Miller: Now, when you go back to history, and I assume you will...
Scharff: I am. I'm writing history right apace.
Miller: Exactly. Are you writing it differently, as a result of your fictional experience?
Scharff: What I've been telling everybody that asks me that question is, "I have more licks." I know more about how to use different kinds of rhetorical devices to produce an effect that I want. I think I'm a better writer, I think I'll be a better writer of history. I think I'll be able to establish more drama. And you know, the work that you do as a historian is very dramatic, you use a lot of dramatic pacing.
I didn't understand how to do that, particularly, until I'd made this experiment with fiction, and now I feel that I'll be able to produce more of the kind of fictive elements that I learned how to use writing stuff that wasn't true, that was made up.
Miller: We both teach, and I'm sure you've had the same experience: a student will come up to you and say, "I want to do a paper but I want to do, let's say, Robert E. Lee, but I want to be Robert E. Lee, I want to write it with Lee's voice, in a particular campaign and things like that." Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but sometimes it's a very liberating experience for the student, because it teaches them something that they don't usually learn, and that is, narrative drive and development of character, and storytelling, and even infuse a little more of a moral dimension into the story.
Have you ever done any work like that with students, in the classroom?
Scharff: I've used those kind of experimental exercises from time to time, just to try to get my students to understand that the people that we read and write about weren't always dead, that people who inhabited the past had the kind of fears and hopes and ambitions and desires that we have, but they were very different because of historical circumstances.
Sometimes I'll read out loud to students letters or things like that, just so they can hear a voice that is so exotic, writing about some similar kinds of emotions. I think that's a powerful teaching tool.
Miller: Do you think that a writer who writes historical fiction has a responsibility to get the history right?
Scharff: I do, I absolutely do, and I work very hard to try to do that. When I use some piece of historical detail, I'm actually terrified that my historian friends will say things like, "No, that was 1878, I'm sorry, you got that wrong, you wrote that was 1877." And I'm constantly kind of checking my facts in that regard. But that doesn't mean that when I want to make up something else, I don't. I just try to make something up that can't be checked against something that really happened.
Miller: Yeah. So the history is the stage set and the characters are your own, and they're prancing around on historically familiar territory, familiar to you -- as a historian, you've created it. And then, all of a sudden, they do, occasionally, the unexpected.
Scharff: Well, they always surprise me, I have to admit that. Even when I'll put somebody in a situation that I thought I understood, eight times out of ten, anyway, they'll do something that I didn't expect them to do, and it'll drive the plot in a direction that I then have to cope with as an author. I feel like they're escaping me.
But at the same time, wanting to get the history right around it sometimes means to me that I might want to put somebody in a situation that is very historically rich, that's wonderfully documented, a place that I've been, a landscape that I know well, and I suddenly realize, in fiction, "Hey, I don't have to put somebody on Zebulon Pike's expedition, I can make up another expedition that's out there at the same time," if I wanted to. Put it a slightly different place, have slightly different things happen, and it opens up a whole realm of possibility. That if I put somebody on the Pike expedition, all of my friends who are fans of exploration history would be saying, "He was not on the Arkansas River at that point."