Penny in the swear jar, ticket to hell or just a colourful character?

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it, that all writers face today? Honestly it may seem that Americans and British both speak English but often times the words, not to mention the sensibilities are, literally, oceans apart.  That being said, how do you satisfy two audiences divided by a common language?

Let’s start with spelling.  Yes, most of us know that in England the word is ‘colour’ and the female parent who makes your sandwiches before you head for school is ‘Mum’.  Whereas in America it’s spelled ‘color’ and your father’s wife is ‘Mom’ (or possibly ‘Stepmom’ but we don’t have to go there). Still, with hawk-eyed readers always quick to pounce on misspellings and typos, we’ve found it beneficial to point out in the first page that they’re getting a dose of English spelling, like it or not.  We actually tried producing a separate edition for our US ebooks but then we were accused of ‘Americanising’ our characters when they were clearly British and we gave up on the attempt.

And then there’s slang.  How many people actually speak the Queen’s English as enunciated by a BBC newsreader?  So yes, we do tend to put quite a bit of slang into our novels, well, just because we dig it, mate.  Some American readers love the quirkiness, some are completely baffled, some are forgiving but struggle with the meaning.  Like it or not, there are differences in the way Americans and English speak and with Lorraine living in Colorado, she’s particularly sensitive to not creating American characters who all talk like surfers (‘way cool, dude’) while aware that many of the people she meets still think that ‘Brits’ are either extremely proper ( ‘I say, my good man, tally-ho)’ or (Gor blimey, luv) talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Touchiest of all, we’ve noticed Americans are much less tolerant of swearing.  Whereas we English (or maybe just our friends) occasionally pepper our sentences with epithets such as ‘bloody hell’, ‘crap’, ‘bugger’, ‘Christ Almighty’, ‘Oh God’ or the occasional F-bomb (as used to such comic great effect in Bridget Jones Diary), there are sensitive readers, particularly on the other side of the pond, who believe such disgusting language has no place in print.  We had what we thought a mild to moderate amount of cussing in our first novel – not without some debate as to whether it was absolutely necessary for character development – but it was enough for one indignant review to ask ‘if the two sisters competed for who could come up with the foulest curses?’   Since several of our books today are marketed as cosy crime we actually conducted a US readers’ poll on the topic, curious to get some first-hand opinions.  The result? Some would stop reading if a character constantly swore although most would accept a soft occasional ‘damn’.  But almost everyone was offended by ‘taking names in vain’.  Not that I think it will totally change the way we write but, jeez, who knew?

And apologies for the lateness of this post.  Pam was on holiday (vacation) in the New Forest and Lorraine was spaced out taking care of a laid-up husband (damaged ankle.)  So if there are any typos or mistakes without Pam looking over it first, (she bailed and went to bed), blame it on Lorraine’s blasted American spellcheck.

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7 thoughts on “Penny in the swear jar, ticket to hell or just a colourful character?

  1. I was marked down in a writing competition a few years ago because I used the word ‘motorway’ instead of ‘freeway’ in a story that was set in the UK! The competition and judge were based the U.S.A and it was the first writing competition I had entered. It really knocked my confidence out of the window, so I tend now to stick to writing competitions only based in the UK.
    I very rarely use any sware words in my writing and, like Mary, have recently been reading lots of posts on the subject. I won’t share a post if it has lots of swearing in it, simply because I know that some of my readers are quite young.

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  2. Interesting post – and definitely something to think about! My characters tend to swear a lot, which some readers might find at odds with the genre, but I could ‘hear’ them so clearly in my mind when I was writing the book that it seemed wrong to censor them! Everyone has their ‘line’ though – I hadn’t considered it might be a different one across the pond! x

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    • Hi Fay, We know what you mean. It’s also true that you can’t please all readers and you might lose the ones you value trying to tone it down unnaturally for an audience you’re not really focussing on, like the ultra-conservative religious mid-West, who, unfortunately, are likely to be the most vocal in their reviews, as well as avid romance and cosy readers (and apparently poll takers). Of course that’s just a particular segment of the population and not necessarily representative of the whole, as you can tell by the language in American movies! We’ve had conversations with other cosy mystery writers about it, who’ve been slammed for swearing and decided that they were going to write the way they wanted and no one was forced to read their books. I just found it an interesting variation in the two cultures. I don’t think you come across that in the UK or not to the same extent.

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    • Yes, it seems to be extremes of all or nothing over here sometimes, doesn’t it? I’ve been known to swear a wee bit myself (cough, cough) but still I listen to comedy channels and sometimes get completely turned off by the amount and depth of outrageously foul language that I find offensive rather than funny. So I guess we all have our limits! Thanks for the comment, Jenny.

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  3. Great post. The subject of swearing in books (and blogs) is one which seems to arouse strong views and I’ve read a couple of posts about it recently. I have no problem with swearing or ‘taking names in vain’ if it fits the character and the context. It would seem odd in crime novels, especially the non-cosy ones if characters didn’t swear.
    As for spelling and slang, I think British readers are very adept at ‘translating’ from American to English – dare I say it may be less true the other way round?

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    • Totally agree, Mary. Swearing is part of the language for most people, especially when things get heated, and it would be a interesting exercise to write a modern crime or thriller in which no one curses! I think that part of it may be that some (though obviously not all) romance and cosy mystery readers are seeking gentle escapism that has little bearing on real life. And since a lot of books are swept up under those categories, some are bound to disappoint that aim. And yes, I don’t think American readers are familiar with British spelling or slang – they just don’t come across it in everyday life.

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