Saturday, 8 December 2018


Warning: if you are of a sensitive disposition and rude words upset you, please don’t read this blog post. It is about swearing in novels, and therefore contains some ‘naughty’ words by necessity, to illustrate my points.

I write dual timeline fiction, where a historical mystery is uncovered and resolved in the present day. My books do reasonably well and get mostly good reviews, but I have had a couple of reviews complaining about the ‘bad language’ and recently was contacted via my website by someone who was so shocked at the swear words in chapter 1 of The Drowned Village that she found it hard to read on.

And yet, I don’t feel that I overuse swear words. It’s possible that I’m immune to them – I am married to an Irishman who uses swear words, particularly what one reviewer coyly described as ‘the F bomb’ practically as punctuation.

But I do have my characters swear if I think that’s what they would naturally do, in the situation I’ve put them in.

Here’s an example from The Pearl Locket (it’s not a spoiler). Context is that our hero Jack is fighting in 1944 in northern France, just after D-Day.

The mortar and bag of shells was there, but no Mikey. Only a smear of blood along the bottom of the ditch. ‘Shit, Mikey, what’s happened?’ Jack muttered. He followed the trail of blood a few yards further along the ditch, and found Mikey, lying on his back, clutching at wounds in his thigh and side.
Mikey, oh Christ, Mikey. Hang on, kid. I’ll soon patch you up.’ The thigh wound was pumping blood. Jack pulled out his knife and cut off the lower part of Mikey’s trouser leg. He tore a strip of it and tied it tightly above the leg wound, wadding the rest against the hole in Mikey’s side. He placed Mikey’s hand over this. ‘Push hard. Keep the pressure on. I’ll get you home.’
Never coming home,’ Mikey mumbled.
Yes you are, kid. You’re not fighting any more with those injuries. We’ll have you back on a boat in no time. Shit!’ Jack ducked as more machine gun fire rattled across the field. He felt the whoosh of a bullet right past the side of his head. ‘Too close. Mikey, look, I’ve got to get that mortar set up. We’ve no hope unless I can take out the machine gun. Keep that pressure on, and hang on in there.’

So, just two instances of ‘shit’ which given that Jack’s best mate has been mortally wounded and he himself is being fired at, does not seem excessive to me. I mean, you would swear in that situation, wouldn’t you?

And in the same novel, in the contemporary story, teenage Matt has just been dumped by his girlfriend Kelly.
Matt knocked the tray out of her hands. Crockery and leftover food went flying and a couple of girls at the next table leapt up squealing as they were showered with debris. ‘For fuck’s sake, Kelly. We’ve been together nearly a year and you do this to me? Well, that’s it. I’ve had enough. It’s over. Over! Happy now?’ He stormed out of the café.
Much later, Kelly turns up at Matt’s door, unannounced.
‘… It’s a long story. Can I just get rid of the taxi? Then I’ll explain. If it’s OK to come in… Thing is, I can’t go home, and I’ve no money and no phone…’
For fuck’s sake, Kelly.’ Matt dug in his pocket and pulled out a two-pound coin. He thrust it at her then turned and walked back into the house, leaving the front door open.

Matt’s use of ‘for fuck’s sake’ in these clips is part of how he speaks, as a modern day teenager who is being mucked about by his girlfriend. I think it’s warranted and natural. And these extracts are the only swearing in that entire novel.

The one that elicited the contact via my blog is this. It’s in chapter one of The Drowned Village, in an extended flashback. Laura has returned unexpectedly early to the flat she shares with her long-term boyfriend and best friend who is their lodger. She’s walked in on the two of them humping, and Stuart has admitted it’s been going on for some time. And then he says this:
‘Lols? I guess maybe you and Martine should swap rooms. I mean, now it’s all out in the open . . .’ Stuart said, with a shrug.

That did it. ‘Swap rooms? You think you just move me into the spare room now you’re bored of me, and Martine into our room? It’s as easy as that? You bastard, Stuart. You are a complete and utter GIT! And you –’ Laura turned to Martine – ‘how even could you? I thought you were my friend. My best friend. Well, fuck you.’ She picked up the nearest object to hand – a ring-binder folder of Stuart’s containing details of his work projects – and flung it across the room at them both. Satisfyingly, it popped open in mid-air, showering papers everywhere.

Again, in that situation, you would swear, wouldn’t you? I mean, ‘blimey’ or ‘you cad’ just wouldn’t cut the mustard, would it?

I like swear words. I like the impact they bring, in those heated moments, when you need to show the extreme emotions your characters are experiencing. I don’t use them lightly – I use them when no other word will do.

What do blog readers think? To swear or not to swear, in fiction? Does it bother you or not?


  1. An interesting post, Kath. I tend to avoid swear words in my novels. I don't like hearing them in real life and rarely swear myself so it stands to reason that I don't want to read it in fiction. I think by using swear words you risk alienating readers who may have read your other novels. However, I also understand everyone is different and fiction should cater for all types of readers. Having said all that, for many years my New Year resolution was not to swear (as I thought it would be an easy one to keep). The resolution became a standing joke in my family as I always broke it on New Years Day as I would end up burning myself on the oven as I took out the New Year dinner. Karma for being so confident in my own ability. ;) Strangely, ever since I stopped making that resolution, I have not burnt myself on New Year's Day.

    1. Ha! They're only a collection of letters, like any other word. And there's evidence that swearing helps you endure pain better - have you seen the experiment where people put their hands in buckets of ice, and time how long they can stand it, either with swearing allowed or not? It fascinates me - the power of language!

  2. I'm exactly like Victoria in this - I don't swear, I don't like swearing, I don't want to read it, I try not to write it.

    That said, you can't avoid it sometimes, if you want to make your characters believable. In one of my books I have a very sweary character, but most of the time I don't go beyond a seasoning of 'crap' or 'shit', both of which are considered pretty mild these days.

    I stick to this as a reader. I think bad language is okay if it's used sparingly, because then it has impact. But the beginning of Four Weddings and a Funeral, for example, was a complete turn-off for me.

    1. Oh! I absolutely adore the beginning of Four Weddings. It makes me laugh every time. Great how we are all different!

  3. I don't swear a great deal in real life but I hear it in conversation. I think, if you are trying to portray REAL people, in REAL situations, then swearing is absolutely appropriate. Anyone else remember watching The Bill, a pre-watershed police programme, where criminals regularly were forced to say 'what the flip?' and 'oh you idiot', and it just didn't sound right? It sounded like TV written by children...

    I once had my publisher take out all the swear words in one of my books, then they put them back in again, agreeing that, yes, a woman in labour is very likely to swear!

    1. Yep, I might have offered up one or two expletives when in labour!

  4. I've rarely used swear words and then only to show the complete anger in someone who doesn't normally swear - the swear word heightening the anger. That said, I'm now writing a new novel and one of the characters who has a viewpoint is almost sixteen and finding herself, trying to be like her peers, so a few more swear words are creeping in these days ... my mother would turn in her grave!!!

  5. Fascinating post, Kath. I struggle to write swear words and yet when reading the examples you gave I didn't bat an eyelid. For me it all revolves around context and if those words blend in (are true to the character/situation) rather than being used for shock effect.

  6. As a reader a lot of swearing does put me off – especially when there seems to need for it. There are times (as in your examples) when it's clear from the situation that a particular character would swear and in that case, if there was dialogue, I'd expect and accept a swear word or two.

    As a writer I rarely use swear words, because my characters and plotlines rarely warrant it. When they do I can often get around it by reporting 'he swore' but sometimes I just have to type out a word my granny wouldn't have liked to hear me say.

  7. I love that your hubby drops the f-bomb. There's something about that word that releases stress and really gets the point across. It seems that there are two types of people in the world. Those that swear and those that do not. If a reader is utterly and totally against all swearing, I imagine coming across a swear word in a novel would pop them out of your comfort zone. (But isn't that what novels are supposed to do anyway?) People swear. All. The. Time. Your swear words always fit in with the structure and content. Your dialogue is believable. You have done your job. Okay. Rant over. Back to the editing cave I go.

  8. I swear a lot it has to be said so if I was writing some of the conversations in my books as more true to life then there'd be a lot more! Most of it is kind of jokey swearing or expressions of frustration. When writing I try to only swear in my books the same way I would swear in front of my mum which is during dire or shocking circumstances.