I get the impression that most novelists start with a plot. They know what their story is about, where it starts and where it’s going. That may or may not be easier than starting with an idea but no plot, but the difficulties are bound to be different. All I know is that starting with an idea but no plot can be panic-making. At some point in the development of the story you realize you have no idea at all where it’s going, or you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and are choking to death.
That could be a description of The New Serfdom. It was just an idea — a question, really. What if conditions in the US allowed the development of individual local pseudo-governments that were a reversion to medieval fiefdoms in which the landholders literally owned the serfs? So we have Nolan Graves who inherited from his father what was originally an ordinary gated community. The father was one of the early landholders, a brutal, power-hungry man who expected his son to continue in his footsteps.
People can contract to join Nolan’s fiefdom or they can take their chances in an every-man-for-himself chaotic world. But if they want the security that Nolan offers, the contract is for life. They live under his rules and do the jobs they’re assigned. Much of the heavy labor on the fiefdom is done by leased convicts, and now, for the first time, Nolan has bought convict laborers, lifers who would have spent their entire lives in prison.
But he isn’t like his father. If anything, he’s an idealist, at a time when idealism can get you killed. It keeps him on a tightrope, balancing between his desire to restore the best of the past, and his responsibilities to a small village of people who no longer know what democracy is. He’s done away with his father’s practices of whipping, hanging, working from dawn to dusk under wretched conditions, and treating both convicts and fiefs as disposable work units. But his word is law, and he holds the power to be judge, jury, and executioner if he so chooses.
All that is still a long way from being a story, but it provides a setting, characters, and the beginnings of motivating forces and relationships. From there . . . That’s where the real work comes in.