It’s been said many times (I’m not sure by whom), writers write what they know. I am a national security expert writing a fiction political thriller about national security issues and of course, weapons of mass destruction (WMD)–cue scary music. My novel takes place primarily in the Pentagon and at Fort Lesley J. McNair, and my protagonist Dr. Morgan Shaw is a professor starting her new job at that National War College at the National Defense University (NDU). I’ve worked in the Pentagon for two years and currently work at NDU.
For more than seven years, I have been working for NDU. That means that each week, I spend 40 or more hours on NDU’s beautiful campus. During my lunch break, you’ll often find me wandering the expansive and lush grounds of Fort McNair. I’m either out for a walk, stopping at the post office to send a package or sitting on a bench along the Anacostia River and admiring from afar the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria. There is so much history and beauty to behold. With views of the Washington Monument and only minutes from downtown D.C., the property would be worth a fortune in private hands, but it has been protected from sale by the U.S. government due to its status as one of the oldest active Army posts in existence. The historic Army base in southwest D.C. was first established in 1791 at the convergence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers to protect the new national capital from the threat of river invasions.
The National War College is housed in Roosevelt Hall–my favorite building on campus. The majestic building, named after President Ted Roosevelt who laid its first cornerstone, stands slightly raised on a hill and overlooks the Potomac River on the far end of the base. Roosevelt Hall consists of two large wings extending laterally to the east and west. The wings are separated in the middle by a domed rotunda. The stepped terraces on the north side of the building are lined with statue podia, intended to support several statues of great warriors. Interestingly, only one statue—one of Frederick the Great, a gift from the German government—was ever installed. It was removed during World War I due to anti-German sentiment, and all the podia have stood empty ever since. The building entrance features a grand archway guarded from above by an imposing statue of an eagle.
Inside the building, Roosevelt Hall has a bit of a Hogwarts School of Magic feel to it. From the central pavilion in the rotunda, several marble staircases lead up three flights from the first floor. My favorite room is located on the third floor. Used as a conference room, almost the entire width of the room is flanked by a giant half moon window. The views from this window of NDU’s campus, the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and Bolling Air Force Base are magnificent. And if you know what you’re looking for, you can see the silver cube-shaped headquarters of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) across the river. The best part, however, is watching the assorted helicopters fly right by the window following the river into DC–sometimes it’s Marine One transporting the President.
If you climb to the top of the marble staircase beyond the third floor, you’ll reach the dome of the rotunda. Years ago, when I first started my job at NDU, I found my way up there and went through a small door, walked across a wooden blank and up a few make-shift stairs into the dome itself (clearly not up to code and probably not allowed). As I peered down from the dome opening into the pavilion on the first floor, I imagined a scene with two characters in a physical tussle where one slipped and fell to his death below (spoiler alert!). That was years before I decided to start writing my first novel.
NDU campus also offers the perfectly grisly setting for a fictional story with ominous undercurrents. Some say that there are ghosts that haunt Fort McNair at night, if you believe in that sort of thing. Supposedly, they rattle chains in the wee hours in the attic of Grant Hall or maybe on the third floor. I wouldn’t know because I am at home sleeping during those hours. Grant Hall was the location of the 1865 trials of the conspirators accused of assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. Mary Surratt and most of the other conspirators were sentenced to death and hung from a scaffold on Fort McNair on July 7, 1865. About 1,000 people endured the brutal summer heat to watch the conspirators hang to death. Grant Hall has recently been remodeled, and the general public can take a tour four times a year.
I have been working at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the National Defense University (NDU) for more than seven years. You could say that I’m enjoying my work at NDU more now than I ever have. I’ve grown into the job. I now have several roles at the WMD Center, but my favorite by far is teaching military officers at the O5 (Lieutenant Colonel) and O6 (Colonel) levels and civilian equivalents. Military officers admitted to the National War College are typically slated for promotion to general officers or flag officers (Generals and Admirals). These officers and their civilian counterparts are expected to be among the top future leaders in the country– famous alumni of the War College include the likes of Senator John McCain and General Colin Powell. I am a Course Director for an NDU elective on Film and WMD. My students come from the National War College, the Eisenhower School and iCollege. I am honored to teach the future leaders of my country and to learn from them. And I have no plans to give up my day job anytime soon.
So, this is the setting in which the plot of The Nuclear Conspiracy will unfold. My job is my muse. I am writing what I know.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.