The Birth of the F-Bomb by Jeffrey K. Walker

Jeffrey K. Walker is back today with the promised post on the Birth of the F-Bomb. Intriguing stuff – to be filed under the category ‘Who Knew’.

There’s an irresistible impulse amongst we humans always to overestimate the uniqueness of our own situation. In the USA, for example, we’re currently hyperventilating over the hideous partisanship and coarseness of our political discourse.

I call bollocks.

There’s really nothing worse than what the Jeffersonians and the Adams-Hamilton Federalists meted out to each other 200 years ago. Adams was labeled “a hideous hermaphroditical character” by a journalist hired by Jefferson. Adams responded by throwing said journalist in prison for sedition. The happy aftermath to this story is that the journalist, a Scotsman (not surprisingly) by the name of Callender, later turned on Jefferson and outed ‘The Author of the Declaration’ as ‘The Father of the Children of His Slave’ Sally Hemings. (Who was herself probably the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife. It all got rather complicated in Ol’ Virginny.) 

So I for one believe things could get much worse.

The same sense that Our Time Is Utterly Unique applies to… the F-Bomb. My kids seem to think they invented the word f@ck in all its marvelous polygrammatical guises. I beg to differ, but until recently I’d kinda thought MY generation invented everyday use of the word f#ck. I was woefully mistaken. 

In fact, the first usage of the word f$ck in any kind of sexual sense appears to date to the early 14th century when a man from Chester in England is referred to in a writing as “Roger Fucke-by-the-Navele.” Which says something most hilarious about poor Roger’s sexual prowess, we may safely assume. The first use of the F-word in literature dates to a poem written by a Scotsman (not surprisingly) named William Dunbar: “Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit / Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane.” But since less than .0008% of the world’s population could even come close to understanding this, it’s kind of a “no harm, no foul” usage.

The first book of a fiction trilogy I’m writing came out in May [2017], set during and after the First World War. Doing research for these books, I discovered that the F-Bomb, as in the carpet-bombing usage of the word f$ck in each phrase of every conversation, was probably invented by millions of English-speaking soldiers slogging around the trenches during the First World War. (I stand ready to be disproven by all you U.S. Civil War or Napoleonic War authors out there.)

It seems to have become something of a Word of Universal Usage among the Brits, Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Newfoundlanders, South Africans, and—belatedly—the Yanks. Its use even spilled over to the non-English speaking troops, including the Germans. By the end of the War, it was in the same league as “O.K.” in terms of worldwide currency.

I’ve spent much of the last 18 months in a deep dive into First World War soldier’s letters, memoirs, interviews, songs, cartoons, trench newspapers, poems, and novels. Much of this was consciously cleaned up by the former Tommies or doughboys or diggers for consumption back home in decent society. I then learned to decode the accepted replacement euphemisms or entendres. Some examples, by way of illustration:

  • ‘Sod off/sod/sodding’ equivalent to f^ck off/f&cker/f&cking
  • ‘Bugger/buggered/buggering’ equivalent to f&cker/f#cked/f&cking
  • ‘Blooming’ equivalent to f&cking
  • ‘Blessed’ equivalent to f#cked

You get the idea. And it quickly became obvious to me that in the trenches, about every fifth word seems to have been f^ck, f+cked, or f!cking. Or some combination or derivation thereof.

Here’s a few examples from widely popular soldiers’ songs, which grew ever more profane as the war dragged through its deadly, sausage-grinding 51 months. As a former aviator myself, I particularly like this Royal Flying Corps ditty derived from the children’s rhyme “Cock Robin.” Just the chorus will do:

All the pilots who were there

Said ‘Fuck it, we will chuck it.’

When they heard Cock Robin

Had kicked the fucking bucket.

Here’s one that made it into my book, set to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Just because.

Kaiser Bill is feeling ill,

The Crown Prince, he’s gone barmy.

We don’t give a fuck for old von Kluck,

And all his bleeding army.

What I sensed from all these letters and memoirs that referred, either directly or indirectly, to the incredibly coarse language of the trenches is that the enlisted men and the officers took the regular use of f%ck as simply part of the background noise of the soldiering way of life. Just as they stopped hearing the near-constant thrum of artillery unless it was falling directly on them, profanity didn’t register. The hideous level of violence and the omnipresence of capricious death numbed the men to anything beyond getting by from day to day.

My favorite use of the F-Bomb? Actually, it’s not from the Great War at all. Rather, my F-Bomber Award goes to Al Pacino who, in his eponymous lead role in the 1983 film Scarface, scored the first recorded F-Bomb hat trick by using the word as verb, adjective and object of a proposition in an economical nine words: “Don’t f#ck with me you f@cking piece of f*ck.” <Mike drop>

Many thanks, Jeffrey. This gives me a whole new perspective on the F-Bomb!! As mentioned in the post on Other Voices, Jeff volunteered to share some of his blog posts with all my lovely readers at A Writer of History. For more information on Jeffrey’s novels, you can check Goodreads – where they all have great reviews. You can purchase them from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

None of Us the Same by Jeffrey K. Walker ~~ Fiery Deirdre Brannigan had opinions on everything. She certainly hated the very idea of war in 1914. Childhood pals Jack Oakley and Will Parsons thought it a grand adventure with their friends. But the crushing weight of her guilty conscience pushes Deirdre to leave Ireland and land directly in the fray. Meanwhile the five friends from Newfoundland blithely enlist. After all, the war couldn’t possibly last very long… 

They learn quickly how wrong they are and each is torn apart by the carnage in France. 

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Other Voices – with Jeffrey K. Walker

Friend and fellow author, Jeffrey K. Walker, responded to last week’s Missing In Action with the offer to share a few posts on my blog. Such kindness! I greatly admire Jeff’s novels and his blogging voice – a little cheeky, a little irreverant – is most enjoyable. Plus the topics he tackles are well suited for an audience that loves the reading and writing of historical fiction. So … take it away, Jeffrey!

OTHER VOICES by JEFFREY K. WALKER

I turned over my second book, Truly Are the Free, to the copy editor on Friday. That’s always a Highly Emotional Event, since it’s the moment one’s beautiful, finely crafted, and perfectly constructed literary stroke of genius gets turned into… a product. In the end, a book is something you sell. Like soap or sneakers or Silly String. And let’s be honest, Silly String is way more fun than most books. Other than mine, it goes without saying. 

Because if you’re going to write one novel why not write three, Truly Are the Free is the second volume in my First World War and 1920s Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy. And yet again I ran head-on into a problem that emerged in my first book: how does a middle-aged white guy from fly-over country write how other people talk?

This may not sound like an Earth-Shaking Problem, but it tied me in knots with my first book, None of Us the Same. Two of the main characters and a whole cod-schooner-full of supporting ones were from Newfoundland. Also, half the novel is set there. So far so good—they speak English up there in Canada, eh? Well, sort of. 

Here’s the thing, Newfoundland developed with three historical oddities: 1) it was not part of Canada until 1949, 2) it’s a rather isolated and island-ish sort of place, and 3) most of the people spent four centuries in dispersed outports and coastal islands that you could only get to by boat. 

As a result, with a population of 528,448 (not counting moose), Newfounese sports 20 sub-dialects (if you throw in Labrador, which you have to do to be fair to all dog breeds). So when it came time to actually make these characters speak in my book, I was determined to Do So With Authenticity. Because, you know, I’m an Author and must be True To My Art

Yeah, not so much. Writing authentic dialect meant writing completely inaccessible dialogue to everyone but the .15% of native English speakers who currently inhabit the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

With all my in-depth linguistic research rapidly circling the drain, after the second draft of None of Us the Same I discovered that a) authenticity is really, really hard, and b) what I was really after in my fiction was verisimilitude—roughly translated, getting close enough. This meant creating a fictional space in which readers could lose themselves while I didn’t do anything stupid to jerk them out. So what I needed was the appearance of authenticity. Sort of like making a breakfast cereal bar in Brooklyn appear to be… well, anything other than a Very Silly Brooklyn Thing.

What I ended up with was a judicious sprinkling of idiom that I hope provides a sense of place without confusing people. For example, if someone is very thin, in the USA we might say, “He’s skinny as a rail” but in Newfoundland maybe, “He’s as thin as a rasher in the wind,” the delightful mental image being a strip of bacon flapping in the breeze. I threw in a few flag words, like the ubiquitous “b’y”— today used to refer to men, children, women, dogs, whatever—which was lifted directly from the southeast Irish pronunciation of “boy.”

I thought I had a handle on this tug-of-war between authenticity and accessibility. Early readers of None of Us the Same assured me I’d gotten it about right. Then I started writing Truly Are the Free, which is set in France, Ireland and the USA. While sharing a time period and some characters with Book #1, the story in Book #2 shifts to an African-American regiment from Harlem, some Irish locals, and beaucoup de French people.

The French were my initial problem, since I had to decide how much actual French I could risk having my not-so-actual French people speak. I’ve tried to cut this knot by using just enough French phrases to create that elusive verisimilitude of Frenchness. When I used French, I either selected cognates—words that looked more or less the same in both languages—or I found indirect ways to define the phrase in surrounding text. We’ll see if I got it right soon enough.

The more tangly problem was my African-American characters. Let’s be honest. I’m acutely aware of the highly contentious and often very emotional arguments swirling around writing circles, academia and our broader American society regarding “cultural appropriation.” This debate asks, can anyone not of a particular racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other discrete group write authentically about people from that group? This includes fictional characters. Maybe especially fictional characters. And nothing is closer to the heart of this matter than what form of words you put in a character’s mouth. 

To say I went through waves of panic would be an understatement. Big tsunami waves, followed by deep troughs of self-doubt. The last thing I wanted was my African-American characters to descend into caricatures like Amos &  Andy or some old Hollywood mammy. I actually had nightmares where I was stuck in an Aunt Jemima commercial from my childhood. And be fair, to a 7-year-old me, a talking syrup bottle was a Very Scary Concept. (Or was that Mrs. Butterworth?)

I desperately wanted to do right by my characters. They’re drawn from the experiences of some all-too-real valiant men and intrepid women, even if mine are fictional. On the other hand, my African-American characters span the spectrum from the university-educated son of an affluent doctor to an uneducated soldier from a sharecropper family. They couldn’t speak the same, since that would sound fake and, well, silly.

After a lot of thought and reading and listening to Others Smarter Than Me, I finally landed in my personal comfort zone. I asked myself two things with every African-American character I created or before putting any kind of words in their mouths. 

First, can I describe out loud a legitimate narrative need for this character or piece of dialogue? (This is something you should probably ask about ANY character or dialogue, lest you write a rambling and boring book.) If I truly needed the character, the scene or the dialogue to build a character, convey a necessary sense of time or place, or advance the plot, then I’m good to go on to the next question.

Second, can I treat the character, their backstory, and their behavior with respect and dignity? The starting place here is DO YOUR RESEARCH—that’s the first line of defense against descending into stereotypes and clichés, particularly writing historical fiction. (I recently heard a full-throated exposition on this by way-too-talented Jamaican-American novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn.) There’s no copy-and-paste Googley shortcut to thorough research. And you have to then verify a second time everything that ends up in your manuscript, which will ideally be (according to Papa Hemingway at least) about 10% of what you started with. 

However, this doesn’t mean I didn’t write some broken or malevolent African-American characters—when you read Truly Are the Free, you’ll find some deliciously evil people, black and white. But I strived even with these Bad Guys to treat them with care and diligence, to make them fully-fleshed, warm-blooded, three-dimensional.

And I suppose the final lesson I’ve learned is to approach the whole project with a healthy dose of humility. As a fiction writer, I wield an awesome amount of power, the power of life or death, happiness or tragedy. Since omnipotence is a heady thrill, there’s a constant need to check my hubris, especially when writing cross-culturally. There’s always more to learn, after all.

Hope you’ll give my new book, Truly Are the Free, a read when it comes out 30 November [2017]. And of course you can start right now with None of us the Same.

Many thanks for sharing this post, Jeff. Jeffrey K. Walker will be back soon with another article – this one will be on Birth of the F-Bomb. And by the way, you can read an earlier post by Jeffrey titled The Wages of Violence here.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Dialogue and character with Sarah Taylor

Sarah Taylor has a BA in History and an MSLS and is a writer of historical fiction who recently published her first novel, Beautiful Dreamer, a novel about Steven Foster We met online as people do these days and our conversation led to today’s post. Welcome to A Writer of History, Sarah.

~~~

M.K. Tod’s article, “7 Elements of Historical Fiction” outlines the seven most important aspects of historical fiction. I will focus on two of them, dialogue and character, as they shaped my recent novel, Beautiful Dreamer. Set in nineteenth century Pittsburgh, it follows the life of America’s first professional composer, Stephen Collins Foster. I have previously written historical fiction and historical fantasy about fictional characters.

Many new historical fiction authors create characters who behave like twenty-first century people, no matter the era they lived in, but, as historical novelist Harry Sidebottom said, “The past is another country.” It can be difficult to think as someone in another era thought, especially when they may have had beliefs contrary to the twenty-first century’s. With fictional characters, it’s easy to want to make them likeable—“They should be anti-slavery or pro-suffrage”—forgetting that political correctness as we know it today did not exist until 1970; before then, it meant “according to fixed laws” (late 15th century) or “in a politic manner” (1580s). Especially with real historical figures, they may have thought differently than people do now, and, even if you wonder, “How could they have thought that?”, it is important to represent them fairly and accurately.

For instance, in real life and as portrayed in my novel, Beautiful Dreamer, the Foster family was mostly conservative and pro-Southern, though they lived in the North, while Stephen Foster was pro-Union and anti-slavery. His father was a Jacksonian, and his brother wrote articles during the Civil War like “The Uses of Slave States,” while Stephen dedicated songs to President Lincoln. The family didn’t necessarily write why they believed what they did, which meant reading between the lines and researching reasons why similar people were pro-Southern or pro-slavery. It broadens our perspective to look at both sides of an issue, such as the North and the South, beyond the one side that’s commonly taught or discussed. Though the Civil War is often cast in moral terms, such as the North was “right” and the South was “wrong,” writing and researching different perspectives on the war helped me see all sides of an issue. As a historian and as a writer, I try to portray historical individuals sympathetically, no matter their political views.

Their hundreds of family letters opened a window on how they talked, and I drew quotes from them as they fit into the story. For instance, Stephen later wrote a friend about selling his song “Oh! Susanna” that “Though this song was not successful, yet the two fifty-dollar bills I received for it had the effect of starting me on my present vocation as songwriter.” I included this quote in the scene where he sells “Oh! Susanna” to a publisher and is happy to receive two fifty-dollar bills for it, though the publisher made $10,000 on the song. Historical people spoke and wrote differently in some ways than we do, but, in many ways, people from the nineteenth century spoke and wrote similarly to now and used familiar idioms. What Diana Gabaldon calls the “PBS voiceover effect” often used in Civil War era novels and films may be exaggerated.

If writing fictional characters, reading letters by individuals similar to your characters, whether a nineteenth century aristocrat or an eighteenth-century maid, would help, as would reading plays and novels of the time, such as Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. The Little Book of Lost Words: Collywobbles, Snollygoster, and 86 Other Surprisingly Useful Terms Worth Resurrecting, by Joe Gillard, creator of the website “History Hustle,” compiles historical words that are no longer commonly used (but should be), and the Writer’s Digest Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life series covers historical eras from the Middle Ages to the Wild West, compiling every fact important to constructing a historical era, including a glossary of slang unique to that era. Etymonline.com and dictionaries such as Oxford English Dictionary list the etymology of every word and idiom and when they first appeared.

While accuracy is important to historical dialogue, so is readability. If the dialogue is too historically accurate, a twenty-first century person might not understand it. For instance, I had to edit the quote from Stephen Foster above in the novel for clarity. It’s important to strike a balance between accuracy and understandability. I also fit dialogue from recollections of friends and family who knew Stephen into the story, including the scene where Stephen proposes to his wife, Jane McDowell, after both he and a rival suitor, Dick Cowan, accidentally show up at her house at the same time:

The next time I came [to Jane’s house], Joe [the servant] brought none other than Dick into the parlor. “What’s Dick doing here?” I whispered to Jane, but she just rose with a smile as Dick hung up his military broadcloth cape.

“Good evening, Miss Jane. You’re looking wonderful as always.”

“You flatterer.” She laughed as they sat down.

“Good evening, sir,” Dick told me. I turned my back to them and didn’t answer, picking up a book and flipping pages without knowing the contents. Why was Dick here unless Jane had asked him to come and forgotten I was coming at this time? Jane and Dick went on talking as if nothing were amiss, and I went on flipping pages. If I acknowledged him, that would give him more reason to tease me the next day. At long last, Dick stood up and said, “Good night, Miss Jane” and “Good night, sir” to me. I ignored him. Picking up his cape, Dick left, and Jane rose to see him out.

I stood, shaking; if Jane mixed up the times on purpose, she achieved her desired effect. When Jane returned, I gathered up my nerve to ask her. “And now, Miss Jane, I want your answer. Is it a yes? Or is it a no?”

She blinked, startled, and then recovered with a slight smile. “Yes.”

I wrapped my arms around her waist and kissed her. Yes. She said yes.

Don’t be afraid to let your historical characters, whether fictional or real, espouse views that may now be considered controversial. At one point, they may have been considered mainstream; woman’s suffrage, for instance, used to be a minority view, while most women were indifferent or opposed to it. Use primary sources, such as letters and literature, for historical thought processes and dialogue, as well as dictionaries and etymonline.com to avoid anachronisms. By following the “7 Elements of Historical Fiction” outlined by M.K. Tod’s blog post, you’ll be able to write historical fiction that readers will be immersed in and remember.

Many thanks, Sarah, for adding to the discussion of the seven elements of historical fiction.

Beautiful Dreamer by Sarah Taylor ~~ Quiet and dreamy-eyed, Stephen Foster wants nothing more than to be a musician in a world where boys are supposed to grow up and go into business, like the family hero, his older brother William. Even though he can play the flute perfectly from the age of six, his family’s expectations of a traditional profession drive him to Cincinnati, where he works at his older brother Dunning’s warehouse. While in Cincinnati, he publishes his first great hit at the age of twenty-one, “Oh! Susanna.” With Firth, Pond and Company, the best New York publisher, to sell his songs and E.P. Christy, among the greatest of minstrel performers, to sing them, Stephen is sure he can make songwriting his business. He turns out hits like “Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” songs that Frederick Douglass said “awaken the sympathies for the slave,” as if his life depends on it. With the Civil War approaching and personal tragedies striking, it does.

Beautiful Dreamer is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.