The dreaded “F-word” in historical fiction – what’s your opinion on it?

complete series

Okay, as you probably all know, I’ve finished off my Forest Lord series* and am now working on a new novel starring a warrior druid rampaging through post-Roman Britain. That will be the first in, I expect, a trilogy but who knows…?


Now, I remember writing my debut novel, Wolf’s Head, and wondering if I should leave in all the swearing. At that time I was particularly enjoying books by guys like Anthony Riches who uses the f-word rather a lot. It didn’t ruin the enjoyment of the story for me – quite the opposite in fact: it made the characters more realistic. I’ve spent a lot of time with groups of hard working class men and, trust me, swearing is very common. And the women often have even filthier mouths on them!

Chock f**king full of sweary words and stuff

Anyway, I messaged Anthony on Facebook and asked his advice (he’s a very approachable guy as well as a great storyteller). He told me to do what I felt was right, not to make a decision on what I thought would sell or what anyone else might want.

“Do what you feel is right. Now f**k off and leave me alone!”


So I left in the swearing, despite the fact my biggest influence was Bernard Cornwell who never uses the “harder” swear words like f**k or, God forbid, the dreaded C-word (I think I used that once in my entire series, to punctuate a particularly harrowing death scene).

Recently though, Amazon accepted a couple of my short tales into their Kindle Singles Program. I am really honoured to be in there (Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil was the first, followed lately by “The Prisoner” and “The Escape”) but I started to wonder if maybe the audience for the Kindle Singles might be put off by the swearing. My Amazon contact thought I was probably right and so we agreed I’d take out the worst of the language. Anyone who read the original draft of “The Escape” which I gave away FREE to my Email List subscribers will see the difference in the version that’s now on sale as a Kindle Single.

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I didn’t really think toning down the language diluted the stories so I’ve stuck with it while writing the final Forest Lord novella, The Abbey of Death (publication date still to be announced).

The thing is, over the years, I’ve had a few 1-star reviews by people who say they liked my stories and characters but were so offended by the swearing that it ruined the whole thing for them. Now, my instinctive, defensive reaction to a review like that is to think, “Well, f**k you mate. Go and read a Hardy Boys story.”

But, is it really adding that much more to my books to have swearing in them? Like I say, Bernard Cornwell is the guy that made me want to write British historical fiction and the worst you’ll read in his books is a “turd” or “shit”. But his books, particularly the early Uhtred ones and the King Arthur trilogy, are fantastic and more than gritty enough.

I’m torn on this and I’d dearly like to hear your opinions on it.

Some people ARE turned off my books when they see the swearing and that’s the last thing I want. I want to reach the widest audience I possibly can and I want as many of them as possible to enjoy what they’re reading.

So – do you think my books would suffer if there were no f-bombs in them? Or would it not make much difference as long as the stories were good?


PLEASE – let me know! Leave a comment at the bottom of the page here or use the CONTACT button at the top or message me on Facebook or Twitter or whatever.

This is hugely important to me so do share your thoughts – you, the readers, are after all who I’m writing for…



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*The Abbey of Death is all finished, just waiting to find out what will be happening with it but it should be published soon. I put a LOT of work into this and early indications suggest it’s been worth it. I hope you all LOVE what I’ve done with Will Scarlet!



36 thoughts on “The dreaded “F-word” in historical fiction – what’s your opinion on it?

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  1. As you said in your post, there are people who will be offended by such strong language, and they might leave negative reviews which reflect that. There are also people who might return the book, if it is still within the return window.

    On the other hand, people who don’t mind stronger language probably won’t notice that it’s not there. You won’t get any complaints from readers saying, “Where are the f*king f-bombs?!?!” LOL. There are words which are strong that don’t inspire such negative reactions (sh*t, for example), and I know that you can introduce rougher sounding language without resorting to the f-bomb, as you point out in the article when you mention Cornwell.

    Writing is creative, but it’s also a business. Why offend a portion of your customers if it’s unnecessary?


  2. I personally don’t mind it. When you have a group of angry roughians who are saying, ‘Oh, I say,’ instead of something natural it ruins it. Realism includes real language. Brenda Jagger wrote excellent novels using all modern language because to her characters, their language WAS modern. I liked that, the move away from twee-ness. I am more offended or would prefer not to read, a graphically violent scene or a vicious rape, or a really poorly written, embarrassing cringey sex scene. I do, however, draw the line at the C word, again, personal preference.

    I certainly wouldn’t say your books are overly filled with swear words, and I suspect that the offended readers may well be seeking a more romantic version of Robin Hood, a Michael Praed version who never said anything worse than Oops a daisy, rather than a real, earthy outlaw.

    I think that you have to write for the audience you want to talk to. Cornwell wants as wide an audience as possible, that is what he writes and the intensity has vanished since he found real success after the bulk of his Sharpe books. Language and sex scenes haven’t harmed George R R Martin’s readership or success.

    Ultimately you can’t please all the people all the time and if you try your writing will suffer. Be true to what you are and what you want to say. And to suit the story you are writing. A ruthless, trained killer who refuses to swear sounds a bit psycho and unhinged rather than heroic.


    1. Ha, yes, I forgot about Martin! I disagree slightly about Cornwell – I think his books are a bit watered down now but not because of the language, just because he’s stringing out the series too much.


  3. I am never offended by the F word. I use it a lot my self. Watch Game of Thrones. The cussing is constant. Fine with me


  4. I would prefer not to have the f**** word if possible so l can recommend to my 14 year old. Obviously he knows swear words but l do not want to encourage foul language. Matthew Riley… The great Australian author utilises swearing and it really became obvious in the audible version. To be truthful…. I did not really notice the language while reading the book. I love Bernard Cornwell as well and the River God series…. Both with minimal swearing (as l remember) and they were great. I don’t always think swearing adds to the story but the forest series were great….. Ultimately it’s a tough decision….. Good luck.


    1. Thanks Chris! I understand what you mean about your kid – I let my daughter have a copy of the Friar Tuck novella (she was 8) but some reviews suggested that was too violent for children so….sometime you just can’t win lol


  5. I don’t find swearing offensive but equally I don’t really think it is necessary and since many folk do find it offensive, I’d say, leave it out. I was brought up on amazing stories – the classics, Ben Hur, Hereward the Wake, Tarzan books, great westerns – so many – all with no swearing. I also read a lot of WW2 stories, science fiction, historical – no swearing, I also agree with the previous comment about giving the books to younger readers – better without the swearing, although they will be hearing it everywhere else, you really don’t want to suggest it is appropriate or acceptable.
    I’d never really considered this but on reflection now I’d say – leave it out – or try to find historical equivalents like ‘by Thor’s hammer’ or ‘God’s blood’ 🙂


  6. I am absolutely okay with it, unless it reaches silly levels where a character is swearing constantly and you start noticing THAT word rather than what is happening in the story! I don’t use it that often in the majority of my own historical novels but did on occasion in my ‘I Richard Plantagenet’ books because I was trying for a slightly more ‘modern’ feel as well as a more jocular tone. No one has complained yet…


  7. I guess it’s a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, if you have rough and tumble characters saying , “Well, darn it!” that would be unrealistic and silly sounding. But if it is overused it begins to sound extraneous and can cheapen the story. Plus there’s the idea that it shrinks an audience to include it: one, for adults who don’t like it so much and two for YA readers whose parents (or others gifting the book, perhaps) don’t want to encourage swearing.

    For the adults who would refrain from buying another of your books after reading even just one F-bomb, I suppose it would depend on how much of an audience or potential audience they constitute. And how many might be persuaded to enjoy a book that maybe toned down the usage but still had it? As for the kiddos, well, yes, I wouldn’t pass the buck by saying, “It’s not like they’ve never heard it” but at the same time don’t want to communicate (via silence on the topic) that it’s ok to go around talking like that. On the other hand, a real story is a marvelous gift, and I’d love to be able to pass that to people who would enjoy it, even young adults. I would probably treat it the same way I try to the movies I’ve let my son watch: communicate openly. Talk about the swearing and explain that it’s in there because it reflects the reality of the world some people live(d) in, but another reality is that ours doesn’t encourage that behavior. I think this helps develop an awareness about the different ways people live. They might not all be acceptable to our sensibilities but knowledge is a type of strength, and especially kids need to develop various ways to navigate through the real world.

    Sorry this got so long!


    1. Very good points and you’re spot on about how much of a potential audience those offended readers might constitute. If I removed the swearing would they then be offended by the violence?!


  8. I had the same problem in my yet unfinished book. One of my characters used the F word a few times but I took them out. My thinking was no one is going to buy a book because one guy says it a few times but I know of a few people who would not buy it because of it. Being a fantasy book I was able to invent a few words instead, which was a lot of fun coming up with them. Have you thought about researching words that are no longer in use?

    Personally I’m not put off by swearing if it suits the character and scene but I don’t like it if an author has just used it to make him look gritty. I wouldn’t buy a book that was covered in unnecessary swearing but would if say it was a street boy who used f**** all time if it made sense.


    1. Cheers Eric. I think it’s perfectly fine to use made-up swear words in a fantasy novel, but I’m wary of using out-of-use words in my books. I think readers would find it disrupted the flow of the dialogue to be hit with archaic dialogue and it might actually annoy them.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. We’ve chatted about this before, Steven, but here’s my tuppence again to hopefully add to the conversation. My first draft of Legionary used the f-word in place of punctuation and it was my wife who said it got in the way of the story. I think that back then I was heavily influenced by Simon Scarrow who uses swearing liberally. Problem was I went I to overdrive with it. I was wary that removing much of the swearing would also remove the pith (not a typo) from the tale, but to my surprise the prose felt stronger without it. Now, I am way more self-confident as a writer and I know when it is right to use a stronger bit of profanity (to ramp up a mood of antagonism or extreme stress or to carry some barrack-humour). The latest legionary has two f-bombs in it (and other moments of extreme filth) and no way would I take them out. They are there because they need to be. If I get a few poor reviews for it then so be it. So I’d agree with Anthony R – do what feels right for you and your story. If that doesn’t suit everyone, then they can get to flip – that is the f-bomb, isn’t it?? 😉


    1. Ha, I find it funny that a few people have mentioned Scarrow’s liberal use of the f-word since I can’t even remember him doing it despite the fact I’ve read most of his books!
      I’ve read a few of yours and enjoyed them immensely so I think you are proof that there’s no great need for much swearing.


      1. You might be right actually re Scarrow – perhaps it was more a perception of ‘constant’ swearing but was perhaps just some swearing where, in the histfic genre at that time, you didn’t normally get that. I think his books bucked the trend in this respect. I certainly appreciated the way they were quite irreverent and blew away the aloofness present in a lot of other hist fic. Kind of like a punk answer to prog rock!

        ETA: Just looked at the Amazon preview of ‘Under the Eagle’, which starts with the line “It’s no good, sir – the bastard’s stuck!” 😀
        Not quite an f-bomb, but a good start 🙂


      2. Good first line, I think that’s the book where they were in Britain and faced the druids? Also, think the TV series Rome started an episode in a similar way?


  10. A great story is the most important thing to me. I don’t mind occasional use of the f-word where appropriate, but I don’t like to see it used so frequently that it overwhelms the story. This is probably a poor example, but have you ever watched a stand-up comic who’s every other word is the f-word? It stops being funny after a few minutes.


  11. I have absolutely zero issue with swearing in historical fiction AS LONG AS IT MATCHES THE TONE OF WHAT IS HAPPENING. When people get offended by it, let them be offended by it. People are offended by the silliest of things these days. Truth of the matter is that swearing was just as normal back in the old days as it is now – they probably didn’t even think of half of the words as swearing! There’s an alleyway in Winchester that used to be called “grope C**t lane”. I was reading a C17 sex manual that used the c**t word in every sentence. If people want to 1 star you for it then that’s their issue, not yours.


    1. Ha, good points – I said earlier that I could remove all the swearing and still get 1-star reviews from the same people because they don’t like the violence. So can I win? Probably not, with those people.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I thought about this when I began writing and decided to consider real life. These words exist and people use them in various situations. Some don’t use them at all or only in dire circumstances. Others cannot speak without using them in every sentence. To be true to life, I believe writers have to embrace this to make characters ‘real’. I do believe in using etymology though, to ensure I’m not using language before it was conceived.

    The ‘F’ word has Norse origin and I will be using it in a later book that’s currently in draft. It’s spelt differently but the meaning is the same and the character seears a lot. For my first book I used alternative words/phrass of Old English origin to convey a sense of honest, everday Saxon swearing (which I had lots of fun with)!

    As for worrying about younger readers, these are adult books for adult audiences so it should be expected there will be adult language and themes. I feel parental discretion should be used as with films rated above PG. Hope that helps!


    1. Ah, etymology – isn’t it amazing to be able to search the internet for the first usage of a word?! And yet you’ll still get reviewers leaving bad scores saying you used the word before its time, doh!
      We just can win with some folk lol


  13. It’s a thorny issue and perhaps an impossible one. My rule is less is more. If there’s too much swearing then the effect is negated – a few choice, choice words make greater impact. I would love, however, to use the words my wife overheard from some guy on the bust. He said ‘I’m going to f..k that f..king f..ker who f…ked my f..king mate.


  14. Interesting dilemma Steve. In my dirst historical novel, soon to be published, I have one of my characters using the f-word. He is the only character that uses it, and it matches his persona. I had thought to delete them or change them for the medieval equivalent, but the force of the word gets lost in translation. I’m sure Anthony Riches is right, do what feels right. On the other hand, if you tone down the language to suit the majority, does that make the story less? The way I see it, is this… if it would be said in a situation in life, then why should it be different in fiction. After all, a soldier wouldn’t say “oh damn I’ve been shot” would he? He swear.
    I’m a believer in you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and I think that the f-word is included in that. If it feels right then leave it in, otherwise find another way to express that nuance.


  15. My personal taste is that the less swearing the better, although historically accurate dialogue can make an exception. If a character speaks like a gansta, they aren’t historically accurate. Certain words do have historical precedent depending on the era you are depicting, but chances are only the very lower and highest classes will make much use of it.

    More importantly, Historical Fiction is a wonderful medium for teaching children about history. Swearing could limit your potential audience and alienate parents.


    1. Well yes, the limited audience thing is my main concern. The fact Cornwell doesn’t have to use it suggests it’s not needed, although I love Anthony Riches books and they’ve got loads of swearing. I would like to make my new book accessible to as wide an audience as possible though (and no more one-star reviews from someone who read one chapter and couldn’t handle the F-word!)


      1. “As wide an audience as possible” would include young people who could learn much of history through fiction, but may have parents who would object to swearing. I don’t use it myself, though Victorian swearing can be rather creative. Dickens didn’t use it, nor did most of the Victorian authors, even when representing lower classes where in reality, it would have been common.


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