The Language Bomb

My guest today is Colby Marshall, a Georgia thriller writer. She's talking about how she coped with the language issue that arises when writing a gritty story peopled by grittier characters faced with life-and-death situations and other dangers.

Georgia has some awesome beaches...but they don't have the Tiki Hut. Please give Colby a warm welcome and a little Tiki Spirit. Or spirits. Your choice. But don't give her a cabana boy. You know how they are :)


Hello, out there in Tiki-Land! I’m travelling over from my normal home at Sugar and Spice and Bodies on Ice as part of my blog tour for the release of my debut thriller, Chain of Command, about a reporter who discovers that the simultaneous assassinations of the president and vice president of the U.S. may be a plot to rocket the Speaker of the House—a woman—into the presidency.

Releasing a novel about presidential assassinations can get tricky, what with the worrying the FBI will come to knock down your door after some odd Google searches or those people sitting in the corner quietly judging you, assuming that if you write about such a travesty, it must be what you really want to happen. Another tricky aspect of writing a thriller? The profanity.

Now, don’t get worried, because I’m keeping this one clean, but let’s just say that when you’re writing a Navy SEAL character, sometimes his language isn’t exactly going to be fit for an episode of Sesame Street (brought to you by the letter F!). But I’ll tell you the truth the same way I told my Baptist minister father, my prim high school English teacher, and my uninterested mailman. The last didn’t really care whether I cursed in my writing or not, but I forced him to sit and listen to my spiel so I could practice before delivering it to the previous two: I think I do the book and the characters an injustice if I have them speak in a way that doesn’t feel “real.” And yet, I didn’t want to cuss like a sailor (pun entirely intended) throughout the book. So, how did I get around it, you ask?

Well, I found Jesus. Yep, Jesus Christ helped out, though maybe not in the way you might think.

Lieutenant Noah Hutchins, one of Chain of Command’s major characters, is a Navy SEAL who would, for all practical purposes, have a mouth so filthy not even a fifth of bourbon and a gallon of bleach could disinfect it. So, during the writing of his character, I decided he would have a little quirk that could stand in for the cussing any time he needed an expletive, and good ole Jesus, always the martyr, saved the day.

Throughout the writing of the book, Noah’s “special relationship” with Jesus became both one of my favorite aspects of his character to develop as well as some of my favorite little moments to read in the final copy. Noah refers to Jesus in interesting situations a total of fifteen times throughout the book in lieu of a string of words that would make your grandmother blush. My personal favorites include, “Jesus Christ and Sting in concert,” and “Christ swinging from a chandelier.”

And while some people might think the Jesus references are disrespectful, I like to think the Man himself, if he was around, might understand and find humor in the situation—maybe even be proud I used his name to avoid some other foul language I’d have needed to use to keep the character real. Instead, I like to think Noah’s quirk made him even more real.

What about you? What character have you read with a quirk that made you adore him or her? And if you were going to use a Noah-esque Jesus reference, for the love of Jesus’ red velour track suit, what would it be?

CHAIN OF COMMAND is currently available on
Amazon : Barnes and Noble : Directly from the publisher, Stairway Press
Also available on Kobo, iBooks, Sony, and others.


Oh, I so wish I had been there to see you practice on the poor mailman.

Sounds like a great book, especially with the name Noah Hutchins. One of my all time favorite YA hotties has the same name. *sighs dreamily*

Even though I write YA/NA, I believe cussing characters are okay if they are to be authentic. Just as long as the cussing is not there just for the sake of it being there.
Nick Wilford said…
Christ on a bike. Not original, but I like it.

Entertaining post! Nice to meet Colby, and I like the premise of the book. Having written thrillers, I can say I've been paranoid about some of those Google searches too...
A wonderful post, and a joy to read.

Sean McLachlan said…
Language can be an issue with some readers. I think it's best to be accurate, though, or it will come off fake as you say. I liked how you got around that little problem with one character!
Anne Gallagher said…
I had this same problem in my contemporary romance. People I know in real life swear. It's a fact. However, how I dealt with it was by having the characters cuss in Italian. (because they came from a large Italian family.) Most people don't know how to speak Italian, but one reviewer who did, said the salty language didn't bother her as her family was the same way.

And I don't think Jesus would mind. He was a very forgiving fellow.

Great post, Colby. Thanks for having her, Carol.
Slamdunk said…
Fun post Colby; and your poor mail delivery guy.

I think your second question is beyond my limited writing capabilities, but your first--I enjoyed Tony Hillerman's quirky character of Lt. Leaphorn. Since the setting is in Navajo country, Leaphorn has to balance his culture with the responsibilities of his job or acting logically yet acknowledging his spiritual upbringing.
Liza said…
I too, love the story of the mail man. Hope you give him a copy of your book! Wonderful resolution to a sticky problem. You have me laughing and thinking of other creative phrases in which to insert "Jesus."
Julie Luek said…
Fun post. Interestingly, I have no problem with cussing in a book (even the F-bomb) if it's needed for the character. You're right, no military man is going to be saying "golly" unless we're talking Gomer Pyle. I really struggle with the God and Jesus as a swearing alternative though. It's probably just me, my age and upbringing. I find it interesting what works for each of us and respect the careful thought you gave to your choice!
J.L. Campbell said…
Hi, Carol and Colby,

Writers do face a challenge in creating characters with a salty mouth, yet keeping things real.

Had to drop a couple of F bombs in my last work, but they totally fit the situation.

Use what works, I say.
Julie Flanders said…
Hi Colby, it's so nice to meet you! I love thrillers and am always glad to discover a new one, this sounds awesome. Very fun post! :)

Thanks for sharing, Carol!
L.G. Smith said…
I know a lot of people have problems with foul language, and this is an interesting way to get around it. I use it, of course, if it's appropriate for the character. Otherwise it just feels gratuitous to use the f word every effing time. lol.
Carol Kilgore said…
Welcome to the Tiki Hut, Colby. I hope you have lots of fun hanging out here :)

I write some pretty gritty characters, and I allow them to use the language they would normally use. Sometimes I make them tone it down.

Anthony Zummo from In Name Only fits that bill. He was dropping F-bombs left and right before the editor told him to calm it down.

I learned from her and didn't let Jake Solomon get too carried away.

For me, as a writer, I believe the character's language must fit the character and be appropriate for the story.
Carol Kilgore said…
Stina - I would've liked to see the mailman, too.

Nick - I'm still paranoid about my searches.

Yvonne - I think Colby has a great post, too.

Sean - So true. The character needs to be true to himself and the story.

Anne - Mama Mia! A great solution. I may steal that sometime :)
Johanna Garth said…
That's funny! You must know your mailman a lot better than I know mine!!
Hart Johnson said…
It's a great quirk. I tend to just allow a character or two to swear, but I haven't had any MAIN characters that do a ton of it, so it has only had limited impact. I do love your solution.
Certainly much more creative than using the GD word, Colby!
LD Masterson said…
I've got the same problem. I allow my one protagonist a little bit of 'potty mouth', but only words I'm guilty of using myself. Her partner, however, has promised his wife he will give up swearing (even when she's not there to hear him) and takes that promise seriously so he's stuck with 'darn' and 'crap'.

What I don't know how to handle is the bad guys. This is a crime drama which includes gangs. How do you write realistic dialogue for gang members without using the F-bomb and other assorted goodies?
Carol Kilgore said…
Slamdunk - I like characters like that, too.

Liza - Colby's mailman deserves a fully autographed copy!

Julie L - You and I are alike about the character.

Joy - Yes...I'm of the use what works school, too.

Julie F - Another thriller lover :)

Nicki Elson said…
Using the conundrum to give the character a unique quirk is a brilliant way to handle it.

Congratulations on what sounds like a very exciting book. Hope you enjoyed your stay at the Tiki Hut - please tell me Carol serves drinks in coconuts w/ little umbrellas in them.
colbymarshall said…
Stina- I actually heard about this YA character just a couple of days ago for the first time! I'm glad he turned out to be one most people liked and not someone awful! :-)

Thanks, Mike. Glad you like it. Do you have a book out? I'd love to check it out!

Yvonne- thanks for stopping by!

Sean- I agree- I hate the thought of a SEAL saying "Gee willikers!"

Anne- The Italian idea is cool! I, too, like to think Jesus would be okay with it. I think he'd be a guy with a sense of humor. :-)

Slamdunk- sounds like an awesome character.
colbymarshall said…
Liza- I tend to think of new "Jesus" phrases daily ever since Chain of Command. Aren't they fun? :-)

Julie- Thanks for your comments. It's definitely something that is a personal thing to everyone. I feel good personally about thinking that the Jesus I have a personal relationship with has a sense of humor, but I also completely understand how some people feel differently. I appreciate your support of personal choices, and I loved hearing your thoughts on it for future references of how readers feel. Thanks!

J.L.- Finding characters' voices can sometimes be a challenge, but sometimes they just work.

Julie- thank you! I hope you enjoy it!

L.G. haha! I love your thoughts on using it every effing time. :-)
colbymarshall said…
Carol- thanks for having me, and thank you for the warm welcome! I'm having a great time!

Johanna- the mailman actually used to be my nemesis, but we have since become pals. That might be another story for another post!

Thanks, Hart!

Alex, it started with one phrase and kind of spiraled from there, but I felt very good about where it went. I'm glad you like it.

LD- I think that gangs would be tough. Usually finding realistic dialogue, for me, involves listening to the way people actually talk. The more you listen, the more you can write real dialogue.

Thanks, Nikki! It's a fun ride!
Kittie Howard said…
Fun post! Your mailman sounds like a really nice person. I put cussing in my last novella because that's how it would have been in real life. But I kept it within boundaries.
Lynda R Young said…
Getting creative is always a fun way to avoid the F bombs.
What a creative and funny (I think) way to use a quirk to get around a problem and further define a character!
Melissa said…
An occasional curse word doesn't bother me if it fits the scene and the character. Even the f-bomb.

I don't like reading the Lord's name taken in vain and I try not to write it. (The closest I've come so far is 'God's bones, woman!' from a 19th-century-born character.) I like the idea of a cursing quirk, but I'm on the fence about this one. Hmm...

In any case, the story sounds really interesting. :)
colbymarshall said…
Kittie- The mailman and I have quite the history together. And yep, with the cussing, sometimes there's no way around it. What's your novella? Would like to check it out!

Lynda- finding character quirks is always fun to me. I'm glad you liked it!

Thanks, Cynthia! I love Noah, and this as part of his personality is one of my favorite things in the book.

Melissa- I certainly understand it could be offensive to some. For me personally, my definition of taking the Lord's name in vain has more to do with using it in an empty way (again, that's a personal preference thing, so I definitely know it's not everyone's definition). That's why I tend to think of Noah's use of the "phrases" as how he likes to think of Jesus- as a fun-loving, interesting presence. It has a lot to do with Noah as a person, and how he is easily bored with "the normal." I think it's his personal perspective of what Jesus should be, which is one thing that made it fun to come up with. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me on this, as I'm always eager to find out if the way I intended something comes across to readers in the way I meant or differently. It's important for an author to hear this kind of feedback so that that way we can always continue to do our jobs better. Thanks!
Kat Sheridan said…
I think the most important thing is to make a character authentic and consistant, and, having read and loved Chain of Command, I know you achieved that! As for the swearing, I have a sis who always used darn, sugar, and fudge instead of more spicy words. Her children knew if she actually said "damn" it was time to run for the hills! A co-worker, who refused to use God of Jesus when blowing off steam would say "Oh my STARS!" (instead of God), or "Cheese and CRACKERS" instead of "Jeeesus CHRIST". I really laughed at your Noah's inventive swearing!
Carol Kilgore said…
I apologize for being absent all afternoon. Husband took me with him to an appointment, and it ran long. Then dinner. I just got home.

Carol Kilgore said…
Luanne - We're of like mind on this subject.

Johanna - I don't know if I'd recognize my mailman if he wasn't driving the truck and wearing the uniform.

Hart - My characters do and say a lot of things I wouldn't. But I have been known to utter a vulgarity or ten.

Alex - True.

LD - Re gang to some of your local law enforcement and see if they will set up a meeting for you with one of their undercover people. Talk with him about gangs and gang slang, attitudes, etc. in your area. That way you get the real story. And if you have the real story, you can adapt it to your needs.

Jo-Anne Meadows said…
Hello Colby this is a great post and have to say that book really sounds like something I would love to read
~Sia McKye~ said…
I love creative cursing. They creative ways to use certain words. It does make your character more real.

I had to laugh over your mailman sitting through your spiel you better be giving him home made cookies for a gift or something. lol!

Congratulations on your book!
colbymarshall said…
Thank you, Jo-Anne! I hope you enjoy the book :-)

Thank you, Sia! Yes, my mailman is quite a character. I shall have to do an in-depth post about him sometime. I tend to make friends with all the folks who come to my house. For example, the pizza guy appears in several of my blog videos. His name is Fred. He always shakes his head when I answer the door holding a video camera.
I've definitely gotta get this book. Not only because it sounds fabulous, but because I wanta support a fellow Georgian, too.

Interesting way to have the character "curse". How about "Jesus H. Christ on a stick"?
michelle said…
Congratulations Colby! It sounds like a great story!
Baptist minister father? Yet you stuck to your guns when it came to the cursing issue? Eeeeek! You are so brave!
I truly believe that our Creator has a sense of humor!
Hi Carol! *waving*
Carol Kilgore said…
Nicki - Coconuts can be arranged. We have plenty of little umbrellas. And we also have amazing cabana boys. It's sunny and warm today, too :)

Kittie - Boundaries are good...even if they're way out there in the north forty.

Lynda - As long as it fits the character and story, almost anything works.

Cynthia - I love quirky characters!

Melissa - Cursing has never bothered me in fiction unless it's too over-abundant. How's that for bad description, LOL!
M Pax said…
Best of luck, Colby. Glad you found a way to make things work for you in the story.
colbymarshall said…
Susan- that's cool you're in Georgia, too! It can be a nice place (even though it never snows!) I hope you enjoy the book.

Thanks, Michelle- luckily, my Dad is actually pretty laid back compared to some. I think he liked the book.

I appreciate it, M Pax!
Arlee Bird said…
I'm not a fan of too much (or any for that matter)bad language I like your creative approach. I think grittiness can be portrayed in other ways than using obscenities.

As far as the character name Noah Hutchins I am amused because there is a radio preacher named Noah Hutchings. I used to listen to his show all the time before it could no longer afford to be on Los Angeles radio.

I like this post.

A Faraway View
Carol Kilgore said…
Everyone...I have been out of pocket all day. I was the recipient of a wonderful gift by a dear friend, and today was the day. I didn't realize it would take almost all day. No, I'm telling you what it is. Not now. But soon. I promise to catch up here with all your blogs between tomorrow and the weekend. I'm pooped and heading to bed pretty soon.

Colby - Thanks for carrying on here without me. You did great. I enjoyed having you. Good luck with your books, and come back soon!
Helena said…
This sounds like such a creative way to get around a writing problem, and it certainly gives your character a interesting twist.

I don't think that your character is "taking the Lord's name in vain," but rather he's invoking God, which is something else entirely. Having grown up around the Irish, I often (almost daily) heard things like "Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" These same religious folks would be appalled if anyone accused them of a sin. Instead, they're merely calling upon the heavens.
Medeia Sharif said…
I think the Jesus references is an interesting quirk and this sounds like a great story.

I'd also worry about the Google searches with a book like this.
colbymarshall said…
Thank you, Arlee!

No problem, Carol! Glad you enjoyed your day!

Helena, those were my thoughts exactly. I appreciate hearing your opinions.

Medeia- I read where someone actually got caught for a murder because of a google search like that. Only difference was they actually did something bad rather than wrote a book :-)
Carol Kilgore said…
Kat - My family wasn't quite as inventive as yours :)

Jo-Anne - Her book does sound good!

Sia - Yeah, Colby's mailman deserves an award.

Susan - Someone should make an alternative swear words list :)

Michelle - I believe our creator has a sense of humor, too. Look at us!
Carol Kilgore said…
Mary - That's the whole key...whatever we do as writers must work for the character and the story.

Arlee - I try really hard not to say certain things, but sometimes those words just pop right out, especially if I make a mess or hit my toe or a moron is driving in front of me. So in stressful situations.

Helena - Exactly so, about "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!"

Medeia - A hundred years from now, our descendants will probaby find everything we searched for and say, "Grandma's grandma was really weird. Wonder why she wanted to know all this stuff?"
E.J. Wesley said…
Very nice to meet you Colby! :-)

"an episode of Sesame Street (brought to you by the letter F!)" bwahahahah ... that was good. lol

I can SO very, very much relate to this. My characters swear because it's who they are. I wrote a guest blog post about talking to my mother (who doesn't curse really at all) for the first time after she'd read one of my stories.

It wasn't a complete disaster, but it was a little uncomfortable. :-)
Carol Kilgore said…
Some of my characters swear, too, E.J. I thought Colby's post was great.