alex j. cavanaugh

A Little Salt Can Season Your Writing

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Here we go again – another first Wednesday and time for posting for the Insecure Writer’s InsecureWritersSupportGroupSupport Group,, a blog devoted to addressing issues that bedevil all of us as writers.  My offering this month is related to the problem of the use of profanity and other ‘salty’ language in what we write.

A reader, after  reviewing one of my mystery novels, wrote that she liked that I ‘didn’t use a lot of profanity’ in my stories. I was happy to get the review, but felt a bit guilty, because that reader was only partly right.

My stories, even the mystery series, which is set in Washington, DC, and is populated by the people who live in some of the city’s less salubrious neighborhoods, are not laced with curse words. But, because I’m writing about people who in fact frequently use some rather salty language, for the sake of realism and authenticity, there will be some language on the page that’s not fit for polite company. The same is true of my Buffalo Soldier series; historical novels about the famous African-American soldiers of the Ninth U.S. Calvary on the western frontier after the Civil War.

Now, I’d like as many people as possible to read and enjoy my work, so I tend to use profanity only sparingly. Now and then, one of my characters will let fly an f-bomb, or, because of the racial dynamics of the U.S., during the frontier days as well as today, will use or be targeted with the N-word. I do this, though, only when it is part of the action or motivation of a scene, or if it’s how that specific character would likely speak in real life. No one expects a drunken cowboy or a modern-day drug dealer to speak like a choir boy. Actually, some of the choir boys I’ve known in my life occasionally need their mouths washed out with soap. But, I don’t have a character use such profanity for page after page, or every time he or she speaks – yes, folks, the ladies curse too. I do it when a character of situation is introduced, to set the scene; and, maybe once or twice to reinforce it in the reader’s mind – but, in a 40,000 to 60,000 word story, I might only do that five or ten times.

So, it might be missed by someone who dislikes that kind of language. Much as it might be missed, or ignored, in real life by the same person. I’d like to think, though, that the character is painted vividly in the reader’s mind, though, by that judicious sprinkling of salt, and that readers appreciate not having it spray-painted all over the pages – like being slapped constantly while you’re trying to concentrate; not a pleasant feeling.

My method is not for everyone. Some writers are quite comfortable with profanity on almost every page – and, some can pull it off. I’m not, and I think most of the people who read my stuff feel much the same. I don’t talk like a saint. I spent 20 years in the military, and during that time I learned some pretty colorful words and phrases. On occasion, when I’m truly provoked, some of them pop out. But, I don’t do it that often, so that when I do let fly, people take notice. Same thing in my fiction – when a bit of profanity appears on the page, people (I hope) take notice. My objective has been achieved. They know what kind of person that character is, or what the situation is turning into, and don’t have to be reminded again in most cases.

Just a thought in case you have ever wrestled with this problem.