WHAT’S REAL? WHAT’S FICTION?

by | Jul 3, 2024 | Alex Kava, On writing | 6 comments

By Alex Kava

what's real

Most fiction writers sprinkle in real-life bits and pieces. Sometimes it’s from our own experiences. We might use locales we know. Throw in landmarks and even have our characters stop by our favorite café or coffee shop. It gives our fiction a sense of authenticity. And if we’re really good at it, our readers can’t tell what’s real and what’s fiction.

I go a step further. Each of my novels include bits and pieces of real-life criminals and/or crimes. It’s something I did by accident in the beginning of my career, and now it’s one of my signature trademarks.

what's real

My debut novel, A Perfect Evil, was loosely based on a crime that happened in a suburban area just outside of Omaha, Nebraska. In 1982 and 1983 a serial killer named John Joubert kidnapped and murdered two young boys.

I worked as a paste-up artist and copy editor for a group of small newspapers located in that area. Fresh out of college, it was my first “real” job. Being a part of the local news industry meant being privy to behind-the-scenes details.

What struck me most about that time was an overwhelming sense of fear and panic. I remember thinking, “This is what it looks like when a faceless killer terrorizes a community.”

On the day John Joubert was arrested, we gathered around a newsroom television to finally get a glimpse of him. Small-framed and baby-faced, Joubert didn’t look much older than the boys he had murdered. We learned that he was an airman stationed at what was then Offutt Air Force Base and a Scout leader. He looked so…ordinary. This was not the monster that any of us expected.

what's a real killer

Over a decade later when I quit my job as the director of public relations for a Midwest college, I decided to take some time and write a novel. I was terribly burned out. So much so, that I felt I’d lost direction of what I wanted to do next. Writing a novel had been a dream since an early age, but I’d gotten caught up in making a living. Besides that, I’d already written a novel while I worked at the college. That one was rejected by 116 literary agents.

That same summer when I quit my job was the summer convicted killer John Joubert was executed. What struck me was all those feelings of fear and panic, and how close to the surface they remained. That’s when I decided I wanted to write a novel about a community held hostage by a killer.

By then, most of the details about the crimes were public, having been revealed in court. They were very gruesome details, and I knew I needed to pick and choose carefully what I used and what I made up.

For my novel’s killer, I combined characteristics and traits of Joubert with another unknown killer from a Nebraska criminal case that to this day remains unsolved. Instead of using the specific towns Joubert terrorized, I made one up. However, I put it geographically in the same location. Then I peppered my fictional town with real landmarks like the Platte River and Old Church Road.

At the time, I didn’t know a single soul in law enforcement. I researched using court transcripts and news articles, tapped into my own experiences at the newspapers, and watched documentaries about Joubert and the other cold case. When I finished, I had no idea I’d written a crime novel. I simply wanted to share what it felt like for a community to be held hostage by a killer on the loose.

That book went on to become an international bestseller, and it set the standard for all my others to come. Since then, every single one includes bits and pieces of real-life crimes and/or killers.

But, of course, those aren’t the only real details in my books.

My series with K9 handler, Ryder Creed takes place in the Panhandle of Florida. It’s been a second home for me, so I’m familiar with the area. It’s one of the reasons I know you can expect to see a black bear just as easily as an alligator. Most people know the area for its sugar-white beaches and emerald water. But there are plenty of forests. It’s where pine trees meet palm trees. Blackwater River State Park has been an excellent place for me to dump dead bodies.

the Blackwater River

On a lighter side, I do enjoy using real places. My FBI profiler, Maggie O’Dell, has stayed at the Margaritaville Hotel on Pensacola Beach numerous times. My characters have dropped in for breakfast or lunch at local cafes like downtown’s Coffee Cup. In Midnight Creed, Ryder and his crew have Myrtle burgers at The Oval Office. These are small things, but my hope is that they give flavor to the story.

Recently, a reader emailed me that she and her family had taken a vacation to Pensacola Beach. She said one of their highlights was searching out and stopping by The Oval Office. She even shared pictures of them enjoying their Myrtle burgers.

the Margaritaville resort
 The Margaritaville Hotel on Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Most of the time these small details go unnoticed, but I must admit, when readers enjoy them enough to seek them out, it’s an amazing pat on the back, saying, “Well done.”

Alex Kava, Best Selling Author

Alex Kava is the New York TimesUSA Today and Amazon bestselling author of twenty-one novels that include the critically acclaimed series featuring K9 handler Ryder Creed and the international bestselling series with FBI profiler Maggie O’Dell. She’s been awarded two Nebraska Book Awards, a Florida Book Award and the Mari Sandoz Award. Published in thirty-two countries, her novels have sold over six million copies and have appeared on bestseller lists in the UK, Australia, Germany, Poland, Italy, and Japan. When she’s not writing, Alex enjoys spending time with her pack of Westies who are definitely not as well trained as Ryder Creed’s dogs.

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6 Comments

  1. Lisa Black

    I love to use real places in my books and I love to learn some local info in others’ books. Of course, if it’s not a well known place and I haven’t been there, I don’t know if what they wrote is true or not.

    Reply
  2. Karna Small Bodman

    I use real places in all of my thrillers – since I served in the White House, I’ve been able to use descriptions of the Situation Room, Oval Office, Roosevelt Room, Cabinet Room and more. You’re right about how using these things really does lend an aura of “authenticity” to our books — and you’re are great!!!

    Reply
  3. Tracy Clark

    Man, you gotta love those small details. Great piece, Alex!

    Reply
  4. Jenny Milchman

    How interesting, Alex! I think I am the opposite. I live in a fictional world when I am writing (and sometimes when I am not 🙂 The setting for all my novels so far is the fictional town of Wedeskyull, or else a place where a resident has ventured. I tend to get cross if I have to be tied to something like reality. But I really admire writers who shodt effortlessly between the two planes like you do

    Reply
    • Jenny Milchman

      *shift effortlessly

      Reply
  5. Chris Goff

    I have always used real places and events when writing. My birdwatcher mysteries are set in a fictionalized version of Estes Park. Publisher’s insistence. Played in my favor in book 4. I needed the lake to freeze over, and Lake Estes doesn’t freeze. Elk Park Lake does!

    Reply
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