Master of the House takes place entirely in the southern City State known as Seaside.
When I conceptualized the world that this book series takes place in, I knew that each of its five primary settings had to be drastically different in terms of the place and culture. The fundamental issue to deal with for each city is how they managed to survive in a world where outside the security of the great walls, there is nothing other than roaming monsters.
Geography was the first thing to consider. My line of thinking followed that places with natural borders would allow for these cities to grow at an accelerated rate. Keldj sits just below a mountain range. Lux sits on the edge of a seawall. Seaside is well, literally beside the sea. This affords it the opportunity to interact with an unblemished aspect of nature that the other cities do not have. It also sets the tone for the culture of the place.
In my mind’s eye (and hopefully in the book), Seaside is every Jimmy Buffet song about island life, ports, and sailing ships. The particulars of Master of the House deal with a massive slum in Seaside known as “The Valley”, aka The Valley of the Shadow of Death. This is essentially a sea faring Mos Eisley. It’s the cancerous heart of Seaside and it sits on a precarious balance between essential importance and blight.
So completely do the people of Seaside (and even the larger King’s Realm) depend on The Valley that they have been forced to overlook the rampant corruption and vice that are woven into it. This leads to an important question and one of the major plot points of the book. Why IS this area so essential to the larger world? What could be important enough about it that the world would be willing to turn a blind eye to the internal issues?
The answer had to be ubiquitous.
The answer was food…and to a lesser extent travel.
The way I see this world and the difficulties inherent in it, food and clean water have to be the most commonplace concerns. A break in the food supply could potentially wipe out a people. As the amount of usable land in these completely enclosed cities is limited (conceptually), those that are dedicated to this purpose would be elevated to an almost unquestionable level of prestige. The logical follow up to that is, who would be willing to upset the (literal?) apple cart?
Corruption flourishes when there is no reward for challenging it, when the only end result is a penalty for your conviction. This is why The Valley is allowed to flourish as it has. Early in the book when Father William (one of the principal food production agents) finds his territory set ablaze, it later becomes the trigger that sets into motion a series of events where the Central Government is forced to take action. This happens slowly over the course of the book, but the evolution is natural and it’s tied to the way in which Seaside works as a place.
I think my primary weakness as a writer is my complete unwillingness to spend pages and pages describing a setting. I prefer to cast out a framework for a reader to learn of and then fill in the details based upon how the characters interact in that framework. It’s something intentional that I do because as a reader I find that long descriptions and unwieldy details are things that I actively skip over to get back to the characters and plot.
Much of the book as it pertains to The Valley takes place in bars, brothels, and the dockyards. Many of the side stories take place in people’s homes or in places of business. This is largely purposeful as the setting dictates the character interaction. These characters are almost always on a mission or moving from here to there. There is simply very little time for them to spare between pursuing their own interests, that of their gangs, and watching their own backs.
Place is one of those “W” words they remind you about in storytelling. Ultimately all the important choices that are made in a story are the result of people doing things. Those things are almost always in response to other people or conflicts created by people, but place…place is what sets the boundaries. Place is the unchangeable element that people either work with or around. When I find that I am uncertain of a character’s motivation, I come back to the place that they’re in as a means for determining how they will rationally move forward.
One last thing as an aside, consider this…
The people and characters that stay with you in a story are most often the people and characters who transform and change a place (not so unchangeable elements?). When you have the rules established for a setting, examine which characters may be capable of breaking those rules and you will find characters to base a story around.