Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Creative Expletives

Is it ever appropriate to use bad language in Christian writing? Sometimes there may be a call for it, especially if it's coming from the mouth of an unsavory or flawed character.  Big caveat:  Never actually use the improper words.  Since we try to keep it clean in Christian writing inference is often a helpful tool. It actually uses much more creativity and imagination to avoid using these words that are truly not necessary.

Here are a few snippets from my WIP Sunlight and Shadows showing how I avoid "swearing".

       “No Injuns allowed!” bellowed a voice from inside Hambra’s Saloon. Head over boots, some unfortunate soul tumbled out the swinging doors, nearly knocking both Van Horns over.  Eliana’s newspaper flew into the dusty street.
       Van Horn steadied himself and reached out for his daughter. "Dear, are you all right?"
       Eliana gasped as she clung to the porch post. "I'm fine. Fine."
       “’Scuse me, miss.” An oversized man stepped out onto the planking. The stench of the saloon clung to him. “Just doin’ a little house keepin’. Don’t want no half-breeds stinkin’ up the place.” He spit into the road, muttered an oath, then tromped back inside.
~ * ~ 

       "Firefly, you’ve had your nourishment. C’mon now.” Eliana braced her boots onto the rocky shore by the river’s edge, trying not to slip. She gave another firm tug on the horse’s reigns. “C’mon, boy. Git. Git up here.”
       Yaska rode out of the shadows. “Stubborn,” he said.
       “The horse or my daughter?”
       Yaska smirked and rode by.
       Eliana turned and looked at the two men. “I could use a little assistance here, gentlemen.”
       “You’re doing just fine, dear. He won’t obey unless you learn to handle him yourself."
      “Fine…fine.” She begged, she pleaded, and to her own chagrin, she cussed. Her face flushed. She shot a look toward the men, just daring them to say a word.
      After a moment, the guide called out over his shoulder, “Miss Van Horn, You’ll get more with honey than with vinegar.”
      “Some old Indian saying?” her father chortled.
      “If there were any honey in this forsaken place, I’d give him some,” she huffed.
      Yaska smacked his lips together and made a rather loud kissing noise. Eliana opened her mouth to object, but was tongue tied. How dare he. . .
      Firefly raised his head, dugs in his hooves, and came up the embankment - Eliana in tow. Yaska issued a satisfied nod.
      “How’d you do that?”
      “Like this.” he pursed his lips together once again. “He comes to the sound.”
      “How’d you know it would work?” It must be some secret way of the Navajos.
      “You made every other possible noise, figured I’d give that one a try.”
      “Well, I’m much obliged, Mr. Wilcox."
       He nodded. “My pleasure, miss.” Yaska patted his own mount on the neck, and put pressure on the animal’s belly with one knee. The horse submissively turned and proceeded toward the ridge.
      Mr. Van Horn let out a chuckle and pulled his own horse around. “That half-breed seems all right, daughter. But you best mind your manners.”

I asked the ACFW 19th Century History email loop using swearing, cussing, making an oath in our writing. The following authors gave permission to share some of their expert advice on the subject of how to ellude to creative expletives without actually using them. 

Connie Stevens  - If you present the picture well enough, the reader will know exactly what that character said without the actual words ever finding ink.

Jen Uhlarik - In one of my westerns, I once described a character cursing by saying, a string of sulferous words escaped his lips.

Jeanne Marie Leach - There are many ways you can show the character swearing. My historicals all take place in the west, so I try to keep the flavor of swear words by describing it in a manner the people around him would understand. For my lumber camp series:
Aaron let out a string of words that would strip the stripe right off a skunk’s back.

Sharlene MacLaren - You see, this is why I love writing historical fiction.  There are just so many ways to "swear" without actually using cuss words.  Example to follow (admittedly over the top):
You little horse's hiney!  What in tarnation made you do such a ding blasted thing? I'll be jig swiggered 'fore I let you get away with that!
Aint it fun?

Lena Nelson Dooley - I had my hero, who isn't a Christian until near the end of the book swear, but I didn't use the exact words. 
Smashing down the top of the stakes with the hammer felt good, releasing some of his frustration…until he missed. An expletive he’d never before uttered blew between his lips. The hammer slammed into his thumb, forcing it down the side of the wood, picking up splinters along the way. Flinging the hammer as hard as he could was a stupid thing to do. Now he’d have to go hunt for it among the rocks. It was the only hammer he had. He heard the head bounce, then the splintering of wood.
Hope it’s not beyond repair. More words like the ones he’d already used erupted from his gut, tainting the air around him. At least there wasn’t a lady nearby to hear his outburst.
I included this, because there's an instance after he becomes a Christian when he's tempted to use bad language, but he chooses not to.

That is straight out of Love Finds You in Golden, New Mexico, which releases May 1st.

Terry Burns - I have people cussing in all of my books, bad men swear, no doubt about it. But I have never used any of the words, not one. I show them doing it, I talk about them doing it, I show the emotions and the results. People know the words, I don’t need to remind them.

There is zero tolerance for profanity in the Christian market. For the most part I don’t represent it either. I might tolerate a mild word or two for something going to the secular market, but mostly I’m not in the business of spreading bad language in my own writing or in the books I represent.

The Sergeant was only an inch from my nose as he screamed at me using words gleaned from thirty years as a career soldier. Stale beer and garlic made my eyes water as I struggled to remain at attention, passive. I marveled at his command of the four letter word. He seemed to know them all, occasionally inventing one just to add flavor. He turned a deeper shade of red as his voice and his blood pressure rose seeming to hate to break the flow even to draw a breath.

Once you have been cussed out by a professional, nothing else will ever come close to the experience again.
My very favorite such passage was one I did where a guy was terribly frustrated and wanted to cuss but there was a young girl there – so he talked with holes in his dialogue . . .

I’m gonna . . . that . . . he’s a  . . . dagnab it young lady, you are most confining on a man’s language!

Don't you just love it!

Here is an article on the topic at Keep Me in Suspense on Managing Profanity.

What are some creative uses of non-swearing that you've found or used in writing?


  1. Oh this was great! You gave us great examples on how to do it right. I don't think I've yet to read an article on it. I struggled with my character who said Dang, and I worried about how it came across. I sent the story in to a few contests and no one seemed to have a problem but now I prefer the ways you said:)

  2. Great examples!
    Blessings, andrea

  3. I don't care for swearing in most books. Once maybe twice but that's it. I don't care if in the world people swear all the time. If I have to hear it walking down the street, I don't want to read in my book.

  4. I don't know if it is just me but the prompt post if cut off and missing part of the post. I’m glad you extended the deadline. I have three people I’ve been needling to write it. (Is that bad?)

  5. This is one thing I love about Christian fiction! I never thought about it requiring more creativity, but you are so right. Thanks for sharing the tips!

  6. OOOOOHHHHH!!!! Is the half-breed thrown out of the saloon the same one working as their guide in the second example? (I know, off topic, but inquiring minds want to know!)

    I love all the examples you listed here -you could give a class 'Creative Cussing 101'. I'd enroll for sure. LOL.

    Seriously, I have to say that I read very little mainstream fiction because of that kind of content. I read YA and juvenile books almost exclusively up until a little over a year ago when I was introduced to Christian Fiction. A whole new world has opened up for me and I've discovered the books I'm devouring are every bit as good (if not better)then their mainstream counterparts. And there's such a wealth of choices out there. It's so exciting!

  7. What a great post. I wish some of the YA market would pick up that those kinds of words aren't always needed.

  8. Excellent blog post, Carla.
    I enjoyed reading it all put together. Now, let's see...
    how can I say it without saying
    it in my WIP?

    A J Hawke

  9. That's right, if we are escaping into our reading, why should we have to put up with bad language. It's our choice with what we decide to read and it's great to be able to have certain genre's we can trust, as Christian and often in sweet traditionals, and young adult (though we still have to be a bit careful there, too). Hopefully we can find authors that we know we can trust to give us the kind of language that is agreeable to us.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the examples.

  10. Yes, Kav! The half-breed that got tossed out of the saloon is the guide. The saloon toss is the inciting incident between Yaska and Eliana in Sunlight and Shadows.

  11. Love that last one. Those holes are awesome, they really bring it to life!!

  12. Good post! Very creative ways to show characters that would normally cuss without actually putting swear words into the dialogue. I never do with any of my characters and don't ever feel I'm not accurately representing their character just because I can't put in a cuss word. (Of course before I wrote Christian fiction, I still didn't like to put cuss words in my writing.)

  13. Great topic.

    I absolutely one hundred percent do not care if a character swears. In fact, if said character is not a Christian, or even IS a Christian, but maybe struggles in this area, I think it's realistic to have them swear.

  14. I've stumbled across a few mild swear words in books labeled as Christian fiction, and I must admit I was startled, and none too pleased. The weird thing is, when I read an ABA book, my mind glosses over the bad words, but in inspy fiction it just seems worse. Love the creative ideas to get around it!

  15. Great blog - and your story sounds like something I'd like to read!

  16. Southpaw, that's awesome! I hope more people will enjoy the prompt/giveaway. The blurb about it at the top of the page is just a note and not a full post. Follow the link. :)

  17. Everyone has their preferences and/or tolerability level of the language we find acceptable in books. Good thing there are many authors and great books out there, some a little more edgy than others, some a little more sweet. I think my preference is somewhere in between.

  18. In the middle of the followup to "Wild at Heart," published 2-3 years ago, in the middle of a chapter, John Eldredge says that something "doesn't do a d**n thing." (It was NOT "darn.") And I wondered...I mean, I know it didn't get past every editor, but maybe one or two missed it and one or two looked the other way?

    I liked it in one of the "Indian in the Cupboard" books when they get around it this way:
    "'It hurts pretty darn bad,' he said, only he didn't say 'darn.'"


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