Parsley Poop – The Cozy Writer and the Conundrum of Keeping It Clean

Today, I’m delighted my pal, multiple-Agatha winner Leslie Budewitz, stopped by to visit. Leslie and I are often found in Montana cafes, noshing pastries while plotting someone’s demise. In this guest post, Leslie discusses how cozy authors can avoid explicit language but still have fun playing with words. Welcome, Leslie!

Agatha-winning author Leslie Budewitz

A recent thread on the Short Mystery Fiction Society discussion list on language—captioned ”Swearing Bad, Murder Good”—prompted me to talk to myself, on my morning walks, about why cozy mystery authors work hard to keep our language clean. You weren’t there that day, so thanks to Debbie Burke for inviting me to share some of my thoughts here.

First, what is a cozy? It’s a subset of the traditional mystery, which itself has quite a range, from the lightest of cozies (Krista Davis, Laura Childs) to historicals (Victoria Thompson, Rhys Bowen) to more psychological drama (Lori Rader-Day, Laura Lippman, Hank Phillippi Ryan). Generally, there is no graphic or gratuitous sex or violence. The killer and victim often know each other, or at least come from the same wider community; these are not stories of serial killers who prey on a certain type of victim or anonymous bombers wreaking havoc on marathon runners and those gathered to cheer them on. Typically, the traditional mystery involves an amateur sleuth, though there are exceptions; Louise Penny’s books are considered traditional mysteries though Gamache and his crew are police officers, aided by locals.

Reading a cozy is a walk on the light side. Think Jessica Fletcher and Murder She Wrote, or Midsomer Murders. The cozy is the comfort food of mystery world, and who doesn’t love a little mac and cheese now and then?

The murder is the trigger, the inciting incident, while the other characters’ response is the story. A bit of an oversimplification, and it’s crucial, in my opinion, to make sure we get to know and care about the victim, and to show how the murder disrupts the community. The estimable Carolyn Hart asks what’s more uncomfortable than murder in a small town where everyone is affected? And she’s absolutely right, though the same is equally true of urban cozies, which focus on a community within a community.

Ultimately, the cozy is about community. The sleuth, usually a woman, is driven to investigate because of her personal stakes. She wants justice, for the individuals and for the community. The professional investigators—law enforcement—restore the external order by making an arrest and prosecuting, but it’s up to the amateur to restore internal order, the social order, within the community. (I could go on about the elements of a cozy. Another time.)

So, what about the language?

Cozies tend toward clean language. SMFS members have pointed out the contradiction in readers who accept murder but dislike cursing or vulgar language. It is a contradiction, a bit. But then again, it isn’t. Murder happens in all social strata—among drug dealers and religious zealots. The murder in a cozy is typically off-stage; we don’t see the blood and gore—a character might, but she isn’t going to describe it for us.

Nor are most cozy settings and scenarios places where you’d expect swearing. Most of us, even if we cut loose now and then, watch our language at a street fair, in a tea shop, at a community theater rehearsal or on a tour boat headed to a clam bake. We might be freer of tongue at home or with close friends, but we know when to watch our language. So do cozy characters.

Who are the characters? Does the language fit them?

A frequent criticism by other writers about deliberately clean language is that it isn’t realistic, that a mobster won’t say “gosh, darn it” or “oh, firetruck.”

Nope, he sure as sugar wouldn’t.

But it goes both ways. Reality isn’t one size. Some people choose not to swear, from personal preference, out of moral or religious conviction, or for other reasons. TV broadcasters train themselves not to swear in private because one accidental “f*ck this sh*t” on the nightly news could cost them their jobs. (Credit for that insight goes to Hank Phillipi Ryan, a TV reporter who writes about them.) Retail shop owners, with some exceptions, watch what they say on the shop floor because most customers don’t want to be surrounded by curse words when shopping, especially if their kids are with them. I gave one of my series protagonists the word “criminy,” borrowed from a former legal secretary who chose it as her dastardly expression when she taught kindergarten; I doubt she knew it’s a contraction of “Christ Almighty,” but the word has long slipped the bonds of its blasphemic origins.

A sleuth who runs a bookstore or bakery and is investigating to right a wrong and restore the social order of the community she loves is not going to suddenly open her mouth and make sailors blush. “I swore under my breath” or “I’d never heard David swear before” makes the point just fine.

Tone matters.

Cozies often involve humor, as the titles make plain. Crime Rib, Assault and Pepper, Chai Another Day are a few of mine. The word play continues as a Spice Shop owner named Pepper says “parsley poop” when she learns a troublesome fact or calls an annoying customer a pain in the anise. The creativity fits and it’s fun.

But what about the killer? They aren’t all little old ladies wielding knitting needles.

No, they aren’t.

In traditional mysteries, including cozies, the killers are often opportunistic, motivated by emotion and injustice. They may strike out in the spur of the moment. Some act from the conviction that the victim needed killing. Others plot and plan, though pure evil and psychosis are the exception, not the norm. Still, planning a murder doesn’t necessarily equate to a potty mouth. With some exceptions, cozy killers come from the same community as the rest of the characters. They run bars and restaurants, work as TV cameramen, winemakers, and veterinarians, collect movie memorabilia, captain tour boats, and drink good coffee.

Many cozies are written in first person. We see the killer through the protagonist’s lens, although of course, they speak their own truth, sometimes spelled with four letters. When and where killer and sleuth meet might affect the language, too. For example, in one of my books, we first see the killer at a memorial service held in an upscale art gallery, where mourners are wearing linen and silk and sipping sparkling rosé. Not a crowd or a place for vulgarity—though if it did erupt, we might have a sudden silence, followed by a hubbub as the offender is escorted from the scene, all good action for a cozy. Later in the same book, we see the killer prowling around a darkened antique store, aiming to confront and stop my sleuth. The dialogue is limited, as they taunt each other while trying not to give away their locations. Swearing could happen; it doesn’t.

In my latest book, the killer and my first person narrator see each other several times, but only meet face-to-face once, outside a hospital. Again, it’s a place where swearing could happen, but isn’t essential—this isn’t the docks in the dark of night, and their conversation is a battle of wits. The protagonist, a spice shop owner, has no objection to swearing, but rough language isn’t going to help her tease out the killer’s motives or get him to feed her the info she needs to break his alibi. Vulgarity isn’t going to help him convince this pesky woman that he’s the wronged party, that he only did what anyone in his position might have done.

Last, consider the audience.

Cozy readers may be young teens, old ladies, and anyone in between. They are reading to meet the characters, get to know a place, eat good food, and learn about the subject of the book. They are there to see justice done and community restored. Why make them uncomfortable without good reason?

Language affects tone and characterization; it reflects plot and theme; it contributes to setting. If a well-placed “f*ck” or “sh*t” would advance any of those without pulling the reader out of the story, go ahead. Use it. Swearing is just another tool in your writer’s box. But in the well-written cozy, you won’t have to.

~~~

Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series, the Spice Shop mysteries, set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. The Solace of Bay Leaves, her fifth Spice Shop Mystery, is out now in ebook and audio; paperback coming in October 2020. Leslie is the winner of three Agatha Awards2013 Best First Novel for Death Al Dente, the first Food Lovers’ Village mystery; 2011 Best Nonfiction, and 2018 Best Short Story, for “All God’s Sparrows,” her first historical fiction. Her work has also won or been nominated for Derringer, Anthony, and Macavity awards. A past president of Sisters in Crime and a current board member of Mystery Writers of America, she lives and cooks in NW Montana.

Find her online at www.LeslieBudewitz.com and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/LeslieBudewitzAuthor

Pepper Reece never expected to find her life’s passion in running the Seattle Spice Shop. But when evidence links a friend’s shooting to an unsolved murder, her own regrets surface. Can she uncover the truth and protect those she loves, before the deadly danger boils over?

 

 

More about The Solace of Bay Leaves, including an excerpt and buy links here: http://www.lesliebudewitz.com/spice-shop-mystery-series/

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About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, and Dead Man's Bluff. Debbie's nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

37 thoughts on “Parsley Poop – The Cozy Writer and the Conundrum of Keeping It Clean

  1. Welcome, Leslie!
    When I write my romantic suspense books, two things I need to know about my characters are: 1) what’s their go-to swear word; and 2) what will they use for their terms of endearment.
    You’re so right that the conditions matter. When the cops are in a “it’s just us” situation, they’re going to use a different vocabulary than when they’re dealing with the public.

    • Hi, Terry! Seems like so long ago that we were riding the van together to the Writers Police Academy — 4 years this month, I think.

      I LOVE that you ask a character’s swear word and their terms of endearment — a great trick to get to know them.

  2. Well said, Leslie. When I get the “it’s not realistic” argument, I say, “You’re right. Realism is boring. We write stylized reality for an emotional effect.” We also write for readers (that is, if you want some)…and a large swath is turned off by gratuitous language. I’ve never had an email begging me to throw in some F bombs next time.

    Somehow the TV series Law & Order managed to convey gritty reality without total “realism.”

    • Great example, Jim. Thanks.

      I once heard Bob Dugoni say that when he was revising older books to republish them himself, he took out a lot of the swearing because he felt he’d overused it in an attempt to characterize, but with experience, realized he didn’t need it, and he felt it had cost him some readers.

  3. This is timely for me. The heroine in my WIP has a thought on page one about the villain and thinks, ‘Screw him.’ I love the emotion behind that phrase. Still, she is 26 and might just use the F-bomb. Doesn’t mean it would work for me there so it stays for now. Thanks for this topic.

    • Perfect!

      The key is to listen to the characters. That generation has some really great phrases — you may not think you know what “douche canoe” means, but the moment you hear it, you know!

  4. You mentioned Victoria Thompson and I’ve been reading her Gaslight Mysteries. I’m trying to figure out where I would fit as a mystery writer, because I’m not that genteel but neither do I want graphic scenes, gore, and a bunch of nasty language. Ms. Thompson navigates that nicely. The rationale behind the murders is intense, but thankfully not graphic. I’m only on about book 13 of the series (I think there are something like 30), and I’ve only seen use of a few swear words.

    But what I’m seeing is that when you craft characters the reader really engages with and when you immerse the reader in the story world and make them feel like they’re right there, you don’t need the shock value of bad language. “He cursed under his breath” slides by just as easily as “he said” after a line of dialogue.

    • “Traditional mystery” is a broad umbrella, and it might just cover you.

      Vicki Thompson’s books bring another element to the topic of cursing — language has changed over the years, and isn’t always easy to capture. But there are other ways, as you point out. Her books are a good illustration of context. The widowed Sarah with her upper-class upbringing and the ambitious Irish cop Frank will speak differently, and tailor their expressions to the situation — she was brought up to do that, and he knows he moves between the worlds. She does, too, with some of her midwifery clients.

      Good luck with your WIP!

  5. Thanks for guesting today, Leslie, and thank you, Debbie, for bringing her out of the wings! Enjoyed this post.

    I’m not a fan of *%$@ language, no matter what kind of setting my current read has. But, I agree, there is a place for some light swearing. I’m one of the “I watch what I say in public, but let my hair down a little at home” crowd.

    In one of my current WIPs, a young teenager cuts loose with a little hell and damnation speech, mostly for dramatic effect in front of her parents. No really foul words, though. For her, within the context of the scene, her lapse would be expected.

    I hope my editor and readers see it the same way. 🙂

    • Deb, context does matter. I can almost hear your teenager.

      Leslie is so knowledgeable and articulate. I always learn something new from her.

    • Deb, with a teenager, you have so many great opportunities to bring her to life with her language. And we all get the kid who cuts loose for effect — heck, we’ve been that kid! Then the parents laugh, roll their eyes, or respond in kind, depending on the story — so many options. Good luck!

  6. Welcome, Leslie

    Love your guest post! A wonderful overview of cozy mysteries, and a thought-provoking look at language used in them. I agree that language really sets the tone and affects characterization, etc.

    I write modern urban fantasies–in my first series, there was swearing because of the gritty nature of the world and the main character’s outlook and background. It was natural to her. It also changed over the course of the series. In my second, the main character curses using arcane, invented expressions–Abyss, curses, Hades etc because what she says shapes her spell casting and her focus. I’m having fun with this, though it is a challenge to come up with appropriate words.

    I’ve been a long-time mystery reader and am now also working on writing a mystery. One set at a public library since I worked at one for many years before retiring last December. It will be somewhere on the traditional to cozy spectrum and there will likely be no swearing for that reason (and because I simply don’t want to deal with that with this 🙂

    Thanks again for an informative and helpful post!

    • Thanks, Dale. Love the idea of mingling her swearing and her spell-casting! Rowling did a great job of creating personalized expressions for some of her characters that fit with their particular magical abilities.

      Mysteries set in the world of books are immensely popular — good luck!

  7. Leslie, Welcome and thanks for a great article. Since I write cozies, it’s especially interesting to me.

    I don’t use any profanity in my books. For me, the cozy is all about the puzzle. The murder happens, the protagonist is pulled in, and she begins to try to map the labyrinth to find the killer. I’m afraid it would bump the reader out of the flow of the narrative if I threw in a curse word now and then. And like you say, there are so many ways to play with words in the cozy, why take the easy way out?

    Thanks again for a great guest post!

  8. Leslie, great blog. You have touched on an issue that I believe can literally freeze a writer. In my debut novel I have an ex-con. He uses a word I despise and never use in my everyday life. I had to remind myself that character isn’t me. I don’t write cozies, but in the same vein, I do not wish to offend my reader, so while I used it more in the beginning of the novel, I definitely tone it down.

    In subsequent books, I’ve toned it way down because if I’m reading a book and it is filled with expletives, I remember some age old advice I once received. If a person is using expletives over and over, it’s a sign he can’t articulate what he’s after, and he can’t think of anything else to say.

    Still a conundrum nevertheless 🙂 Thanks for the thought-provoking read!

  9. Welcome, Leslie! Thanks for the great post, which is a Cozy 101 for folks who have heard of the genre but aren’t quite sure what it is. Many will be surprised that they have been fans all along.

    Speaking of fans…I was visiting a friend one time and happened upon a closet that was filled front to back, top to bottom, with cozy novels! She and her friends had some sort of system where they were constantly buying them and trading among themselves. The fans are legion!

  10. A very enjoyable article!

    Does it fit?
    When the movie “Hoffa” came out one of my wife’s cousins was livid. “Jimmy would never use that kind of language around his family.” Cousin was in a position to know. He was one of the Teamster’s lawyers.

  11. Welcome to TKZ, Leslie! Wonderful article. I used to be hooked on a cozy TV show, where all the murders happened in and around a bookstore. Great characters, suspenseful, and not one swear word. Can’t remember the title. Do you know it? Anyway, I never missed an episode, so I understand the draw for cozy mysteries.

    BTW, I love my signed paperback of Books, Crooks, and Counselors (WPA 2016). Thank you!

      • Sue, my readers say “Mystery Woman” on the Hallmark Channel, with Kellie Martin as bookstore owner Hailey Dean. More details in their responses on my FB Author page. I knew they would know!

    • Do you mean the made-for-tv movie series Mystery Woman, starring Kellie Martin? It’s set around a mystery bookstore.

  12. I enjoyed your post, Ms. Budewitz, thank you.
    .
    I am a huge fan of the cozy mystery, which baffles everyone around me (I’m a bit of the “macho” type, tall and 250 lbs, long beard, blue collar, flannel shirts & boots, etc..) I’m presently reading an Isabella Alan series which involves quilting and an Amish community in Ohio. It’s fabulous.
    .
    If you’re still checking posts here (it’s getting late), let me ask you a question. Would you label M. C. Beaton’s Hamish MacBeth series as “cozy”? It feels like a cozy in terms of tone and humor, lack of sex and foul language, but the hero’s a police constable who follows (sometimes) the procedures. It doesn’t feel like a procedural.
    .
    I’m going to grab one of your books when I’m through with the Alan series. And thanks again!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Carl. Isabella Alan is a pen name for my friend, Amanda Flower, who writes several other series you may enjoy — although I don’t want to keep you from your appointed task of reading my books!

      I’ve read a few Hamish McBeth on audio. In tone, the series is clearly cozy, though as you note, he’s a professional, which by American terms would make the series traditional, the broader umbrella, rather than the subset, the cozy. I’ve heard, though, that British usage differs a little, and I don’t know how Beaton’s British publishers characterized her. Regardless, the lines, like Hamish’s loyalty to procedure, are somewhat fuzzy.

  13. Excellent post, Leslie! Confess my amateur sleuth uses the occasional “damn” in her head when things are going well, and I’ve sometimes given other characters stronger language, but I prefer “freaking” or “frigging” to the F-bomb. As you rightly observe, “language affects tone and characterization.”

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  15. Great post. I’ve always wondered about using the “swear” words that “the Bible uses.” When I hear that we shouldn’t use swear words, I always want to have a deeper discussion so we can get into specifics. By saying “swear” words in general, I don’t know which ones we’re talking about. I definitely would be against the f-bomb, taking God’s name in vain, other versions of “F”, or using the “D” word to basically “damn someone.” But, I can’t help but think about these in the Bible. I’ve read that in the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), the words were “earthy” (crude, somewhat offensive).
    ~1 Kings 4:10 (KJV) “piss(eth)”
    ~1 Samuel 20:30, “Son of a perverse, rebellious woman,” or “stupid, son of a whore” [This is Saul, a bad guy, saying this to Jonathan, a good guy.]
    ~In Philippians 3:8, Paul uses a word that the Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich Lexicon says means, “dung/human excrement,” or as the lexicon says, “to convey the crudity of the Greek … : ‘It’s all crap’.
    ~Genesis 16:12, the ASV says, “wild ass of a man.”
    ~Ezekiel 23:20– whoa.
    Many translators have cleaned up the language as I’ve read. Even reading Song of Songs in plain Hebrew would cause many of us to blush.
    It seems a key issue in profanity is taking someone out of their context. Profanity, for instance, is (Latin=pro fanum) taking something holy out of the temple, like taking God out of the temple and treating him as if He is not sacred. Profanity would be tearing others down, which is dehumanizing to human beings who are made in God’s image. A bad guy like Saul would do that, but a good guy shouldn’t.
    I personally don’t like a lot of swearing in what I read, but not all swearing is the same, is it? To me, there are really bad words (God’s name in vain and f-bombs), and “not as bad” words, like “jackass,” “piss,” and “crap” (even s*it) mentioned above, etc.
    I guess some of the keys for a writer are writing to your audience, not violating one’s conscience, and trying not to damage one’s witness. If I’m remembering correctly, J.K. Rowling would reference cursing in a generic sense by saying, “He swore loudly.” That can be effective in not going too far and aiding in characterization. Random thoughts. Hope they’re worth reading.

    • I should have said, “I can’t help but think of the ones below in the Bible.” (as indicated by hypen bullets)

    • “Not all swearing is the same.” That’s it in a nutshell. Thanks for the look back at a text that contains not just amazing stories but, even in translation, creative language!

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