This all changed one day when I was walking my dogs along the river, and I got this image in my head of a healer in a fantasy world finding an almost dead man down by a riverbank. I started wondering who these two people were, why things had happened the way they did, and what they were going to do about it. It grabbed onto my imagination, and I decided I had to write their story down. As I am a pantser, not an outliner, it has certainly taken some unexpected twists since I started, but the notion that these characters were each going to be outsiders with things in their past they were ashamed of has been a constant.
A big difference that monotheism hasn't taken over, and there isn't one religious institution that dominates the entire continent where my novel takes place. The conflict between two different religious traditions is part of the story, and it's part of what has driven my protagonist from his home country.
Another difference is that the current level of social organization and technology is more analogous to the Renaissance, or even the very early Enlightenment in many ways, though I've tossed in plenty of twists based on general differences in history and geography, and of course, the presences of magic.
The geography of my world is also different. There are only three large continents, none as large as Eurasia, and the continent that spans the equator is actually the largest in the east-west axis. Borrowing the notion (from Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel) that the large size and orientation of Eurasia (and not the superiority of any given culture) contributed to its ascent as the largest colonial power, I have a world where no one civilization has held sway over the others historically.
I don't know about often not sticking to traditional roles (the characters I've focused on are not typical members of their societies in many ways), but men and women do fall along a spectrum in many of my world's cultures. My favorite modern fantasy writers include Lynn Flewelling, Robin Hobbs, Glenda Larke, Kate Elliot and so on. They all have fantasy societies where women are doing most of the same things as the men, so I never thought that was an unusual approach in modern fantasy. My world is no utopia, but I wanted to write a story set in a place where men and women can both aspire to a variety of roles, where they're free to mingle socially, and where they have similar levels of autonomy.
I can't say why this is so important to me. Some of it's because I'm a woman, obviously, and I get pretty tired of reading stories where women can't participate fully in the story's events (or worse yet, lack motives and goals of their own). For me, traditional gender roles always felt like shoes that pinch my toes and rub blisters on my heels, especially when I'm told I must or mustn't do something because of my sex.
Jarrod is a dark wizard who is "cursed" with a conscience. In my world, umbral magic is pain driven, and it's addictive, so it's a serious problem for someone who gets woozy at the sight of blood. He's deeply ashamed of what he's become, and his attempts to bury his past and deny what he is, drives much of the conflict in the story.
Tesk is a healing student who has no interest in heroics outside of the infirmary. Pursuing her craft required her to sever ties with her own family, so she's learned to trust rationality, not her emotions. When she saves Jarrod's life and they become friends, she's very conflicted. He's got problems that would lead any rational person to turn tail and run, but her instincts are telling her that he's a good person who needs allies if he's going to undo the harm he's wrought.
I can't say exactly why, but it's something that's been evolving throughout my life. I was a strange, awkward child who never really got sucked into what passed for mainstream culture in 1970s-era Southern California. Maybe this has allowed me to relate more to people who are treated as outsiders in larger ways than I ever was. At some point, I just started to notice how one-dimensional many of the standard fictional tropes were and how they didn't usually reflect the world that was out there.
One thing that's always bugged me about classic fantasy is how homogeneous cultures are within their worlds. It's so common to see descriptions like this in fantasy novels: "The "men" of such and such a land are tall and fair, with booming voices and an appetite for mead. They mistrust magic and are quick to anger when slighted." Even as a kid, I thought it was strange that all the citizens of a country would be so alike in appearance and demeanor, when I knew darned well real people weren't.
Umbral Heretic takes place in a part of my world that resembles Northern Europe in some ways. But I've tried to make it clear there's a wider world out there. Each of my pov characters (and the important support characters too) are outsiders in one way or another. Each of them has been a victim of prejudice, whether it's based on their land of origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or social class, and this is what provides them with the perspective they need to resolve the main conflict.
I'm in the process of polishing it up for submission to agents, and would dearly love to see it trade published with a pretty cover and sitting on the shelves of bookstores next to the works of some of my favorite authors. It would be amazing to be in a waiting room somewhere and to see someone reading this book and to have them turn to me and comment on how wonderful it was (without knowing I wrote it, of course). I suspect that's a dream many writers have for their first novel. Silly, but there you go.
As far as what I want my readers to take away from it? Whatever they want, really. My ultimate goal is to be entertaining. But if the readers think that my characters are interesting because they're more complex and filled with internal conflict than your typical fantasy heroes, then I'll be especially happy. If there's any overarching messages, they're that suffering can make people more, not less, empathic, and people can fail at things but not be failures.
The only other comment I can think of is that the story has a dog, and no, at the risk of making a spoiler, she's not going the Old Yeller route. I adore stories with cats, horses and wolves, but for whatever reason, I've always noticed that these species seem to be very well represented in fantasy. Dogs, for whatever reason, are thinner on the ground. So (at some urging from my test readers) I've decided to give the dog who found Jarrod by the river some other roles in the story, even though she's just a normal dog and not magical.
(A question for the interviewer) As a question for you, Nick, I know you've said you usually don't gravitate towards traditional secondary world fantasy, but you enjoyed many things about UH when you test read my first draft. What sorts of things would you like to see writers of secondary-world fantasy stories doing more often?