By Linda Coles
I recently travelled to Harrogate in the UK from sunny New Zealand in order to attend Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival.
I’m a writer, I write crime novels, and attending a conference somewhere in the world each year is all part of my continuing education. Plus I wanted to see John Grisham being interviewed live by Lee Child. (They were both awesome, by the way.) Lee asked John why he thought such a varied audience, from truck drivers to lawyers, male and female, young and old, all read his books. He put it down to this: he writes a book he would be proud and comfortable for his mother to read. No cussing, no F words, nothing to embarrass her. She was his barometer.
It’s your story as you write it, so make the decision for yourself whether you wish to keep within certain boundaries much like Grisham does, or extend those fences further out to include a few select curse words. Or, you might not give a toss what anyone else thinks, and if they are offended by the amount and type of words you use, they’re not the readers you’re looking for anyway. To each their own: this is your prerogative as the author.
But it was during a panel discussion in the main conference hall the following day that the topic again turned to swearing within the storyline, and each of the four panelists gave their view. Yes their characters, many of which were hard-nosed detective types (being a crime festival), would swear, not to extreme, but in an effort to keep the story real.
Yes, there was a time and place for it. An FBI agent wouldn’t say ‘goodness gracious’ when things turned nasty, but on the flip side, you could probably count on one hand how many times Jack Reacher has sworn through more than twenty books, and he’s no angel but always manages to remain authentic.
I think the audience got that and were happy. I suspect many of the panelists gained new readers that day as they explained their own characters and we got to know them a little.
Except one author. He shall remain nameless.
When he was asked about the huge amount of bad language in his books, he told a quick story of how his editor had emailed him and asked him to ‘cut the c**t count’. Laughing, he said he’d left one in for good measure.
I kid you not. The whole room sucked in a sharp breath at the ‘C word’ being so casually used, and since the crime genre attracts many readers in the 50+ age range, it perhaps wasn’t the most appropriate thing to say. The author laughed, oblivious to the audience’s reaction, happy to stick to his guns and write how he wanted.
I’d say it was a safe bet he didn’t gain any new readers that day, at all. Was it a marketing opportunity gone to waste? Well that depends on if he, as I’ve suggested above, was an author that couldn’t give a toss, the crowd in the room were not his target readers so it didn’t matter to him. His style of writing and lead character attracted quite a different audience than those sat in front of him.
My own thought is this: I’ll never get complaints from readers because there isn’t any swearing in the storyline, but I could get complaints if there is. I too would like to think my friends and family would happily read my novels and enjoy them without flinching.
So, over to you. Does swearing turn you off a story, or do you think it’s acceptable? And if so, at what level?
I’m Linda Coles, an English woman now living in New Zealand. I’ve written marketing books and a couple of romance books, and have now settled on crime as my chosen genre, since that’s what I enjoy reading the most.
I developed the DS Amanda Lacey series back in 2017 and have watched her and her colleagues grow over the stories, through their work as well as their personal lives. Jack Rutherford is her work partner, and is a bit of a ‘Maigret’; as for Amanda herself, I can’t think of anyone she’d be like, except maybe like lots of women. She’s honourable, savvy, loving and wears well-polished Doc Martin boots with her sensible work suit, so that should tell you something of her nature. Together the duo work the strangest of crimes in Croydon, UK. I do like to give them both modern cases to solve, quite often involving the dark web for a bit of extra intrigue.
My office is next to my vegetable patch, and my ‘kids’ consist of 5 goats, 2 cats and my husband. Together, we come up with the stories for you to enjoy. I hope you get to know and love the characters as much as I do.
Here’s to good stories and great friends!
Great article. I am working on my first crime story (not cozy) and I don’t think much swearing will come into it. Prior to this I’ve written Historical Fiction and the swearing question hasn’t been an issue (although the sex question has). Glad to see that authentic crime can be written without swearing and still appeal.
Swearing’s always been something I can’t stand, at least the rougher language. I will read books & watch TV shows & movies with it because the stories are good, but I cringe The it. I don’t use it in my speech & I don’t use it in my writing, aside from mild words like s**t or the like. If I were ever to be published, it’d also be in a market where there is little or no swearing.
However, I fully acknowledge that swearing is something that most people use these days. If characters in my stories swear, I will say that they did without using the language. It’s the same with physical intimacy. I wouldn’t go into detail, but would just write a scene some way to say that it happened. Details aren’t always necessary to get a point across or to write a good story.
I dislike swearing, especially the “f” word. Every time I see or hear that word, I can’t help but flinch inside. Thank you for writing this post, now I know that I am in very good company.
Grisham and Child are my yardsticks now. If their heroes can manage without much, so can mine 🙂
As a writer of Christian fiction, I don’t include swearing in my books, although I have run across profanity in so-called Christian and “clean and wholesome” books which I find off-putting. It’s all about expectations. When I chose to read something advertised as clean, I don’t expect and would rather not see swearing. I feel that many writers, even some of the big names, use profanity as a cheap and easy way to do character development. It’s much harder to write complex characters without the swearing. I’d like to see more of them try to do so.
Interesting. I don’t go out of my way to use swear words, but I have used them when it felt right. For example, I had a character use the full F word, but later in the book I used F**K with the stars in it as it was appropriate to suggest the word but not really use it. My mother-in-law did complain to me. She didn’t like that I swore. I told her it wasn’t me, it was the character, 🙂
Great article, Linda. I’m so interested to learn about the conference you attended, too–what a dream (location and speakers and topic, oh my!). Thanks for the insights. Interesting to hear about the reaction of the audience regarding the “swearing author”. I wonder if it is different here in the States? Again, great article. I am also a goat-lover–would love to see pics of your “kids” someday! 🙂
If every reader was a writer, it would not matter. But, any writer who has engaged to readers potential or current, knows that most have a philosophy to language that restricts: who they read, who they view, who they hear. In modernity, the global media apparatus allows any artists to reach the crowd who enjoys their art, but the largest crowds, if you want their dollars, demand a mirror to how they want language used in the arts they absorb.