It’s Time to Rethink the “Great American Novel”

Yesterday I came across an article by an author who was trying to both define and write The Great American Novel (GAN). It got me wondering about what, exactly, the GAN is, why we are supposed to aspire to write it, and if the idea of the GAN still holds water today. It is something I hadn’t previously considered–I guess because I write commercial fiction and not literary and most definitions for some reason preclude commercial fiction.

First, how do you define The GAN? According to Wikipedia, it is “a canonical novel that is thought to embody the essence of America, generally written by an American and dealing in some way with the question of America’s national character.” Other criteria that have been developed include:

  • It must encompass the entire nation and not be too consumed with a particular region.
  • It must be democratic in spirit and form.
  • Its author must have been born in the United States or have adopted the country as his or her own.
  • Its true cultural worth must not be recognized upon its publication. (Source)

Let’s break this down:

“A canonical novel”
So it basically has to be a modern classic. But who determines that? Is it academia, critics, the public, or some combination? For the most part, what we define as a “classic” today is what we were told was classic in school. And does a classic always remain a classic? As we’ve very clearly seen over the last few years, culture changes, and with it, so does the definition of what is acceptable, both in subject matter and in regard to the behavior/attitude of the authors. (Let’s face it, the authors of some “classics” were sexist pigs.) Do we allow works with problematic content/authors to continue to be labeled as classic (as products or their time) or does the definition change over time?

“Thought to embody the essence of America”/It must encompass the entire nation and not be too consumed with a particular region.
My first thought is “whose America?” My America as a middle-class white woman is going to be vastly different from that of a Black woman, a white man, a non-binary person, an immigrant, or someone of a class above or below mine. The “essence of America” used to be considered that of the middle-to-upper class white man. But I would argue there is no one essence anymore, nor was there ever–there was simply a prevailing or ruling cultural viewpoint.

As for encompassing the entire nation, how does one do that? Unless you’ve lived everywhere for a length of time, how do you know what it is like to live in a certain place or be from that place? We have different viewpoints, attitudes and values in different parts of the country. If they mean the theme or plot has to be applicable to the entire country and not just, say, the Midwest or South or whatever, I guess I can get that.

Generally written by an American” or “Its author must have been born in the United States or have adopted the country as his or her own.”
Some people argue with this point because it rules out authors from other countries, but I can see it. As I said above, how do you really know a place if you’re not from there or you haven’t lived there for some serious length of time? I LOVE England. But no matter now much of an anglophile I am, can I really write something true to what it means to be English without having lived there? I don’t personally think so.

“It must be democratic in spirit and form.”
I’m not sure what this means. I guess they mean it needs to reflect the democratic system/values behind America. I think I can get behind that.

“Its true cultural worth must not be recognized upon its publication.”
Soooo, does this mean it can’t be a bestseller when it comes out? That it can’t win awards, etc.? That it has to molder in obscurity for 50-100 years? This is just dumb. How can it be a classic if no one at the time thinks it is destined to be? I think this may be an old point that doesn’t apply to an more literate and engaged audience like we have today. I also think it may be a precaution to keep commercial fiction out of the mix because it is what you see on the bestseller lists for the most part.

Why is the GAN important? Is the GAN still relevant today?
If you look at the GAN as it used to be conceived–by well off white men about the white male experience–no, it’s not relevant anymore, at least not to anyone outside of that group. I honestly couldn’t care less what some white dude thinks about American life. We’ve heard their blathering for centuries. They can continue to blather, but I also want to hear the voices of the underrepresented: the people of color, the immigrants, the women, those on the spectrum, the disabled, and those part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

As a concept, I can see the Great American Novel as a kind of guide or signpost about what it means to be American. However, the qualifications given really preclude this kind of book from ever existing. I mean, if it can’t focus on a region, how can it get to the essence of those people? And how can one single book really reflect the essence of a time period? I know some people argue that The Great Gadsby captured the essence of 1920s America. (As someone who HATES that book, I certainly hope not. If it does that means most men were pretenders and most women were featherheads.) But not everyone during that decade was a flapper or a bright young thing, so I don’t see how it can claim or be claimed to represent the whole of a country or period.

Instead, can there be a GAN for each decade, each class or for different parts of the country? It’s certainly more likely than there being one that encompasses everything. As Cheryl Strayed wrote, “the idea that only one person can produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole is pure hogwash.”

However, if we must persist in this idea of a GAN, then I believe we need to include commercial fiction (whether bestseller or not), break the definition into more manageable pieces, and allow for more than one perspective or book to encompass a part of what it means to be American. I actually wouldn’t mind if there was a collection of great American novels (notice I didn’t cap that)–ones that represent what it is like to live in all strata of American society. What it is like to grow up poor, be homeless, be in jail, have your rights taken away (or never granted) by law, to be blind/single/gender fluid/etc. in a world built for sighted/couples/cis/etc. people. What it is like to be an East coast elite or working class person, a Midwestern mogul or farmer, a Southern woman of color or a poor Appalachian. What it is like to rise from one thing to another within your community/culture/race. You get my point. That would be a really interesting reading experience.

If you want examples of books I would include, I would say that Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone and The Four Winds are both great American novels. The Great Alone vividly captures the isolation and beauty of life in Alaska and also what it must of been like to come back from Vietnam with PTSD, but not have a word or diagnosis for it yet. The Four Winds is an amazing portrayal of life during the Dust Bowl in the South/Middle Plains and as an emigrant seeking shelter in California. Both books are extremely immersive and teach as they entertain. I also think The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is an excellent example of what it must be like to be a Black teenager in a society where you have to fear the police.

Now, if we could just get the reading and literary communities behind something like this that would be a huge accomplishment. It would also be an inspiration for writers everywhere because it would mean any and all of us have the potential to write the GAN.

Social Media and Book Sales

So the big hubbub in publishing right now is the old question of whether or not social media sells books. This all started when the New York Times published an article about celebrity books and how these people with millions of followers have books that aren’t selling. Then the wonderful Jane Freedman posted a rebuttal that was, of course, exactly right.

Here’s my take for what it is worth:

The answer is yes and no. I’ve personally bought books because I saw them on social media. Even from quasi-celebrity Christine Quinn of Selling Sunset reality show fame. When it comes out will I have wasted by money? Likely. But I like how she has turned her villain status in the show into an empire and I’d like to see if I can learn a thing or two. Now, would I buy a book by Billie Eilish (whom the NYT article uses as an example)? No, but I barely know who she is.

And that’s the key. Big name or unknown, you have to market to your demographic. And that isn’t everyone. It isn’t even everyone who is following you. Yes, I get that it appears that your social numbers are a built-in audience, but that is faulty logic. First, there can be a lot of cross-over between platforms. When I like someone, I follow them on all platforms. So I may look like 4 or 5 potential sales, when I am really only one. Second, a lot of people follow just to follow, not necessarily to buy books, especially celebrities. I’ll give you an example. I follow Joanna Gaines because I like her and Chip and their show. But would I buy her books? Nope. I just don’t care enough–if I want to read it, I will borrow it from the library where it costs me nothing. Now, if you told me my fav actress of all time, Rachelle Lefevre, was writing a book, even if it was about her experience as a mother (I don’t like kids, much less have them) I’d be like

For all authors, its the level of engagement and fandom that counts. Even as small fish as I am, I have one person who, the second I post about writing something new, says the same two things: 1) write faster! and 2) when can I pre-order? THOSE are the fans who are going to buy your book because of social. (And yes, there are casual fans who see it on social and say, “why not?” But you can’t count on that because there is no way of know when/if that is going to happen.) As an author, I KNOW I have sold books because of social media. It is a huge part of how I hit the USA Today list a few years ago. (Here’s the whole post on what I did in case you want to see it.) People have told me they bought books on Facebook, Insta, etc. However, that was mostly because of personal connections, not ads. I know some people who are masters at them, but that is not me. It is really the personal connection/recommendation that sells books on social when you are not a household name. Because seriously, how often do you see a name you don’t know and go “I may take a chance on that.” It happens, but not often. That is why I was so devastated when FB/Insta deleted my accounts a few months ago. I had put YEARS of work into cultivating those relationships and then they were just gone, literally overnight, and there was nothing I could do.

What I hope comes out of all of this is that publishing stops OBSESSING over an author’s social numbers. People who aren’t good at social (not everyone is and that is okay) or who have had their accounts decimated like I did show up like unattractive prospects when too much emphasis is put on these arbitrary numbers. They aren’t a true indicator of future success, which is the point of the NYT article, at least not when taken alone.

In end, social media is nothing more than a tool in our marketing toolbox. It may sell some books, but no one should rely on it to do all the work. A book is only successful when everyone involved–the author, the publisher, the agent, the friends and fans of the author–does the work. That is why we beg for reviews, word of mouth recommendations and have street teams. That is why BookTok is a thing. Everything we do is in the service of selling our books, not just assuming they magically will. Unless you are Nora Roberts, that is. But even she has a publicity team and an assistant to do her social (she sometimes pops on with her own posts, too) and those HUGE NYT ads are proof that her publisher is still pushing her books, even when her name alone is enough to sell millions.

To get the goods, you have to put in the work. That is al there is to it.

Writer on a Deadline: Self Care

Image purchased from Adobe Stock

I have two books due by the end of the year. Well, actually one is due Dec. 3. I haven’t even started the second one yet. (Research is done, and I know I will get it done on time.) I have a full time job. Normally this would mean I am big ol’ stress puppy shedding cortisol like fur.

But today I woke up in a very “take my sweet time about everything” mood. This is totally not me. I live my life in fast forward. But I’m allowing myself to enjoy this dream-like state. Its what I imagine Luna Lovegood feels like all the time.

I think part of the reason for it is that we are at our peak fall color here in St. Louis. Normally that happens three weeks earlier, but the weather this year has been crazy warm. So now when I wake up and look out the window, I see beautiful orange-red trees; when I sit at this computer I see the gold trees out the front. Fall is my favorite time of year.

So despite being crazy busy, I’m leaning into the idea of self care where I can get it. I’m on a new medicine that my body is getting used to, so on the days it makes me sick, I try to be kind to myself and slow down however I have to while still getting work done. I’m listening to my body about what it wants to eat (or doesn’t, depending on the day).

But I’m also treating myself to a few special things in an effort to keep my sanity:

  • I have a tradition that every fall on the peak color weekend, I order Subway and go to a park to watch the leaves fall while I eat it. That came from my family always going “leaf watching,” and that is what we ate as part of our family picnic. This year I can’t take too much time away from writing and my appetite isn’t what it usually is, but I bought the sandwiches anyway. I’m cutting them into small sections and eating what I can once a day until they are gone to prolong the beauty of this tradition.
  • I’ve recently started journaling once or twice a day (usually when I wake up or before I go to bed) and that is providing some wonderful insights into my brain and my life. Plus, it is a peaceful way to start and end the day, regardless of what comes in between.
  • You better darn well believe that I am going to devour the new season of Selling Sunset when it comes out Nov. 21, deadline or no.
  • Instead of stressing myself over trying to be more active, I’m treating myself to daily stretching and listening to to audio version of A Discovery of Witches, one of my favorite books, when I can get out and walk around the neighborhood.
  • This one is a little odd, but I’m keeping my bathroom clean. I mean do clean it on a regular basis, but I’m doing it more frequently than usual. The idea came from an ad that said something about it being the first place you go in the morning and the last place you see at night (other than your bed, obviously). For some reason that really struck me. I want to begin and end my days in clean.

Before I know it, these books will be done and I’ll be into the new stressors of January, turning one of my books into an audio play and writing and recording a historical fiction master class. But after that, all I’m going to do is write fiction (and the non-fiction I’m under contract for) for the rest of the year.

Once this is all said and done, I’m going in for a big treat–the kind of thing most people think of when they think self-care. Next April I’m going to a conference in Bellingham, Washington. I’ve been to it before, so I’m going up a few days early to use the time for myself. I LOVE the hotel. There is a spa right by it at which I plan to get a massage and mani-pedi. Then I’m just going to write and enjoy myself.

I guess my point is to work little acts of self-care into your life. They can be as simple as going to bed earlier, drinking more water or saying no to a demand you don’t really want to do–anything that you can do for you. I know it is making my crazy time a little easier.

Manifesting My Dreams: The Magazine

A Halloween decoration from Michael’s that I have in my living room year-round. (Not an ad or affiliate link.)

Some of you know that I am big into manifestation – the idea that you can change things or create the life of your dreams by acting and thinking as though what you want has already happened. You have to work for it, of course–nothing is going to come to you if you just sit around and wait. This is the idea behind The Secret, the writings of Wayne Dyer and countless other life coaches and self help gurus. Your opinion may vary, but I really think there is something to it.

I’ve been practicing manifestation techniques for years–probably over a decade, I’m not sure. It started with a vision board, which I wasn’t too sure would work, but slowly, it did. One example: I had dreamed about Ireland one night (and drinking beer at a pub through chocolate straws with Jon Bon Jovi–don’t ask, I don’t know either) so I put photos of Dublin on my vision board; several months later I was invited to a spend a week there for my job (which is not international, so it was quite a shock). Then I started reading more and became more intentional in my thoughts. The first thing I was ever conscious of manifesting was my first Book of the Year award in early 2016. I visualized it until the cows came home and I was still shocked when I won.

All of this to give you background for my newest project. I’ve been listening to podcasts by life coach Tonya Leigh for about a year or so now. She’s all about changing your life (elevating it) by changing your mindset–in essence, manifestation. A few weeks ago I got the chance to do a week-long online workshop with her called Think Like an Editor. The whole week was geared around pretending you are the editor of the magazine of your life. Without giving away her secrets (take the workshop if she ever offers it again; it is SO worth it), she guides you through coming up with a title, cover photo and headlines for your magazine that are based on your dreams.

I liked what we did so much that I mocked up my cover on Canva. We had such a wonderfully strong female community for the week on Facebook that I decided to try Tonya’s School of Self-Image for a month (I’m waiting for money to come in that will allow me to sign up for a year). While I was working on some other things last night, I got the idea to actually make the magazine. (Could also have been influenced by recently watching the Vogue documentary, The September Issue) By this I mean write the articles as though they’ve already happened, use stock photos, even put in ads for things I intend to buy someday. I may even break it into sections. Who knows. And it will grow as I do.

I’ll post the whole thing online somewhere when I’m done with it and tell you a little about what each thing means, etc. Right now it is a fun side project for when my job and two end-of-year book deadlines get to be too much. Plus it keeps me focused on my dreams, rather than my stress.

Here’s the story behind the cover: My headline was actually supposed to be “sexy confidence” based on the directions of the workshop, but I changed it. The reason That Girl is the headline is its the title of a song by a band I LOVED in my early 20s that encapsulates how I want to feel. And the image shows the wealth, success and elegance that goes with it. (That image is also on my current vision board. I’m pretending it is downtown Chicago, even though it is clearly NYC.)



I’m a Biographer, Weeeeee!!!!

(Yes, the title is a Hamilton reference.)

Several years ago I came across the name Virginia Minor when researching my historical novel, Madame Presidentess, which is about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President in the U.S. in 1872. Because Virginia wasn’t who I was writing about at the time, I noted her as an interesting figure (she is the one from whom Victoria got the idea that the 14th amendment already gave women the right to vote) and moved on.

Virginia Minor

But Virginia wouldn’t let me go. I kept thinking about her and wondering how a woman could come up with such an intelligent and unorthodox theory during a time when college-level education was reserved for men (and a few rich women.) I started researching her and found a few profiles and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. But there was no biography for her.

Well, in 2023 there will be!

I am so thrilled to be sharing her “forgotten” story with the world. The biography is really a dual biography of her and her husband, Francis, because they were “partners in crime” on the subject of suffrage–and equal in all things (which was unusual for their time). However, there is far more information available on Virginia, but I was able to reconstruct a good portion of Francis’ career as a lawyer, as well as his suffrage work.

One of the reasons this book is so important to me is that the way we’re taught about the Suffrage Movement in school is that is was pretty much taken care of by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a handful of other women. But that is far from the truth. The movement was actually progressed by thousands of women of all races and class levels. Writing them back into history is so important to a fuller understanding of the movement and its repercussions to us today.

America’s Forgotten Suffragists is a cradle to grave biography because it is the first one ever written about Virginia and Francis. Among the things you’ll learn about them:

  • Their early lives, education, courtship and wedding.
  • Virginia’s work during the Civil War in the health department and Francis’ work as a war claims agent.
  • Virginia’s founding of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Missouri two years before Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone formed their national organizations.
  • How Virginia and Francis came up with the New Departure (the 14th amendment theory) and argued it through the court system all the way to the Supreme Court.
  • Virginia’s tax revolts (refusing to pay her taxes until women get the vote)
  • Her work with Susan B. Anthony to campaign for women’s suffrage in Nebraska
  • Virgina’s unorthodox funeral and will.
  • Posthumous honors for both

And if you want a little preview, you can visit, which is the companion website to the book.

If you had told me four years ago that I would write and publish a biography, I would have told you you were crazy. I didn’t think I was a good enough writer for non-fiction much less that I had research skills to write a biography from scratch. But when an idea seizes you and doesn’t let go, you follow. And this one gave me two amazing people who now feel like grandparents (a few times great) to me. I hope they will to everyone who reads about them, too.

OMG! I’m a Hybrid Author

So…I have news!

I am over-the-moon excited! I’m finally a hybrid author! This has been a long time coming and I am so excited to write these books. Here’s a little more about them:

Not the real cover.

Sex and the City: A Cultural History
This book will provide cultural context and analysis of the famous show, both how it affected cultural as it aired and also how it looks now 20+ years later. Some topics include:

  • Looking at what it means to relate to each of the girls (ala, Are you a Carrie? A Samantha? A Miranda? A Charlotte?)
  • What the men in the show illustrate about masculinity and what that means about the kind of men women are attracted to.
  • Issues like diversity or lack thereof, treatment of sex and sexuality, LGBTQIA portrayal.
  • How the show made New York a character, built brands, influenced fashion and reflected third wave feminism.
  • And a lot more!

I have an end of year deadline, so hopefully the book will come out around the time the reboot, And Just Like That, airs.

Fierce Females in Television: A Cultural History

Not the real cover.

This book will briefly discuss the nature of physically strong women on TV from the 1950s-1980s, but will focus specifically on the 1990s to today because that is when we saw a major ramp up in the portrayal of these kinds of women.

Shows covered include: Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Charmed (1998-2006), Alias (2001-2006), Nikita (2010-2013), Agent Carter (2015-2016), Jessica Jones (2015-2019), Game of Thrones (2011-2019), and Homeland (2011-2020).

Some of the topics include:

  • An analysis of the main female characters on each show.
  • The meaning of female strength and friendships/family.
  • The influence of third- and fourth-wave feminism on the shows and their characters.
  • Treatment of sex and diversity.
  • The role of redemption narratives and change in female lives.
  • And more!

This book will be out sometime in 2023/24. 

Between these, the League of Women Voters book (due Oct. 4) and at least one work of historical fiction, you know what my next few months and even my 2022 will look like!

Reading Tarot Spreads to Help With 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. 

If you’re new to the tarot, head on over to my main blog 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.

The Knight of Wands

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.

The Five of Wands

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.

The Lovers

(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!

Looking for a Quick Read? I’ve Got One for You!

Whether you are waiting to pick up your child, need something to help you drift off to sleep or just have a few minutes to kill, sometimes having a short read on your phone or tablet is handy.

And I have a new historical story for you. My debut novella, Consequences, was just published yesterday. It’s only 35 pages and takes less than an hour to read. I don’t normally write shorter than book length, but this was a story just begging to be told. Here’s the summary:

Famous for her hospitality, Venerable Catherine McAuley only ever turned away one woman who came to her for help, and that decision haunted her for the rest of her life.

This is that servant’s story.

Dublin – 1824. When a fellow maid is forced to temporarily vacate her position under scandalous circumstances, Margaret finds herself in an elevated position under the watchful eye of their master, the infamous Lord Montague. He believes in total obedience from those in his employ and when she dares to fight back, Margaret is left with no choice but to flee or face his wrath. Desperate, she seeks out a pious spinster named Catherine McAuley who is known for her charity to the poor. The decisions both women make upon meeting will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, as well as everyone in their orbit.

Based on a true story, this heart-pounding historical tale will leave you wondering just how much has really changed in the last two hundred years.

I first heard the story of Catherine and the unnamed servant girl about 15 years ago. It struck me as so out of character for Catherine, who is on the path to sainthood in the Catholic Church, that it stayed with me. (They say it haunted Catherine as well.) I’d find myself every so often trying to figure out why this generous woman would have said no to someone so clearly in need. (The servant’s exact circumstances, identity and Catherine’s motivations are all lost to history.) When an opportunity to write this story for an anthology (which never materialized) came up a few years ago, I couldn’t pass it up. But instead of telling Catherine’s side of the story, I decided to create one for the forgotten servant.

I purposefully released the story on International Domestic Workers Day (June 16) to help draw attention to the fact that most domestic workers have little to no legal rights in the United States even today. They are often paid in cash far below the legal minimum wage, get no paid time off or benefits, cannot unionize and are routinely subject to slave-like conditions, physical and sexual abuse, and even human trafficking. I was fortunate enough to get an op-ed in The Hill about this very subject, if you want to learn more and find out what you can do.

Ill treatment of domestic servants has a long, dark history. Read Consequences, then read the op-ed. It’s frightening how little has changed.

I hope that by sharing Margaret’s story (that’s what I named the girl), you will be entertained, but also a little more informed than you were before. That is what I believe the purpose of historical fiction is: it tells a great story, but it also teaches at the same time. And it is one of the reasons I love this genre.

The Trick is to Pay Attention

“The trick is to keep breathing.” – Garbage

Yes. Breathe first. But second, pay attention. (10 points to Ravenclaw for each one of you who knows that song reference – you have excellent taste in music.)

My brain is stuck in the 1990s lately because I’m working on two book proposals that have to do with female characters on TV in the late 90s and early 00s. I mention this because I found the opportunity on a Facebook group for ghostwriters that I’m a part of. If I hadn’t been paying attention to my feed, it would have passed me by. But because I did, I have the opportunity to pitch two books now and have three others in mind, which could do wonders for my career.

My point is that opportunities are everywhere if you pay attention. A friend of mine was on the Today show about a year ago and now she is in Forbes, just because she was able to pitch her story to the right person at the right time. Another of my friends was a finalist for the Penn Faulkner Award in Fiction this year because he dared to enter even though he isn’t well known and his publisher is small. A paper that I gave at a history conference is being turned into an article for a magazine, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t applied to the conference to speak even though I’m not an official historian.

Tips for finding opportunities:

  • Pay attention to the news (and sports, entertainment, whatever your writing fits best with) and keep an eye out for events and other things you can tie into or get involved with.
  • Set up Google alerts for the subjects/keywords of your books so you can monitor what is going on.
  • Join HARO (help a reporter out) and don’t be shy answering queries related to your expertise. I’ve gotten some great press coverage that way.
  • Join writing groups on social media and investigate opportunities that appeal to you.
  • Actively seek out groups that are similar to your subject and/or places your readers hang out. You never know what may catch your eye.
  • Be brave! Don’t ever think you aren’t good enough, well known enough, etc. There is no such thing. You can’t win if you don’t play!
  • Keep an open mind. Once you start looking, you’ll see opportunities everywhere.

In addition, inspiration is everywhere if you pay attention.

I follow a lot of people (writers and otherwise) whose careers I want to imitate. From looking at their websites, analyzing their newsletters and social media activity, I think about what I can model in my own life. There are a lot of things I don’t have the budget/time to do (yet) but sometimes there are scaled back versions I can do right now.

Ideas for finding inspiration:

  • Follow blogs, newsletters, other communications on people and subjects you care about.
  • Join groups on social media that discuss these topics and issues.
  • Become involved (online for now, but in person once COVID is over) in groups of people who are passionate about the same things you are.
  • Read and watch movies/TV widely. It could be one little word or scene that triggers something in your mind.
  • If you are a visual person like me, frequent Instagram and Pinterest for images that inspire you. Save them and look back every so often to see if anything strikes you.
  • Take time to refill your well. Walk in nature. Go to a museum or other place that inspires you. (I personally like New Age stores – they rebalance my energy. Oddly enough, Whole Foods does as well.)
  • Take time to dream. Imagine your perfect life. Sketch out what you can do to get there. Make a vision board. I am a firm believer that when you think about things, they happen.

It’s easy to sleepwalk through life – especially now during the pandemic when we’ve been worn down by so much strangeness – but that isn’t going to benefit you or anyone else. Even if you don’t have the energy to do anything right now (I’ve experienced burnout, so I know what that is like), keep a list of ideas/opportunities to address at a later date. Future you will thank present you.