I’ve read some hilariously dreadful books set in period, including one Texan novel that began with someone paying a London coachman with a ten pence piece (tender introduced in the 1970s). Probably the best answer is to keep it honest, plain and simple, but to throw in a few surprises; we are all much more squeamish about health now – Joanne Harris writes a superbly revolting story in her collection ‘Jigs & Reels’ about what’s going on under the crinolines.The timeline of the past is filled with traps. For example, if you were asked the place these three items in order of invention – 1. fountain pen, 2. tube train, 3. lawnmower, it might surprise you that the order is 3,2,1.
That sort of thing can be checked but dialogue is trickier.If you’re writing about the late 18th century, I’d suggest starting with the English satirist Thomas Love Peacock. His novels are so rambling, vague and peculiar that it’s best to stumble from one page to the next and merely enjoy the juxtaposition of words. Peacock’s tales usually consist of people sitting around tables discussing the intellectual topics of the day. They’re a window to the past, and we feel we are eavesdropping on the kind of drunken, heady conversations English intellectuals have had in pubs for centuries. Obviously, there are no poor people.
In the past, the gap between the classes was almost unbridgeable. Military, Indian and naval slang entered ordinary life. The best way of hearing spoken Victorian English now is to talk to older people in Rajasthan. But you can make up language, too, if it gives you a genuine flavour of what you’re trying to convey.
In the film ‘Plunkett & Macleane’, the titular thieves attend a ball danced to pounding club beats instead of a string quartet, to convey the excitement of the guests – and why not, if you can make it work? Mimesis is a fundamental literary tool, but there are many ways to apply it.