Do your characters swear? Do they swear too much? Not enough? Should they swear at all?
At the end of January I’m presenting a seminar on dialog and I tackle the question of profanity. It brings to mind a discussion I had with my editor (I’ll call her Nancy) about Murder at the Book Group, #1 in my Hazel Rose Book Group series.
Nancy advised me to ditch my swear words. It's not that I had a lot of them, but I was trying for authentic dialog—people swear, some a little, some a lot, some only when “necessary.” We’ve all known colorful folks who liberally season their conversations with salty words. For example, my character Jeanette Thacker is loosely based on a former co-worker who never felt the need to censor her speech. Not a word of it.
But Nancy said that my story was a cozy and that cozy readers frown on swearing. And then there was all the sex …
Murder at the Book Group does fit into the cozy mystery genre in that the main character, Hazel Rose, is an amateur detective. But I consider it a dark and edgy cozy, what's sometimes called a traditional mystery. The sex I write about occurs off stage and is all talk—remembered sex, reported sex, observed sex, hoped-for sex.
Nancy maintained that sex and swearing were over the top. And I did want to cultivate loyal readers who I expect, if given the choice, would pick sex over blue language (I've since found out that the same is true of many of my fellow authors). On the other hand, some wonder why a reader who can't get enough dead bodies on the page would be so appalled by cussing.
I trusted Nancy’s expertise and instincts. With her help my story was blossoming. And so I ditched the cursing and kept the sex. Not wanting to dilute my more colorful characters, I put my creative side to work and came up with euphemisms (including the “okay” swear words) and other tricky ways to simulate swearing. I was satisfied with the results.
If the real Jeanette Thacker reads my tome and recognizes herself I think she’d be pleased but would probably wonder why she’s using words like “frigging” (that's an okay word).
Mystery author Naomi Hirahara is so skilled at suggesting swearing that you know the exact word she’s not using. Another mystery author, F.M. Meredith, has this to say about the lack of salty language in her Rocky Bluff P.D. series: “Oh, the characters do cuss, I just don’t quote them.”
I had a different editor for my second book, Murder at the Moonshine Inn, and he was more lenient. I remembered my readers, but couldn't resist sprinkling a very mild expletive—or three—into the dialogue. So far no one’s objected.
Back to my dialog presentation. This is how I answer the question “To swear or not to swear?”:
- Know your reader and your genre. Cursing and four-letter words are more acceptable in a thriller than in a romance or a cozy mystery
- Refrain from profanity in narrative, but an occasional expletive in dialog is acceptable (depending, of course, on genre)
- Realize that profanity is more noticeable in a novel than in real-life conversation, so limit its use in your writing
- Use your best judgment
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