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Salt Lake author Sarah DeFord Williams pens a mystery in her debut book

Local author Sarah DeFord Williams' debut book for middle readers is titled "Palace Beautiful."
Local author Sarah DeFord Williams' debut book for middle readers is titled "Palace Beautiful."
August Miller, Deseret News

When local author Sarah DeFord Williams was 9, her love of reading took off. Classics like "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and "Heidi" resonated with her in a way trendy books cannot.

"I feel like I'm going home when I'm reading those books," she said from her home in Rose Park.

So, when Williams decided to become a writer, it seemed only natural to do what felt comfortable. "I wanted to write the kind of book I would have loved as a kid," she said about her debut novel, "Palace Beautiful." "So I was kind of writing for young Sarah."

With "Palace Beautiful," Williams, who has three children of her own, set out to write a book for middle readers with a fundamental appeal that wasn't about certain styles or times but rather the basic human feelings and experiences that everyone goes through.

Set in the summer of 1985, "Palace Beautiful" is Sadie's story. Sadie has just moved from Texas to Salt Lake City and is trying to find a place to which she can escape. What she finds is a secret attic room and a journal written by a girl her own age more than 60 years ago. Both of the girls play out in the pages of Williams book.

Williams chose the year 1985 for logistical reasons. At the center of her story is a mystery, and if it had been set in 2010, getting on the Internet could have quickly solved things. To give the book the sense of suspense it needed, Williams said, it needed to take place in the age before computers.

The year 1918 also plays a large role in "Palace Beautiful." That was the year when a massive flu epidemic swept across the world. It was something Williams had never heard about until her husband mentioned it off-hand one night. "I got so curious and had to start researching it and see why something like that was forgotten."

Williams spent a lot of Saturdays at the Main City Library working on the microfilm machines. She went through every piece of Deseret News microfilm that covered the flu epidemic, which lasted about a year and a half in Salt Lake City. It was important to do, she said, because it helped her graph the events and see what cultural and social implications stemmed from it.

Because of all her research, it wasn't hard to choose the book's locale. After all, she already had a wealth of information, and many of the epidemic's victims, including her husband's grandmother, are buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

"It was almost an experiment to see if I could write about a real actual city during a real actual event," she said. "I set it in the Avenues for practical reasons because the cemetery is there. And my kids were going to school there, so I just dropped them off and would go around the neighborhood for research."

But setting a book in Salt Lake City came with its own set of issues. It was almost impossible to leave out Mormon themes, yet Williams didn't want to write a book about a particular religion. For that reason, there are few references to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though they are present.

One of the families in "Palace Beautiful" is in fact LDS. "If they were living in Salt Lake in 1918, chances are great that they would have been LDS," Williams said. "And this is part of the way that their family would have dealt with this situation, with the flu. I just felt like historically that that would be the most accurate way to portray the family.

"I think (the subject) is a pretty specific to Utah thing, but I thought if I spent more time explaining things then it might bring out the religion element a little more than I wanted to. So I just kind of put it in the background as something that their family would have done."

Though it hasn't gone on sale yet, Williams has already experienced some success with "Palace Beautiful." Last year, when her agent sent out the manuscript, a lot of publishing houses expressed interest. Usually literary middle grade books are hard to sell and go to smaller houses, but "Palace Beautiful" ended up going to auction. Williams won a two-book contract with Putnam, a division of Penguin Books.

Williams would love to make a career as a writer. There are a lot of things she has left to say and hopes she gets the opportunity to write them.

"I would love it if kids read my book and felt like they had new friends," she said. "Every once in a while, you get those books where you feel like you've made a friend. Those are the kind of books you go to over and over again. And I think that would be very rewarding to me."

If you go...

Who: Sarah DeFord Williams

What: Launch Party

When: April 17, 2 p.m.

Where: The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East

Phone: 801-484-9100

Web: kingsenglish.com

To purchase her book click here.

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com