ANNAPOLIS — John Feinstein, mindful of the axiom that novelists should write what they know about, at least had a few more options than the next guy.
As a reporter, he had followed college basketball, writing three non-fiction books, including "A Season On the Brink," (MacMillan, $16.95) the best-selling sports book of all time. Think about the possibilities: Bob Knight. The NCAA. Illiterate athletes. Victory-obsessed alumni.
He had followed the intrigues of the professional tennis circuit, writing about players as likely to end up in the National Enquirer as the National, the now-defunct sports daily that lured Mr. Feinstein away from the Washington Post. Teen-age millionaires. Stage parents. Burn-out cases. Bitter feuds.
And he had, for two years back in the early 1980s, covered the Maryland General Assembly for the Post. Gov. Harry Hughes, before the Old Court scandal. A lot of white guys with sideburns. So much money in the state coffers, they practically had to throw it out the State House windows.
So for his first novel he picked Annapolis. He's comfortable with that. And if his former newspaper slammed the recently published "Running Mates," (Villard Books, $19) and if it's not the best first novel ever written, so what? says Mr. Feinstein. He's already thinking about the next one.
"I don't pretend this is the greatest book ever written," he said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he was hard at work following spring training for his next non-fiction book. The author took a break earlier this week to return to Annapolis for a party thrown by "the Committee to help John Feinstein sell his book" -- a melange of legislators and reporters, some of whom appear in the book.
"To me writing is a learning experience, and I wanted to get out of my sports mold, not take the logical step of writing about college basketball," Mr. Feinstein said.
His hero, Bobby Kelleher of the fictitious Washington Herald, dreams of the Big Hit, the story that catapults a reporter from the State House to, at minimum, the State Department.
But journalists also dream about the Big Novel, Mr. Feinstein said. And he always thought Annapolis, where history intersects with a non-stop flow of current events, was a perfect setting.
"I understand that I'm setting myself up for a whole new set of critics -- the Washington Post has taken me apart pretty good," Mr. Feinstein said at one point.
"But you can shoot someone in the dark, despite what the reviewer said," he added later, the negative review a sore point. "There are infrared lenses on guns. It's quite common."
The shot in the dark is pivotal to Mr. Feinstein's plot. The governor, a bland, inoffensive man with no known enemies -- remember, this is fiction -- is assassinated as he addresses the House of Delegates. Kelleher becomes more detective than reporter as he tries to unravel the conspiracy.
Are the killers outlaw feminists so radical they seduce married legislators in order to blackmail them? Why was Jimmy Dumont, a creepy cross between David Duke and Randall Terry, sitting in the balcony? Kelleher, a constant reminder that it's better to be lucky than smart, follows the leads from Annapolis to Charlottesville, Va., stopping off for an occasional beer at Fran O'Brien's.
Fran O'Brien's, a bar and an unofficial legislative landmark, is one of many things Kelleher and Mr. Feinstein share, along with a singular passion for an Atlantic Coast Conference basketball team -- UVA for Kelleher, Duke for Mr. Feinstein.
(However, at least one careful reader -- Mary, Mr. Feinstein's wife -- sees no resemblance. "My wife hates him, she gets very upset when people say Bobby and I are alter egos," Mr. Feinstein said of the libidinous Kelleher. "She said she never would have married me if I had been like that.")
Still, Fran O'Brien's was the logical place for Mr. Feinstein's friends to honor him with a party, before he headed to the State House to receive an official resolution from the Senate.
"I never saw him with a notebook," joked Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat. "But he was great. He really was."
Del. Charles J. Ryan, also a Prince George's Democrat, agreed, despite the fact Mr. Feinstein got his middle initial wrong. It is one of several small errors in the book, although the others seem to be the result of Mr. Feinstein's assuming the General Assembly has not changed since his time here.
Since the National folded last summer, Mr. Feinstein has been what his wife calls "the hardest working unemployed person in America." While his contract will continue to pay him through 1994, Mr. Feinstein is juggling writing projects, television and radio gigs, and a visiting professorship at Duke.
He also is thinking about Kelleher's return. "He's going to get fired," said Mr. Feinstein, a little gleefully, as if he likes the omnipotence that comes with fiction-writing. "He's going to go back to his roots in eastern Long Island, seeking solitude and answers."
Of course, what he will find is another mystery. This time around it is basketball, but high school basketball. A top player is being recruited, and . . . but Kelleher's next case will have to wait, until Mr. Feinstein has a few months to spare.