Writing ‘Last Voyage of the Valentina’ by Santa Montefiore
After writing four family sagas based in South America I needed a change of location, as well as plot structure. Americans weren’t interested in what they considered their back yard – when we Europeans think of Argentina we think of polo, pampa, tango, and Evita, while apparently they think of housemaids and illegal immigrants! So, I needed a change of tack. I studied Italian at university and spent six months in Italy, as well as spending many heavenly holidays in Tuscany during my childhood, so Italy seemed a natural and exciting place to base the next book. I mean, who isn’t inspired by the charm of the Italian countryside and the warmth of the Italian people?
The first thing I do when planning a book is to decide where to set it. This can be difficult because every town and village has its own history, and the locals are very quick to write in and correct me if they think I’ve got something wrong; also, I didn’t have the time to go and find my perfect location because I had small children and was needed at home. So, I invented Incantellaria – a cross between the two words, incanto, which means charm, and Pantelleria, which is an island off Sicily, and placed it on the Amalfi Coast near Sorrento, with a grand and mysterious palazzo high on the cliff, overlooking the sea. I have been inundated with emails asking where to find it as it wasn’t apparent on any map. I think I disappointed many readers when I replied that I had invented it – it really was too good to be true!
Once I’d invented my Italian town I turned my thoughts to England because I wanted the story rooted here. I happened to be having dinner with my aunt, and was looking through her old photograph albums, when I came across photos of her and her housemates standing beside a boat on the Thames. It transpired that she had lived on a house boat in Cheyne Walk in the 1960s, which had been a motor torpedo boat during the Second World War. She had lots of hilarious stories of her adventures with the river police and the comical way they had lived back then. Well, I didn’t need much more inspiration than that. My mind immediately started weaving a plot with a fabulous houseboat on Cheyne Walk that has a dark history during the war, and I went home full of excitement about my new project.
I didn’t have to do a lot of research. I had already read novels based during World War II and seen movies like Tea with Mussolini which gave me a real feel of the time – and, of course, my husband is an historian and he was very happy to help. My American publisher loved it and it was my first novel to be published there. They still haven’t published my first four! Later, when I returned to write another novel based in Italy, rather than invent a new place, I took my readers back to Incantellaria and wrote a sequel, The Italian Matchmaker. I’m sure there’s room for a third!