A prolific writer of beautifully descriptive novels, Santa Montefiore has sold over six million copies of her books thanks to her love of story-telling. She shared some insights into her creative inspirations at a gala evening at the Hampshire Country & Garden Festival on the banks of the River Test.
When a writing career commences with a bidding war amongst publishers it should come as little surprise that one’s chosen path flourishes. Santa Montefiore first published a novel in 2001 and has just finished her 20th novel, which is due to be published in 2020. Writing a novel a year for the best part of 20 years takes discipline and rigour; traits that Santa has in spades.
Each year she hands the book in in July, so she has a schedule that she must stick to. With complicated plots she finds that putting the pen down for a week or two loses the thread, so her preferred method of writing is to plough on through, although she doesn’t plan a set number of words per day, as some writers do, preferring to set a target number of chapters a week.
In her early days, she used to write alongside her husband, author and historian, Simon Sebag Montefiore but their preferred ideals for inspirational bliss were vastly contrasting. Initially they wrote around the dining table of their first flat. Whilst Santa likes scented candles and big movie sound tracks, her husband, somewhat messier in nature, prefers to blast out David Bowie tunes at full volume. That was until the neighbours complained resulting in him wearing headphones and singing like a strangled cat. This atmospheric contrast survived for five books and they now work in perfect harmony in separate offices.
Despite working to different schedules, and sound tracks, this writing duo have collaborated on a series of children’s books. Inspired by their son who loved rabbits and wanted some to live under Buckingham Palace, they decided to run with the idea and create a story. Once again their writing styles clashed with Simon wanting to detail gruesome deaths of some rabbits while Santa reined in the language, and the political correctness, to make it work for the audience. Although very much a collaboration in terms of the plot, Santa is the driving force as once it’s gone to the editors Simon tends to have lost interest and moves back to his Stalinesque historical books. With four in the series of co-authored books and 20th Century Fox making a movie, there is little doubt that the combination of these two critically acclaimed authors is a successful formula.
Nobody does epic romance like Santa Montefiore.
- Jojo Moyes
Returning to her romance novels, any author will tell you the biggest challenge is where to draw inspiration from, for both the plot and the characters.
Santa reads books and watches classic movies for inspiration, citing Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera as a huge source of creativity, thanks to its wonderfully descriptive language such that “you could smell the orange blossom”. She recently watched Out of Africa having not seen it for some time and returned to her desk fully inspired, claiming it felt rather like putting water on a plant and feeding the soul.
When looking for characters, inevitably you draw on your experiences but you never take someone in their entirety. Everyone you meet goes into this huge cauldron and different traits come together to create her characters. She’s adamant that no one would be able to identify themselves as a character, although she broke this rule once over a history of art teacher at Sherborne School for Girls who was overly descriptive of Michelangelo’s David, who featured in the Butterfly Box in his entirety.
She also once used an ex-boyfriend who had a rather strange, off-putting habit but felt confident he wasn’t going to sue for defamation of character as he wouldn’t have wanted to admit it was he who had this particular habit. But otherwise, you put all the people you meet into the melting pot and habits and traits emerge as your characters.
If you want to write negatively about someone, Santa told the rapt audience in a conspiratorial tone, its fine, as they will never recognise themselves. She once put some strong resemblances to someone fairly close to her family in a novel and received a note from said relative stating how much they had loved the book, with no hint of self-recognition.
She used to get annoyed when she heard other authors suggest their characters took on a life of their own but she has come to realise they really do. And when all else fails and inspiration is lacking thanks to the dreaded writer’s block, there is one sure-fire cure: shopping!
Her instinctive style was never more evident during the writing of her most recent novel, The Temptation of Gracie which is dedicated to her younger sister, who died in 2017 a quarter of the way through. The book deals with loss and when you lose someone you do see the world in a different light. Santa suggests loss changed her. When writing you draw from your experiences and she writes from the heart so finishing the book was cathartic on one level, but it was hard to push on during such a difficult time emotionally. The positive is that she thinks the book is one of her better ones as it’s written with so much emotional integrity; she’s grateful to her sister for that. Unsurprisingly, her mother can tell exactly the point in the book at which her sister died, such is the emotional force within her story-telling.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is a huge source of creativity; you could smell the orange blossom.
With a few movie and TV projects in the works, a new publisher in the US, which will undoubtedly provoke some US book tours, and her goal of producing a book a year, it's likely we will be hearing more from Santa Montefiore. But what of her remaining ambitions? Being cast as an extra to play an old crone in the film version of the Deverill Chronicles, bringing her love of descriptive story-telling to life.
Santa Montefiore was in discussion with TV presenter, producer and editor, Khalid Aziz at the Hampshire Country & Garden Festival, sponsored by JM Finn, in aid of the Hampshire Medical Fund. Her most recent novel, The Secret Hours, was published in July 2019 and the next children’s book, the Royal Rabbits of London is published in September 2019.
About The Hampshire Country & Garden Festival
The Hampshire Country & Garden Festival is dedicated to promoting the fun of the great outdoors and all it has to offer. It is a celebration of the benefits to our health and wellbeing of gardening for all ages, healthy eating, inspiring speakers, learning new creative skills, enjoying music plus a wonderful array of children’s’ activities – in the most welcoming environment, the grounds of beautiful Bere Mill on the River Test. The Festival promotes all that is great about Hampshire, from food and drink suppliers to music, workshops and demonstrations, plant experts and nurseries.
As well as a truly memorable, fun and informative experience all the money raised is going to the Hampshire Medical Fund which supports local hospitals and patients in Winchester, Andover and Basingstoke. The festival raised £55,000 for essential equipment needed by consultants in Winchester and Basingstoke hospitals which will transform the experience of breast surgery for hundreds of women in Hampshire.