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New Serfdom — Start with an Idea and Then . . .

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.

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5 Comments

  1. It may not be a fully-formed story, but it does seem to be a well-formed world. Living in that place for awhile will cause the birth of multiple ideas for story-arcs… I have no doubt. Good start!

  2. Catana, the only novel I’ve ever written without knowing the plot (more or less) is the weird one I’m putting out next year. It was a scary experience, written out of sequence, and with me not knowing from day to day where it was all going or indeed whether it would all come together in the end. Now I’m very happy with it, though the few people who’ve read it have had wildly differing reactions. Apparently, you either love it or hate it. There’s no inbetween. Ah well. Now I am halfway through the sequel and waiting patiently for revelation so I can finish the 1st draft this year.
    Not the way I’d advise anyone starting out to write anything – especially the revelation bit. If I hadn’t had a lot of other things under my belt and published already, I would never have had the courage to proceed this way. You’ll be fine.

    • The only time I tried to write a novel without any idea where it was going, it was a total failure. Ran out after about 5,000 words. Some people work that way all the time, but I doubt I’ll ever try it again. Now, I may start planning a novel without a plot to follow, but it has to develop before I actually start writing. If I don’t have this one worked out by November, I either won’t do NaNoWriMo this year, or I’ll pick up a different one that’s at least mostly worked out.

  3. eleniaturner

     /  September 11, 2012

    I’m always starting without any real plot. I guess they sort of work themselves out as I go along. Granted, I rarely finish anything, but I think that’s a problem to do with me. For this years NaNo, I’m trying to get a head start. I know what I want to happen, and so now I’m fleshing my ideas out. Hopefully it’ll go well for the both of us.

    • It’s good that you’re working on your idea now and giving youself a chance to finish it. I think we all have to learn the best way for ourselves, and failing is a teacher I hate repeating. I think I did two NaNos before I realized that winging it just wasn’t going to work for me. I hope you come out a winner this year.

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