Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Writing the F Word

" ...fiction readers will love this riveting, action-packing journey into television news investigations."
--(starred review) Library Journal on Silencing Sam

Julie Kramer and I were separated at birth. No, that's wrong. Because we're not separate. We both inhabit the deadline-crazed, ratings-driven, high-stakes, high-stress world of journalism. And our books take place in a fictional-but-realistic world of TV news.

In a real newsroom? You'll hear words that would make your Gramma's head spin. If you have a certain kind of Gramma.

But you'll never hear my fictional Charlotte McNally utter a word she wouldn't say on the air. She says there are too many pitfalls on live TV. And if your brain is used to swearing, in an emergency, your mouth will say words that would make the FCC unhappy. So she just--doesn't say them.

But Julie has been thinking about language. And her third and newest book--which Booklist called "a worthy entry in a winning series," has something completely different.

The F-Word

My latest thriller, SILENCING SAM, contains something my previous books did not: the f-bomb.

I try not to use the word in everyday life, and had taken some pride not to have used it in my two previous books, STALKING SUSAN and MISSING MARK. Some authors routinely use it as a verb, noun or adjective. They've explained that it makes for more realistic dialogue, or serves as a means of creating credible characters - proof of how bad the bad guy is, or how far the hero has been pushed.

But in my latest novel, my excuse is that I used it for a specific reason. I'm a career television news producer and write a series set in the desperate world of TV news. Part of my trademark as an author is I write media thrillers that take readers inside how newsrooms make decisions and am candid about some of the flaws of the profession. Yes, much to my former colleagues dismay, I told readers If It Bleeds, It Leads.

My use of the f-word came about because I wanted to illustrate what happens in the news control booth if that word -or a similar cuss cousin - comes up during a live broadcast. And what some of the ramifications can be from the Federal Communications Commission. While most live radio programs have a seven second delay, local television news does not.

As I wrote the scene...I decided not using the real word would be a cop out, and cheat the moment of its drama. So I convinced myself that the word was just a word. And if it was good enough for vice presidents Joe Biden and Dick was good enough for me. Although I was careful not to let my protagonist be the one who uttered it. But who could blame her if she had? After all, she's been arrested for the murder of a gossip columnist.

But deep down in my journalism heart, I knew the word was more than just a word, or the FCC wouldn't get so excited. Or I wouldn't have the angst I did. Like what would my mom think? What would my kids think? And would I still be eligible for the Mary Higgins Clark Award?

Ultimately I decided a realistic look at the news was worth stepping over this line. Then I waited to see if my agent or editor questioned it. Neither did. I'd like to think they agreed with my bold editorial decision. But maybe they didn't even notice.

How about the rest of you authors - is it harder to actually type the f-word than letting it slip in general conversation? Plenty of bestsellers never use the word at all. Others use it liberally. As for you readers - what's your take? Do you cringe when you read swear words or do they just become invisible?


Julie Kramer is a freelance news producer for NBC's Today show, Nightly News, and Dateline. Prior to that she was a national award-winning investigative producer for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis.

Julie grew up along the Minnesota-Iowa state line, fourth generation of a family who raised cattle and farmed corn for 130 years. Her favorite childhood days were spent waiting for the bookmobile to bring her another Phyllis A. Whitney novel. An avid reader, she tired of fictional TV reporters always being portrayed as obnoxious secondary characters who could be killed off whenever the plot started dragging. So her debut thriller, STALKING SUSAN, features a TV reporter as the heroine and takes readers inside the world of television news. She lives with her husband and sons in White Bear Lake, MN.


  1. Hi Julie, welcome to JR! I had to giggle when I saw your question about eligibility for the Mary Higgins Clark award--I think it truly does make a difference. Hallie would tell you (if she wasn't on vacation) that she was very careful about language in NEVER TELL A LIE for that very reason. And sure enough, she received a well-deserved nomination!

    that said, I do use the f-bomb when I'm writing--from time to time. For me, it's important not to assume I have to use it as a shorthand way to show character. Certainly there must be other ways to let the readers know that a character is tough and raw.

    But some characters would just never say "darn it!"

  2. Interesting topic and one close to my own heart. My police reporter protag Annie Seymour loves the f-word. It was easy to write, because it was who she was and I learned all those words in a newsroom myself. I caught some flack for it, though, from readers who emailed me saying I look like such a nice person, how could I write those words? So when I started writing my tattoo shop mysteries, I decided that my tattoo shop owner wouldn't ever utter a cuss word. Now I just catch flack if I've got her wearing latex gloves because you know, people can be allergic. Readers will always find something.

    I think if the words fit the story, use them. If someone doesn't like it, then they don't have to read the book.

  3. I spent 20 years in the military so the f-word was a part of my daily life, especially in the '80s before everyone got too PC. I've been known to use the word rarely myself when stressed or with particular friends. I use it sparingly in my writing, however, because readers don't regard it as just another adjective/verb/noun like many of my characters would. Still, there are times when you've got to be true to the character and you KNOW that's what he or she would say.

  4. If you want to portray your character convincingly in a stressful situation, having her say "oh, fudge" just makes her look silly and undermines her credibility.

    But what about thugs? They lace their speech with the f-word. How can you write about them believably and still keep it clean? Profanity has its place, if used judiciously.

    I enjoyed your first two books, Julie, and I look forward to reading the third.

  5. A week or so ago, Linda Howard spoke at a local RWA chapter meeting. She said she sat in front of the computer and filled the screen with the f-bomb. That way, her fingers got used to typing it, and her eyes got used to seeing it.

    I have no problem with it if it's appropriate to the character and the situation. But we told our kids pretty much the same thing that you said about Charlotte. They'd heard the words by the time they were in 3rd grade, but we discussed "appropriate usage" and how it would NOT be a good thing if the word slipped out when they were talking to their teachers. They understood, and would say, "Mom, I need to use a bad word. Can I?"

  6. Thanks Julie, from yet another former newsroom inmate! But for everyone who isn't, you haven't lived until you experience your city editor enraged enough to hike himself up on his desk (he was a very small man -- uh-huh) and yell at the top of his lungs, "F___ you!!" at the copy desk editor. It's the only time I can remember the room being silent for a minute.

  7. Oh, Annoxford, in our newsroom, a reporter--who had been given some bad information and then repeated in in a live shot, yikes--did the same thing. YELLED it across the room to the news director.

    Yeesh. He got suspended for a week.

    Moral: You can say it in the newsroom, but you can't yell it at your boss.

  8. Great post! Well, the first book I finished is for 4th graders, so nothing there. The one I'm working on is YA, but it takes place in 1913 and the MC is a 16-year-old good girl (to start, anyway), so I'm guessing...not here, either.

    What I keep running up against is figuring out what my characters DO say at a moment when the f-bomb would be appropriate--a younger, more historically accurate equivalent. Still looking. :)

  9. Hi Julie. Great piece and good luck with the new book.
    My books are actually known for their lack of bad language, so I was in a dilemma when I introduced a character--a teenager murderer just out of juvenile hall. There was no way he wouldn't say the f word and more, so I had to put them in. But I got more hate mail when I killed sheep in the same book.

  10. We USED to say: Rats. Darn. Shoot. Crud was big, if I remember correctly.

    (I still say "rats.")

    But hmmm. that's interesting, Becky. For an instruction about what someone should "do": Go--soak your head? Doesn't have the punch, really...

  11. Hey, Jules, innaresting blog. Naturally I assume the "F" word you're referring to is


  12. Carl! You guessed it! Because, of course, in journalism, that f-word would be the most unacceptable word ever.

  13. I think the fact that it is even is discussed is a sign of how language has fallen from grace. There are so many words that fit exactly how a person feels and even in the midst of a frantic, frenzied situation the f word is a dump-all for what is really happening, and it is a falling off of common courtesy which makes a situation better or keeps it from falling into chaos and nasty crisis. Does it sometimes fit? For some people, clearly it is all they can think of to say and that's unfortunate. On the other hand, some genres are rough and tumble, so I guess that justifies base language in the right places.

  14. Hi Roomie,
    Welcome to JR. Very interesting blog. I have yet to use the F-word in my books. Anyone who knows me, knows it can escape my lips, particularly when I'm driving. In my first book I realized about 3/4 of the way through that I hadn't used it and wanted to see if I could finish without dropping the bomb. I don't write gritty inner city stories so it may be easier for me, but I like not using the F-word. I actually got a huge round of applause at a recent library event for it.

    It's probably like nudity in films. When it really has to be there, fine. When it's gratuituous or lazy storytelling, why do it?

    As a reader, I don't love it. There was one recent bestseller I had to put down because there were dozens of F-words on the first three pages. Not for me. But cut me off on the Merritt Parkway and I can make grown men cry. ;-)

  15. I was Rosemary's room mate during RT Booklovers Convention and I heard her say it. Yep.

    As Hank knows, I was hesitant about this topic a'la blog. But our pal Karen Dionne thought it would make for great discussion.

  16. I'm excited to learn about another series of mysteries set in the wonderful world of TV news. I was a local news producer in my other life. Thankfully I was not the producer, director or audio operator the night one of our anchors dropped the f-bomb. We had some technical difficulties. We'd gone to black. But the audio guy had only been doing the job for a few days, the director didn't call for mics down, and when the anchor said WTF, the whole city heard it. She learned an important lesson that day: always assume the mic is on.

    As for writing the word... Good dialogue is character driven. In certain situations, you will have a character who will express him- or herself that way. The use of the word is (or should be) telling to the reader. I use the word in real life more than I would like to, and it's not something that I would ever script casually.

    Books are a little different than movies, but some filmmakers will include language or gore just to ensure a stronger rating, because a "G" is only for little kids' movies. I've often wondered if the "sanitized" war movies of the '40s and '50s really reflected how people spoke on the battlefield in WWII. Growing up, I heard my parents say damn or hell just a couple of times. It was shocking. Seeing movies made today but set in the last century, I question whether the language is anachronistic, if the people back then really talked like the movies made during that period, or if the censors just wouldn't allow realistic dialogue.

    A very interesting topic, I must say!

  17. AH, yes, Auriette. The mic is always on. A lesson for us all!
    (Where did you work? I bet we have some pals in common..)

  18. Great question!
    First of all, I don't use the F-word, but like others, I heard it many a time in the newsroom. For some reason, I was more forgiving of it at work that I am out in public. I HATE hearing that word in public.

    My current work is cozy, so no F-bomb for me. Although my characters may say a few other off-color words.

    If I ever write something harder, I'll likely use the F-word, but it won't be easy. Sadly, it's a word that is so common that some characters seem to lack true anger if it's not used. But I think that depends a good deal on the story, the character and reason for upset.

  19. Hi Julie,
    Great blog topic!! I use the F-word when I feel another word would be false. You just can't have Providence thugs saying "Fudge" and even reporters don't say a lot of "Fudge."

    I agree the F-word is overused, but I think that sometimes, its just exactly what my protagonist, a tough and driven newspaper reporter would say.

    The interesting thing is that I've never gotten a complaint about it. But I DID get a complaint about characters saying "Jesus Christ"
    as an expletive."

    And it made me think a lot about it, and do my best to refrain from using it.

  20. Auriette...I liked how you referred to the newsroom as "my other life." I guess that's what it was. It is breaking my heart what a meltdown media is in.