Guest Post: “The Kings of the Corona”, by Justin Tarquin

Justin is the author of “Kings of the Corona”, one of the stories in “Tales of the Once and Future King”. As a side note, “Kings of the Corona” was one of my and my sister’s favorite stories. It had to be, because for us to allow a story in that breaks our rules it had better blow us away…and “Kings” was quite a bit over our word count limit!  For such an excellent story, however, we were happy to make an exception.

My first story, or anyway my first “real” story (with, you know, plot and characters with motivations and all), is “The Kings of the Corona”, and appears in the anthology TALES OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, along with about 20 other stories by other authors. I’ve read the collection with pleasure.

But for me, the experience of doing something id always wanted but never managed was thrilling. I’d wanted to write fiction, either science fiction or fantasy, for a long time, and in the past four or five years I’ve begun thinking more seriously about it. I had started reading John C. Wright’s blog about how the culture wars are playing out in SF/F circles and the idea of contributing something to “building our own culture” attracted me. It was the fracas over the 2015 Hugos that stirred me into making preparations—like Mauregal, the hero of my story, I’m very big on methodical preparations—jotting down story notions that randomly occurred to me, and in a few months I had a list of ideas that could form the bases of many stories—but still no actual story begun.

About this time I read Anthony Marchetta’s anthology, GOD, ROBOT. The theme of this anthology—a line of sentient robots that muse on matters of faith and take up religion, and the interactions they have with humanity over the centuries—intrigued me as much as the stories themselves (which are delightful and thought-provoking—if you haven’t read it yet, go get it), and got me thinking more seriously than ever about buckling down and writing.

Then, spring 2016, Declan Finn had Anthony Marchetta and several of the GOD, ROBOT authors on his Catholic Geek podcast, and I made sure to listen. The whole podcast had me enthralled: these were the writers of the stories I’d just read, some of them experienced authors, some (unless my memory is tricking me) only a little further along than I was—except that they’d actually done it while I was still only thinking about it!

But I was most excited when Anthony remarked that his next project would be an “Arthurian juvenile” anthology: tales of King Arthur and the knights of Camelot, but in any settings the author might like: they could be pirates, cavemen, as wild as you please: or even in the traditional Old England. He planned to invite submissions and make his selections that summer.

As soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to be in that anthology. I turned to my “story notions” notebook and looked at all the ideas I’d jotted down. Most of them I couldn’t imagine fitting into an Arthurian frame, even with the wide latitude Anthony had suggested, but there was just one that had possibilities. I still have it, exactly as I wrote it down when it had first occurred to me—please pardon the informality:

Fantasy world: the people are ruled by a king, who had a kind of halo. When king dies, halo moves to someone else, not predictable. If king orders someone to do something, and they don’t do it, misfortune befalls them.

Alternative: world has magic, but con men tell that story to stranger when all they really have is the halo.
Alternative: Kingship transfers to a reluctant peasant. POV his brother? friend?
What other magic enters into the story?
Is the story about the end of the halo spell? Learning something about it? The effect it has on characters?

That was all. If you read “The Kings of the Corona”, as I hope you will, you’ll see that the final story differs from the original germ in many ways: the “alternatives” I played with in the note fell by the wayside, and I settled on “Corona” (Latin for “crown”) as the preferred name for the thing, avoiding the religious charge of “halo”. This was because, as I began to work on the story seriously, I realized that the power to make someone do something just by issuing a command would be so overwhelming that it had to be the bad guy who wielded it. If the good guy had the Corona, there’d be no story. The story has to be about fighting against the King of the Corona, and somehow winning, which meant I had to work out a back-story for the Corona, and then show how a Knight of King Arthur defeats it.

I started writing, first describing the little isolated kingdom of Palavel, ruled by a man made king by the Corona, from the point of view of a young man, a brewer’s apprentice, named Mauregal. Then I would have the Knight, whom I named Sir Sagradur, arrive … but as I wrote, I realized I was telling a different kind of Arthurian story.

Pardon me for a digression. A formula that many stories have used, from the Knights of King Arthur all the way to Star Trek, consists of presenting a place with a problem, and a good guy rides up in his horse or spaceship or whatever, solves the problem, basks momentarily in the gratitude of the people, makes a nice speech that shows how he’s finer and better than they are, and rides off into the sunset, warp factor 6. Granted, I’m parodying here to make a point—the point that this formula is actually pretty anti-libertarian, anti-dignity-of-the-common-folk in its philosophical implications—but I think you will recognize this formula.

The Lone Ranger used it. Have Gun, Will Travel used it. James Bond used it, only without the “gratitude of the people” part because in the 007 adventures the general population is so benighted they never even know they’ve been rescued, or that they were in danger in the first place.

But, as I wrote, it turned out that I wasn’t using it. I didn’t really set out to write the anti-Paladin story, but somehow that’s exactly what I did. Sir Sagradur is a noble character, he’s a much-needed inspiration for Mauregal, and he’s crucial for the plot: if he and his dipsomaniac squire Kincarius hadn’t arrived, Christians among pagans, but totally focused on the mission King Arthur had given them, nothing would have happened to save Palavel. But in the end … well, I’m trying to give up my bad habit of blurting spoilers, so enough already.

Another thing I didn’t set out to do, but did anyway, was write a story that went over Anthony’s length-suggestion (well, length-limit, originally). It was supposed to be up to 10,000 words, or not much more. I had started by writing a rough outline, like a detailed plot summary, and then working from that. The summary was about 2,000 words, and as I went along it seemed to be “inflating” at a good ratio of about five finished-words to one summary-word, so I figured I’d be fine. Then I got to the last quarter, and something happened to the ratio … somehow, that last quarter of the outline took a whole lot more words to turn into final story than the rest of my outline did, and my first draft of the story weighed in at about 15,000 words, if I remember correctly. However, it was 11 PM of the last day of the submission period, so I sent it off with an apologetic cover note. I figured the worst Anthony could say was no, and if that was the decision maybe I could find some other use for it.

But to my great gratification, he liked it! He decided to forgive me the extra few thousand words. I did further revisions, and struck out some of the excess verbiage in that original version over the following few months, but also added others, so that the final version was, I think, around 17,000. As with the periodic attempts to cut the federal budget, somehow the net result of each round of cutting was to make it a little bigger. Oh well, as an e-book it hardly matters, I hope.

As I say, I hope you’ll read “The Kings of the Corona”, in TALES OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. In the process of revising it I’ve read it many times myself and I still like it. Now that I’ve read the other stories in the anthology I have to say that it may not be the best story in the book, but it is still the longest. So any way you look at it, this is a book you should get.

And, if you’ve been giving any thought to doing some writing of your own, I hope you’ll be as inspired by this anthology as I was by GOD, ROBOT, and start jotting down your own story ideas. I found writing to be a lot of work, but also great fun, and highly satisfying when you finish.

Pick up your copy of “Tales of the Once and Future King” (and “God, Robot”) today!