Today’s topic, boys and girls, will be naughty words. They present a real challenge for a novelist writing in a contemporary setting, because unless you’re writing Amish romance (yep, that’s a thing), grown-ups swear.
I happen to live in New York, my books are set here, and I’m told that New Yorkers swear more than people in other parts of the country. I’m not sure I believe this entirely. It smacks of one of those self-congratulatory things New Yorkers tell each to make us feel better about paying more for pretty much everything.
We pride ourselves on our ‘urban grit.” What we mean by that is—wait a sec.
I fully intend to start throwing around some f-bombs, as they’ve so quaintly come to be called. I may well be throwing them hither, thither and probably even yon, before I’m done, and I’m not doing a post about writing ‘fuck’ in a book and doing anything so feeble-minded as to start spelling it with an asterisk dropped in, in place of the vowel, like that would make it any less obscene.
So if you are an especially delicate soul; a sweet, little old lady; or a mother with a small child—please take this moment to leave the room.
<Pause here, while we listen to the sound of footsteps, and a crying baby, growing distant, and finally a closing door.>
There now. Where was I? Oh, yes.
We New Yorkers pride ourselves on our ‘urban grit,” by which we mean, basically, that we say ‘fuck’ a lot.
There’s a tee shirt they’ve been selling to tourists here for forever, that isn’t even much of an exaggeration of the New York patois:
[Fun fact: When Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for a handful of beads, trinkets and a subway token, the natives threw in one of these tee shirts. (Size large, it didn’t fit.)]
The problem for the novelist, however, is in trying to replicate this vernacular, this stream of urban obscenity, in a way that isn’t as tediously repetitive and unimaginative as what you actually hear on the city streets. Because this is art, dammit.
It’s a true thing that when you’re writing, particularly for characters (I write in first-person narrative, so the whole damn book is for some character or other), you’re listening to voices in your head. Psycho as that sounds, they talk, I type.
Drafting my first book, Where Do I Start?, I was quickly aware that I was writing ‘fucking’ or ‘fuck’ or ‘the fuck’ a lot, because that’s what I was hearing in my head. I realized I needed to find an artful way to curtail/vary some of this, while still conveying the character’s natural frustration. Because life in an over-crowded city is, as you might guess, one long exercise in frustration.
Finding this new, more interesting equivalent to saying fuck all the time was not easy. ‘Oh, fudge’ was just not going to cut it, goldarn it.
So I decided that, among three central characters:
Roger – swears sparingly, using mostly variations on Jeez-Louise.
Fletch – is prone to substituting ‘frigging’ to break up the monotony.
Tommy – uses ‘effing’ occasionally to the same end.
Great. Then Book II (And the Next Thing You Know…) came flying across the room at me, and the same problem needed to be solved anew. I came up with Theo who had a particularly/peculiarly inventive method of venting—variations of Christ-on-a-cross. Christ-on-a-crosswalk. On-a-cross-stitch. And my extra-special favorite, Christ-on-a-cross-dressed-nun.
I felt pretty pleased with myself.
And Tommy was still saying ‘eff that.’
Now, of course, I have Book III on my desk, with a new crop of guys. Sigh.
Tommy, having gotten a promotion from side-kick to protagonist, is still effing around.
And my new main character? He’s from Minneapolis, where, I’m told by native Minnesotans, people don’t say fuck constantly or without provocation. The fucks are fewer.
I do have a new guy who’s a Staten Island native and swears like it:
“You think I’m bad?" he defends himself. "You should hear my mom. Mouth like a mother-fuckin’ sailor, that one.”
Don’t know how funny the world will find that, but it amused me no end.
Christ-on-a-cross-eyed-cat, this got long.
Till next time, kids.
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Chase Taylor Hackett, a budding novelist chock full of witty and insightful observations on writing. And other stuff.