For my Research Secrets slot in the February #251 8 Feb 2023 issue of Writers Forum I spoke to Delores Gordon Smith about how she researched her radio play based on the mysterious death of Charles Bravo in 1876.
Delores told me writing a story set in 1876 was a bit of a new venture for her, as all of her novels are murder mysteries set in the 1920’s. Murder, Charles Bravo: A Radio Play, published by Williams & Whiting, is very different.
In the phonetic alphabet ‘Charlie’ stands for the letter C and ‘Bravo’ for the letter B. Which may lead anyone to suppose that a murder mystery with a character called Charles Bravo as the victim must be fiction. It isn’t. The murder – or, perhaps, more accurately – the death of Charles Bravo was one of the most notorious unsolved mysteries of Victorian England.
On Tuesday, the 18th April 1876 Charles Bravo, a young barrister aged thirty, came home to his beautiful and wealthy wife, Florence, who he’d married four months previously. That night he was taken gravely ill and, after three days of agony, died on Friday the 21st. After his death the autopsy revealed that Bravo had taken a dose of between twenty and thirty grains (about half a teaspoon) of the poison, antimony. But who gave him the poison? That’s where the mystery lies.
Like many avid readers – and most authors are avid readers – some of the very first grown-up books Delores read were the Sherlock Holmes stories. She explained Sherlock Holmes’ background is so vividly depicted that, almost without knowing it, any child reading the stories will accumulate a substantial store of knowledge about Victorian England – hansom cabs, steam trains, the gas-lit streets, the huge gaps between rich and poor, the old rural way of life and the smoky industry of the city; all that’s in Conan Doyle, a foreign but familiar landscape.
The Charles Bravo mystery fits right in – it’s a Sherlock Holmes story without Sherlock, populated by an arrogant young barrister, a damsel in acute distress, a mysterious elderly doctor, a foreign companion who evidently has a secret of her own and a kindly, alert lawyer. The mystery has intrigued many writers from Agatha Christie to Julian Fellows.
However, as any writer knows, the finished book or play is the tip of an iceberg of research. That sounds very daunting but it’s easier to get your head round the idea if you break it into the various steps.
First of all, the setting, period or the subject – preferably all three – have to be something that you’re interested in anyway. Victorian England and an unsolved murder mystery? Yes, that box was ticked. I think this initial interest is really important because you’re going to be spending a lot of imaginative time in this world that you’re creating.
Incidentally, it’s where the story’s set that is probably the most important. If you think about the books that you’ve really enjoyed, the chances are it’s the setting, along with the characters, that’ve drawn you into the book. Delores advocates you should try to discover the real facts about the time, place and subject and don’t rely just on what you’ve seen on TV or read in popular novels.
Those have their uses but wherever you’re setting a story try and make it real. This rule applies as much to stories set now as to historical fiction and as much to a story set locally as to some exotic destination. If you’re interested enough in your home town to set a story there, then you’ll include the sort of detail that’ll make it come alive for the reader. How? Well, if you want to set a story in your home town, for instance, you’ve got a huge advantage as you know your town inside out. However, try and see the town or city through a visitor’s eyes. What would strike a visitor as unusual?
She told me the descriptions of Holmes’ London are so realistic many readers think they know the place, but the interesting thing is that Conan Doyle wasn’t a Londoner. He came from Edinburgh and gives his impressions of London as they’d strike a visitor. One little clue is Sherlock Holmes’ address, 221B, Baker Street. That “B” isn’t a London way of numbering apartment, flats or rooms; it belongs to Edinburgh. Then, of course, as your story develops, you’ll be able to add to your initial knowledge by the close-up detail you’ll need to make an individual scene come alive.
Delores discovered the landmark book on the subject is How Charles Bravo Died by Yseult Bridges, published in 1956. Here, she recounts in great detail, the story of the two inquests (the case never came to trial) that were held, as well as giving a plethora of fascinating background detail on the various people involved. This book is one of those great things that occasionally happen to a writer, an absolute gift for anyone interested in the subject.
“I didn’t think the Bravo case could be turned into a novel. With the transcripts of the inquests so faithfully recorded by Yseult Bridges, the story seemed tailor made for a radio play. I wasn’t making up dialogue but using (and, obviously, editing) what was actually said. Okay, so I had to make up some dialogue but I tried to keep that well within the bounds of what the various characters are recorded as thing and feeling.”Delores Gordon-Smith
Her tip to writers wanting to write their own radio play is to not only research the subject matter but to also do the research into the genre.
“A radio play – at the risk of sending obvious, it’s all got to be done in speech. Obviously you can have a character’s voice-over as an intimate chat to the listener – a sort of breaking the fourth wall.”Delores Gordon Smith
She elaborated how Inner thoughts can be given as a voice-over and the sound effects (buzz of conversation from a crowd in court) etc help to set the scene as, unlike a novel, you can’t fall back on straightforward description. Delores said signalling to the listener that we’ve moved onto a new scene can be tricky and recommends a couple of tricks, such as having the narrator say words to the effect of, ‘It was later that day when Mr X came to see me..’ etc.
Other than that – the technical side of remembering it’s all spoken word with no visuals or description – the process is much the same as writing a novel. That’s imagining yourself in the lives of these characters and bringing them to life as best you can.
Discover more about Delores and her books on her website: www.doloresgordon-smith.co.uk.
To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #251 8 Feb 2023 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.
To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.