Alex Kava, who has written 11 novels, including nine in the critically acclaimed Maggie O’Dell series, grew up in the small town of Silver Creek, Neb. As an aspiring writer she was always told to write about what she knows.
As she told an audience at the 2011 NFPW conference that didn’t work for her. “I write about murder,” she said as the audience laughed. “I can assure you, I am not writing about what I know.”
She shared some of what she has learned.
Persistence is just as important as talent. Alex said she received 116 rejections from literary agents. Her first novel still sits in the bottom of a drawer, although she is thinking about turning it into an e-book. Today her novels are published in 24 countries.
When you bump your head against the glass ceiling, you look for any crack you can find and you improvise. Alex, whose real name is Sharon, said when she submitted her novel agents would tell her to tone it down, that it was too violent and that she should add some romance. “They were really telling me they had no idea how to sell something that wasn’t romantic suspense,” she said.
Recognizing that her name was an obstacle, she changed it to one that could be misconstrued. She wasn’t mad that she had to do it because she figured if agents couldn’t tell if a man or a woman had written the book, it was a compliment to her writing.
The same holds true for her character Maggie O’Dell. The character, Alex said, can’t have as many one night stands as a male protagonist. And she can’t cry, drink excessively or swear.
Truth is stranger than fiction. “If my readers can’t tell what’s fact and what’s fiction, then I’ve done my job,” Alex said. If she doesn’t know something, she researches it, and as she noted, “I learned all kinds of information that you can’t use at cocktail parties.” She knows the difference between a floater (body in the water) and a flyer (someone who is pushed or jumps to their death). She knows how a taser works. And she knows when a body starts to decompose.
If you are going to be a writer, you have to have very thick skin. “Your success will depend more on how you respond to what they say then on what they say,” the author said.
Eleven novels into her career, Alex Kava doesn’t write what she knows, but rather what she loves.