You’re an author. You’ve done all this fabulous research, you can see the era clearly in your mind and you’re writing like billy-oh. Here’s a big note of caution. Don’t show off to the readers. They’re here for the romance or adventure, the heart of the story, to be thrilled and saddened and get the satisfying ending they want. They don’t want to be bored or annoyed en route by you giving paragraphs of exposition about why people in the past did something or other. If they’re that interested they’ll go and find out for themselves. You wouldn’t explain why 21st century characters use an ipod, would you?
So, the sort of thing to avoid is:
Clarence had to hurry over the fields to get home to dress for dinner. Meal times were special occasions in a Victorian household and eating started with making sure that you were properly dressed for the event. While you could dress down slightly for meals at home, any outside dining event that took place after six o’clock was automatically a formal occasion. Ladies would have changed several times during the day and were expected to turn out for dinner wearing low-necked gowns, if such was the fashion, with short sleeves and gloves. Married woman opted for satin or silk while the unattached arrived in muslins or chiffon. Men always wore dark broadcloth and ‘fine linen.’
I’m bored with that already and I wrote the wretched thing. If you think your readers won’t get the whole ‘dressing for dinner tradition’, then you could include something about it, but make it light:
Clarence hurried home over the fields. There would barely be time for him to change, but he didn’t dare risk his mother’s wrath by turning up for dinner in his tweeds; he’d never be allowed to forget bringing such disgrace upon her table.
Another thing to avoid is introducing actual historical characters just for the sake of it, especially when their only function is for your hero to say “I met Oscar Wilde in the street yesterday. He didn’t look well.” And thereby establish himself as a Victorian man about town. There’s an award winning series of books, absolutely brilliant, where a couple of times just such a scene is included and it really creates a jarring, contrived note amongst a beautifully believable and realistic text. You can always get your characters to refer to well known people – all of us talk about celebrities or politicians around the dinner table or over the photocopier. Just make it natural and it’s got a chance of working.
“My wife says this country will never come to anything until we’ve got Winston Churchill out of office,” sounds much better than “I see they’ve elected Winston Churchill.”
The other reason you really don’t want too much historical information is that it would put you right off your historical leading man. He wouldn’t have used deodorant or shower gel, chances are he’d have had bad breath and dodgy teeth and what really went on below those lovely tight Edwardian breeches doesn’t perhaps bear thinking about. Can you imagine it?
Lieutenant Addison cradled his lover’s head, gently pulling the nit comb through his locks. “Look at this one, George. I’ve caught an absolute beauty, here…”
So what does the writer do? I’d say just don’t mention it. No gruesome details, but equally no flowery descriptions of how fragrant Lieutenant Addison smells as he steps off the Bellerophon after four months of blockading the French fleet. Maybe a subtle mention of how good he feels when he does get to take a bath ashore will imply the true state of affairs and not put off either his love interest or the reader.
Oh, and avoid making the language too realistically archaic. (Please avoid too many thees and thous and methinks as they’ll put the readers off and sound pretentious.) Subtle sprinklings all the way.