Friday, January 16, 2009

Has Anyone Seen Mike Hunt?

By John Gilstrap

If you’ve ever been a thirteen-year-old boy, chances are the title of this blog entry made you chuckle. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just say it out loud.) When I was a kid, this was the Holy Grail of setups. I lived for the moment when I could set up a friend or a teacher—or, ideally, a store clerk—to help me find my friend. As far as I know, the only time it ever worked was in the movie, Porky’s, but at least I had a goal.

Thinking back on those days, it occurs to me that language is funny. It’s such a regional thing. Where I grew up, a group of more than two people were greeted as “y’all.” Where my wife’s family comes from in the Pittsburgh area, that same group would be “y’uns.” Each of us thinks and writes in the language that resonates to us.

Cussing was part of my kid culture. I’d have cut out my tongue before I did it in front of my mother—or any adult, for that matter—but the creative use of the F-word was a major league sport among my friends. By the time I joined the fire service, I considered myself a veteran potty-mouth; but man did I have a lot to learn. Hanging out in a firehouse was like a master class in creative cussing. Way beyond the words, there was that magical combination of cynicism, dark humor and truly foul imagery. It was inspiring. Seriously, if you’ve never been chewed out by a fire captain, you’ve really never been yelled at.

It makes sense, then, that my potty mouth would transfer to my writing. My first book, Nathan’s Run, is replete with cuss words—enough, in fact, that the book has been banned in some school districts, despite the fact that the protagonist is a 12-year-old. There are F-bombs galore, more than a few GDs, and a character who calls herself The Bitch. I didn’t put the words into the book with any intent to shock; I just wrote it the way I heard it in my head. Who knew that the rest of the world would be so offended? If I had, I would have written it differently.

While F-bombs and GDs ruffled a few readers’ feathers, nothing—nothing—brought as much hate mail as my assassin’s one-time use of the C-word in a sentence. As in, “I’m going to effing kill you, you effing c-word!” Whoa.

It seems horribly naive, I know, but this was a dozen years ago, and I had no idea that that word carried the burden that it does. I’m not sure I fully understand it even now, but I sure as sh . . . shootin’ know not to use it again. In fact, now that I know that bad language actually offends a lot of readers, I’ve recently made a concerted effort to de-effify my writing. The F-bomb still detonates from time to time, but now it’s a conscious decision on my part, and it’s used to make a specific point.

Writing is ultimately about the reader, not the writer . . . right? What accommodations to readers' tastes have y'all made in your writing?


  1. I knew I liked you for some reason, John--your wife is from da 'burgh!

    Do yinz guys get back here much, n'at? Watchin' the Stillers game on Sundy?

    Profanity does have a place in books. Some characters, like the type of people they portray, swear. While you wouldn't have a little old lady (most of them anyway!) drop the f-bomb all over the place, a steelworker (or stillworker as we say here in Pgh) or cops, or firefighters talk that way. If you took the f-word out of the vocabulary of some of the cops I used to work with, they wouldn't have anything to say!

  2. Mr. Gilstrap,
    I made one promise to my wife. Whether it's in character or not, my characters can cuss all they want, provided they don't drop a GD. That's one thing that will never appear in my books, whether it's an atheist or a pissed-off church deacon who slips up. But that's the only one, and if I get hate mail for the rest, I might re-evaluate my use of the words (or the frequency), but nothing else is off limits as of now.

    I will say that I can truly appreciate creative use of cussing. I recently finished Toni McGee Causey's first Bobbie Faye book.

    Now, I don't snort when I laugh.


    By the end of chapter one, I'd done it three times already, and the loudest one was the line when she awoke to her trailer having 2-4 inches of standing water. She looks at her submerged ankles and says, "F--k. Damn f--k f--kity sh--."

    I had some pretty creative buds when I was a kid, but none of them ever came up with that one. F--kity. My hat's off to ya on that one, Toni!

  3. As far as accommodating reader's tastes, my co-writer and I take it into consideration but feel it's more important to build our characters as real people. That includes real-world language.

    We have been called on the carpet a few times by readers for the use of the F-bomb. We respect that. At the same time, it may be interesting to have those same readers stand around as the average middle or high school lets out for the day. If they want a lesson in the language of the real world, there's no better place to get it.

  4. Mr. Moore,
    You ain't kiddin'. I rarely show videos in my lit class, but if it's one of those days where there's a(nother f***ing) standardized test, and one class is 30 minutes and another is 3 1/2 hours, I'll sometimes put in Dead Poets' Society. I always have to warn my seniors that they may encounter language that their innocent, virgin ears have NEVER heard every day up and down the halls constantly.

    If I had a nickel for every parent who mistakenly thought their sweet innocent baby didn't use language like that, well, I could afford more than I can on a teacher's salary, that's for sure!

  5. I take the character and context into consideration more than the reader. Depending on what I'm writing, the language can get pretty blue, though I try never to use it if the character in question wouldn't. (Applies to dialog and scenes seen thoruhg a character's eyes.)

    I have a writing friend, a good writer, who is extremely timid about using profanity in her writing, even though she admts there are spots where it would add something. She told me a few months ago she loves it when I read, and the mob guys say things like "f 'em. Put him in a hole," because she just can't do it.

    The closest thing I've found to a third rail is the C word. I can kill people, beat them, maim them, you name it, and no one will say a word. When i get home, there will always be a writter comment from someone (not the friend described above), "I really don't like that word." So I use it to characterize. Someone uses the C word in something I write, he's someone I don't want you to like.

  6. It's all about what a character would say given the character's background, the context of the remark and whether it is appropriate to the situation. I had a character who didn't cuss at all, say "F*ckity, f*ck, f*ck" because I thought it was funny and appropriate to the situation. My agent didn't think it worked as well as I did, so I Xd it, but I liked it and I'd heard a woman who NEVER cursed say it and it both shocked me and made me howl with laughter.

    I also don't use a curse word if I can not do so. I have used the "C" word and once when I was reading a passage it appeared in the text and I'd forgotten it was there. 200 students at the college hardly even reacted when I read it, but my wife told me I blushed.

  7. I love this title of this post, John.
    The first chapter of Boneyard was told from the POV of a recent college grad. I usually read a different passage at events, since Ch 1 was so riddled with swears it made me uncomfortable (especially when I was next to the children's section in a B&N at 2 on a Sunday afternoon). The one exception was an evening event called the "Litcrawl" here in San Francisco. I assumed that since it was basically a pub crawl, it would be adults only and I could swear at will. Of course, right before I started a pack of eight years wandered in and sat in the front row.
    I think the language needs to suit the characters. In my next book, there are far fewer college kids and/or teenagers. Now that you mention it there is also markedly less swearing.

  8. I have found it very difficult to write certain profane combinations of letters even though I had at one time used some them, albeit in a forced manner due to my peer oppressed surroundings. I cannot make myself, or my characters drop the F-bomb. I also cannot force myself to use the C***, or other derogeraty forms of the female anatomy. Everything else if fair game, but not that specific genre of swear words. I tried, it felt contrived, unnatural even though I served in the Marines, my father was a Fire Chief, and I worked construction for a long time.

    I also cannot get myself to write sex scenes. I assume to the aversion to these two types of writing stems from the same psychological base. In my house as a kid my Blue Collar, construction worker Step Father cussed but never used those particular forms of words in front of us as kids. I was rather shocked in my mid-20's the first time I heard him drop the F-bomb. My womanizing, explitive spewing, Fire-Chief Father on the other hand was branded as a bad example and therefore not looked up to for moral or linguistic guidance.

    How in the world does one write military fiction without using F**k every other syllable and get away with it? One consolation I have is that my characters are mostly Spec-Ops / Intel types who on the average do actually swear less than the typical 19 year old Marine infantry grunt.

    All in all, I think the reduced use of swearing, and graphic sex, makes a story more readable by a wider audience. It also assuages the fear that one of my children, or my church youth kids, will one day pick up a book or listen to an audio book and hear my voice spouting a form of English I've advised them not to use.

  9. I get in trouble all the time because my books are lumped in with cozies. And cozy readers do NOT like the F word, as a general rule. But a couple of my characters do, so there ya go.