“The Vermilion Riddle” Celebration Blog Tour

I’m excited to share that The Vermilion Riddle is on tour with Celebrate Lit, starting today! We have 16 blog stops, where readers will share their review of the novel. You can find out more on the tour home page, and also enter to win the grand prize (a paperback copy and a $50 Amazon gift card)!

I didn’t end up putting together my own blog tour when we first launched the book, so I’m grateful to have this opportunity to get the word out through another avenue months later. I’m also excited to see what new readers have to say about The Vermilion Riddle and interact with them. One of these days, I’m planning to also share some reflections on getting reader reviews, and what some of the most impactful and rewarding feedback has been. Speaking of which, if you have read the book, it would mean a lot to me if you left a rating & review on GoodReads and Amazon.

Thanks for all the support, and come pop in our celebration tour!

How Creative Writing Makes Me a Better Product Manager

For a long time, my primary career as a product manager and my writing gig felt like two separate worlds. Left brain vs. right brain, logical analysis vs. creative intuition. However, the sharp divide has softened over time, and I see increasing overlap in the skill sets and activities between the two. I currently work in an environment that has both a strong engineering and a heavy writing culture. Great product ideas and strategies depend on a crisp, compelling narrative. 

My last two jobs in particular have made me reflect on how creative writing makes me a better product manager. It’s an overlooked topic, but I’m convinced creative writers (of fiction or poetry) bring a strategic advantage to the craft of product management, even though the field has traditionally been stocked with engineers and technologists. For my PM friends, perhaps some of these thoughts will motivate you to take up the mighty pen. I find that most PMs are already good writers because they are clear communicators, and creative writing will stretch that ability in new ways. For my writing friends, perhaps you will consider that if you want to work in tech, there are options beyond content designers and technical writers, where you can flex the range of your creativity.

To address the elephant in the room: what even is a product manager? Ask five people, and you’ll probably get five different answers. Even if all five are PMs. At its core, a PM is responsible for identifying a user or customer need, crafting a product vision to fulfill that need, prioritizing it based on business goals, and driving a team to make that product a reality. Some have described PMs as a CEO of their product, as a conductor of an orchestra, or as a janitor who does whatever dirty work falls through the cracks so your team doesn’t have to. All feel accurate to me, depending on the day.

So, how does writing make me a better PM?

Writing cultivates empathy for others, including our product’s users. Creative writing gets me into the head of characters and teaches me how they think and react to different situations. I learn to create characters with motives and beliefs that are different from mine, while still making them believable people (I hope). It takes empathy, which I’m learning is not simply feeling for another person, but going a level deeper and understanding their worldview and what makes them tick, even if it’s vastly different from my own. Learn to walk a mile in their shoes, as some say.

Good PMs should have empathy in spades. It’s not just a quality that makes for a more pleasant colleague, but it’s critical for the job. In product interviews, one of the key things hiring managers look for is someone who can identify a real problem, who the target users are, and how to design a product for them. One of the classic questions is, “How would you design an alarm clock for a blind person?” I often won’t be the target user for a product, but I need to know what their unique needs are.

Good writing drives extreme clarity. One common problem in large product teams is misalignment. I say X, you agree to Y, thinking I said Y. Come time to launch, we’re in a hot mess. This is my favorite comic on the topic, and it’s comedy value is entirely based on how easily we fail to communicate well:

Clear and crisp verbal communication is important, but writing has an extra level of permanence. PMs are often writing Product Requirements Documents, which are the foundation of what designers and engineers use to build new features. We detail out exactly what the feature needs to do, and how it should behave in various corner cases. Good writing sucks out ambiguity.

Writing is a muscle that can be built in all different forms. For instance, poetry is meant to evoke certain emotions, or provoke thought, sometimes intentionally with ambiguity. I can’t do that with a Product Requirements Document, but flexing the muscle of writing in a different form strengthens writing in all its forms. It’s more tools in the toolbox, so I can flex between purposefully ambiguous to extremely precise. 

Writers are curious, which helps us ask better questions. Writers probably have the most questionable search history as a result of researching strange things for stories (e.g. “how to hide a murder weapon” – I’m a mystery novelist, not a criminal, I swear!). We also have questions that Google can’t answer, and that’s partly why we write. My first novel, The Vermilion Riddle, is motivated by a series of questions I wanted to explore through the characters and plot.

PMs need to be good question-askers. We don’t write the code for features, and capable engineers are more than able to develop their own project plans and general requirements for how something should work. A PM really adds value through asking the right questions. Ask your data scientist: How often do users use feature A, to inform whether we want to build feature B? Ask your designer: How will this design scale for the next 10 features we might want to add to this interface? Ask your engineer: If we want to build this functionality into our other apps, can we build it in a reusable way that cuts development time in half? I’m dependent on my partners for these answers, but asking the right questions is often what drives the team to make smarter decisions.

Good writers craft a compelling narrative for their product. I really admire my cross-functional partners at work. I admire how designers have a passion for pixel perfect UI that’s intuitive and attractive. I admire how engineers have a relentless drive to solve hard technical problems, whether it’s scaling a platform to support 1000x what it started with, or making a gnarly product requirement a reality.

What value does the PM bring, then? All the “fluffy” stuff?

The PM is responsible for the narrative: articulating the vision for a product, the scale of the problem we are solving, and the users we are building for. Even a product that is objectively impactful loses its power to inspire a team if it’s simply presented as a set of functional requirements or uncontextualized numbers. Think of the hilarious hashtag #ExplainAFilmPlotBadly: One of my favorite films and books, Lord of the Rings, is described as “Group spends 9 hours returning jewelry.” Just like no one would want to watch that movie, no cross-functional team or leadership wants to champion a product that doesn’t have a compelling narrative. We’re made for stories, and that’s what people will remember, even when it comes to building software products.

Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash.

Big Summer Book Giveaway

I’m participating in my first book giveaway! Credit goes to Jen Roberson, who organized a fantastic virtual book fair followed by this giveaway. She reached out to authors in the Realm Makers Consortium, a community of Christian fantasy and sci-fi writers, to pull this together. We sent in signed copies of our books, and Jen got over 20 authors involved and created 9 prize packs for readers to win.

You can check out all the prize packs and sign up to win here. (Expect to be taken to Facebook Messenger, where you’ll engage with a bot for the sign up flow). A signed copy of The Vermilion Riddle is included in one of the fantasy book packs!

I mean, how can you resist free books?

The giveaway is open through July 9, and you can follow me on IG for updates (@danaliwrites), where the authors are doing the primary promotion.

Stayed tuned, as I’ll have more fun updates soon on The Vermilion Riddle. Hint: audiobook! And blog tour!

The Beating Heart of Stories

“Who was your favorite character to write?” I got asked this a few times about The Vermilion Riddle. It’s a tough question to answer, because I like characters for different reasons – spunky, witty characters are fun to write, while anti-heroes are challenging but rewarding to create. But I find it’s also a tough question because I don’t just like writing specific characters, I love writing relationships. I’m not a fan of lone characters. (If you’re the only survivor in an apocalypse, I’ll pass.) I know there are thought-provoking, well-written stories with a cast of one, but I’m far more drawn to relationships. To me, they are the beating heart of great stories. Ensemble casts have always been my favorite, because you get a range of relational dynamics.

The Vermilion Riddle is, at the core, a story of relationships: between husband and wife, brothers, father and son, father and daughter, friends, enemies, and more. In the midst of adventures, duels, and intrigue, the relationships are the heartbeat of the story. 

Here were a few personal highlights among my favorite relationships to write:

Husband and wife: I might have bit off more than I could chew, since I wrote this while I was single. But I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, and I think every story I write will incorporate some romance, even if it’s not central. In this case, I wanted to explore romance and love in the context of marriage, which I find rare in fiction relative to the drama and fireworks of pre-marriage relationships. I can’t deny that I love a good enemies-to-lovers story, or the tension of a will-they-won’t-they story, or even a (gasp) love triangle done well. But what about love in marriage? For the closest relationship on earth, it doesn’t get quite as much screen/page time. It’s written off as the “happily ever after” that comes post-credits, and I wonder if it’s perceived as too boring or undramatic for a good story. But isn’t that where the real adventure begins? Anyway, Leah didn’t really want to marry August, so I still inserted a healthy dose of drama to kick it off!

Brothers: Again, I’m not a man, and I don’t have a brother, so I’m not writing from personal experience. This is one of the foundational relationships in The Vermilion Riddle, but a lot of August and Benedict’s relationship is not shown through direct interaction, but rather a backstory that is slowly colored in over time. It’s a relationship that’s been marked by betrayal and loss, and it hangs over the entire story. The pain that haunts them both is an unspoken indication of the depth of that relationship – the more you love, the more you hurt. Feeling that brokenness creates a deep longing too for reconciliation and redemption. These are the relationships we desperately want to see made right. While the main climax and resolution to the story was about the large-scale conflict with the Oath-breakers, writing the resolution to this relationship was more cathartic for me. (No spoilers on what that entailed, or even that it was a true “resolution,” but just where I left the two characters by the end of the novel).

Friends: There are a lot of different types of friendship in The Vermilion Riddle, but I’ve always had a soft spot for deep male friendships, which I think is sorely lacking in our world. For intimate friendships between men, our culture immediately imagines romantic undertones. So I had some reservations about writing a friendship that could toe that line in the eyes of some – but I did it anyway. We’ve lost something precious and God-given when men can’t have emotional intimacy and deep love for one another, free of sexual connotation. Benedict and Justin are by no means paragons of virtue, but they have that kind of friendship (and August does too, though I don’t press into those relationships as deeply). We often say “love is blind” and romantic love makes us do stupid things for the sake of the other… can’t a deep love for a friend similarly do that? In a way, I explored the idea of “love being blind” influencing some of the platonic relationships in Riddle, while the romance certainly doesn’t reflect that. (Leah got married with her eyes wide open.)

Father and daughter: Finally, one that I have personal experience with. Father-daughter stories move me in a special way. Leah’s dad is not at all like mine, and I didn’t model him after my dad – but in their relationship, I drew on some of the ways my dad and I relate: the way we easily understand each other without saying much, the irreverent humor in the face of ridiculous social constructs, and the way he protects me when I’m frail and need it most. They’re imperfect, but loving fathers. And there’s a warmth and steadfastness in that, because it’s a mirror of our Heavenly Father. Where friendships fail and romances fizzle out, there’s something in our core that believes a father will love unconditionally no matter what. Even though Leah’s dad isn’t “on screen” for much of the story, their relationship is an anchor in her life.

Interested in knowing more about these characters and how these relationships do resolve? Get your copy of The Vermilion Riddle today!

(I’m back, and I’m still writing! I recently got married, and life is busy, full, but good. After months of wedding planning and exercising the administrative side of my brain, I’m trying to find time for more creative endeavors again, so stay tuned).

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

Release Day!

It’s release day for The Vermilion Riddle!

I haven’t been furiously posting here because life is just full right now. I do make more frequent, bite-sized updates on my social media accounts, but man, it is a full-time job to be marketing a book at optimal capacity. And I still have another full-time job (that I do enjoy, but keeps me very busy) unless you all make me a bestselling writer who lands a movie deal.

That’s just to say, in spite of the relative silence in these parts, I’m no less excited that this day has come. I’ve had a number of early ARC readers finish The Vermilion Riddle already, and their reviews have truly encouraged me. I know the novel isn’t perfect, and there’s a lot of room for me to continue growing as a writer and storyteller. But to hear genuine feedback that this story kept people reading late into the night, or encouraged them to love the gospel even more, or made them cheer for and feel for the characters, or handled difficult themes in a thought-provoking way – it reminds me of why I started writing. It can be easy to forget while slogging through edits and trying desperately to fix technical inconsistencies in timeline and distances. To me, good stories have always been about making a dent in the darkness, bringing a flicker of light to another soul, or as N.D. Wilson puts it, “polluting the shadows.”

These were my exact words in a post a year ago:

I was a reader before I was ever a writer, and stories can have a profound impact on our psyche. I think of what the best stories have been for me: a cocoon on cold nights, a companion on lonely days, an iron that sharpened my mind, a battle cry that gave me courage. I don’t aspire to bestseller status or movie contracts. I like my quiet, small life. But I do hope my story, though fiction and fantasy, honors the Lord and is a flicker of light in a dark world. If it’s a candle in the night for one person out there, that’ll be more than worth it.

2021 Dana

It’s been worth it.

A lot is happening in my personal life in the next month, so I don’t expect to be popping in here frequently. But as things slow down, I do plan to share more about The Vermilion Riddle, what I’ve learned, and what I’m also working on next. So stay tuned.

Until then, my publisher and I are hosting a virtual Facebook launch party March 1 at 5 PM PST. Please join us! It’ll be a fun time of activities, Q&A, and giveaways. Just join the group and hop online for the party.

You can find all my writing-related links on my Linktree. And here’s a shortcut to buying your copy of The Vermilion Riddle.

The Vermilion Riddle is Available for Pre-Order!

I’m thrilled to share that The Vermilion Riddle is now available for preorder on Amazon! It feels a bit surreal to see my novel there. I looked back through my email inbox (a real trek down memory lane) and found scattered vignettes of this story, shared with a few friends. It’s been renamed and revised over the course of years. I almost gave up on it at a few points, thinking it was too offbeat to see the light of day – not to mention, the odds are always against you in traditional publishing. I’m so grateful to see this dream become a reality!

I’m also looking for help promoting The Vermilion Riddle. Specifically, I would like to give out eARCs (Advanced Reader Copy) to readers who are willing to read and provide an honest review before March 1, release day. I’m also putting together a small street team that will help me promote the book on social media and offline, as well as participants for a blog tour. If you are interested in supporting me in any of these ways, you can fill out this form.

Do you have other ideas for how to get the word out? Are there questions or topics you’d like me to address about the novel? I’m open to inspiration for new blog posts! Drop me a line anytime.

Stay tuned for more details on The Vermilion Riddle as we approach release day! If you’re on Facebook and Instagram, you can also follow me for more regular updates there:

Finally, I’ll leave you with the official synopsis, also available on Amazon:

“To enter Faerie’s blessed demesne
four secrets must be found:
the land unbound by time and space
opens only to the one who knows
the Light, the Song, and Mortal Gate.”

In the sheltered town of Carmel, women do not have a future outside of a good marriage. That future is threatened when Leah Edwards’ father gambles away the family’s livelihood and estate. She and her sisters must hurry to find husbands. Then August Fox, a Guardian from Cariath, comes to town and purchases a supposedly haunted manor. Charged to keep the peace between mortals and Faerie, the Guardians are the stuff of legend. After he stuns her with a marriage proposal, Leah reluctantly journeys to Cariath, discovering there is more to August and the legends than she guessed.

Nimrod and his Oath-breakers betrayed the Guardians, seeking to solve an ancient riddle that would unlock the Faerie realm. Not all his followers share his desire for conquest. Benedict Fox, his second-in-command, has different motives. But as he continues fulfilling Nimrod’s plan, Benedict hurtles towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.

For Leah, August, and their allies, it is a race against time to solve the ancient riddle before the Oath-breakers, and reunite the Guardians to save the mortal realm. The war is never really over, and this time, the battle lines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.

Lessons from Editing a Novel

A great editor is like a two-star Goodreads reviewer who tells you everything that didn’t work in your novel and why, but also bothers to mention the glimmers of potential that bumped you up from getting one star.

Well, sort of. The point is, a great editor doesn’t hate or gush, but gives constructive, actionable feedback. The Vermilion Riddle is my first completed novel, and it’s also my first fully-edited novel. I would not have made it to publication without a fantastic editor. Michelle Levigne was much kinder than a two-star reviewer when she first told me she loved Riddle and believed in its potential, but it needed work. She showed me exactly what the shortcomings were, and gave me a chance to revise. I’ve learned that I thrive best with that kind of feedback – not a formula for how to fix something, but a pointer to the weak spots I can hone in on.

Long story short, I spent a year revising based on her feedback, and Mt. Zion Ridge Press is now publishing my book! I’ve worked with Michelle to tweak and finalize the manuscript over the months, and I wanted to share some of my key learnings.

Successful foreshadowing makes readers say both, “Oh, duh!” and “I didn’t say that coming.” I haven’t read a lot of writers who could do this well (myself included). Michelle calls these foreshadowing moments “jalapenos” – use with discretion, sprinkle them lightly, but give readers some taste of what’s to come. This framing helped me a ton, and I tweaked a lot of the foreshadowing components as I edited. Since I already had a draft complete, I knew exactly what the climax looks like, so I could go back and find places to insert little hints. I imagine this is necessary for a lot of writers. It’s hard to get all the details and finesse right the first time, especially if you’re building up to some kind of a reveal. I’m not even a “pantser” (someone writing by the seat of their pants). I plot ahead, but foreshadowing is more easily added in reverse. Good foreshadowing should land us somewhere between “Agatha All Along” (sorta obvious) and Cap’s BFF killing his other BFF’s parents back in the day (okay, am I gullible, but I didn’t see that coming). Sorry, when I can’t think of good literary examples, I default to Marvel.

Make sure characters actually do things that are in-character, not simply because it moves the plot forward. Don’t force character actions because some huge event has to happen, otherwise the story doesn’t work. I fell into this pitfall when I knew I had to manufacture a critical character encounter. I imagined the scene before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) on this story, and that blinded me from seeing my characters behaving totally irrationally. An editor can spot this pretty easily. Michelle asked me why there were no guards in this very dangerous campsite, and why the characters were sleeping on a riverbank when they had nice, warm cabins aboard their ship…? Well, shoot, because I had to force a meeting! A good question to ask as you cross-examine your story is, “Does it make sense she’s responding this way? Or making this decision?” It needs to make sense for the person, not just for the plot.

Build the world, not just parts of it! One of the main things I did in my first major revision was flesh out the world of The Vermilion Riddle. Many fantasy writers naturally go heavy on world-building, but it’s not second nature to me. I like exploring characters, and I realized that came at the expense of their world – it was too thin. Michelle told me the world felt empty, outside of the few places my characters visited. I would not have spotted this clearly on my own. While I think I could give that feedback on someone else’s story, it’s hard to see the forest from the trees for my writing. The first thing I did before starting revisions was build the world more fully for myself, even if I wouldn’t feature all of it in the novel. (I’m not Tolkien, guys). But just knowing more about the cultures, religions, and government empowered me to sprinkle in references in dialogue or bits of backstory. A savvy reader can usually tell you when a world feels rich and real or not, but I needed to learn, as a writer, what evokes that sensation. I think of Narnia – Lewis wrote with less than a tenth of the detail Tolkien used in Lord of the Rings, but he still made the world feel rich and expansive. There’s not a singular way to do it. Sometimes, it’s just a brief, tantalizing line here or there – but an invested reader loves those. It’s the stuff of great fanfiction spinoffs! 

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash.

Epic & Intimate: The Inspiration for The Vermilion Riddle

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Toni Morrison

Two of my favorite fiction authors are J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen. Besides both being British, their works are worlds apart, literally – one wrote epic, sprawling stories of the battle between good and evil, while the other wrote of small town families, romance, and culture in the Regency era. If Tolkien’s heroes failed, death and darkness would sweep across the land. If Austen’s heroes failed, a lady would be single at thirty. (The horror!)

As different as they are, I had a desire to blend the best of both genres. I didn’t think it’d be the most marketable book, but then, I also thought no one else would write this. That concept sparked the genesis of The Vermilion Riddle. I wanted an epic fantasy that was also character-driven and intimate. I love how Austen deftly explored familial and romantic relationships in the framework of her society, and I was curious to see how that would unfold in the context of a traditional fantasy. I shamelessly drew influence from the Regency era for parts of my story’s culture, simply because it’s got that quaint, cozy vibe, stored inside a broad, sweeping world. 

This is a snippet of what I wrote in my original query letter for The Vermilion Riddle: 

“While the novel evokes elements of classic fantasy—quests, duels, and the battle of good versus evil—it thrives on character exploration. The plot hums to the beat of a cosmic conflict and climax, though the struggles within a family—between fathers and sons, brothers by blood (and not), husband and wife—forms its core melody.”

When it came to the characters and relationships in the story, three questions framed my writing. 

What makes a strong, relatable, and feminine heroine?

What happens to brothers who are pitted against each other ideologically?

What does a love story that happens after marriage look like?

I did not know, concretely, the answer to any of these when I began, and Riddle was going to be my way of exploring them. In retrospect, I was in over my head. I’m not sure if I ever found totally satisfactory answers, but as I worked on the novel over the years, I felt the story mature quietly alongside of me. There were nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from life and other people that made their way into the story. There were also surprising insights that emerged from the characters as I was writing.

In the end, I wanted to write characters who, though born into another world, were achingly human. Though they chase ancient secrets and face the fury of the faerie-kind, they aren’t wrapped in an air of mythology that makes them feel far removed from us. They are the sort of people who could be legends – but a legend is usually formed in retrospect. They are like Merry and Pippin, hobbits who felt like useless baggage for much of their journey before they were hailed as heroes.

That’s what I strived for, at least – a story that’s epic yet intimate, that’s far-flung and yet close to home.

There was an alien wildness to it, as of a completely foreign world, but it was not without a touch of familiarity. It stirred up a strange mixture of nostalgia and mystery within her.

“Does this feel far from home?” Arthur asked softly.

“Yes,” she replied quietly, “and yet, no.”

The Vermilion Riddle

Photo by Sven Fischer on Unsplash.

The Vermilion Riddle: Cover Reveal & Synopsis!

I’m excited to share the cover of The Vermilion Riddle! My publisher did an initial reveal at a Zoom party a few weeks ago, and it was fun talking about the book and answering questions. Being a first-time author, it was a new experience. I’m used to running meetings and giving presentations for my day job, but it’s different sharing about my writing and being asked about my revision process, my favorite character to write, etc. It’s one thing to blog about it, and quite another to verbalize it to an audience. Mount Zion Ridge Press has been a great partner to work with as we’ve been going through edits, designs, and all my newbie questions.

Also, I haven’t given much detail yet about the story, so I wanted to share a first synopsis!

The war between faeries and men dimmed into mythology long ago, contained in the pages of Leah’s books. Far from danger, her sheltered town runs on parties and gossip. Then, August Fox purchases the haunted manor in Carmel and legends begin breaking into her reality. When her father gambles away their livelihood, Leah dutifully accepts August’s request for her hand. But a shadow haunts Cariath, his home of towering edifices and warriors, and she must contend with the ghosts of his family’s past.

Hungry to conquer the immortal realm, Nimrod betrayed the Guardians and stole an ancient riddle that would guide him to the keys to Faerie. To his followers’ surprise, he names Benedict Fox his second-in-command. Benedict plays a dangerous game, his agenda diverging from Nimrod’s. As they uncover more Guardian secrets, Benedict finds himself hurtling towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.

The war is never really over, and this time, the battlelines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.

What do you think?

I’m cuing up some more posts about the inspiration for The Vermilion Riddle and my writing process. Happy to take feedback on other topics you’d like to see me cover!

Old-Fashioned Fantasy

I was a complete bookworm growing up, and I think being an only child fed that. I was shy, I had plenty of time, and I buried myself in stories. My parents would take me to libraries and bookshops where we could buy an entire bag of books for $5, which was a dream. I’m pretty sure I got mounds of obscure books no one has heard of. And while I happily read almost anything in my early years, I’ve forgotten most of them. There are just a few books that truly gripped me, sank into my soul, and made stories more than just a pleasurable way to pass the time.

It’s special to me that my first novel is a fantasy, since that’s the genre that hooked me on reading. I don’t read fantasy novels predominantly anymore – and some of my friends are surprised to know that I haven’t read some of the most popular contemporary fantasy authors, like Brandon Sanderson or George R. R. Martin. Maybe it’s heretical for me to say, but I attempted The Way of Kings and Game of Thrones, but dropped them both. (I might give the former another chance, though). From the bits I read, I can’t deny that the world-building in both is stunning. But that’s never been the thing I loved most about fantasy.

The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books to capture my imagination. I didn’t knock on the back of my closet, hoping to find Narnia, simply because C.S. Lewis built an amazing world. Rather, it was because he peopled it with unforgettable characters. I remember how Aslan’s sacrifice struck me in the heart, how I wished for a friend like Lucy, how I hated but then grew to love Eustace, and how I adored Reepicheep and Puddleglum for their nobility and spunk. The world of Narnia gave them a place to come to life and flourish, but it was always the characters I loved most, imbued with such heart and personality.

Not surprisingly, The Lord of the Rings was my next great love (or obsession). My mom wanted to see the first film because she heard it was a classic, while I wondered how a story about jewelry could be anything but a snoozefest. I walked out of the theater totally enthralled, and hunted down the books so I could read them before the next movies came out. Undoubtedly, Tolkien created a rich world with different cultures, languages, and landscapes. He was a genre master. Peter S. Beagle called him a “colonizer of dreams.” As much as I would love to live in Rivendell or the Shire, it’s not the places themselves that inspired me most. It was the story of little hobbits shaking the fortresses of the mighty, a man of exile rising from the ashes to be king, and an unloved son who still loved his people to the bitter end.

Some might say these stories are old-fashioned. People are not so simple, so black-and-white. We love to explore characters who are gray, toeing the moral line. There’s a trend in contemporary fantasy towards dystopia, and morally questionable heroes. Fewer stories today make people say, “I want to live there with those people!” And they don’t all need to. But those are the books that won me over, and that’s the spirit I hope I capture in The Vermilion Riddle. 

I have some of those gray characters, and I try to dig into some of those hard questions about justice and revenge. The story is told from two characters’ point-of-views, and one of them is certainly not a hero. But by and large, The Vermilion Riddle is classic fantasy in its themes and morality.

You might call it old-fashioned. But like Phil Coulson tells Captain America: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”

Photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash.