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.

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