My new release Courtship is my eleventh novel, but it’s only the second one that I’ve set outside of my home town of Dallas, Texas. My first fiction venture to a non Dallas locale was book number three, Do Not Disturb, but I was well acquainted with the setting of northern New Mexico since I’d lived in Albuquerque and Santa Fe for a number of years. Even so, while I was writing Do Not Disturb, I revisited the Land of Enchantment and drove every road, ate every meal, and visited every location that my characters would experience in the pages of the book.
Courtship, a political thriller set in Washington D.C., was by far my biggest challenge since I hadn’t been to the nation’s capital since a two day stop during a two week family car trip in the summer between my seventh and eighth grade. Trust me, that was a long time ago and my memories of that trip consist of a mad dash through the Smithsonian, a shady ride on the metro, and baking in the summer heat while climbing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The Internet is an amazing research tool, but there’s really no substitute for the full on sensory experience of actually being there. The time and expense of a research trip seemed out of the question until one day last November when my best friend Tony, who I’d been telling about my dilemma, called to say “Hey, I’m going to be in D.C. for a conference next week. Use your airline miles and you can bunk in my room.”
Bingo! I tore up the Internet to plan my stay. We’d arrive on Wednesday afternoon and leave on Saturday morning. On my list of top spots were important locales in the book: The White House, the Supreme Court Building, and the Capitol.
I encountered bad news right out of the gate. While the Supreme Court tours don’t require advance notice, you have to go through your local representative or senator to schedule tours of the White House and the full Capitol tour. I bit the bullet and contacted my Republican representative and made the ask. Despite the short lead time, they hooked me up with a tour of the White House and an intern to take me on a personal tour of the Capitol.
There was no substitute for being there. How else would I have seen the picture of First Lady Grace Coolidge with her pet raccoon in the White House visitor’s lobby or the mini city in the tunnels that run from the congressional buildings to the Capitol? I wouldn’t have been able to ask the security-related questions I did of the Supreme Court police who probably now have me on a watch list. I rode the Metro a few times, but to get a true feel for the city, I walked almost this entire map:
And ate many amazing meals including a wonderfully greasy breakfast at Pete’s Diner in Capitol Hill (which I saw on an episode of Homeland the next week) and these amazing oysters at the Old Ebbitt Grill, down the street from the White House, where I set a couple of pivotal scenes in my book:
On the last night of the trip, Tony scored a ticket for me to attend a super gay gala at the National Building Museum which turned out to be the perfect setting for the last scene of my book. President Obama hosted the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball at the museum in 2009. Here’s how it looked the night I was there:
I didn’t use everything I learned and saw in my book, but the story would not have been the same had I not done this site visit. It inspired new scenes and gave what I hope is a more authentic feel to the novel overall with the added bonus of letting this political junkie spend a few days in the worlds of some of her favorite characters from West Wing, Scandal, and Homeland.