Writing olde-time dialog

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.


Mr. Lincoln, it’d be, like, totally awesome if you freed all the people of color

Andrew Sullivan links to a couple of interesting pieces about Tony Kushner’s attempt to make the dialog for Lincoln historically accurate. Seems like the least you can do when you’re writing historical dialog. No one is going to do this perfectly, and mistaking “thence” for “thither” (one error that he apparently committed) is at worst a venial sin.  Downton Abbey, on the other hand, has been criticized for using anachronistic words like “shafted”; that sin seems closer to being mortal.

I recently made an attempt to read Cascade, a novel about a small town in 1930s Massachusetts that is threatened with destruction in order to create a reservoir to serve the growing population of Boston.  The author clearly researched the hell out of her subject matter, but unfortunately she had a couple of her characters use “hopefully” as a sentence adverb, as in dialog of this sort: “Hopefully we’ll be able to get tickets for the new Garbo film.”  I suppose this usage may have been around in the 30s, but it sounded distressingly modern to my ears.  Another venial sin, I suppose, but it was annoying.

I had related dialog issues in my parallel-universe novel Portal, which you can currently read a chunk of by following the links up there in the menu.  In it, two kids from our world find themselves in a world much like this one, but which apparently diverged from ours a few hundred years ago.  People speak English, but the idioms and usages are slightly different.  So, for example, the kids keep saying “OK,” and people have no idea what that means.  And then we have this exchange, where a professor they have met tells the kids about his wife and child, who died of smallpox.  One of the kids, perhaps unwisely, mentions that, in his world, smallpox has been cured:

“I’m pretty sure they came up with, you know, a vaccine.”

“No, I don’t know.  What is a ‘vaccine’?” he demanded.

This time Kevin had an explanation.  “It’s like when you give someone a tiny bit of a disease, with a shot or something.  Not enough to make them sick, but it gives them immunity when they come in contact with the disease for real.”

“What do you mean, ‘immunity’?”

“You know, when you don’t get a disease, because your body has built up a resistance to the germs.”

The professor shook his head, still not getting it.  “And what are ‘germs’?” he asked.

Kevin looked at me like, Can you believe this?  “They’re tiny, um, organisms that can make you sick,” he said.  “Different kinds of germs give you different illnesses.  They’re really small–you can only see them with a powerful microscope.  Do you have microscopes in this world?”

Professor Palmer continued to stare at Kevin.  Then I noticed that his dark eyes were filled with tears.  “So many people have died of smallpox,” he said.  “And you tell me they could have been saved?”

“We’ve cured a lot of diseases,” Kevin said.

“What about . . . drikana?”

Kevin looked at me.  I shook my head.  The name was kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place it.  “Never heard of it,” I said.

This kind of language confusion, which is a function of the different histories of the two worlds, is central to what the novel is about.  If I get something wrong, be sure to let me know!