Pretty Little Local
Downingtown’s Sara Shepard sees her novels brought to television
by Stephanie Twining

When Sara Shepard turns on the TV, there’s a chance she’ll see a scene from her life played out on the small screen. As the author of the popular book series Pretty Little Liars, which has been turned into a television series for ABC Family, she wrote about growing up on the Main Line (though she used her artistic license to add in some mystery, drama and a web of lies).

Pretty Little Liars
, which premiered last month and continues to bring in solid ratings of about 2 million viewers per week, follows four teenage girls living in the fictional Main Line town of Rosemont. The mysteries really begin stacking up when their friend goes missing and they start receiving anonymous text messages from someone who knows all their secrets.

Here, the Downingtown grad talks about her success, her return to the area and what her literary future holds.

After living in New York and Arizona, you recently moved back to Downingtown. Why?

We didn’t intend to move to Downingtown per se, but we wanted to move back to the area, and Downingtown was where we found a house. When I was growing up here, I actually didn’t like the area that much, but that was more like angst.

My husband is from West Chester, and both of our parents live in Pennsylvania. I realized that it’s such a nice change from New York—it’s really green, and there are lots of farms. I really started to like the area again.

How did you get into writing Pretty Little Liars?

I was an English major in college, and I got an MFA, so I’ve always been writing stories and trying to get writing work however I could. My sister, who still lives in New York, was an intern at Alloy Entertainment (who put out Gossip Girls), and they gave me a job. We developed Pretty Little Liars together. I developed the characters and the world, and we worked out the plot of the first book.

What did you think when you found out it was going to become a television show?

Shortly after it sold, I did hear a rumor that it was optioned to The WB, but I learned pretty early on that they option everything, and I just figured that it didn’t really mean anything. Then I heard that ABC Family was actually going forward and they had a script and they were casting. When it was picked up, the whole thing blew up—way more than anything I had ever imagined.

What was it like to see if brought to life?

It was very weird. I saw the pilot back in January, and I was giggling and thinking, this is so silly. My husband and I just went to L.A., and we actually saw the set and the world. They put Pennsylvania license plates on all the cars! We saw all the girls’ bedrooms and the details they put into the photographs and Emily’s swimming bag and all that stuff. They did a really great job.

I actually did a cameo when I was out there for the seventh episode. I play a substitute teacher.

You say the series is “loosely” based on your life growing up on the Main Line. How much is reality and how much is fiction?

Obviously, I never had a friend that went missing, and I never had a torturer named A, and there was never an English teacher that I had an affair with—so all that stuff is purely fiction. But all of the girls are kind of based on me. I was a swimmer growing up, like Emily. I was very type-A and neurotic when it came to school, like Spencer. And like Hannah, I was really into clothes. Aria was the one that I was most like, because she is just so sick of living in this place. She feels like everybody is the same and they all play lacrosse, and that’s kind of how I felt by senior year of high school.

As far as the location, this area is pretty unique with all of its covered bridges and barns and WaWa—it’s got its own vibe, so it was fun to set it here. I really do love it here, and at the end of the book series Aria kind of loves living here too.

Your first novel for adults, The Visibles, was published last year. How was that different for you?

I kind of needed that artistic outlet, not that writing young adult isn’t artistic, but I just needed to do something a little different with my brain. I was able to use language differently and deal with themes that are not really discussed so much in Pretty Little Liars. And the pace was slowed down a bit. I really enjoyed it, and I hope to write more adult fiction, because I have a really good time with it. It’s nice to delve into what adults are doing as opposed to what teenagers are doing.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new young-adult series called the Lying Game—I like liars! It’s about twins that were separated at birth, and one is dead and the other steps into her life and tries to figure out what happened to her. It’s hopefully coming out early next year.

There may be some more Pretty Little Liars in the future, or spin-offs, but I think that’s going to depend on how the show is doing and how it influences the books.