New Voices: Gail Shepherd & Karen Strong on Writing Southern Settings

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Gail Shepherd and Karen Strong, debut middle grade authors, both found inspiration for their books in southern settings. Today they share insights about their journeys to publication.

Gail Shepherd

I grew up with the Vietnam war in the background—it was always on TV. That war influenced my sensibility and my world view. I knew a lot of older brothers who went away and either didn’t come back, or they came back damaged.

So I was thinking about what it would be like to be the kid of a very disturbed veteran, but in a family where nobody ever openly addressed the gigantic elephant in the room–that proud, stiff-upper-lip, we don’t share our difficulties with outsiders kind of culture.

My family on my mother’s side is southern, so I also wanted to represent a specific southern sensibility, their quirks, their language, their warmth, and their blind spots.

And then, here we are in 2019, with these huge questions constantly circulating about how we know what the “truth” is. Who can we trust to tell us what’s real? And how do we make sense of history, when our history is an ideological battleground? What’s being misrepresented or deliberately suppressed about who we really are as Americans?

I wanted to get all of that into this book—a girl grappling with how to seek the truth about herself, her family, her town, and her country. Lyndie does realize and say toward the end of the novel that the truth is only something you can move toward, like walking toward the horizon, even if you know you’ll never get all the way there.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

Gail with SCBWI Florida debuts.

This was a long, intense journey. It took me about eight years of study from the time I jotted down my first idea for a middle grade novel to my debut with The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins (Kathy Dawson, 2019). Between workshops, conferences, and writing seminars (well into the dozens—SCBWI intensives, online seminars, weekend retreats at places like The Writing Barn in Austin), I’d say it’s been the equivalent of doing a graduate degree.

Above and beyond the seminars, I’ve got shelves and shelves of dog-eared and underlined craft books; four separate critique groups; and occasional intensives that I coordinate on specific topics with writer friends (for example, a focus on deep scene writing, or free writing in character).

Then there’s the very specific revision work on each manuscript with agents, editors for hire, and working closely with my editor at Penguin, Kathy Dawson, who is brilliant at identifying the emotional core of a story.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

For me, the most biting challenge was a personal one—and it was definitely psychological. I’m what the Freudians call “well defended.” I’m very private, so getting real emotional truths on the page doesn’t come naturally. My tendency is not only to defend myself, but to let my characters off easily, to refrain from digging too deeply or invading their space.

But over time, I’ve taken to heart Yiyun Li’s observation that to write fully human characters, we have to stare at them for much longer than is comfortable for either of us. She says our characters lie to us. And I think that’s true. Because we often lie to ourselves. The challenge is to look honestly, squarely. So much of writing middle grade is about having an open heart.

What would you have done differently?

Oh, man. Started earlier, maybe? I’m pretty old for a debut author. But seriously, I think I would have cultivated more patience and gravity early on.

Writers just starting out tend to swing wildly between utter self-doubt and astonishing hubris. Like, one day you’re thinking you’ll never write a word anyone will ever want to read. And then the next day you’re all like, this book is genius! I must publish it now!

I’m a more “literary” writer, so I needed to learn to slow down and approach writing a novel with serious intention, realizing that it might take a couple of years for me to figure out what I’m writing about and why. As for what I would do differently, in a nutshell: manage my expectations.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

I really like being a published author. It feels like I can get on with life now, that I’ll be doing what I do for the foreseeable future. I love the actual fact of writing. I love talking about writing. I love teaching writing. I love spending time with kids.

There’s a very full sense of being where I’m supposed to be. I dedicate my mornings to my work-in-progress, and then after lunch a few hours dealing with marketing or publicity, and that feels like a sane balance.

Gail talking to kids during a school visit.

And now that I’m published, people ask me stuff—all kinds of questions that help me think through knotty creative issues. Somehow being an “author” makes me more creatively ambitious than before, I think—I feel okay about taking risks.

There’s a lot of fear when you’re pre-published—“am I the real thing?” That worry is always in the back of your mind. I’m not saying that publication is a golden ticket—there will still be highs and lows. But for me, having that first book out in the world now, there’s a wonderful sense of settling into my groove.

Karen Strong

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I’ve always been fascinated by story. I think it comes from my upbringing of being raised in the rural South where storytelling was a way of life.

Every Sunday, my family would convene at my paternal grandmother’s house for supper, and I would listen to stories from the elders.

At an early age, I started to make up my own stories in my head and soon I started to write them down.

As for writing for kids and teens, I feel like this period of life is always so full of new things. At this age, we’re still figuring out who we are separate from our families and this period helps to mold us into the personality we eventually become.

For middle grade fiction, it’s my first love because these kids are emerging into a widening world. They deal with obstacles on their own, and I love cheering them on as they conquer them.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

In many ways, I’m a self-taught writer. When I first started, I took many extension writing courses at local Atlanta universities. I found a writer mentor who took me under her wing and invited me to her Saturday critique group. I still keep in contact with many writers from that group today. During this time, I learned out how to critique, which is solid skill for every writer to have.

I did try to go the official route and enroll in a graduate writing program, but I found didn’t necessarily want to pursue literary fiction. Instead I wanted to focus on writing for kids and teens so I dropped out of the program. At the time, I wasn’t aware of any MFA programs that catered to children’s literature. These programs are more prevalent today.

As far as learning to write fiction, I did a lot of self-study. I focused on reading books and breaking them down for structure. I also read a lot of fiction craft books, dog-earing them and taking copious notes. This was a dedicated process for many years while life continued.

My focus on the writing craft took place in the margins of my life where time was limited, but I always kept at it and I wrote several manuscripts during this time and learned a lot through trial and error. Eventually I found writer friends and beta readers who helped me get better.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The initial inspiration for my debut novel was a writing exercise in my very first writing workshop at the Callanwolde Arts Center in Atlanta. The instructor, Carol Lee Lorenzo, gave us a writing exercise of putting two characters in opposition. I focused on a scene relating to my childhood and all the places that were off-limits.

One such place was a dilapidated church at the dead end of a dirt road. I created a scene with two Black girls who were in conflict because one of them double-dog dared the other to go to a forbidden place. That writing exercise eventually became a chapter in Just South of Home (Simon and Schuster, 2019). The scene has changed in many ways but the conflict, the personality of characters, and the first line of the scene remain the same.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I had queried agents from the slush pile in the past with success and even garnered a top agent before we went our separate ways. My breakthrough to getting published was participating in the Twitter pitch event #DVpit in April 2016. Literary agent Beth Phelan created this event to spotlight writers from marginalized communities.

I hadn’t participated in a pitch event before so I didn’t know what to expect, but the interest I got from agents was overwhelming and I ended up with several agent offers within a month.

After I signed with my agent, we went through a substantial revision process and then we submitted to editors and sold the manuscript to Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers almost a year to the day of when I first sent out my #DVpit pitch. So, I literally jump-started my author career with a tweet.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

When I first started writing for publication, the landscape was a lot different. To connect with other writers, it was mostly done on message boards. But now with social media and specifically Twitter, it’s much easier to find connections.

The challenge for writers now is that social media is also a huge distraction. I think some writers get overwhelmed with all the noise. They may get caught up in building a platform and not necessarily growing in the craft.

There is also the pressure to get published quickly and the dangerous practice of comparison to other writers. Every journey is different. Writer success can be very relative and one size does not fit all.

My advice would be to focus on your craft. Figure out what kind of writer you want to be and then focus on getting better. Read widely and read deeply. Figure out why you love a book or hate a book and then break it down from a craft perspective. From my experience, knowing how a story is structured and how to break down a work into its elements can help strengthen your own writing. I don’t believe that you must write every day.

A lot of writers, especially those who have day jobs and/or other responsibilities may not have that luxury. It may take longer with only small pockets of time to write but it does work. The pages will accumulate. These moments of dedication to writing can create a novel.

Cynsational Notes

Gail Shepherd’s debut middle grade novel, The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins published in March 2019 from Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin.

Gail received her creative M.A. from the University of Florida in poetry. She has spent her life writing in lots of genres: comic serial magazine stories, food writing, crime reporting, coverage of local politics, book and movie reviews, essays and poems. She co-published her own biweekly newspaper in the ‘90s, and more recently worked extensively in the K-12 education industry, supporting teachers and schools.

She’s a fourth generation Floridian on her mother’s side, and she lives in South Florida now with her little family, two dogs, and an awful lot of mosquitos. You can visit Gail online at

Born and raised in the rural South, Karen Strong spent most of her childhood wandering the woods, meadows, and gardens of her grandmother’s land.

A graduate of the University of Georgia, she is an advocate of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and worked in the Information Technology (IT) industry for several years as a software engineer, system analyst, and technical writer.

A reformed nightowl, she now spends her early mornings writing fiction. An avid lover of strong coffee, yellow flowers, and night skies, Karen currently lives in Atlanta. Just South of Home, from Simon & Schuster, is her debut novel.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.