The Darkness of Peoh, the first book in the Peoh trilogy, is also the first book ever published by author Aileen Morris. According to her, it took about two years to complete, starting when she was around nineteen and finally finishing when she was twenty-one.
“The Darkness of Peoh was the first book in which I corrected some serious flaws that marred the stuff I’d written before,” she says. “For instance, character development. In previous stories I wrote when I was younger, I was told that my characters were wooden and interchangeable. In Peoh, however, the characters were all so real to me, and so well-defined in my head, that this wasn’t bound to happen. I knew everyone too well – Dorothy, Freddie, Frida, Brian, the Sunshine, Clara Martin, et al were completely different from one another.”
Another thing Morris had struggled with in previous books was plot development. “I’d invent some really good key scenes, and I would have a vague, general idea of how the story was supposed to get from one of these scenes to another, but rarely anything concrete enough to write down. Either there would be huge gaps, or I’d write a series of repetitive conversations for my characters that didn’t really advance the plot, just to kill time. Suddenly, in Peoh that no longer seemed to be an issue. Somehow, I figured out everything which needed to happen, major and minor, and how to connect it all without including unnecessary scenes!”
However, she admits that this wasn’t immediate. “My first draft of the book, admittedly, was very slow-paced, too detailed, and sometimes took three or four scenes to portray what could have been shown in one or two. I took way too long establishing the characters and their situations before getting to the action.” This was rectified in subsequent drafts, where Morris cut, combined and added scenes to improve the pacing and development of her story to the point where “I really don’t think I left in anything unnecessary at all.”
There was another reason for scrapping much of the first draft, too: as well as Aileen knew her characters, two of them proved very hard to portray accurately on the first try. “Dorothy, my heroine, was much too meek and mild in the first version,” she complains. “Somehow, because of something she had to agree to do in the next book, I thought the character needed to be cautious and tearful and obey rules without question. Now, if you read Peoh, you’ll see that’s nothing like the character in the finished version. In the second and third drafts, I worked hard to change Dorothy into a reserved yet blunt and determined young girl who is both gifted and cursed with a VERY stubborn sense of her own rightness.”
Another challenging character was Frida Wood, the dancer with a troubled past who boards Dorothy during much of the story. “I got Frida just right, I think, in the overlong and detailed first draft, because a large reason why it was too long is because I took so much time and effort to detail her emotional complexities. Then, when I made drastic cuts in the second draft, I found that the character suddenly became over-simplified. Originally, her problems with her boyfriend (Brian Armstrong) were due to her reluctance to acknowledge how deep a commitment he had made to her, and this was due to inner conflicts about loss and pain in her past. In the second draft, she just seemed naively unaware and dismissive of his needs. So once I fixed Dorothy and the pacing, I had to go back yet again and find a way to incorporate the complexities of Frida without letting her story overshadow the main plot.”
Did she succeed? “Brilliantly, I think,” Aileen smiles slyly.
The plot, influenced by both The Wizard of Oz and Morris’s desire to correct “flaws” she was finding in teen fiction, sees young Dorothy Everglade leaving her home in the Land of Peoh’s poor, obscure Gray District because she has been recruited by the government to work in the Tar-Pit mines of Emeraldia, the capital city. She doesn’t want to go, but realises she must; after all, the country would have no currency if it wasn’t for the precious metals mined from the Tar-Pits. And a consolation to her is that Freddie Verbena, a neighbour she gets along well with, has also been recruited.
“Freddie is an interesting character,” says the author. “I loved writing about him. In the most casual manner possible, he always seems to know exactly what to do. Dorothy really admires him, and he seems to like her too.” Whether this is a mere friendly interest, or something more, is a matter which Aileen leaves up for debate. “You’ll see as the story unfolds,” she smiles, but quickly adds that this ambiguity does not result from a distaste for romance. “I live for writing love scenes.” This can be seen in the interactions between Dorothy’s Emeraldian landlords, Brian and Frida.
When Dorothy and Freddie arrive in Emeraldia, they fall under the watchful scrutiny of the Sunshine of Peoh, the country’s absolute ruler, and his aide Clara Martin. They are harsh taskmasters, probably due to an innate distrust of the people of Peoh, who very recently caused much damage by plunging the country into civil war. The war ended several years ago, but subsequent government-imposed restrictions have some ready to rebel all over again. As the story progresses, events involving a purple dress, a silver pin, an inescapable Dark Forest, and a stolen house drag Dorothy into a conflict she doesn’t understand or want any part in – but becomes unavoidably involved with anyways.
“And, of course, that’s only the first book in the trilogy,” laughs Aileen. “There’s plenty more to come in the next two books!”