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My Writer's Journal

Words Matter

I spend my days trying to choose exactly the right words to put into the mouths of characters as diverse as Cleopatra (she spoke Greek), Mary, Queen of Scots (French, and a Scottish version of English), and now Victoria. And so I am always interested in the choices made by other authors, writing in other times. In HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Mark Twain used what we are now prissily calling "the N-word" more than 200 times. A professor of literature, claiming that the offensive word is too strong for young readers, and too difficult for their teacher or parents to explain, has decided to rewrite Twain's classic, substituting "slave" for that offensive "N-word."

I share a home page on Twitter with a black rapper who tweets about every fifteen minutes and uses the N-word in about half of his tweets. It's an ugly word that makes my teeth ache, but I disagree with the professor (and with the rapper, too).

A week ago I saw THE KING'S SPEECH, nominated for a whole string of Academy Awards. It's a wonderful movie--a particularly wonderful movie for kids. But it has an R-rating, meaning that anyone under 17 must be accompanied by an adule. Why? Because it's got that "F-word," which of course is never uttered in the presence of tender young ears. (It's very funny in the way it's used, but there it is.)

Meanwhile, TRUE GRIT, which I also enjoyed because it uses language brilliantly, is littered with dead bodies, chopped-off fingers, and quarts of blood--I would call it fairly violent. It has a PG-13 rating. Go figure.

These are the kinds of things I think about as I write. Victoria was not allowed to associate with a whole passel of young cousins, children of a duke who was not properly married to their mother, because they were--in the word used in that time--bastards. Can I use that word in my novel? Or will readers--or their parents or teachers--become upset? Read More 
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