Top Advice on Characters and History at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Early morning on the final day of the festival, I packed in to a crowded theatre for Reading History Through People to see historical authors Tom Keneally and David Hill. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to learn, at the time, (and could hear Keneally’s unmistakable laugh from backstage, bringing a buoyant energy to the room) but I left utterly enlightened and inspired by the forgotten stories of Australia.

“I felt, in a weird way, that I owed the country something," Keneally started by saying. "You start thinking of visions, of undiscovered Australia, or misunderstood Australians." And while he and David divulged the stories of convicts and maids and castaway bushrangers I was enthralled, pulled into the 1800s with the tallest of tales.

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Author Thomas Keneally. Image Credit: Nick Wilson for Sydney Morning Herald.

History through characters

The reason Hill and Keneally were able to engage the audience so well was that they told stories about real people, creating characters in our minds, fictionalising them to a point; but it was real.

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Hill said, “It’s important to have characters to tell the Australian story; through the heroes and villains, and the flawed heroes (and being Australia we have more villains than heroes!)”

They discussed interesting figures, such as Mary Meadows and Mary Bryant, and the harsh conditions that many women faced (sometimes heavily pregnant) when sailing to Botany Bay. “They were not prostitutes”, they both said adamantly.

“They were domestic servants, milliners, who were also petty thieves”, Hill went on, “and their histories were written by high-class white males”.

Keneally writes about female characters from history in his latest book, Australians: Flappers to Vietnam, where he explores what he calls ‘panic’ surrounding women during the early twentieth century. “Women started wearing their dresses above the knee, and their stockings lower, and drinking with men, and drinking whatever men drank. There was a panic then about how to control them, how to stop them from marrying Yanks! There was the same panic later on about The Pill”.




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David Hill... Image Credit: Melanie Russell for The Australian.

Top Australian stories and characters

Listening to Keneally and Hill, for me, was like sitting around a campfire and listening to a few good yarns. They bounced ideas and facts and names off each other. One story included Keneally’s tale about former Prime Minister Sir Edmund Barton (also known as ‘Toby Tosspot’) nearly missing a train to Melbourne on his way to present the case of Australian Federation, because he’d had one bottle of wine too many!

“People always think that Australia was born at Gallipoli, but it wasn’t. It was born much earlier with the men who pushed for the Commonwealth of Australia Act. And you swell with pride when you hear about how they went over there and stood up to the British!” said Keneally.

Another highlight was Hill speaking about escaped convict William Buckley, who lived with aboriginals in the bush for over thirty years, and had forgotten to speak English. He allegedly came out of the bush wearing kangaroo skins, and when a group of white men offered him bread his mind began unravelling his own history.

Why we need to explore our own histories

More than the charm of nostalgia or the horrors of times past, what I learned from Reading History Through People is that it helps to look backwards when writing forward. Gaining inspiration from real life can not only shed light on the ‘undiscovered’ or ‘untold’ but can take our creativity in places we never would have thought of otherwise.

We don’t need to be researchers or library-buffs trawling through dusty files, but we can listen. Take the time to listen to others, especially family members, when they speak about their lives and personal histories. There are stories, novellas, books that have remained unspoken and they’re all around you.

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