Natania Barron: Five Things I Learned Writing Queen of None

When Anna Pendragon was born, Merlin prophesied: “Through all the ages, and in the hearts of men, you will be forgotten.”

Married at twelve, and a mother soon after, Anna – the famed King Arthur’s sister – did not live a young life full of promise, myth, and legend. She bore three strong sons and delivered the kingdom of Orkney to her brother by way of her marriage. She did as she was asked, invisible and useful for her name, her status, her dowry, and her womb.

Twenty years after she left her home, Anna returns to Carelon at Arthur’s bidding, carrying the crown of her now-dead husband, Lot of Orkney. Past her prime and confined to the castle itself, she finds herself yet again a pawn in greater machinations and seemingly helpless to do anything about it. Anna must once again face the demons of her childhood: her sister Morgen, Elaine, and Morgause; Merlin and his scheming Avillion priests; and Bedevere, the man she once loved. To say nothing of new court visitors, like Lanceloch, or the trouble concerning her own sons.

Carelon, and all of Braetan, is changing, though, and Anna must change along with it. New threats, inside and out, lurk in the shadows, and a strange power begins to awaken in her. As she learns to reconcile her dark gift, and struggles to keep the power to herself, she must bargain her own strength, and family, against her ambition and thirst for revenge.

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Women Are Mostly Just Plot Points in Much of Medieval Literature

I mean, I get it. I’ve read enough Western literature to innately understand that, for the better part of the last few thousand years, women aren’t exactly portrayed as heroes, or really anything other than convenient stumbling blocks for the real heroes. There are a handful of exceptions, of course, but it’s far from the norm.

Now, I’ve got to preface this by saying, Queen of None came about shortly after I graduated from my MA program, where I studied Medieval literature and Arthuriana in general. I came into that program with a Just Because I’m a Woman Doesn’t Mean I’m a Feminist Scholar attitude and left with I Am a Feminist Scholar and I Will Burn Down the Patriarchy mentality.

But Arthuriana, and the romances of the Middle Ages, are particularly cringe-worthy in terms of the “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords” factor. Women show up all over the place: in ponds, in forests, in towers, and in beds (there are so many Elaines in the Arthurian legends it borders on ridiculous). Granted, there weren’t a whole lot of options in terms of adventuring for a woman, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In fact, the more I learned about the expansive Middle Ages, the more I found women who were so much more than plot points: real women who wrote books, traveled the world, had visions, and chronicled history.

The whole idea for Queen of None came from a single passage I read during my undergraduate studies in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. It simply said that Igraine and Uther had two children, Arthur and Anna. But while Arthur gets all the attention, Anna vanishes in the shadow of the king and her half-sisters.

I Can Write Books and Be a Mom

Motherhood and writing are inextricably connected for me. I’d always considered myself a writer. In fact, I don’t really remember when I started writing book-length things. I just always had stories that needed multiple pages. But I was very bad at finishing those stories, and I was mostly a copycat for the majority of my early writing life (no shade, that’s totally what most young writers do). Hell, I rewrote the better part of The Stand when I was 13 or so.

When my son was born, however, I understood that I needed to finish writing. I needed to start writing books, not just… book-shaped things that couldn’t be published. I didn’t want my son to ask me, “Mom, what did you want to be when you grew up?” and my answer be that I dreamed of being a writer someday. I wanted to be able to tell him that I worked damned hard at it, and made it happen.

Be warned though, writing with kids is not easy. When people ask me what it’s like to balance a writing career, a full-time career, and raising kids, I explain that it’s very much like wrestling a greasy owlbear. It is hard. It’s a lot of eking out words and edits at weird hours, a lot of not doing things (like watching television or hanging out). It’s, dare I say it, discipline.

And even more than that? Keeping a writing career going while raising a family means you constantly have to learn new ways to write. You have to be flexible. I have a special needs son. The only constant is change.

Trunk Novels Aren’t Always Trunk Novels

I started writing Queen of None as a NaNoWriMo project in 2009 or so. Then I spent a year or so revising it. I sent it out and it was rejected. Once. So I decided, naturally, that it was never meant to be and no one cared and it was, therefore, a trunk novel (i.e. a novel I would store in my virtual “trunk” with all the other not fit for publication books out there) and total hot garbage, and maybe I should consider quitting writing? Thankfully I didn’t go that far. But yeah. We writers can sure have some rollercoaster emotions.

Let me preface this with saying, I’ve recently been diagnosed with ADHD. And this kind of behavior is often called RSD, or rejection sensitive dysphoria. Generally, I have a thick skin about this stuff. But in the case of this book, I totally turtled.

I ended up coming back to Queen of None over and over again. I edited it more. I added new scenes. I changed the characters. I rewrote a big chunk of it. Then I did some more edits. Then, I was approached by Vernacular Books and I told them, “Hey, I have this Arthurian feminist romance that casts Arthur’s sister as a hero, but it’s kind of like Circe and maybe you’d like it?”

They did. And here we are.

Damnit, I Love the Editing Process So Much

I think I might like editing more than I like writing. And when you find the right editor? It’s just magic. Eric Bosarge, my editor on Queen of None, he told me that his favorite scene was Lanceloch’s fishing scene (you’ll have to read to understand). And what blew my mind was that in all the scenes — and far more exciting events — that was also my favorite.

Eric’s questions, like good editors should, helped me really burnish the manuscript to where you see it now. It was an intense month of editing for me (hello, hyper-focus), and I held the whole book in my head again, dreaming of it, pushing myself to make more connections and go deeper with language, with the theme, with character. All in all, even though the book is under 100,000 words, I tracked well over 10,000 changes between Eric’s edits and my own. My poor computer wanted to kill me. And it was almost euphoric for me. I love making things better.

But I’m so proud of what came out of it. The scenes I added, the edits I made, all really just enhance the story on another level. As writers, we need to be pushed out of our comfort zones in order to improve. It’s a scary business, walking outside your door, to quote Bilbo. But stasis isn’t just a creativity killer, it can be a career killer. Especially in this raucous, unpredictable, wild world of publishing in the digital era.

Heroes Don’t Always Carry Swords

In many ways, Queen of None is a quarantine novel.  No, there isn’t a pandemic in the book. But Anna, but dint of her status and relationships, doesn’t leave Carelon during the entirety of the narrative save for one instance. She lives in castles. She haunts the halls. She becomes a shadow. While the knights of the Table Round are out slaying beasts, hunting grails, bedding dames, and knocking skulls for the realm, she’s doing embroidery (albeit begrudgingly).

That doesn’t mean, however, that she can’t have power. Like the medieval women of my studies, she still exists. She still finds power, both from within and through her relationships. If there’s anything that defines Anna Pendragon, it’s her patience, her willingness to wait. Maybe she’s a little bit of Aaron Burr in that respect (there really are some parallels, now that I think about it). Time and again, she puts herself, her body, her mind, and her soul, on the line to fight for what she believes is true. That doesn’t always mean she gets it right, or that she’s a good mom or sister or wife in the process. But a complex heroine is a lot more fun to write than one who is the pinnacle of purity and sweetness.

And that resounds with me, as well. I’ve always loved epic fantasy, heroic tales, and swashbuckling adventures: but there aren’t a lot of women for me to look at. The tale of Arthur is not new, but Anna is. That meant she had to bring something different to the table (pardon the pun, or don’t). As a writer, that was such a satisfying experience. As a woman, a mother, and someone who’s had to stand up for what she believes in time and again, it was also a powerful experience.

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Natania Barron has been traveling to other worlds from a very young age, and will be forever indebted to Lucy Pevensie and Meg Murry for inspiring her to go on her own adventures. She currently resides in North Carolina with her family, and is, at heart, a hobbit–albeit it one with a Tookish streak a mile wide.

Natania Barron: Website

Queen of None: Indiebound | Bookshop.org | Amazon