Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday Musings: September 20 2015 - Language and words

Morning, Musers.

Hope you had a super-duper fantastically wonderful week and a wickedly better weekend.

Guess what we’re talking about today?

Language and words.

For some people certain words are mass triggers and are defined as profanity.

These can range from d**m to and f-bomb and everything in between.

Others see them as just words, strong expressions without being...for lack of a better less argumentative word...offended.

But may still be put off by versions of the f-bomb.

How does this translate to writing and character usage?

Granted some authors may never use these words and that works. Some use them as the character dictates and that works. I've read some books where the usage is there just to be there, that doesn't work, in my opinion.

So as writers how do we tackle the use of words which may weigh as profanity?

Since language is used in moments of emotion, let's take on anger, do you tackle explosive expressions in your writing?

My take on the subject is the same as it would be if I were watching a movie. If a characters use the "f" word constantly, it distracts me from the story, and before long I've gotten to the point where I lose interest no matter how good it is. I'm not a prude. I just don't like overkill. When I'm writing, it depends on the character and if it seems realistic, I'll use it sparingly. I want readers to remember my books because of the story, not because of the language.

My characters swear as often as the dialog needs it.  No more, no less.  Sometimes it’s fun to just let it rip; other times it truly doesn’t add anything to the moment.  It also depends on the character.  If I have David say ‘frakking’, it’s because he’s a geek, not because I’m masking the F-Bomb.

Characters in other works use idioms appropriate to their culture.  I enjoy the research challenge involved with finding archaic terms (“brabbling hoddypeak”), or trying various forms of abusive vulgarity to work out a phrase that is clear to the reader while being consistent with the world (“Crom’s balls”, “You sheep-raping product of a misaligned mating”).

There are terms I don’t choose to use, but that choice is mine, not a decision someone makes for me.  I don’t care for Quentin Tarantino’s use of racial slurs, but it’s his movie and he owns his usage of those terms.  I accept it as I accept those terms *not* being used on ‘Sesame Street’.

Everyone has their own style and values, but you can only judge a work based on the whole.  I don’t believe in passing judgement on a person’s worth or the worth of their work for something as trivial as their choice of language and words.

I'm one of those who is easily offended by profanities, but if they're used effectively, they slip right past, unnoticed.

Depends a lot on the character.  I’m not one to be offended easily unless it’s racism which really gets to me.  Or if someone drops the eff bomb just for shock value.  If the swearing is true to character?  Then it doesn’t bother me at all.

And yes, there is swearing in YA.  Once again, it depends on the character and situation.  Teens have huge BS monitors and know when something feels fake or forced and then including the whole ‘moral’ message.  Just ugh.

I would say that my characters swear less than I do. It depends on each person. Olivia swears frequently when angry or frustrated. Frank is far less likely to use profanity. People that are easily offended are not going to make it past the first chapter of my book anyway. Swearing would be the least of their concerns.

I have been exposed to a great deal of profane language in my life. It doesn’t bother me at all. I think there is a place for it especially when a character needs to express anger or maybe someone has written a character who just uses profanity in his everyday life. So I don’t take offense to anyone using profanity either in my presence or in a book. That said I don’t use profanity in my own writing, because I write YA and I don’t feel there is a place for it in my writing. That is not to say that another YA author might not use it. It all depends on how it is used.

I think personally that I wouldn’t use it for YA, because I don’t even think there is a place for it in my writing. The teens I am writing about are up to fifteen years old and maybe they might be thinking it but my characters don’t use profanity. They show anger in other ways. I don’t put profanity into their thoughts, though in my first novel I did use the word bitch in my character’s thoughts.

I don't have a problem with my characters using profanity. I do try to consider which words/phrases each character would use, and try to not have all the characters the same one.

The one phrase that I hesitate to use (much) is "My  God." I'm not especially religious, but somehow this one disturbs me. My family of origin is Jewish, but my kids' father was Episcopal and we brought our kids up as Unitarians.

Another topic I'd be interested in hearing from other authors is how they handle expressions of faith in their work. I've been writing almost nothing but sci fi and fantasy for the past couple of years, and I do have some of my characters attending worship services. I call them Fellowship, and they most resemble a UU service.

I don't have a problem with swearing in a book, as long as it isn't just for the sake of swearing. Like all others words that we consider and remove (some for clarity, some due to repetition, others because they are just unnecessary) swear words have their place, however, if a different word would be more effective, then that is the word you should use.

There are certain rules in cozy mysteries. A writer of cozies refrains from using profanity or uses it very sparingly. The F word is not allowed. Violence is kept to a minimum and is more implied, although in my cozies I do have what I consider psychological murders. My cozies are considered meatier by cozy standards. There isn't explicit sex.

A good cozy mystery is an intelligible story, with interesting characters, that has a good plot line (s) that twists and turns, and plenty of red herrings. The writer should also have a sense of humor.

I've invented updated phrases such as "son of a Schythian ape" or "maggot's spawn" to cover most situations. In other cases, I allude to the use of stronger terms:  "He said one word, not loudly but with great vehemence" or state the character possesses a varied vocabulary.
The use of strong language is unnecessary, and at this stage undesirable, in my writing, especially since I don't enjoy reading it in the works of others.

A friend once remarked that Homer wrote two major epics dealing with soldiers in very trying situations without inserting one objectionable word.  I'm sure they used them in plenty, but he didn't record them.

I'm one of those whose characters use them as needed, mainly because it is an actual trait for the character and their social circles. Now, granted, when I used my first f-bomb in my other series, I had to really think it over. Would my character actually say this in this instance? No matter how I came at it, the answer was yes. In my other books, I've actually gone back and removed curse words, because they suddenly began reproducing like rabbits, and that wasn't necessary. Of course, since I do the PSY-IV Teams in first person, what a person thinks and what actually comes out of their mouths are two different things, but staying true to my characters is important to me. In my current WIP, I've made a point to have a character that doesn't curse, so now I must come up with more creative expletives, which is fun in a whole 'nother way.

Rather than try to avoid or deliberately use expletives in my writing, I just let the language of the particular character flow as naturally as possible through them. If that means they swear a little or a lot, well, such is the nature of the beast. I try to act out my characters’ responses to events and spend a lot of time talking to myself, or at least pretending the dog and I are having deep conversations. Lol.

But I think what really determines it for me is the target group I'm writing for at the time. If I'm writing a teen or middle grade, I will probably include fewer swear words, if any, and certainly those of a lesser calibre. Perhaps it’s simply wishful thinking, but I hope teens swear less than the average dock worker, but that might not be true. I'm still living in the fifties in my mind, so I will dream on foolishly and my teen characters will continue to speak with ‘pure tongues’ or at least words that cause less cringing. If I'm writing for a religious specific crowd, I would doubt the priest or nun would have a potty mouth, I hope--though that can add humour or concern, depending on the story. If I'm writing a romance, it might detract from the plot, as far as I'm concerned, so I might hold back. I don't write erotica, so I wouldn't want to offer an opinion in that department. If I was writing a war story from a soldier’s pov, I would expect to paint the air blue.

The genre also plays a part, a big part. If I'm writing about a violent serial killer, I would expect the language to reflect the mind and behaviour of the character. If I'm writing a war story or about gang violence, well then, hang onto your hat.

My most recent story “Huntin’” included some mild swearing which were more expletives expressing frustration, so they were the kind of words I would use myself when things don't go quite right.

So, the bottom line for my own work is the character’s mindset, the target group and the genre. These are the three factors which determine whether or not swearing would be part of my manuscript.

Anger: I tend to avoid writing down the expletives explicitly, but they are implied. For example, here Alice is being interviewed by a German officer in occupied Paris:

It was dark when I woke again and there was no light in the room, for the drapes had not been closed for the blackout. In the moonlight I saw Heinrich sitting in the chair opposite. How long had he been watching me? Again! Perhaps it was the accumulated tension of the past weeks, all my sad remembering, the roller-coaster of today’s events, something snapped and by the time he had closed the drapes and turned on the lamp I was on my feet shouting at him, in French I think. I said some dreadful things. I think shame has made me forget most of it but I remember my first words. ‘What is going on? Do you and your mother imagine you are living out some kind of atonement of the past to make up for what is happening now? Can you really separate yourself from the regime you represent and its actions?’  I could see he was surprised but he let me rant on for several minutes, till I burnt myself out. Then, my dear friend Heinrich, you spoke in your quiet correct English. ‘Alice, it is time to let the burdens of the past go.’

Frustration: Actions speak louder than words, for example, Janie’s mother preparing to see her daughter after 3 years’ absence (particular thanks to editor Nancy Canu for comments that led to this powerful scene):

She longed to have Janie under her wing, protect her. Her throat tightened with the tears she wanted to shed, tears of sadness and the loneliness of living alone these past three years, tears of relief that Janie was now back. The letting go would have been hard whenever it had happened. Frances swallowed away her unshed tears and gripped her wineglass tighter, taking another gulp.

Abruptly she stood, and went into the kitchen to pour the rest of her wine down the sink. Alcohol was no solution, just a temporary relief. “But Janie, how could you have done this? After all that’s happened?” she said, her tone nearly savage. She turned and threw her empty glass across the room, where it shattered against the wall cupboard opposite.

Personally I believe every writer should be setting some example in their writing. However, there is the argument 'does art reflect life or is it reversed?'   We as writers teach those who read our books. Set examples on what is acceptable. Humble as my work is, I still believe using excessively harsh language is setting a bad example. Some limited profanity can be used to add depth and make your character more realistic but damn is really as far as I go most of the time.

Dear reader, thank you again for joining us and we’d love to hear from you. Keep smiling and have a fun week. Never stop believing. See you next Sunday…nothing better than being cozy in bed with some Musings.

If you have a question or comment you’d like us to muse upon, do not hesitate to contact me Christine Steeves-Speakman  at

1 comment:

Margaret Fieland said...

Susan Leona Fisher, which of your novels were the excerpts from? I want to read it.