Using Slang and Curse words – How Much is Okay?

I’ve seen this topic circulating around the writing community a lot lately: when is it okay to use curse words in your story? And on a related topic: how much current slang is okay?

I believe the short answer is: “it depends.”

By way of a long answer, these are some factors that I think every writer should consider when using slang and/or curse words in their stories:

Intended audience

This is the most important factor, I think. Obviously you wouldn’t put a lot of four-letter words in a children’s book or middle grade chapter book, but intended audience covers more than just children versus adults. Is your intended audience, overall, likely to expect and enjoy curse words in a story, or be put off by them? If you write cozy mysteries and you know that your largest readership is women over the age of 50, then keeping the cuss words to a minimum is probably a good idea. But a book geared towards adult men with an interest or background in the military would be odd if it didn’t have more than a few bad words in it.

In The Thin Man movies from the 1930s – Nick Charles is a flatfoot who sends men up the river. In context, the slang makes perfect sense, mostly…

In The Thin Man movies from the 1930s – Nick Charles is a flatfoot who sends men up the river. In context, the slang makes perfect sense, mostly…

The same concept goes for slang and jargon. Books written for the young adult market usually have more slang terms than, say, those cozy mysteries for the over-50 crowd. The thing to remember about slang, however, more so than swear words or dirty language, is that the terms go out of date quickly. An intended audience of the 18-25 age group may lose interest in your book in a few years if the slang usage makes it appear too dated. But no matter your intended audience, all slang goes out of date eventually.

Genre

This is similar to the first point, but it’s more about expectations set by a specific genre or sub-genre. “Romance” is a pretty broad genre. But which type of romance would be more likely to have a lot of four-letter words used – inspirational historical romance, or modern erotica? The same goes for something like literary fiction versus a thriller. Readers of the thriller genre would be put off by a book in their favorite genre that didn’t use words any fiercer than “gosh” and “darn.”

Chiana, from the TV show Farscape, has a mouth like a sailor. But she usually talks about frelling tralks and pieces of drenn, so it’s okay.

Chiana, from the TV show Farscape, has a mouth like a sailor. But she usually talks about frelling tralks and pieces of drenn, so it’s okay.

The fantasy and science fiction genres often get around the sticky question of curse words and slang by inventing words as part of the world-building. The meaning of an invented word can be implied by the context of its use, and the reactions by other characters.

Overall tone of the story, and individual characters’ traits

This factor sort of combines the previous two points. In a thriller, for example, where curse words would be acceptable and even expected, characters like the police officers and the bad guys would probably be using those words more than the pre-teen daughter of the victim (probably. I’m sure there are thrillers that don’t follow this formula, but this is just an example).

Similarly, in a historical romance, the villain (or the bad-boy hero before he gets reformed) would probably be the only characters to use swear words. A character’s age, background, and personality can be revealed and enhanced by using appropriate slang and curse words.

Always keep in mind, though, the overall tone of your book (light and funny? Dark and gritty?) and your intended readership.

What’s your take on swearing and slang usage in books?

Snow

If you’ve checked the news or been on Facebook at all in the past week (or looked out your window, depending on where you live), you know that the east coast of the US got some snow. More than is usual for most of that area.

There's actually garden statuary under there somewhere...

There’s actually garden statuary under there somewhere…

I love snow, and I always find it very inspiring. First of all, there’s the “yay, I’m snowed in! Now I can binge watch movies all day get lots of writing done!”

Deer tracks

Deer tracks

Secondly, snow changes things. The landscape is different, the light is different. Things that stood out before are now invisible, and other things that went unnoticed are now in prominence. A writer needs to be an observer first and foremost, and the ability to see things from a different perspective is a valuable trait.

Even if you don’t like snow, I encourage you to take a moment and observe the changes in the world. (The positive changes, not just the negative ones. We all know that snow makes driving more difficult). Beauty can be found anywhere.

Winter light

Four Things

This week I’m stealing my blog topic from my friend Jessica over at Chronically Vintage. She’s a lovely person and blogs about vintage fashion, which is something I knew little about until I started writing historical fiction.

Anyway, the idea of this post is to not talk about writerly stuff per se, but rather to reveal some slightly more personal things about me. So here we go – four things about me:

Four Places I’ve Lived

I guess staying in Iceland for 5 days doesn't count as living there...

I guess staying in Iceland for 5 days doesn’t count as living there…

Sadly, I’ve lived in the same geographic area my entire life (so far). So this would be my exciting list:

  • Hometown
  • College town
  • Hometown
  • Elsewhere in hometown

Four Jobs I’ve Had

Four Things I Don’t Eat

  • Oysters, shrimp, or most any other kind of shellfish
  • Anything coffee flavored
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream

Four of my Favorite Foods

Two of my “don’t eat” foods are my favorite foods, so I splurge in moderation (darn lactose intolerance).

  • Cheese
  • Ice cream
  • Olives
  • Lentil Soup

Four Films I’ve Watched More Than Once

There's no place like Oz!

There’s no place like Oz!

Only four? Okay, here are four of the hundreds many that I watch and re-watch:

  • The Princess Bride
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • White Christmas
  • Miss Potter

Four TV Shows I Watch

I don’t watch TV. For real. There are several shows I’d like to see, but eventually I’ll probably just binge watch them online after they go off the air. So here are four shows that I’ve watched in the past:

  • Babylon 5
  • Farscape
  • Star Trek (all of them except Enterprise)
  • The X-Files

Four Celebrity Crushes

  • Cary Grant
  • Gene Kelly
  • Fred Astaire
  • Hugh Jackman (there – I put one modern actor on the list)

Four Pet Peeves

  • Sneezing
  • Yawning (when I do it, or when I’m around others who are yawning)
  • Slow traffic
  • Wobbly chairs

Four Things I Wish I Could Do

Some of these I’m working on learning or improving, some I have no chance at all of accomplishing:

  • Do acrobatics like a Cirque du Soleil performer
  • Sew (working on this one)
  • Dance (gonna work on this one soon – hopefully taking some dance classes later this year)
  • Fly (doesn’t everyone wish they could fly like Superman?)

Four Subjects I Studied in School

I assume this means at a college or other post-high school level, because up till grade 12, everyone is required to study everything for the most part (or at least memorize stuff for tests). So, some subjects I studied in college:

  • English
  • Creative Writing
  • Star Trek (I truly did take a philosophy class that used Star Trek as the basis for studying philosophical theories. Awesome class).
  • Ancient Egyptian history

Four Things that are Located Near Me Right Now

Nessarose

Nessarose

  • A Care Bear blanket (I’m an 80s child and proud of it!)
  • Glass of herbal tea (iced, because I’m from the South)
  • My phone
  • My cat, Nessarose

Four Things I’m Looking Forward to this Year

  • Self-publishing a couple of short stories. Stay tuned to this blog for updates!
  • Starting a newsletter (sorry, I haven’t actually done this so far, so no sign-up available yet. But stay tuned!)
  • Getting out of debt
  • Meeting new people and learning new things

So there you have it! Lots of Four Things that you probably didn’t know about me (and maybe didn’t want to know). If you decide to tag yourself and do a post like this, let me know! I’d love to read about your four things!