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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Curses!


As a historical fiction author, I haven’t had to worry too much about using swear words in my writing.  If a character peppers his speech with an occasional “damn” or “hell” in a 19th century setting,  that was plenty of cursing for the context, and shocking besides.
“Now what the devil does that mean?” asked Mr. Duesler.
“Bill, your language!” whispered his wife.
When writing my “Tesla-punk” manuscript (set in 1908), I invented my own curses. The apprentices in Tesla’s research lab take the names of scientists in vain with expletives like:
·         Bell’s Balls
·         Great Bob Fulton’s Left Nut
·         Well, I’ll be Darwin’s Monkey Uncle
·         Aristotle’s Great Hairy Ass
·         Giordano Bruno on a Toasting Fork  (look him up)
I’m not sure if those expletives will survive to the final version, or whether they will be deemed too corny to live. But I had fun writing them, so they served their purpose.
But now I’m working on a story with a contemporary setting, and for the first time I have to decide where I draw the line in cursing. Believe me, I’ve heard plenty of real teens, so I know how they fling the F-word around.  I don’t want to use that one, however, and even when I used the SH-word, I was uncomfortable and took it out.
However, I’m pretty sure the character I wrote about on Friday wouldn’t holler “Aristotle’s Great Hairy Ass!” when things don’t go his way.
For all you writers out there – how do you handle swearing? Where do you draw the line?

19 Responses to Curses!

  1. Sarah says:

    I … don’t. I’m about to go on sub with a book set near the beginning of the 20th century, and there’s no cursing in that book. But in Sanctum and Scan, both set in present day, the protagonists curse. They do it in different ways and at different times, because they’re very different characters, but if it felt natural for the situation and the character, I let loose.

    And for the record, I think your made up expletives are fantastic. Today’s going to be a rough day, so I might have to try a few of them out.

  2. Linda G. says:

    I LOVE your scientist curses! “Great Bob Fulton’s Left Nut”? LOL! Really, they’re all great. I might have to start using “Aristotle’s Great Hairy Ass” myself.

    Re the F-bomb and the Sh-word: See, this is why I write adult fiction. *grin* I don’t have the “is it appropriate for young people to read” dilemma. All I have to decide is whether it’s appropriate for my characters to say.

  3. I’ve never used the F-word in a manuscript. I’ve used the SH-word a few times, but definitely sparingly. I know how you feel. You want to sound authentic, but you don’t want to promote that language either. I actually prefer to let my characters have quirks that show their anger or frustration instead. And I’ll use sarcasm in place of cursing when I can.

  4. Well I’ve got one book set in the 90s, in a basically realistic North America, and those kids swear a lot, because they’ve got plenty of reason to be angry, but I don’t put swearing in all my books.

    Personally, I think it has to be all about the characters. Censoring swearing, for the sake of the reader, is ridiculous if you ask me. But putting swearing in, just for shock value? That’s not right either, if it’s not appropriate for the character(s).

  5. Those are great. It depends on the character. I’ve never used the F-word, but have used the SH-word in various forms. One being “Sh-“. My character was cut off so the whole word never came out just the first part. I think write what you are comfortable with and what the character might say. You could tweak it like I did.

  6. Ha! Loved those substitutions! Well, you know my characters pretty well. I guess I just write what I hear them say and how I hear them say it in my head. I only use the ‘f’ if I reaaaally need to but a lot of times I end up taking it out and using ‘freak’ or ‘frickin’ instead. I love the ‘sh’ word. I don’t know why. It’s one of my favorites.

  7. I’ve had a huge struggle lately over one (yes, one!) occurrence of SH– in my WiP. The character who spouts it is a stable boy (and thus deals with real SH– on a daily basis) and he’s angry, so it seems in character that he would let it slip — but — I feel that one word is in gigantic bold print in the center of my book, lol.

    On a related note, what about using “whore” in historical fiction? I’ve used it because it’s in the KJV of the Bible, but one blog I saw a while back objected to it.

  8. Well, you’ve read mine. I use them when applicable. Reisa cursed freely, even more so in earlier versions. My sci fi and dystopian novels had no cursing because of the worlds. Legasea had one occurance of the S word, and a few hells and damns. I did agonize over that one though, since it’s right in the beginning and I didn’t want to set the wrong tone. However, what else do you say when you’re in a stolen boat, standing over a dead body, and the police are coming? “Ian let out a low curse,” just doesn’t have the same effect.

  9. You can always say the character swore without saying the actual words. I rather like that one because the reader then has the freedom to fill in with their favorite curse word. I don’t have a lot of swear words in my book in submission right now, but thee’s one that really needed to be said. So I had the characters say it. Even Rowling got around it by having Mr. Dursely use the word effing and showed that Ron flipped someone (Malfoy?) off by having Mrs. Weasley threathen to bind his offending fingers together. That’s what I like. Clever.

  10. mshatch says:

    well, as you know my mc does indeed use the eff word but as my story gets closer to the end she will be using it less and less, for reasons which will become clear. I personally am in favor of realistic language used sparingly for emphasis. I don’t want to promote the use of bad language but the fact is, most teenagers swear a lot. As for the historical/fantasy books I’ve written, that’s harder. Bloody hell is one of my favorites 🙂

    ps I think you’re doing an excellent job of keeping those bad words out while keeping the story sounding real.

  11. Well… given the things that my teen characters can do have done, I think a few curse words peppered in will be the least of my worried.


  12. In My Zombie Dog my MC’s best friend swears a LOT, but the reader never hears it because the MC narrates and refers to his language and lets us know he’s not comfortable repeating it.
    In a YA novel I would use cursing if it was a gritty older YA novel. I haven’t attempted anything like that yet, but it doesn’t upset me when I read it in fiction.

  13. I like your fabricated swear words, but some of them are so long, if anyone actually said them, it’d be more of a comic relief than an expression of anger or frustration. As for my book, there’s mild cursing. One of the characters reeeeally wanted to use the F-bomb, but I censored him. (Hey! HE’S not in charge!)

  14. I like making up curses too because I don’t think swearing is clever and shows a weakness in articulation.

    But, if you’re going to swear, swear. “Darn” and “heck” are weak battle cries and should be replaced with the real things if they’re needed at all.

  15. Alicia C. says:

    Having worked in professional kitchens for much of my adult life I think I just don’t notice the ‘swearing’ as a problem. They’re just part of the vernacular of certain cultures. Don’t over think it. There are reasons that curse words came into existence. Which I find quite interesting. Some of them make no sense like the Sh word. Seriously. How is that a swear word? Think about it. It’s a natural bodily function. You aren’t CALLING anyone a sh–. You’re just exclaiming Sh–! Makes no sense. Anyway. Just let your characters speak naturally. I think your reader will know if you’re not.

  16. Alicia C. says:

    PS – GREAT scientist Curses.. 🙂 Made me laugh!

  17. Lenny Lee* says:

    hi miss dianne. for me i dont worry bout swear words in my writing cause i write kids stuff. but if i did one for teens or older readers i might stick in some but not real bad ones. i love those made up one for scientists. ha ha. i like making stuff up like that.
    …hugs from lenny

  18. I have swearing in my books, but it feels authentic for my teen characters and the issues they face. I don’t overdo it, though, and it’s not there for shock value. The characters swear when it’s appropriate for what’s going on in the story.

    My male characters swear more than my females. And the girls never say the f-word. 🙂

  19. LTM says:

    HILARIOUS! I love the idea of making up your own swear words–it’s one of my favorite elements of 30 Rock. Zerg! Jag wagon!!!

    Honestly, I try to limit it, but that’s just me. I’m not a big curser, and I’ve never run w/a circle that cursed a lot. So for me, it’s not hard, and in historicals it’s not a problem. But occasionally in my contemporaries, a character’s going to drop one.

    Funny story: When I first started writing, my mom said, “I hope you don’t lower your standards as you go on.” Since I write romances, I thought she meant w/sexual content. Nope. She meant swear words–LOL! 😀 Get the soap!