In her novel A Little Lower than the Angels, Virginia Sorensen writes of a fictional family living in Nauvoo, Illinois. The book includes Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Eliza Snow, as well as many other historical figures. And, most importantly, the story revolves around polygamy. While she gets a surprising amout of historical information correct, she also gets an equally surprising amount of information wrong. This could possibly be because she did not have very many sources to help her (the book was published several years before No Man Knows My History), but it could also be because she organized her history in order to fit her story’s construct. This brings up the question, “What is the relationship between history and literature, especially where they seem to overlap in historical novels?”
In the forward to the book, Mary Lithgoe Bradford gives her view of the relationship as as it pertains to Sorensen’s novel.
A writer can never render a living historical character as he or she really was. The writer must make the character fit the purpose of the story itself. Joseph Smith may have been vastly different from Virginia’s conception of him, but as a character in Angels he is authentic. Mercy Baker was a real person, but she was probably not exactly the woman of Virginia’s story. Indeed, in “real life” she was not a polygamous wife at all. (pg. xiv)
Regardless of her historical errors, I feel that Sorensen does a tremendous job in re-creating the feelings that may have been present during this time period. But, is that worth the risk of perpetuating false perceptions of history? We come upon the same question whenever someone bases their historical knowledge on the Steed family from The Work and the Glory. People often seem willing to see literature as fact rather than fiction. David Cowart once stated,
Every culture expresses itself more definitively through its artists than through its historians…Mark Twain and Walt Whitman capture the American spirit better than does Francis Parkman….Artists provide the myths by which any cultural body define itself, the myths that historians mistakenly seek to unravel. Thus history makes its greatest contribution when it supplies the creative artist with raw material. 
He would later caution novelists, however, to not create “a distant mirror of their own fantasy lives…. [to] achieve historical actuality less often than they think.” Another scholar states that when writers create a historical novel, “readers…accept the novelist’s conclusion…as applying to social life outside as well as inside the story.” 
So, what are we to do with this? Do we dismiss authors who do not “achieve historical actuality?” What is the author’s role in regards to historical facts? Are they allowed to, as Bradford stated, “make the character fit the purpose of the story itself?”
Jessie Embry, “Overworked Stereotypes or Historical Images: The Images of Polygamy in the Giant Joshua,” Sunstone vol. 13 no. 2 (April 1990), 42.
David Cowart, History and the Contemporary Novel, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 25-26.
Morroe Berger, Real and Imagined Worlds: The Novel and Social Science, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 161.