Gail Shepherd spent many years as a journalist, covering fields as diverse as food and crime, so she is no stranger to digging deep into a story to find what lies beneath the surface. It’s appropriate, then, that her debut novel, The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins (Penguin/Dawson), focuses on 11-year-old Lyndie, who, Shepherd says, is passionate about history and likes “getting to the very truth of what happened,” be it in her own family; her town of Love’s Forge, Tenn.; or her country.

Writing has been part of Shepherd’s life since she was in high school. After college, she earned a master’s degree in poetry at the University of Florida and briefly taught creative writing at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The difficulty of finding employment as a poet, however, led her to journalism. In the 1990s, she and her brother founded Red Herring, an alternative biweekly newspaper that, according to Shepherd, involved “snarky, down and dirty coverage of local politicians.” She then worked for six years at New Times, an alternative news weekly.

Shepherd says that when she was laid off during the 2008 recession, she decided it was time to write the novel “that had been itching at me for a long time.” The Vietnam War had been a background presence throughout Shepherd’s childhood, she notes, shaping her sensibility and making her question authority, so she chose to write about that era. She originally conceived it as a historical novel for adults, but thought that she could complete it faster if it were a children’s book. “I didn’t realize writing a children’s book is just as hard!” she says. Early on in that process, she joined SCBWI and became part of the large community of children’s book writers in Florida. “I couldn’t have written this book without that organization,” she claims.

Set in a town at the crossroads of bitterly contested historical events such as the Civil War and the Trail of Tears, Shepherd’s book is about Lyndie’s family—her father, a Vietnam vet with PTSD; her hippie mother; her grandfather and strict grandmother, Lady, with whom Lyndie and her parents are forced to live after her father loses his job. Lyndie slowly comes to realize that something is wrong with her father, but Lady believes in keeping family secrets at all costs. Constantly butting heads with Lady, feisty Lyndie is torn between truth and loyalty.

Shepherd worked on the novel for nearly eight years, during which time she also wrote five others, including a children’s science fiction book, which attracted her first agent, Kristin Miller Vincent at D4EO Literary Agency (when Vincent left the agency, Bob Diforio took her on). That novel didn’t sell, but when Vincent began sending out what was then titled South by Southeast, the manuscript generated a fair amount of interest and was bought by Kathy Dawson at Penguin. “Kathy is a smart and demanding editor,” Shepherd says. “She can find the emotional kernel of the story and help you develop it.”

Not long after starting her manuscript, Shepherd was employed by an educational company and spent a lot of time in classrooms, which helped her understand what gets children excited. She retired from that position in March, coinciding with her book’s publication. Retirement has let her enjoy what she calls “a luxurious schedule,” of writing from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, instead of her previous schedule of rising at 4:30 to write until 7:30, then going off for a full day of work.

Although she lived in Philadelphia until she was 16, Shepherd now resides in South Florida and has deep roots in the state, where three generations of her mother’s family have lived. Her maternal grandfather owned a lumber mill in central Florida. Fittingly, she is now working on a historical novel set in 1936 in a central Florida lumber mill town.

Shepherd believes The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins is “coming out at exactly the right time.” She explains, “Kids need to know that getting to the truth involves struggle. You can’t take anything at face value; you become a better citizen by asking the kinds of questions Lyndie asks.”