Friday, April 17, 2009

Oh, Sugar!!

Confession time – I have a potty mouth. From the middle grades right through to the present day, I have utilized curse words in my vocabulary. Now don’t think for a moment I could compete with any tar worth his salt (ha) on a dockyard in New York, but I can hold my own with the men I work with (mechanics, parts guys, service writers). In fact, some days my profanity seems to be the only thing that stirs them to react and gets me the answers I need to get my job done.

Whew, glad that’s out in the open. After that disclosure, it should not come as a surprise that I include choice curse words in my writing. Wait, you say. Don’t you write medieval romance? Yes, but I’m also working my way through a contemporary/suspense. So, let’s stick with the contemporary (swearing in medieval times could be a whole blogpost itself).

Profanity in a contemporary is fairly straightforward. Words from my own vocabulary work in my writing, no research necessary. Surprisingly, considering my affinity for swearing, it’s my hero who does all the cursing. Mac is DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). The people he had been investigating are not happy and are looking for him. He’s hiding out in Canada, recovering from a gunshot wound and trying to stay in touch with the case through his contact back in the office. Oh, yeah, he’s also been placed on leave for not following orders. Is he angry? You bet! Does he swear? Naturally!

Or at least I think it’s natural. My mother? Maybe not. Funny story about my mom – who uses ‘darn’ and ‘heavens’ when she’s upset (and you better skeedaddle if you hear those words coming from her mouth). She loves to read. And she has favorite authors. We were discussing one of those authors a while back as we were having lunch. I asked her what she had been reading and whether or not she needed something new. Well, heavens! Did I open a can of whoop darn! Here’s kind of how the conversation went:

"I picked up the new _____________ on the weekend."
"Yeah, I heard she had a new one out. How was it?" I sipped my coffee waiting to be told the entire plot, the characters, the setting.
"Page two, Janet, page two!"
I put my coffee down. "Page two, what?"
My mom leaned forward, her eyes flitting from left to right to check for eavesdroppers. "The f-word!"
I grimaced inside. This wasn’t good. "Really?"
"I gave her that one, not happy mind you, and kept reading."
"Page three. And twice on page four."
Uh-oh! "Did you finish the book?"
"Heavens no!"
I love my mom!

Will she read my book, the one where Mac uses the occasional F-word? Probably not. How do I know? Because she hasn’t read Lady Bells. She’s very proud of me, tells everyone about her daughter the writer, and then explains that she really doesn’t want to know how my mind works. Ah, my mom knows me so well.

So why would I include profanity in my writing if my own mom won’t read it? Because, to me, it’s natural in the world in which I live. No, I don’t live with or work with agents from the DEA, but I do work with men. Would I let my female characters utter vulgar words in their dialogue? Maybe, maybe not – it depends on their character. But anyone who picks up a new release from Janet C. would know what kind of dialogue to expect.

And I think that’s where a certain type of branding comes in to play. The author my mom loved (and, yes, that is past tense) never used vulgar language in her books. My mom depended on that author to tell a story without the use of cuss words. Can a story be told without swearing? Of course, just like a love story can be told with behind closed-door sex scenes. But if you’re going to write books like that you need to be mindful of your reader.

As an avid reader, I’ll read anything. Sexual content, swearing, violence – none of it bothers me if (and this is a big if) it comes across as authentic and organic. I’ve read plenty of books where I’m sure the author threw in a choice cuss word for shock value. Or, a third of the way through the book the main character starts swearing. I begin to question the motive behind the decision. I end up having to reconfigure the character in my mind because he is no longer the hero I had envisioned when I started the story. My trust in the writer changes, I wonder what else she’ll throw at me that will take me completely out of the story.

Just like my mom – on page two – and twice on page four!

So, People of Blogland, do you condemn a writer for including profanity in her work? Do curse words show up in your writing and, if so, how do you justify them? Would you create a pseudonym if your writing changed course and it had the potential to shock your loyal readers? Do you even notice profanity in the books you read – does it add to or take away from your reading pleasure?



sheandeen said...

I used to have a potty mouth. My dh never swears. As a new bride, knowing we might have kids, I decided I needed to clean up my language. Does cussing concern me in a book? It depends.

Execution is so important. Is it natural, or contrived? Cuss words are a little like salt. Sprinkle in a few and it can lend flavor, too much and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Or, a little goes a long way.

If you are writing about certain characters and there is no cussing, would that feel contrived and perhaps bounce a reader out of a book?

Janet C. said...

Good morning! Love the salt analogy - perfect! I've read many books where the author has gone overboard and, yes, that takes me out of the book, too.

And great question. The opposite to my ramblings and one I never thought of. If Mac never swore, would it come across as 'unnatural' or even unusual?

Excellent points - thanks for that :)

ban said...

i do not have a potty mouth - never did. i tend to substitute other words for humor. (plus i've got two little girls) funny aside, the guys i play xbox with laugh at me all the time 'cause i say stuff like 'oh STINK!' and 'POOP', they curse up storms yet 50% of the people who avoid me do so for 'trash talking' 50% !!! (just to clarify - when you hang out with potty mouths - you get branded too :) now, back to the point. i'm with sheandeen. curses are like salt. in moderation and with just cause i have no problem reading them. and like you i'll read almost anything so long as the author handles it the right way, which i guess is subject to the individual reader ... do i use them in my writing, no but they don't feel natural - then again, my world is created so i can make anything i want a cuss :D ps:farscape and battlestar galactica did that and i loved it !

Janet C. said...

Hey, ban - that's one of the wonders of fantasy I'm beginning to discover (getting to know fantasy writers, who are tempting me to get busy and read some fantasy :). Creating a world allows you to create a language, including cuss words. I look forward to reading your 'invented' swearing.

Yes, with daughters (or sons) a potty mouth is not good - no kids here, just a dog. I'm saddened to hear that 50% would automatically lump you into a catagory without knowing you. Another form of branding, eh?

Captain Hook said...

I agree with everything that's been said so far.

Personally, I used to have a horrid pottymouth, but I tried to swear only when the kids weren't around. One day when my son, Ben, was 3, he grabbed up the play microphone (you know the plastic kind that echoes?) and started dancing around in his diaper singing "Sh*t" over and over at the top of his lungs.

I stopped swearing that day.

But in my writing I use it. The degree to which I use it depends on the book though. In CS, there are a few craps and Ricky (one of the kidnappers) uses b***h. I have other books that are aimed at adults that use a greater variety and more often, but still carefully.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Janet - No, I don't want to admit that I occasionally let a out a 'wrong' word.

Of all my characters, Emma in Outlaw says words that come the closest to swear words, like when surprised, she says, 'Mercy!'.

Yes, I've read books with swear words. In fact, one author who is on my auto-buy list uses them as much as sex but like you said, Janet, it just seems to flow into the story and I just gloss right over it.

Would it stop me from reading Lady Bells? Not on your life. I'd read yours, too, Karen. And Jana. And... jeepers!

I might create a pseudonym for writing a different genre but I wouldn't change the way I write. These days, you can't hide behind a pseudonym. Once your book is copyrighted, it goes on the first page regardless of what name's on the front cover.

Great post, Janet. I'm off on a recce to North Dakota today so I won't be around til later. Have a good day, everyone.

Janet C. said...

Kids are great! I love to hear wonderful stories like that - "From the mouth of babes."

I was hoping a YA author would chime in on this topic. Since I know the premise of your book - I would agree that Ricky would use that type of language, it would be strange if he didn't. But you have the added issue of writing to a market that would place restrictions on the kind of language used by the characters. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

As an ex-teacher - I know first hand the language students use. And *crap* has become an accepted word in most schools. Which makes me think of the evolution of the English language - how long will it be before the stronger words (particularly the word my mom so despises) become the norm? Another adjective, adverb, noun, verb?

Thanks for weighing in, Cap't. I'd love to hear more about the YA market and swearing - if you could enlighten us.

Suse said...

Hey Janet,

I love the story about your mom. As far as I know, my mom has only sworn once, and it was on a Sunday! I believe that brought the whole family to a stand still.

My characters swear if that is in their nature, but only when the situation calls for it. I get turned off if their is a lot of swearing in a book, or a movie, or even someone I am having a conversation with.

Not to say I don't swear, but it's not a big part of my vocabulary - and believe it or not, but I probably swear mostly at work. My kids are adults now, but I have gotten out of the habit of swearing at home or in front of them. They rarely swear in front of me either.

Getting back to your blog, I believe the swearing just as in any other action a character makes has to be believable to that character.

Janet C. said...

Thanks, Anita - I was most curious about your response today (considering you write inspirational and are read so extensively). The flow - it's all about the flow. From the character's speech, to his reactions, to believable plot devices - and the list goes on.

And good point on the copyright issue - but, if that pseudonym is behind a totally different kind of book, I think the readers would understand. I know my mom would - and she would be guaranteed the kind of book she enjoys. She wouldn't be shocked beyond belief.

Enjoy your trip - drive safely :)

Molli said...

Okay sugar (and funnily enough, when I recently realized the s word, amongst others, had crept into my vocabulary I switched to sugar), here's my take: if it's in keeping with the character, and the intended audience has a tolerance for it, then go for it. Otherwise, don't. And I, too, like the salt analogy.

On a personal note, I've warned my family that if I ever get dementia (and no comments from the peanut gallery, please) I'll probably have a very potty mouth given the language I've listened to from my men over the years--think construction! But frankly, I find the continuous use of cursing just plain boring, it loses its punch with overkill, and then what's the point? Of course, think how funny it would be to have a continuously cursing character have to switch to 'sugar'.

Sheandean's comments remind me of a few Harlequins I've read where a curse word or two that would have been natural in a scene given the intensity of emotion or situation were replaced with "darn" or "heck". My immediate reaction was yeah... right. I don't want my reader's thinking that, so if it comes up I'll do a re-write, thank you, and make it flow naturally without the imprecations, maledictions, execrations, etc.

Ban's comments on the language in fantasy intrique me. Is it okay to include cussing as long as the language used has no implications in the reader's world? Is it, then, no longer a matter of principle, or philosophy, but one of ... (I want to say something that is the mentally auditory equivalent of visual interest, and can't think of any terminology that encompasses that)?

Interesting discussion, Janet.

Janet C. said...

Molli - I so worry about the dementia issue as well. But, hey, we'll make the 'home' interesting :)

I'm trying to come up with a word to finish your thought - I came up with "Artistic Licence". I understand your comment/question and look forward to ban jumping back into the discussion. And I'm sure Hayley will have something to bring to the table.

And I agree with you on the re-writes. If it sounds like a word has been substituted without any thought to changing the surrounding narration/dialogue, then it's jarring. Is that an editor's fault, or the sign of a lazy author?

Karen said...

I, too, have worked with men to which swearing was simply everyday language. I rarely swear and one day I used the f-word and a guy I worked shook his head, sighed and said, "Karen, if you can't say it properly, don't say it at all." LOL

But while I'm inept at speaking it I do enjoy tossing in into my writing. Do my characters swear? For sure. Does is come off as natural and organic? I hope so. Do I use it for shock value? Absolutely.

ban said...

branding yes - possibly a topic to be explored in a story mmmmm ?!? (hint, wink) but don't feel too bad for me, i didn't mean 50% of the people i play with avoided me i meant 50% of the people who avoided me did so for that reason. (it ends up being only a percent or two over the past 3 years :) now to read all the comments i missed while out running chores !

ban said...

hmmm molli, interesting question. in the fantasy i've read i never took it as anything other than an author trying to be true to the world he/she's created - give it it's own customs, traditions, swear words etc. now, in the case of the first show, i'd say it was tongue in cheek - in the case of the second, it was probably a means of getting away with swearing on tv, which i believe is what you were wondering - that said ... it worked.

Janet C. said...

Hey, Suse - great to see you here today. Hope you're life is not as busy and crazy as it has been.

It's amazing how much shock value a swear word has coming from the mouth of someone who doesn't use foul language. I think your mom and mine would get along very well.

Excellent point on making your character believable. If the use of cuss words is authentic to that character, then it works - if it seems contrived, then it doesn't. And as a writer I need to remember that in everything about characterization, including the quirks :)

Thanks for visiting today, Suse - we miss you.

Janet C. said...

Hey, Karen! That's a great story - one I could see reading in a romance novel (the heroine trying to impress the man, pretend she's all tough, and then blows it by misusing THE word :)

I've read Chase's dialogue - and it totally works for him. Both his character and his work - it comes off very authentic. You used it right that time. Can't remember - Lily throws a few bad words out there (considering the problems she finds herself a part of, I would expect no less), but the delicate balance would have to be played since she is teacher. Would she reprimand Chase if he threw out the F-word around Jason?

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Another unique topic Janet. As you said in your post, I think swearing, like sex, is fine as long as it makes sense and builds the world. I watched Casino on TBS once, and it was utterly awful because they redubbed every swear to things like "stuff you", which destroyed the context. This is the movie famous for the most uses of the f-word (I think it's been dethroned since then), and holding back on their dialogue destroys the immersive quality of those characters and their world.

In my own writing, I technically have a fair amount of swears, but they're probably more vulgar words than actual cusses. I haven't really dabbled in coming up with my own swears with no base in the language yet.. actually I've been meaning to post about this for a while.. but try to play on existing trends in cultural swear words. When you realize how many swears have emerged out of religion, it's easy to create exclamations of [insert deity here] or [insert vulgar body part of deity here]. The foul language that would actually be offensive to a modern reader pretty near all comes from one character, and mostly makes implications about a certain main character's supposed lack of sexual restraint. Not the same as dropping f-bombs, per say.

Although technically speaking, f-bombs wouldn't be incorrect in medieval fiction (little harder to justify in fantasy), given how incredibly old the word actually is. It just wouldn't be a single-word exclamation, and it feels so modern, it would be too jarring. That's where medieval swears are so much fun (thank you Chaucer). I could shout "queynt" all day, and no one would be offended ;)

Janet C. said...

So, ban, will we eventually see more swearing on TV as the language becomes more mainstream? Movies are a perfect example - we've come a long way since that first "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." And I apologize to the purists - I believe Rhett's line in the novel is "My dear, I don't give a damn." But then again, the novel differs greatly from the movie (don't they all).

Janet C. said...

God's teeth, Hayley - I knew you would bring something fresh to the conversation. ban has been holding her own here with us non-fantasy writers!

In my current medieval, my hero uttered THE word after my heroine threw up on him (he was trying to apologize). In my follow up drafts, I will have to edit that so that it doesn't jar the reader out of the story for the simple fact, as you said, it was not used on it's own. Check here for great information on the f-word

Writing contemporary dialogue is much easier - but, as everyone here has suggested, it still needs to be believable/authentic.

Are you planning on creating a language for your fantasy?

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Janet, that etymology dictionary is precisely where I go when I need info on things like that. I love seeing the history of how far back the word goes, and how little its context (in some regards) has changed. Yet despite the fact that using it for sleeping with a lusty wench (or what have you) has been around for ages, that almost seems the most modern usage, as though in recent years people came up with the idea of using a swear to imply a sexual act in base language, and thought they were so clever for it.

I don't plan to construct any new linguistics for Veil at least, mostly because I don't think they're needed for this one. I tend to go the vulgar, debased route for my foul language, rather than the single exclamations of disgust. Where I'm slowly building up the language is for the neighbouring land, as they should have swears in their own language, even if they're speaking another. The bastardization of the two languages is where the term anleth (which you've probably seen kicking around in excerpts) comes from, and why it's always italicized, since it's foreign. Makes for one heck of an insult and hopefully the sort of thing people would begin to tense at reading (as in if DaHannen spat it out, things would be very very bad).

It's interesting in all this how we tend to skirt the words themselves, either for fear of offending those who don't curse like construction workers or simply because we think we shouldn't say them. Swears are like the Voldemort of language. I remember a rather old episode of South Park which acknowledged that, exploring the fact that calling them 'curse words' implies literally being 'words of curse'.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Oh, and regarding Gone With the Wind I think a lot of the power in swears comes with the intent. Once the word gets overused, it becomes common. No one cares about damn on tv now, and even the current gasp-worthy swears are getting pretty tame in tv and movies. They're just words, after all, and it's the intent that matters.

For instance, my in-laws rarely swear at all, but if they're truly disgusted or angry with someone, they might call that person an idiot. Not the most shocking word you've ever heard, but for them, insulting a person's intellect means there is absolutely nothing worthwhile in them. You won't hear my niece spouting off 'shit' or 'damn', but if she got really mad and fired an insult like 'idiot' at her mother, you can bet there'd be trouble. The words may be different, but the connotation is still there.

Also amusing, my word verification for this is "frackedn"

Erika said...

"Jesus wept!"

That's my favorite insert instead of a profanity. I read it for the first time in Anges & the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie. It made me giggle. :)

I have a terrible potty mouth and I know it. I try to catch myself when I'm at work and around my kids, but sometimes I miss. There is swearing in my wip but I think it's pretty minimal. When Jack sees someone has smashed into his car, he swears, wouldn't you?

Good post today Janet. Missed you Wednesday on LSM nomination day. ;)

Janet C. said...

Again, I bow down to fantasy writers - creating a unique world and then adding language (or even choice words) is a creative endeavor I'm not ready to tackle.

Your discussion on intent - and the skirting issue (which takes me to Molli's comment where she was pulled from the story because the dialogue had been 'restrained') are valid points. I couldn't imagine watching a shoot 'em up movie (or any movie over and above family fair - which we reserve for when my mom comes to visit) that didn't have cursing. Now THAT would be the shock factor.

ban said...

ABSOLUTELY and for exactly the reason hayley mentioned. the more a word is used, the more desensitized we become to it. i was driving my daughter to school the other day (8:30am) and the woman is singing 'just like a b!+@#' ! at least on tv they have shows with harsh words on after 9:00pm.
and again, like hayley, i'm not working on any complete languages (bow to tolkien) too much work for me but i do have an idea what they should sound like and i've got a few 'choice' words & yes, i too italicize them ... you will remember 'kieya' ?

Janet C. said...

I love Jennifer Crusie! And I think if you have a substitute then you can still make your intent known (as per Hayley's post). Just like my mom and her 'darn' - we, my brothers and I, knew we were in for it (that and the rattle of the kitchen drawer where the wooden spoon was kept :)

I dropped my fork on the floor last night and, just like Jack after a car accident, there were a few choice words. I totally understand a character reacting that way.

BTW - I was over there checking out the LSM (nice, very nice), but my life has been hectic and I haven't posted anywhere. I'm way behind on the beta blog - hopefully, this weekend.

Janet C. said...

I would have say that the music today has far exceeded tv and movies for profanity and mother 'disapproved' language. And you're right - there is no censorship there (any time, day or night). Am I shocked - no, but then I grew up at a time when the urban myth was if you played your record backwards, you'd hear the devil speak to you :)

Love the word 'kieya'. It rolls of the tongue - harsh beginning, inflected ending - the perfect slur.

ban said...

and yet, when said softly, or whispered in an ear - as in 'kaia ...' it has such a sensual feel - no ? still waiting for the first meet ms. hayley :D

Janet C. said...

OOH, do I detect a slur will become an endearment?

Jana Richards said...

Wow, what a discussion Janet. You have certainly hit on a hot button topic.

I agree with a lot of people here who have said that if swearing is used, it must not be contrived. A character's got to have a reason to swear and be the type of character who would do so. Although I like the idea of the least likely person to swear finally letting fly with a few good curses when provoked enough. That certainly would give shock value.

Do I swear myself? Oh yes. Do my characters swear in my books. Some, although I have never dropped an f-bomb. I hear my daughters, who are in their twenties swear, and it makes me feel bad. To them it's just how people speak and I don't think they hardly think of it as swearing. I think all of us have become desensitized to swearing, just as we have to seeing sex and violence on TV and movies.

Excellent discussion Janet.

Janet C. said...

Thanks, Jana. I think you hit the nail on the head - desensitized! In movies, music, on TV, in books, just wandering around the mall and listening to conversations. My mom tut-tuts when we pass a group of teenagers and every second word out of their mouth is the f-word. Me, I don't even register it - unless I'm with my mom :)

Thanks for joining in on the discussion. Majority for authenticity and believablity. Makes sense.

Helena said...

Mothers! Don't they get to us, after all? But tell me, all you potty mouths out there, didn't yours have a bar of soap handy when you were young? I guess that was an earlier generation, and more properly applied to boys, since all you girls were like me and didn't use improper language anywhere near your mother.

I do remember using 'gad' once in front of my mother (I think I was 13 and feeling a bit frisky) and she came down hard on me and explained that it was just a substituted word for the deity and therefore totally unacceptable. It was the first I'd heard of the substitution factor, and of course there are many of those words that are just a little off the more objectionable form.

As far as what we allow on our written pages, I think we have to go with the characters we have created in whatever era, world, or level of society we have placed them and their language has to reflect who they are.

Really good discussion, Janet. Another personal note -- I really enjoyed listening to my husband swear, because it was usually in German. Very colourful!

Captain Hook said...

Helena, yes my mom did the soap thing when I was 7 and called her an f-ing b***h. Then I told her she was a hypocrite and if she got to do that to me, I got to do it to her. Since I was already almost as tall as her, she hesitated, then never tried it again.

Janet C. said...

Yes, Helena, I remember bars of soap. Never got it, but was threatened once. For what it's worth, I never swear around my mother. It takes great concentration not to let one fly when something goes wrong. I usually get away with shitte, but only once or twice - then she's tut-tutting.

Thanks for adding your opinion. And sharing your stories - I don't think I've ever heard any German swear words.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Checking in before bed to read the last of the discussion. I'm really loving the way this has all gone, and I love Helena's mention of substitutions. That's a problem I see sometimes in fantasy (unpubs, that is) where writers will post their work with exclamations like "Jeez!" and not realize it doesn't work. Believe it or not, it has an origin :)

Also randomly entertained to catch my mc's nickname popping up in conversation? Ban, you have quite a memory for little details, but then I suppose with the little parallels our characters share, it's understandable we'd latch on to them. And I heartily agree, when the tone of the term/name changes... it can send shivers :)

At least I assume as much... it sounds lovely in my head. *wonders if hubby would object to a little 'character research' *