Wednesday, February 6, 2013


You Can’t Say That In a Cozy!
by Lois Winston

If you’re looking for a cozy mystery with no foul language, please don’t buy one of my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries.

How’s that for a way to start off a blog post? One of the rules of cozy mystery writing is that readers can be assured of no offensive language. But I don’t write cozy mysteries, even though my publisher categorizes my books as cozies. I write humorous amateur sleuth mysteries. And I sometimes use four-letter words.

I make no apologies. I write dialogue appropriate for the characters in my books. My Mafia loan shark is not going to say, “Golly gee whiz,” or “Gosh darn it!” He’s going to let the expletives fly.

I recently received an email from a reader who was disturbed that Anastasia’s teenage sons also used a few expletives. They’re certainly not channeling Axel Foley, but teenage boys will be teenage boys, and having raised two of the species, I know that they often test their boundaries.

Anastasia doesn’t tolerate such language from her sons, and they know it. They quickly apologize. However, I thought their use of such words was necessary for a realistic portrayal of the scene. I explained this to the reader and told her I couldn’t promise that she wouldn’t come across the words that offended her in future books. My aim is not to offend my readers, but since I try to write realistic characters, and people have varying levels of tolerance for naughty words, sometimes I do wind up offending.

Network television has strict censorship rules. That’s why many movies that are broadcast will contain lots of bleeping. In the TV series Battlestar Gallactica the writers got around the censors by using the euphemistic “frack” and “fracking” to substitute for the F-word. However, a rose by any other name, as Shakespeare noted, will smell as sweet. And an F-word by any other name is not going to make people wonder why everyone on a space opera is talking about drilling for natural gas in shale rock. We all knew what all the “frack” and “fracking” meant.

I recently watched a Live from Lincoln Center tribute to Marvin Hamlish on PBS. When it came time for one of the stars to sing “Dance Ten; Looks Three” from A Chorus Line, otherwise known as the "T*** and A**" song (click the link for the lyrics if you don’t know what I’m talking about), the singer substituted various words for the T-word. They couldn’t bleep out the offensive words later because the show was being broadcast live, and apparently, no one ever thought it would be necessary to add a 7-second delay to a Live from Lincoln Center broadcast. After all, who’s going to pull a wardrobe malfunction on Live from Lincoln Center?

I found it rather strange that you can utter the A-word on PBS but not the T-word. The resulting performance was quite humorous, though, given that the lyrics ranged from “pits and a**” to “Schlitz and a**, among others.”

I’ve received other emails from readers who begged me to remove the four-letter words from my books. I’ve even seen some 1-star reviews of my books on Amazon and Goodreads solely because of my use of expletives. Some reviewers made my books sound like I was peppering every paragraph with curse words. I knew I’d used the words judiciously, so I took another look at my books to see just how often I used the words that these readers objected to. Here’s what I discovered:

Word count: 68,700 words
Number of times “F” word is used: 6
Number of times “S” word is used: 25

Word count: 72,500 words
Number of times “F” word is used: 6
Number of times “S” word is used: 10

Word count: 68,200 words
Number of times “F” word is used: 5
Number of times “S” word is used: 10

Really? People are complaining because .021% - .045% (if I’ve done my math correctly) of the words used in my books are four-letter words? I will continue to be polite to the people who  implore me to change my vulgar ways. However, I’ll still continue to use both the F-word and the S-word when scenes warrant them.

How do you feel about expletives in fiction? Do you tolerate blue language when it’s used appropriately and judiciously, or would you prefer euphemisms used no matter the circumstances?

Award-winning author Lois Winston writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series featuring magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and BooklistKirkus Reviews dubbed it, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” The series also includes Death By Killer Mop Doll and Crewel Intentions, an Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mini-Mystery. Revenge of the Crafty Corpse is a January 2013 release.

Lois is also published in women’s fiction, romance, romantic suspense, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. In addition, she’s an award-winning crafts and needlework designer and an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. She’s also the author of the recently released Top Ten Reasons Your Novel is Rejected. Visit Lois at, visit Emma at, and visit Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers character blog,


Shannon Baker said...

Since my own language often sounds like a sailor, I'm rarely offended by cursing. My favorite TV series is Deadwood. I have a hard time cleaning up my characters' language, though. I just wrote a short story and thought it would have a mixed audience and man, was that challenging for this potty-mouth.

Kristopher said...

I think that sometimes this is why cozies feel "false". I think that if a character dictates who they are, they should do the same for how they sound.

I don't care one way or the other as long as it feels realistic. It's got to be REAL, gosh darn it.

Lois Winston said...

Shannon, what I find interesting is that words I don't deem as falling into the potty mouth realm are definite no-no's for some people. So you're *darned* if you do, and *darned* if you don't sometimes. :-)

Kristopher, I totally agree, and that's why I will continue to use words appropriate to my characters.

Terry Spear said...

It totally depends on the situation. I've read books that had too much of it. I felt that the author could get the point across without using so much. On the other hand, some of it was so appropriate that using something else would have seemed silly.

I had a YA book that my publisher wouldn't even allow Jeez. Really? Okay, gee whillikers then. Give me a break. LOL

mareva said...

Love the Schlitz.....I know Miss Marple was proper, but then again saying "drat" somehow just make you feel better, does it?

Lois Winston said...

Terry, I agree that some books use too many 4-letter words. Hence, my reference to Alex Foley. It seemed like every other word in Beverly Hills Cops was the F-word, and it not only grew tiresome quickly, it took away the impact the word would have had if used judiciously and sparingly.

Mareva, I read somewhere that there was a huge scandal over Rhett Butler saying "damn" in Gone With the Wind. I just don't think "drat" or "darn" would have have worked as well.

Rebecca York said...

Well, with my Harlequin Intrigues, we have to keep it squeaky clean. I often resort to, "He cursed under his breath." I abide by the rules for Intrigue, but in my single title and indie books, I use whatever words seem appropriate for the character and the situation.

Shirley Wells said...

Interesting post and I love that you've counted those 'offensive' words. My books are peppered with the f-word, simply because the characters have to sound realistic. In one of my books, I had 2 teenage boys (dragged up by a criminal stepfather and a waste of space of a mother) cursing frequently and my publisher made me remove the f-words. Those boys never sounded convincing.

carl brookins said...

Yes, that PBS song was falling down funny. I agree with your stand. If you are writing realistic stories, then they really aren't cozy in the traditional sense of the word. I sometime review cozies in which i have to modify the adjective, so readers will be warned. Labels are alway problematical.

Patti Brooks said...

First I want to say that people/characters that indulged in a lot of curses do so because they do not have the vocabulary to accurately describe the situation.

Now my protag in my mysteries set in the horse world is a Polish horse trainer that smokes, drinks and swears.

I really did not want to have his curse words littering the book so I researched and found a kinda one size fits all POLISH curse word that couldn't possibly offen readers because 99.5% wouldn't have any idea what it means. I identify "Kurwa" as a Polish cuss word a couple of times early on and leave it at that. When my man needs to swear, he does not offend.

My two cents Patti Brooks

E. F. Watkins said...

Interesting blog, Lois. I have to admit, when I read your books the four-letter words never particularly jumped out at me, so they must have felt appropriate for the characters and situations. I'm presently working on a cozy that includes rock musicians and, toward the end, one very seedy bad guy. I use some medium-bad words throughout, but in the climactic scenes with the bad guy, my heroine--who is recalling it all first-person--jokes that she is censoring things a bit. So we get "freaking" and a few other substitutes. I think it conveys the idea that the dialogue was really a lot saltier, and also adds a bit of humor (I hope!).

Terry Ambrose said...

I have to admit that I go to great lengths to avoid the use of the "F" bomb. However, there are plenty of others that I'll use. I like your comment, Lois, about the character voice needing to be true. McKenna, the main character in my funny Hawaiian mystery, PHOTO FINISH, does let a few good ones fly, but I've never done a count. I might be surprised at the results!

Lois Winston said...

Thank you all for stopping by to comment. This is definitely one of those topics that pushes a lot of buttons, isn't it?

Debra said...

My very first Superromance contained the f-word. An angry teen expressing her anger--seemed to fit. I got raked over the coals by several readers, who seemed on the verge of using it themselves.
I agree that the language should fit the character. My new work reflects that.
I LOVED Deadwood, too.

Lois Winston said...

Debra, I'm surprised Harlequin allowed it. They have pretty strict rules about that sort of thing. Must have slipped past the editor.

Sally Carpenter said...

Regarding "realistic" language, many people don't use potty language in public, so "realisticly" an author doesn't need to feel she must use profanity constantly. "Realistically" some of my characters would swear more than I write them, but I feel the raw languague detracts from the story and why alientate an section of the audience that doesn't want to read such language? In my books I use some mild profanity but certain words I never use. I get around that by writing "She threw a lewd comment back at him."

This comment has been removed by the author.
Lois Winston said...

This is what happens when you have two Google accounts. I just posted a comment under my character's name! That's the deleted comment.

Sally, I've found that you can never please everyone. What offends one person won't bother another. So I write the way I believe my characters should be written. Some of my characters are foul-mouthed, but I use their foul words judiciously. When a character who normally wouldn't use a foul word uses such a word, it's shocking, and that's what I'm going for.

I'm certainly not writing for The Sopranos, but in real life people sometimes use certain words they might not otherwise use. When they do use them, they have a lot more impact than if they used them all the time, and I believe substituting a euphemism at these times or saying the character cursed wouldn't have the impact I want. I want to shock people to make them realize the seriousness of the character's situation or state of mind at the time.

Barbara Monajem said...

What a fun post. I don't mind bad language as long as it seems appropriate to the characters. I prefer bad language to obvious substitutions... but that may be because I have to control my own potty mouth at times.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind reading foul language, or writing it, if it fits the scene or character. Now, I have to go do a word count. :-) I like this down-to-earth-tell-it-like-it-is post.

Pat Browning said...

Lois, what an interesting and timely post. I've read some good books that are so full of profanity I can't review them, but otherwise they made my "favorites" list.

I'm struggling with my own WIP. The opening line since the beginning has been "Damn, it's cold." The scene is set in an abandoned cemetery during a dense fog Christmas week, and damn, it really is cold, cold enough to freeze your bone. I hate that "damn" is the first word in my amateur sleuth novel-in-progress, but it fits so perfectly I hate to take it out.

Thanks for an interesting blog!

Pat Browning

Lois Winston said...

Thanks, Barbara and mjdresselbooks!

Pat, sounds to me like that word should stay right where it is. Plenty of amateur sleuth books use the word "damn," and really, that's such a mild expletive these days. Don't second guess yourself!

Polly Iyer said...

Important post, Lois. Brava! I don't write cozies, and it's clear from the descriptions of my books. However, I have one reader who's read three of my books and in her reviews on Amazon puts a WARNING: on each one to let people know there's sex in the mystery, and she doesn't like that. She gives me three stars each time. Lady, if you read one book of mine and the contents don't suit you, why read the second? And if you read two books, why are you surprised to find the same things that bother you in the first two. I finally made a comment.

I agree that the writer must let her characters act, well, in character, or else they come off phoney. I have a lot of problems with genre formulas, but this was an excellent post dealing with one of them.

Lois Winston said...

Thanks, Polly. I've given up trying to understand what motivates some reviewers to post what they do. I had a reviewer on Amazon give me 3 stars recently, stating that she'd just started reading the book, and so far it was good. Aren't you supposed to wait until you finish a book before posting a review?

Kathleen Ernst said...

I've gotten a few comments about the language in my Chloe Ellefson mysteries. Roelke McKenna is a cop, and when things really hit the fan, he speaks accordingly (although I only use F*** once per book, I think.)

Michelle Fidler said...

I like "clean" books, especially cozies. Some damns or hells might be okay, but not the F, S, or P words. Agatha Christie didn't use those words. You can get your point across w/o cussing.

I also don't like the fact that most T.V. shows made for movie channels and FX are rated mature. Guess they don't want to appeal to everyone and definitely not families.

25 of the S word? Too much for me.