Modern Dialog in The Saint’s Mistress

Even in some of the positive reviews of The Saint’s Mistress, reviewers question my use of modern-sounding dialog.  I did that deliberately, even though I knew it would be a controversial choice and might set a few readers’ teeth on edge.

I was working on the book during the financial meltdown of 2008-9, and the atmosphere of crisis and impending catastrophe felt to me eerily like what my characters must have experienced as the Roman Empire was slowly collapsing around them.  I began to notice many similarities between our 21st-century culture and the 4th-5th-century world I was writing about.

People living in cities in the wide-ranging Roman Empire in the 4th or 5th century had fast food and disposable containers.  They had theaters and restaurants, and followed their sports as avidly as we do ours:  chariot racing, gladiatorial contests.  The rich had indoor plumbing and central heating.  In a large city like Carthage, my characters would have heard dozens of languages and dialects, and seen people of many races, from all over the Empire and outside it.

Like 21st-century Americans, the people I wrote about were living under the government of the richest, most powerful state the world had ever known. Like us, they lived in a society that was already class-stratified and was becoming more so.  Like our army, theirs was stretched thin, constantly fighting little wars against people they saw as barbarous.  Christianity was riven by the arguments of multiple fanatical sects, each convinced that they had a monopoly on the truth.

Their world was crumbling, just as ours seemed to be in 2008.

In short, they were disconcertingly like us.  They were living lives very much like our modern lives, in the very last decades when that was possible, before the Dark Ages descended.  I wanted to convey that in my book.  I wanted my characters to feel like people you would see at a hockey game or in a restaurant in 21st-century America.

Anyway, even in Latin, my main character in particular would have spoken casually, not in the kind of formal language we often hear in books and movies about her era.  Casual Latin hasn’t survived in written literature to my knowledge, and none of my readers would understand it anyway.  So, it seemed to me that the most powerful way to convey the modern sort of life Leona would have lived and the casual language she would have used, was to have her speak in casual, modern English.  I knew it was a risky decision, and I’ve had one painfully negative review based on my choice of language alone, but I still think it was right.

 

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