I’m at Portsmouth’s central library to meet a group of authors ahead of this year’s BookFest.
Some write crime thrillers, other travel journals or personal memoirs. A small cross-section of the literary world represented in the thousands of volumes around us.
It’s a happy group, sharing ideas and updating each other on their latest projects, united by a love of getting lost in a good book.
‘People still enjoy a good story,’ says Clare Forsyth, who is the BookFest organiser for the Portsmouth Library Service.
‘Over the past couple of decades we’ve seen a real popularity in reading fiction.
‘You only have to look at the bestseller list to see how well crime fiction is doing – and thrillers and romance are doing just as well.’
Clare says that although many people were choosing to read on e-readers such as the Kindle, she doesn’t expect printed books will go out of fashion any time soon.
‘A lot of people still seem to enjoy the feel of a book in their hands,’ she says.
BookFest, which runs from February 14 to March 5, started in 2010 as a celebration of reading and a way to connect authors with their audiences.
There will be a full programme of events including author talks, poetry readings and activities for adults as well as children.
A lot of people still seem to enjoy the feel of a book in their handsClare Forsyth
Clare says: ‘The aim was to encourage people who might not ordinarily attend book events to come along.
‘We usually hold it in autumn, but there’s so much going on at that time of year we decided to have this one earlier in the year. We wanted to be a very accessible festival right from the very beginning.’
Crime is lecturer’s favourite genre
Writing crime fiction might seem to come a bit more naturally to Diane Bretherick than to other authors.
The 53-year-old from Southsea teaches criminology at the University of Portsmouth.
It was one of her students who sparked an idea for her two novels, City of Devils and The Devil’s Daughters.
Diane says: ‘One of the figures I teach about is a man called Cesare Lombroso, who was the world’s first criminologist.
‘He lived in Turin in Italy in the 19th century, and he had some interesting ideas about criminals being born rather than made.
‘The thought was that you could tell a criminal by their physical characteristic, so, for example, big ears might be able to tell you if somebody was a murderer.
‘One of my students asked me if he investigated crimes. I don’t think he did in real life but I thought it was a good idea, and so I used that to develop the novels.’
Diane says crime fiction was so popular because it ‘taps into human emotions like nothing else.’
She says: ‘There are so many different ways of approaching it. A crime fiction story can be historical, it could be a who-done-it, it could be police procedural. ‘
Diane broke into writing after winning a first novel competition in Good Housekeeping magazine in 2012, which gave her the help of a literary agent and led to her books being published by Orion.
In BookFest, she will take part in CSI Portsmouth as well as a Valentine’s Day Massacre event where she will read a short story.
Sports writer was inspired to write a book about Pompey
Writing a book on some of the legends of Portsmouth Football Club was a natural progression for Neil Allen.
As The News’s chief sports writer, 41-year-old Neil has got to know many Pompey greats well. His first book, Played Up Pompey, brings together 24 in-depth interviews with photos of the players now and at the height of their success.
Neil says it took him about four months to write the book, which was inspired by a similar volume by sports reporter Alex Crook.
He says: ‘Alex did one about Southampton and he suggested I should do one for Pompey, so I thought “why not?”
‘It’s always really enjoyable to reminisce with some of the players about old times.’
Neil says the book became Portsmouth Waterstones’ best-seller in the lead-up to Christmas last year.
Neil will present a talk about writing Played Up Pompey during BookFest.
Eleanor called upon experience as a nun
Author Eleanor Stewart used her own experiences as a nun, a midwife, nurse and mother as the basis for her two books.
Eleanor, 73, from Farlington, tells her story in Kicking The Habit: From Convent to Casualty in 1960s Liverpool and New Habits: From Sisterhood to Motherhood.
She says of her early days: ‘I was a nun, in my mad youth, from 18 to 26.
‘I was also in nursing. I did my training as a nun in France and I came back to Liverpool, where my convent was, and I trained as a nurse and as a midwife there.’
Eleanor said her first book took more than five years to write, as she was looking after her mother and mother-in-law at the same time. The second book took only about 18 months to write, but Eleanor says discipline is still one of her biggest challenges.
She says: ‘Although I love writing I’m easily distracted and I’m sure my editors would back me up there.
‘I work for an hour-and-a-half and go out and have to do something, then come back do a bit more.’
Eleanor says the feeling of producing a finished book is an ‘amazing experience’.
She says: ‘It’s a wonderful thing to feel that you can do, and it’s wonderful to think that people are reading your stuff.’
Trio found a shared love of writing
A shared love of writing has blossomed into a fruitful partnership for authors Carol Westron, Wendy Metcalfe and Christine Hammacott.
Carol, 65, from Denmead, says: ‘We’d all been writing for a long time, submitting and getting nearly there with agents. Then at a new year’s party I said to some friends “I’m going to self-publish, who’s with me?”’
With Wendy, 62, from Havant and Christine, 49, from Swanwick, they formed Pentangle Press to support each other’s work.
Carol says: ‘During BookFest we’re going to give a self-publishing workshop to encourage people and let them know they don’t have to be afraid of anything.’
Wendy said: ‘I’ve been writing since my 20s. I think I started after reading something and thinking ‘‘I can do better than that’’.’
All three authors write crime fiction.
Christine says: ‘I’m interested in the effects of crime and being a victim. My book is a why-done it, as much as a who-done it.’
The three authors will host a shared workshop about self-publishing during BookFest.
‘There’s so much going on to inspire authors’
Among the best-known fictional detectives on the south-east Hampshire beat is Detective Inspector Andy Horton.
The super sleuth solves crimes, many with a maritime theme, everywhere from Hayling Island to the Historic Dockyard and features in over a dozen books.
He’s the creation of Hayling-based author Pauline Rowson, who also started the CSI Portsmouth event, which has gone on to become an integral part of BookFest.
Pauline says: ‘I give a lot of talks and readers are always fascinated by where you get your ideas from and how crime fiction ties in with crime fact, so I wanted to bring those two strands together.
‘At our first event in 2010 we had crime authors, police and forensics experts and it went really well. We’ve had guest speakers such as toxicology experts and a top forensic scientist who’s an expert in blood patterns. It’s not every day that people get access to what police do in a crime scene investigation and what top forensic experts do.’
Pauline says she draws ideas for her novels from the locations of the south coast.
She says: ‘It’s a fantastic area because there’s so much going on - there are lots of harbours, boatyards, marinas and so on.
‘It’s a great inspiration for me.’
Pauline says she is a fan of the ‘golden age of crime fiction’ from the 1930s to the 1960s.
She will again be taking part in CSI Portsmouth this year.
Portsmouth BookFest 2016
When: February 14 to March 5
Where: Portsmouth Central Library and other locations across the city
Cost: Some events have a cover charge and others are free, visit portsmouthbookfest.co.uk
-The Valentine’s’ Day Massacre with Portsmouth Writers’ Hub. Stories and songs at Wave Maiden in Osborne Road, Southsea on February 14 from 6pm.
-Travel Writing: Thrills, Spills, Risks and Rewards. At the University of Portsmouth’s Eldon Building on February 15 from 6pm.
-Gruffalo tea party, with story readings for children, to take place at libraries acorss Portsmuth, visit portsmouthbookfest.co.uk for details.
-Alan Scouse reads Digger Mole for children aged two to six at Southsea Library, from 2pm on February 18.
-Closure - readings from a collection of short stories, to take place at Portsmouth Central Library on February 20 from 7pm.
-Played Up Pompey with Neil Allen. The News’s chief sports writer talks about his book at Carnegie Library, Fratton on February 21 from 2pm.
-This Island City: Portsmouth in poetry will be at the Square Tower in Old Portsmouth on February 21 from 7pm.
-Portsmouth: The Home of Great Writing: a public lecture with Matt Wingett will be at the city’s central library on February 22 from 7pm.
-New Habits, a talk with author Eleanor Stewart, will be at the central library on February 24 from 7pm.
-The Portsmouth Writers’ Hub presents an evening with Adele Parks themed: ‘Hobby, vocation or career? Your life as a writer’, at the central library on February 25 from 6.30pm.
-A talk on self-publishing with members of the group Pentangle Press will be held at the central library on February 27 from 11am.
-An afternoon tea with author Lottie Moggach will take place at the central library on February 27 from 2pm.
-Words That Move, a performance of dancing to poetry, will take place at the central library on March 1 from 3.30pm.
-The book Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light by Matt Wingett will be launched at Portsmouth City Museum on March 1 from 7pm.
-Viv Albertine will talk about her new book called Clothes, Music, Boys at Pie and Vinyl in Southsea on March 1 from 7pm.
-The Importance of Reading with John Attrill will be on at the central library on March 3 from 2pm.
-Elizabeth Caush will present The Blanket Book at the Beddow Library from 7pm on March 3.
-A history of Gunwharf Quays with Michael Underwood will be on at the central library on March 3 from 7pm.
-Rudyard Kipling – Child of The Wild will be on at Southsea Library on March 4 from 7pm.
-CSI Portsmouth will be on at the Pyramids Centre, Southsea on March 5 from 10am to 4pm.
-There will be a performance poetry event at Southsea Coffee Co featuring Portsmouth’s poet laureate Sam Cox on March 5 from 5pm.
-There is free admission to the Dickens Birthplace Museum on March 5 to celebrate BookFest.
-Authors will be at Southsea Library to meet readers from midday to 3pm: February 19 - Gabby Aquilina; February 23 - Dr Asim Dasgupta; February 26 - Dawn Nelson; February 26 - Jane Cable; March 5 - Lynne Stretch.