I’ve reviewed numerous Washington political and legal thrillers and mysteries over the past twenty years. After reading Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress by Olympia Snowe, I came away feeling that many of the fiction authors I’m reading haven’t done their research or – perhaps even more disappointing – they have chosen to avoid genuine conflict in favor of commercially “safe” but superficial stories. It is good advice not to discuss politics or religion, as our own Killer Nashville Executive Director Beth Terrell reminded me, but a writer of political thriller set in the United States must cross the line on at least one of these. Unfortunately, in terms of setting, most political writers are not creating a realistic world, which is vital to any work of serious fiction. One can still have a plot, but it has to be set somewhere. Why not make it real? Very few in America are elected without Political Party support, that massive machine that every government itself has failed to regulate. Yet with all that power, how can writers fail to include the monster behind the machine?
Two disclaimers: 1) I have no Political Party affiliate, and 2) What I am writing below comes from the possibilities I see for setting from reading the above mentioned book. Olympia Snowe is a longstanding and respected Republican Senator. She has to walk the fine line between telling the complete truth as she knows it while at the same time not being offensive, but – as we know – a good fiction writer is not worried about being offensive. What I write below is what I got between the lines and, if you are a political fiction writer, what I’m about to give you is a truckload of conflict for your next book. On a positive note because I don’t want to give the impression that doom is irrevocably upon us as Americans, Snowe also writes about how to take America back. Though common ground doesn’t always work in the best interest of a fiction writer, fighting for this sort of unity would also make for a great story goal and would be adorned with its own conflicts towards completion (think about one of my favorite Jimmy Stewart man-against-the-machine movies Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).
First of all, let’s talk about Snowe and why she’s the expert to go to. A self-professed “skunk at the lawn party,” she’s a die-hard out-of-place Republican and has been an energetic participant in world-changing events from 1978 to present. Her political platform is based upon limited government, lower taxes, individual freedoms and responsibilities, and a strong national defense, which – frankly – I’ve heard from politicians on both sides of the spectrum. Only difference is that, unlike the Political Parties and most politicians of both parties currently in office, she actually does believe in them. She’s been an advocate for women business owners and mothers, minorities, and has – herself – had a tremendous uphill battle as a female Republican in what has traditionally been a male-dominated profession. Still another great source for story conflict.
Now, here is the situation and where writers can begin to see the possibilities (if you haven’t already) of including an actual political setting in their political thrillers. According to a recent poll cited by Snowe, sixty-six percent of Americans think their representatives don’t have a good understanding of the issues. Politicians have the lowest approval rating, below lawyers and bankers. Most Americans seem to think that public service has left politics, and maybe it has. But is it the politicians or the Political Parties? Like in the days in Germany before WWII, to play in the system, regardless of your personal opinions, you had to publicly become a Party man. Writers who want to write political thrillers set on any continent would be well advised to include the “machine” either in a positive or negative force.
Read these facts from Snowe’s book and tell me what you think. Common sense bills are bashed because unrelated agenda is attached, as in the failure of the Violence Against Women Act. Both Parties have a voting record of being unwilling to support the Balanced Budget Amendment, though in their press releases they spout the opposite. What about the GOP’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment? Or Senators and Congressman of both Parties being on record for opposing laws benefiting women and blacks in general. Or why is it that approval of scientific research has been geared towards men only (voted on by predominately male representatives)? How can issues such as abortion (through misinformation miles removed from reality coming from non-medical personnel) become more important to Political Parties than the living and real welfare of the citizens both Parties give voice to protecting. (Hot issue in our home state because we have a formally-married representative who is anti-abortion who is on court record as telling his marital affair girlfriends who became pregnant by him that they should have an abortion, but the Political Party supporting him won’t do anything about his conduct because he is an active supporter of the Party. Great conflict? You bet! It’s a soap opera.) Two-faced? Liars? Idiots? Far from it. They are brilliant snakes in the grass. How about this one? Theoretically intelligent apes acting as Senators come up with non-scientific theories of “legitimate rape” and if a woman gets pregnant during rape, “it was something God intended.” What if this were to happen to a character’s daughter? Or an actual representative from Tennessee? Is this the true meaning of “American Taliban”? Are these the unscientific-minded people who should really – based upon Party platforms – be overseeing and approving the content of our children’s schoolbooks? We are, after all in Tennessee, the home of the Scopes Monkey Trail. Not my kids. My preferred source for scientific information is a scientist, but these political characters do come with their own baggage, conflicts, and entertainment value. If there is anything I’ve learned from watching WWE with my son, it is that great villains make for great stories.
Here’s what I got from reading Snowe’s book (not what she explicitly wrote): 1) Political Parties are historically more interested in their Parties than in America, 2) Political Parties have historically more interest in their own preservation than in the U.S. Constitution, and 3) governing now is based upon reelection, not the best interests of America. All three could make daring undercurrents in a political story.
You see, it is not so much the politicians; it is the Parties themselves, which don’t seem to appear in ANY of the books I have reviewed. They are the missing character. I don’t even have to have the Parties identified by name, but their oppressive presence has to be there. Behind almost every snafu in American politics or integrity, hasn’t it been traced back by Senate, court, or journalistic investigation to decisions made, not by a politician, but by decisions on an unelected Party level? Experts on political history will back me up. If the politicians don’t follow Nazi-like to the Party line, in the next election, the Party will eat its own. By their own demands, centrist moderate politicians (such as Snowe) cannot be so IF they wish to be supported by their Political Party, the machines. Just recently we saw it in the fiasco of the development of the national health laws when even the House and Senate are separated from the president and from their own Parties per Snowe. You see this in watching Political Parties implode from within, politicians jumping ship, politicians being attacked by their own Parties at reelections. It is not so much that politicians no longer listen to those they represent, but in order to stay the course and maybe do some good, even the best politicians walk in fear of being one-term servants from the wrath of their own Party. How’s that for a conflict-riddled subplot? Reading Snowe’s book, you see why so much money is spent on attack ads: because the Parties and the hand-tied candidates themselves either want the attention off themselves or have nothing of merit to promote. All this makes me salivate thinking of the storylines that could come from all of this. When the tax code alone is 72,000 pages long and the U.S. borrows 40-cents for every $1 it spends while people here in the U.S. are starving, freezing, out-of-work, unable to afford an education or medicine, and the politicians are bickering in pettiness and accomplishing nothing or sending millions of dollars overseas that could be spent on Americans, I see conflict galore, I see Jimmy Stewart, I see characters with motives for good or ill, for greed and altruism. However, this reality and setting is not what I read about in the setting-barren American political thrillers and mysteries I review. Robert Penn Warren’s novel “All the King’s Men” is the closest one I’ve read to touch on the Machine behind the candidate. Incidentally, it won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize. That should tell you something. Political Parties are not what the story is about, but their presence is there, even in character reference.
Snowe takes sidebars that are just as interesting as her main points, which are all story ideas themselves, such as how divorced from real people Congress has become, how someone gets into politics, how government and Political Parties really work without the spin, how to impeach a president, how the U.S. Senate and House has lost its independence and has become the equivalent of the Party-controlled (puppet-controlled?) British parliament, how Tea Parties have ruined rather than helped America, and much, much more.
Before reading this book, I knew politics were in major dysfunction, but I never knew how badly nor what a great field this would be for storylines. If you are writing stories set in national politics today, this book is vital for your research. You walk away with the feeling of how a moderate centrist willing to work in a bipartisan capacity toward a solution that would benefit the majority of Americans has no place in either Party. There’s your underdog. Obviously, the wheel is broken. That’s a grand thing for a fiction writer. Writing about conflicts in context helps people see them more clearly. It is the responsibility of writers to include something in their work that elevates it to make people think, to make people lobby for changes, and to portray it accurately, not slant it like the conservative or liberal media organizations we are bombarded by and brainwashed to trust like a bunch of Pavlov dogs or, even worse, to make it so watered down like so many books I read so that it just becomes another mystery or thriller set in Washington. A writer who can get the facts straight before he or she writes a Washington political or legal thriller might find, with the pen being mightier than the sword, that he or she actually changes the way government works and has readers and critics cheering on his or her behalf. What better kudo than to say, “I wrote a bestselling book AND I also saved America.” The Cold War is over. Now, it seems, the enemy is within. That being said, this all makes me want to go write my own political thriller.
Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker and founder of Killer Nashville. He reviews books daily for Killer Nashville’s Book of the Day. Publishers Weekly has named Stafford and Killer Nashville as one of the top 10 Nashville literary leaders playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” not only in middle-Tennessee, but also extending “beyond the city limits and into the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13) Having over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print, Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” and the music CD “XO.”
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)