A Few Thoughts on Cussing in Cozies

computer_user_icon_foul_language_card-rb6f9ba4c896a4365abe872d192e019f3_xvuat_8byvr_512Not too long ago, I received an email from a reader taking me to task because Liss MacCrimmon, my amateur sleuth, after her earliest, cuss-free adventures, had started swearing. In this reader’s opinion, if I understood it correctly, swearing disqualifies a novel from being considered a cozy mystery. Furthermore, such a book should not be left lying around the house lest a child pick it up, open it, and be exposed to bad language.

Needless to say, I disagree with this very limited definition of a cozy. And I make it a policy not to respond to emails that force me to go on the defensive, a no-win situation if there ever was one. However, I was curious as to what had prompted this complaint.

Since the email was not specific, I pulled up the doc file of the book in question (A Wee Christmas Homicide) and used the “find” function to check for the presence of any words a reader might object to. I knew I hadn’t dropped the f-bomb, and I didn’t think I’d referred to any other bodily functions or . . . lets call them byproducts. Of course, strictly speaking, none of those are swear words, although most would probably be considered inappropriate language for a traditional mystery. What did I discover? I did use the word “pissed” once, to mean “angry with,” but since the speaker was a man and the situation he was in warranted strong language, I figure that word choice was pretty mild compared to what he might have said in real life (or in a hardboiled detective story).

censoredfaceSwearing, so I was always taught in Sunday School, is taking the name of the Lord in vain. I was pretty sure I hadn’t done that, although the use of “damn” (as opposed to not giving “a Tinker’s dam”) implies the use of “God” before it. I’ll be honest with you. My search yielded more instances of the word “damn” than I’d expected. I probably should have cut some of them, but not because they were swear words. They should have been cut because they were repetitious. Liss is frustrated on several counts during the book and seven times, twice in one sentence, she uses the words “damn” or “damned.” She also thinks it once. Other characters use “damn” four times in conversation. But here’s the funny thing: neither the number of times I used the word nor the word itself struck me as excessive any of the many times I reread the manuscript, nor did they jump out at my first reader, my agent, my editor, or the copy editor, all of whom had the opportunity to tell me to remove some or all of them from the text before publication. 

877642Having investigated this far, I was intrigued. By the above definition, “hell” isn’t swearing, either, but I figured that was the second most common “offensive” word I was likely to have used. Yup. I found five instances in this same novel, but Liss herself didn’t use any of them.

What about other books in the series? According to the email, the earlier entries in the series were in the clear, so I picked another later one at random and ran the same check. My grasp on realistic language appears to be consistent. One person, provoked, said “pissed.” The word “hell” appeared four times, used by two different characters, neither of them Liss, but Liss does use the adjective “hellish” on one occasion. As for “damn” and “damned,” Liss uses the former four times and the latter once. Liss’s gal-pal Sherri says “damn” once. Liss’s love interest, Dan, says “damned” twice and other characters use that word three times.

oopsThe manuscript of that book, when I turned it in, ran 76,803 words in length. It contained seventeen “bad” words. Having now considered this issue, I don’t plan to make any changes in the way my characters talk. Is the cussing necessary? Probably not. Is it lazy writing? I don’t think so. I’m not using “hell” or “damn” for their shock value but because that’s the way that bit of dialogue or the character’s thought came to me as I was writing. It felt right to me that they’d use that particular word in that instance. In the book that will be out later this year (Ho-Ho-Homicide), Liss only uses “damn” once, but other people use “hell,” “damn,” and “damned.” Out of a total of 78, 411 words, those instances account for a total of twelve words. On the one occasion where Liss swears, she is under extreme stress, afraid neither she nor Dan will make it out of their predicament alive. I’d be more surprised if she didn’t swear. 

But wait, as the TV commercials say. Here’s the kicker. I was taking that “fan’s” word for it that Kilt Dead and Scone Cold Dead were cleaner than A Wee Christmas Homicide. Well, guess what? On page five of the hardcover edition of Kilt Dead, Liss gets the bad news that her knee injury has ended her career as a professional Scottish dancer. Her reaction: “No. Damn it, no!”

And it doesn’t stop there. I counted twenty-nine “damns” in Kilt Dead. And twenty-three in Scone Cold Dead. There is one instance of “pissed” in each and several “hells.” My goodness me! That’s more cussing than in the book my correspondent was complaining about. How very strange.

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-censored-stamp-image22677746What characters say in the books in the Liss MacCrimmon series aside, I’d be very interested to hear what other readers feel about this issue. Fellow writers, you chime in, too. What do you think? If there’s cussing, mild or otherwise, can a mystery novel still be considered a cozy? And if there’s a line to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable, where do you draw it?

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48 Responses to A Few Thoughts on Cussing in Cozies

  1. RedwoodSinger says:

    Oh, bugger people who complain about such things. I haven’t noticed any undue swearing in anything you’ve written. I was introduced to your writing accidentally (a short story in Much Ado About Murder, kudos on that one by the way) and have been a reader ever since. The quality and nature of your books is consistent.
    I do recall, I think it’s in Scotched, where you speak of a writer’s voice. I know precisely what you mean—Agatha Christie could not have written Rex Stout—and your voice doesn’t include four-letter words. By the way, your writing hasn’t remained static, but your voice has been consistent.

    • Thanks for the ego boost. Nice to read first thing in the morning. As for “fanmail” that nitpicks, there’s one good thing about it: it provides great fodder for blog topics.


  2. Gram says:

    The way some people look for things you’d think there was a reward! “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”.

  3. Richard Goutal says:

    I remember several years ago hearing a panelist at CrimeBake on this topic. He thought it was interesting that a reader can be upset about bad language and yet devour books with the most offensive behavior: Murder!

  4. Lea Wait says:

    I haven’t had anyone complain about “bad words” in my books, although one fan threatened to stop reading my books if Maggie (my main character) and her serious beau did anything more than kiss. (She’s probably not still my reader, but anything else Maggie and Will do is off stage.) The world we live in is not a fantasy. Many people casually use language that would have bee shocking 30 or 40 years ago. That may not be good … I’m not fond of it … but it is reality. I don’t think cozies have to stick absolutely to a “clean code.” If someone is looking for books like that, they exist. They’re in the Christian section of bookstores.

  5. Terrie Lynn Bittner says:

    I’ll be honest. The reason I started reading cozies was because, at the time, they were the last adult fiction books you could get without sex, swearing, or gore. That was the definition of a cozy back then. I’ve been disappointed at the move away from that and I wish they’d come up with a new term for books that have moved away from that. I’m not saying no one can write it, but I can choose not to read it. A famous writer, in a discussion not actually related to swearing, told me once that if you’re going to include something that might offend readers, make sure the story couldn’t possibly be told without it. Otherwise, why bother alienating a reader and losing sales for nothing? To that end, we have to decide if the book would be a failure without those words.

    I am a wordsmith. To this point, I’ve published non-fiction books, so it was easy not to include swearing. Now I’m experimenting with fiction and I’ve yet to find a story that can’t be told without a swear word, sex, or gore. I’ve seen some fun ways around the swear words in some of the cozies, including those by Joanna Fluke. I do consider swearing lazy, actually. It’s just too easy to show characterization by tossing in a swear word, and adding more than one swear word makes it lose its power. I may have to work a little harder, but I think I can show character without it.

    While it’s true most people (but not all people) swear, it’s really media that has caused that. When I was growing up, decent men didn’t swear in front of ladies. No one used swear words in polite company or in front of children. (I am 55, so it wasn’t really all that long ago.) Then they started putting it in books and movies–even those meant for children. That made it seem okay and so now people seem to have lost the ability to express emotion in any other way. It’s a sad thing–but I feel a responsibility to show the world you can write a whole book without it. There are still many people who will refuse to read a book that has swearing in it, but I’ve yet to meet someone who said, “I won’t read that because there’s no swearing.” I don’t think I’ll ever be a good enough writer to be able to afford to lose readers for no really good reason. I am not all that talented when it comes to fiction. Just my take on the subject–and I know I’m in the minority on it.

    • Terrie,
      Thanks for your take on this. Although I’ve always thought of myself as writing cozies, there’s a school of thought that “cozy” should be reserved for the books at one extreme of the spectrum and that the next stage heading toward gritty realism should be called “traditional.” Unfortunately, no one has been able to come up with a universally accepted definition to distinguish between the two. For what it’s worth, there are two rules you can count on me to follow absolutely in whatever I write. They are “never kill a cat” and “no gratuitous sex or violence.”

      • I do see a difference between “traditional” mysteries and cozies, one of which is probably the choice of language. The other is there are no recipes in traditional mysteries, which is why that’s why I prefer that term for my own series.

        I have a bigger problem regarding the language some of my characters use. I’m writing a “realistic” Christian fiction series. I belong to American Christian Fiction Writers and most members, along with the CBA, don’t consider any book Christian if it includes four-letter words. I don’t use a lot of profanity, and I don’t have my main characters swear, but some minor characters use damn a time or two because it fits them and the situation.

        In my WIP, I have a male character thinking “impure thoughts” when he sees a sexy young thing in a bikini. Again, nothing overt, but I have a hard time imagining a man who would not react–however briefly–to the young woman that way. My ACFW critique partners had a really hard time with that scene.

        Needless to say, I’m self-publishing. 🙂

      • Thanks for posting about your experience Elise and all good wishes for your series.

  6. Kim Dunn says:

    PC is rampant. Giving in to the unreasonable demands of one person is irrational. I say “unreasonable” because you are a writer of words and ideas. You tell a story. To whitewash it so as to not “offend” someone is allowing one person to control your art. If a child picked up that book and found that one word in it (give me a break, really?) that child is beyond brilliant. And that child hears more words which are much worse every day, just from the tv and radio.
    So, no need for angst, however slight. Don’t allow the unrealistic demands of one person change your style. As you said, you already self-police your language. I have yet to read one of your books and I am already a fan.

    • Thanks, Kim. I think it all comes down to deciding how important it is to an individual writer to stick with what “feels right.” No matter how a book is written, there will always be a few readers who will find something objectionable in it. I’ve thrown a few books across the room myself, although I’ve never been tempted to write to the author to complain about what ticked me off. To paraphrase and old song, since you can’t please everyone, you’ve got to please yourself.

      • kim dunn says:

        When I feel the urge to throw a book it’s usually because of poor editing. I seem to catch all the typos when I read. It is a rare book that doesn’t have at least one. Should have been a proofreader instead of an entrepreneur.
        I never fault the author unless there us a glaring error from lack of research. But then, there is poetic license….

  7. Picky, picky. My opinion is you use the language appropriate for that particular character and situation. That said, I’ll probably do a search in my WIP to check on repetitive words, not just swear words.

  8. Barb Ross says:

    With the Death of an Ambitious Woman, I once got an e-mail from a reader thanking me for not including any swear words. That was it. Not one word about the 80,000 words I DID include. I grabbed a copy of the book and quickly discovered she was wrong. There is a big one, in all caps, on the very first page, as the victim speeds to her death in an out of control car. What would one say in such circumstances? As Bill Cosby, who is known to take a dim view of swearing, says, first you say it, then you do it.

    In Clammed Up, a college age boy, one of three who is thrown off the family tour boat by the heroine, calls her a bitch. I consternated about it and changed it to witch about half a dozen times, but it didn’t sound right. I decided I would change it only if my publisher asked. They didn’t an it’s in the book.

    In Boiled Over, you just made me check. There are 10 “damns” including “damning evidence” which doesn’t count, does it? Several are said by other characters, but four are said by the heroine. Originally, they were all in her head, damn, but then the copy editor decided she should say them aloud, “Damn,” and I gave in on it. I wish I hadn’t. Now it seems like she has a very specific form of Tourettes.

    Since I don’t have any issues with swearing personally (some days it sounds like we’re filming a remake of Good Will Hunting around here), I don’t know. Is it any better if you don’t say the words out loud?

    I guess I rebel against prohibitions against swearing the same way I rebel against prohibitions against adverbs. English is an absolutely amazing language and we should use all of it.

    I also look forward to a time when the dominant mood of the culture across all ages and politics isn’t a constant search for things to be outraged about.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Barb. Funny about Death of an Ambitious Woman. I sometimes wonder if readers I hear from have read the same book I wrote. Maybe we all have a tendency to skim over some things and focus on others.

      Back when I was first writing my Face Down series set in sixteenth century England my editor suggested that I ADD swearing to the dialogue of some of the male characters. Of course the common curses were a little different back then, and the real trick became finding something that didn’t sound like it came from an online Shakespearean curse generator. I abandoned my sleuth’s “mild curse” (Bodykins!) after the first book not because I didn’t think her capable of swearing but because I decided it just sounded too silly to be believable.

  9. Darn! I was gonna write a pithy comment, but you’ve pretty much collected the lot.
    This is one of the problems of writing in a language that is so flexible and changeable. It’s almost impossible to write anything without offending somebody. It’s a bloody awful situation. And, of course, English swearing and American swearing or using words that express strong emotion are frequently different. Someone is reported to have once said “To thine own self be true.” I think that applies here. Couldna said it better meself.

  10. I write a cozy series and a “traditional” series. So far in the cozy series I have used attributions like, “she swore” and “she cursed.” But I think a “damn” or two have crept into Book Three and I’m leaving them in. It’s so true – under extreme duress, who in the world says “Dang it!” – so thank you for raising this issue.

    • I’ve used “he swore” or more often, “he cursed fluently” too, especially when I think the actual words that character would have used are more explicit than I want to get in print. One of my favorite examples of that is in one of Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody books, where she’s writing a rant by Emerson, aka The Father of Curses, without actually using a single curse word. It’s a wonderfully funny scene, too.

  11. It’s funny because I decided this New Year’s to stop swearing but I didn’t think about whether I could still do it in my writing! BTW, my resolution isn’t going so well… Dang it all!

    • Personally, my language would be a lot cleaner if the cats didn’t keep trying to trip me and would stop walking across my face when I’m trying to sleep. And then there are the squirrely things the computer does . . .

  12. Gerry Boyle says:

    I feel sheepish even weighing in here. My characters, some of them, swear like sailors. I try not to. I haven’t had any complaints about language and most of my censoring is self-imposed. Profanity can be very empty and a waste of dialogue space, and can be easily over done. If it means nothing then it’s just another word to skip over. I use it when it conveys emotion, not sloppy thinking. That said, I do sometimes make myself wince. If only real life weren’t so messy.

  13. Thanks for a timely discussion, Kaitlyn. It’s good for writers to be reminded that there are readers, like Terrie Lynn, who have a strong preference for clean language and express it clearly and well. At the same time, we’re trying to create a world that reflects reality to a certain extent. Just this morning, my 36 y.o. male wolf biologist came across my protagonist, his younger sister, at the scene of yet another crime. She might say “Jello-O” and “criminy,” but his anger and worry get tangled up and he yells “dammit,Erin.” He just wouldn’t respond any other way.

    As cozy writers, we’re creating fictional worlds that reflect what we would like the world to be as much as they reflect reality, but as one of my writing teachers emphasizes, even pure fantasy has to be grounded in reality for the reader to be drawn in. So it’s a balancing act, as is much of fiction writing. My characters won’t say [firetruck], and any coarse language will be, I hope, consistent with the characters and the situations. And, like you, I can promise no graphic sex or violence — but lots of graphic food.

  14. I refuse to believe that people will find themselves in life-and-death situations and say, “gosh darn it, please don’t kill me!” I’m happy that cozies don’t involve mutilation and torture, but I would prefer that the characters act like real humans, not place-holders. The crime of murder should evoke a strong response.

    • Good point. Plus mystery writers in general seem to have a habit of damaging their sleuths in the course of the investigation. When someone gets hit on the head or shot at, bad words do tend to pop out.

  15. Janis Bolster says:

    I particularly like Sheila’s response. My own Editorial Mystery series has nothing in it stronger than “damn,” but my most recent book, Doubles, has one very profane character. If I took the profanity and vulgarity out of his conversation (I experimented), he became a different person. I didn’t set out to write him that way, but when I heard him speaking in my head, that’s how he sounded. I’d call the Liss MacCrimmon series very comfortably cozy, but the definition is fuzzy at best – consider the differences between British and American cozies. Some people call anything that doesn’t include professional crime investigators a cozy. Some want it so squeaky clean it’s pretty well removed from real life.There’s a lot of interesting writers walking the edge in between.

    • Very true, Janis. And I know what you mean about characters telling you how they’re going to behave. I only wish that would happen more often. It would make the writing a lot easier!

  16. Pat Browning says:

    As one commenter says, picky, picky. This whole subject does make me laugh, though, and doesn’t change my mind, except to say I have added “amateur sleuth” to the cozy category. And people do use — shall we call a spade a spade — coarse language from time to time. My work in progress begins with my protagonist saying, “Damn, it’s cold,” and it fits the situation. I like it, frankly.

    Even worse, perhaps, my protagonist and her lover are sleeping together without benefit of marriage. People do that, you know. They will get married, but not yet. Also, in one extreme case of fright, he utters the word “sh**t” and that fits, too. I have never forgotten the news story about a plane crash off the coast of California and as the plane went down the last word on the little black box was “sh**t.”

    As far as I am concerned, unless the amateur sleuth is a dog or a cat, an occasional coarse word is par for the course. Even if the amateur sleuth is a parrot, a parrot repeats what it hears.

    The only objection I ever got from a reader was that I made a character a perfect man and there’s no such thing. Maybe not, but we’re talking fiction here, and as long as I was making him up, I made him more or less perfect. He’s rich, sexy and handsome. What’s not to love?

  17. Susan Larson says:

    I’ll be honest – I never once thought of hell or damn as being swear words. I mean, hell, heaven, damnation – all pretty much church words to my way of thinking. They are PG rated and anyone calling you out on those is leaning way over the frikken’ picky line, which brings me to my next point.

    In our family, we don’t use the nasty swear words unless there’s blood, but words and phrases like “dang it, frikken, son of a biscuit eater, Christ on a pony, Jesus Mary and Joseph , and ( my personal fave) mother of pearl! ” are used daily. My dad used to say “Geneva!”, though none of us ever really figured out why. Now that I am in the process of writing my first mystery, I’m certain my main character will have to utter at a minimum a few colorful phrases, and “Lord, love a duck” is not going always going to cut the mustard , especially when there’s blood.

    I think it’s natural for expletives, mild or strong, to pop out in unguarded moments, and
    realistic to expect them in any books other than Christian fiction.

    Most of all, I think we write as we speak, and if it is comfortable for you to say it will be comfortable for your main character as well, and in the end your voice will be true.

  18. Pat Browning says:

    My favorite take on this subject occurred during a discussion on — if memory serves — the DorothyL list, when someone suggested that “Freeze, Poopie Pants” would not stop a criminal in his or her tracks, although said criminal might die laughing.

  19. Swearing is part of our language. I think it’s use is appropriate to show characterization as well as extremes of emotion. If a character swears a lot but cleans it up in front of a child, doesn’t that tell you something about that character?

    As for sex, I personally find it unrealistic to have characters go years without ever having sex and/or stringing along suitors forever and ever. Come on. If real life was like cozies, mankind would die out.

    I balk at being prohibited from showing emotion through language and love/desire through sex, but people can read what they want to read. However, I’d like to mention that it can easily turn into censorship. A few years ago, my high school banned Mark Bowden’s memoir, Black Hawk Down, because it “did not meet district guidelines for appropriate language.” No problem with the violence, just the language. I guess the soldiers were supposed to say, “Gosh darn, those meanies are shooting at me!” during this horrifying ambush? Absurd. Nobody ever died from an f-bomb.

    • That should be “its use” not it’s. Crap.

      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ramona. My “fan” also had a complaint about a reference to sex in the book. Liss’s friend Sherri asked her if she could imagine going to bed with either of her two suitors (as a way to tell how she really felt about them). My correspondent found that “crude.” Ah, well. Each to their own.

  20. Kaitlyn, thanks for the very great morning read. The comments are also much fun. You Maine Crime Writers have something special going on! As for the topic today, I’d like to add that as having been an editor of both newspapers and magazines, I’ve seen how incensed both readers and writers can get about the most surprising things. Swearing, of course, is a less surprising target. But it helps to know that the use of the English language is very personal. Once a freelancer drove to our newspaper headquarters, stormed into my office, and confronted me. She had found a mistake she wanted to point out. In the case I’m thinking of, it wasn’t even a mistake (I make plenty) but simply Chicago style. People take extreme umbrage. I got to the point where I was amazed when a week went by without such encounters.

    • Thanks for sharing, Rae, and you’re right about Maine Crime Writers. Kate Flora has managed to gather together a diverse and interesting group. You never know what we’re going to blog about next!

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