My friend Sharon and I sat watching the televised news conference of a political candidate I liked. The man had been accused of having an affair. Standing in front of reporters, he denied the campaign-ending allegations. I wanted to believe him. My friend knew better.
Sharon Smith is a retired FBI agent and a forensic psycholinguist. She studies language, the words people use, in the context of criminal investigations. Detecting deception, analyzing kidnappers’ notes, and assessing threats are just a few of the areas in which she applies her specialized knowledge.
What tipped her off that the politician was lying? Body language does sometimes provide clues to what a person is thinking, but more recent studies have shown words are more reliable indicators of what’s going on inside.
For example, the use of qualifiers like “sort of,” “kind of,” and “possibly” indicate a suspect is backing away from the truth. A man suspected of killing his girlfriend may admit that he was “sort of” angry with her when neighbors heard the fight. These “minimal descriptors” also include words like “I believe” and “probably”. Not answering directly is also a clear red flag. For example, when an investigator says, “Did you kill your wife?” and a suspect responds, “How dare you accuse me of that!” the investigator can have a pretty good idea the suspect is hiding something. There are many other revealing word patterns as well.
I write FBI thrillers. Nothing holds my attention like a gripping, suspenseful story. So it wasn’t long after learning about Sharon’s ability to analyze language that a plot began taking shape in my head. Setting it in the politically charged atmosphere of my hometown, Washington D.C., was a natural. So what if the daughter of a powerful senator was kidnapped and the only clues the FBI had to go on were the kidnapper’s words?
In “Words of Conviction,” a forensic psycholinguist, Special Agent Mackenzie Graham, joins an FBI team searching desperately for young Zoe Grable. She’s intrigued by two things: language and another agent, John Crowfeather, a Navajo and grandson of a World War II Code Talker. What follows is a story that’s keeping readers flipping pages.
Sharon was a tremendous help to me as I worked on the book, enabling me to write with authenticity. For example, I drafted the kidnapper’s notes, Sharon analyzed them, just as she would in a real case. Is this the real kidnapper or a fake looking for fame? Does he know specific things only the true kidnapper would know? Is he a man or a woman? Does his language reveal geographic, age, educational level or occupational specifics?
The more I hang around Sharon, the more I realize how much our words reveal what’s truly in our hearts. The tongue, as James says, cannot be tamed—either by us or by politicians seeking to avoid an embarrassing past.
Linda J. White writes white-knuckle fiction from her home in Virginia. The author of three FBI thrillers, she can be contacted through her website.
To comment on Linda J. White’s blog please click here.