Five times in my historical novel Sparrow , the character Calidus, a young provincial Roman who is the oldest son of a brothel owner uses the late twentieth century idiom, “Whatever.” On each occasion one of his free employees is telling him something he doesn't particularly want to deal with. Twice he waves his hand dismissively, once he raises his hand to forestall an objection, and on another occasion he sighs as he says it. I'm no expert, but my recollection is that this use of “whatever” first became common in the 1980s, when it was used mainly by lippy kids in sitcoms or exasperated girls in teen comedies. When it first popped out of the mouth of a character in my novel, it stopped me in my tracks for a moment. Did I really want Calidus, an arrogant young slave owner in late fourth century Roman Spain, to come across like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club ? Writing dialogue for characters in historical fiction is always tricky, and the further back in time you go, the trickier it gets. If you're writing a story set in an American or British city during the mid-twentieth century, you have reams of literature and hours of film from which you can steal idioms, catchphrases, and slang, and even if you go further back—to, say, the reign of Henry VIII—you can still do a fair approximation of how people might actually have talked. But if you're writing a fictional narrative set in classical or late antiquity, and you're writing it in English—the market for novels in Latin or Koine Greek having dried up somewhat in recent centuries—you have to resolve the problem of how to, on the one hand, make people sound period appropriate, and, on the other, be psychologically and emotionally understandable to a twenty-first century reader. Both history and historical fiction will inevitably get the past wrong, because there are things that only people who lived it could know. Walking the line between fidelity and accessibility in writing dialogue is just a minor instance of the much larger question […]
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