Tag Archives: saint’s mistress

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.



One of my readers recently questioned me about the religious overtones in my book.  As I indicated in my post about how I handled Christian conversion, this was an aspect of the book that I really struggled with.

I’m a Christian, but I didn’t write the book to evangelize for Christianity.  I wrote it to tell a story that I thought was interesting.

Of course, when you’re writing about Saint Augustine, there is no avoiding the topic of religion!  And one of the things that made me want to tell this story was that it takes place in at an interesting period in Church history, and one that is little-explored in fiction:  that turning point right after Christianity became the state religion, when the early Church was establishing orthodoxy and still battling the last vestiges of paganism, that hinge between the ancient and medieval worlds.

I took Augustine at his word in portraying his spiritual journey.  He well described in the Confessions how he was entranced first by the pagan philosophers, then by Manicheism, then by neo-Platonism, before accepting Christianity.  I portray him as a young man of enthusiasms, a passionate seeker of truth, who is ultimately made the great leader he longed to be only when he attaches himself to something larger than himself.  I’ll put it out there:  my position, as a Christian, is that God made use of him.  But you could also read my portrayal of him as a man who came into his own as he matured and subsumed his ego in a larger cause.  Again, I was not trying to evangelize.  I was trying to portray my character in a way that was true to my understanding of him.

I could take Leona in any direction I wanted, since she left no record of herself.  And, as with Augustine, I tried to write her true to how I imagined her.

Inevitably, though, my Christian bias probably comes through, and I don’t apologize for that.  One of the things I’m interested in doing in my writing is to explore questions of faith.  There are plenty of books that portray Christianity in a cynical light.  And there is plenty of Christian fiction that portrays Christianity completely uncritically:  Jesus fixes everything, The End. I plan a future post on my objections to Christian fiction.  What I try to do is write from the questions, not from either cynical or uncritical answers.

Why I Wrote The Saint’s Mistress part two

Part two of a story wherein a very amateur writer who is already too busy feels compelled to write a novel about Saint Augustine and his mistress…. I had an opening scene in a pear orchard, based on an experience Augustine describes in the Confessions, and I had an irrational passion to tell this ghost-woman’s story.  I borrowed more books from the library, and stayed up late doing internet research.  In our crowded household, there was no quiet place to write, so I got up at 5 a.m., was in Bruegger’s or Au Bon Pain with my laptop the minute they opened, and wrote for an hour in coffee shops before work.  Every day.  For two years. I did eventually tackle the Confessions, and had to read it twice to understand it.  My husband and I travelled to Milan, where Augustine and Leona lived for several years, and to Ostia, where his mother, Saint Monnica, died. Then came a year of editing, rewriting, and harsh-but-loving criticism from my two beloved writing groups.  Whole chapters that led nowhere were slashed.  Hundreds of dead-weight adverbs and adjectives lost their lives.  Confusing names were changed.  Characters disappeared. And that was easy compared to the five years that it took to find an agent or publisher.  Try being a first-time novelist with zero contacts, trying to sell a novel in the middle of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and while the publishing industry is in the process of the biggest transformation since the printing press.  Or, on second thought, don’t try it.  It isn’t fun. But, my complaints are lies in a sense, because I actually loved doing all of the above.  With every day that passed, both Saint Augustine, whom the world knows, and Leona, a mere ghost, felt more and more real to me.  Sometimes I forgot that I was making it all up, and felt like I was telling the story the way I knew, absolutely knew somehow, that it had really happened.  I loved them.  I still do. A trail of books led me to them, and I hope that my own finished book accurately expresses their time, their love and their spirits.