The first mystery I wrote, Doubletake, was a collaboration with a woman who was … how can I put this delicately…very hard around the edges. Margaret had been around the block more than a few times and could hold her own with any sailor or truck driver when it came to colorful language. At that time, I was a mother of young children who had worked hard to never say anything harsher than "hell" lest my little darlings hear things they shouldn’t.
The way Margaret and I worked on the book was to each write a chapter and then get together to trade pages and add our touch to what the other had written. Margaret looked over my first attempt to write something from the killer’s point of view and said, “Maryann. A deranged killer is not going to say, ‘Gosh, golly, gee.’ He’s more apt to say, #(#*#*&, @)*$&$, #*@&#.”
“But I can’t write those words. I’ve never even said them.”
Margaret grabbed me by the hand and took me out behind her barn where she made me repeat certain words over and over until I no longer stammered and turned as red as a tomato.
Sometime later when the book was published, I gave a copy to my mother and she called one day to tell me she had read the book. I asked her if she liked it and she said, “Yes. For the most part. But I was wondering. All those dirty words I told you not to say when you were a kid. Did you save them up and put them in the book?”
As I went on to write other books and screenplays that had characters who used rough language, I always reminded myself that it is the character who is saying the words. Not me. We do have to separate ourselves from the characters so they can truly be who they are meant to be, not a reflection of ourselves and our values.
I use colorful language as sparingly as the story and characters will let me. We don’t have to be using the rough stuff in every other line of dialogue just because that is the way that a lot of cops talk, or that is the way a lot of bad guys talk. When the language is used sparingly, it has a much stronger impact. For instance, I still remember the first time I ever heard my father use the f-word. He had never said anything stronger than damn in front of us kids, so for him to say that really underscored the significance of the incident that spurred him to say it.
Now if I could just get my central character in my mystery series to clean up her potty mouth....
Posted by Maryann Miller, who has been on both sides of the editing table and appreciates a good editor. Visit Maryann's Web site for information about her editing services and her books. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play farmer on her little ranch in East Texas.