Jul 31 2013 4:00pm

Confessions of an Evil-Minded D.C. Tourist

Harry Truman reportedly once said that if you want a friend in Washington you should get a dog. Here’s my corollary: if you want someone in law enforcement to stick by your side in D.C., show up at a national monument with a camera and try to appear nonchalant as you ask the park ranger about security arrangements . . . at night. Sure, you know it’s research for a book and you want to get your facts right because readers care about these things. But now you’ve got the undivided attention of someone wearing a uniform and a badge and you can hear the gears whirring because he’s wondering, “Who is she really and why does she want to know how many people guard the Jefferson Memorial at night?”And you’re thinking, “Do park rangers carry guns?”

Let me just say that it’s not the first time I’ve been in a situation like this, so now I’m prepared. I successfully calmed down a Capitol Hill police officer who found me with a map and my camera as I was trying to locate a little-known pavilion on the Senate grounds. I also placated a Capitol tour guide who finally stopped our group in the middle of Statuary Hall and said to me in an ominous voice, “What’s up with all the questions?”

When I ‘fessed up, she seemed disappointed. “Oh,”she said, “I thought you were one of those Dan Brown fans looking for the lost symbol.”

But today at the Jefferson Memorial, I decide I’m going to throw caution to the wind and tell this ranger the truth up front. I hand him my business card, explain that I’m a mystery author researching my next book, and I need to know if it’s possible to get away with murdering someone at the Jefferson Memorial at night, or does someone patrol the grounds at all hours. Unfortunately for me—or fortunately for you, if you happen to be a nocturnal tourist or an insomniac who visits monuments at 3am—it’s not possible. There are lights and guards and patrols and, yes, guns. Twenty-four seven.

So now I’m stuck. I’ve already ruled out Hains Point, the southernmost tip of East Potomac Park, a 300-acre man-made island between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel. It’s got great scenery and it’s the perfect place for an edgy late night date to watch the planes fly over your head as they skim across the Potomac and land at Reagan. But the park closes at night.

Well, I’m writing fiction, aren’t I? Don’t I get some latitude, so I can rearrange the facts to suit my purposes? I don’t think so—at least not this time, because it’s the Jefferson Memorial. If I start taking liberties with iconic places you know, love, and more importantly, have visited (and you’ve all been here, just ask us locals), I’m going to lose credibility with readers who say, “If I can’t trust her to get the Jefferson Memorial right, what else did she get wrong in this book?” Maybe you agree with me or maybe not; either way, I’d like to know, so please chime in with your comments at the end of this post.

But back to my story, which has a happy ending because my park ranger has a secret. Once we establish that I’m not a terrorist who needs to be turned over to Homeland Security, he confesses. He’s got an unfinished manuscript at home in a desk drawer. Where it has been gathering dust for years. Now he has questions for me—about publishing and writing and what to do with that manuscript. So we chat and I’m still trying to figure out where to stash a dead body while giving him the best advice I give any would-be author: finish the thing. Afterwards he disappears, but a few minutes later he’s back with a map of the Jefferson Memorial . . . and environs.

“I’ve been thinking,”he says. “There are better places to murder someone. What about the George Mason Memorial?”

I’m a transplanted Virginian and I know all about George Mason, even though he was one of the lesser-known Founding Fathers. But he did write the Bill of Rights, along with James Madison, plus he was George Washington’s good buddy until they had a falling out when Mason wouldn’t sign the Constitution. A university bearing Mason’s name is practically in my backyard in Fairfax, Virginia.

I am dumbfounded. “There’s a memorial to George Mason?”I ask. “Where is it?”

My ranger points vaguely across the street. “Over there, through some bushes. It’s not one of the better-known D.C. monuments. Thomas Jefferson is guarded night and day, but George Mason only gets a drive-by every now and then.”He hands me the map, winks at me, and says, “Think about it.”

Then he takes off to help another tourist. Just as I’m leaving he’s back again and this time he looks pleased.

“I need to thank you for being an inspiration,“ he says. ”When I leave here today, I’m going home to finally finish that book.”

I tell him he’s welcome and head across the street to find those bushes and the previously-unknown-to-me memorial to George Mason. Where I’m also sure to find another park ranger.

Though the odds are probably against me that he or she will have a manuscript in a desk drawer.

Image of George Mason Memorial from Rhodeside & Harwell


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Ellen Crosby is the author of six books in the Virginia wine country mystery series, as well as Moscow Nights, a standalone mystery based loosely on her time as Moscow correspondent for ABC Radio News. Before writing fiction, she also worked as a freelance reporter for The Washington Post and as an economist at the US Senate. After living overseas for many years in Europe and the former Soviet Union, Crosby, who has an undergraduate degree in political science and a masters in international affairs, now resides in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Jim Belcher
1. librarypops
Take some liberties! Aviation based stories never get it all correct even when written by pilots who know better. The story is the thing. If it is better with a few alterations then so be it. Besides, if you get it all correct you may help a crook do it right.
Gordon Bingham
2. gordonbingham
Absolutely! Anyone who know the Father of the Bill of Rights is uber cool in my books!!
I find that research drives my plots forward. So as much as possible, try to get it right, because your readers will see the effort, even if they don't know if it's right or not. And after this post, I'd be interested to read this book.
Albert Tucher
5. Al Tucher
It's amazing how often that happens. In researching my fiction I have met more than a few people who were willing to help me because they had manuscripts of their own. Often they had never revealed their secret to anyone before.
Thomas Walker
6. twalker
really fun article. Probably best to get it right. But introducing the George Mason monument would be a fun change of pace and something not everyone knows. Would love to win the book!
Robin Bartley
7. digophelia
This article is great. I think the idea of having it at the George Mason Memorial would neat, especially since it would draw attention to this lesser known memorial.
Mo Heedles
8. MoinNH
Insight into a writer's research is so interesting. While I like it when an author gets the facts right I will give them the leeway to bend the facts some if it moves the story forward. Just don't be so wrong it pulls me out of the story.
Megan Brett
9. mebrett
I love the idea of setting it at the Mason memorial! It's a great location, a fun memorial (you can sit next to Giant George!) and it might get more people to move a little further off the "traditional tourist" path. (I've lived in the DC area for 14 years now)
Tom O'Day
11. dragan
Terrific column. Very insighful into the "new" DC (since 9/11) with a cop and security seemingly on every corner. I say seemingly since it always possible to find a loophole. Like the George Mason Memorial. Love the thought of a dead body next to one of our nation's founder. Go for it!
Denise Sachs
12. lazybones344
This sounds really entertaining and interesting.
Margit Curtright
14. margitc
This sounds intriguing. I haven't been to D.C. in a long time.
lynette barfield
16. lynette
Interesting. Would love to have a copy.
James P. Pope
18. jim162065
Very cool, it cool to find people to help you out.
Jacki Robertson
20. jcr650
Loved Ellen Crosby's winery series. Would like to try this!
Irene Menge
22. Goldenmane
I can imagine the adventure of doing research of this sort. However, I
would think that getting things like real locations right or using
correct terminology (like properly saying anchors aweigh instead of
anchors away) is somewhat more important than knowing the actual routine of security personnel. I know I am always stopped mid-read when I find a word or phrase used improperly or when I run across something like bear naked instead of bare naked. Too much reliance on spell check, I think.
Susan Robinette
23. susanrob
If I know the real location, I'm pulled out of the story when details are wrong. This book sounds great -- would love to win it.
Anne Sroda
The Lincoln Memorial is also guarded 24 hours, but it still got splattered with green paint! Would love to win your book.
Elise Kress
25. ekress
Great article, Ellen! Washington is rife with monuments - why not choose one outside the top three? I think that's better than using your fiction license at such an iconic location as the Jefferson Memorial. Maybe your corpse can end up in G. Mason't lap? Like the pieta, but different.
Jeffrey Malis
26. bravejam
Enjoyed the article and the insight into your research! Thank you for the opportunity!
Mary Ann Brady
27. mirahana
Enjoyed your article very much. Would certainly love to win.
Joanne Mielczarski
28. jtmswim
The article was great - now it's time for the book!
Karen Koziczkowski
31. zoom38
I'm really interested in history and political books of our current History, wheather is Fiction of not. AND its a Hardcover Book! I alway buy hardcoverr when ever available. Love to win.
Shirley Turner
32. dopey1947
This sounds a little different from the regular who done it.
33. Patti Goettler
This sounds fun, I was born in DC, raised in Prince William County, and my Grand Pa lived in Arlington, just across Key Bridge, (Yay Eagle Wine & Beverage Store!!) I love mysteries that happpen in places I'm familar with, so thanks in advance!
Patti Goettler
34. pattiofdarkstar
This sounds fun, I was born in DC, raised in Prince William County, and my Grand Pa lived in Arlington, just across Key Bridge, (Yay Eagle Wine & Beverage Store!!) I love mysteries that happen in places I'm familiar with, so thanks in advance!
35. Michele C
Love to win.
Kari Flores
38. kari944
This looks like an awesome book would love to win it.
Mario Aguilar
40. marioa64
interesting article, would love to read the book
Bob Keck
41. ky2here
I'm all for a tight thriller set in our nation's capital. Thanks for sponsoring this.
kathy pease
44. klp1965
Thank you for the great giveaway please count me in :)
47. mosaix
Research and photography! Yes!
patricia gibby
48. pgibby1
looks like a book I would like to read
Mary Ann Woods
49. puttputt1198eve
Art history still remains one of my major interests (college major) so this book sounds tailor made for me.
Marie-Louise Molloy
50. Wezzie
When will I EVER win so I can finish a book~LOL!
51. janedoe
Love her Lucie Montgomery books so I am sure I would enjoy this one!
Deanna Stillings
53. reader123
I think this one will be a first for Mason! Dee
Jeffrey Tretin
54. jtretin
Sounds great. There are so many monuments to chose from!
Linda Kish
56. ljkish
I'm guessing, if it's fiction, it's okay that there isn't a guard there at 3 o'clock in the morning when there is a murder. Who would really care. I'd still read it with just as much enjoyment.
Bob Alexander
57. rx_alex
I want to read this series so naturally, I want to start with the debut.
58. sherryann
I have never been to Washington DC & depend on my authors to describe it to me.....I also loveee murder!
Anna Mills
59. Anna Mills
These comments; best, by far, of any contest I have entered here.
Rosa Abraham
61. ravensfan
Great that you discovered the George Mason Memorial, lesser known than the other monuments in DC.
63. maryc
I think if a person knew the timing of the patrols, a murder would be possible. Interesting post.
Katharine Ott
64. KatharineO
The book sounds great! Re the first photo posted here, we were just talking about those little paddle boats - we brought our family to DC in the 90s and had a great visit.
Mary Ann Brady
66. mirahana
There's nothing like reading a well researched book. Look forward to this one.
Allison Moyer
68. The Loopy Librarian
I'm glad you take the time to verify if your murderous plots have credibility. That says a lot about you as a writer and makes me want to read your books. Thanks for the giveaway!
Brenda Elsner
69. brat52101
Sounds like a great read!! Thanks for the chance to win!!
Donna Bruno
70. dlbawiles
Sure- a photo-journalist makes for a nice twist!!!!! I'd love to win a copy!
Anita Yancey
71. yellowrose29
I would love to win this book. Thanks for this chance.
Michael Gonzales
74. mchlmlgnz
Using the George Mason Memorial instead of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is great as the Mason Memorial is little known so your book will be a little history lesson along with the main story. Would love to win this book.
Jeanne Agee
75. jta
This sounds like a great story. I also think using the George Mason Memorial is a great idea. Thanks for the giveaway and would love to win because this is one of my favorite story lines.
Buddy Garrett
76. garrettsambo
It sounds like a great book. Thanks for the giveaway.
Heather Martin
77. CrystalMirror
Getting it right is more important. Those little mistakes can ruin a really good book. Plus, I'd rather learn something new. We do appreciate the effort.
Joyce Mitchell
78. JoyceLm
Enjoyed the article - now I want to read the book. Thanks.
susan beamon
81. susanbeamon
I'm going to admit I haven't been to any of the monuments in Washington DC, and I'm not likely to see them in person any time soon. All my trips through and around the DC area were going from one spot to another on the outskirts of the city. But I have read many guide books and thrillers and mysteries set there. Here comes another one and I want it.
MARY Mclain
Our Senior High School Class went to Washington DC as a tour group. It was an exciting time.
Lisa Garrett
87. lag123
I love political thrillers. Thanks for the opportunity!
Kat Emerick
88. emeri49
I love reading a powerful mystery/murder/thriller book and this would be one.
89. Kathryn C
sounds like a great read! thanks for the chance!
Heather Cowley
90. choochoo
Interesting read, I'm sure. Bring it! :-)
babs allen
93. babsji
I'd probably be arrested asking that, but I'm also a firm believer in research. So Go You!
Cindi Hoppes
94. CindiHoppes
What an interesting post...It almost makes me want to do research and write a mystery or two!
Very enjoyable...
Thanks for sharing!
Phoenix Vie
97. Phoenix
I'm sure this will be more interesting due to the author's background in journalism.
Christine LaRue
99. LadyAnubis
I work in the State Capitol Building in Sacramento. The Capitol Protection Section is the largest command within the California Highway Patrol's Protective Services Division and provides police and safety services to the occupants and visitors of the Capitol building and grounds. Yes, they carry firearms. The mounted patrol is my favorite unit, even though the riders are not thrilled if you ask to pet the horses. I can only imagine the reaction if one were to pose questions of a suspicious nature!
Beth Mills
100. bethmills
Fascinating to read about the research that went into the book. Love Multiple Exposure, by the way--Sophie Medina is a great character and I hope to see more of her.
Kelley Tackett
101. tackettfamilyky
"monumental body dump" is not a phrase you hear every day. I can't believe you weren't tackled by a SWAT team.
Brenda Tucker
102. rango3
Glad you found Georgee Mason memorial - sounds wonderful.
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