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\u2019t sure what I was expecting to learn, at the time, (and could hear Keneally\u2019s unmistakable laugh from backstage, bringing a buoyant energy to the room) but I left utterly enlightened and inspired by the forgotten stories of Australia.\r\n\r\n\u201cI 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.\r\n\r\nAuthor Thomas Keneally. Image Credit: Nick Wilson for Sydney Morning Herald.\r\nHistory through characters\r\nThe 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.\r\nHill said, \u201cIt\u2019s 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!)\u201d\r\nThey 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. \u201cThey were not prostitutes\u201d, they both said adamantly.\r\n\u201cThey were domestic servants, milliners, who were also petty thieves\u201d, Hill went on, \u201cand their histories were written by high-class white males\u201d.\r\nKeneally writes about female characters from history in his latest book, Australians: Flappers to Vietnam, where he explores what he calls \u2018panic\u2019 surrounding women during the early twentieth century. \u201cWomen 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\u201d.\r\n\r\nDavid Hill... Image Credit: Melanie Russell for The Australian.\r\nTop Australian stories and characters\r\nListening 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\u2019s tale about former Prime Minister Sir Edmund Barton (also known as \u2018Toby Tosspot\u2019) nearly missing a train to Melbourne on his way to present the case of Australian Federation, because he\u2019d had one bottle of wine too many!\r\n\u201cPeople always think that Australia was born at Gallipoli, but it wasn\u2019t. 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!\u201d said Keneally.\r\nAnother 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.\r\nWhy we need to explore our own histories\r\nMore 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 \u2018undiscovered\u2019 or \u2018untold\u2019 but can take our creativity in places we never would have thought of otherwise.\r\n\r\nWe don\u2019t 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\u2019re all around you.\r\n***\r\nStay tuned for more Sydney Writers\u2019 Festival coverage from Writer\u2019s Edit.\r\nIn the meantime you can check out our Sydney Writers\u2019 Festival Profile as well as the\u00a05 Events You Can\u2019t Miss.