Sunday, January 31, 2010

Word has it...

Part of the beginning of the comedy bit “Seven Words You Can't Say On Television” by George Carlin has him saying, “...words are all we have, really.” So true.

Words and language. As every author should, I love to read. I started reading as a youngster, fell into horror and mystery and science fiction. I've read Shakespeare (when required in high school) and Voltaire (when required in college), and works from every decade from the 1880's onward. I find it fascinating how words and language have changed in meaning throughout the years. How attitudes and prejudices have shaped the way characters are portrayed in not only books but on the radio and television.

I cite examples which are memorable to me and I invite you to comment on others notable to you.

In books written before, say the sixties, there was a phrase that, when I first ran across it, confused me for a short time because the meaning to me was different than the meaning back then. I've read numerous stories where a woman will be commenting on how the man “made love to her.” I love this phrase and I find it so romantic in the way it meant then. Now, of course, making love is about sex. Then it was wooing, courting, say complimentary things to and about the woman. “Making” or “creating” the love felt and giving it “to” the woman.
I love the language of the old detective stories and the gangster radio shows. “Moll”, “doll”, “gams”.The best one is a bad guy on one radio show repeatedly asking what they should do about the “skirt”, wondering what should happen the girl who happened to get caught in the action.

Speaking of women, Gardner's Perry Mason has used when describing a woman that she has “plenty of this and that and these and those.” Isn't that a marvelous phrase? No other description is needed for you to imagine the woman he's writing about.

Think about the way people thought about race. Ellery Queen and many others used the word “darkie” and “Negress”. Think about how language has changed. From darkie to colored to black to African-American. Would Amos and Andy or any of those movies portraying the wide-eyed, white-teethed black servant boy go over today?

Have Gun Will Travel had a Chinese servant called “HeyBoy”.

Charlie Chan was played by several actors, none of whom were Oriental in the slightest.
There are some erotic and very sexually graphic books out today, but read some of the pulp detective fiction of the sixties. Wow! The sex scenes were short and to the point.

Spillane wrote not about the sweater the girl was wearing, but how her breasts made the wonderful curves in the sweater, how the clothing molded over her features.

And of course the foul or 'bad' language. It's always a pleasant experience to watch a non-kids movie where the language is G or PG rated.. Books are the same. The old Shadow and Doc Savage stories would talk about the “Blankety-blank so-and-so”. Those are the actual words they used.

The story is what counted. Read those old mystery stories. Never would you see a four letter word marring up the plot even though you know the cops in those times spoke a, uh, hec of lot rougher language. Robert Ludlum was quite tame for the plots he was concocting. Lawrence Sanders used strong language but sparingly. When Evanovich's Stephanie Plum swears, it irritates me for some reason, even though the stories are absolutely wonderful.

You have to write the language of your subject. If it's about a gritty metropolitan police force, the language is a lot courser than that of a Kansas farmer. Drug lords in Miami or mob dons in New York are not going to use the language of a Nebraskan school teacher.

When I was writing both Night Shadows and Beta, I debated on how much foul language I wanted to use. I thought of the subject matter and the circumstances and the characters. I also thought of my mother who gets turned off immediately by any movie where in the first ten minutes the F word is used more than about five times.

So, yes, I use harsh language in the books. Harry Reznik, homicide detective, uses strong language as does the honorable taekwondo instructor Mallory Petersen. However, (and this may change once my editor's suggestions come back to me) I only used the F word once in Beta and once in Night Shadows. HOWEVER, I only used it because the scenes deemed it justifiable.
I also, on behalf of Mom and my friend Mary, have tried to temper the graphic descriptions of dead bodies. My writing friends who have heard some of the narrative of Night Shadows may disagree, but they all agree that the heinous acts committed in Beta were handled delicately and-hopefully-without the reader turning away in abject disgust. I've tried to be true to the subject and true to the characters without going overboard. I hope my editor so similarly thinks.

I hope Mom will forgive me and enjoy the stories anyway.

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