. Oh, what a very different book it would be, but with some hauntingly familiar parallels! For a start, Scarlett is just sixteen at the start of her journey and so it would be aimed at today’s young adult audience and rather than writing a sprawling epic, it would have been serialised and broken down. Book one might have ended with Scarlett’s impulsive marriage to the unfortunate Charles Hamilton and most modern day writers would have made more of her first marriage in book two than Mitchell did.
“Within two weeks Scarlett had become a wife, and within two months more she was a widow”
Mitchell probably assumed that Scarlett, struggling to keep her legs crossed in widowhood, was a much more enticing proposition than subjecting her feisty heroine, and her readership, to a protracted account of a dull and loveless marriage.
“War was men’s business, not ladies’, and they took her attitude as evidence of her femininity.”
Women now allegedly have the same rights in society as men, slavery was abolished by Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation, and America has its first black president. However the gulf between the haves and the have- nots is as profound as ever, and with the Latino population increasingly coming under fire, racial tensions are just as potent, now as back then. America may not be embroiled in domestic warfare at this time; nevertheless, a modern day writer could easily pen a 9/11 style attack on Charleston and Savannah, triggering a similar call to arms, as described by Mitchell when the Confederate boys squared up against those marauding Yankees from the North.
I could continue to wax lyrical for hours about Margaret Mitchell’s incredibly realistic descriptions and brilliant characterisation, but would end up writing an essay rather than a blog post… Suffice to say that it is very clear by the passion in her writing that she had spent a lot of time at the heart of Southern society meticulously researching her subject before putting pen to paper: a lesson for us all?
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You can find more about Ingrid Hall and her novella The Tunnel Betwixt… at www.ingridhall.com