Trestle Press will release my traditional mystery, Speaking of Murder, on December 21. I have always been a writer but this is my first published full-length novel. Creating fiction, long and short, is my passion. Here’s a list of my short stories and links to them. I have made my living writing technical documentation in the software industry for nearly two decades. Before that I variously wrote features and essays as a free-lance journalist, edited medical texts, and produced several published articles and a doctoral dissertation in the field of Linguistics. And before that, as a child and teenager, I wrote fiction and news articles. It must be in my blood.
I am active in several mystery-writers' groups, in person and online, that provide valuable support and information, particularly Sisters in Crime and the New England chapter. I am also a member of the Society of Friends (Quaker), as is my protagonist, Lauren Rousseau. Her sometime-boyfriend, a Haitian-American named Zac, works in video forensics on a system for which I wrote several of the manuals at a previous job.
I currently reside in Ipswich, Massachusetts, but am originally a 4th-generation Californian. I have two grown sons, and live in an antique house with my beau, our four cats, and several fine specimens of garden statuary.
Look for me as Edith M. Maxwell on Facebook, and @edithmaxwell on Twitter. I blog weekly at Speaking of Mystery.
My protagonist in Speaking of Murder, Lauren Rousseau, is a Linguistics professor. We find out that she speaks Japanese and Bambara, a language spoken in Mali. We see her teaching a class on Japanese phonology and learn that she's writing a paper to present at the East Asian Linguistics conference. She’s pretty good at identifying regional and foreign dialects and accents, and in fact uses that to help solve the murder. She pops up with a smattering of greetings in languages like Russian and Greek.
But what is linguistics? It's a wide-ranging field with a number of subspecialties.
You don't have to know a bunch of languages to be a linguist, although many do. You could spend all your time theorizing about the underlying structure of language, or you could go out with a recorder to collect data about a language that has only two speakers left who learned it as their first language.
One subspecialty is child language acquisition, and another is historical linguistics. Here’s a story that puts them together. Last week my little friend James (age almost three) said to me, "I can put my napron on now," speaking of his apron for cookie-baking. Modern English borrowed "napron" (napkin) from French a half-dozen centuries ago, and then speakers misinterpreted "a napron" to be "an apron." And now a child reverses that history, hearing "an apron" as "a napron."
Historical linguistics also tracks sound shifts like the one that resulted a common Indo-European root for 'father' ending up beginning with a [p] sound in the Latinate languages, an unaspirated [p] sound (which to English-speaking ears sounds a lot like a [b] at the start of words) in the Indic languages, and an [f] sound in the Germanic languages, of which English is one.
You could explore acoustic phonetics, measuring how many milliseconds an average vowel is in English when it precedes a voiced consonant like [d], [b], or [g] as opposed to when it precedes a voiceless consonant like [t], [p], or [k], and conversely the length of those consonants.
You could study psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, or typology of languages, looking at whether a language's basic word order is Subject-Verb-Object, which the majority of languages use, or SOV, as in English, or VSO. You could study languages that use tone to mark meaning and grammatical function, like Hausa, Yoruba, and Chinese. Linguists also work in forensics, testifying in court about, for example, whether a written confession or a text message was in fact created by the accused.
Speaking of Murder only touches on the possibilities of a linguist as an amateur sleuth. We're looking forward to seeing how else Lauren might use her skills to solve crimes in the future. One of my favorite blogs is LanguageLog.com. The bloggers are a number of well-known academic linguists who post about all kinds of topics of general interest and they draw the funniest and most erudite commenters I've ever seen on the Internet. I recommend it. You can read more about the field on wikipedia.
What experiences do you have with linguistics? Any questions you've been dying to ask? I’ll be stopping back in to answer as best I can!