Muriel Jensen Ponders the Language in Women’s Fiction

Hi, Contemporary Romance Café!  I’m happy to have new friends to chat with today.

If you don’t remember me from the last I blogged with you (and why should you?)  I wrote Harlequin American Romances and Superromances from 1983 to 2004, temporarily lost my way, then returned to write for Harlequin Heartwarming in 2012.  I love being back.

I’m never controversial, but I’d like to take a poll on how you feel about the language in women’s fiction these days and why.  I’m just wondering if our publishers are rightly keeping up with the times and the state of our language, or if going to publication with words that have been on the mustn’t-speak list in romance and even most homes is a mistake.

In the Eighties, getting beyond the bedroom door in category romance was something new.  But the language we used was always respectful of the beauty and wonder of making love.

One of my favorite mainstream authors still writes wonderful stories, but has the heroine talking like a longshoreman. (and that may be a disservice to longshoremen.)  Even more surprising to me, I recently read a piece of category fiction that was beautifully done – except for the language in the love scenes.  Crass words for body parts took me completely by surprise and broke the cardinal rule for story-spinning – Never do anything to break the spell you’ve cast over the reader.  If big words the reader has to look up does that, then words the author has to live down really does it big time.

I grew up in New England with parents who were first generation American.  Our home was a pretty gentle environment, so my experience may be unusual – or not.  Even my father never swore except once when he closed his hand in the car door.  At about eight years old, I was both shocked and impressed.

It’s entirely possible I’m just behind the times. We’re so determined to live without limits or restraints of any kind, that it’s just a sign of progress.  But shouldn’t progress be an improvement?  What’s going to become of the language, those who speak it – and those of us who write it – if we don’t use it to treat each other with grace and care?

That’s how I feel, but please, please, tell me if you disagree.  I really want to know.  Maybe we’ll all learn something.


Muriel lives with her husband, Ron, in an old foursquare Victorian looking

Coming January 2015!

down on the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon. They share their home with Cheyenne, a neurotic husky mix, and a tabby horde (there are only two, but they come in screaming, and she imagines them wearing armor and wielding swords as they eat everything in sight and take hostages for evening TV watching). They have three children, eight grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and a collection of the most interesting and generous friends and neighbors. They feel truly blessed!

Muriel has sold more than 70 books and novellas, and has had such a great time it’s almost embarrassing.


Muriel Jensen Ponders the Language in Women’s Fiction — 12 Comments

  1. What a great post, Muriel. I love the advice you impart: never do anything to break the spell you’ve cast on your reader. I’m printing that out for my writing board. So true. :). Can’t wait for your January release!

  2. Thank you for being here today, Muriel! I think the language used in writing a love scene depends on the story and the characters. If it’s a gentle love story, then “frank” language would feel inappropriate and as you say, take the reader out of the story. A grittier novel could probably handle grittier dialogue and description in the love scenes. But no matter what kind of romance, I don’t think the language should ever be vulgar.

    • Hi, Jana! Very well put. Frankly, I don’t read a lot of gritty romance. I’m a seriously cheerful, schmaltzy, lots-of-humor kind of reader. Vulgar perfectly describes the words that put me off. They might have fit well in hard-core men’s fiction (yes, that’s sexist, but I think if women start talking like men, civilization deteriorates) but don’t belong in romance.

  3. I’d agree with Jana. Though, I have been rethinking the use of some words if it will allow the story to appeal to a wider readership without compromising the authenticity of the character.

  4. Hi, Reese. Got to disagree with you, there. If we want to appeal to a wider readership, shouldn’t we do it with words that aren’t ugly? Or, maybe, readers younger than I am (almost everyone is!) don’t notice it, or it doesn’t have the same effect. I’m so glad you posted honestly. This is just what I was looking for. A way to understand why we’re seeing this in women’s fiction.

    • Actually, Muriel, you misunderstood my comment. I am considering dropping a few of the words I have used in the past (f-word, for instance), in order to appeal to a wider audience. However, the dialogue needs to stay true to my character and his/her life experiences. I also believe that there is room for a wide variety of options. Whether a person likes sweet romance, inspirational romance or erotic romance with very straightforward language, there is something available to appeal to them, and I’m appreciative of that.

      • I agree with you, Reese. I remember there being a big discussion on a list a while back because someone didn’t want to come right out and use the f-bomb even though the character absolutely would have talked that way–the writer just wasn’t comfortable using it. Several suggested (rightly, I thought) that she just say the character “swore” or “spat out an epithet” or something up that alley; what surprised me was how many other writers said she should just suck it up and use the word. I’ve always been bothered by that. I think my question in that circumstance should have been–and wasn’t–would readers who really like profanity or crude language be as turned off by a lack of its overt use as those of us who seldom go beyond a “damn it” are turned off by its inclusion?

      • Gosh, Reese. I apologize! I had it all turned around. When I read that who write sweet romance, I thought you were looking to take it up a notch with the kind of language I was talking about. I agree that there’s room for everything, it’s just hard for me to think of erotica as romance. Again, I apologize for misinterpreting what you wrote.

  5. I’m there with you on the language, Muriel. I’m glad it’s “out there” for those who like and feel at home with it, but I’m also glad there are still imprints that have clearly drawn lines. I don’t read the same imprints I used to, and I miss them, but if the language or the degree of heat take me out of the story, I’m not enjoying it anyway.

  6. Right, Liz. Category fiction has always had something for a wide variety of tastes. Just surprised to see it catering to that one. I’d love to know if that kind of language has improved sales, not affected them, or lost some. Thanks for inviting me to visit.

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