For Portsmouth lovers of crime fiction, today marks a special day – the release of not one but two crime novels written by local authors.
City of Devils by Diana Bretherick and Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square by William Sutton, both available to buy from today, were launched at an event at Blackwell’s bookshop in Portsmouth yesterday. With wine, nibbles and the chance to mingle with some fellow creative types, this was right up my street.
As I stepped into the bookshop I noticed a lady with a scarf draped elegantly around her neck, clutching a glass of wine. Introducing myself, I was met with a warm and open smile, and eyes that sparkled with the excitement of the evening. A former barrister, nerves would ordinarily have no place here, but the launch of a precious first novel inevitably stirs up the butterflies.
Diana, a criminology lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, won the 2012 Good Housekeeping Magazine New Novel Prize with City of Devils, a crime thriller set in 19th century Turin.
As Diana signed my newly purchased first edition, I asked her: what prompted a criminologist to start writing fiction?
“I have always enjoyed writing stories and started (but never managed to finish) a few novels too. Having completed my PhD in Criminology I started to look for another challenge and the MA in creative writing seemed exactly the thing to provide it.”
Diana wrote her novel while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. “I loved every minute of it!” she said. “The structure of the course was extremely helpful as was the feedback provided by my tutors and fellow students. It gave me an invaluable support network and without it I would never have finished the book.”
Investing the time and money in a taught course in creative writing is something I’ve often toyed with. It would force me to give my writing the priority it deserves, and needs, if I’m ever going to fulfil my dream of being a published author. However, there is a certain amount of criticism of such courses, including from established writers. For some, there is the notion that good writing cannot be taught. I asked Diana whether she thought of writing as a craft or an art.
She said: “I believe that it is a craft and it can be taught but only up to a point. There are lots of mistakes to be made for a beginner. I have probably made them all at one point or another! But good tuition and feedback can help you to avoid them. So some things can certainly be learned but you have to have a feeling for language and story-telling in the first place otherwise all the teaching in the world won’t make you into a good writer.”
Guests at the book launch were treated to the authors reading their work. This is always a delight, as you hear the words in the tone and colour of their creator, as they were originally spoken. William delighted us all with a song he had written for the occasion, accompanied by both the ukulele and mouth organ, and involving audience participation for the chorus. Both writers then read bits of their work, Diana the opening chapter of the novel and William a short story featuring his novel’s protagonist, Campbell Lawless.
As I said my goodbyes before heading off for an evening with McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, I asked Diana one last question: what advice would you give to anyone with that half-finished novel manuscript gathering dust at the back of a drawer because they’re too busy with their day job (ie me)?
She said: “It won’t write itself so get it out of the drawer and start! You can write 500 words in an hour and if you do that most days then before you know it, you’ll have a first draft.”
Sound advice indeed, and as I made my way home clutching my precious signed copies and looking forward to devouring their every word, I dreamt of that being me one day, accepting praise with grace and a smile, and basking in the warm glow of finally being able to call myself a published author.