Monday, September 20, 2010

Potty Mouth?

 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.

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  1. That's great, Maryann! I had the opposite problem: I had to train away my potty mouth during my first pregnancy. This is how I created the transition: when something annoying would happen I'd say, "Oh, shooty-poop!" This always made me laugh, and the problem faded from importance. Which also made me realize how our cussing incites rage.

  2. Your mother's question made me laugh! I sooo relate Maryann. I find it hard to use any hardcore cuss words myself. But your friend was right. Some characters just use those words. I find that they tend to tell me as I'm writing. Good post!

  3. I enjoyed reading this! My main WIP has a young lady who likes to swear but she's learning to tame her manners around a certain gentleman. ;)

  4. Interesting point about the cussing inciting rage, Kathryn, but I can see your point. Something to keep in mind when we what to ratchet up the tension in a scene in a hard-edged mystery or suspense novel.

    One of the words I started to use when the kids were little was "piffle."

  5. Quite the dilemma for the pure of speech! I'm originally from NYC so I have no problem w/ a good cuss now and then. It used to be a lot more now than then! Some decades back an older woman, she was 35 to my 23 with a new baby, saying 'every good woman has a good dose of _itch in her.' I think she's right!

  6. Good points, Maryann! I actually read in one of my many books on writing fiction (or was it at a writers' conference?) that each swear word in a novel stands in for a bunch of them in real life, so just sprinkling them here and there is best, to give the flavor of the scene, mood, and character.

    Also, one can always, especially in books meant for a younger audience, say something like "He let loose with a string of profanities," or "He cussed them out like an angry sergeant" or whatever.

  7. ...and there's always handy terms like "friggin'" or "freakin'" to get the idea across...

  8. I totally agree with Maryann and with Jodie. People cuss. And it's very hard to imagine a seasoned sailor with a beef saying, "Oh, piffle!" So realism and reality need to be in the same ballpark.

    Jodie, however, raised another consideration: audience. WHO will most likely be reading the book? Certainly, a string of printed expletives should not be included in a YA book or even in an adult novel that's aimed at a Bible Belt audience. So the dilemma remains: how can realism (flavor, mood, and character, as Jodie noted) be maintained without losing the very readers we want to attract?

    Great post, Maryann, and super comment, Jodie.

  9. It's important to remember it's your character talking. Linda Howard once said she filled an entire page with F-bombs to get her fingers used to typing them and her eyes used to seeing them on her monitor.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. I think it goes without saying that colorful language would not be in books aimed for a conservative market. Some characters, like my cops and my killers, are a lot rougher around the edges than a minister. Although I worked with some chaplains that knew a word or two. LOL So genre does determine the use of language, just as it determines style and pacing.

  11. I see where your Mom taught you a lot of humor! I can see her saying that to you, adult to adult, knowing that all those words came to your attention at some point in your life!



  12. Love your post, Maryann. It's interesting how we train ourselves to say certain words and not say others. I have no problem cursing when I'm alone, but the f-word usually comes out "freakin" when I'm around other people. And I physically cannot get racial slurs formed in my brain, let alone out of my vocal chords.

    My mystery, FREEZER BURN, has some unsavory types, and I let them cuss just enough to give you the flavor of the character (I end up using the f-word three times). It has cost me a few sales however, because some people just don't want to read ANYTHING with the f-word in it AT ALL.

    Interestingly, in this new book I'm finishing, no one cusses beyond a VERY mild expletive. I hope no one's expecting a lot of cursing now...

  13. I have a friend who writes for the Christian market. She lets her characters express themselves in a natural way in her first draft, then goes back and works hard to find a way to keep the flavor in tact without the language.

  14. I think as long as it's not gratuitous, using swear words do emhasize something about the person's character, or something major that's happened in a book.

    If an author uses them every other word, I'm more inclined not to continue reading. Then again, if it's part of the character I can give it a little leeway. Depends on what the words are.

    Morgan Mandel

  15. I'm also a fan of "piffle," and I like Kathryn's "shooty-poop" as well, but I've struggled with this dilemma in one of my wips. A character in my novel spews the worst language I've ever critique group was even startled. With some characters and in some genres, the rough language seems to make sense.

    That said, I was asked to comb through an action/adventure manuscript starring truck drivers to take out the profanity and replaced it with the usual euphemisms. The audio publisher who was offering a contract did not want to offend cross-county Bible Belt travelers, families, and over-the-road drivers who were the regular renters of their tapes. Did I change the manuscript to suit the audio publisher. Absolutely! :)


  16. Patricia. Had to laugh when you mentioned your character who "Spews the worst language I've ever heard." That is true for my central character in my mystery series. I have gone back and toned her down a bit, so the book does not read like "The Men From Company B." When I saw that movie I was shocked at the use of the F-word. I swear every line of dialogue had it and it got tiresome real quick. My husband and I left the movie, and that was after Margaret taught me to be comfortable with the word. LOL

  17. I loved your mom's response. And Kathryn, I love "shooty-poop!" Wonderful! :)

    I write my books for adults, but suitable for young adult, so I keep the language clean. (And yes, I know, many young adults say things I've probably never thought of!) But that's just my way of doing things.

  18. Heidi, I agree that books for young people should not have a lot of colorful language, even though a lot of them use it. No need to reinforce poor choices.

  19. Wonderful post, Maryann. I can just see you out shouting curse words. I never have been much of a curser. I have been known to mumble to myself, "well, crapiola", though. But my characters occasionally use the F-word. I don't mind typing it.

  20. What a great story, of learning to curse!

    Why not make your main character's efforts to clean up her language part of the story line in your next book? I imagine that's something that a lot of folks could relate to.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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