Reading Tarot Spreads to Help With Your Writing

This is the second part in a series on the tarot. If you’re new to it, please start with part one for an introduction to the cards, how they work and what they mean, then come back to learn how to use them in your writing.

Before you read, you might like to find a quiet place where you can be alone with your thoughts and really think about what each card is trying tell you. Have a notebook and pen, or your computer handy so you can jot down ideas as they come to you. Some people choose to lay out a special cloth (usually a solid color) on which to place the cards because it helps focus the mind. If you are religious, you might want to ask your guardian angel or the muses or whatever god(s) you believe in to guide your reading, but that is totally optional.

To begin, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Think about your question. If you are using your reading to build out your plot from the beginning, you might ask a question like “What is the framework of this book?” or “Show me how this plot should progress.” If you’re trying the work through a block, think about it as specifically as you can, something like “what happens to X character next?” or “How does X get out of [name the jam you put them in].” If you are building a character you could start with “Show me X’s progression throughout the book.” Keep repeating your question in your mind over and over as you shuffle the deck. You’ll know when to stop. Sometimes you will feel a card get hot or cold or your fingers will tingle. Other times, you just know to stop. Sometimes nothing at all happens and you just get tired of shuffling. Trust your instincts; there are no wrong answer. Once you feel ready, draw your first card from the top of the deck.

Because of their unique symbolism, you can always do readings using only the major or minor arcana cards if you want to. But I have found that using both major and minor arcana (which is the standard practice) gives you a more complete picture. There are three basic types of spreads, which I’ll explain from the easiest to the most complex.

One Card Spreads

This involves drawing a single card and is the fastest and easiest, It allows you to be very focused in your question and answer, but it also provides you with the least amount of information because you don’t have the influence of surrounding cards. But if you are in a hurry or just need a prompt to get you going, one is all you need. Potential uses:

Getting to know your characters – Draw a card for each major character in your plot. This will tell you a lot about them, since we each have a card that best symbolizes who we are. (Mine is Strength.) This is best determined over time through multiple readings when the same card keeps showing up over and over again, but can also be done with a single reading.

I recently did this for a book I was plotting. It is biographical historical fiction set in WWII Poland and the card I drew was the Knight of Wands . This card symbolizes someone clever, with a strong sense of humor who is good with words and has sound instincts and a gift for seeing things others may have missed. This describes my heroine (who was a real person) to a tee. Because of this card, I learned what key aspects of her personality to focus on when writing.

Get to know the overall “vibe” of your book. A single card can also tell you about the theme(s) of your book. As I was writing this article, I pulled a card for my latest project, another biographical historical, this one set the colonial United States. My card was The Five of Wands I was immediately struck by the image, which shows five people fighting with staves, because while my book written in a single first-person POV, there are multiple competing timelines and storylines to keep straight, so much so that I needed to make a chart.

The meaning of the card is competition and being obsessed with material things or as the book that came with the deck puts it “keeping up with the Joneses.” That is certainly relevant because there are many men competing for the affection of my heroine. She also a very well-to-do woman who was known historically for her lavish parties and spending that, combined with her husband’s gambling, eventually drove them deep into debt. The card can also mean a clash of ideas and principles and hurting others by giving mixed messages. My main character is in love with her sisters’ husband and both are tempted to have an affair. Much of their relationship takes place via letter and because of both, they often wonder what the other really feels.

(While I was writing this, I accidently knocked the next card off the top of the deck. It was The Lovers which is what I was expecting the main card for the book to be because it is essentially a story of forbidden love. Always pay attention when cards fall out of the deck as you shuffle or otherwise make themselves known—it happens for a reason.

Find the answer to a plot problem or writer’s block. All you have to do here is ask what the problem is. Pay close attention to what the card symbolizes. It may tell you where you’ve gone wrong in plotting in another part of the book, directly answer your question, or even tell you about something in yourself that is causing the block (such as being overworked and needing to take a break).

Three Card Spreads

There are many variations on three-card spreads, but the most common is past-present-future, which can be used for both plots and characters.

  • If you write to a three-act structure, you could use this spread to learn about the themes of each act.
  • You could take each of your major characters and do a past-present-future spread to learn about their backstory, where they are when the book begins, and how they change as the novel progresses.
  • For character arcs, think about one card as being where the character is now, the second as where they want to be, and the third how to get there.
  • If you are experiencing a writing problem, you can have one card symbolize the nature of the problem, one the cause, and one the solution. Similarly, you can have the cards stand for what the character wants/what will help them, what is standing in their way, and how to overcome it.
  • We’ve all heard about MRUs (motivation reaction units), right? One card can be your character’s thought/feeling, one their reaction, and the third, what he or she is going to say or do in response.
  • If you are mulling over the relationship between characters you could have one card stand for each character and the third for their relationship. Or you could use one for what brought them together, one for what pulls them apart, and the third for the resolution. (This one is particularly good for romance novels and romantic plotlines.)

You could seriously go on forever with these. There’s a long list of three-card spreads online here.

The Celtic Cross Spread

This is the classic tarot spread, the one you’ve seen in every TV show and movie with a fortune teller and the one you will see if you go visit one in real life. This is because it is the most comprehensive. I’m going to explain it first, and then show you a few ways to use it.

The Celtic Cross spread involves 10 or 11 cards. Some people choose to designate one card that is set off to the side to symbolize the question or the person asking the question. If you choose to do this, you will draw that card first after you have finished shuffling the deck. Then draw the cards from the top of the deck and lay them out according to the pattern above.

Once you’ve done that. Take a look at the overall spread. Is your gut telling you anything? Does the spread feel inherently happy or sad, positive or negative? Does anything immediately jump out at you? It can take some time to develop the ability to get the “feel” for a spread, so don’t worry if you don’t come up with anything right away.

Next, take a look at each card individually. Write down your impressions of each one. I did a reading for my colonial American book while writing this using the question “show me what I need to know about X book” and I’ll give you my cards as well as an example.

My overall impression is that this is a positive reading with five major arcana cards (which is a lot) and no dominant suit (two swords and two pentacles, which neutralize each other’s negative and positive elements). It’s going to be an interesting reading.

  1. Relationship to the Present Situation. Queen of Swords – An impressive, trailblazing woman of courage and intelligence who will not be held down by convention. This is my main character very clearly summed up.
  2. Positive Forces in Your Favor. The Chariot – Triumph, balance, holding opposing views in equal tension. Enjoying life. This describes my character’s approach to life pretty well, though she’s more known for extravagance than balance.
  3. Message from Your Higher Self – Queen of Pentacles – Female strength and success in business and with money. A caring woman concerned with the lives of those around her. Again, you have to trust me that this fits my character very well.
  4. Subconscious/Underlying Themes/Emotional – The Priestess – Inspiration and advice from a woman who is wise and mature. Can also represent isolation. That last part is interesting to me because my heroine spends most of the book in another country than the rest of her family. Her best friend could easily be represented by the priestess and would provide calm to her boundless energy.
  5. The Past – The Fool – Setting off on a journey unaware of an uncaring of the consequences; innocence and foolishness. My character married very young and regrets it almost immediately when her husband turns out not to be who she though he was (quite literally) and she falls in love with someone else, but can’t have him because she is already married.
  6. Relationship with Others – The Two of Cups – The minor arcana card most like The Lovers. Represents relationships, attraction, engagement/marriage and emotional bonds. Perfect for describing the forbidden love she experiences for most of her life.
  7. Psychological States/Forces That Can Affect the Outcome – The Six of Swords. Ugh, the swords. Movement, alignment of heart and mind, a declaration of love, focus and follow-through with unpredictable results. Funny that this one depicts a journey across water because my character travels back and forth between America and Europe a lot. Again, I see shades of the forbidden romance in this card, especially since it comes right between the Two of Cups and The Sun
  8. Environment/Unseen Forces – The Sun – Triumph, bounty, enjoying life. It is interesting that the book that comes with this deck mentions “summer love” in connection to this card. If my two historical people ever actually consummated their affair, it would have been a particular summer while his wife was away.
  9. Hopes and Fears – The Magician – A man of creativity, power and strong voice who is eloquent and charming. This could be my hero and describe what my heroine sees in him. This card can also mean someone who is manipulative and at times untrue, which applies to her fears about him just being a flirt and not really loving her since she is already married. (Which is something historians haven’t even figured out.)
  10. Outcome – The King of Pentacles – A proud, self-assured young man of status and wealth, a supportive husband who recognizes the value of culture. This card could represent either her husband or her lover. Her husband is proud and wealthy, but he is not exactly supportive, while her lover is. I see this as the outcome she wants; her ideal man. Unfortunately, he does not exist and history does not bear out a happy ending for her or her lover. However, as a writer, I see this as an opportunity to really amp up the tragedy of the ending. Outcomes are even more powerful when the hero and heroine don’t get what they want because readers have been rooting for them the entire book and now will mourn with them as well.

Finally, look at the cards in groups of three or four. Do they affect each other or change the meaning of surrounding cards? Make notes of anything that notice. Again, it may take time to learn this part. In my example, as you can see from the explanations above, the first four cards agree with each other and strengthen one another in a description of my heroine. In the same way, cards six through nine all play on the same theme of forbidden love. Taken together, these influenced my interpretation of the Outcome card.

Of course, everything is subject to interpretation; I may read a spread totally differently than you do, which is why some people don’t put any stock in tarot readings. And that is fine. I’m only here to advise you on how you can use them as a tool in your writing; whether or not you believe they will work for you is a personal decision.

Once you get comfortable with your cards you can also make up your own spreads to fit your questions. They can be circular, triangle, any shape that works for what you need. You could even take the major archetypes and draw a card for each one or take your favorite plot arc or character arc tool (I’m a fan of Michael Hauge’s “Six Stage Plot Structure” and Larry Brooks’ Four Part Structure) and make up a spread to fit it. The sky is the limit.

I hope this series of articles has given you a new tool in your writing toolbox. If you are familiar with other systems of divination like runes, wisdom sticks, or even astrology or dowsing with a pendulum, you can employ those as well. They all tap into your subconscious mind in a similar manner. Best of luck!

How to Use the Tarot in Your Writing

Two weeks ago at the Historical Novel Society conference, I participated in a brief lecture from my dear friend Kris Waldherr on how writers can use the tarot to help plan their books. It not only re-invigorated me in my study of tarot and inspired me to create my own deck, it reminded me I wrote a series of two articles about it a while back for Novelists’ Inc. that I have never shared here. 

This first article covers the basics of what tarot is (and is not), what the cards mean and how they are used so that readers who have no familiarity with the tarot can catch up. The next article, which I will publish tomorrow simultaneously here and over at my second home on Spellbound Scribes, will go into detail on how to use it in your writing.


We’ve all heard of tarot cards and seen then used by witches and fortune tellers in the movies and on TV. Unfortunately, the persistent use of them by Hollywood to evoke fear and evil has led to many people thinking the tarot is something it is not. Before we begin, I want to address some common tarot misconceptions:

  1. The tarot is not evil. It is just a set of cards with pictures on them. That’s it. A tarot deck is no more or less powerful than a regular deck of playing cards.
  2. It will not summon the devil or any evil spirits. The tarot actually has nothing to do with any religion. You can choose for it to be part of your spiritual practice, but it doesn’t have to be. The cards are neither positive nor negative; it is your intent that makes them one way or the other. You’d have to be very intentional and work really hard to summon anything evil with them. And I don’t recommend trying.
  3. If you are Christian and you use it, you will not go to hell. Well, you might, but not for that! In fact, there is even a book on how Christians can use the tarot called Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. I highly recommend it. There are also several Christian tarot decks.
  4. You don’t have to be religious to use it. Even though divination using playing cards pre-dates modern psychology, tarot really is all about your subconscious mind, so you can be an atheist and it will work just the same as if you are religious.

If you’re not comfortable with tarot or think it is wrong, by all means don’t use it. I would never want you to do something that goes against your beliefs or makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong. But if you’re curious, read on.

What the Tarot Is

So, if all of that is true, how exactly does the tarot work? The easiest explanation is that it is a way to tap into your subconscious mind, which holds a lot of information and answers we don’t normally access with our conscious brains. As we know from dreams, our subconscious works in symbols, which is why there is standard symbolism on each tarot card, regardless of the specific artwork.

The tarot’s symbolism is heavily based in archetypes because these are pretty much eternal and unchanging. The most common archetypes include:

  1. The Hero who is undertaking the quest.
  2. The Mentor who guides them.
  3. The Ally who accompanies them.
  4. The Herald who says “hey, hero, it’s time for a change in your life” and kicks off the quest.
  5. The Trickster, who is the comic relief and mischief maker.
  6. The Shapeshifter, who is kind of like a frenemy and could be friend or foe or both.
  7. The Wizard/Guardian who tests the hero
  8. The Shadow, who is the villain.

If these roles sound familiar, that’s because they are also the building blocks of storytelling. Each of these, and more, are reflected in the card’s symbolism. More on that in a minute.

The System of Tarot

Every tarot deck is comprised of 78 cards divided into the major arcana (22 cards) and minor arcana (56 cards). The major arcana are like the face cards of a regular deck of playing cards. Major arcana cards are more significant and helpful in understanding your characters and plot because these cards represent powerful forces and events which can shape them. Major arcana cards can identifying the major plot points of your book and the basics of your outline.

There are countless ways of interpreting these cards (here’s a good online resource), so we’ll take a brief look at each and how they might be used to indicate a character or plot point. (Click on the image to see it larger.)

The Major Arcana

  1. The Fool – This is the hero of our story, the unwitting innocent setting out the journey of your book. He symbolizes being open to new possibilities and sometimes being foolish in your ignorance. If your hero is otherwise represented, he or she could be an ally to the main character. This person is usually well-intentioned, but can also be bungling.
  2. The Magician – The magician symbolizes intelligence, talent, intuition, freedom and confidence, but he can also be a tricky showman. His message is that you already have everything you need to accomplish your goals. Depending on the story, he could be the mentor for your hero, the herald who kicks off the quest, a trickster or possibly the wizard who tests your hero. Study the surrounding cards for clues.
  3. The High Priestess – She is a woman of great power and strength and symbolizes the inner voice or intuition. She also represents spiritual forces like wisdom and insight and is a wise counselor who may live at a remove from the rest of the world. She could also be the mentor of your main character or even the herald if used with prophecy or magic.
  4. The Empress – She is the ultimate feminine figure and powerful ruler. She is a strong role model and peacemaker, a guide, and example of dignity. She is often associated with fertility and Mother Earth. Another mentor possibility, but she could also take her power too far and become a dark figure.
  5. The Emperor – This is the card of hard-won leadership and power, an authority figure who knows his stuff. He represents masculine energy that is stable, reasonable and ethical. He is another possible mentor figure, but he could also be seeking to hold your hero down, just like some rulers seek to oppress their people.
  6. The Hierophant/Priest – This figure represents tradition, authority and adherence to established rules and customs. He is also a powerful spiritual force and you would do well to listen to his wisdom. It’s possible this card could represent the mentor, but depending on the circumstances, he could also be the shapeshifter or even the shadow. He would be a fun villain to write and would pose a formidable challenge for your hero, who is usually seeking to overthrow all he represents.
  7. The Lovers – The lovers are all about relationships, and not necessarily just sexual ones, friendships too. They also guide values and decisions and symbolize intense emotions such as the blindness and irrationality of love. They often appear in reading when a decision is needed and can indicate a positive past choice. This card could be the ally who helps the heroine in her journey or could represent a love interest or romantic aspect to the plot.
  8. The Chariot – Represents triumph, victory and success and is connected to natural drive and determination. But the Chariot warns you can’t just depend on your dreams; you must take action to make them happen. As such, this is a card of agency for a character and movement/momentum in the plot.
  9. Strength – This card is all about inner strength—fortitude of heart and mind that enables you to overcome any obstacle. It also symbolizes perseverance and facing your fears head on. A character with this card would be strong, but could also be stubborn, which could lead to difficulties with other characters or obstacles in the plot that the hero will have to fight to overcome.
  10. The Hermit – As his name implies, the Hermit represents solitude and listening to the voice within. He could be the guide to your hero, or he could be the trickster, falsely be urging them to withdrawn when action is required, depending on the surrounding cards. If he comes out of isolation set up the quest, he can also function as the herald. He represents a place in the plot where introspection is needed before the hero can make a decision/move on.
  11. Wheel of Fortune – This the wheel of fate, representing the ups and downs of life. The card reminds us that the only permanence in life is change and that we must be open to learning the lessons of the present moment. Usually it is interpreted as a card of good luck, but depending on the surrounding cards, it could also indicate a reversal of fortune. It is a good card for plotting points of major change or evaluating how your character handles it.
  12. Justice – As the name implies, this card is about karma and getting what you deserve. If that is a main theme in your book, play close attention to this card. It can also be about acting as a judge and weighing choices in order to make a decision or needing to be impartial. This card could indicate a character who is judgmental (or who teaches others not to judge) or it could represent a moment your main character is called to account for their actions, either within their own mind or by someone else.
  13. The Hanged Man – The hanged man is all about being stuck or being in the in between. He usually represents needing to make a decision or being at a crossroads in life. Usually a sacrifice is required to be able to move on. This card can also mean punishment for a crime. This card can represent where your character is before he/she takes up the call for change at the beginning of a book or any point where they feel unable to move forward. In the latter case, look at surrounding cards to see who or what might able to help propel them forward.
  14. DeathThis card does not usually mean literal death! It can, in rare cases, but usually instead represents transformation, the dying of the old so the new can be reborn. It can indicate the end of a cycle or the end of relationship and can symbolize your fears or even the end of suffering. As such it is versatile in revealing a character’s weakness and vulnerabilities, but an also be used to point points of change in a story.
  15. Temperance – As the name indicates, this is a card of moderation. Patience is her virtue and she can represent grace under pressure, good manners, the ability to adapt or be creative. She is symbol of balance and harmony. She can represent an advocate or ally or your character or a warning not to get out of control.
  16. The DevilThis card is not evil, no matter what Hollywood says. When you are using tarot for writing, this card will usually indicate your shadow or villain character or forces working against your main character. It represents our baser instincts and can symbolize obsession, abuse and addictions. It can also symbolize a positive character embracing their wild or vengeful side or feeling trapped.
  17. The Tower – This card is not a fun one to see in a reading because it represents destruction and major change. But that isn’t always bad; it can mean the breaking down of the old to begin anew, as in a desired divorce. Usually the best solution is to give in and then pick up the pieces and start over. This often appears to represent the “black moment” in a plot – the point where all seems lost for the hero.
  18. The Star – The star represents hope, peace and freedom, inspiration and enlightenment. It can mean relying on yourself and taking steps to improve yourself or your situation. It also symbolizes healing and following your destiny or the will of the gods. For characters, it can mean agency or following a force greater than themselves.
  19. The Moon – Just as the moon rules the tides and can affect human sanity, this card represents powerful emotions and vivid dreams. It can mean a time of disorientation, anxiety or repressing things into your subconscious. Because it can indicate a shadowy person or situation, insanity or obsession with the macabre, it can represent your villain or something involving deception that will happen to your hero. Or it can mean something underhanded he or she is doing, willingly or not.
  20. The Sun – This card is the opposite of the Moon. It indicates things done out in the light of day, triumph and victory, glory, safety and well-being. It can also represent the innocence and joy of childhood. It is an uplifting card that indicates all is well in the world. In characterization, it is associated with genuinely good, innocent people, like Forrest Gump, for example.
  21. Judgement – Like the Last Judgement (which is often depicted on the card) it represents resurrection and rebirth, a reawakening and new opportunities. It can also symbolize a rite of passage, a positive change, or a new way of thinking. In plotting a book, this card would naturally fall between or at the beginning or end of an act or section because that is where major changes occur.
  22. The World – This card represents seeing beyond oneself into the interconnectedness of all things. It represents mystical insight and faith and being in control of one’s fate. You are exactly where you are meant to be. In character development, this would be a very confident character who understand their destiny and is actively seeking it. In plotting, it could represent a happy ending or being ready to move on to something new.

The Minor Arcana

The minor arcana are like the numbered suit cards in a deck of playing cards. They are even divided into four suits, with ten regular cards and four face cards: the prince/page, knight, queen, king. While the major arcana represent the “big” things in life, the minor arcana fill in the humdrum, daily details and can be especially helpful in fleshing out the outline that major arcana cards give you.

The suits all have different symbolism:

  1. Wands/Staves/Staffs – are associated with the element of air and the ideas of movement and growth. Wands represent ideas, creativity, hopes and dreams. My experience with readings heavy on this suit are usually positive, but variable. Like the wind they represent, they are changeable and sometimes fickle.
  2. Cups – are associated with the element of water and your mental and spiritual state, as well as your relationships. Cups are highly emotional and can be either positive or negative, depending on the surrounding cards.
  3. Swords – are associated with the element of fire and with conflict. Like a blade, they can be sharp and deliver messages we don’t really want to hear, especially about our health and relationships. They can be harbingers of ill tidings, but they can also make us face realities we want to deny, leading to wisdom and healing. I cringe when I see a reading heavy on swords because they are generally negative cards, unless you work really hard to find the silver lining.
  4. Pentacles/Coins/Disks – are associated with the element of earth and the material world, primarily dealing with matters of money, career and all forms of prosperity: emotional, physical and spiritual. I have found that if your reading contains a lot of this suit, it will be generally positive.

Some people also read “reverse” cards, meaning a card laid upside down when dealt. Generally, that reverses the usual meaning of the card. Most books will provide you with both regular and reverse meanings for each card. I don’t personally read reverse cards because I think the tarot is complex enough without it.

Almost every tarot desk comes with a book, so if you don’t want to invest in additional materials when you’re first starting out, you don’t have to. Those books are enough to teach you the basics and help you to interpret the cards.

I suggest searching online or visiting your local New Age store and seeing what decks speak to you. It’s usually wise to look at a deck in person and get a literal feel for it, but when that is not possible, this a good place to start.

The classic tarot deck is the Rider-Waite Tarot. (I don’t personally like that deck; it freaks me out for some reason.) There a deck for literally every personality from Victorian to Goth to faeries and unicorns, as well as every culture and sexual orientation. There are even decks to tie in with movies like Lord of the Rings, TV shows like Game of Thrones and books like Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea.

If you decide to purchase a deck, take some time to get to know the cards. Study each one and note what it says to you and it makes you feel. That’s the first step to learning how to read them. Then, if the deck comes with a book, read it and study each card while reading its definition. Over time, you’ll learn what to associate with each card.

One last note: If you aren’t comfortable with tarot cards, you might want to consider oracle cards. These are similar to tarot, but they don’t have the formalize structure around them that tarot does so they can be used in any way you want. I like them for single card readings. Many Christians also find these less daunting because they don’t come with the evil stigma that tarot does. Here’s an article on the differences and a Christian-based list.

In case you’re wondering what I use:

Tarot: I started with a basic set for beginners  and then moved on to Legend: The Arthurian Tarot. After a while, some of the cards became so associated in my mind with certain people who were no longer in my life that I couldn’t read with that deck anymore. I bought the Llewellyn Tarot and have been using that for years now, but I just realized yesterday that I have lost a few cards so I have to order a new deck. Not sure what I want yet. I also own the Mysteries of Mary tarot.

Oracle Decks: I personally own several oracle decks, though I don’t use them as much as my tarot cards: The Mists of Avalon Oracle, Queen of the Moon Oracle, Notes from the Universe on Abundance Cards, The Wisdom of Avalon Oracle, Archetype Cards and the Goddess Guidance Cards.

Fearless Females: The First Black Woman to Receive a U.S. Patent

Did you know there is a bit of a debate over who was the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent? Judy Woodford Reed, Sarah E. Goode, and Miriam Benjamin are all credited with that feat, though there may have been others before them who did not reveal their race or gender. Learn more about each of these women below.

Judy Woodford Reed

The debate begins with Judy Woodford Reed (1826-1905). She was issued patent 305,474 for a “dough kneader and roller” on September 23, 1884. Her invention was for “improved design of rollers that helped the dough to mix more evenly while it was kept covered and protected.”

The patent is the only documentation that exists of her life. Historians have been able to piece together her birth and death dates, but little else is known about her—not even a photo remains. Judy was a former slave who likely could not read or write, as she signed the patent with an X instead of her name. Her attorney wrote her name on the patent for her, using her initials, J.W. Reed. And this is where the controversy comes in. Because Judy didn’t actually sign the patent with her name, some wonder if it was technically fully executed.

Sarah E. Goode

Those who follow the line of thought that Judy Woodford Reed’s patent wasn’t fully executed, credit Sarah E. Goode with being the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent. She was issued a patent (322,177) for the cabinet bed on July 14, 1885, which was a pre-cursor to the better-known Murphy Bed.

Sarah was born into slavery in 1855 in Toledo, Ohio, and was described as being of mixed White and Black ancestry. She was granted her freedom at age 10 when the Civil War ended.

Sara was the daughter of a carpenter who married a “stair builder.” Later in life, she sold furniture in Chicago. Her invention came about when she heard customers from New York mention that space was at a premium in the city thanks to new laws that limited the height of buildings. That meant most tenements were only around 25×100 feet in size. Sarah’s creativity resulted in a fold out bed that when retracted, looked and functioned like a roll-top desk complete with compartments for storing pens, ink and stationery.

Miriam Benjamin

Though only a few sources credit Miriam Benjamin (1861-1947) with being the first, she is widely held to be the second (or perhaps third) Black woman to be granted a patent. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, as a free Black woman. Miriam attended high school in Boston and eventually became a teacher in Washington D.C. before attending law school at Howard University and becoming a “solicitor of patents.”

Her first patent was for the gong and signal chair for hotels. As a frequent traveler, Miriam noticed that many hotels and restaurants seemed overstaffed for the number of customers needing service at any moment. This resulted in her devising a chair with a gong and signal attached meant to “reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages.” To summon a server or other attendant, a patron would press a button on the back of the chair, which would send a signal to the server as well as illuminate a light so the server could see which guest needed help.

Later on, Miriam’s system was adopted by the United States House of Representatives to summon pages and was the precursor to flight attendant call buttons in airplanes.

Miriam went on to patent other inventions and is believed to be one in the same with composer E.B. Miriam who wrote marches, including “The Boston Elite Two Step” and “The American Bugle Call,” which was adopted as the campaign song for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign.

Fearless Females: Sally Ride

With the release of Consequences and the Historical Novel Society Conference, June almost got away from me without our monthly column on women in history. But luckily I was working on next month’s and realized it.

This month we’re looking at a woman whom I remember from my childhood. (Can you believe 35 years ago is the definition of historical in the publishing industry? I feel so old!) 

Did you know that the United States Mint is honoring 20 women on U.S. quarters over the next few years? One of the first two is Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who earned this designation on June 18, 1983, (the other is poet Mya Angelou).

Sally Kristen Ride was born May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles. As a young woman, she was interested in science, but put that on the back-burner to focus on her tennis career. Despite being a nationally-ranked player, Sally eventually returned to science, studying physics and English at Stanford, where she earned her bachelors in 1973, masters in 1975 and her doctorate in 1978. She specialized in astrophysics and free electron lasers.

After she graduated, Sally was one of only 35 people (and six women) selected out of 8,000 applications to participate in NASA Astronaut Group 8, the first NASA selection in more than a decade. It was the first group to include women and people of color.

She trained for a year and then became a ground-based capsule communicator (CapCom) for NASA’s second and third space shuttle flights and helped develop the Space Shuttle’s “Canadarm” robot arm.

On June 18, 1983, at 32, she became the youngest woman ever in space and only the third ever (behind USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982). She is also the first known LGBTQIA+ astronaut. Before her first flight, the media expressed reservations about women in space, asking her questions about her emotional capability to withstand the journey and if she worried about how space would affect her ability to have children. Sally ignored them all and said she didn’t think of herself as a female astronaut, but simply as an astronaut.

On her first flight, Sally’s job was to work the robotic arm that helped place satellites in space for Canada and Indonesia. This was the first successful deployment and retrieval in space. On her second space flight in October 1984, she used the shuttle’s robotic arm to remove ice from the shuttle’s exterior and to readjust a radar antenna. Sally was assigned to a third shuttle mission, but her crew’s training was cut short by the Challenger disaster in January 1986.

Sally left NASA in 1987. She worked for two years at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, then at the University of California, San Diego, researching nonlinear optics and Thomson scattering.

During this time, she started looking for ways to help women and girls who wanted to study science and mathematics. She came up with the idea for NASA’s EarthKAM project, which lets middle school students take pictures of Earth using a camera on the International Space Station. Students then study the pictures. She also wrote or co-wrote seven books on space for children to encourage them to study science.

Sally served on the committees that investigated the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters, the only person to participate in both. Sally provided key information about how O-rings get stiff at low temperatures, which led to them being identified as the cause of the Challenger explosion.

In 2003, Sally was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Sally died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. She was honored with many awards after her death, including being featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

Politics, Religion and the Penal Laws in 19th Century Ireland

In the beginning of Consequences, Lord Montgomery and Daniel O’Connell (a historical person) discuss politics over dinner. Here’s a little more information on what was going on at the time in case their conversation left you a little confused.

Today we think of Ireland as primarily a Catholic country – except for Northern Ireland which is mostly Protestant. The roots of this division, which is both religious and political, began in the 16th century. You may recall that Henry VIII of England broke from the Catholic Church in 1533, effectively creating the Church of England, which is one of many Protestant sects to arise around the same time. (Many say that Lutheranism was the very first.)

The history of English rule in Ireland is very complex dating back to the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169. For purposes of this article, suffice it to say the Irish were never thrilled to have the English on their soil and always had an active resistance to them. By the 16th and 17th centuries as the Protestant Reformation grew in power and scope, most of the English gentry were Protestant and in 1695 passed a series of laws aimed at penalizing anyone who practiced the Catholic faith (hence the name, penal laws). These effectively kept Catholics out of power by imposing severe penalties upon Catholics:

  • Education of or by a Catholic was punishable by banishment, forfeiture of property or even death, depending on the nature of the crime.
  • Teaching of the Catholic faith or being a Catholic bishop or archbishop was punishable by transportation to a colony (usually here in America or Australia); converting a Protestant or returning from transportation was punishable by death.
  • A Protestant could take away a Catholic’s land pretty much at any time unless the Catholic had been a tenant who leased the land for at least 31 years.
  • Catholics could not buy or lease land for long periods of time, own firearms, own a horse worth more than five pounds, serve in the military, law, commerce, or any profession.
  • No Catholic could vote or hold office.
  • The eldest son could only inherit land if he became Protestant.

(See this page for a full list of the laws.)

The Penal laws were relaxed in 1774, modified again in 1778, and repealed in 1782. In 1792-1793 a relief act was passed that allowed Catholics to serve in the military and in professional positions and made the Catholic faith legal once again. They could now vote, serve on juries and had regained most of their civil rights. However, Catholics could not hold seats in Parliament.

In 1823, a Catholic man named Daniel O’Connell, Lord Montague’s dinner guest at the beginning of the novella and later a dear friend of Catherine McAuley, established the Catholic Association, which worked for Catholic Emancipation. They achieved their goal in 1829, just two years after Catherine opened the House of Mercy.

An Irish Penal Rosary. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This prejudice is why Lord Montague specifies he doesn’t want Catholics to apply for the open maid position that Margaret takes. It is also why he freaks out when he finds the Penal Rosary tied to the stays of her dress. Penal Rosaries are smaller versions of the traditional Catholic rosary that could be prayed with less chance of detection while the Penal Laws were in effect.

Tour the House of Mercy

The very last scene of Consequences takes place in the House of Mercy on Baggot Street in Dublin, Ireland. I was fortunate to spend a week there several years ago (we even slept in an adjoining building.)

Part of our reason for being there was to help the Sisters create materials for a fundraising campaign that would fund an endowment to keep the House of Mercy open in perpetuity. One of those materials was a digital tour. I highly recommend checking it out because it gives you a better sense of the House than I ever could. Be sure to click the tabs for all four stories of the House.

I will, however, share a photo of the room in which the last scene took place and also some of my favorites.

The House of Mercy. I love this photo because it gives an idea of how big it is.

Catherine McAuley’s bedroom and also the room in which she died. This is where the last scene in the novella takes place.

A glimpse inside the receiving room.

The choir stalls where the Sisters sat in the chapel.

Me (years ago) kneeling at the Communion Rail inside the chapel.

The view of Catherine’s tomb from inside the House of Mercy. It’s in an interior courtyard of the House and dozens of Sisters are buried in the lawn around her.

Catherine’s tomb

Catherine’s grave inside the tomb.

Tour Coolock House

If you’ve gotten to the part in Consequences where Margaret visits Catherine McAuley at Coolock house, you may be wondering what it really looks like. After all, there was only space in the story to describe the outside, the entryway and one room.

Luckily, I was able to tour it several years ago and I have pictures! Also, there is a nice video of it on Youtube. (I didn’t have anything to do with that.)

Coolock House is today a residence for the Sisters of Mercy, so there were obviously private rooms we could not see.

The gatehouse c. 1870. Image Source: https://www.ceist.ie/a-new-look-at-coolock-house/

Coolock House c. 1906. Image source: https://www.ceist.ie/a-new-look-at-coolock-house/

The exterior of Coolock House. Those are my travel companions on the steps. The two older ladies are Sisters of Mercy and the one in blue is my friend to whom the novella is dedicated.

 

The entryway staircase that features in the novella. See the bell to the right? That’s in my book as well.

 

A sitting room that was the inspiration for the one Catherine and Margret meet in.

 

This was the chair Catherine was sitting in for that scene. They are authentic to the house in the period in which Catherine lived there.

A garden at Coolock House. The view is directly to the left of the front door if you are facing it.

Part of Catherine’s personal tea set.

The Life of Catherine McAuley (1778-1841)

If you’ve read my novella, Consequences, or even just the back cover copy, you’ll notice it takes place during the life of Catherine McAuley, a woman most people, especially outside of Ireland, have never heard of.

I found out about her nearly 18 years ago when I started working at my current day job. We can trace our history directly back to Catherine and her ministry. Here’s a brief summary of her life and if you want more details, I recommend the definitive biography of by Mary Sullivan titled The Path of Mercy.

Early Life and Culture

No images of Catherine McAuley exist from her lifetime. This is believed to be the most accurate depiction of her as a laywoman.

Catherine was born on September 28, 1778, into comfortable, middle-class circumstances. But at an early age she began to notice the poor and disadvantaged who were all around her on the streets of Dublin. Crop failures destroyed the agricultural economy and caused terrible famines. Desperate people migrated to the cities to work in factories, where they suffered horrifying working conditions, and those without work often ended up in poorhouses.

It was a time of extremes in Ireland. Social and religious prejudice was pervasive, especially against Catholics like Catherine. The ruling class was Protestant and education was available only to those with property and land, both of which most Catholics did not have thanks to earlier Penal Laws (more on those in a future post) that stripped Catholics of most of their rights. Wealth and poverty sat side by side but there were few resources available to help the poor.

Catherine felt great sorrow when she observed the suffering of the poor, especially disadvantaged women and children. As a girl, her own situation offered her many comforts, although after the death of her father Catherine’s family suffered economic hardships.  She felt called to change the environment in which she found herself and found supporters among both Catholic and Protestant connections.

Catherine’s Life Changes

The House of Mercy with a statue of Catherine out front.

When she was 25, Catherine was invited to live with a Quaker family, the Callaghans, at their country estate, Coolock House. She stayed with them for nearly 20 years, never marrying and taking care of them into their old age. At the age of 44, after having already created a network of services for poor people near Coolock, Catherine received a large inheritance when the Callaghans died within a short time of one another.

With that money she built a large home on Baggot Street in Dublin, bordering a fashionable neighborhood, to serve as a shelter and educational center for young women from poor neighborhoods. Skeptics called the house “Kitty’s Folly,” because her intentions were so daunting. On September 24, 1827, she opened the House of Mercy house on Baggot Street, where it stands today.

The Sisters of Mercy

A painting of Catherine made after her death depicting her as a Sister of Mercy.

The purpose of the House of Mercy was to prepare residents, nearly all women and children, for employment, self-sufficiency. Catherine’s determination and example attracted companions willing to give their time and money to help, but the Church didn’t like that they were lay women and insisted they form a religious order. In 1831, these women became the religious congregation known as the Sisters of Mercy, called “the walking sisters” because of their active involvement among the community.  Thus, in an era when the cloistered life was the norm for women in religious congregations, Catherine McCauley, at the age of 52, founded not only a charity, but also a religious congregation and a new form of religious life.

Catherine McAuley believed that God intended for the poor and the sick to be loved and cared for through action, prayer and philanthropy.  She never wavered from that mission in spite of the difficulties she faced. The Sisters of Mercy fought tuberculosis, cholera epidemics and the ravages of disease, prejudice and poverty. Terrible economic conditions forced many Irish to immigrate to other countries, and the Sisters extended their mission accordingly. The community expanded to 14 locations in Ireland and England before Catherine’s death in 1841.

Today the Sisters of Mercy sponsor a diverse range of ministries and professions.  Their mission is to serve the poor, the sick, and the uneducated through direct service, especially for women, children and the elderly, and to advocate for changes to the systems that create poverty and suffering.

Virtue Recognized by the Catholic Church
On April 9, 1990, Catherine was declared venerable by the Catholic Church. This is the first major step on the road to sainthood and means that her life and writings were closely examined and she was found to possess “heroic virtue.” Additional inquiries into her life will continue until two miracles are declared as occurring by her intercession, at which point she will become a saint. This could take hundreds of years, especially with advances in science making miracles more and more difficult to prove. (The process is much more complex than this, but this is the nutshell version.)

International Domestic Workers Day

In the 10 years I’ve been blogging (10 years today, actually!), I’ve never done two posts in one day because I don’t want to annoy you, my lovely readers. However, I am making an exception today because it is not only publication day for my new novella, Consequences, but also International Domestic Workers Day, which ties in closely with the plot and themes of the book.

Did you know that the men and women who clean our houses, tend our gardens, care for our children, aging parents and the disabled have practically no rights under U.S. Law? As such, many live below the poverty line and they are still routinely subject to unfair labor practices, abuse and even human trafficking. Read my op-ed in The Hill to learn more.

I knew nothing about this before I started research for this book. But since, I have become very passionate about it. I’ll be posting updates as things in Washington D.C. and other states happen because I intend to stay involved in this issue.

What You Can Do
If you employ domestic workers, know the law where you live and be sure they are paid and treated fairly. If you need help, Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network is there to guide you.

Contact your representatives and urge them to fight for a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, especially Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Jayapal, who sponsored the 2019 bill. Congress holds the keys to a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights moving forward. Let them know that you support fair labor and employment practices for all and will no longer be silent while domestic workers are treated like second-class citizens.