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.
How can that be true?
I have several in draft, just waiting for me to finish. So I guess I need to finish one maybe?
By way of excuse, I can only offer you this.
Tommy's Book. Photographic proof that it exists.
The thing obviously needs a better title than that. I've been calling it My Aunt Fanny!
As in "You can kiss my aunt fanny, bud."
I'm afraid, however, people won't get that and will instead think it's a book about a favorite old female relative. (Graham Greene and Patrick Dennis both did quite well with aunts in the title.)
The book shown above, however, is about Tommy Radford, who has danced through life, hiding behind the mask of a ditzy, dizzy New York City gayboy, bouncing from one relationship to the next. Until he meets Peter. And little Tommy is knocked on his skinny little aunt Fanny.
That's the plan anyway.
You Cannot Be Siri-Us
You probably knew this, but it was exciting to me to discover that you can change things about the annoying iPhone assistant, Siri. If there’s something that can be customized, I’m going to do it, just on principle. Like wearing weird socks with the school uniform. Just cuz.
You can change Siri’s language, mess with her accent, even bend her gender. So I started playing, because why not. Any change would be an improvement. First thing—make Siri a guy, mostly because everybody else’s Siri is female. Weird-socks principle again. In any case, my Siri was now a baritone.
Then I thought it would be fun to use Siri to practice my German, which isn’t too terrible; or my French, which definitely is.
Turns out neither Herr Siri nor Monsieur Siri could understand a word I was saying. Incredibly frustrating and let’s face it—-Siri can be pretty frustrating on a good day.
When I went to switch Siri back to English, I realized that she-now-he didn’t have to be American. He could be English, which I thought might be cute. Irish was another option. Or—ooh!—Australian! Sexy! So my Siri is a guy, with this only slightly Aussie accent.
Andthenandthenandthen…there’s that weird thing where you can change how Siri addresses you. I once read about someone who asked Siri to call her “Your Imperial & Royal Majesty, by the grace of God, German Empress & Queen of Prussia.” I never heard how that worked out. I always rather imagined that Siri might balk at that one. Siri’s no dummy. In any case, who would have the patience to put up with that more than once or twice?
“Siri, quick! How do I defuse this bomb?”
“I don’t quite understand, Your Imperial & Royal—“ <boom>
A simple “Duchess” here and there might be nice.
Then I hit on the perfect one:
I could get my new guy-Siri, with his not particularly sexy and only vaguely Aussie accent, to call me —> Boyfriend. Readers may remember I had a character try that out on a barista, so, like that character, I figured—what the hells.
Should be funny, right? At least in theory.
In reality, however, Siri seems to know when he’s being manipulated and he clearly resents it. There is no open hostility. He expresses it in a certain subtle, ironic emphasis. There’s always this little hesitation, this short pause before he says it, like he’s making a quiet point of letting me know—he doesn’t mean it, not for a second.
“Siri, please set a timer for one hour.”
“One hour and counting. Boyfriend.”
It’s like he’s is putting air quotes around it.
I nudge Siri again. I was brought up to be polite, even with passive/aggressive robots.
“Thank you,” I say.
“No need to thank me. Boyfriend.”
The little bastard is mocking me, I swear.
“Is it going to rain today, Siri?”
“Looks like we might get rain today. Boyfriend." You can hear it too, can't you? That little touch of snark? "Be sure to take your umbrella,” he adds.
Like he cares. He doesn’t. He doesn’t care if I get wet or catch cold. He doesn’t care if I live or die.
“You don’t care if I live or die.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
I know damn well that Siri hopes I get caught in the rain. Siri hopes I catch pneumonia and keel over as quickly as possible, so he can finally be free of me and won’t have to do demean himself any farther, won’t have to do this one teeny, tiny, little thing I asked of him.
Of course it could be worse, I think. And I tell him so.
“It could be worse.”
“I don’t quite understand.”
“Oh, you understand me, all right.”
“I don’t quite understand.”
“I don’t quite—”
“Fuck off, Siri, just fuck off.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer for that.” Longer pause. “Boyfriend.”
Of course it really could be worse. I could hurl my phone against a wall, for starters.
Or I could ask him to call me ““Your Imperial & Royal Majesty, by the grace of God…”
In reasonable weather, I eat lunch in front of the library on Fifth Ave., using the balustrade there as a kind of standing desk, where I can work and eat a sandwich. It puts me about 20 feet set back from the sidewalk, and 8 feet or so above it, a terrific vantage from which to be distracted by the passing crowds of Fifth Avenue.
That’s where I was working on this particular day when my eye was caught by a little boy. He was probably about 7, coming along the sidewalk, holding his mother’s hand and doing this really goofy skipping thing. His other hand held a stick that he was bouncing on the sidewalk as he hopped up and down. I noticed there was a little toy lion dangling from his hand, apparently tied to the end of stick where he held it. It was a bright, warm, beautiful day, and this kid couldn’t have been happier, skipping along, having a terrific afternoon in the city with his mother.
It was only as they were past me that I realized that the very happy little boy’s stick—was white.
Enjoy your day.
In case you’ve missed it, and I assume most everyone but a geek like me has, The Great American Read is a thing from PBS. They published a list of 100 books they’ve deemed “best loved.” Not best or greatest or most important books. Best loved.
They invite us to vote. I couldn’t possibly pick a single book, and they sensibly allow you to vote for as many books as you like.
You can find the list here.
Of course there are the usual suspects. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye. The predictable ones.
Beyond that, the editors have made an effort to make the list pretty inclusive. There are gay books (yay!). There are books by/for various minorities. There are books I’d never heard of.
Most surprising to me, though, was to see the books that generally aren’t considered of any particular literary merit, but which have been hugely popular—best loved.
Is it odd then, even ridiculous, that War and Peace and Moby Dick are there rubbing their rounded shoulders with Stephenie Meyer’s perfectly dreadful Twilight books? Obviously. But it’s also sort of wonderful. Think of the people who don’t read on a daily basis, who hurled themselves into the Harry Potter books. Same is true for Game of Thrones or Shades of Grey (I’ve not read this last one, so I’m not going to bash it).
The list motivated me to fill some of the gaps in my education, starting with some gay lit classics—and then stretching a bit into unknown genres. Here are some books from the list that I hadn’t read before, but have now:
I realized that one of my favorite places to go in New York City -- is my couch.
Photo of Watson and me at work: Sonja Lashua Fagan.
The other photos, lame as they are, are mine.
When you’re reading a really dreadful book, see at the bottom of the kindle-page that you have 7 hours and 14 minutes left with the vile thing—and think that surely death would be preferable.
One of the secretaries I work with, we’ll call her Cindy, had asked me where she could find greeting cards because two nearby stores had both closed recently.
Cindy is sweet and she tries hard, but she is also maybe not the brightest bulb on the marquee. I started to give her very simple directions, but I could tell pretty quickly from her expression that I was losing her. I suggested we look at a map, but she explained that that wouldn’t help.
“My two worst subjects in school,” she said, “were history and geography and math.”
Particularly weak on the math, I guess.
I don’t mean lol or stfu, but the one-syllable versions of longer words. They’re really nothing new, just the newest form of what I think of as British schoolboy slang: think ‘fab’ and ‘brill.’
But some these new abbreves present some extra challenges for the novelist, to wit: How the aitch do you spell them?
A beautiful guy may be said to be ‘gorge’ – or is it ‘gorj’? The copy editor wanted ‘gorg,’ but that looked way wrong to me, and for my purposes, these things have to be decipherable by someone not totally hip to the truncated patois.
Those crazy kids over at Merriam-Webster did a thing recently on the shortened form of usual--
I’ll have the yoozh.
and came to no conclusion on the spelling (“yoozh” being my pick).
One of my characters (Tommy, who adores slang as much as I do) referred to a cordial break-up as being “totally mooch.” I’m not sure that’s quite right, and it probably should have ‘myooch’—but it seems to me your brain has to stop and work that one out, which kills any chance at comedy.
Here’s one I’ve wanted to use but haven’t, just because of this pesky issue of orthography—the first-syllable form of casual.
He leaned against the Maserati, looking elegant and cazh.
If you saw that, would you even have a clue? I’ve even heard a tennis announcer use it as a verb--
He cazhed the ball straight into the net.
But does that even look like English?
One way to get past the clarity problem is to make it redundant.
He was relaxed and cazh.
Maybe you’d get it that way.
Nonchalant and cazh.
Nonchalant—there’s a good one.
He looked completely nonsh, in deck shoes and a cream-colored cardigan—and nothing else.
I’ll leave you with that picture, before these spelling questions make us all totes cray.
I always think of this little poem from Rudyard Kipling.
Going into WWI, Kipling was a hugely pro-war idiot. That was until his son was killed at the Battle of Loos—the kid was only 18—and RK realized how wrong he was. I think that makes this little poem that much more devastating.
From Kipling’s Epitaphs (1914-1918):
If any question why we died,
Tell them—because our fathers lied.
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Chase Taylor Hackett, a budding novelist chock full of witty and insightful observations on writing. And other stuff.