The dilemma of dialogue in historical fiction can be summed up in two words: expectations and readability. (Readers don’t care much about accuracy, really; they usually have expectations about time periods, not actual facts.)
When you write the dialogue of medieval characters, especially if you go as far back as the twelfth century, you are directly confronted with these issues. First, readers have expectations about what the characters should “sound like” from this time period. Secondly, while dealing with these expectations, the writer knows if he writes a truly accurate dialogue between characters, the reader will not understand a single word (people in the twelfth century spoke Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, and a mixture of the two. Sorry, not just “thou” and “thee” we’re dealing with here).
Comments I got on dialogue in Forest of Lies were always one of these two:
1. I like your dialogue. It’s fresh and real.
2. Your dialogue seems a bit modern sometimes.
Often, it was the two combined. I met the readability but not the expectations. They wanted it to sound more archaic--their idea of archaic. I’m still trying to make up my mind about how and where to soften Marian’s dialogue and where to leave it alone. I haven’t completely figured out how to work with historical dialogue, but I do have some specific principles that I use.
1. Eliminate words that are obviously from the last 20-30 years (at least in their modern usage). “Cool”, “okay”, “neat”, “guys”...Take out the obvious.
2. Find some words that will add a bit of the archaic to your world. I use “aye” in place of “yes.” If you’re lucky and using a time when people really did speak English more as we know it today, find words that they really used--especially in place of words that we would use (the same goes for characters that speak, say, German or French: a few replacement words).
3. Think more formally. We have this perception (whether true or not) that everything about 19th century and older had a more formal taste to it. If you make your characters more eloquent than the average person, they will probably sound like they’re from an older time period.
4. Read books from the same time period and see how those authors tackle it, what words they use to make it sound older. (This will also give you a good idea of what readers are expecting from a book set in this period.)
5. DON’T SQUASH CHARACTERS WITH PERIOD WORDS. Let them talk. Yes, they’re from a different time period. They’re still people. Especially in the first draft, let the characters shine through. You may need to go through later and take their “groovy”s away, but if you’re worrying about them the first time through, it’s going to hinder their development. Then, even after this, you may decide to let them sound more modern, like I currently have with Marian. If you’re going to lose who they are by changing the way they talk, I’m against changing the way they talk. I don’t know if that’s right, but that’s how I roll--and my readers seem to like it. Be true to the characters, be true to yourself.
It’s a lot about balance. It’ll take a bit to find out where you need to balance on expectations, readability, and reality; I’m still working on it.