TAROT’S EMPEROR IS MY NEMESIS. Committed to authority, structure, systems, and patriarchy, he’s the STOP sign, the NO ACCESS barricade, the guy manning every single freakin’ security checkpoint. Ask him for permission, and your request is likely to be stamped: DENIED.
The Emperor makes the rules and hires minions to enforce them. He’s the senator voting on the speed-limit bill, which the police uphold. He’s the president of your homeowners’ association, who, having established how short you need to keep your grass, has his secretary send you threatening letters if it’s grown over a half-inch. He’s the manager of the hair salon at the far end of the waterfront, where there are no public restrooms, who instructs the receptionist no to let you in to use theirs—no matter that you’re about to pee your pants.
All of which is fine. I mean, someone’s got to keep chaos at bay. But, dammit, when I’m faced with one of the Emperor’s implacable minions? When I need something just one toenail across their seemingly arbitrary line? For instance, when the stern librarian turns down my request for a measly three-day extension on THE SECRET LIFE OF OWLS? Then, I’m not a fan. Nope.
(FRUSTRATING) WRITING PROMPT
Perhaps, like me, your character just wants an extension on a library loan—or permission to paint a butterfly mural on her garage. Or maybe she’s facing something more serious. Temporarily strapped, she might be seeking food assistance to tide her over. Or coverage for critical medical treatment. Or political asylum! Whatever her need, the resounding “no” she receives from the Emperor or one of his representatives may seem like the final, defeating word.
Unless she’s prepared to take matters into her own hands, that is.
So, what do you think? Do some brainstorming, pen in hand, about:
what your character might need,
what rides on her getting it,
whether she’ll buck authority if she has to,
and, if so (yay!) what bold steps she’ll take in her bid to govern her own life.
IF TAROT’S FOUR OF CUPS WERE YOUR WRITING COACH, it would definitely want to have a little chit-chat with you about “writer’s block.”You see, the fellow in the Four of Cups is a faultfinder. Nothing is good enough for this guy. Hand him a golden cup of magical possibilities, and he’ll just turn away. Whatever is on offer—even if it comes from his own imagination—he’ll refuse it every time.
And this, exactly this refusal of our own thoughts and imaginative impulses, is an attitude that brings us crashing back into writer’s block. I believe that a case of writer’s block boils down to this: We’re being overly critical about the words our brain offers us. Rather than taking what comes on good faith, rather than trusting we’ll be able to work literary magic with the words and ideas that first occur to us, we cast them aside, claiming they’re not good enough. But if we do this too often, believe me, our brains will get the message and stop producing any words at all.
But that bad, imperfect writing is exactly where we have to start! We must use whatever clumsy, terrible, boring words arise when we first attempt to pin our beautiful, still-nebulous ideas to the page. If we’re not willing to write badly, we won’t ever get the chance to rework our terrible words into the exquisite, precise language we hope will deliver our best stories to our readers. In other words, we must first fetch the pumpkin—then we can wave our wand, transforming that mundane squash into a golden carriage that will carry us all the way to the prince’s ball.
In it she says, For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts…. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her. No one is going to see it. If [you] get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory…. just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.
Because Anne Lamott is both funny and whip-smart about writing, I suggest you get a copy of BIRD, read the shitty-drafts chapter, then stow the book away in your writer’s emergency kit for the next time writer’s block looms. Then harness up the mice and ride that shitty-draft pumpkin all the way to whatever ball you desire.
BONNIE CEHOVET IS A MUCH-PUBLISHED NONFICTION AUTHOR who is also an aspiring cozy mystery writer. I’m a cozy mystery fan myself—and a fan of Bonnie’s other work!—so I asked her to share some of her thoughts about finding her way in this genre, (You’ll find Bonnie’s bio and a list of her books and other publications below the interview.)
What do you think makes a cozy mystery a cozy?
My personal shortlist of what makes a cozy mystery a cozy, as distinct from other mysteries, is this: no foul language, no explicit sex, and no violence. The one word that describes this genre for me is “gentle.” Cozy mysteries are gentle mysteries. They have great story lines, well-developed characters, and a dash of humor. The main character of a cozy is an amateur at solving mysteries. She generally lives in a small community, or a small community within a large city.
What do you like about reading cozies?
They make me feel good. I can identify with the characters; I understand the difficulties they are facing. I laugh and cry with them. They transport me into another world for the time I am reading them. I can see the streets where they live and work in my mind’s eye as if I were there. In the series that I follow, I may be reading little tidbits about coffee, or baking, or miniature work—and, if I’m lucky, the author will include recipes! I also love trying to figure out who did what to whom before the author closes the story.
What made you want to write cozies?
It was a natural selection to want to write cozies, because that is what I prefer to read (although I do like legal mysteries, along the line of Haughton Murphy’s work). I also prefer my life to go at a gentler pace than it has perhaps in the past, and I want my writing to reflect that. I can bring in things like the tarot, meditation, astrology and crystals to augment the story, without the story having to be about them.
What’s most challenging for you about writing in this genre?
While I do not find writing in the cozy mystery genre challenging at all, I definitely want to channel a bit of Sherlock Holmes in my writing! However, while I am looking to write a series of cozy mysteries with a female protagonist, when I started the first story, it immediately became evident that it was not going to be a cozy! It falls more into the paranormal category, with references to mind-reading and long-distance viewing. It will be a three-book mystery series. But once I’ve completed the series, I’ll let the cozies flow!
What’s most rewarding about writing in this genre?
What is rewarding to me about writing in the cozy mystery genre is that I can be kind to all of my characters. There will be tension, of course, but no one has to be mean to anyone else. I can present everyday life in, hopefully, an interesting fashion—a fashion that will keep my readers coming back for more!
What software do you use when you’re writing for publication?
Every book I have authored or co-authored has been done in Microsoft Word. No other software was used. It was what I knew, And, yes, it was time consuming.
I am now using Grammerly, and find it a great help, as it corrects as I write. Yes, there are some days that I want to strangle it! But, overall, it polishes what I write and sees mistakes that I do not see.
I have Dragon, which is speech recognition software. I’ve used it off and on, but have found it hard to get used to. I keep the program because I have arthritis, and I know there will come a day when typing may become too much for my hands.
Right now, I am working with Scrivener, and feel this is the ultimate software for any writer to keep their work in good form and change things at will.
What tips would you offer my readers who might be interested in writing cozies?
For my mysteries, I start out by defining my protagonist and gathering some idea of what the story is going to be about. I have a writer’s bible for each of my books, where I keep lists of characters, their backgrounds, and their traits, along with the plot for each story, and its timeline.
My number one tip for all writers is to just start writing! Let it flow. You can always go back and edit. Each of us has something interesting to say—we just need to let it out. Allow the story to flow and allow each character to write their own story. Believe me, they will! If you feel stuck, walk away and do something else for a day or two, then go back. Most times I can edit a story to make it work. If I can’t make it work, I start over again.
I also have a blog where I write flash fiction—little 100-word stories. For me, writing flash fiction clears my head, and allows me to get back to my WIP with a fresh perspective.
Do you have any other suggestions for writers?
Something we have to remember as writers is that we need to keep our name out there, and we need to network. I found that, for myself, writing reviews helped me to keep my name out there and helped me meet other writers in the tarot field [the field in which Bonnie is best published], as well as connect with individuals in the deck and publishing industries.
I came across the Aeclectic Tarotsite early on in my review writing career and found it to be very beneficial. The site owner, Kate (Solandia), is a lovely lady with integrity and a knack for putting an excellent site together. I was blessed to meet her in person at one of the early Reader’s Studio conferences hosted by Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone. The site is still up, although no longer accepting reviews.
My suggestion would be to read what interests you, and review that. Place your reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, on your own site or blog, or anywhere you feel they will be seen.
Bonnie Cehovet is a professional tarot reader, author, reviewer, and Reiki master. She segued from working for 27 years as a medical technologist to becoming a professional tarot reader, which she has been doing for over 24 years. It was a case of an avocation becoming a vocation. Over the years, she has also added writing to her repertoire, mainly focusing on tarot and self-help, in the form of articles, books, and reviews (most of which have been placed with Aeclectic Tarot, Amazon, and Goodreads).
She currently lives in the state of Nevada with her two cats, Midnight and Pumpkin. Her focus right now is on publishing in the cozy mystery genre. She writes a flash fiction blog and an author’s blog.
TERI ANPOWI SAVELIFF AND I WERE TAROT FRIENDS before we were writer friends. Many’s the evening we’ve spent on the phone throwing cards for one another or sharing images from our newest decks. Then I read her charming NaNoWriMo-inspired novel, SIGNATURES, and was delighted to learn we had a whole other dimension of commonality to explore!
In this post, Teri draws from both our shared worlds, offering three ways to use tarot—a system of evocative visual images—to develop your novel.
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Before I published my first novel, SIGNATURES, the main characters and the bookshop where they worked had been inhabiting my head for decades. But characters, and even settings, have lives of their own, and they may insist on telling their story in ways you might not anticipate. As an avid student of tarot, I knew the cards would play a role in my novel. And I was right. Once tough-talking, tattooed Paloma—complete with her tarot deck—strolled into the bookshop and insisted on joining my cast of characters, she and her cards played a very large part in my novel, indeed.
In the past, I’ve often used the images, symbolism, and divinatory meanings of tarot cards to illustrate a point or move a plot along. In SIGNATURES, however, I didn’t merely toss the appropriate card into the story at the right time—I conducted actual readings for my characters. If you have some experience with tarot, I highly recommend this strategy when you need additional backstory for a character, want to test a character’s mettle, or want to explore secondary themes in your novel.
You don’t need to be a tarot expert to find the cards useful, however! Here are three different ways you can use a deck of tarot cards to explore your novel.
1. Know a smidge about tarot? Conduct a tarot reading as part of a scene.
One late addition to my cast of characters was Hanz Lippman, an author clinging to past achievements. He enjoyed holding court in the bookshop and flirting with coeds studying his book in their literature classes. I didn’t anticipate developing his character, further, though, until Paloma conducted a reading for him:
“Don’t draw more than one card,” commanded Hanz. “I don’t think I could stand any more than that.”
Paloma made a face and drew a solitary card. It depicted a young man, a small dog nipping at his heels. The man was perilously close to the edge of a cliff, but seemed unconcerned.
“The Fool,” said Paloma. “You seem to be at the beginning of a journey or undertaking.”
“Ha!” crowed Hanz. “I knew these cards were nonsensical bullshit. Tell me, dear, what sort of journey am I beginning? What project am I undertaking?”
“Well, this is usually why my client and I work together,” Paloma answered irritably. “I’ve told you, I’m not a fortuneteller. I would also draw a few more cards to answer the question. One card doesn’t always say enough.”
“My sweet little dove,” Hanz said with a smile, “I am far too old to be a fool, at the beginning of a journey or otherwise. You should have drawn an old man … a man without even a dog to accompany him on his travels.”
“The Fool can also represent someone at the beginning of a spiritual journey … or an emotional journey,” Paloma added.
“None of this resonates at all,” Hanz insisted stubbornly. He turned the card face down and slid it back toward Paloma.
“Of course, you could also be getting ready to walk right off the cliff,” Paloma retorted. “Not looking where you’re going, too confident in yourself. The good news is, the fall won’t be fatal.”
“Good news for whom?” teased Hanz. “I have a feeling you wouldn’t mind if I broke a bone or two.”
Paloma smiled noncommittally and gathered the cards into a single stack.
This reading added some depth to Hanz’s character and inspired me to create for him a much bigger role in my novel.
2. Not a tarot reader? Just one image can add intrigue or foreshadowing
Even a single card can add dimension or reinforce a theme in your story. The card may appear very straightforward, such as the card of Justice, usually depicting a blindfolded woman with a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other, or The Tower, often shown with lightning striking its peak and people falling from its windows.
In the case of this little scene, Maggie, the main character in SIGNATURES, draws her own card out of curiosity, and that card adds a bit of foreshadowing.
[Maggie] spied Paloma’s tarot deck sitting on the low round table not far from the window. On an impulse, she shuffled the cards and then drew one from the deck. She had to laugh. “The Lovers,” she smirked.
It so happens that Maggie pulled this card just before she goes on a date!
3. Don’t know the first thing about tarot cards? Tarot is character-centric! Let the figure on a card suggest an attitude or trait for one of your less-developed characters. (P.S. The internet abounds with pictures of tarot archetypes. Just Google “tarot cards” for a free treasure trove of inspiring images!)
You don’t need any experience with the cards to put them to work as a literary aid! Since tarot’s visual language can be said to be universal, even the most random tarot draw can spark fresh ideas. For instance, If you are looking to add a character to your story, or describe a character you haven’t fleshed out, you could draw a card to give your character a face.
One of my favorite decks, the GAIAN TAROT, depicts people from numerous ethnic backgrounds and cultures. When I was looking for a bit more information about the character of Paloma after she barged unexpectedly into my book, the GAIAN Seven of Fire suggested her multiple tattoos and air of independence.
Whether you utilize a few captivating illustrations on the internet, purchase an intriguing deck of your own, or become a full-blown tarot enthusiast like me, tarot can enrich and add dimension to your writing endeavors. Above all, have fun exploring a new tool!
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WRITING (AND TAROT) INSPIRATION
There are literally thousands of tarot decks to choose from. You might visit Amazon and search “tarot decks,” to get you started. However, the AECLECTIC TAROT site might be a better place to start. AECLECTIC offers decks categorized by art style, as well as sample images of all decks and even reviews of many decks.
Corinne Kenner’s TAROT FOR WRITERS offers many approaches to applying tarot imagery and meaning to enhance your creative writing project.
You’ll also find dozens of tarot-based writing prompts on this website. Just search “tarot,” using the magnifying-glass icon you’ll find in the top right hand corner of every page.
IF TAROT’S QUEEN OF WANDS WERE YOUR WRITING COACH, she would be your enthusiastic champion, your star-spangled cheerleader! She’d laud your literary talent and encourage you to hold to your creative vision, even when others question it. You see, she believes your pen is your magic wand—that it brings to life the imaginative worlds that live inside you.
An independent sort herself, the Queen of Wands would advocate for your independence. She’s not a joiner, so she wouldn’t necessarily suggest you find yourself a critique group. But she’s a hard worker and would expect you to be one, too. In her no-nonsense style, she’d tell you dig in—and maybe hand you a bullet-point list like this one to show you exactly what she means:
Read widely in your genre—especially books that have been published in the last three years.
Take classes—online (Gotham Writers has a good reputation) or at your local community college, no matter. Just open your heart to how others approach the craft. Then, take what you like and leave the rest.
Create a writing schedule—and stick to it.
Finish a draft, then get a good reader to review it (you might hire a pro, ask the smartiest smarty pants in your book group to take a look, or trade for pet-sitting with a neighbor who talks regularly and intelligently about the books she reads).
And after you’ve done all that, the Queen would give you a high five, pat you on the back, and tell you, in her heartiest voice, to go back now and revise, revise, revise.
I TOOK IMPROVISATIONAL ACTING CLASSES FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS. This exercise is the perhaps unorthodox child of those experiences and my crazy love of a complicated writing prompt. Here’s how I offered it in a writing workshop, once upon a time …
With Six You Get Egg Roll Start by describing a vacant setting. One character enters—with justification. (Why did your character come “on stage”? What are they after? Add some internals to let your reader know.)
After a bit, a second character joins the first—also with justification. Characters One and Two interact. Then Character Three joins the cast. All three play their roles, until Number Four, and then Five, enter in turn. (Add a Number Six, and you win the egg roll!)
Five Fingers on My Hand The trick? All your characters enter with reasonable justification, each has an agenda, and your drama engages them all: Think, mini-scenes, embroilment, cross-talk, cross-purposes, competition.
Then, for equally good reasons, in reverse order of their entrances, each character leaves the scene until your setting is once again an empty stage.
Harold and Maude Improv actors will recognize this exercise as a Harold, a classic improv device. Writers will recognize this exercise as a neat trick that forces them out of the box of two- or even three-character scenes. Past Monday night workshoppers will recognize this as a fresh pat of butter used to sizzle the creative (vegan) bacon of their agile brains.
What do you think?
Five? Six? Seven? How many characters can you get on and off the stage of your story while still holding tight to the belt loop that suspends your reader’s disbelief?
As you can see in the image above, five characters are engaged in a confrontation of some sort. The Five of Wands typically represents a hotly contested competition, a chaotic bid for power between factions, opposing voices or ideas, or a flair-up of conflicting goals.
Whether it’s a family drama, a bar brawl, or a political debate gone bad, it’s never pleasant to find ourselves smack in the middle of such a real-life clash of energy. However, if your fictional characters start acting out like this, you’re in luck!
So, while you probably don’t want to court such struggle in your day-to-day relationships, when you’re writing fiction, slap a version of the Five of Wands up on your inspiration board as a reminder to let your major characters knock each other around with big (metaphoric) sticks … until the dust settles and a winner emerges from the fray.
THE TAROT STRENGTH CARD typically shows a beautiful woman gently closing the jaws of a fearsome lion. When discussing the Strength card, we talk about taming our inner beast, controlling our impulses, or harnessing our own strength to face challenges. But we rarely talk about how the killer instincts of a lion might preserve us in times of danger or how some people won’t listen to us unless we roar!
Tarot writing prompt
For this prompt, let’s try turning tarot convention on its soft-and-fuzzy ear. Make a quick list of times you’ve loosed your own inner wild cat. (Aim for at least five examples.) Now scan that list. Is there one that still makes your hackles rise?
If so, grab that incident by the scruff of the neck and toss it onto a new page. Write about what incited you. Start by describing the scene. Where were you? Who else was present? Who said what to whom? Was there a moment when you felt yourself getting ready to spring? What was the trigger? What happened next?
Finally, after all was said and done, did you feel you used your strength for good? Or ill? Or some nicely complex combination of both?
THE FOUR OF WANDS SHOWS a group celebrating in the countryside. There’s a positive sense of community associated with this card. But while we might like experiencing such a harmonious event, it’s not that much fun to describe!
Tarot writing prompt
Your literary task, if you accept it, is to write about a family event—a reunion or other group outing—from memory or entirely from imagination. Include details of the bucolic setting and introduce a few of the characters enjoying the excursion. Then create a disruption: Hailstorm? Someone choking? A drunken fistfight? A gang out joyriding who happens onto the peaceful event?
Whatever disturbance you devise, make sure it not only up-ends the celebration of the moment, but irrevocably changes the lives of one of the characters we’ve met.
(Of course, the holidays are almost upon us. Perhaps there’s fodder for fiction—or fact—right there. In this case, the “festivities” are likely to occur within the four walls of someone’s home. But that won’t necessarily keep marauders at bay.)
THE CHARIOTEER, WITH HIS FOOTBALL-PLAYER SHOULDERS, is determined. He has all his ducks (and sphinxes) in a row. He’s laurel-wreathed and star-crowned. He’s got promise, dude! Get such a character in your sights—maybe modeling them on someone you know (or someone you used to be?)—and write about an early success they’ve had.
She led her high school debate team to their winning-est season ever, then earned a full scholarship to UCLA, graduating summa cum laude in political science.
Or, he was an Olympic equestrian hopeful, riding six-figure horses at the age of fifteen.
Next, fast forward ten years and look them up—only to find they’ve fallen deep into a well of circumstances that really surprise you, given their early promise.
She stays home with five young kids, now, and is supporting her husband’s bid for county commissioner.
Or he, horses a thing of the past, has become a beast of burden himself, humping forty-pound bags of feed and bales of hay at the local feed store.
What happened? Did she trip over her own hubris, too confidently taking on a project she couldn’t complete? Or did his attempt to besmirch a competitor’s reputation and steal their ride backfire? Are they in a slump from which they can’t seem to emerge? (Cue movie montage of a collapsed main character, unable to get out of bed, litter box stinking, produce that used to be whirled into fabulous energy smoothies moldering in their refrigerator’s produce drawer.)
Tarot writing prompt
However they got here, your character is drowning at the bottom of life’s pickle barrel. How can you help them? What kind of stakes can you create that will light a fire under your once-optimistic little charioteer and get them to rejoin the race?
Do you bring her face to face with an instance of social injustice that directly threatens her family—hoping she’ll get busy writing letters to the editor, canvassing her neighborhood, and speaking passionately at meetings of her local government?
Or, do you place a once magnificent, now-neglected horse in a field he passes on his way to work—hoping he’ll rescue it and bring both it and himself back to the glory of their earlier days?
Whatever their predicament, look into your character’s past and find the makings of a virtual cattle-prod of a motivation to jolt them back into the saddle again!
TAROT’S TWO OF CUPS can speak of early attraction—eyes meeting across a crowded dance floor, the meet-cute of romantic comedy fame, or the moment when the warm comfort of a friendship flares up into sudden passion.
Tarot writing prompt
Have you experienced such attraction? If so, you might want to recapture it by writing out the details of those early, excruciatingly heightened moments.
If not, throw two of the most unlikely people you can into a situation that forces them to interact. Were they both sentenced to community service? Best man and maid of honor at a wedding? Has the Ferris wheel stalled, leaving these two strangers stranded together in a car swaying at the very top? Wherever you stick them, make it uncomfortable for them both. Until, you know, those flames of passion erupt!