MileHiCon 54

I will be attending MileHiCon 54 in Denver, Colorado, which will be held from Friday, October 21 through Sunday October 23, 2022 at the Denver Marriott Tech Center. You can get more information about the event at https://milehicon.org.

This year’s toastmaster is Kevin J. Anderson, who has published more than 175 books, 58 of which have been national or international bestsellers. He has written numerous novels in the Star Wars, X-Files, and Dune universes, as well as unique steampunk fantasy trilogy beginning with Clockwork Angels, written with legendary rock drummer Neil Peart. Anderson is also the owner of WordFire Press, publisher of the collection Maximum Velocity: Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales that I co-edited with Carol Hightshoe, Dayton Ward, Jennifer Brozek, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt.

The author guests of honor are Travis Heermann and Ken Liu. Author, filmmaker, screenwriter, poker player, poet, biker, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, an Active member of SFWA and the HWA, and the author of the Shinjuku Shadows series, Ronin Trilogy, The Hammer Falls, and other novels. Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also authored the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

I will be on several panels throughout the weekend. My schedule is below. When I’m not on panels, you can find me in the dealer’s room. I’ll be sharing a booth space with author Adam Gaffen.


Friday, October 21

  • 4:00pm, Evergreen F: To See New Earths I’ll introduce Kitt Peak’s planet-hunting detector, NEID, and discuss its role supporting NASA’s TESS mission, hunting for Earth-like planets outside the solar system.

Saturday, October 22

  • 11:00 am, Conifer 2: Cryptozoology in Art and Fiction Cryptids remain ever popular. Our panelists will discuss what they are, and how they show up in art and fiction of all forms (books, movies, television, comics, etc). On the panel with me are Daniel Dvorkin, Jon Black, Lou J. Berger, and Matt Bille
  • 2:00 pm, Evergreen F: The Year in Science Panelists cover the science news that most caught their attention over the past year. Courney Willis will serve as moderator. Also on the panel are Carolyn Collins Petersen, Daniel Dvorkin, and Ka Chun Yu
  • 4:00 pm, Conifer 2: SF&F Poetry SF&F is not just prose. Our panelists will discuss all things poetic in the SF&F world. Stace Johnson will moderate. On the panel with me are Mary Turzillo, and Reese Hogan
  • 5:00 pm, Conifer 3: Writing Effectively For Comics (So You’re Not Murdered by your Artist or Letterer) Writing for comics is very different than writing for prose. Learn from our panelists how not to make things harder for yourself, your letterer, your artist, or your editor. Jason Henderson will be moderating. Also on the panel are Karen Bjorn, Travis Heermann, and Sumiko Saulson

Sunday, October 23

  • 2:00 pm, Evergreen F: Mapping the Universe Kitt Peak’s DESI instrument is engaged in a five-year mission to make the largest 3D map in the universe. How does it work? What are some things we’ve learned along the way? And what do we ultimately hope to learn?

The Return of Hungur

One of my favorite vampire magazine was Hungur, edited by Terrie Leigh Relf. During its run, Hungur featured three of my vampire stories including “Jiang Shi,” which gave Chinese vampires a frightening, alien twist, “Lufgeist, which told the story of the Scarlet Order’s Lord Draco escaping Nazis aboard the Hindenburg, and “Dark Matter,” which imagined a possible future for the Scarlet Order vampire Jane as a space explorer. The magazine went on hiatus and now it’s back as The Hungur Chronicles edited by Terrie Leigh Relf and Robert Bellam. The first issue features a reprint of my story “Anemia” which first appeared in the Full-Throttle Space Tales anthology Space Horrors.

The Hungur Chronicles has a strong interest in vampires from outer space, but also includes stories of vampires encountered on Earth. The magazine is published twice each year, on Walpurgisnacht and Samhain. The first issue of The Hungur Chronicles features eight short stories, seventeen poems, and two articles. There were stories, poems, and art by several people who have appeared in Tales of the Talisman and Hadrosaur Productions anthologies, such as Lee Clark Zumpe, Marcia A. Borell, WC Roberts, Tyree Campbell, Gary Davis, Terrie Leigh Relf, and K.S. Hardy. Marge Simon, whose poetry appeared in Tales of the Talisman is the featured poet in the first issue of The Hungur Chronicles. What’s more, Laura Givens who has long been Hadrosaur’s cover artist and Tales of the Talisman art director designed the cover for this new issue featuring Marge Simon’s beautiful art. You can see more of Marge and Laura’s art working together in the book Blood Sampler, which I wrote in collaboration with Lee Clark Zumpe.

One of the joys of getting a contributor copy of a new magazine or anthology is reading the works by the other contributors. I enjoyed them all. Standout stories for me included “Coffin Shopping?” by Marcia A. Borell about a vampire needed to navigate the internet to shop for a new coffin, “The Will of the Forest” by Melody F. McIntyre” about a vampire turning up in a new development who drank fluids through the victims eyes, and “Reverse Vampire” by John Kiste, which tackled the theme of space vampires through a story of an investigator on an alien planet investigating a murder where the victim had been overloaded on bodily fluids. Lee Clark Zumpe’s poem “Ripky” felt topical being set in Ukraine. K.S. Hardy’s poem “In a Cold Crypt” gave the brooding vampire an interesting twist.

My story, “Anemia” was another space-based vampire tale. It expanded on a piece of flash fiction called “On the Ramjet,” which is part of the Blood Sampler collection I mentioned. “Anemia” is set aboard a colony ship bound for a nearby star system. An engineer discovers that from time to time, different colonists test as anemic for while. The systems compensate and they soon return to normal. As the engineer investigates, she discovers there’s a vampire stowing away on the ship. The ship in the story is a Bussard Ramjet, a type of space vessel theorized by physicist Robert Bussard. As it turns out, I wrote the original flash piece while staying as a guest in Bussard’s Santa Fe home a few years ago!

A few years ago, when the editors of the Full-Throttle Space Tales series got together to put together the anthology Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales, the editors read and voted for the best story in anthologies they didn’t edit. I was very honored when two of my stories were considered among the best three stories of their respective anthologies. Those stories were “Hijacking the Legacy” which does appear in Maximum Velocity and “Anemia.” We decided no author should have two stories in the best-of antho. Most of my stories in the Full-Throttle Space Tales series featured my space pirate crew. “Anemia” was the one story in that series set in a different universe. I decided not to use it because it wasn’t as representative of my work throughout the series. So, it’s gratifying to see “Anemia” back in print now.

You can find the first issue of The Hungur Chronicles at: https://www.hiraethsffh.com/product-page/hungur-chronicles-walpurgisnacht-edited-by-terrie-leigh-relf-and-robert-bellam

You can find Blood Sampler at: https://www.hiraethsffh.com/product-page/blood-sampler-by-david-lee-summers-lee-clark-zumpe

And finally, you can find Maximum Velocity at: https://www.amazon.com/Maximum-Velocity-Full-Throttle-Space-Tales-ebook/dp/B074FHCJXG/

Adaptations and Retellings

The idea of adapting a story and retelling a story may sound much the same, but I’d suggest they’re slightly different things. Adapting a story is finding a way to tell a story in a new medium. For example, adapting a story to be filmed as a movie or told in an audio. Retelling is more like what happens when I tell a story to someone and then that someone tells the story to someone else, emphasizing the parts they liked and adding new details, and so on.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I recently watched David Lowery’s film The Green Knight. Although I’m a fan of early Arthurian literature, I had never read the original poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The movie certainly reminded me of Arthurian literature of its period. The poem is believed to have been written circa 1380 AD. Arthur’s knights gathered for revels and a quest happened. A hunt formed an integral part of the quest and beheadings happened. All of these elements reminded me of Culhwch and Olwen, which appeared in written form around the same time, but is believed to have originated in the 11th or 12th century.

I enjoyed the film a lot and it encouraged me to seek out the original. After doing some research on the web, I decided to give Simon Armitage’s translation a try. I found his translation very readable and I appreciated it that it’s printed side-by-side with the original Middle English. Some of Armitage’s modern colloquialisms did pull me briefly out of the story, but overall, I thought he did a fine job of conveying both meaning and poetic sensibility. I also learned that the movie The Green Knight was much more a retelling than an adaptation.

Calling The Green Knight a retelling is by no means intended as a criticism. I enjoy retelling stories and have sold several of my retellings over the years. I think a retelling can bring new insights to characters, highlight hidden elements in stories, and make older stories more relevant to new audiences. The poem alludes to quests and trials as Gawain travels to complete his quest at the Green Chapel. The movie visualizes two of those quests, drawing on another story for one of those quests. David Lowery clearly emphasized Gawain’s class and privilege, then used the quest as a way for him to learn the value of courage. In the poem, Gawain doesn’t need to learn courage as much as he needs to learn honesty and perhaps even that it’s acceptable to be afraid.

It took me about the same amount of time to read Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as it did to watch the movie. I’m glad I did both. Also, it’s worth noting, the introductory material to Armitage’s translation was fascinating. I learned, among other things, that because Germanic languages tend to emphasize first syllables, early Germanic poems tended to use alliteration. Because Romance languages tend to emphasize last syllables, their poems tended to rhyme. English takes words from both and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was an early example of poem that used both techniques.

I share a retelling of Arthurian legend as part of my novel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires, which you can learn more about at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

I also adapted the early story Culhwch and Olwen. Learn more about that at: http://davidleesummers.com/cando.html

Anno Dracula – The Comic!

Soon after reading Kim Newman’s novel, Anno Dracula, I took a closer look at the other books he’s written in this universe. As it turns out, the second story in chronological order was told over the course of a five-issue comic book series from Titan Comics. The five issues have since been collected into a single graphic novel, Anno Dracula -1895: Seven Days in Mayhem. The comic series, released in 2017, was written by Newman and features art by Paul McCaffrey.

The vampire Jane considers Kim Newman’s vampires from Anno Dracula

The comic series is set seven years after the novel. Dracula is still in power, but he’s under siege. European powers have united to overthrow him and groups within the British Empire comprised of both humans and vampires are working to establish a government more to their liking. Still, it’s the tenth anniversary of Dracula’s rise to power and he plans to throw a celebration. Our story’s principal characters are Kate Reed, a vampire journalist who belongs to a group of anarchists bound and determined to disrupt the ten-year celebration, and Penelope Churchward, a vampire socialite who has been placed in charge of the ten-year celebration. Both Kate and Penelope were secondary characters in the original novel.

In the background lurk such notable characters as Graf Orlock, in charge of the Tower of London, where the ten-year festivities will conclude, and Fu Manchu who is playing all sides against each other in hopes to make the biggest profit. I was delighted to see a cameo by Mack the Knife and a brief mention of Mycroft Holmes, who played a major role in the novel. There’s even a sly reference to problematic “sparkling vampires.” Perhaps my favorite moment was the appearance of a poem that might have been written by William McGonagall on the occasion of ten years of rule by Dracula. I was first introduced to McGonagall’s poetry at TusCon a few years ago when Laurence Hammer brought a collection of his poems to share. McGonagall was widely recognized as a terrible poet who had no recognition of his peers’ opinion of his work. Follow the link if you wish to read his poem “The Tay Bridge Disaster.”

Paul McCaffrey’s artwork in this comic series is first rate. I loved his portrayals of Newman’s original characters, fictional characters from other worlds, and historical figures. Overall, Newman’s script is well done. I did find some of the narration hard to read because it was in a very small font size. I have to admit, this is one reason why I’ve come to appreciate digital comics. Of course, a real challenge of comics is to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. For the most part, I think Newman succeeded at that, but I did wonder if some of the narrations could have been trimmed. I also wondered if using one larger point size on the narration would have helped.

As with Anno Dracula, I highly recommend this comic to fans of the genre. Like Kim Newman, I enjoy playing with vampire tropes and lore in my stories. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m starting work on a third Scarlet Order novel and hoping to do at least one more Scarlet Order comic. You can learn about the books at http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order. If you’d like to get some sneak peeks at the new book as it develops, or if you just like this blog and appreciate its ad-free experience, please consider supporting my Patreon at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

The Airship Rustlers

This week, the poem “The Airship Rustlers” that I wrote with Kurt MacPhearson appeared in the the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association’s online magazine, Eye to the Telescope. You can read it at: http://eyetothetelescope.com/archives/040issue.html. The issue’s theme is “Weird West” and the editor is Gary Every, who I’ve been pleased to work with on a number of other occasions.

A while back, Kurt MacPhearson and I collaborated on a handful of poems and a short story. The way we worked on the poems was that one of us would write a verse or two of a poem, then email it to the other. Effectively, we played a game of literary hot potato, passing the poem back and forth until we came to a conclusion we liked. We also allowed each other to edit the poem as it stood, to make sure all the ideas worked together and to make sure it had a uniform voice.

As I recall, I started this particular poem. I would have been working on my Clockwork Legion novels at the time, very much entrenched in reading about airships and wild west lore. I was also inspired by the TV series Firefly and the episode where Captain Reynolds transports cattle from one planet to another aboard his space ship. Kurt gave the poem a somewhat darker tone than I originally imagined, but it fits how seriously people took cattle rustling in the wild west. In passing the poem back and forth, the poem’s narrative took some interesting turns and by the end, it’s not altogether clear the title refers to those people aboard the airship rustling cattle.

Not only did Kurt and I collaborate on poetry, we also tried our hand at a steampunk short story. Again, we played literary hot potato with the story. I introduced the brave Captain Penelope Todd of the airship Endeavor and immediately thrust the crew into a nasty storm from which there seemed to be no escape. Kurt took the idea and ran with it, sweeping the Endeavor and its hapless crew off to a strange new land called Halcyon along with the crew of a sea-going pirate ship. Kurt had Captain Todd taken prisoner with no apparent way of escape and left me to find a way out of the situation. That story was picked up for the anthology Gears and Levers 2, edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and you can get a copy at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00AYAF6X2/

Another interesting aspect of all this is that Gary Every, the editor of the Weird West issue of Eye to the Telescope, and I also played literary hot potato on a story for a while. It was all about exploring underground waterways on Mars. Unfortunately, life got in the way for both of us and we never finished the tale, but we did have fun and it took a lot of inspiration from stories of people on the Western frontier. Even though Gary and I never finished that story, I did publish a pair of his fantasy tales under the title Inca Butterflies. In the book, Incan Emperor, Huaina Capac, comes of age as Alejo Garcia and his band of mutineers arrive in America carrying a weapon far more devastating that cannons. Huaina Capac’s successor, Manco Inca, must lead his remaining people as bearded men from Europe swarm the countryside like butterflies sweeping the plains. Set in the last days of the Inca Empire, Inca Butterflies is a tale for all times. You can get the book at: https://hadrosaur.com/IncaButterflies.php

Rhythms and Transitions in Writing

As I mentioned during Saturday’s blog post, I spent the summer in a particular daily rhythm, but now that we’re transitioning into autumn, I’m making some changes to my routine both because of external factors like the weather and also because of the projects I’m working on. One of the projects I’m working on is a new piece of writing. Another is revising a novel I first wrote twenty years ago.

Rhythm is something we associate primarily with song or music. However, it’s easy to see how it relates to writing when we think of structured writing such as formal poetry. The formal poem will have a meter and a rhyme scheme. When you read it aloud, you’ll hear the rhythm at work. You might deliberately break the meter or the rhyme scheme if you’re trying to jar the reader or make a point.

A manuscript on the screen marked up by my editor

When writing a story or a novel, words still have rhythm. Your goal is to put words together that flow one into the other until you have completed your thought. You can check whether your word rhythms work by reading your story aloud. That helps you hear whether your sentences are clunky or too repetitive.

When I was in elementary school, and first learned about paragraphs, they gave us a rigid definition. I was told a paragraph is five sentences. For a long time afterward, anytime I wrote a paragraph it was exactly five sentences. The reason the teacher told me that is that they didn’t want us to give up on an idea after only one or two sentences. They wanted us to practice putting sentences together and make sure we followed one coherent sentence with another.

That’s not really the way it works in fiction. You write out the bones of a thought in a sentence. You put some flesh on those bones in the next sentence. You might explore how they all function as a unit and the direction they’re moving.

Until something happens. That something breaks the rhythm and becomes a new paragraph. The transition is how one paragraph ends and the next begins. In the previous paragraph, we explored how to build a complete paragraph and this one talked about moving on to a new one.

Of course, transitions aren’t just from one paragraph to another. They happen at the end of a chapter and the beginning of the next. They also happen at scene breaks. Those are the places in a book where you might see a blank line between paragraphs and the point of view or setting shifts.

As a writer, I like exploring multiple points of view. When you see a scene from one character’s perspective and then move into another character’s perspective, the reader can gain new insights. That said, some editors I’ve worked with have suggested I can be a little too in love with multiple points of view and they have suggested that I reign in the number of point-of-view characters and scene shifts. This is one of the things I’m looking at with the twenty-year-old novel I’m delving into. There are some chapters with many scenes. The goal is to make sure each scene contributes to the story as a whole, that I transition cleanly from one scene to another, and that the scene is long enough that reader forms a complete picture and has an idea about how the scene relates to the rest of the book’s actions.

It’s all about finding a good rhythm.

Owl Riders in the Sky

While driving up to Kitt Peak National Observatory late on Saturday night, Johnny Cash’s rendition of the great Stan Jones song, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” cycled on my mp3 player. To my mind, the song is a great example of a weird western expressed in music. It tells the story of an old cowhand who rides out on a dark and dusty day and encounters the devil’s own herd being chased by a phantom cowboys.

As I listened, I found myself substituting some images from my own Clockwork Legion novels. In fact, the title of the fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, is kind of an homage to the spooky feelings evoked by the “Ghost Riders.” Different cultures in the southwest often see the appearance of owls as bad omens. As portrayed in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me Ultima, owls are sometimes seen as the familiars of witches. In my novel, the owls themselves are ornithopters, which are craft that fly by flapping their wings. The owl riders of the title are the pilots of these craft. It struck me that with a few tweaks, the song goes from being more of a horror-flavored weird western to more of a science fictional weird western or even a steampunk song.

I don’t feel I can share the full song as I envisioned it since that would include some verbatim lyrics from the original. While it’s part of a discussion of the song and could arguably be “fair use,” quoting complete lines would be a substantial part of the song itself, like quoting an entire chapter from a novel. It’s not my intention to cut into sales of the song. In fact, if you don’t already own a copy of the song, I strongly recommend buying a legal download or a CD of one of the many fine versions. What’s more the lyrics are easily available on the web. Still, I thought it would be fun to describe the song in my revised version and share a few of the altered lyrics.

In the original song, a cowpoke rides out on a stormy day. In my version one of the owl riders is named Billy McCarty and I imagine that he’s a version of Billy the Kid who was diverted off the path to become the infamous outlaw and becomes a hero instead. I could imagine that the cowpoke in my version is one of Billy’s associates who takes shelter to get some rest. He looks up in the sky, “When all at once a parliament of steel-eyed owls he saw.”

As they travel through the clouds, he gets a good look: “Exhaust pipes breathing fire and their talons made of steel. Their beaks were black and shiny and their hot wake he could feel.” Our cowhand shudders as he hears his old friend Billy shout out, “owl riders in the sky!”

Billy’s old friend then sees the determined looks on the riders’ faces. Unlike the original song, these are not desperate men who never hope to reach the end of their quest. These are men and women on the quest for justice. It’s possible it will never end, but the next bad guy they catch makes the world just a little better. It’s at this point that Billy turns to his old companion and warns him to change his ways, otherwise the owl riders will come or him next.

Songs rarely tell a whole story. Like poems, they just present a moment in time or an image. This will go in my mental file as an image that might be part of a story. It may not be used directly, but might inspire something down the road. I hope you’ve enjoyed this peak into how I get my ideas. If you want to learn more about the owl riders and how they came to be, read the novel Owl Riders. You can read the first chapter and find places to buy the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

October Adventures Continue

In my last post, I shared some of my adventures traveling around the country this month. Admittedly, a travelogue may seem a little out of place for a post appearing just two days before Halloween, but I’ll share a book at the end to put you in the spirit of the season and it’s even a quick read.

I left Kansas City on the train on Sunday night, October 14. By the time I woke up on Monday morning, the ground was covered in snow. I like traveling by train when I can. It’s a great way to see the countryside and although it takes longer than traveling by plane, it feels much more civilized. I enjoy flying, but the hassle of crowds, airport security, and flights filled to the brim take away much of the fun. Besides, my grandfather, dad, and brother all worked on the railroad, so I feel a certain family connection when I travel by rail.

I met my wife in Albuquerque where she brought my faithful Smart Car in for a service. We then drove down to Las Cruces with a brief stop in Socorro for some chicken mole enchiladas. For me, chocolate and chile come together to form the ultimate comfort food. After a four-hour sleep, I then drove to Tucson for a daytime shift at Kitt Peak where we’re continuing to refit the Mayall 4-meter for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Survey.

After three days on the mountain, I gritted my teeth for another short sleep, got up early in the morning to drive to the airport where I caught a plane for Denver, Colorado. There, I celebrated MileHiCon 50. The highlight of the event was that every living convention guest was invited back as a guest. Here you see them assembled at opening ceremonies.

MileHiCon is always a special for me because I get to connect with so many people I’ve worked with over the years. These include Bob Vardeman who was one of the honored guests and who created the Empires of Steam and Rust Series,  David B. Riley one of the co-authors of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys, J Alan Erwine and Carol Hightshoe who have edited many anthologies I’ve been in and who appeared in A Kepler’s Dozen. Denver is also home to Laura Givens, the talented artist who has done many of my covers, and also the co-author of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys.

A particular high point of MileHiCon was the annual poetry reading. This year it was moderated by Stace Johnson. Ronnie Seagren joined us and read poems by several different people. Sadly, Gail Barton, a staple of past MileHiCon poetry readings had passed away, but I was fortunate enough to have a copy of the poetry journal she often handed out at the event, which allowed me to share some of her poems. It was lovely to have her voice at the event at least one more time.

Once MileHiCon was finished, I returned to Kitt Peak to continue work on the DESI spectrograph. This time, I helped a team from Ohio State University build the racks that will hold the spectrographs themselves once they all arrive. I have to admit, building the racks was a process not unlike assembling a piece of Ikea furniture!

At last, I am back home for Halloween. I’m turning my attention to some editorial projects, including a new novella from David B. Riley and two great books from Greg Ballan. In my off hours, I’m reading some spooky comic books and watching a few hair-raising films.

If you’re looking for something good to read between trick-or-treaters on Wednesday night, may I recommend the collection Blood Sampler? This book collects thirty-five vampire flash fiction stories written by Lee Clark Zumpe and me. The cover is by Laura Givens and the book features interior illustrations by Marge Simon. Chris Paige, writing for the fan newspaper ConNotations in Arizona said, “If you like vampire stories, this may be the best seven dollars you can spend.” Admittedly the new edition of the paperback went up to $8.00, but the ebook is only $4.00. You can learn how to get your claws on a copy by visiting  http://www.davidleesummers.com/Blood-Sampler.html

Coco

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch Disney/Pixar’s film, Coco. It tells the story of a boy who wants to be a musician, but music is banned in his family of practical shoemakers because his great-great grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his own musical dreams. The boy, Miguel, gets transported to the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and learns the truth about his family history along with ways to bring the power of music back to his family. I was warned that it was an emotionally affecting tale. I teared up anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Día de los Muertos has held a special place in my heart for a long time now. Although I’m ethnically some mix of German and Celt, my family has lived in Nuevo México for more than a century. Día de los Muertos is actively celebrated in Mesilla and Las Cruces—and I live next to a cemetery. Family and their stories have long been important to me as a writer and Día de los Muertos is all about remembering family and their stories.

Listening to the film’s commentary track, it was clear the filmmakers took care to represent the celebration as authentically as possible. This pleased me, but it also gave me something to think about. A week before on the NPR food show, “Milk Street Radio,” a chef talked about the fallacy of creating culturally authentic dishes. The reason he described it as a fallacy is that what foods and cooking appliances are available in a region change and shift with time. What’s more cultures shift as people migrate and as technology changes. The food he cooks in America today is closer to what he grew up with than the food cooked now in his hometown.

Día de los Muertos is very much a part of Southern New Mexico’s culture and the film’s depiction is almost identical to what you’ll see here. Almost is one of the keys. While people celebrate at the cemetery, we also have ofrendas on the Mesilla town square. While you see marigolds like they had in the movie, we see a lot of other flowers as well. We even say “Día de los Muertos” while other people say “Día de Muertos.” Both have been used to describe the celebration going back to the sixteenth century and both are used in the movie. The former is literally “Day of the Dead” while the latter tends to be a more specific reference to All Souls Day.

In recent years, I’ve often seen culture erected like a wall to keep outsiders at bay. I prefer it when culture exists as a bridge to allow others a glimpse into the important aspects of people’s lives. That’s why I liked Coco. That’s also why I set a pivotal scene at a Día de los Muertos celebration in my novel Owl Dance. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

I’ll wrap up today’s post with a poem I wrote back in 2003 that gives you a glimpse of the importance of Día de los Muertos to my family. Christina Sng published it in her zine Macabre the following spring.

Pan de Muerto

All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
Gravestones decorated with flowers,
Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
Candies and pan de muerto—
The Bread of the Dead.

My daughter and I make the bread.
She beats the eggs—even in death,
There is the memory of new life.
I add the orange essence—memory
Of the orange trees Grandpa—
My dad—loved so much.

Together, my daughter and I add the
flour—grown from the soil where
Grandpa now rests. Together we
Kneed the dough—making a
Connection across time.
Grandfather to father to daughter.

We set the bread out with a photo,
Some Halloween candy, and many
Happy memories. Sleep that night is
Restless. There is a chill in the air.
Morning comes and a chunk is gone
From the Bread of the Dead.

The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!