Monday, September 17, 2012

Agatha Award Winner Sandra Parshall Talks Political Thrillers . . . Or Not

The Rockville 8
is thrilled to host the Agatha Award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries, Sandra Parshall. 
Sandra's fifth book, Bleeding Through, was published September 4. 
She lives in McLean, VA, with her husband and two cats. 
Visit her website at and read her Wednesday blog at But first, Sandra visits the Eight and spills the beans about her writing life and living near the nation's capital. Take it away, Sandra.

Someday I’ll write that political thriller… or not
by Sandra Parshall

Sometimes I feel as if I’m wasting my own personal setting.

I’ve lived in or just outside Washington, DC, for half my life, but except for my first book, The Heat of the Moon, and a couple of scenes in Disturbing the Dead and Bleeding Through, I’ve never set a book here. More specifically, I’ve never tried to write a Washington thriller.

You know the kind of books I mean. How could you not know, when you see them in every bookstore and every drugstore and supermarket book rack? Often they have flags on the cover, or a portentous image of the White House or the Capitol. Shadowy figures running for their lives from unseen pursuers are also popular cover art for Washington-centered novels. Within the pages of these books, you’ll find plots to destroy America, plots to take over the world, plots to take down a single politician by digging up (literally, in some cases) a hidden scandal. Since The Da Vinci Code, an increasing number of authors have introduced ancient documents and such into their very modern political thrillers. Many people die. Lives are ruined. Everybody is sadder but not the least bit wiser at the end.

Why can’t I write this sort of book and cash in on the trend? I live here. Inspiration is all around me. Members of Congress shop at the same supermarket and hardware store I patronize. My husband is a longtime Washington journalist (now retired from a newsmagazine) who could give me lots of juicy details to work into my plots. And I care about politics. I think a citizen would have to be crazy these days to be indifferent to what’s happening in DC. So I should dream up a plot, sit down at my computer, and get started on my future bestseller, right?

The only problem: I couldn’t do it if you put a gun to my head.

I’m not disparaging the people who write and read political thrillers, but I can’t do either.  If a book cover has a picture of the U.S. flag or a federal government building, I steer clear of it and leave it for the true fans of the subgenre. Real politics makes me anxious enough without having fictional scenarios added.

I didn’t even let Rachel stay in McLean. In the second book, I moved her to the mountains, far from the taint of national politics. I’m happy writing about a small community in the Blue Ridge. I find much more drama there, on a human scale, than I would in the Situation Room or a campaign headquarters.

Still, when I drive past the White House or the Capitol, I can’t help feeling a small twinge of regret as I wonder what’s going on inside that might inspire a book. Maybe someday I’ll get an idea I can’t resist, and suddenly I’ll be writing a political thriller. Who knows? When it comes to writing and publishing, I’ve learned the same lesson I absorbed long ago about real politics: don’t make predictions, and never say never.


  1. Thanks for hanging out with us here a the R8, Sandra!

    Setting a story in your own back yard can be a funny thing. Sometimes, if a story strikes too close to home, we can't write it. And isn't that odd?

    I find I often set my novels in places I used to live--like Philadelphia or eastern Canada. Maybe absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Or maybe we can see places more clearly when they're in the rear view mirror.

    Lots to think about! Thanks for that!

  2. I usually run when I see anything listed about a senator or president in the storyline. I worked in defense and I loved John Le Carre and the early Tom Clancy books, but the new ones aren't like that and I really am not worried about some senator's daughter having kittens or being kidnapped. It doesn't suspend disbelief for me, perhaps. Glad to see I am not alone as I can't understand their popularity either. I do love really good books in this genre, but they are usually spit out so quickly now, they have all the depth of a James Bond movie. I want a lot more from my books.

  3. I think we write to escape our own world, just as we do when reading, and that is why using DC as a setting for you is not of interest. But just think if the details you could add to a book, if you made the world your own. Wooza.

    I'm in the mountains and have several books written using my backyard. I know the area. Some characters are comfortable with it and others not so much. And my local readers love recognizing a reference.

    Eventually the right plot will hound you and excite you and you will write DC. WINK

  4. Last week author Cathy Maxwell spoke to our writing chapter about "voice" and this is one of the things she touched on. An author's voice comes out in the settings she chooses and the conflicts that draw her into sitting down to write. I think that's not something we can force.

    Now, if Rachel were to visit the Capitol in a fish out of water story, that's another thing entirely!

  5. Hi, everybody, and thanks to the Rockville 8 for hosting me.

    Writers and readers are individuals in their taste, and fortunately for those who enjoy political stories there's no shortage of scandals to generate ideas. But I would have a lot of trouble writing a story like that and getting down to the human level where I'm comfortable. I may set another book in the DC area in the future, but it won't involve misbehaving politicians.

  6. Love your point about getting into the human factor, Sandra. Sometimes, political thrillers are all about big stakes, which is great, but for many writers, that means rigged elections or nuclear explosions. It can be hard for readers to have a deep, personal reaction to those big stakes. As it turns out, the stakes we may read about in stories set in small towns maybe not be globally earthshattering, but they are even bigger to us because we can relate on a human level.

  7. Welcome, Sandra! Thank you for visiting the Rockville 8. Your point is well made about not being to write a political thriller if you had a gun to your head. There are lots of things that I think would be great if I could write but couldn't do it, either. I think that you can even enjoy a certain genre but not be able to write in that genre. If your heart isn't in the story, then neither will the reader's heart be in it. A writer's passion for their story comes through to the reader.

  8. Sandra ~ Thanks for visiting us this week. Great post. You are so right. We can't always choose which stories come alive in our heads, can we?

    I tend to be the same way. Real-life politics are stressful enough for me that I don't often pick up one of those political thrillers when I'm at my local B&N.

    I think we all have core stories that we naturally tell that come from the life experiences we've had and everything that has shaped us along the way.

    Like you, I tend to lean toward those small-town stories. They're my favorite to read and to write. However, it's because I'm a small-town girl at heart. And it's those dynamics I love. No matter if I'm writing paranormal romantic suspense or contemporary romance. For me it's all about community.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us. We enjoyed your visit. ;0)

  9. Hi Sandra,

    Thoughtful blog post on a issue so many of us deal with--consciously and unconsciously.

    I've enjoyed the Tess Monaghan (Laura Lippman) novels set in Baltimore and learning about that city's intricacies--her father's cronies in city and council government and connections at the state level. It all seems more real and tangible than the slick political thrillers on the market today.

    I think many readers are seeking authenticity in the books they read. Sure, occasionally you like to get swept along on sensational roller coast ride, but most of the time you want something that feels real no matter what the genre.

    Thanks again for kicking off the fall with R8.

    Shellie Williams

  10. Thanks for inviting me and making me feel welcome. I'm glad if my post resonanated with other writers.