Ideas as Setting
By Rebecca D’Harlingue
April 26, 2022

Setting is an integral part of any novel’s story and characters, providing context and depth. Historical period, geographic location, landscape, climate, and societal and cultural context are all considered setting, although each author chooses what will be emphasized. Some writers include lengthy descriptions of the landscape, while others choose to convey an aspect of setting in a sentence or two.

My novel, THE LINES BETWEEN US, has a dual timeline, and mostly takes place in seventeenth-century Spain and Mexico, along with modern-day Missouri. Because a lot of the historical parts of the novel are in diary or letter form, they seldom contain extensive descriptions of place or even everyday customs such as food and clothing. The emphasis is on what people thought. Do their beliefs completely conform to the times, or do they sometimes veer in other directions?

One of my main characters, Juliana, writes in her diary about her understanding of certain plays of the time. Those that she reads are assigned by her father, who then discusses them with her. The reader comes to realize that all of the plays emphasize the importance of honor above all else. This aspect of setting, the contemporary theater and the attitudes it conveys, helps to prepare the modern reader for Juliana’s father’s fanatical reaction when his daughter is violated by his friend.

When characters discuss or even ponder certain religious topics, they sometimes worry about how the Inquisition would react, whether their reflections would be considered heretical. This intimate reminder of the Inquisition, even within their private thoughts, serves to demonstrate its terrifying omnipresence without any description at that point in the novel of what it actually does. Did people have unorthodox notions? The concept that at times people’s ideas might have strayed from the commonly accepted ones seems to me more than reasonable, and much more easily imagined than that no one ever had doubts. People are more than just symbols of their times.

One character’s desire to travel to the New World is thwarted, so he writes in his diary about what he has learned from studying what is available about that far-off place. He wonders about the land, its people, and what effect the Spanish have had on both. While the overarching importance of the colonies for the vast majority of people was undoubtedly profit, the diary causes the reader to ponder what other questions and impressions someone living at that time might have had of Spain’s exploits.

Descriptions of physical places can convey a certain mood, but can also evoke both current conditions and relevant history. When traveling from Madrid to Seville, my character Ana, upon seeing the barren landscape from the window of the coach, calls to mind a discussion about the country’s economic problems. The history of a place is conjured when a church is described, and Ana remembers that it was built on top of a mosque. She wonders about those who had been driven out.

A conversation between Ana and her brother about how she should dress when she serves as hostess at dinners he gives for friends and associates reveals not only the uncomfortable aspects of women’s attire, but also the class distinctions that the brother wishes to preserve. In another scene, Ana’s recollection of the tapados, or face-covering veils, worn by many in her youth, provides a glimpse into the actions of some women, and the monarchy’s inability to control them, as both high-class women and courtesans used the tapados to flirtatiously seduce and to efficiently conceal.

In all of these examples, ideas and beliefs themselves either function as setting, or accompany the appearance of some physical aspect of the time and place. Getting inside the head of a character is the most intimate setting of all.

Rebecca D’Harlingue
Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.

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