When Sara Shepard watches "Pretty Little Liars" on television, she's caught up in the mystery and drama.
Is Mona really rehabilitated? Who will be her next victim? And don't these kids know that parties on moving trains are never a good idea?
"I'm never sure where they are going to go [with the series]; I'm not privy to that information," she said, laughing. "I watch it like everybody else."
But she's not really "everybody else," because these characters are her children. Ms. Shepard created "Pretty Little Liars," the first in a series of Young Adult fiction that has since grown to 12-plus books and launched the popular TV show on the ABC Family network.
At 7 p.m. Friday, Barnes & Noble at South Hills Village will host Ms. Shepard for a book signing/reading of "Burned," the latest chapter that just launched. It's a hop and a skip for the author, who moved to Upper St. Clair about a year ago.
Despite the success of the books, which have been translated into several languages and are New York Times list best-sellers, she half-jokingly said the prospect of a book signing always makes her a little nervous: "There's a chance no one will show up ... unless you're J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. But I really love doing them."
Living in Pittsburgh is just an extension of "home for the holidays" for the author, who was born in Kittanning and still has most of her extended family in Armstrong County and in the Peters Township area.
But she moved to State College as a child, returning often to Western Pennsylvania.
Ms. Shepard graduated from New York University, earned a master of fine arts at Brooklyn College and was living near Philadelphia's Main Line for several years after that. The well-to-do suburbs were an inspiration for Rosewood, Pa., where the "Pretty Little Liars" cadre of high school queen bees and wannabes hold court.
"Perfect-seeming housing developments and perfect-seeming lives, with all kinds of secrets bubbling under the surface," she said.
"It was kind of interesting, driving around the private schools and thinking, 'This is what I want this school to look like,' or think, 'This is the house I want this person to live in.' "
The pretty little liars in question are Aria, Spencer, Hanna and Emily. At a summer sleepover during middle school, their popular friend Alison storms off after an argument; it's the last time anyone sees her alive. The story picks up several years later, when a mysterious person going only by "A" threatens to expose any number of tawdry secrets. As fans of the series can attest, these young ladies have a LOT of them.
The original plan was to finish the book arc at eight, but the debut of the TV series in 2010 gave a great boost to sales. So, despite having written a conclusion, Ms. Shepard went back to the keyboard.
"There was this whole new readership of people who had seen these characters on TV," she said, amused by this plain economic fact. "Plus, I missed writing about the characters. We extended it to 12 books, and then extended it to 14. We added sort of an 'Ali's diary.' "
Although her career path pointed toward writing novels, it was an early job that led her to Young Adult. Growing up, she was a big fan of mysteries and was working on one when she joined Alloy Entertainment to ghostwrite Young Adult books in 2002. Her editors eventually gave her the chance to create her own, so it was only natural to continue writing in the genre.
"I think Young Adult is the right genre for me. I could not write horror, for example, or be a fantasy writer, but writing about that age group and about these kind of real problems? That feels right."
She said she drew on the wonderfully convoluted world of ABC's "Lost," as one inspiration for the books, which go heavy on the flashbacks.
Although Young Adult has gotten darker in recent years -- with "Hunger Games" dystopia and "Harry Potter" issues of life and loss joining sparkly vampires on the bookshelves -- there was never a push for Ms. Shepard to do so.
She is, however, currently writing a stand-alone adult fiction (murder and mystery, of course) with the working title "The Heiresses."
Ms. Shepard is not involved in the ABC Family series -- which returns Jan. 8 -- but said she gets a kick out of seeing her characters in the flesh. The pilot was heavily based on her first book: "I thought 'They really read it, and they stayed true to it.' "
As with any page-to-screen adaptation, there were some disgruntled fans when casting was announced. Ms. Shepard said she was a bit startled, but not unhappy, with the look of some of the actors.
"Every single girl, with the exception of Lucy Hale, who plays Aria, looked different than I had imagined. And I said, 'Oooh, how's that going to go?' "
"Although they might not look as I had imagined, they really embodied their personalities. So Emily, though she didn't look like the girl I thought of, was still sensitive and sweet and caring and confused."
She said she enjoys watching the show, trying to guess what happens next. The second half of Season 3 debuts in January.
"It's its own thing, but it feels like other 'Pretty Little Liars' books that I just didn't write. I think they do a very good job, and I'm not saying that just to be nice."
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or MariaSciulloPG.