My upcoming novel, The Summer Son, includes approximately 71,900 words. Of those, an even 50 are the F-word, or one of its colorful variations. I know. I just counted.
In light of my buddy Jim Thomsen's recent Insta-Poll on this topic, it occurs to me that some readers might find this number a bit distasteful. And with all due respect to individual sensibilities, delicate or otherwise, let me say this:
I don't f-ing care.
For much of the book, my protagonist, Mitch Quillen, searches his past and present for a way to get close to his father, Jim, an itinerant well digger who put a decades-long breach between father and son in one violence-drenched summer in the late '70s. Most instances of the word in question fall from Jim's mouth, either in present day or in Mitch's memories. As those exercises in expletivity migrated from my fingertips to the page, I had to satisfy just one standard: Did they ring true?
The answer, in every case, is yes.
For proof, I suppose I could direct a skeptic to my own father, a retired itinerant well digger and the occupational model for Jim. In these days of his mellow dotage, Dad can still string together a cringe-inducing string of F- and S-words when he's agitated or, conversely, when he's feeling particularly good. I spent many, many days of my boyhood in the presence of men who talked to each other this way, and my intention in the book is to take readers into that world. I have no interest in artfully alluding to such language; in this case, if you buy the ticket, you take the ride.
Now, lest anyone think that I just randomly flung objectionable words at the wall, let me assure you that I did take a critical eye to each use, and in some cases I was challenged to justify it.
One of my beta readers, author Kristen Tsetsi, said, "The arguments between Mitch and his Dad seemed a little 'F-word you!' 'No, F-word YOU!' I understand that's their relationship, but there was something about reading the exchanges between them that left me wanting more from their arguments, and the kind of more that would make someone's 'F-word you' have impact." (Kristen, by the way, did not actually write "F-word.")
On her fine advice, I did some amending to give the exchanges greater emotional heft, including this little bit at a particularly contentious juncture:
I could match him "(really nasty word) you" for "(really nasty word) you," by that didn't matter much when they were the only words we knew. I'd said it behind his back for years, and now I'd proved I could say it to his face. A useless skill. Here we were, poles apart.
I hope we can agree that there is some literary and emotional value there beyond the harsh words. I remain indebted to Kristen. A little f-ing perspective is always helpful.
Craig Lancaster's first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and is a finalist for a 2010 High Plains Book Award. His second, The Summer Son, will be released in January 2011 by AmazonEncore. He's also the owner and editor of Missouri Breaks Press, a boutique literary press in Billings, Mont., and offers editing, typesetting and design assistance. Learn more about him and his services at CraigLancaster.net.