|Picture courtesy of Margo Dill|
Ann: I’m pleased to welcome author Margo Dill to my blog today. Margo is a busy mom, freelance writer, editor and teacher. Her work has been published in, Grit, Pockets, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, True Love, On the Line, Fun for Kidz, and The News-Gazette. She is here today to discuss her debut novel, Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg, which is a Civil War adventure geared toward middle grade readers. It was published by White Mane Kids in fall of 2012.
|Cover photo courtesy of Margo Dill|
Finding My Place is the story of 13-year-old Anna Green and her family's struggles during the Siege of Vicksburg, MS in 1863 in the midst of the American Civil War. For three long months that summer the Union Army bombs Vicksburg day and night. Anna and her family live in caves and eat rats to survive. When a terrible tragedy strikes, Anna must find a way to hold her family together despite the overwhelming danger and hardship. In the process she discovers her place and a courage she never thought herself capable of.
Hello Margo and Welcome! For those of us who still aspire to be published authors could you share a little bit of what your journey was like getting Finding My Place published?
Margo: It wasn’t easy! J I wrote several versions of this book, and then I received some useful feedback from a literary agent who rejected me. She said I wasn’t focused enough on my character and had too much history in there. So, I rewrote it with that advice in mind, and then sent it off again. (Each revision went before my critique group, too.) When I sent it to an editor in New York, she asked to see the whole thing. Then she rejected me also and said that a school and library market might be better for my book. I found White Mane Kids in the “Children’s Insiders” newsletter, and sent them my submission! They, obviously, offered me a contract.
Ann: So this novel did have quite an evolution. Thank you for sharing this process with us. I think as writers we get so focused on the rejection we can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes we just need to keep revising and believing in our story to get that one Yes! it takes to get published.
What led you to write a historical novel about the Siege of Vicksburg? Have you always had a particular interest in history and the Civil War period?
Margo: Yes, I do love the Civil War and historical fiction in general. But what led me to the topic of Vicksburg was one paragraph in a fifth grade social studies book about the Siege. In the book, the authors wrote about the strength of the citizens, how they lived in caves, and that they ate rats. It sounded so interesting to me, and so I decided to do more research. Then I couldn’t stop finding out about this battle, which lasted for 47 days and mostly focused on the citizens instead of the soldiers.
Ann: Did you find it hard to write from a white southerner’s point of view?
Margo: No, not really. Because I taught the Civil War and knew a lot about the facts behind the war, I know that both sides had good and bad people—honest and dishonest. Obviously, I don’t agree with the South’s view on slavery, but I tried to put myself in the shoes of my main character, Anna. How would a 13-year-old girl with kind parents who lived in the town feel about the slaves that worked for her family? What would she be thinking about and hearing? I tried to see the world through her eyes, which was made easier when I did research, too.
Ann: In the story you have your main character refer to her family’s slaves as servants even though they had no human rights. Did you do this to be historically accurate or more because this is a book geared toward children?
Margo: Many of the citizens called their slaves “servants.” So, it was more because it was historically accurate.
Ann: What an interesting distinction, a telling fact on the mindset of the white southerners during this time period. How did you go about researching your book? You do such a good job of portraying through your character what life was like for her and the people of Vicksburg, MS during this time period.
Margo: I actually went to Vicksburg—that was great. I toured houses that were standing during the Siege. I visited the national park, which is the site of the battlefield. I found old newspaper clippings in the vertical files at the library. But the best thing was talking to someone at a museum in Vicksburg, and he told me about a couple books written by women who lived through the Siege. Reading these primary sources were the best research I could do.
Ann: Wow! How fun that you were able to actually visit Vicksburg. Margo I have a question for you from one of my writing friends, Margit Henry.
Margit: Research Methods: How do you organize your material so that you can access it when you need to remember of confirm it? Do you write of research first?
Margo: Organization of material is VERY, important of course. With this book, I had an idea to write about the Siege of Vicksburg and make it for kids, but I didn't know enough about the time period to write without researching first. So, I immersed myself in research FIRST, and then the idea for the plot and characters just came to me. But the whole time I was writing, I had to research bits and pieces.
As for organizing, I did this in 2001, so I wrote all my notes by hand. I had a 5-subject notebook labeled with different categories, such as daily life/slavery, the battle, caves, general Civil War info, miscellaneous. In the misc section, I kept a bibliography of a book or website I used. I would read information, take notes and write down important points in the correct section of the notebook with the title I got the info from. After I used specific facts in my book, I put a check mark of highlighted them in yellow.
Ann: Great question Margit. Margo, what a clever way to keep organized, with a sectioned notebook. I especially liked your idea for keeping track of your sources in a bibliography as you’re researching. Any advice you could give to writers on how to get into the mindset of your character when writing a historical novel for children?
Margo: I think the research is what helps you get in your character’s mind. If you have an understanding of the time period and the people, then it’s easy to imagine yourself as that person living during that time. I also had two amazing critique groups (because I moved while writing this!) who helped me with characterization. If Anna or any of my characters acted too modern, my critique group members called me on it!
Ann: As a former teacher yourself, what can you tell us about this book in particular and how educators or home-schoolers could use it in their classrooms or as a teaching tool?
Margo: Great question! It is the perfect book to go along with a Civil War unit—you can use it to start discussions on the two armies, slavery, economic issues, living during the war and more. You can also use Finding My Place for reading and language arts skills. For reading, you can discuss how each character grows and changes during the war as well as use prediction skills to figure out some of the events in the novel. For language skills, students can actually write a persuasive paper, taking a side on whether Anna should stay with Mrs. Franklin or take her brother and sister back to their own cave.
Ann: Sounds like you gave the uses for your book as a teaching tool a good deal of careful thought and planning. I think that is so important for juvenile readers to help them want to delve into history even more and understand it.
So, what new books do you have coming out that we can look forward to?
Margo: I have three books under contract, and I think two will be out in the next year. The one that is supposed to be out this fall is a picture book about Red Ribbon Week (drug prevention week) titled Lucy and the Red Ribbon Week Adventure (High Hill Press). Then I have a YA light paranormal novel coming out from Rocking Horse Publishing in the Spring 2014 titled, Caught Between Two Curses, which has a little bit to do with the Chicago Cubs billy goat curse!
Ann: Those all sound like fun reads! Thank you so much Margo, for spending some time chatting with me today. For those of you who would like to know more about Margo and her books check out her website at http://margodill.com/. A copy of Margo’s book, Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg, can be purchased at Amazon (author's page), Barnes and Noble, or directly from Margo on her website.