Saturday, April 4, 2009


By Guest Blogger Marshall Karp

Marshall Karp is the author of The Rabbit Factory, Bloodthirsty, and the just released Flipping Out. I've been a fan since I read The Rabbit Factory. (He's a funny guy.) As a young adult writer I'm always struggling with how far I can go in my writing when it comes to profanity. (I've been accused of going too far and not far enough.) When I read Marshall's post about four-letter words I asked him if we could reprint it here. He agreed. Leave a comment and your name will be entered for the chance to win a signed copy of Flipping Out.
And the winner is Sandra Seamans! Sandra send me your address (darlene at and we'll get the book in the mail to you. Thanks everyone for stopping by.)

Back in December Darlene Ryan saw a blog I wrote about how I handle profanity in my books. It talked about my sensitivity (or lack of it) to reader concerns about the foul language my characters have been known to use.

She asked if she could reprint it here as soon as my new book Flipping Out is released.

“Shit, yeah,” I said.

So here it is, with a few afterthoughts that have crossed my mind since the blog was first published.
“Profanity,” my father used to say, “is the ignorant man’s crutch.”

He almost never cursed, but while I seem to have inherited a lot of his better qualities, that one seems to have skipped a generation.

I curse.

And now that I write books, my characters curse. Hey, they’re cops. They may be fictional, but I spend a lot of time talking to real detectives, FBI agents, sheriffs, and other law enforcement officers. They are not a genteel bunch. They get up every morning and head out into a dark ugly world. Profanity is part of the currency of that world.

That’s reality. But do those same vulgarities have to been in my books?

According to one critic, no. At least not as much as soiled the pages of my first book, The Rabbit Factory. And this is a critic I listen to. I’m married to her.

My wife was not thrilled about the language in The Rabbit Factory, and when she read the first draft of my next book, Bloodthirsty, her reaction was the same. Love the book. Hate the language.

I took back the manuscript and did a global search for the four-letter offender. It appeared 115 times. I told my wife that was quite an achievement. Rabbit Factory had twice as many no-nos. She pointed out that it also had twice as many pages.

“Please fix it,” she said.

I knew the please was strictly a formality.

I thought this ain’t gonna be easy. I was wrong. As I read the draft of Bloodthirsty I realized that my father was right. Profanity is a crutch. When you’re trying to paint a picture of a tough talking street cop, it’s easier when you throw in lots of tough street talk.

I defused one F-bomb after another. When I was finished there were 30 left in Bloodthirsty — a big drop from the 233 in The Rabbit Factory. Interestingly enough, my new book, Flipping Out, also has 30. They’re in there because they aren’t coming from me. They’re true to the characters that say them.

There are a lot of readers who want vulgarity-free, violence-free murder mysteries. And for them there are lots of wonderful options. I just read one by Denise Dietz. Her earlier works had a handful of &#*@?€% words, but her latest, Strangle A Loaf of Italian Bread, is geared to the more sensitive reader. That said, the book is not your maiden auntie’s murder mystery. It’s fiendishly clever, blatantly sexy, and uproariously funny. Denise Dietz writes like Robert B. Parker on estrogen.

Two years ago I was at the Miami Book Fair and asked the audience what they thought about all those F-bombs I drop in my books.

One woman had the best answer. She said, “You write about murder, mayhem, cops, killers — of course the characters are going to curse. It’s real. I don’t mind when I’m reading it in private at home. But when I’m in my car, with the windows wide open, and I’m stopped at a red light on Biscayne Boulevard, and I have a crime novel on audiotape, it gets a little uncomfortable when the speakers are blasting, ‘bleep you, you bleeping motherbleeper,’ and the little old lady in the car next to me grabs her chest in horror.”

There are horrified little old ladies, sensitive religious fundamentalists, and diehard language purists wherever I turn. They often don’t hesitate to point out my tragic flaw as an author. One recently blasted me in an online review for Flipping Out, which only has 30 offensive words out of 75,000. Sometimes they send me emails letting me know how crude I am, and some even attack my character, and my parents for the way the raised me

I always answer politely. But I have to admit there are times when I just want to respond with two words.

One is a verb. The other is a pronoun.

Marshall Karp is the author of three novels, Flipping Out (released 3/31/09), Bloodthirsty and The Rabbit Factory. His website is


Lori said...

Hi Marshall. My biggest critic when it comes to language in my writing is my mother. She's always afraid her friends will think I heard "those words" at home growing up.

sandra seamans said...

I struggle with the cursing in my own writing. But when its part of your life it tends to drop in on your writing. I do a lot of deleting in the final draft of my short stories.

And much as I don't mind the F-bomb when I'm reading, I recently closed a book when the word was dropped about ten times in the first paragraph. Once would have gotten the point across.

Deni Dietz said...

I'm a BIG fan of Marshall's series, starring LAPD detectives Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs. But the profamity - especially in the fabulous FLIPPING OUT, didn't bother me one iota. Somehow, I can't "hear" a cop saying, "Oh, fudge."

In my early Ellie Bernstein/Lt. Peter Miller diet club mysteries, Ellie says nothing stronger than "Holy cow," but other characters cuss like...well, cops. However, I've recently updated and re-edited the first 3 books for the publication of my backlist (by Wildside Press) and I discovered that I didn't need to use the F-Bomb. Not that there's anything wrong with that... *g*

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Mike and Terry and the books just wouldn't work if the cops were saying "snap."

Elizabeth White said...

I never really notice “excessive” profanity... wonder what that says about me? ;-)

Jude said...

What I notice is when the author has gone out of his or her way not to use profanity. Some of the words and expressions I've read are pretty silly.

Darlene Ryan said...

Jude, I'm the same way. When a character doesn't swear and in real life he or she probably would, that pulls me right out of the story.

Sandra Parshall said...

A couple of years ago, I was at a book festival sitting at my table with a stack of my books in front of me and hope in my heart, when a woman walked up and asked in a stern voice, "Do your books have any bad words in them?" Well, they don't have a lot, but they do have some. The accusatory tone of the question annoyed me so much that I said something like, "Oh, yeah!" The woman turned on her heel and walked away without another word.

I am bored and irritated when the characters in a story endlessly spout the F-word -- one reason I was never a great Sopranos fan -- but we have to make characters realistic, and that includes using the language they would use.

Kevin said...

Darlene gave me a copy of the first Lomax and Biggs mystery, The Rabbit Factory. One of the things I like about the characters is that they sound like real cops, at least the real cops I know.

RhondaL said...

Of course, there are gradations to swearing with the F-bomb being the Big Kahuna.

But the Lesser Swear Words are just as horrifying to the conservative of philosophy or the sensitive of ear.

I got into an argument with one of my sources for my WIP about this. She's a conservative horsewoman in a largely conservative equestrian discipline. She wants her murder mysteries with no swearing. And that includes the Lesser Curses.

Darlene Ryan said...

Rhonda, I struggle a lot with the lesser swear words because I write YA. I once had a parent tell me what a horrible person I was because of the language in my books. Funny thing was she used a lot of those words to tell me off.

Paul Lamb said...

I've always thought it was silly that society can almost unanimously decide that a certain set of black shapes on a white page, or a certain collection of sounds coming from the human mouth is "bad." There is nothing inherently wrong with any word in our language (setting aside for this discussion those people who observe a divine dictate not to profane the deity), and I'm sure it would be amusing to survey the "bad" words through the ages to see what was horrifically objectionable in the past that is probably only comical today. (I'm pretty sure the "f" word was commonplace in Saxon conversation at one time.) In one of her natural history books, author Sue Hubbell devotes a chapter to the sometimes very satisfying uses of the word "shitfire" in Ozark conversation.
Conversely, many words we now take as insults were once scientifically or medically precise. "Idiot," "moron," "imbecile," and "retarded" all referred to certain levels of cognitive function; they had specific scientific meaning. It may be for the best that we've progressed from them, but those who object to them now appear unaware of their original use.
Having said all of that, I still rarely use "bad" words. They may have their moments, but by and large they have lost their force through overuse. They really aren't expressive. Because I don't travel with people who regularly use these words, I don't think I could write realistic dialogue using them.

KD Easley said...

I work construction. I seldom hear a sentence without a swear word and the F-bomb drops with regularity. I write mysteries where my protagonists are not crime professionals, they're regular people, so they wouldn't cuss like sailors, or cops or construction workers. It takes a while when I get off the job to get my language back to polite company standards and I usually have to go back through my MSS and clean it up a little, but taking all the swearing out, just feels fake to me.

Marshall said...

I know there was a free book at stake, but you guys went above and beyond the bare bones "Leave a comment" requirement. I love your povs. I am particularly struck by the comment that sometimes characters can sound hollow when they don't curse. I plan to share that one with my wife.

For those who didn't win a copy of Flipping Out, don't give up. I'm giving away 30 books in the 30 days of April. Details at my site. Thanks.

Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.