I was looking on Alis Hawkins' blog last night http://www.hawkinsbizarre.blogspot.com/ and there is a fascinating discussion on there about what we might want in a historical novel.
When I first submitted my novel to various publishers the responses were divided between those who thought there was not enough period detail and those that thought the book was overwhelmed with it. Fortunately I have now found a publisher who thinks it is just right! I think as a writer we often forget that the reader of a "historical" novel might have picked it up not because they like the look of the story, but because they are an expert in that period and want to read everything about it. Someone once told me a story about someone on a writing course who was busy researching for her Roman novel. A few years down the line he asked her how her novel was progressing, and she confessed that she was still researching - it was the research she loved, not the writing.
The earlier the period, the less stable our view of it. Our view of history is shaped by our own preconceptions. A world view where the Earth was flat was cutting edge in medieval times. Western Christendom conveniently bent Ptolemy's view of the fixed stars and left space for a Heaven and Hell behind them. This view persisted for well over a thousand years and to someone living then - it was real. (or rather constructed by their own imaginations.)
When writing about the 18th century Philippa Gregory says
“Any metaphor about science or medicine or technology, you can’t use – so you have to remember not to say that someone’s look is electric or that his or her touch is magnetic, or talk about the gravity of your feelings.”
So yes, anachronistic language will jump the reader out of the story, but on the other hand the Cadfael novels would have probably sunk without trace if the dialogue was in Chaucer's english.
But for me the story and the history are intrinsically linked - that story could not have happened at any other time.
Or to be more precise, that story could not have been imagined by me in any other imaginary version of that period.
For none of us were there. Even seeming experts who have researched every last utensil and garment. So the expert's mental construction of the period is just different, not necessarily more complete than a more imaginative rendition of the past. But then perhaps my view is not shared by the majority of readers.
Rose Tremain, in her atmospheric book Music and Silence, changed the dates of real events to fit her dramatic purpose, and said “almost anything can be changed, but with the caveat that the work alchemised out of the real history must feel as real as it.”
So that says it for me - I want to “alchemise” history, and give people a real experience, not necessarily a history lesson.
Philippa Gregory, Interview at www.harpercollins.co.uk/Authors/Interview
Rose Tremain www.bbc.co.uk/dna/getwriting/module9p