The Proper Word in a Prickly Time

The Proper Word in a Prickly Time

I am in rewrite on Cyberstorm, the fifth in my Mayfield – Napolitani series. Rewrite is the process of going over a draft manuscript with a fine tooth comb looking for anything that might improve the story other than throwing the whole thing in the trash bin.

These days, people are sensitive about word choice, and there are so many ways to offend any of the many subsets of potential readers. What’s a writer to do?

From the writer’s point of view, the important question is: When should the sensitivity of today’s readers dictate a change in what would be the natural language of a character or situation? The drift seems to be in favor of sensitivity at the expense of literary voice.

The crucial issue is that context—time; place; person’s social class, education, family background; race; physical location; social setting of the scene—may well dictate language that current day would find either odd or offensive. But what if changing the offensive word(s) would weaken the writing?

I run into the problem fairly often. Here are two examples:

In my Cyberstorm, Sheriff’s deputies looking for a car ask an older woman in a somewhat run down neighborhood in south Nashville where her car is. She says, “My nephew took it off to the shop. He said somethin’ about the tranny being all … uh … messed up.”  The offending word is ‘tranny’ which the OED flags as an offensive reference to a transvestite or transgender person. Not just offensive … very offensive. But … very much in context here. Clearly, the woman’s referring to the car’s transmission, and the dialectical use is appropriate for her age and region. In this case, not much is lost by altering or removing the offending element. It’s an incidental exchange with an incidental character. I made the change to “He said somethin’ about the motor being all … uh … messed up.” A little weaker, but not a big loss.

The second one was a little more difficult. In a novel I’m writing with others, my character Louise Napolitani shows up for a job. Weezy presents her ID at a guard station and “(s)hortly, a woman dressed in an upscale business casual blouse, slacks, and low-heeled pumps emerged from the elevator in back of the guard station. Her dark brown hair was shot through with gray, and she had the figure of a person who, as Weezy’s mom would say approvingly, took care of herself.” The offensive word here was “figure.” A critique partner flagged it as demeaning and suggested ‘physique.’ Weezy’s mom would be in her early sixties, brought up in North Boston, aspiring to be socially correct. The suggested substitute sounded odd to put in the mouth of this character, so I kept ‘figure.’

There’s rarely a clear right and wrong with these word issues. Publishers are now often providing sensitivity readers to smooth the potential micro or macro offenses. I hope our current cultural focus on how things are said will moderate to an appreciation of literary voice.

Writing . . . and Writing

Time flies . . . when you’re having fun, and even when you’re just doing stuff.

I’ve been finishing up Mayfield – Napolitani number five, Cyberstorm. Draft’s done, and my critique friends are almost finished chewing on it. Number four, Fatal Cure, has been done for a while, but I’m still picking at it. For me, at least, I like to set a book aside when it’s mostly finished, let it marinate. Fatal cure should be pretty tender by now . . . almost ready for final editing. I’m hoping to release it next Spring.

And just when I start feeling that Mayfield – Napolitani is getting a little stale, a couple of interesting new challenges come along. 

  • A five-way novel:  We of Midwest Mystery Works—five of us who write mysteries and band together to do some of the other work of an independent author—have decided to write a novel together. The twist is that it will include each of our protagonists. The story will be contemporary, which gives me an opportunity to write Weezy as a young woman. I’m careful never to show exact years in the Mayfield – Napolitani series. The technology is all recognizable extension of today’s tech, but we’re clearly in the near future. (The inexactitude prevents embarrassment of me miscalling technology events.) Of course, there is a timeline in my mind, and 2023/4 is a lucky slow spot. Weezy graduated from MIT in June, 2020 with a masters in Mathematics and Operations Research. (She meets Joe Mayfield over a decade later, when the first book of the series, Fatal Score, is set, and the first Cyber War happens after the MidWest Mystery Works story will take place.) She was snapped up by a Silicon Valley software startup whose youthful CEO had dazzled potential investors with what he called his Big Freakin’ Idea (Theranos, anyone?) and was listed in Forbes’ 30 under 30. Weezy pointed out that the BFI wouldn’t work, Weezy’s “dumb idea” went viral on the internet, and Weezy was fired. So in 2023, she’s back in Boston working as a lab assistant at MIT, and I get to discover her as a young woman and write her into the 5-way story.
  • A short story with conditions: Sisters in Crime, the go-to mystery writers association in the Twin Cities, is planning a book of short stories. The first three such collections, Festival of Crime, The Dark Side of the Loon, and Minnesota Not So Nice, were great successes. I’d like to submit a short to the fourth, probably coming-out fall of 2024. The tentative title: Dark and Stormy Nights. (And of course, one of the conditions is that the story’s first line must be “It was a dark and stormy night.”) I’ve never set a story in Minnesota, so I’ve never had a chance to write about canoeing in the Boundary Waters, one of my formative experiences. I’m looking forward to it. Any ideas about how to write a mystery set in the lakes and trails of the Minnesota forest? Let me know . . . I’m still cogitating.