When my imagination first gets captured, when I get that first spark of an idea that there’s a story here I want to tell, it almost always has to do with setting. Characters and plot follow on later.
There’s a lot of things that can fascinate me about a setting. Social class, nationalities, history (particularly its influence on the present), politics and diplomacy, custom and tradition, criminal underworlds. Usually what I find myself wanting to explore is the dichotomy all these factors create between how the rules of how things should be and the realities of how they are, between people’s public virtues and private corruptions. Almost always, my settings are urban.
And one type of setting that I’m particularly fascinated by is the port city. Ports are gateways (porta is the Latin word for gate), the portals that allow for the interaction between a specific country or land and the outside world. They’re crossroads (crossroadses?), the endpoints for routes of communication, commerce, invasion, diplomacy, intrigue, espionage.
But it’s a specific type of port I love. It’s one that is just as alien to the country it serves as it is to its foreign arrivals. Liverpool and London, for instance, have their own unique identities within England, but they are English identities. Ditto the relationship between many of the world’s other historically great ports and their hinterlands—New York, Charleston, San Francisco, Hamburg, Veracruz, Buenos Aires.
But there are other ports that are not—or historically were not—of their lands. Singapore. Istanbul. Alexandria. Shanghai. Often this is because of the mixing of locals and foreigners, whose national identities fuse and overlap and create something divorced from its origins. Shanghai and Hong Kong, by being both Chinese and European, became something neither Chinese nor European. Alexandria, by being both Greek and Egyptian (and later, Roman), became something neither Greek nor Egyptian nor Roman—indeed, the ancient Egyptians never considered Alexandria a part of Egypt, and the Ptolemaic pharaohs bore the title “Pharaoh of Egypt and King of Alexandria”. New Orleans, from its purchase by the United States in 1803 until after the American Civil War, was something that was neither properly French nor properly Spanish nor properly American.
(Related to this would no doubt be my fascination with city-states, especially imperial ones.)
So I like ports where all of those inhabitants who come from elsewhere—as most of the populations of great entrepôts do—can never be truly native; only those who happened to have been born and spent their lives there can, and they, in turn, can never be truly native anywhere else.