I wasn’t sure how to feel this past Friday night, the twentieth of January, as I drove home from work. I’d made several stops along the way and it was dark by the time I got back to Fort Collins. W…
I admit to having a bit of a potty mouth – after all, I grew as an Army brat and heard foul language with some frequency. My mom would caution me, “Watch your mouth, young lady,” when she heard me use a mild expletive. In today’s culture, those words would hardly be noticed.
After retiring from a long career in telephony, God got hold of me and dragged me to seminary. (Can you tell it was a bit of a struggle?) I had to give up a lot of things to comply, including the occasional cuss word.
Which brings me to my current dilemma. I write mystery novels, and they are not in the Christian fiction category. While my protagonist, private investigator Angie Bonaparte, uses fairly inoffensive language, my writerly instincts tell me that neither her homicide detective boyfriend nor the killers necessarily would. So what’s a woman who wants to paint a realistic picture and yet not violate her internal standards to do?
An interesting article by Elizabeth Sims helped me to clarify my thinking on the subject. She defines the subsets of foul language thusly:
- Profanity – using God’s name in improper, irreligious ways. My books don’t include this kind of usage.
- Cursing – calling on God to deliver a bad outcome, as in damning someone. I’ve been known to use ‘dammit’ as a sign of frustration by Angie’s guy, Wukowski. After all, as Ms. Sims notes, “characters do need a verbal pressure valve.”
- Swearing – making an oath to God. “I swear, next time I’ll …” This one has lost its original oath-making impact from normal usage.
- Obscenity – the infamous f-bomb is the most egregious example. I don’t let that litter my pages.
- Vulgarity – a word that is considered impolite, often used for body functions. Since Angie is a former librarian turned PI, her vocabulary is up to the challenge of using language in ways that don’t require vulgarity. Wukowski is not crass enough to indulge in that kind of language.
Are there readers who object to even the mildest use of these kinds of words? Yes. Amazon reviews sometimes include a comment to that effect. But a writer has to decide who her audience is and how best to engage them. My work is not so pure that I could submit it to a Christian publishing house, nor is it so offensive that I am embarrassed to have church friends or seminary professors read it. My mom’s stricture to “watch my mouth” has extended into the written words that I produce. I think she would approve.
This link will take you to Ms. Sims’ insightful post: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-use-profanity-and-other-raw-talk-in-your-fiction
I was eighteen years old, working my first full-time job and trying to fit in with a mature group of women from the phone company’s payroll department. (In those days, there was only one “phone company.”) It was a highly regimented environment. We were allowed two fifteen-minute breaks per day, including “travel time” to and from the cafeteria. I looked down the line and saw soft drinks, milk and two gigantic stainless steel urns of coffee – caf and decaf. Each of the women ahead of me in line grabbed a thick ceramic mug and filled it with coffee. Wanting to fit in, I did the same. Then I added cream from what seemed like a gallon-sized icy cold pitcher, took several sugar packets and a teaspoon – with the Bell System logo engraved on the handle – and followed my new co-workers to the table. There, I doctored my cup with two sugars and stirred. Slightly bitter. I added another sugar and tasted again. To my delight, I found it tasty and, a few minutes later, I felt a burst of energy. I’ve been a coffee addict – no, make that aficionada – ever since.
A beta reader of my newest Angelina Bonaparte mystery, Cash Kills, noted that there were too many references to coffee in my books. I checked. In Truth Kills, the first in the series, coffee is mentioned fifty-nine times. It gets eighty mentions in Cash Kills. I’m only fifty pages into Deception Kills, and I counted thirteen uses of the word ‘coffee’ so far. Excessive? Not if you love coffee, and Angie does! So does Bobbie Russell, her cohort in the Cash Kills investigation. And Ted Wukowski, her love interest. And Bart Matthews, the Mafia lawyer who’s helping her find the sources of the hidden wealth of her client’s murdered parents. And … just about every character I wrote. It’s my mindset. I can’t imagine going hours, much less days, without coffee.
Coffee drinkers don’t consume it simply for the flavor or the little rush. We associate coffee with places and times, with feelings and occasions. Angie starts her day with coffee. (Sixty-five percent of coffee is consumed at breakfast.) Bobbie brews it as a hangover remedy for his friend Guy. While being interviewed at the Milwaukee Police Department’s homicide division, Angie observes that “Police issue coffee sits on the burner all day and the pot is almost never cleaned. Lethal stuff.”
I’ve been known to laughingly say that even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all. (I did not plagiarize this from David Lean. It is an original thought occurring independently between us, like calculus, Newton and Leibniz.) How could it be otherwise? We writers, at least in the US, are known for guzzling coffee as we struggle to get words on the page. I am no exception. I start my day with a caffeine infusion and then change over to decaf, due to a dratted heart rhythm problem. In the afternoon, I’m allowed a second serving of caf and I don’t waste it on soft drinks! It’s java for me. Coffee fuels my writing and, quite honestly, the rhythm of my days. I’m right there with T.S. Eliot, who wrote: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
We refer to coffee in lots of ways that reflect our state of mind and the culture: morning thunder, mother’s little helper, wakey juice, brew, C8H10N4O2 (the molecular formula for caffeine – probably only used by scientists!) … The list is long, I think because we Americans have a love affair with coffee. I’ve graduated from my youthful days of drinking it like syrup, to appreciating a full-bodied blend, with just a slug of cream.
Want to read some great mysteries that focus even more on the brew than mine do? Pick up Sandra Balzo’s Maggie Thorsen series, or Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mysteries. Or learn how coffee was introduced into English society and its economic impact, from David Liss’ highly acclaimed and entertaining The Coffee Trader. And while you’re reading, enjoy a cup of Joe!
Originally posted on http://www.latteda.com/book-reviews/ on November 1, 2014