Capturing the real-life drama of Capitol Hill in fiction can be a daunting task, but Colleen Shogan had an advantage: She’s been there, done that.
Shogan, 40, now the deputy director of the Congressional Research Service, used her time as a Senate staffer as the basis of her debut mystery novel, “Stabbing in the Senate,” the first installment in her Washington Whodunit series. “I’ve always been a big mystery reader,” Shogan said in a Nov. 13 phone interview. In 2011, after she finished reading a mystery novel, she was walking around her Arlington, Va., neighborhood and started thinking about what her own mystery novel would be like, and thought of a mystery focused on Congress.
“It’s smart to write about something you know about,” Shogan said, explaining her decision to set her novel on Capitol Hill.
The novel begins with a murder in the Hart Senate Office Building. Kit Marshall, a promising Hill staffer, discovers the body of her boss, Massachusetts Sen. Lyndon Langsford, one morning after he was fatally stabbed by a small-scale replica of an Army helicopter.
Marshall quickly becomes the prime suspect, and — an avid mystery novel-reader herself — sets out to solve the crime and clear her name.
Along with their affinity for mystery novels, Shogan said she shares other characteristics with Kit, which she said was a natural development when writing in first person. But, Kit is more timid and unsure of herself, and still trying to figure out where she fits in on Capitol Hill.
“A lot of things aren’t settled with her,” Shogan said. “I remember going through that. … That’s not where I am now.”
But Kit’s task to navigate relationships and office politics will likely be familiar to many Hill staffers — minus the whole investigating your boss’s murder aspect.
Capitol Hill landmarks are also pervasive throughout the book, from the staffer watering hole, the 201 Bar, to the Dirksen cafe and the Senate Subway tunnel, which serves as the setting for the climactic scene.
“I walked that subway tunnel probably five times as I was writing that scene,” Shogan said. She focused on accurate details, to make the scenes as realistic as possible and would often walk around Capitol Hill before and after work, and during her lunch break.
“That’s been a great advantage of writing something where you’re actually working or where you have access to,” Shogan said.
Aside from the scenes, the cast of characters around Kit’s Capitol Hill will also sound a bit familiar, from the trustworthy and social butterfly best friend Meg and hardworking legislative director Matt, to the overly ambitious press secretary, Mandy.
Shogan also makes use of other D.C. stereotypes in the novel, including its designation as “Hollywood for ugly people,” and writing that, “The whole city was full of opportunists.”
“I didn’t want to write a book that was totally over the top, that was a negative portrayal of D.C.,” Shogan said. She later added, “This is really trying to provide an alternate viewpoint that the people that come to work in D.C. mostly have the best intentions.”
Thus the emphasis on congressional staff, who Shogan said are often underpaid and under-appreciated, rather than politicians themselves. She even thanked congressional staff in her novel’s acknowledgments for providing her with “great memories and terrific stories to tell.”
“I hope that [readers] take away from the fact that being a congressional staffer is a difficult job,” Shogan said. “There are a lot of pressures on congressional staff to do the job and do the job well.”
Shogan spent three years a staffer for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., though she has been in D.C. for roughly 13 years. She first came to the District to teach at George Mason University, and landed a Senate fellowship through the American Political Science Association.
“I really caught Capitol Hill fever,” Shogan said. “I love the lack of predictability about the job. It’s just fun to me.”
And now she finds herself in a top job at the CRS, which conducts nonpartisan research for lawmakers. But she still draws on her Hill experience for her writing, and has already finished her second novel in the Washington Whodunit series: “Homicide in the House,” which is expected to be published in early 2017.
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