Something many historical writers may not have considered is the sensitive balance between being historically accurate and avoiding the perpetuation of false information which was widely believed at that time. Should you address this in a note in the front or back matter, include a dissenting voice among your characters, or just present the view as-is?
Take the corset, a supportive undergarment which was an important, matter-of-fact part of every woman’s wardrobe for centuries in various forms, but which is now widely seen as a deforming torture device. That definitely wasn’t the view of most women who actually wore corsets!
Believe it or not, only a small minority of women tight-laced, slept in their corsets, or began wearing corsets as small children, and the women who did do that were looked upon as foolish, ridiculous, and odd. These were also wealthy and upper-middle-class women. Working-class and poor women didn’t have time for that nonsense.
It’s also medically impossible for internal organs to be displaced by the wearing of a corset.
However, women who came of age in the twilight of corset history were genuinely glad to be free of them. Late Edwardian corsets were extremely uncomfortable, since they covered the thighs, changed the position of the hips, and made it very difficult to walk. Corset production halted during WWI because the steel was needed more for the war effort, and bras and girdles replaced the corset.
Then the misinformation mill took over, and before long, popular culture had convinced everyone corsets were akin to foot-binding and that almost every single woman had a freakishly tiny waist, crushed ribs and organs, and constant fainting from tight-lacing. They were well within living memory, but corsets were seen as an embarrassing relic of a dinosaur age. In every generation, people love laughing at their “unenlightened, inferior” elders and ancestors
I’m planning a whole series on writing about corsets in historical fiction and debunking persistent myths about them.
Another myth that refuses to die is that our Neanderthal cousins were knuckle-dragging, unintelligent, grunting brutes. Until the last decade or so, this was widely believed on account of misinformation dating all the way back to the discovery of our extinct cousins. In the 19th century, scientists couldn’t conceive of the notion of our species having different branches, and so assumed Neanderthals had to be a cruder, earlier race completely unrelated to us. There were also some individual skeletons which appeared to be deformed, which was taken to mean all Neanderthals looked like that.
Now we know Neanderthals buried their dead, had an early form of religion, cared for sick and injured members of their tribe instead of leaving them to die, understood medicinal herbs, were egalitarian (women participated in face-to-face hunting of dangerous animals just like men), produced artwork on cave walls, cooked their food, made and wore jewelry, played music, wore clothes, made stone tools, used language, and even made boats and sailed to other lands.
We also know now that Neanderthals and early modern humans interbred, and that everyone in our species has a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA.
Memorial to 200 Hungarian victims of a death march, Copyright Haeferl
Then we have the Mengele trope, which very likely arose because Shoah survivors wanted to put a name and face to such evil, and Mengele was one of the few names they knew. Everyone was selected by Mengele, despite multiple other “doctors” working the ramp; he was seen at Auschwitz even before he came there; he was doing 5-6 different things in different places at the same time. This POS was repugnant enough without assigning him supernatural powers!
There are also other Shoah urban legends which even survivors themselves believed, like the claims about lampshades and soap made from people. Scientific investigation has shown 99.999999% of Nazi lampshades were made of leather. There was also never any soap made from humans.
Because of Shoah denial and the horrific rise in antisemitism, it’s extremely important to always be one million percent accurate when writing about the Shoah.
There are so many other examples of historical urban myths and misinformation, like how it was widely believed Titanic sank in one piece instead of splitting into two; Julius Caesar was born by C-section (his mother was still alive when he was an adult, and C-sections were 100% fatal in that era); people in the Middle Ages never bathed; everyone stank before deodorant was invented; people dropped dead at 35 and most girls married at all of 13 until the modern era; millions of people were burnt at the stake as witches; there was a mass panic over The War of the Worlds radio broadcast; surnames were routinely changed by incompetent clerks at Ellis Island (immigrants did that themselves, and the vast majority were Jews who wanted to escape systemic, institutionalized antisemitism); the entire film industry switched to talkies overnight after The Jazz Singer, and no silent actors survived the transition; Vietnam vets were routinely spat on and beaten up after returning home.
Ask yourself why you want to include this myth. Is it important to the storyline or character development? Does a character really need to make a sniping comment about corsets, Neanderthals, or Medieval people? Is that relevant to a scene? Could s/he be corrected by, e.g., a tour guide at a historical museum? And if it truly fits into your story, how can you make it clear this is misinformation?