The last twelve months have been tough on everyone and tragic for some. It wasn't just the isolation, but the uncertainty of what the future looked like. Stress was at an all time high, and relaxing was almost impossible. The things we usually took comfort in weren't working. Even my reading was way down, couldn’t focus, and that wasn’t a problem specific to just me. So many reading friends have struggled during this pandemic with doing the very thing that they love most. However, there were still some wonderful reading experiences. One of those and one that kept me sane for months was the Zoe Chambers mystery series by Annette Dashofy. I couldn’t have picked a better time to read this entire series, finishing #10 in December. It was my go-to read when I needed a calming escape. The setting of the Pennsylvania countryside was truly a balm to my soul. I owe much to Annette Dashofy, the author of this series.
I am happy today that the future is looking brighter and that so many of us have had both of our jabs of vaccine. We are slowly getting back to some activity outside of our homes, although I'm no ready to get on a plane yet. And, with so many of my fellow readers regaining their reading mojo, I think it's a great time to have Annette Dashofy here on The Reading Room for an interview on her writing, both of the series that saved my sanity and what's up next for her. I hope blog readers will enjoy learning more about the Zoe Chambers series and put it on their TBR list.
Questions and Answers:
Annette, you have created characters with whom readers become wholly invested. These are people we genuinely care about and with whom we feel a connection. So, I’d like to start with talking a bit about some of those characters.
Reading Room: How closely have you drawn on your own past experiences as an EMT for Zoe’s experiences? And, where did her work in the coroner’s office come from?
Annette: I’ve drawn quite a lot from my time with the ambulance service but not from actual cases out of respect for patient privacy. The sights and sounds (and smells) all come from my memories. The interactions of the crew and the layout of the ambulance garage are all true to my experiences. And of course, the emotions of encountering people Zoe knows when responding to a call are ripped straight from my heart. I had her start working with the coroner’s office in order to give her greater reason to get involved in the investigations. Back when I worked in EMS, we had a couple of paramedics who were given the job of deputy coroner at the same time, so it seemed like a good role for Zoe.
Reading Room: Horses are such an integral part of Zoe’s life. What of you is in that part of her character?
Annette: Quite a bit! I had horses for 25 years and miss them. Zoe’s horse, Windstar, was really one of mine. Sort of. The horse in the book is the horse I wished my Windstar had been. The real one bucked me off more times than I could count. Other horses in Zoe’s barn are based on horses I had in real life as well.
Reading Room: Two or three sentences to describe Zoe?
Annette: Zoe is a caregiver at her core. If she can’t save a life, she wants to provide justice for the victim.
Reading Room: It’s only natural that I now ask you if Pete has someone he is modeled after or from whom you took defining characteristics.
Annette: Pete is a composite of many people. His first name comes from the man who was chief of police when I was a kid and who was a good friend of my dad’s. When I picture him, I see a younger Mark Harmon. His gun building hobby comes from my husband. And much of the cop stuff comes from several law enforcement friends.
Reading Room: How did you go about finding police sources to ensure the authenticity of Pete’s work?
Annette: I’ve attended Citizen’s Police Academies with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, the Pennsylvania State Police, and the FBI. I’ve attended several Writer’s Police Academies. My best friend’s son is a deputy sheriff in the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office in New Mexico and has been a huge help, answering my questions and offering solutions about what Pete might do in such-and-such a situation. And I have other friends who are cops or are retired cops and are happy to let me pick their brains.
Reading Room: And, I must mention Pete’s father, Harry, who I daresay has been embraced by readers as one of their own. How did Harry form in your mind? Was the Alzheimer’s a factor from the start? Was he always intended to be a continuing character in the series, or did that happen due to readers’ loving him so?
Annette: Harry has a very special place in my heart. My dad had Alzheimer’s and while Harry is definitely NOT my dad, there are some aspects of Harry (his love of chocolate milkshakes and the way he calls everyone “Sunshine”) that come directly from my dad. I wanted to create a character to honor my dad and show the disease in a respectful, accurate way, which was hard because I also wanted Harry to be someone my readers would want to spend time with. We all know Alzheimer’s is an ugly disease, so it was a tricky balancing act. Honestly, Harry was not supposed to survive beyond the first book he was in (Lost Legacy). I intended to have him die a hero. But as my critique group worked its way through the pages, I could see them falling in love with him and knew they would kill ME if I killed off Harry. And considering my readers’ reactions to him, I think keeping him around was the wiser choice!
Reading Room: At what point in your life did you think you might like to write books, and was it always mystery/crime you wanted to write?
Annette: I’ve been writing “books” since high school. I would write what is now called “fan fiction” longhand, in pencil, in a lined spiral-bound notebook and pass it around to my “fans” during study hall. They would read it and give it back with orders to “write MORE.” That’s very addictive! At that time, I was writing westerns and sci-fi. Then I discovered Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children. From that point, the only thing I wrote was crime fiction. However, I didn’t get serious about writing for publicatio
Reading Room: Who were the people who encouraged you the most, personally and/or professionally, when you began to write the Zoe Chambers series?
Annette: Personally, my mom supported my efforts although she really didn’t understand why I wanted to write. She was very pragmatic and didn’t “get” the creative side of her only daughter. Professionally, my Sisters in Crime mentored me, especially Nancy Martin. And Hank Phillippi Ryan offered me fabulous advice at a point when I was stuck in my career.
Reading Room: So many authors seem to be part of a writing group who support and often review one another's work. Do you have such a group, or have you had?
Annette: Oh, yes. It takes a village. I’ve been involved in a number of critique groups over the years. My current one consists of three other published authors (Liz Milliron, Jeff Boarts, and Peter W.J. Hayes) without whom I can’t imagine writing anything worth reading. I’ve also swapped pages for years with my dear friend and fellow author Donnell Ann Bell. As I mentioned, I’m active in Sisters in Crime and Pennwriters. I credit all of them for getting me where I am.
Reading Room: Can you tell us a little about your writing process or routine? Do you have a set number of hours or words you strive for each day? Any quirky writing habits you care to share? (i.e., a writing lucky charm or the sort?)
Annette: My routine consists of getting up much too early, making coffee, and sending my husband off to work. Then I work on social media for a while before I wake up enough to eat breakfast. I start writing around 8:00 and spend (usually) two or three hours at it before taking a break. After lunch, I either work on editing or marketing or some other aspect of the business end of things. I do set a page goal each day, but it varies depending on whether I’m in the first draft or revision phase. I don’t have any lucky charms. I guess I’m quirky enough without one!
Reading Room: Do you have a favorite part of writing? Hardest part?
Annette: The answer to both is the first draft. It’s the hardest part but it’s also the part I have the most fun with.
Reading Room: Are you a plotter or a pantster? Are outlines a part of your writing process? Do you know where a story is going when you begin writing it?
Annette: I’m a hybrid. Plus my plotting process varies from book to book. I’ve tried pantsing but the revisions on those manuscripts are intense. I always know who the killer is before I start, and I know his motive. From there I write the first 30 to 50 pages by the seat of my pants, but I know what a couple of the big plot twists are going to be. So my outline is basically a road map with a couple of stops marked along the way. In between, I never know where I’m headed.
Reading Room: Now, a pandemic question. So many of my reading friends have had trouble focusing on their reading during this pandemic. Has the focus problem affected you as a writer? Or as a reader?
Annette: Yes. Both. More so at the start of the pandemic. Part of it was timing too. I’d turned in my 10th Zoe Chambers mystery (Til Death) in February and knew it was the last of my contract. For the first time in several years, I wasn’t on a deadline and didn’t have a clear vision of what was next. In a normal year, I might have enjoyed the freedom. But I felt like I was floundering for a while. By mid-summer, I got my act together and regained my focus. By fall, I’d signed with a new agent and had a new contract with a new publisher. Lately, I’m again having some focus issues. I think I’m so eager to get the vaccine but so far down on the eligibility list, I’m bouncing between eager anticipation and depression over more canceled plans. But I do have that deadline which provides motivation to get the pages done! Reading has been an even bigger struggle but happily, I’ve discovered a few really excellent books and authors who’ve snapped me out of my doldrums.
Reading Room: The Zoe Chamber series is so special to so many readers that it would be easy for you to concentrate solely on that, but you have a stand-alone book coming out in 2021. Can you tell us a bit about how that evolved?
Annette: That’s a novel-length story on its own! Short version: This is a manuscript I wrote back in 2005. I signed with an agent for it in 2006, but it never sold and the agent and I parted company. I bounced between it and Circle of Influence, the first Zoe Chambers mystery, for several years before focusing on Zoe. Once I got my first publishing contract, the old manuscript was put aside. Fast forward to 2020. I had completed my last contract with my publisher. I didn’t have an agent at the time. So, I pulled out Death by Equine, and decided to run it through my critique group, have my freelance editor do her thing, and indie publish it just to have something coming out in 2021. I now intend to release it on May 11. It’s about Dr. Jessie Cameron, a racetrack veterinarian whose mentor dies beneath the hoofs of one of his patients. Jessie doesn’t believe his death is the tragic accident everyone claims, but something much more sinister.
Reading Room: As one of the many readers who depend on the Zoe Chambers series to be there like a treasured friend, can you comment as to the future of the series? I must advise you that there is only one acceptable answer to this question.
Annette: Zoe, Pete, and the gang will be back! I’m currently working on #11 which is scheduled for release in May 2022.
Reading Room: Annette, you’ve changed publishers recently. Can you tell us a bit about who your new publisher is and why you’re excited about your future with them? Are they encouraging about the Zoe Chambers series and/or more stand-alones?
Annette: Yes! First, let me say that finding a new publisher to pick up a series this far along is rare and amazing! I’m now with Level Best Books, who signed me for the next three Zoe mysteries, and I’m thrilled. I’ve known the women who run the business for years, and they’re incredibly supportive of their authors and the mystery community. Their other authors are terrific, and there’s a family atmosphere at Level Best that makes it feel like home.
I like to end up interviews on a personal note of interest. So, here are a couple of questions in that area.
Reading Room: We fans are always curious about what our favorite authors are reading. So, Annette, what are you reading these days? Do you have a list of books you plan to read (I’m a list person and do have this)?
Annette: So many books, so little time! Some people have to-be-read piles. I have to-be-read shelves. I recently discovered M.E. Browning’s Shadow Ridge and loved it. I’ll definitely be reading more by her. Next up on my list is And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall. Then I have some catching up to do with November Road by Lou Berney and All the Devils are Here by Louise Penny.
Reading Room: And now, for one of my favorite questions I ask authors. What would you like your readers to know about you that isn’t in your bio information? Besides your obvious writing talent, any special interests or talents, quirky or not, you’d like to share? This can be from your past or your present, a skill or an experience.
Annette: In a previous life, my husband and I ran a photography studio. Years later, I was a contributing author and photographer to Pennsylvania Magazine. However, I had put my Nikon in its case and set it aside to use my phone’s camera for a long time (since getting on Instagram!) I recently pulled it out and am once again enjoying making photographs. It’s another form of storytelling that uses a different part of my brain.
Biography From Annette’s Web Site:
Annette Dashofy is the USA Today best-selling author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. Five of her books have been nominated for the Agatha Award: CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE for Best First Novel 2014, BRIDGES BURNED (Best Contemporary Novel 2015), NO WAY HOME (Best Contemporary Novel 2017), CRY WOLF (Best Contemporary Novel 2018), and FAIR GAME (Best Contemporary Novel 2019). TIL DEATH is the 10th in the series. She has an upcoming standalone, DEATH BY EQUINE, set for release May 11, 2021. Annette’s short fiction includes a 2007 Derringer Award nominee featuring the same characters as her novels. She is the current vice president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime and serves as a board member of Pennwriters, was their 2013 recipient of the Meritorious Service Award, and was their Saturday keynote speaker at the 2017 Pennwriters Conference. She also belongs to International Thriller Writers. Annette is represented by Blue Ridge Literary Agency. She and her husband live on part of what used to be her grandfather’s dairy farm in southwestern Pennsylvania with one very spoiled cat.
Coming May 11, 2021