“Research is a waste of time – get on with the writing” ?
I spotted the headline on the cover of ‘Writer’s Forum’.
If you are like me, you will have read that line and bristled at the idea that all that precious research you have clocked up, might be classed as a waste of time.
I read the article and of course, Jenny Colgan was not saying that all research is useless, rather, her argument was that we are all in danger of getting bogged down in the research at the expense of the writing at times.
Never has this been more true than this week.
In a bid to bring you a post about the great (or great, great) grandmother of mine who was governess to the first or possibly the last white Raja of Sarawak, I was determined to track down some family history to verify it.
Few things ignite a child’s imagination as much as hearing that your great grandmother was once governess to the children of the Third White Raja of Sarawak.
Just hearing those words conjures up an era of glittering Rajas and turbans and flowing dresses. (I am thinking “The King and I” with Deborah Kerr here).
Such a tantalizing snippet of information is sure to re-awaken interest when that child has cause to remember it in later life as I have done.
Yet, establishing exactly when my great grandmother took up this position proved to be more difficult than first thought. My family, being much depleted, do not remember the entire story though my mother can furnish me with a few facts (she remembers her grandmother receiving letters from the Raja’s children, well into her old age) and my sister tells me she used to have some of those letters but that my father threw them away when clearing the garage out where she had stored them all those years ago.
Do any others exist?
Without any letters, I turned to the family tree and searched for names and dates that might match. I trawled through passenger lists and censuses to pinpoint the whereabouts of the great, great grandmother whom I know to have been born in Jamaica and her daughter, known to have received the letters from the three daughters of the third White Raja. Their story is intriguing and even without hearing about my own relative’s part in it, I am persuaded to delve deeper.
I think that family archives might throw up more information but to date I have uncovered some other gems of totally unconnected literary worth that need following up – where will it all end?
My week has been spent in research as well as in dealing with the ongoing support arrangements for my nephew who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Between writing emails about care teams, support teams, solicitors and trust funds, I have been writing emails about missing relatives, misspelt records and ploughing through criminal registers (well, you never know).
Have I written anything? No.
Have I had ideas for writing something?
What have I done with those ideas?
Why, I have researched them!
So, today, I am putting all research on hold and am writing.
I am reminded of my second daughter when she was just a toddler, who used to spend an inordinate amount of time planning what she was going to do. She would get all her dolls out and arrange them on the floor in a line. She would talk about this as she did it. After a time, she would tell me what she was going to do next, get the teddies out, arrange her tea set on the coffee table, she was going to make some pretend cakes in a minute; she would spend the entire morning planning the things she was going to do once everything was set up.
I would watch it all with a smile, knowing what would come next. Before she had begun to play the game, she would survey everything with a satisfied sigh before curling up on the sofa and falling asleep.
I fear I have reached that stage. One more piece of research and I will just curl up in a chair and sleep, under the false impression that my work is done.
No one can deny that a certain amount of research is necessary when trying to validate facts but sometimes, wouldn’t it be fun just to make it all up? Oh, but hey, that’s what we writers of fiction do anyway isn’t it?
It is doubtful that my relative would have actually dressed in the splendid costumes that Deborah Kerr wore in ‘The King and I’. Indeed, the Third White Raja reigned from 1917 – 1946 and it is his three daughters who appear to have kept up a correspondence with her.
As facts and figures continue to baffle me, perhaps I will throw caution to the wind and write the story inspired by the facts I do know, using artistic license to fill in the gaps.
But hang on a minute – wasn’t Oscar Wilde, along with other actors and literary figures of the time, a regular visitor to the Raja’s London home? Is it not, therefore, conceivable that my ancestor has taken tea with the great man? How did she travel to Sarawak? Was she already in Jamaica or did she travel from Scotland – the place that the family returned to in the late 1980s? Questions demand answers and though I could write this piece and clothe it with imagined facts, I am again drawn to what actually happened.
Goodness, I will just have to research further – I am opening a Pandora’s box to be sure!