Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Giving up on the day-job

So what are the choices? Bobby on the beat, detective, solicitor, barrister, judge, pathologist, crime scene tech, PI, profiler, dinnerlady . . .

I don't think many police stations have full canteens with dinnerladies anymore. Shame, because that's about the only thing I'd be any good at.

Unless I was a forensic linguist. I actually was a linguist (non-forensic) once. MA, PhD, teaching in a university - all that. And what I saw of forensic linguistics was fascinating. Correcting miscarriages of justice using the power of grammar is just about the coolest thing in a very uncool discipline.

For instance, a forensic linguist can look at a confession and isolate then analyse elements such as sentence length, clause structure, phrase structure and vocabulary choices to build a linguistic signature for the author. It was a punch-the-air moment the first time I saw an analysed false confession, where a prisoner showed his own signature all through a long piece of discourse and then "unaccountably" started speaking exactly like one of the cops in the room when it came to the mea culpa.

There are more straightforward investigative use too, such as busting hoax 999 calls, ransom demands and even suicide notes, and it's getting easier all the time as the collected corpus of texts gets larger (what a depressing job it must be to input and tag suicide notes, mind you . . .)

When I turned to crime-writing, I scratched my head for a while wondering if I could use any of my former life as material.  Could there be a forensic linguistics procedural series?  It didn't take long to decide that it would be kinda one-note (like those really specific comic-book heroes who just happen to find themselves in situations where their really specific super-power is just what's needed, over and over (and over) again. Was there any other way linguistics could be useful? It didn't take long to decide "nope".

So I had no justification for feeling aggrieved when another writer - actually a team of two (which is cheating) - recently came up with a brilliant linguistics-based mystery series. Based in Britain. And historical to boot. Ouch.

Yes, I contracted a bad case of premise-envy over DE Ireland's debut Wouldn't It Be Deadly, in which Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle team up to fight crime. Curses! I read it to give a blurb, though, and in all honesty I couldn't have come up with the plot to save my life and I've never written anything as funny as the denouement. So, not at all through gritted teeth, I say three cheers for Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta - and roll on September and the launch day.

And - if you'll forgive some blatant BSP (since it's publication day) - it's a lot of fun ignoring the advice to write what you know and, instead, writing what you want and finding out what you need to know. 1930s fishing industry and Aberdeenshire wedding traditions? Go on - ask me anything.


Paul D. Marks said...

I guess Eliza and Prof. Higgins stayed together to form a crack linguistic forensic team. Very clever -- hadn't heard of it, but will have to check it out. Thanks, Catriona.

Susan C Shea said...

I didn't know there was such a thing as forensics linguistics.Sounds like a profession invented by a lot of out of work Ph.D.s! But you'd be splendid at that job too, I'm sure, if you ever gave up writing crime fiction, which I hope you never do.

Meg Mims said...

WOW! thanks for such a great nod to our writing team. Higgins can't help but brag about his abilities, but it's mostly to impress people - LOL. As for coming up with plots, YOU do a DANDY job in your series! love that cover.

Catriona McPherson said...

Hah - Susan, it must sound that way. The large-scale computer corpora have changed everything. If you look at, say, the analysis for 10K real 999 calls and 10K proven fake ones and find a linguistic signature in a new one that maps the fake ones to the nth degree - you've got something worth paying attention to.

But I can attest to how brain-numbing it is to do the input work. I worked on a set of data where soldiers had to carry out collaborative discussions when they were sleep-deprived . . . oy.

Meg Mims said...

Oh, and we didn't cheat. I came up with idea (while singing to the My Fair Lady soundtrack, which I love) of Eliza and Higgins cozily solving crimes, but I am an American history expert. I *had* to get my partner-in-crime Sharon Pisacreta to sign on. She's the Brit expert. Had to be done, I'm afraid. And I'm sure a character who did what you did might come in handy during an investigation some day!

Meredith Cole said...

Happy Pub day! Forensic linguistics is new to me, too... But sounds fascinating!

Art Taylor said...

Happy Pub Day!