Monday, December 10, 2012

Guest Post by Margo Dill on Writing Historical Fiction

I'm thrilled to have Margo Dill as my special guest today. Margo is a children's writer, an editor, and a blogger who also is a contributing writer to Women on Writing, WOW! Margo and I met more than a dozen years ago at a weekly critique group, and we are founding members of the Saturday Writers chapter of the Missouri Writers' guild. Although our lives have taken us in different directions over the years, we still have remained good friends.

White Mane Kids recently published Margo's middle-grade children's book Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg.

Welcome, Margo, I'm so happy you could join us on such a chilly morning, and congratulations on your new book. After reading the early chapters in critique group, it's exciting to see the book in print and read the final version.

Finding My Place is a wonderful book of historical fiction. The setting is Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the summer of 1863. Thirteen-year-old Anna Green and her family are thrust in the middle of the attack on Vicksburg. Here's what Margo has to say about writing historical fiction.


Stopping the History from Getting in the Way of Historical Fiction
By Margo L. Dill
I loved researching the Civil War, especially the Siege of Vicksburg for my historical fiction middle-grade novel, Finding My Place. I actually went to Vicksburg, Mississippi for a few days and toured homes that were standing during the Siege and spent hours on the battlefield where the Confederate soldiers tried to hold off the Yankees. I went to the library one afternoon and poured through the vertical files, finding an actual newspaper from 1863 printed on the back of wallpaper. I read diaries of women who survived the siege, living in caves slaves built out of the yellow Vicksburg hills, and other historical fiction books set in Vicksburg as well as history books about the battle itself.

So, with all that research, when did I start writing the fiction and how did I balance it?

That’s the hard thing about writing historical fiction, especially if you love history. You have found a period of time you’re interested in as a writer, and you love to research. You want to share every little fact with your reader, but your reader doesn’t want to read a history book. If she did, she would go to the nonfiction section and pick one out. She wants to read about your characters and plot, while learning some history on the side.

I struggled with this balance. I wanted to have thirteen-year-old Anna Green, my main character, experience everything that the citizens of Vicksburg did in 1863. I wanted to share every sacrifice that the people had to make, what happened on each day of the Siege, and how the people survived with so little supplies. But kids especially get bogged down with too many facts thrown into the story.

Mostly what I did to keep my balance, and what I’ve heard from other historical fiction writers, is that I focused on the story. Instead of thinking to myself, I am writing a historical fiction book for kids set during the U. S. Civil War, I had to think—I am writing a book about a 13-year-old girl who doesn’t know where she belongs—physically and emotionally. She has a brother and a sister that depend on her, but she’s not ready for this role.

Once I started focusing on the story and the characters in my setting of the Siege of Vicksburg, I found balance. When Anna is trying to decide whether or not to take James and Sara back to their cave and stay on their own, it was easy to work in some of the daily tasks that people had to do back then and even how the soldiers bombed the citizens most of the day, resting only for meals. Focusing on the story made the research details that much easier to fit into the story—naturally.

Historical fiction is fun! It’s a great way to learn about a time period. It’s not easy to write, until authors start thinking about the story and the characters and less about the actual history.
Thanks, again, Margo for your insight on not letting history get in the way of writing historical fiction.

Margo L. Dill is the author of Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg, a historical fiction middle-grade novel about 13-year-old Anna Green and her struggle to keep her family together during the Siege of Vicksburg. To read a summary or purchase an autographed copy (a perfect Christmas present for children ages 9 to 12!), please go to   or  on  Amazon at:



  1. Very interesting! I love children's historical fiction and the civil war period. I've written three stories that take place in different time periods. Hopefully, some day I'll get one of mine published. Thanks for the interview.

  2. Thank you Donna, for the intro to Margo! This books sounds wonderful. It's great to hear about the research that went into it. I think there is a real need for this kind of story. Thanks again, ladies! :)

    Have a great week!

  3. Hi Donna:
    Thank you so much for hosting me today. I appreciate it! And thank you for that sweet introduction. I am so thankful that I found the critique group in St. Peters back in 2000--I knew NOTHING then, and you guys taught me so much. But best of all, like you said, we have remained friends through the years, and that is invaluable.

    @creativewriting: Good luck with your stories! :) Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    @Karen Lange: At times the research part was overwhelming--when my critique group would say: ARE YOU SURE? I would have to go back and comb through my notebooks. . .:) But I wouldn't trade any of it for the world. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Great post. Not being an historical fiction writer, I didn't really think about getting bogged down in too much information before. Very interesting. Good luck with your book, Margo!

  5. I absolutely LOVE history--but I have a hard enough time revising fiction (over and over and over again). I'm sure I'd research for YEARS--and never get the book written!

    (Thank goodness, Margo actually wrote HER book after researching! ;-) It's wonderful and gripping, and busting with historical gems!)

  6. Love this post. I'm reading Margo's book now and just love it. I went ahead and moved it up to the top of my "to-read" list after reading Cathy Hall's review. It's amazing all the research involved.

  7. Enjoyed the discussion on the balance between writing the story and researching. Thanks, Margo! And thanks, Donna, for hosting it. . . Miss you guys a bunch from our old critique group days!

  8. I have Margo's book at my chairside but admit December isn't normally a reading month. But I am anxious to read it soon...a gift to myself. Just reading the first page made it hard to put down...the time period is a favorite and I have visited Vicksburg--only once. Also, I live in a town with Civil War Battle history...think a lot of what the average citizens were doing that day...will be glad to see how Margo balances those details in her own story. Thanks Donna and Margo for lots to think about here at the end of a busy day. Great stuff!

  9. Thx Donna and Margo! I'm looking forward to reading this book and congratulate Margo on all the research, even going to the physical locations. I love history and while writing my historical fiction I often digress into enjoying the research more than than the writing. This viewpoint of "story first" is very true. Still, revising details to fit the facts is daunting sometimes!

  10. Donna and Margo---What a wonderful post. The idea of story-story-story being at the center of the stage is marvelous advice.

  11. Thanks Donna and Margo! I'm like Bookie (above). I have Margo's book but haven't read it yet. I guess it needs to go to the top of the pile, too! I also bought one as a Christmas gift for my 10 year old great-niece!

  12. WOW! I logged back on and look at all my supportive friends. :) Thank you, Thank you, Thank you . . .for those of you who are reading my book, for those of you who have it on your pile, for those or you that took the time to leave a comment. :)

    @Marcia G--You make a good point. Sometimes you want one thing to happen in your story, and it doesn't work out with the facts from the history. This is a whole other kind of frustration with historical fiction that I didn't get into in this post. But one thing I talk about with writers and even kids sometimes is how the South did lose the Siege of Vicksburg. The army did surrender. Grant and his army did take over. I had to put this fact in my book, and so it was VERY HARD to have a "happy" ending. But this is where story came into play--Anna could still have a happy ending for her character growth. That's what I tried to focus on. :)

    @Amy--OH I MISS YOU!

  13. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. Margo, your comments on balance were very helpful.

    Critter Alley

  14. I've heard rave reviews of Margo's book. What a wonderful research opportunity to actually be in Vicksburg, what a way to step into a character's head. Donna, thanks for hosting Margo.

  15. Yay for Margo! I have my copy of FINDING MY PLACE on the top of my to-be-read book stack! Congratulations, Margo! I am so happy for your success.

    Thank you, Donna, for featuring Margo on your blog.

  16. This looks like a great book my 12 year old daughter would love. Have a great week! :O)

  17. Thanks again to Margo for her being such an accommodating guest. Also thanks to everyone who took time to visit and leave a comment. You writers are the best!

  18. Donna - Thanks for this. The book sounds interesting. I'm in awe of historical fiction writers. The sheer amount of research is daunting.

  19. Sorry to fall behind here on the responding. :) It's been one of those weeks with sickness to boot.

    Donna--thank you again for hosting me! So appreciate it.

    @Lisa--the research is something--and I wrote a kids' novel AND in a subject where there are a ton of resources! I have said I won't tackle this genre again until my daughter is in kindergarten. :)

    @Diane--I think your daughter would like it if she's 12. The main character is 13, and I was inspired by books like Little House on the Prairie and Sarah, Plain and Tall.

    @Clara and @Linda--Thank you for your support. I love my writing friends.

    @Pat-I'm so glad. I know I had someone tell me something similar back when I was writing the draft. :)


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