Road Trip to the Grand Canyon

This year, the Airship Ambassador’s Steampunk Hands Around the World event is going on a road trip and exploring new places. One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing when writing my Clockwork Legion books is visiting places around the world and imagining them with a steampunk twist. So, I thought it would be fun to visit some of the places that appear in the novels and share my connection to them. For this first post, I’m going to the Grand Canyon in Northern Arizona.

A lot of steampunk has a very urban and gritty feel set in places like London of the nineteenth century. However, in my novel Owl Dance, I introduced Professor M.K. Maravilla, an engineer and naturalist who builds machines to mimic the animals he studies. Because of that, you don’t tend to find him in urban environments, but out in nature. In Owl Dance, Ramon Morales and Fatemeh Karimi encounter the professor at the Grand Canyon.

The reason the professor is at the Grand Canyon is that he’s built ornithopters in the shape of owls so he can study how they fly. An ornithopter is an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings like birds. I actually had the idea for the ornithopters from a visit to canyon and seeing California Condors gliding on the canyon’s air currents. This was especially amazing to me because I grew up in California and remember a museum exhibit that discussed how California Condors were near extinction. I never figured I would ever see them in real life, yet I saw them flying and swooping over the canyon and couldn’t help but think how much fun it would be to be them, swooping and flying over the canyon.

The reason I used owls instead of condors in the story is two-fold. First off, the condors were introduced to the canyon as part of a breeding program to help increase their numbers. Even in 1877, while there likely would have been condors in the canyon, their numbers wouldn’t have been numerous. Second, Professor Maravilla develops an interest in owls from his association with Fatemeh Karimi. So, the interest had a direct narrative connection.

Back in 2015, while at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium, artist Laura Tempest Zakroff was selling her art next to us. I admired her wonderful artwork and commissioned an illustration of Professor Maravilla’s owl ornithopter. You can see her work above. In the novels, the professor sells the ornithopters to the army and the industrialist, Captain Cisneros, also develops his own version. The owl ornithopter in Laura Givens’ cover for Owl Riders is different from Tempest’s design, but Givens’ design reflects several years of in-world development!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this steampunk road trip stop. If you would like to explore Owl Dance and all the places visited in the novel, you visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html to get more information and find all the places the novel is available.

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Mannheim Steamroller

Back on December 5, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Mannheim Steamroller in concert at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This was a special treat for me since I’ve been a big fan of this group of musicians since I first heard them way back in 1974. It was also a special treat because my youngest daughter was part of the choir selected to greet concert goers on their way into the show.

Now, I should note that I didn’t originally discover the Mannheim Steamroller musicians AS Mannheim Steamroller. Like many people I first heard them playing as the backup band for a country artist named C.W. McCall, whose hits at the time included such songs as “Convoy” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” C.W. McCall, in turn, was the nom de guerre of ad man Bill Fries. I’m still a fan of C.W. McCall, and in fact the space pirate story I posted this week at my Patreon site is inspired by “Convoy.”

I learned about Mannheim Steamroller as a separate entity from C.W. McCall when I went to college in 1984. My dorm’s RA was a fan of both groups and introduced me to their four albums at that point, the original Fresh Aire albums. A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas came out that very year and really defined the band for many people. For me, Mannheim Steamroller’s instrumental mix of renaissance, classical, jazz, and modern instruments was great music to study by and it’s still among my favorite music to write to. They currently seem to refer to themselves as a neo-classical group and the classification fits pretty well.

One of the first things I noticed when I got the program was that there are two touring groups for Mannheim Steamroller, nicknamed the Red and Green groups. This seemed quite fitting for a concert in New Mexico. The group that played for us was the “Green” Tour group. Most of their names were unfamiliar and when they came out, I realized that many of the people on stage were too young to have been playing since 1974. I came to realize that Mannheim Steamroller is now more like a classical ensemble with players who change out with time and less like a rock or a country band where you see a set of specific personalities.

The one personality who seems indelibly connected with Mannheim Steamroller is composer and one-time drummer Chip Davis. I gather he no longer tours with the group, but they showed videos during the concert where Davis spoke. They were interesting from a marketing standpoint. In one of the videos, Davis spoke about the band’s history and success, including clips from various television shows. Another was a direct appeal to visit the merchandise booth. The videos combined with the band’s performance brought to mind some great points about artists marketing themselves.

  1. First and foremost, create something your passionate about.
  2. Collaborate with experts in the craft to make your art shine.
  3. Tout your successes.
  4. Remind people to support your art through purchases.

Point one, should be pretty obvious. For a writer, point two can be as simple as working with a good editor or a good cover artist to breathe life into your work. It can also take other forms like working with a narrator on an audio book, or a team on a short film. Numbers three and four require some balance. To be honest, I was almost turned off by the video of the successes, but I came back around because the group in concert showed me what wonderful music they perform. That’s why the order of the list is actually important. You have to do as well as you can with steps one and two before you move on to steps three and four. What’s more, you need to remember that the art itself takes precedence.

Art on Your Own Terms

In addition to Dexter Dogwood’s Fables from Elsewhere, which I wrote about on Saturday, Paul McComas sent me the fifteenth anniversary edition of his novel Unplugged. I have to admit, I looked at it with some skepticism. It’s the tale of a rock star named Dayna Clay who survived childhood sexual abuse and suffers from depression. On the last night of a big tour, she disappears off stage to go home and attempt suicide by asphyxiating herself with carbon monoxide fumes in her garage. Fortunately, a squirrel falls from the rafters and she feels she can’t take another life with her, even a small one, so she moves herself and the squirrel to safety.

After the suicide attempt, she gets in the car and retreats out west to the Badlands of South Dakota. Once there, she goes on a personal quest to discover who she is and whether or not she can continue with her music career. On the surface, it seems a lot more introspective and possibly even sad book than I would go in for. I will admit that I’ve had low points in my life and have even heard that frightening siren call from the back of my brain that made me think about suicide. Fortunately, between my amazing family and my own stubborn self-preservation instinct, I never got all that close to the brink, but I’ve glimpsed enough to know how scary it is and hesitated getting closer, even in fictional form. Despite that, I found myself captivated with Dayna’s story and how she becomes enchanted by the Badlands and the people she meets along her journey. Even though the novel opens with Dayna in a dark place, the novel proves hopeful and even fun at times as Dayna finds help for her depression and rebuilds her life.

One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was Dayna’s early decision that if she was going to return to the music world, she would return on her own terms. Dayna has a demanding agent, a full public appearance schedule, and pressure to get into the studio to record more songs. Dayna’s story actually parallels a lot of writers I know, who have numerous publishing obligations and travel to science fiction and comic conventions every available weekend. There are intense pressures to move the books already published and produce more books at a steady rate. In fact, I know some writers, editors, and agents who will insist that this kind of intense schedule is the only viable career path available. Anyone not on this path is a failure as a writer and should quit wasting their time.

I’m sorry. I just don’t accept that. All it takes to be a musician is to make music. All it takes to be a writer is to write. All it takes to be a painter is to paint. All it takes for something to be a career is that money from the occupation must flow to the person doing the job in some sustainable way. How an artist makes that happen is between the artist and those paying for the art. For any occupation to be sustainable, the person occupied must feel satisfied with their life as a whole. For me, right now, satisfaction with life includes spending time contributing to astronomy through my work at Kitt Peak, spending time with family, in addition to writing. I choose writing jobs and projects that both give me satisfaction and allow me to do the other things that give me satisfaction.

I’m glad I joined Dayna on her journey to the South Dakota Badlands and visiting the real Badlands is now something I must do. You can find the novel at: https://www.amazon.com/Unplugged-Anniversary-Novel-Paul-McComas/dp/1564746046. As I’ve mentioned, this is a novel about a musician. It turns out that Paul McComas has collaborated with Maya Kuper to create an album of Dayna’s music and it’s a pretty amazing listen. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you do art on your own terms. It frees you to explore and I was delighted to hear Dayna’s songs come to life. “Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Karma Bomb” will likely get frequent play from me, but all of the songs are great. You can listen and buy at: https://daynaclay.bandcamp.com/

Proceeds from both the novel and album go to benefit two causes. One is the Kennedy Forum, which works to improve the way mental health and addiction issues are treated in this country. You can learn more at kennedyforum.org. The other cause is the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. In addition to these two great causes, I want to share the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in case anyone reading this needs it: 1-800-273-8255

Enterprise Cut-Away Model

Last Christmas, my family presented me with a wonderful cut-away model of the U.S.S. Enterprise from the classic Star Trek series. This is actually something I wanted long before the model actually existed. I was a fan of the original Star Trek from a very young age. The very first model I ever helped my dad build was a model of the Enterprise from the show. The one in the photo below is the new one, but it looks very much like that original I helped with.

I remember when the Universal Studio Tours started up in Southern California and my aunt and uncle went. When they came back, I asked them how it was. My aunt told me all about how they learned how movies and TV shows were made. I asked her if they had a model that showed the inside of the Starship Enterprise, because at that young age, I equated the imagined reality of the show with how the show was made. In order to placate me, my aunt assured me that such a model must exist. I was disappointed when I went to Universal Studios with my parents a few weeks later to discover such a model did not exist after all.

Flash forward some forty years and I saw just such a model in a Hastings store in Albuquerque. After doing some research, I specifically requested a version of the model produced during 1996, during the show’s thirtieth anniversary. My understanding was that the mount was more steady and the pieces fit together better than the later edition of the model. My wife found the one she gave me on eBay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to dive right into building the model. I had a novel to finish this year, plus I worked on the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt. However, once both of those projects were complete, I finally built the model and was pleased with how it came out. In the photos of the exterior, you’ll see some seams, but those are simply the places where the model comes apart to reveal the interior.

When I was a child, I confused the idea of what the fictional ship would look like with the sets a TV show would be filmed on. However, as I became a professional writer, I found detailed visualizing and understanding of how a fictional ship works is very handy for selling it as a real machine in my writing. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time understanding the deck layouts of the ships in my Space Pirates’ Legacy universe and how the solar sail Aristarchus works in my novel The Solar Sea. Given that perspective, it was fun to return to one of my first science fiction loves to see how the creators of Star Trek envisioned the interior of the Enterprise.

The photo above shows the completed interior. One thing that was disappointing in the 30th Anniversary edition of the model was that it included a very limited decal set. It did not include the interior decals for the secondary hull decks you see above and many of the exterior decals were the wrong size for the model scale. I discovered that Round-2, the company that owns AMT who produced the model, had improved the decal set. What’s more, they sell decal sets for their models. So, I simply bought the decal set for the later model and used those instead of the decals that came with the model.

This year, I came full circle on the idea of visualizing spaces for a novel and learning how to realize them for film. While writing The Astronomer’s Crypt I kept a chart of my fictional 5-meter telescope at Carson Peak Observatory. While similar to the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak where I work, there were key differences and those differences made it easy to get confused. When we filmed the book trailer, I had hopes we could use the control room at the 4-meter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get permission, so we dressed an office space to look like a control room, which really isn’t that much of a stretch. We had to put together shooting locations that weren’t adjacent to one another and make it look like they were. If you haven’t seen the results, you can check out the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIcXPxmnVmQ.

Meet the Cast of The Illusioneer & Other Tales

Today, I’m honored to welcome my friend and fellow steampunk author, Karen J. Carlisle, to the Web Journal where she will tell us about the cast of characters who appear in her book The Illusioneer & Other Tales which is scheduled for release at the end of October/beginning of November. Be sure to read all the way to the end of the post so you can learn how to enter for a chance to win an ebook in this wonderful series.

This series features Viola Stewart who returns for a third set of adventures in The Illusioneer & Other Tales.

Viola needs a holiday. But, even at the beach, or while partying on the grand tour of Europe… there are things afoot. Seeing is believing … or is it?

For more information, sign up for Karen’s newsletter: http://karenjcarlisle.com/sign-up-email-list/

Without further ado, allow me to turn this over to Karen.


When I look back at my favourite books (and TV series and movies for that matter), I realise the (things) that stayed with me were the characters. There’s Samwise Gamgee’s loyalty, Poirot’s punctuality, precise eccentricity and his patent leather shoes and Ariadne Oliver’s fondness for apples. And Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden in his long duster coat—always in trouble—and his beat up blue VW with the patchwork paintjob and unfortunate tendency to short circuit when Harry is around. Blue Moon Rising has Prince Rupert, second son and inconvenient heir sent to slay a dragon—and not expected to return.

I can’t always remember the intricacies of plot, or even the clues by which a mystery was solved. But what I do remember are little things about specific characters and the way they made me feel.

Perhaps that is why many of my stories start with a character—not necessarily the physical likeness, but a feeling, a totem item or a quirk that makes them speak to me. This can be triggered by a phrase, a picture, sometimes a song.

The Lead:

I was dealing with some serious, life-changing decisions when Viola first came to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but she would embody my struggle. She soon bore the scars of my struggle—literally (figuratively, actually and in literature—ha!). I felt I was drowning, fighting to survive everyone’s expectations of me. This feeling seems to have surfaced in Viola’s defiance of the Victorian restrictions on women.

I wanted to hint at the contradictions of the Victorian era—the sexism, the underlying menace of the streets and the wonder of the scientific discoveries of the time. Viola has that wonder and excitement. She has imagination and curiosity. She also notices things others do not (or that others try to ignore).

I now had a hook on Viola’s personality. As I wrote, she was unveiled. She’s in her early thirties, more experienced, self-confident, but not necessarily happy with her lot. She’s a woman out of time; she studied medicine in Edinburgh—one of the universities which allowed women students. (Though women weren’t allowed to register to work as doctors at the time). She married, and was widowed ten years later, allowing her more freedom than an unmarried woman. She currently works as an optician and occasionally assists her good friend and fellow Edinburgh student, Doctor Henry Collins (the local police surgeon).

Viola is independent, an avid reader and loves a good mystery—something that usually leads her into trouble. Her penchant for detectiving was fuelled by Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle (currently an ophthalmologist and studied with Viola and Henry in Edinburgh). Doctor Doyle supplies her with a continuous supply of detective books, which encourages her imagination and search for adventure even more.

I found myself choosing a contemporary books for Viola to read; a new one for each adventure. After Eye of the Beholder I realised each choice of book had been inspired by the actual story in progress, but also shaped the story—often skewing Viola’s thinking, or setting her off on a new direction. For example, in Eye of the Beholder, Viola is reading a copy of The Mummy!—an 1823 novel by Jane C Loudon, who also wrote garden books (and yes that little titbit was also used as part of the plot).

Viola Stewart and Dr. Henry Collins, Art Copyright 2016 Karen J. Carlisle

The Supporting Cast:

Viola has three main partners against crime: Doctor Henry Collins, his friend, Sir Archibald Huntington-Smythe. Even Viola’s maid, Polly, joins in on the fun.

Doctor Henry Collins is unwillingly drawn into Viola’s detectiving adventures. He provides a light-hearted background story arc threading through the entire series. He’s always been attracted to Viola’s spirit and independence. He wants her to be happy. However, he is a product of the nineteenth century; this leads to personal conflict and causes tension between him and Viola. (Well, that’s what stories are all about aren’t they?) Henry must adapt, or lose Viola.

Sir Archibald Huntington-Smythe is a biomechanical surgeon and a physician to Queen Victoria. He is the eccentric-cheeky-uncle type, unhampered by society because of his rank and connections. He has money and easy access to permits to own and use mechanicals in a world where technology is restricted to those with permission, position and wealth. Sir Archibald provides Viola with a glimpse into the world of privilege, and of the potential benefits such scientific advances could afford those who are not so privileged. He respects Viola’s intelligence and treats her as an equal, thus providing both a catalyst and source of conflict throughout the stories.

Polly is the loyal maid, but is more than just a servant. She is a confidant and loyal companion to Viola since they were children. She was the daughter of Viola’s governess, and given a place in the household after Polly’s mother died. Yet Polly is on the other side of the Victorian class divide, in that strange English-limbo: not quite a servant, not quite a friend, and not of equal social standing, but holds Viola’s complete trust and is one of her protectors.

Polly even has her own adventure in the short story, Point of View (in Eye of the Beholder & Other Tales: Journal #2).

The Villains and Antagonists:

My villains evolve in a similar way. Doctor Jack was born a few years ago, when I heard the song “Behind Blue Eyes” (by The Who) on the car radio. The song was perfect for him; he’s surrounded by sadness, and a feeling that the whole world is against him. Yet he is the hero of his own story. Maybe, just maybe, you might feel sorry him? … just for a second?

But not all villains are so obvious in their malice. The Men in Grey are a secret society hell bent on disrupting and, if possible, controlling the Empire. We meet various members of the organisation as they skulk through Viola’s adventures. They are (mostly) the faceless fear, dressed in grey suits, bowlers and gloves, and inspired by the Men in Black, popular in conspiracy theories. Their genesis was in a feeling of uneasiness, conspiracy and subterfuge.
And, not all antagonists are villains either. In ‘From the Depths’, we meet an ambiguous operative, Mr Wood, and discover there is another secret society hiding amongst us (The Victorians loved their secret societies), The Department of Curiosities. Viola never quite knows whose side he is actually on, or what secrets he conceals.

So, these are a few of the main players in The Adventures of Viola Stewart series. The one thing they have in common is something I read years ago and try to instill into every character I now write: each—villain and hero alike—consider themselves the hero in their own story. I’ll leave it up to the reader to judge.


Karen J Carlisle is an imagineer and writer of steampunk, Victorian mysteries and fantasy. She was short-listed in Australian Literature Review’s 2013 Murder/Mystery Short Story Competition and published her first novella, Doctor Jack & Other Tales, in 2015. Her short story, “Hunted”, featured in the Adelaide Fringe exhibition, ‘A Trail of Tales’.

Karen lives in Adelaide with her family and the ghost of her ancient Devon Rex cat. She’s always loved dark chocolate and rarely refuses a cup of tea.

Where to find Karen:
Web: www.karenjcarlisle.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/kjcarlisle
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KarenJCarlisle/
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/KarenJCarlisle
And you can find hints of current research threads on her Pinterest page: https://au.pinterest.com/riverkat42/

I hope we’ve piqued your interest in Karen’s books. I’m a fan of Karen J Carlisle’s Viola Stewart adventures and I’m sure you will be too if you give them a try. For a chance to win one of the books, drop by Karen’s website at www.karenjcarlisle.com and check for the instructions.

What’s Opera, Harlock?

Like many Americans of my age, my education in opera came from the wonderful 1957 Bugs Bunny short, “What’s Opera, Doc?” In the short, Bugs and Elmer Fudd satirize pieces from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen among other operas.

It turns out, Bugs and Elmer aren’t the only characters from animation to take on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In 1999, Leiji Matsumoto made an adaptation of Das Rheingold featuring Captain Harlock and the crew of the Arcadia called Harlock Saga. In this case, they don’t sing, but act out a loose, science fictional adaptation of the opera. I gather Matsumoto took the idea further in print and there are manga adaptations of Die Walküre and Siegfried as well as Der Rheingold.

In a way, bringing a character like Harlock into an opera closes a loop of sorts. Of course, Captain Harlock is a classic “space opera” character. So, what does “space opera” have to do with plain ol’ opera? To answer that, one has to go back to the original genre opera—the “horse opera.” The term “horse opera” goes all the way back to wild west shows of the nineteenth century. In that case, there’s a good chance that the term was a reference to the big spectacle that those shows represented.

By the time we get to the early twentieth century, the term “horse opera” began to be applied to movies we’d just call Westerns today. In fact, early Western star William Hart was called “the Caruso of the horse opera” in 1917. The term then migrated to western stories broadcast on the radio. When romance stories started on the radio, many sponsored by soap companies, they picked up the moniker “soap opera.” The term “space opera” started being applied to science fiction stories soon after that.

Today, when we speak of space opera, we tend to think of science fiction stories told on a grand scale, featuring larger-than-life characters, engaging in epic quests. In that sense, space opera is much the same kind of spectacle as, well, opera.

Lest one speak poorly of cartoons, I’ll note that “What’s Opera, Doc” and Harlock Saga have inspired my wife and I to finally watch Der Ring des Niberlungen. It’s definitely big and epic like a space opera. It’s also got its share of illicit romance, not unlike a soap opera. Of course, there’s the great music. Hours and hours of it. Der Ring des Niberlungen runs to some fifteen hours.

While I’m on the subject of space opera, today marks the relaunch of my space opera saga, now christened “The Space Pirates’ Legacy.” Click on the button below to visit my Patreon page and see the awesome cover Laura Givens created for the first book in the series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you become a Patron (and you can do so for just $1 a month), you’ll be able to read the book’s first story today. It first appeared in the collection Space Pirates, but I’ve given it a thorough edit to better line up with later stories in the book. My goal is that patrons will get to read at least one new story a month. If I get enough patrons, I’ll make sure they all get a copy of the complete book upon release. Click the button and get all the details right now.

Cowboys and Battles

Back when I was editing the anthology Space Horrors, I was trying to entice a very good horror and suspense author to write a story for me. Unfortunately, commitments didn’t allow him to deliver a story, but he did recommend a writer he knew named Gene Mederos. I approached Gene with an invitation and he delivered a creepy tale called “A Touch of Frost.” The characters grabbed me right from the start and I could visualize everything in the story. It should then come as no surprise that Gene teaches film making and film editing at Santa Fe Community College. Ever since that first story, Gene has been one of my go-to authors when I have a new anthology project.

One of the things I most enjoyed about editing Tales of the Talisman were the beautiful story illustrations the artists delivered. Unfortunately, Gene has only written for my anthologies and not for the magazine, so I’ve never had the opportunity to see his stories illustrated…until now that is. Gene has recently turned his great visual sense into creating some beautiful illustrations of his stories. He recently shared them on Facebook and I asked permission to share them with you.

After writing “A Touch of Frost” for Space Horrors, I was delighted to hear he submitted a story to Bryan Thomas Schmidt for Space Battles. Bryan bought Gene’s story “The Thirteens.” In the story, Captain Andromeda Sax and the crew of La Espada investigate a bogey, and come up against Purists, a religious sect dedicated to ridding the galaxy of impurities—like the diverse alien and human species crewing Sax’s ship. The story not only delivered exciting battle scenes but explored issues of diversity and what makes us human. I’m especially pleased that Gene’s story was selected to appear in the best-of collection we assembled from the original anthologies and is now back in print.

Gene has gone on to submit stories for both A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. In the latter story, Gene tackles the subject of how we’ll recognize alien life when we see it, especially when the aliens are very different than the life we know on Earth. He also imagined a rough and tumble frontier world with exotic landscapes that very much captured the essence of the space cowboy subgenre. One of the things that really makes Gene’s work stand out is the attention to detail, such as imagining a genetically engineered creature called a camule, bred to survive in harsh environments, and shown in the illustration above.

Gene and I have stories in both Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales and Kepler’s Cowboys. I’ve invited Gene to read one of his stories with me during the “55 Minutes with David Lee Summers” session at Bubonicon which is going on this weekend in Albuquerque. I’ll read my story in the other anthology. If you happen to be there, we’ll be reading in the Carlsbad Room at 10am on Sunday, August 27. I hope you’ll join us for an hour of exciting science fiction.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to be at Bubonicon this weekend, you can learn more about the anthologies by clicking on the links below: