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!

Character Maturity

maturityI know I’m long overdue for some historical posts around here, but being in between books and not able to share what I’m currently researching makes it hard to keep up on all the types of topics I want to cover. I’ll do my best to throw some history your way soon. But today, we’re analyzing characters.

When He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not was off with my beta readers, I had a long discussion with one of them on character maturity. It was something I was thinking about subconsciously because some of the characters are obviously more mature than the others (as I’m sure we can all say about friends and family in real life). It got me to thinking about just how in-depth character maturity really is. It’s something that I think would do all writers (myself included) good to consider more closely. Analyzing character maturity may help readers understand character motives as well.

When we talk about maturity, we tend to say someone is or isn’t mature, as though it’s one thing. In reality, maturity is made up of several different overlapping aspects, the rules of which change by location and time period.

Physical maturity – This is probably the most obvious, especially in the formative years of childhood and adolescence, and again as one becomes elderly. A person either is or isn’t on par for what’s physically normal for a given age. But keep in mind that early or delayed physical maturity can be used to give the appearance of over- or under-emotional, mental or sexual maturity. This is an interesting thing to consider both within the character’s own mindset and how others react to him/her. Of course, there are also the extreme examples of dwarves and giants, both of whom have been the subject of curiosity – loved or reviled – throughout time.

Sexual maturity – If you make this its own category, it would overlap with physical, mental and emotional maturity, as all factor into the sexual experience. Some people grow up fast, as they say, and gain sexual experience early, but that doesn’t necessarily make them sexually mature – some people never are. Some societies and time periods are more open than others, but if you judge from 20th century standards, if a person is responsible and respectable with their sexual relationships, then they likely are sexually mature, while the opposite usually holds true for the immature.

Another kind of sexual immaturity is seen those who reach adulthood while still very innocent either due to lack of sexual experience (by choice or circumstance), being sheltered from sexual influences and information, or even through abuse. If one has been abused, it can leave scars that prevent that person from ever sexually maturing. As sexuality is an important part of human life, it doesn’t hurt to examine your characters’ sexual maturity and more importantly why they are the way they are, especially if sex is a tool they use to get what they want or something they overtly shy away from.

Mental maturity – This has to do with the intellect and processing of information, both the kind you learn in school and general social cues. As with physical maturity, there are certain standards by which this is measured, and these have changed over the centuries. It used to be that women were not taught biology because it was considered too taxing for the female mind, whereas botany was perfectly acceptable for a woman to learn. When someone is young and overly mentally mature, we tend to call them “precocious,” whereas when they are older, they might be labeled as “pedantic.” Those who are less mentally mature for their age (even if there is a biological reason for it, such as a disease or birth defect) tend to be considered slow, or called degrading terms that I shouldn’t repeat here. In many time periods, people who were highly mentally mature were considered touched by the gods or at least called geniuses (or sometimes mad), while those who were mentally immature were abused or at least taken advantage of.

Emotional maturity – Mental and emotional maturity are closely related, and some may even argue are one in the same. To me, there is a difference. How a person handles their emotions is important to understanding how they will react in a given situation and hence, how those around them will react. Does that person easily fly off the handle and throw a hissy fit? That might be acceptable for a modern toddler, but for a Renaissance child of the nobility or anyone who is considered an adult, it is unacceptable behavior. On the other hand, in today’s world where emotions are more openly accepted, someone who in other times would have been lauded as stoic, may seem emotionally stunted. Throughout time, women have been considered less emotionally mature than men, more likely to succumb to hysteria, the vapors, faint or cry too much. Even today, women who express emotion, especially in the workplace, are considered weak, less emotionally mature than those who hide their feelings as men have traditionally (maturely) been taught to do.

Spiritual maturity – The importance of this will vary depending on how vital religion is to your characters and their world. In an atheistic society, it may matter little, whereas in the Middle Ages, it could be the key to life and death. I look at it from the perspective of the person’s relationship with their religion. On one end of the continuum, we have where we are when we’re little, the time we tend to do as we’re told and follow blindly what’s considered right and wrong. On the opposite end, as we age, we develop a more independent understanding of our faith, regardless of how closely we adhere to it.

Again, this varies by time period and likely wouldn’t have been heavily questioned before the Age of Enlightenment, before which religion was pretty infallible in society. Religions have always recognized some level of spiritual maturity, as most have what they call the “age of reason,” the age at which someone is considered mature enough to be held responsible for their sins. In general, throughout history women were thought to have little or no capability for spiritual maturity, hence the need to have a man (a priest, father, husband or brother) to guide them and their lack of access to subjects such as theology. For many centuries, it was debated whether or not women even had souls.

To use a pop culture example, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is clearly physically and mentally mature, but given his inability to understand social cues and offer basic emotional responses like empathy, isn’t very emotionally or mentally mature. And given his relationship with Amy, we know he’s not very sexually mature, either.

He’s an extreme, of course, but he shows how tweaking the level of a character’s maturity in even one area can make him or her stand out from the crowd. As the author, you get to play God and decide which one(s). Knowing why can help you weave a strong back story for your character, and may even lead you to areas of tension between characters or in circumstance that can make your story exciting.

What are your thoughts on character maturity? Do you agree or disagree with my classifications? How closely do you consider it when writing or reading?

Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 1

This was our last day of class. Yes, we had wine.

This was our last day of class. Yes, we had wine. (Deb is on the right.)

I received permission from Hedgebrook, Deb and my classmates to post a series of blogs about what we learned from Deb during our Master Class called Past Tense: History as Resource and Inspiration. Since she covered a different topic every day, that’s how I’m going to present them to you. She purposefully taught us different aspects of creative writing in the order she feels they are most important.

A Few Notes on Writing Historical Fiction
Before Deb got into the specifics of her first topic, she gave us a nice lecture about how we are perfectly qualified, as storytellers, to write historical fiction even though we’re not historians. I touched on that a little in my first post about the Master Class, but I’ll add a few details here.

Non-historians tend to think of history as right and wrong; historians know no such thing exists. History is an interpreted discipline in which they make an argument based on what they can back up with evidence. Circumstantial evidence doesn’t count for them, but it is a boon for historical fiction writers. It is our job to “write between the gaps,” as one of my follow writers said.

Novelists need to take authority over our story and characters and give up on the idea that historians have “the truth.” If it is not historically impossible, then for us, it is historically possible. It is our job to make it believable.

She emphasized that history should be a tool and not an obstacle. Our first job is to tell a great story. For that reason, any historical fiction story should be able to be set in contemporary times and still make sense. That is how we know the story itself is solid. The history simply places in another time.

Lesson #1: Character
Deb is a character-driven writer, meaning that for her, stories begin with and are propelled by the characters and their journey. The plot arises from what they do, rather than being thrust on them. (I’m a character-driven writer as well.) Her main point is that if your readers don’t care about the characters, all you’ve done is write history. The characters are what people relate to as they read your story.

In order for your characters to have integrity, they must be real, three-dimensional people who are consistent and make decisions that ring true, even if you don’t always agree with them. She believes that oftentimes readers are willing to trust historical fiction authors with history because they trust the characters. They are willing to forgive and forget a lot, but usually not a character that doesn’t speak to them.

History can give us the basis for creating characters, whether we pull them straight from history or use it as the context of the lives of fictional characters. Either way, when used correctly, historical details reveal things about the characters.

One character development tool Deb introduced us to is the Proust questionnaire. I’ve seen lots of lists of questions to interview your characters with, but this one was new to me. (Interestingly, this is what part of the interviews on Inside the Actor’s Studio are based on.) The idea is that by answering these questions, you begin to learn what makes your characters tick and see patterns in their lives. Most of what you answer won’t end up in your book, but knowing this information will help you start immersing yourself in their world. The better you can do that, the more believable and real your characters will be.

Another tool one of my fellow writers mentioned was the question Anne Lamott poses in Bird by Bird, “What does your character have in his/her pockets and why?” The “why” is the true purpose of any of these interview techniques because it starts to get at motivation, which is key to both a believable character and story. As Deb said, “History can be a crutch for us. Sometimes problems are better solved by asking ‘why?'”

She ended our first lecture by reiterating her belief that (at least in character driven fiction) the character’s journey transcends all the other stuff: the setting, the plot, the historical context. She taught us about each of those, but set the tone by teaching us their place: they are all secondary to character.

Next week: Plot and history.

Random bit of trivia: Deb doesn’t outline. She says her stories evolve as she goes and does lots of editing.

What do you think about Deb’s thoughts on historical fiction, history and character? Do you agree or disagree? Why? Did anything you read here strike you as important or unusual? Please tell me your reactions in the comments.

The Casting Couch…er Book

I was reading the Readermail section of Writer’s Digest today (yes, I read that section. I also enjoy CD liner notes, author’s acknowledgements and cereal boxes – there are reasons why I’m still single) when a note about a previous article on character development sounded familiar (no, I didn’t write it): “I especially liked Bell’s idea of compiling a visual collage of my characters with pictures from the Internet.”

My Character Book, made intentionally hard to see because I don’t want to give too much away…not yet at least.

I have one of those! I call it the Character Book. It’s nothing fancy; just a scrapbook, photos printed off the Internet and my stats for each character (hair/eye color, motivation, relation to other characters, etc.). It’s basically my bible. I’ve been putting it together for the last 2-3 years and I have 34 roles filled (yes, I just counted).  I don’t have a Guinevere, which may seem odd because she’s the main character, but I kind of like it that way. Because my book is first person, I write through her eyes, which is the way you’ll read the story, so I’m not as worried about who would play her as I am what’s going on inside her mind and heart.

So why the Character Book? For one, it’s fun and gives me a chance to play casting director, but it’s really the easiest way to get a well-rounded idea of the character. I always start with the character first, however he or she presents him/herself in my head (physical appearance, voice, personality or just a feeling) and then find an actor/actress to fit the character. I don’t do it with the actor first because that would mean building an artificial character. (I like my characters to be organic, much like my fruits and veggies.) Having an actor in mind makes it easier for me to visualize how the character will move, react and ever deliver certain lines. I’ve actually found myself watching things my “characters” are in just to become more familiar with them. You’d be surprised how many shows/movies I’ve had to pause because a mannerism or voice inflection caught my imagination and inspired a plot point. (I say take inspiration wherever you can get it.) It’s also a great tool when I’m stuck in the middle of a scene or if I can’t get dialogue right between two characters. I’ve been known to open the book, curve the pages so two characters are side-by-side and command them to talk to each other. The even crazier thing is, it usually works!

It’s my dream that someday when the books are published I can have a family tree up on my web site (you need one because everyone is related somehow) that pops up a photo of the actor or actress I envision when you hover over the character’s name. But that’s still to come. I’d like everyone to have the chance to form their own mental images first. And of course, I’d love to have some say in who plays whom when the books get made into movies, but that’s getting ahead of myself. Must get the books published first.

PS – Since this post was originally written, I’ve created a board on Pinterest for my characters – kind of an online character book. Check it out.

So tell me, who do you think would be a good choice to play one of the Arthurian characters? I’m always interested in how others envision them.

Writing Process? No Thanks, I Have Characters in My Head

My characters are almost like children. They narrate, hold conversations, give me plot points and yell at each other in my head. And I know when a character wants attention. (It’s almost like having an annoying brother or sister poking at you.) Sometimes it’s amazing and other times it’s frustrating as can be. Especially when they start talking when I’m driving or in the shower, or anywhere else I can’t write down their running commentary. A few times they’ve been nice enough to repeat the entire scene later. Most of the time I just somehow remember it. Sometimes I even “see” the whole scene like I’m watching a movie. (When that happens, I know it’ll be a good one and likely will make it through all the editing.)

And then there are the characters themselves. No two are alike. Some reveal themselves slowly, in their own sweet time. Take Arthur. He’s very mysterious; getting him to reveal anything is like pulling teeth. And I think he likes it that way. Isolde, on the other hand, waltzed into my head complete and promptly informed me she wants her own novel (hence, book four). She pretty much took over and became a much more central character to my first book than I thought. Now in the second book, she pops in and out as she pleases. Still other characters don’t seem to come alive until I’ve found an actor or actress who both looks the part and has the talent to pull the character off – then watch out! There’s no stopping them once they get going.

All of this to say, I really don’t feel like I’m in control of my writing. It’s more like I’m channeling an outside wisdom or something. Sometimes when I write, right in the middle of a scene one of my characters will do something I never expected or don’t understand. I spent most of one scene literally saying out loud, “Okay, where are we going with this? What’s going on?” But by the time I finished writing the scene (with no premeditation on my part), it was not only really good, it became key to the plot.

I have an outline, note cards, a plan, all that traditional stuff, but that doesn’t mean my characters care. My first book went pretty much according to plan except for a scene here and there, but the second book is taking on a life of its own. Characters are showing up sooner than I expected, dying sooner than I planned or having different relationships than I thought they would. So much so that I had to sit down and re-outline the whole book once I was about a quarter of the way into writing it. The things I’ve already written stayed the same, but it was nearly impossible to try to match an old outline up to a new timeline.

And the even crazier thing is, I’m finding out I’m not alone. A few days ago I had the amazing privilege of meeting author Alyson Noel (future blog post to come on that). When asked how her Immortals books came about, she said her main character, Ever, came into her head with a story to tell. That’s exactly how my book series happened. Guinevere started talking in my head and demanded her story be told. Alyson also said she talks to her characters more than her husband. Sadly, I think I talk to my characters more than any actual people I know.

A few weeks ago, Dianne Sylvan, a writer I follow on Twitter (@dslyvan), said “Here’s something you should know about writers: we are not fully in control of the story we’re writing…If we’re doing our jobs, it’s like we’re possessed by our characters; we live in multiple worlds at once. It sounds woo-woo, but it’s true.” And that’s pretty much how it works for me. I’ve also read interviews where Sue Grafton has been asked what’s coming next and she answers, “I don’t know. Kinsey [her main character] hasn’t told me yet.” Even JK Rowling has said that Harry Potter pretty much walked fully formed into her head (much like Isolde did with me).

At least if I’m crazy, I know I’ll have some pretty good company (and some amazingly entertaining stories) in the loony bin. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go break up a fight between the voices in my head. With any luck, they’ll write the next chapter for me.

If you have something to say, please leave a comment using the “comment” link below. It’s after the categories and tags. I know it’s hard to find, but I can’t customize that. Sorry.