Living Between the Lines

Pandora’s Box


“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).

Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner
The King and I

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?

Oh plenty.

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.


Preparation done - and to sleep



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!

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • patricia60

    I am enjoying your story telling about your research and yes it does seem like a Pandora’s Box – fascinating.

    My Aunt was the great collector of family stories and telling – also the closest to being the stand up comedian in a very serious, intense lot. She did not write the stories down and with her passing much has been lost. Several of my cousins and sister are involved in the family tree, but it is rather a dry old bush without the stories and the laughter
    Thank you for sharing

    • Deborah Barker

      Hi Patricia, I will definitely be following through with my research, some of those stories are too intriguing to be missed, even when they don’t directly involve my own family! I think most family trees must hold a treasure chest of ideas if we know where to look.

  • Andrea

    Between Dickens and Wilde and Rajas and governesses, you have a colorful history, Deborah. As you know, I am one for trying to get the stories down. I hope you do, but I very much enjoyed this piece about the preparation. Sometimes it’s much more fun (not to mention more restful) than tearing into the work itself. Thank goodness for naps and tea, which soothe both processes. Lovely photo of the busy little girl.

    • Deborah Barker

      Yes Andrea, naps and tea do provide a welcome respite though I do enjoy the research nearly as much as the writing. You have already published a wealth of fascinating stories and I look forward to reading more. As for the busy little girl, she grew up into a very busy young woman but still says she spends far too much time thinking and planning!

  • Hilary

    Hi Deborah .. what fun – exhausting too .. you’ve had a good old rumble around though via dusty archives and the rest .. and I love your daughter .. if I remember rightly – she’ll have remembered exactly where each doll and teddy were – so woe betide moving them – am I right?! The story continues as she comes out of her reverie …. I feel the same will for you too –

    Enjoy the weekend mulling the family history ..

    But more importantly – I do hope your nephew can get the support he deserves and needs – with many thoughts – Hilary

  • Teresa

    What a cute photo! And what a wonderful colourful family history you are uncovering.
    Great post and very thought provoking as always 🙂 x

    • Deborah Barker

      Hi Teresa, the photo is quite old now of course but one that brings back many memories of those days. I don’t often find Zoe asleep on the sofa any more but she is just as busy LOL! As for the colourful history – it does appear that lots of those stories passed down from generation to generation really are true but several will provide inspiration for fictional tales too. I must say, I am enjoying this particular research.

  • Carole Di Tosti (@mercedeskat45)

    Regarding the process, keep researching and when you tire of it write, and when you tire of writing, research. One informs the other and will produce more writing and more research down different avenues. (I am a researcher and a writer…and I enjoy both.) Another thought, if you let your reader in on the secret, you can hypothesize about what occurred if it is plausible without being a James Frey who made up a whole cloth of lies shamelessly…which inevitably was to his advantage…as he is still writing. Thanks for sharing.

    Joined your blog (networked…) Return the favor and join mine? Have two, you choose, one, if you like. We are Twitter followers and linked in colleagues, I believe. Haven’t seen you in a while. Thanks for tweeting. Anyway, my blogs:

    Thanks for your support.

    • Deborah Barker

      Hi Carole, I do tend to disappear now and then (probably under a pile of research) but you are correct, a natural balance in all things works well. Thank you for joining my blog and of course I will be returning the favour.

  • John Cowton

    I read that article in ‘Writer’s Forum.’ As an aspiring comedy writer, I wouldn’t want my writing to appear to heavily researched, but I want my work at least to be believable. For that reason research is all part of the adventure of writing for me. Maybe 90% of my research is not used, maybe even more, but I really believe that my 90%+ of unused research is not wasted. It helps my writing flow better as I feel having researched, adds depth to my story and will stand up to question.
    For one my my stories which has an ancient egyptian link, I had a wonderful day at the British Museum looking at Ushabti’s (small funerary figurines) which reached out to my soul in a way that Wikipedia could never achieve, not even in a million megabytes.
    Museums are a goldmine for writers. Each artefact is there because it is of interest to some people. Where there is interest, there is a story that is either factual or one you can make up.
    Having said all that, I like the advice from from Carole, “when you tire of it write, and when you tire of writing, research.” I like that. 🙂

    • Deborah Barker

      Hi John, yes, I agree, research is vital to achieve a believable piece even if little of it is actually used. Carole’s advice works for me too. Your day at the British Museum sounds very fruitful and by coincidence, a figurine features in my story of Charles Dickens due to a fact I unearthed in my family history. I know that I’ll be writing when it feels right but meanwhile, the research is sparking ideas at every turn. I just have to be sure to write them down as I go 😉

      • John Cowton

        This was not research, just something I stumbled upon. Recently I happened to notice something on the TV that may interest you Deborah. I didn’t see all of it but my ears pricked up when I heard Charles Dickens name mentioned. It was a food and drink item on how to make a Cherry Cobbler. Apparently Charles Dickens took a liking to this cocktail whilst in the USA and brought the recipe back to England with him.

  • Deb

    You do seem to be on quite an historical kick lately. I’m not sure all this research is a bad thing, though. Just think of all the ideas it’s inspired, and all the fun you’re having.

    In a workshop once, the teacher said you should write first, make notes about places where research is necessary, and than research specifically for those areas later.

    But if you did that, we wouldn’t have had this great post to read. 🙂

    • Deborah Barker

      Hi Deb, I do seem to be on an historical kick of late as you say. This explains the extra research needed. It is far easier to create a fantasy world in many ways but my fascination with what went before knows no bounds! Your workshop teacher was very wise 🙂

  • J.P. Lane (@jpLANEauthor)

    Deborah, must make a point of visiting you more often. Your posts are always so interesting. I read the one about your dream first, then this one and both are reminders of how amazing the global interconnections are. I couldn’t help being intrigued that a great, great grandmother of yours was born in Jamaica. I don’t know if you know, but so was I. I lived a good part of my life in Jamaica. Needless to say, I’m curious to know who your great, great grandmother was. Small world, isn’t it?

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