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Interview with Dani Pettrey

Take four close friends. Put them in interesting situations. Add some danger and bad guys. Don’t forget to mix in love lost and love found, moral dilemmas, bad decisions, good decisions, red herrings, and hanging threads. Whoa, to some authors, that would seem a difficult task. To others, like inspirational writer Dani Pettrey, it’s just a case of letting her characters out of their box to see where they will take her.

Pettrey’s ability to create memorable characters is one element to the success she has enjoyed since the release of her award-winning debut novel, Submerged, in 2012. In her new Chesapeake Valor series, she introduces her readers to a group of friends who act as a family. Each of the four books in the series will feature different main characters, but familiar faces will show up in all of the stories.

Her “friends as family” is a subtle message in the series, but Pettrey believes that friendship is obviously a gift from God and is spoken of in the Bible. The feeling of close ties between her characters is an underlying theme that many readers appreciate.

Book two, Still Life, picks up with crime scene analyst Parker Mitchell and Avery Tate, a crime scene photographer from his past. This fictional couple takes Pettrey and her fans through harrowing experiences and raise hope for sometimes doubtful readers that a romantic relationship will happen between the two of them in the end.

Pettrey does write a synopsis of each of her new books on the outset, but she doesn’t do a lot of plotting ahead of time, and doesn’t create character sheets.

“I pray before I write,” she says. “Then I let the story unfold and let the characters come to life through the first draft.”

She begins with a loose framework, then asks herself “what if” questions. What if this happens? What if these people work together? What would happen to them then? Her next step is to refine her story through a lot of revisions.

“Strangely enough, I like rewrites a lot,” she says. “I don’t separate the suspense elements in my mind from the romantic elements. I sit down and tell the story and then I will look back in revisions to ask if the suspense is strong enough. Did I pace it well? Is it cohesive? Does it make sense? Then I’ll look at the romance. Is it strong enough?”

Pettrey also enjoys the research necessary to create professional lives for her characters outside of her own expertise. For example, she consults with a police officer so that she can weave in accurate details for the Chesapeake Valor series—all the main characters are involved with some brand of law enforcement.

Pettrey says, “In Cold Shot (book one), Griffin was a park ranger in the beginning, on a sabbatical from the police force. Once I got into the story and knew what was going to happen, I needed a forensic anthropologist. I was fortunate to speak to forensic anthropologist who is an adjunct professor who was really helpful.”

In crafting a certain amount of gritty realism for her suspense stories, Pettrey still finds a balance between too much reality and her Christian world view. She likes to keep a little distance from the crime.

Still Life is the edgiest book I’ve written. I didn’t plan for it to specifically be that way. I feel like there is definitely a line. I don’t want to read books with super gory details. I don’t want to read about violence as it’s happening. I write mystery and suspense so there will be crimes committed, but I don’t want to show those crimes taking place too much or in too much detail.”

She adds, however, that authors are always growing and changing, and God gives her different stories at different times. She is happy when she hears that people who don’t ordinarily read Christian fiction enjoy her books.

The third book in the series, Blind Spot, is scheduled to release this October. The number of books Pettrey has completed since her debut in 2012 is impressive, and she says maintaining a somewhat regular writing schedule, along with having deadlines, keeps her productive. In fact, she advises aspiring writers to set up a routine now so that they will have that skill in place before they get published.

Pettrey always puts her family first. Together they enjoy a busy life that includes outdoor activities, traveling, and a 65-pound Newfoundland puppy. But she does allot regular time to writing. She aims for three writing days per week and picks up extra hours when needed.

“It’s something God called me to, and I have to honor where He’s called me and invest the time and energy He deserves to that calling.”

Pettrey works in chunks of time instead of maintaining a daily strenuous schedule, although she admires writers who can meet daily word counts. “It’s always a juggling act. I often pray with my author friend, who is also a prayer partner, about finding balance in life. You have to reassess regularly,” she says.

She advises new writers not to be overwhelmed by all the advice they hear. She tells them to take what resonates and makes sense the them, and apply it to their writing, and leave the rest. She is thankful to be part of an organization like ACFW who offers benefits and learning experiences for writers at all levels, whether working on their first manuscript or thirtieth.


Teresa Haugh, a graduate of the University of Montevallo, is a public affairs specialist for the federal government. She writes feature articles on the dedicated men and women who work for the U.S. Forest Service.

She and her husband, a wildlife biologist, live in Southeast Alaska and love exploring the Last Frontier. She plays the piano at her church, and enjoys photography. She is currently working on her first novel.

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