Malvern's Sara Shepard on Her 'Pretty Little Liars' Series

The Downingtown native talks about growing up along the Main Line and writing young-adult books in this expanded-for-web Q&A.

Author Sara ShepardSara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars thrillers have flooded the young-adult market, inspiring an ABC Family series of the same name, which nabbed more than 3.5 million viewers for the first season finale. Between moving to Malvern, penning her ninth PLL installment (due this summer) and beginning work on another mystery series, Shepard explained how her Main Line childhood shaped the twists and turns of four best friends.

MLT: Growing up, you wanted to be a LEGO designer, a Claymation artist and a geneticist. So how did you get into writing young-adult novels?
My sister and I wrote chapters of books together and made movies. We were creative kids, and I was always encouraged by teachers to write. In college, I started out as a biology major because I thought I wanted to go into genetics, but even then I was writing stories in my journal. I switched into being an English major, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be working in a lab, although writing isn’t much different. It just kind of went from there, but I never thought it would be a career.

MLT: What were some of your favorite literary characters?
My parents always had us reading all kinds of things. As a child, I loved the Roald Dahl books, like The Witches and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As every teenage girl does, I read the Judy Blume and Paula Danziger books—but, at the time, there really wasn’t a whole lot of young-adult fiction. I was 12 or 13 when I got into reading adult fiction—stuff like The Joy Luck Club, Gone With the Wind and The Catcher in the Rye. Basically, whatever my mom was reading at the time.

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MLT: When you’re writing a series, what’s the planning process like?
I have a blueprint for the entire series ahead of time. Pretty Little Liars sold four books to start with, so I planned the first four books in broad strokes and created really detailed outlines about each book. Then, midway through the second book, four more books were ordered for the series, so I had to go back and figure out how to change the mystery to make it last longer. Now, it’s a 12-book series, and I have many, many background stories and information for each of the characters.

MLT: You’ve said that the Pretty Little Liars series is loosely based on your experiences growing up on the Main Line.
I really shouldn’t say that, because the series now is just so crazy. I never had a stalker or an affair with a teacher. But I did grow up in Downingtown, so it was really fun to set the series here. Each of the girls has a quality that I had when I was that age. One of them is a swimmer, and I was a competitive swimmer in high school. Another girl comes back from living abroad and absolutely hates living in the suburbs, and I know I felt that way when I was that age.

MLT: The ninth book of the Pretty Little Liars series comes out in July. Can you give us a sneak peak of Twisted?
The ninth book picks up a year later. The girls have gotten into a lot more trouble, and someone they thought had left did not.

MLT: How much say do you have in the production of the TV shows?
I actually haven’t had any say, but the show’s creator, Marlene King, read the series before she started, and did a good job of keeping the characters essentially the same. The plot is different, which is actually kind of great. If you read the books, why would you want a repeat? It’s a great alternative.

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