Thursday, April 6, 2023

Inappropriate Language

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I spent the weekend of March 11 and 12 at the Suffolk (VA) Mystery Authors Festival. (Editor’s Note: If you’ve not been, you should go. It’s a treat.) This year’s guest of honor was Hank Phillippi Ryan, who was interviewed by Art Taylor to launch the day’s festivities.


The interview was wide-ranging, informative, and a lot of fun. One thing that stuck out to me was Hank’s use of the phrase “inappropriate language.” It came up in the context of what she will, or won’t, include in her books; this is a won’t. It got me to thinking (again) about the use of language in books, as the term “inappropriate” hadn’t occurred to me before.


Those dozens of you who have read them know my books would be rated R as movies, primarily for the language. I include very little sex and not much violence by today’s standards. I am, however, not averse to foul language.


I do try to stay away from language that is inappropriate. What’s the difference?


Others may differ, but to me the audience and character decide what is, or is not, appropriate. My language would be quite different if I wrote cozies or YA novels. My audience consists of people who like their crime stories with hard bark on them. My characters are overwhelmingly either law enforcement (sometimes a private investigator) or criminals. Basically working class people, sometimes just barely. These folks do not speak as a librarian or schoolteacher or minister would. My characters converse primarily with peers, or as cops to suspects, and often under duress. “Darn” and “shoot” won’t sit right in their mouths.


This varies by individual. Ben Dougherty’s mother does not use the same kind of language Doc is known to use; neither does Doc speak to his mother as he would to a suspect, or even to a peer. We all do this. To me, that’s appropriate language. That doesn’t mean I think any less of those who made a conscious choice not to use those words.


I remember a discussion in a critique group many years ago when a woman complained about the language in a story. This woman, who I have no interest in disparaging, presented as at middle-class, probably upper-middle. I explained these were working class men speaking to each other, to which she replied her father and uncles were also working class and they never spoke like that.


“Not around you, they didn’t,” I said.


That’s my point.


This has been on my mind lately as I toy with trying a Western again. My idea is to write it as a memoir, a series of stories from a man who covered a lot of territory after the Civil War, as told to a journalist he became friendly with. The “conversations” they had would have taken place in the 1920s.


I have no delusions about how people spoke on the frontier. When women and children were around was one thing; on the range another. The coarseness of mining camps is well documented, and I’m not just talking about Deadwood. Having no recordings of any 19th century conversations, I am perfectly happy to make up language and use it to suit my needs.


But the book was ostensibly written in the 1920s, based on stories told by an old man. What language would he use?


It won’t be Deadwood.


This book will be what I’m thinking of as colorful, yet sanitized. What we consider foul language will not appear, if only because publishers wouldn’t tolerate it a hundred years ago. At the same time, my aging frontiersman will want to convey the flavor of his life in an engaging and, to him, accurate way.


It’s going to be a challenge, as it should. Also a lot of fun.


Ef Deal said...

Writing a setting of 1843 France, I also try to avoid inappropriate language, but with the concept that some words were not yet coined, and other very common words were not used in public. For example, "abdomen" or "stomach" were considered too coarse; one said "front." But that doesn't convey to a modern reader the detail necessary. So the characters don't use the word, but as a narrator, do I? Tough decisions to make.

Dana King said...

Exactly the point I'm making. We're essentially making up a hybrid language as we go that nds in the directions of authenticity AND modern understanding.