Thursday, September 30, 2010

Evocative weather

How does weather influence characters' actions and motivations?

This week, after the Equinox, it has been strangely warm for fall days of equal length
in Massachusetts. The light has a slant that, when the air is crisp and clear, brings back memories of new school shoes and the taste of pears in my lunchbox. My personal memories of those aromas come from southern California, but New England fall also brought the start of school for my two sons (although this year is the very last one of those years, John David's senior year at university...), and similar smells. Fresh notebooks. Different soccer uniforms. New expectations.

But when it's 72 degrees at 6 in the morning, the air is hazy and it's just getting light, I am right back in Bamako, Mali, or Ougadougou, West Africa. Those are the only places I have lived that were closer than 15 degrees of latitude to the equator. All year round, dark falls within 30 minutes of 6 pm and gets light within 30 minutes of 6 am. Dawns and twilights are wicked short (as we say in Boston). And that hazy air has nothing crisp about it. By 7:30 it's almost too hot to play tennis, or to go for a run, as if anybody on the streets there needs to run for exercise. They burn enough calories in just living.

Barometric pressure rising or falling can affect moods and health. Humid air or dry, winds or lack thereof, can bring us instantly to another time, another place, another emotion. Living in a rainy climate or an arid one (or one that alternates half years between each), could have a huge effect on a (fictional, let's say) character's stability.

While I know I include descriptions of the local weather in my scenes, and try to make sure it matches the mood and action of the scene, I'm not sure I have fully utilized the effect of weather memories on my characters' actions and motivations. Could Thomas be driven over the edge by the extra-long winter weather this year because of a bitter-cold mistreatment by a departed stepfather? Maybe Virgie's inquisitive, generous nature is a result of growing up in a warm-climate village.

What are your associations with weather and emotion? Do you have favorite fictional characters who act (or not) in accordance with barometric pressure? Have you written any stormy characters who only show up in inclement weather?

Drop in and share, while we enjoy a few hurricane remnants North of Boston tomorrow.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blog Absence - Will She Lose Fans and Friends?

My goal of blogging weekly is slipping.

Reasons? Sure. Back issues have me consorting with Brother Pain. My mother's fall and broken hip today, on her 85th birthday, 3000 miles away, have me consulting Sister Worry and Auntie Helplessness. The need to keep working at the day job from home, while standing (with Brother Pain sitting on my shoulder), brings me mail from Uncle Stress. And the lack of focus on my fiction writing has Cousin Wistful emailing constantly. I'm even going to have to miss the long-awaited Gun Workshop on Saturday : a day-long event for crime writers at the Worcester Gun Club where we'll (alas 'they'll') learn to identify and shoot firearms.

But! All the advice says blogs must be kept fresh. We must keep our fans and readers (and friends and relatives) continually stimulated and motivated about the "brand" we're creating. The brand being [TRUMPET SOUNDS] Edith Maxwell, Author of Mysteries.

Well, that's fine in the best of worlds. Right now, dearest readers? I might not be around for another little bit. And I think the world's going to survive just fine. My so-called brand will, too. We're given long lives so we can do many things in them, right? I think that includes time for not doing quite as much, too.

But do check back within the week. You never know.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


How do we get inspired to write? What experiences have planted the seed of an idea for my stories and for the various scenes in Speaking of Murder? Sure, we're advised to write what we know. For fiction that has its limits, but familiar events and scenes can also prompt the imagination to take off running. When that happens, I and my fellow writers have to race to keep up, getting as many words down in the first draft as we can.

Some years ago, I was driving home from work after dark. I saw a road crew digging a big hole in the ground to work on pipe or wires or something. Floodlights illuminated the area and it looked like a movie scene. All you could see were the workers in the spotlight. A few weeks after that I saw a man walking in Beverly, Massachusetts, who just did not look American. Italian, maybe, or Portuguese. Full head of dark hair, although he wasn't young, and pants and shoes of a cut you don't see in Macy's or Walmart. So I combined those into a story of a granite cutter from Portugal who works at night and his romance with a librarian. Never got it published, but I worked hard to craft the characters and I still feel good about the story.

My story, "Obake for Lance," which was published in Riptide (see the Publications tab), was loosely based on someone I knew when I lived in Japan. A fellow English-conversation teacher, he was deported on spurious charges. The story I wrote is fiction, but many of the scenes and descriptions stem from my experiences in my two years of teaching English there.

Melanson's Boat Shop was an Ipswich fixture. I was intrigued by it when I moved here and walked along the river. It was decrepit, strange, mysterious. I had already written it, renamed Pulcifer's, and a fictitious resident into a short story and into Speaking of Murder. Then last summer when we were in Maine for a week, my son called and said the boat shop was burning down. You can hardly make this stuff up. So the fire got written into the book, too. I don't know the actual inhabitant or anything about him, except that he survived the fire, so I felt free to continue to invent his character and subsequent events.

In the sequel to Speaking of Murder, Lauren walks on Ipswich's Crane Beach. I spent a lot of time on the beach this summer, as much as I could. And I noticed the area to the west where the wooded hill comes right down to the sand and rocks at the edge of the water. I thought, "Looks like a great place to find a dead body." And as I wrote along in the Challenge on the new book, bingo! A dead body happens along as Lauren runs on the beach.

What experiences have sent you to the keyboard to write a scene or a story? What stories have you read that you suspect have a basis in fact?

Monday, September 6, 2010

What is Linguistics, anyway?

My protagonist, 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 seems 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 sub-specialties. You can read about it here:

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. You could trace back the history of words like 'apron', which was misanalyzed after it came into English from French . When people said, 'a napron' others heard it as 'an apron' and that's what stuck. Or you could track sound shifts that resulted a common Indo-European root for 'father' ending up beginning with a [p] sound in the Latinate languages and an [f] sound in the Germanic languages, of which English is one.

You could measure 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: is their basic word order 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 linked to on this site: The bloggers are a number of well-known academic linguists who post about all kinds of topics of general interest. I recommend it.

What experiences do you have with linguistics? Any questions you've been dying to ask?