by Alex Kava
Spoiler alert! It’s a good thing.
It was nine years ago this summer when I decided to write a new series. The latest installment (#11, Stranded) in my long-running FBI profiler series was scheduled for release in August that year. Pre-orders outpaced previous books. The publisher even put together an impressive media blitz that included an eleven-city book tour.
So why change course, you might ask? It seems risky. Maybe a little crazy, right?
If only the publishing business was that simple.
To begin with, my editor retired early. The editor is the person who loves your work, is your advocate and guides the book from manuscript to finished product. When I learned my replacement editor was also leaving, I realized I would become what they call in the publishing industry “orphaned.” Plus, Stranded was the last book on my contract. It made sense to open negotiations and find a new “home.”
It happens all the time. Editors leave. Authors move from house to house. But here’s the rub: most publishers aren’t interested in an author’s long-running series if they don’t own the backlist. Even if it’s a popular series. They want something “new” and “fresh.” It’s a situation I avoided once before, but knew I wasn’t lucky enough to avoid a second time.
Ironically, I saw my new beginning inside that last book. In Stranded, I introduced former Marine K9 handler Ryder Creed. His favorite scent dog, Grace, is a scrappy Jack Russell terrier. She’s definitely not your typical detection dog. Creed found her abandoned at the end of his long driveway. He and his business partner, Hannah, rescue dogs and turn them into scent detecting heroes.
Having spent over a decade chasing killers alongside FBI agent Maggie O’Dell, I must admit, I found Ryder and his dogs—as well as the themes of rescue and redemption—very refreshing. I even came to realize there was something redeeming in this new adventure for myself.
The dogs provided a new perspective on writing a mystery, crime thriller. I saw threats and conflicts in places I’d never considered before. How blistering hot is the asphalt on a ninety-degree day? I watched out for spiders, snakes, and poisonous plants, because some of my investigators traveled close to the ground and on four legs.
There were new things to research. How can a dog detect a decomposing body buried underneath a concrete patio or at the bottom of a lake? That is their superpower. Dogs have 200-300 million scent receptors in their noses compared to our measly six million. To put it in simpler terms, we can smell a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee. Dogs can smell a teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
They also can sort, separate, and isolate smells. Have you ever come home after a long day away from your dogs, and the first thing they sniff is where the neighbor’s cat rubbed against your pant leg?
The dogs have opened a whole new world of ideas and scenarios for me.
In 2014, when the first Ebola patient arrived in Omaha for treatment, I started thinking about viruses. Could dogs detect them? And if so, could they stop infected people at the airports and prevent the spread? So, in Reckless Creed (2016), a fictional pandemic is spreading across the country, and Ryder is asked to train his dogs to detect the bird flu virus.
Fast-forward to 2021, a company called Bio Detection K9 has trained scent dogs to detect Covid-19. The dogs have traveled on the road with musicians Eric Church and Metallica as well as NBA’s Miami Heat. It’s faster, easier and less invasive.
Several years ago, I attended a conference with K9 trainers and handlers from across the country. I met teams that work for TSA, the White House, sheriff departments, and bomb squads. Scent detection dogs are used for so much more than finding the missing or recovering remains. They sniff out explosives, drugs and electronic devices. They also can alert to cancer, diabetes, C. diff, as well as predict a seizure.
At one of my annual luncheons for readers, all of us were introduced to Tripp, a medical alert dog in training. Now two years into his assignment, Tripp goes everywhere, including school with his girl. He even has his own Facebook page.
After seven books, I still see the opportunities as endless and fascinating. It’s nice to see I’m not alone. Readers seem to agree that Grace and the dogs are some of their favorite characters. And the series (including Stranded) has been awarded two Nebraska Book Awards and a Florida Book Award.
Sometimes we’re pushed to take risks when it would be more comfortable to stay where we are. But I can honestly say I’ve never regretted letting my career go to the dogs.
Oh, and by the way, my dogs are not as well trained or well behaved as Ryder Creed’s. Here’s how Finn gets my attention outside my writing room: