Oops … I embarrassed my mother!

“Linda used the F-word in her book! And here I’ve already told my friends at church to read it.” This is what my mother said to my sister in a wake-up phone call yesterday. I had sent my mother a copy of Brevity, and she started reading it as soon as it arrived. My sister works nights, and I can imagine my mother watching the clock until she thought it was safe to phone my her.

My mother is 87 years old. She’s also forgetful. I warned her mine was not a book her elderly, Christian friends would like. (Though they probably all watch the same soap operas she does, and you can see and hear “everything but” on those.) But she’s proud of me and couldn’t resist a little bragging—at least that’s my take.

Once upon a time, I was in a critique group session when the topic turned to the advisability of using four-letter words in your writing. At that point, the most vocal opponents had read only chapters of Brevity that contained PG dialogue, so I cringed when I heard them express their opinion that only weak writers resorted to using curse words.

Don’t get the wrong idea. My writing is not rife with words to turn my mother blue. Out of 87,351 words, I used some form of the “F-word” 13 times. Even damn appears only 21 times. I don’t think that’s out of line for contemporary fiction aimed at adults.

I do not cuss—all right, I slipped once and said, “Damn it!” But I see nothing wrong with my characters using expressions that would come naturally to them. Renee, one of my Brevity characters, is a streetwise bar waitress. She’s outspoken and has a temper. I think it would be laughable if she said, “Oh shoot!” or “You darned jerk!” or even “That frickin’ idiot.” In other words, she wouldn’t speak like me. I don’t even use the euphemism frickin’.

So yeah, I embarrassed my mother, but she still loves me. I think.

Your turn: How do you feel about “street language” in fiction? And why?

 

64 thoughts on “Oops … I embarrassed my mother!

  1. Aw, I love that post. The same thing happened to me – my mum stopped reading my first ms after 20 pages because she disliked the bad language. Although I even kept it very low key compared to reality, to my feeling anyway. Aw well … Northern Irish street life wouldn’t be the same with the one or other f-word, so I had to choose authentic tone over my mum’s taste.

    I am personally not at all in favour of forced profanities in books. If it comes and feels natural and in line with the character, I think they should definitely stay, though. To me it is a matter of balance and how “true” it rings to the personality of the character. Some down-to-earth language might not be for everyone, but then again, what is? 🙂 Good luck with the epublication!

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    1. Thank you, Eva.

      I’ve not really read books with forced profanity, but I’ve seen movies and TV programs where the frequency of profanity made the dialogue almost incomprehensible — or laughable. Like you said, there are certain characters and situation where you expect to hear this language, and — unless you going for the surprise comedic effect — where profanity would be totally out of character.

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  2. It’s funny you should ask. For me, it depends on the genre and the time period in which the story is set. Contemporary, I would expect it. Though I’m not sure I like it in YA books. But right now, I’m reading Ken Follet’s Fall of Giants which is set during WWI. When the soldiers in the story curse, that’s ok. Expected. They’re soldiers.
    But when it’s used in the narration to describe two characters making love for the first time, it feels out of place to me. I guess I’ve been watching too much Masterpiece Theatre, so it’s kind of glaring when the F-word is used in what I think are inappropriate places. I guess that’s my opinion.

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    1. True, Monica, there are other factors to weigh. The instance you cited is one reason historical fiction requires careful research. I’m not saying Follet is wrong in his usage because I don’t know. My husband used to watch a show on HBO set in the, 1880’s I believe, where one main character uttered the f-word about three times each sentence. It sounded ridiculous to me (overheard from the adjoining room) but I read an article about the show saying it was historically correct. Even so, I wouldn’t expect the “schoolmarm” to say it in a tender moment with her beau. 🙂

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  3. I think if people have an objection to language they can stop reading. Really, it’s part of how people talk now. Every single day. I’ve heard children aged 6 in Washington Heights in NYC use every type of swear word there is just shouting at other children. Not in anger, just as expression. Is it attractive? No. Did I grow up like that? No. Is it very, very common now? Yes.

    You have to write what feels true to you, period. I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s natural that your 87-year-old mother would notice, because she is of a generation where “fuck” was considered verboten. Not any more. And you gave her fair warning.

    I think it’s silly to object to any sort of language any more. If a person feels a need to use it in their book, that’s up to them. If another persons finds it objectionable, it’s easy to put the book down. The cat’s out of the bag, so to speak and I doubt, no matter how many objections people have, that this trend will reverse itself. Bad language is here to stay.

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    1. You’re right, Julee. We are fortunate to have a choice which books we read — and which books we write. I’m sure there are multi-genre writers who vary their language depending on the intended reader. But I do think it’s sad to hear children use profanity, though I’m equally saddened by the fact so many of them can’t properly spell and punctuate.

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      1. Yes, I think profanity may be the least of their problems. The world has changed a lot since I was a kid. That type of language was not acceptable when I was young, and it’s become so common now that only hearing very young children swear surprises me any more. As to spelling and punctuation, that has fallen by the wayside. Surely they don’t teach it in school any more, not from the writing I’ve seen. Oh well, I guess I’ve somehow turned into an old fuddy-duddy!

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        1. Oh, Julee, I know. I try to keep up with the way things are with the younger generations, but wow, have things changed since I was young! I remember once in high school a boy said “damn it” in the classroom and the rest of us students nearly went into cardiac arrest. I doubt the teacher or the students would even notice that today.

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  4. Personally, I am not comfortable with it. Not even in characters where is it seems “natural” for them to swear. Of course, I might be a bit of a prude! I am not comfortable with “street language” in daily conversation, either. To me, it shows a lack of education or maturity. Or maybe just a lack of comfort in a situation. I’m not perfect, and I’ve been known to use “street language” every now and again. Once upon a time, I used it just to fit in with those around me. Now, the words slip out only in a moment of frustration. I just don’t think cursing is something that needs to be as widespread as it is. Just my opinion!

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    1. I support your right to be uncomfortable with profanity, Lynn. 🙂 Because I don’t use it, people who know me don’t use it around me — most of the time. But I hear it around me other ways. When I write, I “hear” my characters’ dialogue and transcribe it. They don’t all swear, but the ones that do, I don’t censor. That’s not to say there aren’t words I never use in writing … or haven’t so far, at least. I once heard a line of dialogue in a movie that used the C-word with such a chilling effect I’ve never forgotten it.

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  5. I would never avoid it if it limited the quality of my writing. I personally don’t cuss, at all. But so many of my friends do all the time that it doesn’t bother me all that much.

    I think it does depend on the audience you’re shooting for however. In YA I may use some cuss words, but I would only make that exception if I truly needed it to prove a point.

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    1. I agree, Jinx, I think usage should depend on your intended readers. I also think it should depend on the story. Although some people use it casually, seemingly without even realizing it, I haven’t done that.

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  6. As a teenager, I’m surrounded by bad language, whether at home or in school. I can’t help but want to add some realistic things into my book, but I’m afraid my mum will be mad. And I can’t just walk up to her and ask: “Mom, are my characters allowed to swear?”
    Hehe, I don’t know what she would say to that.
    Most of the time I stick to just saying: “She swore quietly.” and things in that nature. I’ve read several books where the characters had sayings with curse words in them, that they normally yelled when in an unfortunate situation, and I admit to repeating them in my head…
    So, no, I am not entirely comfortable with using language in books. Though, if I had permission, things might be different. I loved this post!

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    1. I understand, Peacesigngirl. I’m sure I still censor my writing, fearing what others will think. In one of my favorite books for writers, Anne Lamott says, “Write like your parents are dead.” I know what she meant, but it shocked me to read that, let alone think that way. Sometimes the hardest person to get permission from is yourself.

      However, it’s your writing and you have to be proud of it, so always do what seems best to you.

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  7. Monarch has the f-bomb in it twice. That’s it. There are also other swear words. I have a feeling I’ll even get flack for the two. Still. It’s a spy thriller. If people have an issue with it, they can go read a different book. 🙂

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    1. It’s also intended for adults, right, Michelle? I think it’s probably harder for writers who write for children or teens and also for adults. You could have two completely different reader followings, but as long as you make the distinction clear, I don’t think they should have a problem with it.

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  8. Upon my word. Good Lord a’mercy. Well I declare. I’ll be John Brown. Gal dern. What in the Sam Hill ? Land o’ Goshen. Fiddlesticks. Shucks. If that don’t beat all. You baggage. Oh, yeah ?

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  9. I cringe the most when profanity is overused. When I was in college many, many years ago, I decided to read a sci-fi novel my sister had read and liked. But, when I started to read the book, it was like every other word was the f-word. If not that word, it was another. In the end, I read, may be 4 or 5 pages. A very uncomfortable experience to say the least. I asked my sister later, where was the sci-fi in that book. She said if you could get through the first 30, or so, pages, the book becomes a noticeably cleaner read. I did not pick up the book again, even to read ahead.

    I accept some level of profanity in books, movies, and TV, as long as it doesn’t become gratuitous, and that it fits with the characters using that kind of language.

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  10. I do not have a problem with literature intended for adults to include profanity. I write stories about contemporary soldiers – they curse. Anything else sounds stilted and unnatural. The issue is to keep inappropriate literature out of the hands of those it was not intended for. When I was around 11, I loved horses and got my hands on “The Valley of Horses” – that was eye opening without any profanity.

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    1. I think there will always be “adult” books that falls into the hands of children, Osmiumantidote, though usually it’s because of their curiosity, not by accident. 😉 It’s been a long time since I read it, but if I remember Jean Auel’s book correctly, it wasn’t written obscenely. Though I can see why it would have made an 11 year-old uncomfortable.

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  11. Well, Linda, I have this trouble, too–although, I do curse. I try to keep it clean around the kids, but yeah, I slip. But I warned everyone that Ravenmarked wasn’t the perfect, clean Christian fantasy they might think I’d write, and that the characters have sex, drink, fight for stupid reasons, and yes, curse.

    I don’t mind curse words at all as long as it makes sense in context (character, setting, whatever). Ravenmarked has several instances of the f-word or variations thereof, and only one is really gratuitous, I think. I left that one in because I thought it suited the character’s frustration level. 🙂 I use “damn” and “ass” a few times, too, and “bastard,” but in the literal sense (as in, a child of unmarried parents). But don’t use “hell” because they don’t have a “hell,” so it would be weird in context. And I do use “gods” because there is some level of polytheism. But hey, it’s fantasy.

    That said… I think I have fewer than 30 or so curse words at all in the entire book of about 150,000 words, so I’m probably not pushing the envelope too much… 🙂

    Amy

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  12. I think you have to use whatever words are appropriate and realistic for your characters to speak. Gritty characters can be pretty interesting (remember, I liked Renee the most of all your Brevity characters) and to be realistic, their language needs to be gritty as well.

    Wow, that’s great that your mom is reading and keeping in touch with friends at the age of 87! Good for her! I’ll bet she’s proud enough of you that she gets over being embarrassed. And if her friends are her age, chances are they already forgot that she told them to read your book…

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    1. Natasha, I think you’re right about her friends forgetting. 😀

      This discussion reminds me of the first time I heard The Sopranos reruns on a censoring channel. The over-dubbed “clean” words made it laughable at times when the on-screen action wasn’t funny at all. It was just weird.

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  13. Street language in fiction? I think it’s a necessary evil to bring believability to your characters. Life is not as prim or delicate as some would believe. Walking down the street you’re bound to hear one curse or the other. In life we don’t have a buzzer for our eyes (or ears in some cases) that goes off everytime someone curses. (Hugs)Indigo

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  14. “only weak writers resorted to using curse words”
    Sounds a bit elitist to me. I think we should use the language best fitting the character. I certainly wouldn’t leave it out just to gain readers and I wouldn’t add it for that reason either.
    The fact is, I know very few people that NEVER curse–and I know many people from all walks of life.

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    1. Well, Dayner, I agree. Profanity should never be used gratuitously.

      Can I qualify my statement that I never cuss? I’m a euphemizer. Shoot! Daggone it! God bless it! That’s what comes out of my mouth. So, yes, I do curse … just not with the “grown-up” words. 😉

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      1. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I know people that don’t use those words. I just think it’s unfair for a critique group to consider it an avenue for ‘only weak writers’.

        I know a 45 year old biker that says fudge and sugar, and a world renowned tenure professor at UC Berkeley that uses the other f and s words pretty regularly.
        It’s simply a matter of character, not weak writing.

        BTW: I’m on chapter ten of Brevity and thoroughly enjoying it! Excellent job, Linda. The print copy is really beautiful too.

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        1. Thankfully, Dayner, by the time I heard that statement at group, I had enough confidence to know I wasn’t a weak writer. Still, I’d hate to think of another writer judging my writing by such a standard.

          I’d love to hear a biker use those words. 😀

          Thank you for the praise on Brevity. Color me a little pink, but grinning.

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  15. Linda, I’m so glad you posted this! I do have a bit of language in my MS, but the part that made me blush when I turned it over to my parents was when my heroine had sex in a public place. I didn’t want her to, actually stopped writing and told her she was NOT that kind of girl and this was NOT that kind of book, but it turned out to be important to her journey as a person. It wasn’t gratuitous – as you said, “everything but.” Nevertheless, I had to assure my parents it wasn’t autobiographical. 😉

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    1. Oh, Kimberly, I feel your pain. My mother commented on the sexual morals in my book too! 🙂

      I love that you tried to talk your character out of her behavior. And I’ve already had to assure a family member that nothing in Brevity is autobiographical.

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  16. Linda,

    Love this post!

    I’ll admit, like Amy Rose, I do curse. But, I do cringe once in a while when I write cursing into a story. My WIP right now has an opening scene that uses the f-bomb, and I’ve thought more than twice about whether or not I’ll nix that when I go back in for rewrites. I do like you’re idea (one reiterated in the comments as well), that any kind of language must be used in the right context, to make the characters believable. If we’re writing what’s true to a character, then we have to let go of how readers might respond. Besides, maybe a cringe from the reader is the exact reaction we’re pulling for in the story.

    Great food for thought.

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    1. Thank you for chiming in, Christi. Yes, indeed, we don’t always want readers to like what our characters do or say … or how they say it. The use of profanity, as well as any other trait, can enrich our characters and make them believable.

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  17. I agree with many above — if the language fits the context and character, then use it. It will make the story sound more authentic.

    In real life, I have trouble saying “stupid.” Maybe that’s why I prefer to write MG… 🙂

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    1. Oh, Amanda, you reminded me how often I say stupid. My five-year-old grandson chastises me for that because he’s not allowed to use that word. 🙂

      You also prompted another thought. I definitely could, and do, write characters who don’t use profanity because that’s realism too, especially for writers like you.

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  18. Haha! I could never shock my Mom – *she* shocks me! 🙂

    I discussed this topic on my blog a few weeks ago (article called “The Prerogative of the Harlot” ) but I’ll say here what I said there: gratuitous cursing (or sex or violence) isn’t the answer; but if it’s vital to an accurate portrayal of the character we, as authors, must bite the bullet and put it in! Hope your Mom and her friends have recoverd by now! 🙂

    Brevity of Roses sounds intriguing – have just bought it for my trusty Kindle!
    Judy, South Africa

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    1. Judy, sounds like you have quite a mom! 😉 Actually, mine couldn’t complain about any of the other words in my book because I learned them at home (before she joined the church.)

      Thank you so much for buying my book. I hope you enjoy it. And, if you’re so inclined, a rating at Amazon or B&N would be appreciated.

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  19. Years ago, I used to think that any profanity used in writing was just there for the shock value because I was taught as a child how WRONG it was to cuss and how taboo it was to use such words. So as a reader (again, years ago) it always turned me off because I understood doing the taboo was just a way to rebel. That was my rational then.

    In the past few years, I’ve changed my stance. Mainly since I’ve had to consider myself a writer and I’ve acquired more understanding of how colorful language is used to show a character’s personality traits. That said, I still don’t always agree with its use. If it isn’t used where it would be true to the character, gratuitous language really turns me off – enough so that I’ll stop reading.

    I’ve read (began to read) more than my share of books where there is so much harsh language that I could develop zero empathy for the MC. It isn’t that I’m prudish. I flip a few words of my own occasionally — you should hear me when I’m mad. But I’m a southern gal, raised in a redneck county, so to my character I’m being true. 😉 That said, it is not a part of everyday normal conversation, or weekly, or even monthly for that matter. So overuse does turn me off.

    I hear people talk, especially the younger generation, and OMG can they go on. A character based on them would do more than a little peppering. I, of course, would choose not to read the novel.

    In all, language is ok with me if used in moderation, but all writers (American at least) have the right to use it as often as they like and I’d never support the loss of that right. That is a slippery slope of censorship. We are given the right to choose what we will or will not tolerate at a personal level, for now, until some publisher decides to rewrite your novel and replace the words it finds offensive, but that is a whole other topic now isn’t it.

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    1. T.A., as I said to Judy, I learned those words (except the f-word, as far as I remember) from my parents before they joined the church. In fact, their usage is what caused me to vow not to use that language. 😉

      I don’t believe I’ve ever picked up a book with excessive cursing, but I doubt I’d like it much. I don’t generally read many off the NYT bestseller list, so maybe that’s the kind you’re talking about.

      And, of course, I applaud the right to censor what I read; I just don’t want someone censoring for me.

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  20. For better or worse, I don’t put any cursing in my books. I understand all the reasons people do and leave their novels to their judgment. I do occasionally write that my character swore under their breath or even loudly without putting the actual word in. And it can be difficult when I know a character would probably swear to figure out how to choreograph the scene and still get the feeling and point across. I worry a tad about what my parents would think if they read my books and there was swearing, but they’ve heard me swear in real life (though not the f-word 😉 and as far as I know it hasn’t upset them too dramatically. But honestly, I worry more about my own kids reading them some day and the youth I work with at church. I don’t want them to pick up my books and think well if she uses this word in her books, then it must be okay for me to use it. And since I write for teens it’s something I’m very conscious of. I know a lot of YA books that have swearing and also have great messages and stories. For me it’s just a personal choice not to.

    Your mom sounds cute. 🙂

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    1. Candi, if I wrote for children or teens, I would find a work around too. Of course, I could have used more caution in Brevity … in fact, I used the “swore under his breath” option at least once. Meredith didn’t swear, per se. Perhaps I will challenge myself in the future to create more of those realistic characters who don’t swear. 😉

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  21. It’s always been interesting to me how in our culture (USA) profanity as well as sex is often judged more harshly than violence. There is a fine line between wanting to present a character’s speech as “natural” and overdoing foul language. There are people whose every second word is f***. You wouldn’t want to “repeat” that in a novel. However, espressing someone’s anger with a juicy four-letter word is absolutely okay. After all, it would be utterly ridiculous to let a person say “dang” or “oh, my” when in reality we all know that he/she would say “damn” or “shit.”
    Linda, there is nothing undecent in your novel at all! You know, mothers see these things a little differently. LOL.
    Christa

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    1. Absolutely, Christa! I consider abusing your child or spouse, or anyone really, more profane than anything that could come out of a person’s mouth. We can be rather prudish for such a violent lot. 😉

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  22. My Mom was reading the books that I brought to her the last couple of years that she decided she was finally retired from full time farming. I brought her quite a variety but her favourites were Danielle Steele. She asked me if I read them too and if I was getting any” notions” from them. Mom was becoming frail with age (95) but her mind and emotions never gave up. I think Danielle Steele’s salty style was a nice change from all her Bible readings.

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  23. Mothers! I’ve been down that road once with my mother. I let her read a ms I was working on and she was upset to think that it might get published because she “wouldn’t even be able to tell her friends about it” …Sheesh. That was way back in the beginning and yeah it made me stop work on that story. It is difficult to explain to mothers that we are not the ones cursing. It is our characters. And only when it’s fitting for that character to do so.. “But you must have those words in your head.” Um yeah, I have a lot of word in my head…I’ve heard a lot of words. I’m not a baby anymore, Mum. I can’t get in trouble for using bad words..

    My mother has loosened up from those days although, coincidently, most of my characters don’t use rough language these days. But that’s just until the right character comes along you understand..

    Even the characters in Ya fiction these days use the “f” word. Why not? We all know how young people talk today. Why pretend otherwise?

    Great post!

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