My brother passed along this article from the New York Times about writing dialog in a historical novel. The writer puts her finger on the central issue:
The problem for a writer who has seized upon a story set in the past is how to create a narrative voice that conjures the atmosphere of its historical times, without alienating contemporary readers. It’s a complicated sort of ventriloquism.
In other words, you want to be true to your characters and your time, but you also need to be comprehensible. She goes on:
The best writers — from Charles Frazier in “Cold Mountain” to Junot Diaz in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” — deploy foreign or arcane words sparingly, to give a realistic flavor of an era or a culture, but they also channel the atmosphere of time and place through the rhythms of speech.
Anyway, I’m facing a version of this problem in my sequel to The Portal. We’re in an alternative universe where people speak Latin. Some of the characters know English, but it’s not necessarily our English. And some dialog takes place in Latin but is translated into English. So how does one handle all this?
I’m pretty much doing what the author suggests. I sprinkle in enough Latin words and phrases so that the reader doesn’t lose sight of the exotic locale. A school is referred to as a schola, for example; a village is a castellum. And I use a slightly formal, slightly non-standard rhythm to the English dialog, avoiding all modernisms. I think this will probably work. We’ll see.