Michaeline: A Tarot Spread for a NaNo Writing Prompt

Nine card spread of tarot cards, explained in text

This is the Smith-Waite Tarot Deck (Centennial Edition) in a tin. It’s a very traditional deck full of tarot symbols. (Image by E.M. Duskova)

I created a tarot spread to help spark a new story for National Novel Writing Month, and I thought I’d share it with you. The spread is quite simple. The left side represents my protagonist, the right side my antagonist, and the bottom concerns the plot point.


2    5

1    4

3    6

7 8 9

1. This is the heroine of my story. The seven of cups suggest many choices. The Waite-Smith Little White Book contains the keywords of: fairy favors, imagination, through a looking glass. Also, with that many cups, I thought my heroine might be a bartender. And because my imagination is a little perverse, I thought a tee-total bartender would be a lot of fun to write.
2. This card represents her goal, or the overlying theme of her existence. Bad news, censure or conflict are the key words for the eight of swords. She’s bound by a lot of different ties. (To be honest, this is a difficult card to work with in the position of “goalz!” It suggests a heroine with no agency – which is a constant problem with my work!)
3. This card represents her motivations, or the underlying theme of her existence. The wheel of fortune’s key words are fortune, success, felicity. But my intuitive interpretation is that she’s got no agency, and is at the whim of Lady Luck. It ties in quite nicely with Card 2, but this isn’t the sort of heroine we are supposed to be writing! She should be active, not reactive. She should chart her own destiny, not just coast by under a lucky star.
4. This is the hero, or the antagonist. I’m really fuzzy about the difference between hero and antagonist in a romance. Often, the hero and heroine tend to join forces and become one protagonist, trying to beat the bad guy. I choose to see this as my hero. Look at him: Temperance is an angel! He’s god-touched in a way that parallels her luck, but comes from a different direction. You don’t have to answer to Lady Luck, but you do have to answer to gods. The key words tell a slightly different story: economy, management, frugality. (And at this point, I realize my reading is starting to resemble Jack and Olivia – Jack is a beautiful frost god who must learn to be temperate because he’s just lost his powers. We’re not supposed to write old stories for NaNo!)
5. His goal or overlying theme of his existence. The Emperor is a mature man of reasoned judgment. The keywords are stability and protection. Good goals! Grow up, little boy.
6. His motivations or underlying theme of his existence. Reversed nine of pentacles/coins. He’s lost his garden, his value. Keywords: roguery, deception, bad faith and voided projects. Well, he is a voided project. And roguery has served him quite well in the past; it must be tempting to keep being a sly dog and avoid problems instead of face them head-on – and that also provides an interesting contrast to the temperate angel of Card 4.
7. Ignition point: first conflict that starts the story is defined by the King of Wands. A lizard king, a guy in charge is making trouble, and may be the true antagonist of the story. Keywords: a countryman, generally married, honest and conscientious. Interesting – this could be a villain who is not a villain.
8. First turning point: Seven of pentacles. (How does this tie in with the hero’s fault, the reversed nine of pentacles?) Hard work leads to a good harvest. Key word: treasure. So, in some stories, there’s a point where everything is going right. Things are really working, and coming together. It’s usually a bright spot before a horrific fall.
9. Second turning point: Reversed three of cups, and this looks like a dark night of the soul. All joy is drained out.

This isn’t the only reading. If I need more advice, I can pull cards at any time to help guide the action, new characters, or new events. But in generally, I feel that if the story isn’t writing itself after the second turning point, it’s probably got some major problems earlier in the story.

Nine cards described in text, but this time, it's The Housewives Tarot

The Housewives’ Tarot drags a 50s sensibility into the 21st century. Women are the heroes of this deck, and the symbols make a lot of modern references. (Image by E.M. Duskova)

To add extra information, I placed the same cards from a different deck over the Waite-Smith cards. It’s really amazing to see the variety of tarot cards out there these days. I think the internet makes it easier to share, and also is inspirational to tarot creators. I’ve seen a cat tarot that’s positively hedonistic. And there’s a very interesting wild-life tarot called The Wild Unknown, which brings animal associations to the mix. I chose The Housewives’ Tarot, which is a sassy, stylish deck that reflects the kind of story I’d like to write: fun, full of verve, and woman-based.

The cards are the same, but The Housewives’ Tarot adds or even changes the information I get. For example, even though The Housewives’ Tarot doesn’t offer reversed advice, I can see that in Card 6, the dishwasher is broken. Chaos reigns because a fundamental tool is out of commission. Also, the reversed three of cups offers a different perspective: from one cup, two are formed. Do my hero and heroine come from the same place, thematically? Or is it that my heroes and my villains are basically the same, but take two different paths?

At any rate, I’m sad to report that my Brand New Story didn’t pan out. I wrote about 1,200 words, and the juice just wasn’t there. On the plus side, it’s offered a glimpse into an old story – and it’s interesting that my mind goes to my old story instead of glomming onto this information to create a new one. Even a detour can be useful in the writing game, so we’ll see what happens.

8 thoughts on “Michaeline: A Tarot Spread for a NaNo Writing Prompt

  1. Wow, tarot sounds a lot more complicated than I realized. But I’m glad it’s sparking ideas for you. And the universe might just be telling you to write some more in the Jack/Olivia universe (and I’m totally not saying that just because I’d love to read more of those stories ;-)).

    Re: characters who start the same and take different paths, that sounds a lot like Michael Hague’s definition of nemesis. Once upon a time, turns out it was 4 years ago!, I wrote an 8LW post about it. I used the TV show Justified to show how the main character and series-long protagonist had a very similar backstory and end goal, but took to different sides of the law to achieve that goal. Here’s the link, in case it’s helpful.

    And all your rumination on your story made me realize yet another flaw with Harry and Adelia’s story – ACK! But at this point, I’m going to push through the last 20k words, then try to fix it during the revision. I’ve already had to push back the release date on this one a month because this story has kicked my a$$, and might have to push it a bit more if I’ve written myself into another corner. Arghhhhh!

    • I think Tarot’s a distillation of “things that really happen to people” and “personality types” — and whoever came up with it was quite a genius, because most of those 14th century archetypes are still very relatable in the 21st century. The Fool, for example, who starts off his/her journey with a light-hearted step and a great deal of hope . . . not noticing the cliff under his/her feet. (His/her little dog does notice, though, and yaps to get his/her attention.)

      Rather than making a spread and letting Fate decide who and what your characters will be and want, it’s also possible to just flip through the cards, and stop when you recognize someone — “Oh, yeah, Hero is totally a Hermit. And Heroine is very much the Chariot — a road trip in human form. Now, how can I mush these guys together?”

      Are Harry and Adelia the fourth couple or the fifth couple in your series? Either way, it’s important not to let artificial deadlines get in the way of making their stories the best that you can make them. I think giving yourself and extra month is a wise and reasonable concession.

      Thanks for the link! I love that trope — there but for the grace of whatever go I. Two people with the same start making different decisions and different pathways. It’s particularly charming in a romance, where the heroine thinks she has nothing in common with the hero . . . but then discovers that even though they manifest in very different ways, underneath they have a lot in common. The paths diverge, and then when they meet each other, their paths converge again — but they bring very different skill sets to the new convergence, and help each other out a lot.

      But, as in your example, when it’s the protagonist and the antagonist, it’s a very interesting dynamic and it helps us define our own actions — our motivations may actually be neutral, but the choices we make to fulfill the goals can be evil or good. The way is not always justified by the goals.

  2. I love The Housewives Tarot. So much fun! I borrowed a book from the library a few years ago (I don’t recall the title) which was all about using the tarot as a tool pronpt for writing characters and storylines. I should check it out again. Thanks for the reminder. I am a tarot enthusiast. 😊

    • I have a book about writing and tarot, too, but I haven’t cracked it open yet. LOL, I’m still working on the Biddy Tarot book, and I feel like I should finish that first. Justine recommended it to me . . . let’s see, it’s Tarot for the Fiction Writer by Paula Chaffee Scardamalia. Lots of advice out there. I’m looking at this link as soon as I send this comment — I’ve heard a lot of good things about The Creative Penn website. https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2018/12/14/writing-with-tarot-how-the-cards-point-the-way-to-your-story/

      • Oh that’s awesome. Thank you for that link… checking it out now, and I’ll look up that book Tarot for the Fiction Writer. I just checked my library website to see what the book was I had borrowed, it’s Tarot for Writers by Corrine Kenner. It only got a rating of 3/5 stars on the library website. I’ll look for reviews on Amazon to see what people are saying.

        • (-: I really liked that link, too. The blog post I should have written! I think the questions she uses to move the story forward are very useful! I’m going to give it a shot, and I may report back on how that went. It might be tarot and writing month for me . . . .

        • Generally, I have found that most people tend to ask a yes or no question when consulting the tarot, like, “Will he come back to me?” Most frequently, I have found, people ask the tarot about relationship issues when they are feeling down on their luck.

          I like how this article reminds people to think of better questions and simply explained: The tarot is most useful when you ask a specific question, but one that doesn’t have a yes or no answer. “What is missing in this scene?” is a much more useful question, for example, than “Is this scene working?”

        • LOL, tarot is *lousy* for yes/no questions, isn’t it? I feel that every card can be read positively or negatively (although some are a stretch). So, even something like, “should I continue with this story?” winds up with a really vague answer.

          I think of tarot reading as putting together a coherent story from the cards drawn and also from what I know of the seeker. VERY similar to putting together a story from word prompts (except tarot offers a lot more — a single card may have 20 associations if you look carefully, so the story teller needs to be good at split decisions — “no, that’s unnecessary for this story; yes, I need that; oh, I can use that!”

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